Chapter 1: the bruises on your thighs like my fingerprints
“Okay,” Mr. Smithson said, clapping his hands. “Guys, stop it, before you get off the bus I’m going to go over your rooms. Remember your rooms. Ms. Petunia is going to go down the aisle handing out room keys, so remember where they go, because I’m not fielding questions all week about where you’re staying.”
Steve sat up from his coach bus seat with a stretch and rolled his shoulders. The bus ride felt like it had taken a decade, but maybe that was just because Steve hadn’t slept all week and Jonathan was too busy reading a biography of The Clash on his phone to be an actual human. After a few failed attempts at conversation, Steve had decided it was best to ball up against the window with his knees to his chest and snooze as the bus careened down the highway, seemingly hitting every pothole between Hawkins and Baltimore, which, to be fair, was a nine hour bus ride, which had taken almost eleven with all the pit stops and traffic.
Okay, so it had been a long fucking ride, but Steve still felt like a drama queen as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes and curled his arms more tightly around his backpack. Sleeping had exhausted him. He just wanted to get some pizza into his system, find his room, and sleep for another eight hours.
“First, you all got the room buddies you request, congratulations,” Mr. Smithson said. Each student was allowed to request one other student they wanted to room with, only one, which was fine, because at this point Steve basically had one friend, but that meant the other two people were a gamble, and Steve was kind of stressed about his odds.
There were soft cheers as other kids were handed their keys, along with restless chattering. Steve rubbed his mouth and reached over Jonathan to take his plastic cardkey when Ms. Petunia shuffled by. She was young, maybe twenty-seven, and liked history way too much to be teaching it to unenthusiastic kids ten years her junior. Steve winked at her and she rolled her eyes.
“Steve Harrington and Jonathan Byers,” Mr. Smithson said. Steve held his breath. “You’re with Billy Hargrove and Tommy Hart in room 712.”
Tommy twisted around in his seat two rows up and grinned like he passed a test, completely unsurprised. Fucking bastard. “Wow,” he said, the word drawn out. “What a coincidence. Missed you, buddy.”
From the gap between the seats, Steve could see Billy’s hand jut out to flip Tommy off. “Hargrove!” Ms. Petunia warned as Tommy elbowed him and cackled.
Jonathan’s mouth was stuck open like he’d forgotten how to shut it, and honestly, Steve was feeling that same dread in the pit of his stomach, the kind of rumbling concern that came with earthquakes and forest fires. He’d sat on a bus for a fucking decade to see some old historical fort bullshit and finally arrived for that? It was a cosmic joke. Except it wasn’t, because Tommy fucking planned it, like he didn’t have a bunch of simpering fans to pick from.
When Billy finally turned around, eyes on Steve and tongue rolling over his lips, Steve got the vibe that maybe he wasn’t the only one surprised. A shiver ran up his spine as he stared Billy down and raised his eyebrows.
The last few names were called and everyone shoved their way off the bus, backpacks and cumbersome rolling suitcases smacking into other students and making their descent clumsy. Steve had never been so grateful for open air, even as he was pushed into the hotel continental breakfast area for some already-cold, still not disappointing pizza. Steve needed six slices and a smoke. He needed Billy not shoving in beside him and leaning in to his space with a hard check to his shoulder.
“Roomies, huh?” He said. “What a fucking coincidence.”
Steve stared at the ugly IKEA lamp above their heads and made a silent plea for cyanide. “You better not jizz the sheets watching me change. I’m pretty sure we’re not getting housekeeping.”
“You’d love that.” Billy shoved him again. “Pass me a slice. I’ve got ladies to finesse.”
And god, if Billy wasn’t so fucking pretty, Steve was positive he’d never get a date in his life.
The best thing about travelling with Smithson and Petunia was that they were oblivious as fuck. Like, actually terrible at looking after seventeen, eighteen-year-olds. After pizza, Steve slipped up to his room and chucked his backpack on one of the beds before grabbing Jonathan and sneaking to the stairwell to rocket back down to the lobby. No one was going to be using the stairs to get to the seventh floor, not unless they were fucking nuts.
The hotel staff in the lobby didn’t even blink as the two of them slipped out into the evening. Everything was quiet this late at night, even in the middle of downtown Baltimore. Steve hadn’t actually checked the time, but if he had to guess, it couldn’t be earlier than one in the morning, way past the curfew Ms. Petunia had mildly reminded them of as they filtered up to their rooms after dinner.
Steve had seen Billy leave the breakfast area with Jessica Steward wrapped under his arm, grinning hungrily at her like she was special, like he didn’t smile at all the girls that way. It had always twisted Steve’s stomach, set him on edge in that moment as he hiked his backpack straps higher and headed to the elevator. He’d needed a smoke when he got off the bus, but Billy made it critical. Steve felt like an old washing machine with a pair of boots clunking around inside.
He leaned against one of the pillars under the overhang and shook one out of his pack, handing another to Jonathan. He leaned his head back as he exhaled the first drag towards the black, light-polluted sky.
“This is so fucked,” Jonathan finally said. “Hargrove and Tommy H? Really?”
“I know,” Steve said, scrunching his nose and holding his cigarette a little too tightly. “It’s fucking Tommy, man. He must have put my name down instead of Billy’s. Probably thought it was a fun joke.”
“You sure he wasn’t honest?”
Steve laughed. “If there’s one thing Tommy’s never really been, it’s honest. Well. He was with me, before, but like, once he doesn’t have to impress you he’s a fucking snake. You saw how fast he turned on me.”
Jonathan took a long drag and shrugged. “I thought that shit with Nancy’s name on the movie theatre was pretty bad.”
It would be easy to let Tommy take the fall for that, but it would be sleazy. Steve had intentionally avoided that conversation for over a year. Nancy’s name slandered all over the Infinity War poster had been shit, even by Tommy’s standards. “Yeah, no,” Steve said. “That was mostly me. I know it was messed up.”
Jonathan nodded. “It’s whatever. What we did was pretty fucked, too.”
It wasn’t the first time Jonathan had admitted the affair, but it still stung something inside of Steve, scratched at an old wound that had never healed right. He shook the ash off his cigarette and shrugged. “You know I’m over that. You’re my best friend, dude.”
“Awe, that’s so fucking sweet,” Billy crooned, coming around the side of the pillar, cigarette held to his mouth. He leaned against the cement, shoulder brushing Steve’s like he hadn’t just blown smoke in his face. Tommy wasn’t far behind.
“Where is Wheeler, anyway?” Billy asked. “This history shit is like, her deal, isn’t it?”
Steve opened his mouth but Jonathan beat him too it, saying, “Her mom caught us smoking and lost her mind. She made her skip the trip.”
“Bummer,” Tommy grinned. “Looks like it’s a boys week. The four amigos, huh?”
Honestly, Jonathan looked like he’d sipped bleach as he grimaced back. Fucking hell, Steve already knew what kind of week it was going to be. “Yeah, amigos,” Steve said. “BFFs forever.”
“When do we start with the friendship bracelets?” Jonathan asked.
Billy snorted and kicked off from the wall, one hand coming up to fiddle with his nose ring. “Right after I braid your hair.”
Jonathan’s hair was reasonably unruly, as was Steve’s, but Billy’s hair was next level, his curls falling just past his shoulders on the days he didn’t wear it in a douchey man-bun. Sometimes Steve wanted to shove his hand in those curls and pull, just to make Billy hiss, viper venom on his tongue.
There was something mean in the glint of Billy’s eyes as he looked at Steve and then Jonathan. He exhaled smoke and ran his tongue over his lips. “I get one of the beds. I already threw your shit on the couch. You’re welcome.”
“I get the other,” Tommy piped up.
“What, not sharing?” Steve asked. All the brats running around Jonathan’s house had made them immune to puppy piles.
Billy sneered, asked, “Does it look like I’m into that gay shit?”
“If the shoe fits.”
Billy shoved Steve’s shoulder hard enough to jar his spine against the pillar, hard enough to make him hiss and bare his teeth, but not hard enough to make Steve break eye contact. There was something in Steve’s chest, something molten and unyielding. “I’m not a fucking homo,” Billy said.
“Well,” Steve smiled, “I kind of am.”
Tommy groaned and stomped out his smoke. “Yeah, you’re special and bisexual, gay since the eighth grade. You want an award?”
Billy still met Steve’s eyes, but the energy shifted, changed to something wavering as Billy dropped his cigarette to the ground. “Just stay the fuck out of my bed.”
“Don’t worry,” Steve promised. “I’d rather die.”
Which was how Steve ended up asking the front desk for extra blankets and pillows so he could crunch up in the bathtub that was too short from him, head away from the faucet so he didn’t brain himself come morning. Every now and then the shower head would drip on his shin, which should have been maddening, but he was so fed up he couldn’t care, fucking over the trip after one late night of Billy’s bullshit.
When Billy reached over Steve in the breakfast room to get pizza, he hadn’t known. When he had breathed down Steve’s neck on the basketball court, joked that Steve was a wet dream, suggested Steve might love his body, he hadn’t known. Rationally, Steve knew nothing in the universe had shifted, but he couldn’t help but squint into the pitch black of the shower and wonder. Steve was out, had been out for a long time, but he didn’t exactly wave it around. It was just a thing, like how sometimes he wanted to go paintballing and sometimes he wanted to suck dick. Someone who had lived in Hawkins a long time might know, because Hawkins was small, but that was the thing, wasn’t it?
Steve had always assumed someone had told Billy when he moved. Even as Steve rolled it around in his mind and wriggled into a slightly less comfortable position in the bathtub, it seemed hideously unlikely that someone hadn’t. Or maybe Steve was overthinking things, making his own worth bigger than it was. At the time, Steve had been protected real-estate. When Billy had come to town, Steve had been dating Nancy.
Honestly, Steve would still date Nancy, but that was a discussion Steve preferred to duct tape shut and abandon down a well. Steve was starting to wonder if the bathtub he was in might become a well too, drop him deep below the earth so he didn’t have to worry about his stupid school trip any longer, but one, he knew that was stupid, and two, his melodrama had to end somewhere.
He sighed and pressed his thumbs into his eyes. It would just be a few days. They’d see some boring shit, get drunk on liquor they couldn’t afford, laugh at things they didn’t mean, and go home with nothing more to show than some tacky snow-globes of Fort McHenry and a few Baltimore fridge magnets.
If fucking only.
“Construction of Fort McHenry began in 1798 upon the site of the former Fort Whetstone, which had defended the city of Baltimore during the Revolutionary War. Fort McHenry was specifically designed to defend to Port of Baltimore,” The tour guide droned on and on, like history was her life, like anyone actually gave a fuck about the tour they’d spent thirty bucks to follow. As they walked between buildings, Steve pressed on the flask hidden in his jeans pocket and wondered, not for the first time, if he’d have been better off skipping the whole trip. He could have snuck into Nancy’s bedroom and hung out with her while her mother read romance novels, oblivious to the ninja in her daughter’s bedroom, even though Steve was innocent now.
Not that Nancy would tell Jonathan how easily Steve still climbed into her bedroom and lay on her bedsheets, reading over his calculus textbook while she typed up her law essays. With the dust of their relationship mostly settled, Steve found himself growing comfortable next to his ex, the way he might have had she shut him down completely that first night when he crawled up to her window looking for sex instead of science.
Steve was tired. Just so fucking tired. A sort of sunglasses up, shoulders slouched, loose boned exhaustion that made his chest jittery. Next to him, Jonathan didn’t look like he was doing too much better, blinking blearily with one EarPod in and his hands in his jean pockets. Ahead of them, Billy and Tommy kept shoving each other, snickering every time one of the teachers looked their way.
It was stupid, honestly, but Steve couldn’t help but shove Tommy when he wobbled backwards, knocking Tommy into Billy’s side with enough force to send both of them a little off kilter. Billy snapped his head around, gum between his wolf-teeth in the bright sunlight.
“Can I help you?” Steve asked, lifting his shoulders, matching Billy’s feral grin.
Billy dusted off his arm, chewed and said, “Didn’t know you wanted to play, Harrington.” His poorly buttoned white shirt left most of his chest in the warm sun, the small pendant he always wore twisting backwards between his pecs.
“I don’t,” Steve lied. “Keep out of my way.”
The next time Tommy shoved Billy, Steve was ready, stepping up that little bit more to get solid hands on Billy’s shoulders and push.
“Fuck,” Billy said, arms going out as he smashed into Barbara Holland’s back, nearly toppling her along with him.
“Hargrove!” Barb said, gaining her ground fast enough to turn and shove him back to Steve. “Watch where you’re going, Jesus Christ.”
It was strange to see Barb without Nancy. Steve like, knew Barb, of course, but never outside that package deal. With her glasses a little skewed and her nose bunched up, he thought maybe he understood what Nancy liked about her, aside from her kind eyes and fantastic baking skills.
“Get off me,” Billy said, trying to pull himself up from where he’d fallen half-suspended with Steve’s hands under his armpits.
Barb looked about ready to push Billy again, which, honestly, Steve would admit, was kind of a turn on, but he wasn’t about to make that kind of mistake on his already fucked up school trip. Barb was Nancy’s best friend. It would be a bad vibe, even if her freckles were doing weird things to his stomach.
“Harrington, Hargrove, stop messing around!” Mr. Smithson called.
Steve winked at Barb and helped hoist Billy back to his feet, tried to convince himself it didn’t sting a little when she rolled her eyes and went back to listening to the tour guide.
“On the morning of September 14th, 1814, the American flag, bright and brilliant, was raised over the fort for reveille. It was this magnificent sight that inspired lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, to pen a poem. This poem, that began as scribbled lines on the back of a letter, later became known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and in 1931, Congress made it the national anthem of the United States.”
As Billy shook himself off, Jonathan pat Steve on the shoulder, eyes knowing when he shook his head, as if he knew anything, as if there was anything to know. Steve ran a hand through his hair and squinted at the doorway their group was heading towards. He asked, “Are you ready to ditch this yet?”
Jonathan took out his EarPod, shoved it in his pocket, said, “Ready when you are.”
It wasn’t hard to duck around the side of the building once Smithson and Petunia were inside. There wasn’t a rule that said they had to stay with the tour group, exactly, but it had been strongly encouraged. Self-guided tours were less educational. All the better.
Boring, boxy buildings sat along a circular road that traced the inside of the fort, nestled between thick stone walls shaped loosely like a star. Bright white balconies and pillars jutted stiffly away from the somber red brick and deep green window shutters that decorated the offices and barracks. Colonial music danced through the air, a lot of it a little too similar to the Mickey Mouse theme song for Steve to take it seriously.
Steve looped around the building until he was back on the road with Jonathan at his heels, mind set on the open grass and cobblestone paths that covered the tops of the protective walls. “Think we could get up there?” he asked.
Jonathan shrugged, vaguely pointing at a young woman wandering along the grass on the other side. “She did? It’s probably not a capital offence.”
Probably was good enough. It was hard to gauge what was and wasn’t allowed from the approximately fifty other people unfortunate enough to be visiting the fort at ten thirty on a Monday morning. It was hot for early May, even with the breeze off the Patapsco River battling the humidity, and Steve could feel his bare arms starting to brown as he climbed a shoddy set of stairs after Jonathan to reach the first tier of grass.
They followed the wall along the lowest tier, walking along the edge until they met a spot they felt was safely tucked behind one of the buildings, out of view from anyone walking around the grounds. There, Steve sat in the still-dewy grass and leaned against the short brick embankment that made up the next level, sighing as Jonathan collapsed next to him.
“Do people actually like this shit?” Jonathan asked as Steve shrugged and wiggled his flask out of his pocket. It was pink rhinestone covered and gaudy, a gag-gift from Carol that she never thought he’d actually use. Jokes on her, it did the job the lord intended it to do.
Looking into the window in front of them, Jonathan put his hand out for the flask and said, “You’re going to get us kicked off this trip.”
“In style. Petunia’s too cool to say anything, anyway, and Smithson is just like, bad at his job.”
“He’s a pretty good teacher.”
“Yeah, but he has no clue what to do with us,” Steve said, taking the flask back.
Jonathan shrugged and fumbled for his cigarettes. “Honestly, I think Petunia would care if she noticed. I think you’re giving her too much credit.”
Steve took another drink and pulled at the grass. He was going to say something about her eyes, or maybe how she caved to charming smiles and licked lips, when he looked up, thoughts catching in his throat as Billy stared back at him through the second-story window of the barracks in front of them. “Oh, fucking great,” he hissed instead.
Billy licked his teeth and mimed something Steve couldn’t understand before he disappeared.
“Hargrove,” Steve said. Something churned in the pit of his stomach, maybe a bit fearful, maybe a bit daring. “Field trip might be over, folks.”
“It was a good run,” Jonathan said, passing Steve his cigarette and pulling out a new one.
“Bless your soul.”
No teachers came. By the time Steve had finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in the wet grass, Billy was walking towards them with loose hairs from his bun blowing in the breeze and his hands in his pockets. Tommy walked with him shoulder to shoulder and a cigarette between two fingers. Steve was decidedly not staring at Billy’s chest.
“Roomies!” Billy called. “Wondered where you’d gotten to. You guys dipping out without us?”
“Didn’t realize you’d want to come,” Jonathan called. “Not fucking around with your own friends?”
“Nah,” Billy said, dropping down next to Steve. “Today you guys look like more fun. What’re you drinking, girly?”
Before Steve could reply, Billy was fighting the flask out of his hands and knocking a sip back, hissing violently at what hit his tongue. “Fuck, you brought good stuff. What is that?”
“Kraken,” Steve said, snatching it back. “94 proof.”
“Fucking rich kids.”
Steve shrugged. “Gets you shitfaced faster.”
“God, I miss travelling with you--” Tommy said, trying to steal it from where he sat on the other side of Jonathan.
Jonathan, sweet soul, shoved Tommy back hard. “When were you guys invited, again?”
“Really, you want to play it like that?” Billy asked, smile mean. “When we’re with you all trip? Who knows what we could tell the other kids.”
It was more Billy’s propensity for violence that had Steve concerned. After their last gruesome fight, Steve didn’t really want to know what else Billy was capable of with a kitchen plate. Steve was just lucky the Byer’s had some serious sedatives kicking around for Will’s horrendous and self-destructive panic episodes. Poor kid. Will, not Billy. Billy had what Max injected into him coming. Steve’d had never seen someone overreact so badly about babysitting and his teenybopper sister having a cutesy eighth grade romance.
Honestly, there had to be a lot more going on there. Billy could be shitty, but even shitty people didn’t just snap like that. That being said, Steve wasn’t about to bust out a magnifying glass and get all Sherlock Holmes on Billy’s ass.
“Oh no, they’ll know I use hair gel,” Steve said, hand holding the flask over his heart. Jonathan took it from him for another swig. While not a lightweight, Steve could already feel the alcohol making his muscles loose.
This time, when Tommy tried to take the flask, Jonathan just rolled his eyes and let him. “If you have some, will you fuck off?”
“Probably not,” Tommy said.
“Where’s Carol?” Steve asked.
“With Ms. Petunia, looking at like, cast iron pots or hanging herbs or some shit. She actually likes all this stuff.”
Shame. Carol was the most bearable of Steve’s ex-friends. He still had her on snapchat.
With little grace, Billy practically crawled into Steve’s lap as he reached over for the flask. Whatever trepidation he’d had about yesterday’s revelation seemed gone a he pressed Steve’s back into the brick wall with his shoulder and planted a hand between Jonathan and Steve’s thighs.
“Wow, ask for a first date first,” Steve grumbled.
Billy shouldered him a bit harder as he flopped back on his ass, sparkly pink prize in his hand. “Shut the fuck up,” he said, before taking gulp, clearly more prepared this time.
If Steve were dumber, he’d have said something about indirect kisses, but as he took the flask back it occurred to him that it would apply to Tommy and Jonathan too, and no, like, he liked the guys well enough, but kissing had never, ever been on the table. It also wasn’t with Billy. Ugh.
Steve fought the flask back, took a swig, and handed it to Jonathan. There wasn’t much left, the rest gone by the time Tommy’d had some. Steve wouldn’t say he was tipsy, exactly, but there was enough liquor vibrating in his veins for his body to feel light and unravelled.
“Christ,” Tommy said, pointing towards the corner of the courtyard they could see around the side of the building. “They even have a goddamn marching band.”
“It’s almost like you read the itinerary,” Jonathan said, “Impressive. I didn’t know you could read.”
“Hey, fuck you,” Tommy said. “Steve, give me the last bit.”
“You already had the last bit,” Steve said, shaking the empty flask as evidence. Like this, he could feel the soft breeze pushing around the soft hairs around his neck, the warming sun on his shoulders, Billy’s heavy gaze on his left cheek. He felt a little sick with it, a little stupid, and suddenly so horribly pleased.
Then Billy grabbed the flask out of Steve’s hand and the feeling was gone with a sharp exhale, punching out of Steve’s chest and shouting as he lurched to his feet to chase after Billy as he thundered down the cobblestone path, stopping only a second to hoist himself up to the next level before he kept running.
While Billy had the head start, Steve’s long legs were faster, less graceful, but sure. Tommy and Jonathan scrambled to follow as Steve vaulted himself up to the second tier behind Billy, the four of them laughing and sweating as their heavy steps were picked up by the wind. Their footfalls rocked Steve’s chest, spurred on by something giddy and laughing.
“Get back here, you fuck!” He shouted, a little delirious, gasping too hard for an athlete.
“You’d seriously want shit like this back?” Billy called, not letting up at all.
“It was a gift!”
“Carol always gives shit gifts!” Tommy said.
“She’s your girlfriend,” Jonathan yelled at the same time Steve replied, “Shut the fuck up, I love her gifts!”
“Christ!” Billy laughed. He reached a portion of the wall that went up again, hopped up and kept going at full tilt with the pack on his heels until Steve was almost close enough to grab the back of his jacket. Steve was about to, as well, before Billy leapt back down to lower level, Steve’s hand catching the back of his collar and throwing them both off balance.
Steve swore as he stumbled next to Billy and ate brick as his face met the supporting wall, his jeans the only thing protecting his knees from their impact with the wet ground. There would be grass stains, he thought, before his breathing caught back up to his lungs.
“I’m going to fucking kill you,” Billy said, but it was broken by harsh laughter and Billy’s scraped forearms. Most of his hair had slipped out of his bun, curls tickling his shoulders and his cheeks pink.
Steve thought there might be blood running down his own cheek from where his forehead had met the wall. That was why he felt hot and dizzy, winded from the run, too high on his own laughter for the pain he could feel blooming behind his temple, the rattling in his brain.
“Hargrove! Harrington!” Mr. Smithson’s voice broke through like cannon fire. “What do you think you’re doing? Damnit, get down here. Do you want to go back to Hawkins?”
Honestly, yes, Steve thought, but looking between Billy and the sky, the grass below, Mr. Smithson with his hands on his hips, clearly just shy of losing his cool and telling them to get their fucking shit together, what Steve actually said was, “No, sir! Sorry!”
He wasn’t sorry, and neither was Billy, not from the smug look on his face as he pulled himself up from the grass and fixed his hair. When Steve stood, he only got one step, because Billy was slapping the flask against Steve’s chest and giving it a hard thump once Steve caught it. “Learn to fucking run,” He said, without looking at Steve.
“Stop being a dipshit and I won’t have to.”
The students stood in a resolute cluster in the grass facing the river, hands over hearts as the national anthem was recited in poetic verse, imagining the first time it had been penned, the first time someone had whispered it aloud by candlelight in an empty room, spurred on by incoherent inspiration for a country just getting it’s legs, clumsy like a foal as it fought its parents for the right to build its own land.
Steve wasn’t really patriotic, didn’t see how his country had any more worth than any other, with their weapons and capitalism and greed, but he did feel love for his people, recognized in himself a potential growth, understood what it was like to cobble together a nation, to scrape your elbows, to sing for the first time, off-key but brave.
It was a loose comparison, obviously, kind of like his shitty college essay that was going to get him nowhere, that many colleges didn’t even want anymore, not for the things he was applying for. Nancy had told him he should write one, and then she’d shot it down.
He held his hand over his heart, licked his lips, and sat through the first cannon blast as men in old uniforms shot cast iron into the river. His scabbed temple cried, washed his mind white. Then they fired the next one.
Once they were seated at dinner, Steve was able to make sad eyes at Carol until she fished ibuprofen from her purse. He took twice the recommended dosage and washed it down with Coke. Tommy rolled his eyes and grumbled something about pussies and helping losers. Carol, bless her soul, elbowed him in the stomach and told him to eat his goddamn chicken fingers.
Who even ate chicken fingers at the Olive Garden? Like, fuck, was he five? Was that even on the adult menu? Steve took a bite of his breadstick and traded Jonathan a chunk of his chicken parmesan for some shrimp scampi.
If Billy sat on the other side of Tommy with his arm around Rebecca Trinton, grinning into her hair and feeding her the odd bite of five cheese ziti al forno, well, he knew she had bad taste, anyway.
“Tommy,” Jonathan said, very even, very patient. “Why are there people in our room?”
When Steve had dragged Jonathan outside for a smoke, he had not expected to return to a room full of twelve slow-smiling teenagers, already starting to get a little too friendly with contraband alcohol balanced in their hands.
Tommy looked at Steve and Jonathan and said, “It’s a party. What else?”
“Yes, but why?”
Why indeed. Steve ran a hand over his face, caught Barbra Holland staring at him from across the room and frowned. She shrugged.
“Come on, Byers, loosen up,” Tommy said. “Wheeler isn’t here to babysit you. Live a little. Let me get you a drink.”
It would be easy to back out, Steve told himself as he took a seat across from Carol and squeezed his hands on his criss-cross knees. He could say he was too tired, too drunk, his feet hurt from walking, he needed to call his mom, not that any of that mattered, really, but no one had to know that but Steve. Steve and maybe Tommy, who knew how quiet the Harrington house would be at eleven thirty on a Tuesday night. No one would be home to pick up the phone. Even their goldfish had died.
Steve tipped his beer to his lips to shake his nerves. What was he so worried about, anyway? He’d already kissed some of the girls in the room. Some of them, like Jessica, would be great for another go behind closed doors. He’d said Billy pretended she was special with his arm around her thin shoulders, not that Steve hadn’t done the same, once. She was pretty. He’d always subscribed to a little too much wishful thinking.
“Rules,” Tommy said, standing at the far side of their wonky circle with an empty beer bottle waving as he spoke with his hands. “We spin the bottle once. The person with the mouth facing them then spins it again to pick their lucky winner. I’m setting a timer on my phone, you’re going into that closet for seven whole minutes, no arguments. Doesn’t matter who you get.”
“This is an excuse for you to kiss me,” Steve said, pulling laughter from the crowd. He didn’t check to see if Billy was laughing. Something told him he wasn’t.
“Shut up, sweetheart, you know I wouldn’t need an excuse,” Tommy replied, easy.
Steve shrugged. “I’ve got higher standards.”
“Not too high,” Billy said, winking in the direction of Jonathan, who flipped him off.
Tommy waved his arms to shush the room, ever conscious of their tittering laughter reaching other hotel patrons, or worse, one of the teachers. He held the bottle in the air and scanned their little group, finger to his lips before stepping into the ring and placing the bottle on the floor, mouth facing Barb.
“Holland, care to do the honours?” He asked.
Barb sat on her knees with her glasses slowly slipping off her nose, clearly a little nervous even with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice held high against her shoulder as she leaned forward to twist the bottle.
All the noise in the room softened under the swish of glass rolling over the blue, spiralling hotel carpet. There was something too small about the space and number of people, too immediate, too intimate, even though Steve had claimed parties of less before, had hosted girls on their own to his house and said it was a party of two. This didn’t feel like a party. He didn’t know what it felt like.
He sucked on his teeth and watched dumbly as the bottle pointed at Rebecca Trinton, who had found her way under Billy’s arm once again. She grinned and pushed on his chest until he flopped back on the floor. “Off to kiss another man-- woman,” Billy complained.
“Woman?” Rebecca asked. As she leaned forward, Steve could see Billy looking up her skirt, could only imagine the things Billy saw there from his honey-drunk eyes and hungry mouth. “I’m not picking Barb, she just picked that I go first.”
“Boring,” Billy whined, before running his tongue low and filthy over his chin. “I was going to ask you to kiss out here. It’d be fucking hot.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rebecca said, tone dry, and Steve knew there was a reason why he liked her, he was just finding it very hard to remember what it was with Billy’s hand heavy on her calf. God, he ruined everything.
Rebecca spun the bottle so hard that it kept moving when it was finished, looking at Jonathan head-on before it rolled to hit Steve’s socked foot. For a moment, Rebecca glanced between the two of them and Tommy, looking for some sort of direction, literally anything, before she squared her shoulders and got to her feet. “Hopeless,” She said. “Come on, Johnny, let’s go write Nancy a love letter.”
"I think we're supposed to kiss."
“Do you want to?” Steve asked, hands around his shins as he sat against the closet wall with his knees pulled up to his chest.
Barb bumped her knees against Steve’s in the low light and said, “Not really, no.”
The center of the door was made of slats, angled at just the right way to let some light bleed in, but too tight together for anyone to see in or out. Steve could make out a curled, almost pleased bend in Barb’s lips, one that didn’t line up with her fingers squeezed tight over her kneecaps.
“Are you laughing?” he asked.
“Sorry, you just look so, god--”
“Barbara Holland, think carefully about what you’re about to say to me.”
“Nervous,” Barb said, putting her hand over her mouth. “Like, comically nervous.”
“Can’t I be?”
“Not usually.” Barb shrugged and looped her hand around the back of her neck, under her short hair. “You’re normally all like, hey, ladies, my name is Steve, here’s my phone number, get back to me in two to three business days.”
“Maybe most girls aren’t as pretty as you.” He winked in the dark.
She didn’t buy it for a second, too smart, too used to the way he’d charmed Nancy once, all smooth words and promises, like he’d meant them. He had meant them. With an exaggerated sigh she said, “Try again.”
“You’ve got a cute nose?”
Barb laughed, head tipping back against the closet wall. “You’re so full of shit,” she said.
Steve pretended that didn’t sting, like those weren’t the words Nancy used when she’d dumped punch on their already drowning relationship. He’d stood with her in the bathroom at a party, trying to help her wash her shirt, trying to help her sober up, when everything had spilled messy on her determined face and she’d called him what she thought he was worth. Bullshit. He didn’t need that in his life, was still learning how to laugh it off, even months later when he’d accepted it, had given Jonathan his blessing.
It was all still fucked. He gave a weak laugh, shook his head and said, “What? You do. And those freckles are such a turn on.”
“Steve,” Barb said, bumping their knees together. “Even if you think that, you don’t mean it.”
There was something in the way that she held her shoulders that made Steve believe she knew that, too, that she was pretty in a way that people rarely gave her credit. Steve was such a fucking asshole. They all were. He rubbed his mouth and asked, “Why are you here, Barb? Like, not that I don’t want you here, but you know Carol.”
“I do,” She agreed. “Like, I knew it was a joke when she invited me, but I figured why not, you know? What could you guys do, really? I’m already down at the bottom of the social ladder here. Nancy used to go to this stuff with you and it helped, if anything.”
“Well,” Steve shrugs. “For what it’s worth, of all the people out there, I’m glad I got to be in here with you. You get to leave here with bragging rights.”
She pursed her lips, mirth behind her words as she said, “Yeah, but do I really want them? Like, really? You’re not that cute.”
“You told Nancy you thought I was.”
“Yeah,” Barb said. “And then I actually met you and you became a person and we went bowling and crap and I realized, eh, nothing special.”
“Hey, I bowl well!”
“You’re terrible at bowling. Like, actually completely horrifyingly bad.”
“You were worse.”
“Yeah, but I own it,” She said, smug, like it was a secret she’d kept tight but proud, waiting for the moment she had to drop some truth. He should have paid more attention to her.
“Time’s up!” Tommy called, knocking on the door.
“Want to bowl next weekend?” Steve asked.
“Oh, Steve,” Barb clapped him heavy on the knee before getting to her feet. When she opened the door and the room softly jeered, Steve didn’t know if that was a yes.
Then the bottle landed on Billy, right around the time people were starting to lose their patience, ribbing Billy on every time the bottle landed just to the right or to the left, like it was destined to leave him hanging. People sat down in different places as they got up and came back, hands over their mouths, laughing or winking, chests and necks flushed red with embarrassment or maybe lust.
Billy had stripped his shirt while Steve was in the closet with Barb, his bare muscles looking softer under the shoddy glow from the hotel lamps. He’d let loose his bun and his shifting hair and eager eyes betrayed how much he’d had to drink. As Steve sipped vodka straight from the bottle, watching Billy laugh and twist his nose ring, he told himself the warmth spreading over his skin was alcohol, not anticipation.
“Ladies, ladies, don’t jump all at once,” Billy said, making a show of getting on his hands and knees to twist the bottle. He stayed crouched like that, head down low, until the bottle stopped, and Steve, Steve couldn’t breathe.
Whoops and laughter filled the whole room, so loud that Carol had to tell them to shut up over her own cackling. Tommy was practically gasping on the floor, the fucking traitor. Steve hoped he died a slow, painful death one day, but not until he could look away from Billy to watch.
Slowly, with a feral mouth and fire licking behind his eyes, Billy lifted his head, gaze tracing Steve’s socks, his jeans, and the broad plans of his chest. By the time he reached Steve’s mouth he was already slack-jawed and frowning, face mean as he snarled, “Fuck no, no fucking way.”
“You should just kiss out here,” Rebecca said, leaning into Jessica’s side with something cruel in her eyes. “It would be so hot.”
That was the reason Steve liked her, he realized, but it also made him want to throw her out the hotel’s seventh story window, maybe wrapped in the horrible, waxy beige curtains. “Not in your fucking lifetime,” Steve said.
“Oh, Stevie,” Tommy crooned, catching his breath as he tilted his head back where he lay to look at Steve upside down. “You know the rules, boy-o.”
“If you get picked you have to kiss,” Carol said.
Steve glanced at Barb who shrugged, then at Jonathan, who looked torn between booing and cheering, so maybe Steve needed some new friends, because the ones he had were shitty and useless.
“I’m not doing it,” Billy said, getting up from the floor anyway.
“You have to,” Rebecca reminded.
“Touch my ass and I’ll murder you,” Steve said, getting to his own feet. Billy looked like he would sooner kill Steve than give Steve the chance, and honestly, with how the trip was going so far Steve wasn’t sure that was such a bad idea.
Billy stomped over to the closet and slammed the door open, all teeth as he said, “Fuck you, get in here.”
“Oh, honey,” Steve said, his own malice slipping out as he placed a hand on the center of Billy’s chest and pushed him in, closing the door behind them.
In the half-dark, breathing hard, Billy grabbed the hand against his chest and squeezed until Steve could feel each finger bruising bone. Billy’s breath was heady against Steve’s chin, hot in a way that fueled the room, made Steve want to bite back when Billy stepped forward and pinned him to the door, hand still gripped between them and slats pinching into Steve’s back.
“This doesn’t mean shit,” Billy said. “You better not get off on this.”
“Save it.” Steve grit his teeth. “As if I’d want to.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Yeah, you made that pretty fucking clear,” Steve said, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to get a rise out of Billy, to give back everything he was getting tenfold, to show his own claws as he shifted a thigh between Billy’s legs and rolled his hips.
Billy smashed him back against the door hard, growling under Steve’s high laughs. “I could beat you up for seven minutes,” Billy warned. “You’d probably make the same noises.”
“You talk so dirty,” Steve said, shoving Billy off of him. “Go fuck yourself.”
Mania crawled under Steve’s skin, bubbling and molten, making him giddy like he’d been in the fort earlier, but from something much more potent than boredom, something much more jittering. He wanted to crush Billy, to squeeze him down until he was no bigger than a shoe box, something Steve could beat in a fight unlike Billy’s meaty fists, his hot thighs.
Billy clearly didn’t know what to say to that, or what to do when Steve pressed against him again, fingers digging in to Billy’s shoulders as he nipped Billy’s bottom lip. It was a parody of a kiss, a travesty as Billy roughly grabbed Steve’s hips, to push or to pull, Steve wasn’t sure as he found his back hitting the closet door again, Billy’s mouth capturing his surprised hiss, their teeth clacking together.
Every inch of Billy was searing, more consuming than Steve could have thought as Steve slide his hand against Billy’s burning scalp and pulled his hair at the roots. Billy gasped sharp and pressed his fingertips between Steve’s ribs, hands hiked under Steve’s shirt, and honestly, Steve didn’t remember them getting there, couldn’t remember much as his other hand grasped at Billy’s tight shoulders and traced lines of muscle he wanted to bite.
Steve licked into Billy’s mouth and rolled his hips again, braver with Billy returning the motion, making Steve’s ass bang into the door with a sort of violence that went right to Steve’s head. He was half-hard, mind spinning as he flipped them, mouth going to Billy’s shoulder and sucking hard.
“Hey, fuck you, no,” Billy said, shoving him back.
Steve laughed, hand over his mouth, and leaned against the far wall as he tried to get his breathing back under control. “Who knew the great Billy Hargrove was such a tease?”
“Who knew you were such a slut?”
Steve laughed, feeling a little unhinged, a little wild. “Like everyone. Like half the girls in that room. Anyone tell you you’re picking up my seconds?”
“Yeah,” Steve purred. “Fuck, we have to have another minute left, at least, come back here.”
“I hate you,” Billy said, but he covered Steve with his body, licked his jaw and made him moan. “This didn’t happen.”
“I mean it.”
“Okay,” Steve said again. He was sure the room outside could hear every thump and rattle, wondered absently and garbled what they would think, what they would say. “You can tell them I kissed you and you punched me in the mouth. Messed me up. Whatever gets your rocks off, helps you sleep or whatever.”
“Hey,” Tommy shouted, a heavy bang shaking the door. “You can stop fucking now, times up.”
“Make it believable,” Billy mouthed against Steve’s ear. Then he punched him in the gut.
"Shit, you look rough," Jonathan said as he leaned against the wall by the window with Steve, the game having died after Billy snarled at the room of teenagers and knocked Steve on to one of the beds to prove his point.
“Honestly,” Steve said, “Not the worst thing he’s done to me.” Not by far. Not at all. Steve could still feel Billy’s breath on his ear and taste the liquor on his tongue. Billy tasted like cigarettes, vodka and leftover breadsticks. Steve didn’t even care.
Jonathan pulled at the tatters at the bottom of his pant legs and shrugged, saying, “Yeah, but it’s still shit. Tommy shouldn’t have forced that on you.”
Tommy, luckily, was in the bathroom, taking a hot shower after kicking all the drunk kids out. Billy had disappeared with Rebecca under his arm. Honestly, Steve didn’t want to know, not unless he wanted to address whatever was coiling in his stomach, and yeah, he’d pass.
“It’s not the worst shit Tommy’s done, either.”
Jonathan let out a slow breath and looked at the popcorn ceiling, expression mixed. “Why were you ever friends with him, anyway?”
“Because I was even shittier than him.”
With a tight smile, Jonathan pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to catch some sleep.”
“You going to crash on the floor?”
“Nah,” Steve said, getting up himself. He needed something to calm his insides, to convince his heart it could stop stuttering uselessly. Once he sobered, he could sleep. It was just getting there first. He checked his pants for a pack and a lighter before giving Jonathan a salute. “Be back in ten.”
“Okay,” Jonathan said, flopping face first on to the pillow on the couch and flapping an arm in Steve’s direction. “Don’t get caught.”
By the time Steve was back the lights were off in the room, everyone else snoring softly against the backdrop of city sounds. Downtown Baltimore made Steve feel even smaller when he thought about the main strip in Hawkins, how proud he was of his dead end, backroads town.
He slipped silently around the edge of the room, guided by only the crack of city light escaping through the shitty blackout curtains that refused to meet in the middle. He almost missed the bathroom door, freezing as he hit the handle hard by accident. Tommy grumbled and rolled over in bed. Steve let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
Inside the bathroom, Steve winced at the light and took in his face in the mirror, wondered who the boy with wide, tired eyes looking back at him was. The ibuprofen from earlier had worn off, mixing with the booze and the cannon fire in a way that made his head sing and his eyes ache. He wanted to sleep for a thousand years and never wake up, maybe nestle in the tub until the teachers forgot about him and left him stranded in Baltimore, away from all the shit he’d left at home, away from all the shit he’d found here.
He ran a hand through his hair and turned to the tub. Fucking hell. If he’d had his head on straight, he’d have remembered Tommy’s fucking shower, would have kicked his ass for even thinking about it. The tub was filled with residual water, the drain crappy and clogged and sucking water in so slowly that Steve would be sitting in two inches if he tried to get in. Just his fucking luck. Just—he couldn’t do it, not tonight.
“Of all the fucking things,” Steve muttered as he smushed his fingers into the disgusting drain, praying that maybe that would dislodge something. It did not. All he managed to do was get his hand covered in grimy hotel soap residue and some of Tommy’s facial hair. Ugh.
“Can I chop off my hand? I literally want to chop off my hand.”
He washed his hands then washed them again, and again, and once more for good measure until he couldn’t feel the goop on him anymore.
There weren’t a ton of options, but there was no way in hell he was sleeping on the floor. Billy and Tommy didn’t deserve that kind of satisfaction, or so Steve rationalized as he aggressively brushed his teeth, bloody gums be damned. He had to get the vodka off his tongue, out of his system.
He needed to wash his hands.
After about five seconds of consideration and a quietly closed door, Steve made his way over to the bed by the window and peeled back the covers. Billy didn’t even shift as Steve got in and messed with the pillows, didn’t even breath. Maybe Steve was fine, maybe he’d get away with it.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Billy growled.
Okay, maybe Steve was pushing his luck a little. “What, you’ll stick your tongue in my mouth, but not this? Grow the fuck up, Hargrove,” he whispered.
Steve’s breath caught as Billy rolled, putting their faces close enough that Steve could feel the heat on his mouth as Billy said, “Get the fuck out.”
“No,” Steve said. “No, I’m not. You get out.”
“Don’t make me--”
“What?” Steve hissed. “Don’t make you what? Punch me? Push me out? Shut the fuck up and go to sleep. You can sleep on the floor if you think I’ve got cooties or some shit. Didn’t stop you from shoving your hands up my shirt earlier. Or was I supposed to forget about that?”
In the low light, Billy’s grimace was almost unreadable, but it was obvious in the way Billy’s hand cupped Steve’s face, one finger digging in to the scraped area on Steve’s forehead and making him hiss. “Shut the fuck up,” Billy said.
“Go the fuck to sleep.”
Billy grumbled something Steve couldn’t make out, probably something mean, something Billy thought was vicious and scathing, something that would make Steve laugh. Even with his throbbing head he felt a little smug, somewhat triumphant, but it was a quiet thing, soft as his breaths on Billy’s wrist as Billy settled, tucking his face into his pillow.
Billy didn’t take his hand from Steve’s face. Steve had no fucking clue what that meant.
Here we go again.
Giant love to uncaringerinn who asked for seven minutes in heaven as a prompt on Tumblr. I genuinely didn't mean for it to turn into this.
Huge thanks to her and demogrove for editing this monster and cheering me on. You guys are invaluable.
And thank you everyone for reading! I'd love to hear any feedback you have. Comments are always loved.
Also, I'm very friendly? Hit me up on Tumblr @eternalgoldfish. We should talk more.
Chapter 2: some legends are told, some turn to dust, some to gold
“What the fuck?” Billy said, and Steve had expected it, but he hadn’t expected Billy’s fist thumping him on the chest as he tried to sit up, winding him and knocking him back down. “I thought I made it pretty clear that this was not happening, Harrington.”
Tommy blinked at them from the other bed and rubbed his eyes, tongue running over his teeth as he picked his words. Steve was still processing himself, considering the last thing he remembered was Billy’s thumb running over his cheek in the still-dusky morning, breath warm on Steve’s forehead as Steve drifted from sleep just long enough to know Billy was there and awake, being fucking weird when he thought everyone was asleep.
Actually, maybe Steve’s memory was a dream. The fist on his chest seemed a lot more likely. As far as Steve’s dreams went, he had to admit, that last one was fucking wild. Billy Hargrove, being a human with real emotions? Not in Steve’s lifetime. Not anything Steve wanted in his lifetime, even.
With some vague, awkward hand gesture, Tommy finally said, “Well this is the weirdest thing I thought I’d see all trip.”
“You literally destroyed where I was sleeping,” Steve said, propping up on his elbows. “Your facial hair is fucking nasty, by the way.”
“It’s not my fault,” Tommy said. “I can’t help these stellar genes. Should I grow a beard?”
“You’d look like a hairy baby.”
Jonathan sat up from the couch with a yawn. “Okay, but like, Steve, this is still weird, man.”
“Noted,” Steve said, stretching as he sat up all the way. “And honestly, I agree?”
Billy grimaced at Steve, waiting for more, but the joke was on him because Steve hadn’t actually thought farther than that statement and was running out of places he could take it that weren’t creepy and uncomfortable.
“Get out of my goddamn bed,” Billy finally said.
Which, honestly, would be far too easy. Something hot and bitter lingered on the back of Steve’s tongue as he met Billy’s eyes, unready to recognize whatever was underlying the hard pinch of Billy’s eyebrows. He swivelled, planted his foot in square on Billy’s chest, and kicked him over the edge.
Billy tipped over, arms flailing, and nearly smacked his head on the corner of the side table as he dropped to the floor, boneless with shock. “You are fucking dead, you fucking fuck,” He roared and scrambled to his feet.
“At least I’ll be well rested!”
Steve leapt from the bed just in time to avoid Billy’s grasp as Billy rocketed over the side, nearly tripping over his own knees in his haste. Steve was lucky he was fast. He was also lucky that the bathroom door was very sturdy, because he’d learned the hard way how strong Billy could be, and he was perfectly happy letting the door take his beatings for him. It was too early for a split lip. Steve at least wanted to get all the grime off his teeth first.
It was too cold to be on the top of a tour bus at nine in the morning on an overcast day. Fat clouds hung in the sky, threatening rain or hail, or maybe snow just to fuck with Steve’s day. Yesterday’s good weather seemed like fiction as Steve stuffed his hands deeper into his bomber pockets and leaned against the solid metal barrier that kept him from toppling off the bus.
He had lied earlier. He hadn’t slept well at all, too half-aware of the other guys snoring in the room, like ghosts moving in and out of his dreams. When he wasn’t remembering images of Billy’s teeth it was reminders of home, his empty house, his nearly failed SATs. Real cheery stuff to think about on his first trip away from Hawkins in what felt like years, even though his parents had taken him to the Bahamas twice since Christmas break. He just wanted to sink into the metal barrier and sleep through the next hour of Baltimore history. Who needed to know that, anyway? Wasn’t like he was hunting for real estate or becoming a historiographer.
If only he’d been smart enough to bring headphones, like Jonathan. Somewhere between packing his backpack and heading to the bus he’d taken them out and left them at home, like a dumbass. They were probably in his locker. He was always losing stuff in his locker. God, why couldn’t he have his life together for five fucking minutes?
At the front of the bus, the tour guide was waving an arm at the buildings slipping past, microphone held to her glossy pink lips. She was considerably less chipper than the guide from the day before, but somehow that wasn’t helping her be any less grating. Steve had never been so simultaneously bored and annoyed in his entire life.
“Now, the flag hoisted over Fort McHenry for reveille on the morning of September 14th, 1814, was sewn by a woman named Mary Pickersgill,” She said, and Steve debated whether or not the drop from the roof of the bus would do him in.
“A year prior to the Battle of Baltimore, Pickersgill was commissioned by Major George Armistead to make the flag for Fort McHenry. He specifically requested that the flag be made large enough that the British would have no difficultly seeing it from a great distance. It was simply massive, measuring 30 by 42 feet, with 15 stripes and 15 stars, one for each state within the Union.”
“I heard Steve planted one on Billy.”
Steve frowned, face smushed into his arm against the railing. Maybe he’d misheard. His brain had been doing a lot of that this week, after all, making up all kinds of garbage he’d never wanted to hear.
“Yeah, like, okay, it was from Rebecca, who isn’t reliable, but you’d believe he’d do it, right?”
“I mean, I could see Steve doing it, but Billy? Didn’t Billy like, beat the shit out of him a few months ago?”
“You say that like Billy didn’t look like shit after that too.”
“It would be suicide.”
“Rebecca said it was for a game, and like, they were told they had to do it, but like, no one would make them, right? And Rebecca said it looked like they actually did. Like, Steve’s lips were red.”
“He’s always had nice lips.”
“That’s not the point.”
Steve very much wished that was the point. The longer the girls behind him spoke, the less he could claim that he was experiencing some sort of boredom induced coma dream. Jesus, he wished he had headphones, or a lobotomy.
“Rebecca’s full of shit,” A new voice said. It sounded an awful lot like Tommy. “I don’t think they actually did anything. Billy’s too much of a pussy.”
“You want to take that back?” Another voice said, twisting something in Steve’s gut. That, without a doubt, was Billy, his words pitch low and gravelly, the same way he’d growled with his teeth on Steve’s chin, his claws in Steve’s hips. God, Steve needed a cigarette. He wondered if smoking was acceptable on tour busses. They were technically outside.
“So you did kiss?” Becky asked.
“Fuck no,” Billy said. “I’m not into that homo shit.”
Someone hissed through their teeth, probably Laurie, and said, “You can’t say stuff like that.”
“Stuff like what?”
“Like homo. It’s fucking rude. You know there are gay students on this bus, right?”
“Oh my god,” Billy groaned. “That’s the shit you’re holding on to here? I don’t fucking care, alright?”
“Like, did you say that to Steve? Because that’s not okay. You should know better. It’s 2018.”
“Yeah, I got it,” Billy said. “I know what year it is. Jesus, you say that like it means something. I can talk to him how I want, and I’m not making out with him any time soon. Keep me out of your little fantasy fetishes about him. It’s not happening.”
Which, okay, Steve recognized that the smile on his face was something he should be examining, but he couldn’t help feeling fucking smug as he pressed his mouth into his jacket sleeve and imagined the disgust on Billy’s face, the indignant malice. It was slowly dawning on him that he had a one-up on Billy. With a few words he could take the kid down a peg, and Steve had always liked the taste of power.
“Major Armistead claimed possession of the McHenry flag after the battle, and his wife kept it following his death in 1818. Her ownership lasted four decades and it was displayed on a few occasions, with pieces of the great ensign given as gifts.”
It took a lot of willpower for Steve to keep his head down and his eyes shut, hands inside his pockets as the cool wind nipped at his ears. He was sure Billy was shaking with something fierce, something not at all connected to the weather. Billy wore a dangling earring with his hair down and curling under his chin, blue denim jeans and a tight black t-shirt. Tommy had suggested he wear his jean jacket, or a hoodie, or literally anything, but Billy just had to be the cool guy, had to go without. It wasn’t the chill that made him shake.
Or maybe Steve was making things up again, like the hand on his cheek, the breath in his hair, Billy’s mouth ghosting his forehead in the early hours, miming a soft caricature of himself in the dark. Steve told himself the heady indulgence rushing through his veins came from Billy’s bruised lips last night and this morning’s gnashing teeth, today’s knowledge.
Steve didn’t have the willpower he thought he did. It was a nice attempt.
“Way to let a guy down easy,” he said, sitting up and turning in his seat, looking over his shoulder as his knees hit Jonathan’s where he sat one seat over.
Jonathan took out an EarPod and asked, “What?” But Steve was already waving a dismissive hand in his direction, eyes locked on Billy as he draped an arm over the back of the seat and aimed for his coyest smile.
Billy’s shoulders were hunched like Steve had expected, his eyes as hard and his tight lips mean. “What, one bruised rib isn’t enough for you?” he asked.
“I mean, really, if we’re talking historically, I think we’re at like, seven now? But who’s counting?”
“Harrington!” Ms. Petunia said. “Eyes forward. Stop talking.”
Without surveying the damage he’d done, Steve winked at Billy and turned in his chair, pleased as fuck at the open-mouthed expression Jonathan was sporting. “Dude,” Jonathan said.
“He’s going to kill you.”
Ms. Petunia gave them a warning look, which was enough for Steve to settle back into his seat, hands in his bomber pockets once again as he tipped his head up to the sky. Slowly, he said, “Honestly? I hope he tries.”
The rest of the day was filled with a slew of short museum tours, each less inspiring than the last, or so it seemed to Steve as he trudged between the bus and the buildings, wondering why they would design a day where they spent more time looking at the outsides of buildings than actual historical items— the teachers assured him that the buildings were historical items, but he was pretty sure it was and excuse for poor planning. He’d checked out some time after the second museum, when the tour guide had winked at him and he realized he should have just drowned himself in the bathtub before the day had even started.
Jonathan and Tommy were the first in and the first out when they got back to the hotel room after dinner, Tommy wanting to scope out the pool before anyone else arrived and Jonathan eager to look for waterside photography opportunities. They left Steve in the room while Billy hogged the bathroom, doing whatever he did that took an hour while everyone else had changed into their swim trunks and left in five minutes.
Steve lay on the bed in his trunks with his arm over his eyes, feeling more like a nap than a swim. When he’d tried to call Nancy she had told him she’d call him back after she was done at the supermarket, which brought him to now, waiting with his phone next to his head while everyone else explored the hotel, trying to pretend he didn’t hear Billy messing about in the bathroom. Honestly, like, Steve took a while to do his hair, there was an art to a perfect coif, but Billy took a fucking decade. Nancy took less time to freshen up than Billy.
Billy drying his hair in the morning? Literally took forty minutes. By the time Steve had gotten into the bathroom he’d had five minutes to brush his teeth, wash his face, and do his hair, and that was cutting things real close.
Steve checked his phone for the thousandth time. No missed calls, not that he could have possibly missed her with the phone resting two inches from his ear. With a sigh, he dropped his phone on the bed covered his face with both hands. Maybe she was talking to Jonathan, maybe that’s why she was taking so long. Maybe she’d gotten stuck in a long line while someone waged war with the self-checkout machine.
“You still here?” Billy asked, doorknob hitting the wall as he knocked it open.
“Does it matter?” Steve stared at the smooth hotel ceiling through his fingers. A bathtub must have flooded upstairs at some point, staining the ceiling below like coffee rings on a napkin, a strange continent on an old map.
Had Nancy called? He picked the phone up again, one hand left over his eyes as the bed beside him dipped. No calls. No duh.
Steve nearly dropped the phone on his face as a hand gripped his waist, thumb pressing hard into the soft flesh of his side, digging down under his hip bone. “What the fuck?” he asked, gasping before his words caught up with his mouth.
“You think I didn’t hear you earlier or something?” Billy asked, his loose hair tumbling forward as he leaned over Steve and knocked his arm to the side.
Steve dropped his phone and hit Billy’s hand. “Get off me, man.”
“What?” Billy asked, hardly shaken as he pinned one of Steve’s wrists to the bed with his other hand. “I thought I was letting you down before? Mixed signals, Harrington.”
A sharp, mean laugh broke from Steve’s mouth as he hit Billy’s shoulder hard enough to make him sway. “Really? I’m giving you mixed signals?”
“You should be more honest about your emotions,” Billy purred, head tilting down.
“You’re a shitty comedian.”
“Yeah, well,” Billy gave a crooked smile, “No one asked you.”
Steve wiggled his arm in Billy’s grasp but went slack as Billy’s thumb gave up some of the pressure on his side. There was too much bare skin between them, too many raised hairs and goosebumps, hard planes of muscle and old scars. With his free hand, Steve gripped Billy’s jaw, nails biting into stubble as he pulled him closer by the mouth.
Something restless in Billy’s eyes made Steve want to bite down, trap him between his teeth. “No one has to ask me,” Steve said. “I’m telling you anyway.”
“Harrington--” Billy said, noses bumping as Steve gracelessly knocked their mouths together, his claws in Billy’s jowls, Billy’s fingers squeezing tight-white on Steve’s side.
Steve felt a little sick as he muffled the protest on Billy’s tongue, a little manic, a little light headed as Billy pushed Steve back and sucked on his lower lip, stiff nose ring bumping Steve’s dry skin. Maybe it was Billy’s cologne, maybe it was how strongly he wanted Billy between his thighs, wanted his hands in that hair, wanted the heavy bulge Billy’s swim trunks rocking against his hip. Not that he was getting more than hot kisses and bruised skin as Billy twisted sideways to get at Steve’s lips.
With a kiss to the corner of Billy’s mouth, his cheek, Steve ran a hand down Billy’s neck, scraped his nails over his collarbone and savoured the soft puffs of Billy’s breath. “Get on top of me,” he said, and Billy laughed, forehead dipping into the crook of Steve’s neck, his breath adding to the muggy sweat collecting in Steve’s clavicle.
“You’re such a fucking girl,” Billy said, then choked on his next breath.
Steve let his hand be a heavy weight around Billy’s thigh, around his cock. “Billy, get on top of me.”
Billy, patron saint of impulse, didn’t need another word, tripped over his own limbs as he crawled on to the bed and settled between Steve’s legs, his half-hard cock flush with Steve’s through their thin sorts, Steve’s knees bracketing his waist.
“Thank you,” Steve said, the second word a little broken as Billy ground their hips together. Steve hadn’t messed around with a guy in what felt like decades and the newness of Billy’s light stubble against his cheek and his rough hands had Steve feeling a little shaky, a little like Billy was sanding him down. There had always been a balance for dominance between them, a power Steve didn’t care for. He’d never really wanted to deal with the anger rolling against his hips, but Billy kissed him like he wanted revenge, like beating the shit out of him a few months ago wasn’t enough, and Steve wanted to push back, wanted some of that revenge in his blood.
Instead, he got teeth scraping against his cheek as Billy worked their hips in tandem, panting words into Steve’s skin like Christ or maybe baby, Steve wasn’t so sure as he tried to fight Billy into another kiss, shut him up before—Steve didn’t know what was before, what would be after, if there was even an after for him to be concerned about. He needed heat and he needed weight and he needed Billy.
“Fuck these, take them off,” Steve said, words a little wrecked, a little ragged, already showing his hand as he scratched his fingers down Billy’s chest and played with the fine hairs peeking out of his swim trunks, already going for the drawstrings when Billy slapped his hand away.
Billy jerked his hips sharper, nearly snarled into Steve’s mouth, “You want to touch tips? I told you, I’m not into that, amigo.”
“God, you’re a fucking headcase.”
Steve walloped Billy’s back, but it ended with his half-hearted fist getting tangled and knotted in Billy’s moist hair, damp along the scalp from fresh sweat and mousse. Disgusting, Steve thought, but who did he mean? He shouldn’t be that turned on. He shouldn’t be that fucking greedy.
“God, you’re a fucking bitch.”
Honestly, Steve had a good answer to that, was just figuring out how to explain it when his phone fucking rang, because of course, he was waiting for Nancy. He was always waiting for Nancy.
“I have to take that,” he said, although only half the words made it out.
Without a stop or stutter, Billy locked their eyes, kept rolling his hips as he grit his teeth and said, “Are you going to answer it?”
Steve scrunched his nose, scowled, and fumbled for his phone, breath hitching as he kept Billy’s gaze, refused to be cowed. “Hey, Nancy,” He said.
“Are you okay?” She asked. There was something buzzing and beeping behind her voice, shuffling, maybe the crunch of car door locks.
“What? Yeah, why?” He tugged his eyes away to look at the ceiling, tried to hold it steady as Billy laughed.
“You just sound a little, like, breathless? I guess?”
“Yeah, Nance, I’m fine. I was just doing some push ups, you know? Got to keep in shape even if I’m on a vacation.”
“I’m not sure I’d call that a vacation.”
Which, well. “Honestly, I’m not sure it is, either.”
“Did you see anything good?”
“Yeah, like, you know, you saw the itinerary.”
He glanced at Billy’s face, which was a mistake, because Billy’s eyes were shut where he let his head hang by Steve’s collarbone, heavy whispers by his ear. Maybe Nancy could hear his breathing. Maybe Nancy could guess the way Billy’s shoulders looked as they rose and fell under the yellow hotel lights, the gold under Billy’s skin when he dug his fingers into someone else’s flesh.
“That’s not the same,” Nancy said. “Jonathan told me you guys went to the fort yesterday. That had to be pretty cool, right? Like, okay, colonization was not alright, like, ethically, I know. But it’s still so interesting? That it happened? Did you know Jennifer gave me shit for that last week? Like, I like history, so I must be racist.”
“I don’t--” Steve gasped, actually gasped, as nails scraped over his ribs and Billy shook above him, placing open-mouthed, ragged-breathed kisses to the shell of his ear.
“I don’t get it either!” Nancy said. “Having a healthy appreciation for our country’s narrative is good as long as you recognize that it’s problematic and are able to handle it with grace, which is what I told her, but she said she read something in a blog, which, like, sounds really legitimate, I’m sure--”
Billy cursed and went boneless on top of his body, didn’t seem to care that Steve was still trying to move below him, still get his own friction. “Thanks,” he said, standing up from Steve’s wiggling hips and slapping him on the knee.
Whining would be too bitchy, Steve didn’t whine, but he grasped for Billy’s wrist, grabbing his own cock instead when his efforts met nothing. Moving slow, he ran his tongue over his teeth, worked himself over his swim shorts while Nancy chattered, kept his bent eyebrows locked on Billy as Billy bit his lip and shook his head, put his hands on his hips.
“Shit, I have to change,” Billy said, “See you at the pool.”
“You fucker,” Steve growled. Billy laughed behind the bathroom door.
“That’s what I called her!” Nancy said. “Well, okay, I was nicer than that, but I was just so mad, you know? Like, calling my ethics into question is one thing, but backing it up with nothing at all is just offensive? Like, sorry that I care about more things than dog memes and Kesha.”
And while Steve had no fucking clue what that actually meant, fucking exhausted, unresolved, staring at the ceiling, he did manage to add, “Tik Tok, on the clock, but the party don’t stop, oh?”
“Yes, that Kesha,” Nancy sighed. “Like, honestly. You need to come home. I miss you.”
After all that? Steve didn’t really feel like swimming, and like, his trunks were mostly clean, he hadn’t jizzed his pants, but he also hadn’t jizzed his pants, which, for once, in this context, was significantly worse. Without Billy hovering over him whispering in his ear, egging him forward while Nancy rattled on about things Steve promised he cared about, he couldn’t just like, not care about Nancy’s words. He couldn’t jerk off while on the phone, not without something sick twisting in his gut, something that felt like a shadow of betrayal, like the rocks in his gut the first time Jonathan held Nancy’s hand. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t be that.
So he’d run a hand over his face and adjusted his swim trunks, hummed as she said things about her new one-sided twitter beef with Jennifer C, and wondered how easy it would be to walk back to Hawkins. They did it in the early eighteen hundreds. He still had feet that worked.
When Billy was changed he’d slipped out the door with a salute and a smirk, a little swing in his step like he showed the girls. Steve was still trying to get his breathing back together, felt achy in all ways. He’d flipped Billy off with bared teeth, hadn’t really cared that no one had seen.
Steve wanted to flip Billy off now, as he stood by the side of the pool with his towel over his shoulders and watched Billy wrap his arm around Jessica’s bare waist, the top half of her too-small bikini poking just over the water. Everything smelled a little too sharp, a little too much like chlorine and damp hair, the wet dog smell of locker rooms and melting sunscreen.
There was something in Jessica’s smile. Steve couldn’t name it, but he wanted his arms around her waist, his nose in her hair, wondered if she still used that shea butter and vanilla shampoo she’d used in the eleventh grade. Maybe she’d switched to something with more spice. Not like Old Spice, not like the hollow under Billy’s ear, more like heavy nutmeg, like what his cousin Julie used when she went on dates with boys in Chicago. Like the first burn of a cinnamon heart.
“So, like,” Jonathan said, appearing at Steve’s elbow with his Nikon outstretched. “You’re making a really stupid face in this picture. But I think the school will want it when they’re making the yearbook? Something to put under ‘most likely to have sex with a cucumber.’”
“Shut the fuck up, man.” Steve laughed, nearly shoving Jonathan into the water with his camera. “Delete it.”
“No,” Jonathan grinned and wandered to one of the patio tables by the wall where his shoes and towel were tossed over a strappy lawn chair. He tucked his camera into his camera bag. “I’m keeping this forever. It’s going in your wedding photos.”
With who, Steve’s mind supplied, but he was still tripping over the soft look on his face in the photo, his slightly bent eyebrows, his top lip sort of pinched between his teeth. In the pool, Jessica had one wet hand over Billy’s face as he spluttered and she laughed.
Jonathan always took the weirdest fucking photos. Seriously, he was a creepy fucking dude, and maybe Steve should have been a little more alarmed by that, should have found more reasons to inspect the themes of Jonathan’s favourite photos, the collection of broad shoulders and loose hairs Jonathan developed in old-school dark rooms, bits and pieces of people archived in the dark.
“Jesus, fuck, your hands are cold!” Barb said, peeling Steve’s hand off her shoulder.
“Look, I can’t be a gross, sweaty man all the time.”
“Shut up, Carol.”
Steve hit the water flat-palmed, hard enough to sting his hand and spit water into the air. He’d been in the pool five minutes. Just five. Fuck him for trying to wade over and say hi.
“Sorry about him, Barb,” Jonathan said. “We really can’t take him out of the house.”
“Yeah, buddy,” Tommy said, leaning his whole weight on Steve as he looped a sticky arm around his shoulders. Tommy, unlike Steve, really was a gross, sweaty man all the time. “You might have been a better guy when you were whipped, honest.”
Billy leaned on Steve’s other side, both hands pressing down on Steve’s shoulder. “You say that like Stevie-boy here isn’t. Better look out for your girl, Jon.”
“Christ,” Steve pushed them off, tried not to think too much about his palm splayed across Billy’s stomach, how Billy didn’t push it away. “Remind me to never open my mouth again.”
“We all know that’s impossible,” Barb said, smile wide as she crossed her arms in front of her dark blue polka dotted two-piece.
“Not you, too.”
Since when was cool to team up on Steve? Like, honestly, he didn’t need all the shit he was getting, especially not Billy’s hand sinking under the water to squeeze his fingers hard enough to bruise before splashing water in his face.
“Oh, you fucking didn’t.” Steve spat the water from his mouth. Everyone was already cackling and diving to the side, leaving Steve to wipe at his eyes and slick his hair back. Like, had no one else ever heard of common courtesy? Jesus Christ.
“Dunk him,” Tommy said, but Jonathan had his hands firmly planted on Tommy’s back, only a second away from shoving him under. What people forgot was that Jonathan Byers was strong, scrappy in a way that showed he was built for survival, not athletics.
Steve, well. Steve liked to think he had strength on his side, but time had taught him maybe his crusts-cut-off upbringing left him a little shy of a solid left hook, the right intuition to make his flailing efficient. He whirled at the cold hands on his shoulders, ready to bite, but what he said was, “C’mon, Carol, we’re doing this?”
She’d been his date to the school’s freshmen fall dance, orchestrated by the academic powers that be to make awkward fourteen-year-olds feel a little better in their skin. Steve had mostly learned that he hated slow dancing and Tommy was too much of a prick to ask his girlfriend to a school function.
With her hands on his shoulders, his at her waist, Carol grinned like she hadn’t on that night, smiled sticky-sweet, and shook her head as she led Steve in a wobbling circle. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, Steve,” she patted his cheek with one wet palm. “You chose the enemy.”
Before he could come up with something to say to that, something other than how obviously betrayed he felt—like, come on, they were still friends on Snapchat—Carol was shoving him backwards, his arms pinwheeling and hitting the water with a harsh splash as his feet tripped and he tumbled under.
A large hand grabbed him under the armpit and hauled him up, bringing him chin-to-chin with Billy’s toothy grin. His eyes shone as beads of water rolled from the corners of his eyebrows, his tongue dipping down to catch the drops under his bottom lip as he said, “Don’t worry, pretty boy, I’ll save you from those mean girls.”
“Like you didn’t just get waterboarded by Barb!” Laurie shouted, followed by the slap of water and a screech. “What the fuck, Tommy?”
“Jonathan!” Barb laughed, but it was followed by a struggle and a splash, Jonathan howling with mirth and someone, presumably Becky, absolutely cackling. Not that Steve could see any of them, with his eyes trained on Billy’s tongue, his own mouth parting in a phantom gesture.
Billy’s hand still curled around Steve’s arm, tight enough to hurt but not unyielding, as Billy’s shoulders raised. “Waterboarded, huh, handsome?” Steve asked, pushing his own dripping bangs back with one hand. He pouted, let his eyes go soft. “You need me to kiss it better?”
Watching Billy’s eyes snap, his quick snarl, broke a hysterical vein in Steve, had him beaming like an angler fish. He didn’t flinch when Billy squeezed the back of his neck and dug his fingers in, didn’t mind the tick in Billy’s jaw. If anything, that made things sweeter, made Steve lighter. He thought of Laurie’s favourite cotton candy chapstick as he placed a hand on Billy’s chest.
There was a storm brewing as teenagers splashed around them, cackling and careening, shoving each other with the same laughter in Steve’s gut, the crinkle by his eyes. “You’re fucking dead,” Billy promised. He needed some new threats, Steve thought, the old ones were getting a little one-note, a little stale.
Steve grabbed Billy’s head and shoved him under.
“Fucking suck it,” Jessica crowed as Billy’s head popped up, her arms around Steve’s neck as she clung to his back. He was going to throw her in the water, eventually, but with Billy looking like a waterlogged bear, Steve felt a little like he was wearing a trophy. Only a little. Nancy had taught him how to respect women, and apparently thinking of them as prizes was dehumanizing or something. Honestly, he’d tuned out.
He hoisted Jessica a bit higher on his hips and winked at Laurie, who rolled her eyes from the other side of Billy’s drooping bun. She was the best of his exes, honestly. Becky was great, sure but she got resentful. Boring.
Jessica crawling on his back was both old and new, but he wasn’t going to fight it, not with how it felt to watch Billy’s wet chest rise and fall with failed breathing exercises, the thick tendons of his arms popping as he clenched his fists.
“What, got dunked by another girl?” Tommy laughed, coming up to slap Billy on the shoulder.
“That’s so misogynistic,” Laurie said.
Steve grinned and dropped backwards, taking on water as he laughed under the surface. Jessica batted at his shoulders and kicked him in the back as she fought around his body, giving his head a good shoved when he tried to surface next to her. He felt lightheaded, dangerous when he emerged to see Billy and Carol sending petty bitch-splashes at Barb and Jonathan.
There was no way to know who was winning the war, but Jessica slapped his arm with a third of the force Billy was using on the waves, and fuck, did Steve like that sting.
“Wow, Barb is kicking your ass.”
Billy turned and got splashed in the face for his efforts, water spraying into his open, grimacing mouth. Spitting, loud gears grinding between his ears, he said, “Get over here.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Steve said and hopped up on the edge of the pool, his feet still dangling in the water from the knees down. He ran his hands over his dark blue shorts with pink anchors and watched the water bleed over his thighs.
“I’m going to wring your neck.”
“Is that a promise? I have to say, this is getting a little repetitive.”
“You’re a little repetitive,” Tommy called, like he was suddenly smart or something.
In a fatal error, Steve was too busy flipping Tommy off to see Billy slipping through the water, didn’t even realize something was amiss until he felt a pruney hand wrap around his foot, softened nails pressing into his skin.
“Dude—” Steve said, quickly jerking his legs out of the water and sliding back on the tile, only vaguely aware of how his shorts pulled down and let the girls sitting poolside see more than they’d paid for.
Billy toppled forward with the motion and hit his face into the side of the pool with a sharp hiss, the kind that Steve associated with knocked teeth and bruised knees. He held a sharp breath as he watched Billy with wide eyes, tongue stuck between his lower teeth.
“Billy?” Laurie called.
Whatever was happening in Steve’s throat was indescribable, the cool sting of triumph mingling with something he knew should be concern, or fear, or really anything remorseful, but maybe the feeling was pride or something akin, because when Billy lifted his head, blood dripping down his chin from his busted lip, all Steve felt were ghost memories, that flesh between his teeth. Billy’s tongue along his chin.
It was harder to slip outside this time, teachers on high alert after a gaggle of their students were kicked out of the pool for “roughhousing,” although Steve didn’t see what the big deal was. Some people couldn’t handle a little fun. No one had gotten hurt. Much.
The air in front of the hotel was cold, night chilling like the days weren’t growing warm, cold in a way that made Steve long for his winter jacket, even while wearing his thin bomber and shuffling his heels. Over the traffic of passing cars he could make out someone else’s Nikes on the asphalt, recognized Billy’s slight cough as he stepped forward and met Steve’s eyes.
“Billy,” Steve said, cigarette burning down to ash in his left hand as he leaned against the pillar, icy hair still damp and sticking to his face and neck, making his words a little slow.
In a white hoodie and gray sweatpants, Billy looked like a drowned martyr, hair dark gold where it fell from his bun and dripped around his ears, dick swinging obvious between his thighs. His fat bottom lip curled out like he was thinking, like, really trying to unravel something in the universe, work out the cosmos like he scrawled advanced equations across the board in calculus, tan hands turning chalky white, not that Steve spent a lot of time looking at Billy’s hands, or his thighs, or had given a lot of thought to the way the fabric of his pants moved until it had been under his fingers.
Billy’s brows where starting to bend, sharp tongue peeking between his teeth and nostrils flared. Steve tipped his head against the pillar enough to roll his cranium along the cement and smiled slow, aiming for sly, coy, like he used to when he cared about things. It was a little hard to understand how he once did as he took a drag of his cigarette, tucked a finger into the band of Billy’s sweatpants and pulled him close.
It was like Billy couldn’t choose between using his fists or his lips as his eyes strayed to Steve’s mouth, expression growing meaner the longer Steve just held him there, revelling in the way Billy tensed and hissed, the way he brought his broad shoulders high. If Billy couldn’t decide, Steve could make it easy. He licked Billy’s split lip but kissed him close-mouthed, grinned when Billy pushed him back by the shoulders.
“Fucking stop it,” Billy said. “Jesus fuck, do you just like, never listen to me, or is there nothing going on in there? Just like, rocks or some shit?”
“Mixed signals.” Steve tugged on his waistband.
“This isn’t shit,” Billy said. “You’re not shit.” But he let his cigarette fall as he stepped forward, stomping it out with his boot.
“I know,” Steve said. “Just fun, right? Experimenting.” He made air quotes and shook his head, wondered if people actually used those anymore or if they were something he’d picked up from a nineties movie.
From the look on Billy’s face, he thought everything about Steve was annoying as shit, and that was enough to make something pleased bubble in Steve’s chest as Billy said, “No,” like that even fucking meant anything. “Never fucking touch me out here.”
“But anywhere else is fine?”
“Get that look off your face,” Billy snarled, leaning in a little too close for someone spitting threats, someone telling Steve to back the fuck off. “You’re fucking needy for me and I respect that, alright? But I’m just messing around. Doesn’t mean a fucking thing about me. You’re convenient. This is done the second we hit Hawkins.”
“Baby,” Steve said, snapping the elastic against Billy’s hip. “You say that like I’d even want you.”
“Of course you do.”
“Is that what you tell everyone?” Steve asked, bringing the cigarette to his lips, aware of how close that brought his fingers to Billy’s cheek. “You just keep panting against their neck until they agree to fuck you?”
Billy pressed a hard finger into the middle of Steve’s chest but didn’t back down, didn’t step away. He leaned in by Steve’s ear, ignored how easy it would be for Steve to press that cigarette into his neck and said, “Is it working?”
“Billy,” Steve practically purred, tilting so his lips brushed Billy’s cheek. “Honestly, like, if you don’t want people to know how much you want to get in my pants, you should really like, think about how close you are to sucking my dick right now, because like, six cars have passed us and oh my god are you being gay.”
Later that night, after Billy had jerked back and stormed upstairs, had kicked Steve when he’d followed him into bed like he thought the gesture even hurt, Steve curled up with one hand on Billy’s bare abdomen, and Billy? He didn’t fucking move away.
This took super long, oh my god, grad school is just kicking my ass.
Thank you all for reading and leaving me such nice feedback, like, it soothes my soul, I love to hear what you have to say.
Huge thanks to uncarringerinn and demogrove for being my rocks and wading through this with me.
And a big thanks to you guys too, again.
Come find me on tumblr @eternalgoldfish and we can hang.
So like, Steve thought, overall, that he had a pretty decent appreciation for the arts. He couldn’t draw for shit but he’d spent most of his freshmen art class nodding along to Mrs. Pickling explain colour composition and he had a loose idea of how shading worked. He knew that sculpting was fucking hard and that oil paints tasted like shit from the time Tommy dared him to stick his paintbrush in his mouth. Steve had thrown up, but he’d gotten twenty dollars out of that deal, so it still seemed like a fair trade.
Nancy had convinced him to take art history with her last semester, which had been as dry and horrible as it sounded. It was a grade eleven elective, it didn’t even count towards his required credits, but she’d been so excited to have him in one of her classes that he didn’t even think about saying no when she asked. She’d been so bright eyed, so pleased.
Even knowing about paintings, though, and respecting where they came from, who made them, how hard they worked and how chemical compounds had stung their noses, Steve couldn’t locate a single bone in his body that was excited to be wandering around the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Steve crossed his arms and leaned against a wall, watching as the other students meandered up and down the corridor. The wood panelling lining the lower half of the cream-coloured walls was worn with what seemed like a hundred years of history. He wondered if it was the original design. Probably not. Crap never lasted that long.
“Don’t touch that,” Becky said.
“What?” Steve asked.
“That,” she said, pointing at the painting just left of his arm. “That’s a Henri Matisse. That’s expensive.”
“I’m not touching it.” He waved between himself and the frame a good half-foot apart. “How could I even be touching it.”
“Steve.” She put her hands on her hips. “You’re going to get kicked out, like, seriously, and then you’ll be banned from the museum and we’ll all have to leave because we couldn’t just leave you alone outside in the rain, like, that would be unethical or something. Could you just listen to me for once in your life? Fuck.”
He rolled his eyes and pushed away from the wall with his foot, just to spite her that extra bit. Christ, there were reasons they couldn’t be friends after they broke up, and reason one was that she was a huge bitch, like, why would anyone put up with that? She gave him a tight smile and said, “Thank you,” before turning away, which he guessed was supposed to be some kind of praise, but it mostly made him want to plant a hand in the middle of the canvass and fucking see what the museum staff would even do.
Jonathan crouched on the floor by some painting and aimed his camera up towards the light, tongue pressing against his teeth as he tried to find the right angle for whatever. He didn’t have Instagram and it was a goddamn shame, because Steve was sure it would be fucking weird.
“Are you sending some of those to Nancy?” Steve asked, pulling his phone out of his pocket.
“Probably, when we get back to the hotel.”
Steve nodded and leaned back on his heels as he opened Snapchat. “It’s so weird seeing all this without her.”
“I know.” Jonathan squinted and took another picture. “She’d be talking our ears off.” He cleared his throat, voice a little higher as he said, “Did you know this is by Henri Matisse? This museum has the largest collection of his paintings like, anywhere. Did you even read the brochure?”
“Shit, this one is too?” Steve said. “Becky was all up in my face for like, disrespecting them, or whatever.”
“I thought she was all, art is boring, this trip is boring, everything is boring?”
“Yeah, apparently that doesn’t apply when she’s surrounded by cute art curators with dreamy haircuts.”
Jonathan glanced over at their tour guide and clucked his tongue. “He does have a dreamy hair cut.”
“Shut up and take your photos.”
As Jonathan took a knee again, Steve took a step back and raised his phone, sure to catch the top of Jonathan’s out-dated haircut as well as the painting. What a dweeb, he sent to Nancy.
Her response was almost immediate. The cafeteria behind her was packed and there was a hand waving behind her head, although he couldn’t imagine who she was sitting with. In the picture her eyebrows pinched to match her pouty lips. Be nice. He’s my dweeb.
Then she sent another one, and another one, both with raised eyebrows and a soft bunny filter, making her eyes wider and her disapproval more pronounced. Barb said you made out with Billy in a closet? The next, Please tell me you didn’t make out with Billy in a closet. And then one more, with her travel mug of Tetley green tea pressed to her lips. Barb said she wasn’t sure.
While her thinly veiled code for spill the tea was not appreciated, Steve sent her a Snap back of a painting of goldfish in a jar. He didn’t trust his face, not his deceitful cheeks. She’d clock his casually pursed lips for what they really were in a flash. He wrote, you can’t tell a soul.
Oh my god, you did? She sent a picture of her open Fruit Roll-Ups and then her horrified face. Why? Then another, Steve Harrington, explain.
It was just for a game, he typed, camera poised on the floor.
A game everyone knows about, her knowing eyebrows, it’s tea time, bitch.
You’re not allowed on YouTube anymore.
Steve sighed at the teabags sitting on her cafeteria tray and snapped a quick picture of Billy talking to Jessica, Billy’s tongue running over his lips and eyes bright. It’s nothing.
Without warning, Jonathan punched Steve’s arm, making him jump and swear. “What was that for?”
“I don’t know, actually,” Jonathan shrugged, phone in one hand and camera dangling around his neck. “Nancy told me to.”
“Tell Nancy to fuck off.”
“That would be kind of mean.”
“Fuck off, you just punched me.”
Steve rolled his eyes and walked down the hall to the next painting. He wasn’t actually sure what it was supposed to be, but Nancy would. She’d researched all of this shit before they left for the trip. Knowing how excited she had been made him ache a little. We’ve made out a few times. But you really can’t tell anyone.
Steve snuck another picture of Billy, this one with Billy’s eyes locked on a painting of a woman. He almost looked mature. Almost. He says he’s not gay? And like, I’m not the fucker to out someone.
He thinks he’s not gay but he’s made out with you?
Oh, no, he’s gay as fuck. Steve took a picture of Billy’s hands.
Nancy sent a picture of her chin resting on her hand, clearly concerned. Steve, he’s such an asshole. He literally almost killed you.
Steve took a picture of him biting his lip. Deleted it. Took a picture of Billy’s back. He’s so hot tho.
Oh my god, you have a crush.
Steve scrunched his nose and took a picture. I do not. God, he’s a douchebag.
Nancy replied by pointing her finger at the camera, bunny filter on again, and Jesus, she needed to start having some consistency in her snaps, like, what did that filter even mean? She wrote, you’ve dated 0 guys but this fuckboy is worthy of your time?
I haven’t dated 0.
I’ve dated 2, briefly. I can have secrets!
Nancy took a picture with her face on the table. You’re a slut.
Steve took a picture of Jonathan. Rude.
Don’t dish what you can’t take, Nancy sent, one picture of her tray followed by another of the cafeteria ceiling. But seriously, you know he’s bad news.
I can handle some confused twink.
Babe, Nancy smiled softly, head propped on her arm. You ARE the confused twink.
Jonathan walked over and punched Steve in the arm.
“Oh my god, you two are the worst,” Steve groaned, harshly shoving Jonathan’s shoulder as Jonathan pretended to whine.
“Oh, we’re just horrible,” Jonathan said, hand over heart. “Picking on poor Stevie. How dare.”
Steve rolled his eyes and shoved his phone in his pocket. “Shut the fuck up. Just go take pictures of marble tits or whatever.”
“Did someone say tits?” Tommy asked, slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulders. He was heavier than Steve remembered, more muscle after spending time with Billy in the gym. It wasn’t that Steve and Tommy hadn’t worked out before, but something about Billy’s insane schedule kept people running at his pace, and Tommy so wanted to suck Billy’s dick, Jesus fuck.
Steve shoved him and tried not to think about how he should probably be hitting the gym more, about how he felt like he was already letting himself go like some depressed beer-bellied fifty-something, especially when he thought about the curve of Billy’s Adonis belt under his palms. He said, “Yeah, buddy, some of those armless ladies over there are going all free the nipple, try to keep it in your pants.”
Behind Tommy, with the patience of only those only in love with long-suffered idiots, Carol rolled her eyes and caught Tommy by the shoulder as he stumbled away from Steve. “Literally can’t take you anywhere,” She said.
“Did I hear nipples?” Billy asked, tongue swiping over his chin as he met Steve’s eyes.
“You’re all fucking disgusting,” Carol groaned.
“Not our fault modern girls are so saucy,” Billy said as his grin curled up, tongue running the inside of his lip while his eyes stayed pinned on Steve, and well, Steve had never been one to turn down a contest, had never been the first to back away from a fight even when he was certain to lose. He wasn’t good at picking his battles, wasn’t good at backing down when Nancy thought it was a good idea. He consumed Billy’s gaze with his own.
Slipping his hands into his jean pockets and shrugging his shoulders, Steve said, “What a time to be alive.”
The words seemed to spark something in Billy’s mouth, his jaw suddenly working as he stared Steve down. Heat pooled at the back of Steve’s neck. Honestly, Steve wasn’t sure what he was saying, but the look in Billy’s eyes told him he understood, and really, that made it worse, reminded Steve of Nancy’s cartoon bunny ears and wide eyelashes. Steve fought to keep his heavy lungs from pushing out his throat.
“Yo,” Tommy called from the other side of the room, breaking Billy’s gaze. “Harrington, check it. This one’s got some dick for you.” He stuck his tongue into his cheek and bobbed his head.
“Hart!” Ms. Petunia snapped and Carol covered her face with her hands.
“Don’t hit on me,” Steve called. “You’re not really my type.”
“Harrington.” Petunia crossed her arms, not that Steve was looking, too busy laughing and running his tongue over his gums. It was that or acknowledge the quick glance Billy gave him, the way his stomach dropped when he winked and Billy stomped off.
That thing about hating to see them leave but loving watching them go? That was some of the dumbest bullshit Steve had ever heard in his life, but he felt a little validated as he watched how Billy’s jeans cupped his ass and thighs, for once letting himself consider all the hard work Billy put in at the gym. It was Billy’s tongue in his mouth that made him curious, or so he told himself as he walked over to where Jonathan was peering up at a statue.
“Shit,” Steve said. “That is a good dick.”
Steve shuffled along with the rest of the group as they were lead in and out of too-bright rooms, faintly aware of his shoulders and arms bumping other students as they badly navigated their path and each other’s bodies. It was too cold in the museum in a way that suggested they had turned their heating off prematurely and Steve wished he hadn’t left his jacket at the coat check. It may have been too warm, but his goosebumps had goosebumps and he was starting to wonder if maybe that was some kind of incentive for the kids to move faster, if it was planned to keep them from lingering and rubbing their grubby hands all over twentieth century post-modernism.
The tour guide was living. How did Baltimore find so many people that actually cared about things? Fuck, they all made Steve tired. He was on the verge of tears when they passed a bathroom, the first sign of promise and escape in what felt like years, maybe decades.
The bathroom was a golden opportunity to breathe and make a new plan. He needed a smoke but that was probably out of the question. They were already going to think it was weird enough that he’d disappeared without doing something that wasn’t allowed. They couldn’t get angry at him for using the bathroom, like, nature called or something.
He pushed the heavy door open and went to a urinal, grimacing at the mirror in front of him once he had his pants open. He hated shit like that. Who wanted to check the spinach between their teeth while they pissed? Who wanted to accidentally catch the eye of the man next to them?
The door to the bathroom banged open again, followed by a fly being unzipped one urinal over. For a split second Steve looked up, just fast enough to catch loose blonde curls and a glinting nose ring before he shot his eyes back down.
“So like, what the fuck was that?” Billy asked.
His tone took Steve a little off guard. He sounded almost angry, almost mean, in a way that was in no means warranted, like, “What, I can’t piss now?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I actually really don’t,” Steve said, shaking off. He looked up too soon, mouth open and dick still in hand as he met Billy’s eyes in the mirror. Billy’s mouth was curled into an expression Steve couldn’t explain, one that made him acutely aware of his pants open and made heat rise to his cheeks.
Billy looked away quickly, smiling tight and bitter. He shuffled, zipped up his pants and said, “That gay shit. We talked about that.”
“Jesus,” Steve said, quickly doing up his own pants, even more embarrassed for how long he’d stood there staring at the ceiling while Billy spoke, dick in his hand like he’d forgotten what to do with his skin.
“We made a deal.”
“Billy,” Steve said, turning on the sink to wash his hands, pretending the cool water on his cold skin would somehow help his burning neck. “If you don’t want me to hit on you then don’t fucking flirt with me. Seriously.”
“What?” Billy snarled.
“You heard me. You can’t even keep it in your pants in front of the class, like, who are you even fooling? You tell me not to tell anyone like you’ve got this big thing and then you do that. Like, sweetheart,” Steve practically moaned, reaching for the paper towel, “Just hold my hand, don’t be shy.”
Maybe it was Billy’s eyes in the mirror making him defensive, but he wanted to push, and god, did he succeed, Billy’s hands on him in a second, roughly pulling him back into one of the stalls and pressing him into the subway tiles. “Steve,” Billy said.
“Billy.” Steve tipped his face into Billy’s neck, trying not to lean too much into his warmth, the smolder of his skin. “You wanted to do this.”
“I didn’t fucking—”
Steve kissed him firmly, a little clumsy with nervous laughter stuck somewhere in his throat. He balled his fists in Billy’s shirt sleeves and kissed him again, kissed him until Billy leaned his weight against Steve and kissed him back, hands on Steve’s elbows, tongue gentle as it pried Steve’s lips apart.
Heady and coaxing, Steve tugged Billy closer by the neck, invited him in, spread his stance to slip one of Billy’s thighs between his legs. The kiss was strikingly, alarmingly soft. Alien, uncanny.
“What was that?” Steve murmured against his cheek, “Didn’t fucking what?”
“Don’t mess with me.”
This time, Steve did laugh, head tipped back and neck open as he looked at the black ceiling tiles. The whole place was meant to be artistic, but Steve just found the dim lighting harsh on his squinting eyes. He tucked his chin into Billy’s neck and listened to the bathroom door open and shut, tried to see who it was at the urinal.
Billy stood stock-still, hands having moved to Steve’s waist, breaths quiet and slow. Steve caught a glance of brown hair and a stupid fucking Thrasher t-shirt and of course it was fucking Tommy, Billy’s best friend, biggest mouth in school. Steve pressed his lips into Billy’s neck and kissed once, silent, eyes tracking Tommy as he shuffled around and Billy reflexively dug his fingers in to Steve’s ribs hard enough to bruise.
“Where the fuck did they go?” Tommy muttered, letting the bathroom door swing shut without washing his hands, which gross, but Billy also hadn’t washed his hands yet and had one reaching under Steve’s shirt to palm his abdomen with his germy fingers, and Steve was letting him, so maybe Steve needed to rethink some of his priorities in life.
Billy pushed Steve back into the wall and said, “Don’t do that. Get off me.” Like he wasn’t the one holding Steve there, pinning Steve with his warm hands and thighs, heating Steve’s chill as he sweat.
“Sure, I’ll just teleport out of here,” Steve said. “God, what is this, some kind of complex?” It was just Steve’s luck that the one homophobic homo in school had the be the one with a massive hard-on for him. Like, Christ was Billy hot and cold, but mostly hot as he bit Steve’s jaw and licked the spot, kissed him quick before shoving him and stepping back.
“Fuck you,” Billy said.
Which, well. Steve was starting to wonder if he even had time for that. He shouldered Billy as he stepped around him and said, “Get in fucking line.”
Not that there really was a line, given how tired Steve was, how he’d dated most of the worthwhile girls in school already because Hawkins was small as fuck. Billy really was working through Steve’s leftovers, which, according to Nancy, was a shitty thing to call women, but like, what else was he supposed to call them? Nancy had a lot of rules about how feminism worked, and like, Steve was a feminist, he believed in equal rights and all that, but rules were hard. He opened doors for women on dates and brought them candy when they were sick, wasn’t that like, good?
As he followed their tour guide again, hands in his pant pockets, he needed a cigarette more than ever, could practically feel the phantom smoke in his lungs as he rolled the loose cigarette in his pocket between his thumb and forefinger, but like, gently so he didn’t hurt it. Billy had riled him up until his shoulders reached his ears and he didn’t fucking need that, not when Nancy was usually right about things, not when he’d texted her a picture of his reflection in some antique mirror and she’d sent a picture of her flannel with the caption #twinsies.
He wanted her around. Fuck, he could be a dickhead.
Jonathan had his camera down for the moment, instead squinting at every painting they passed like maybe he cared, and Steve wanted to, he really like, had a desire to learn some things on this trip. What was the point in coming if he didn’t learn something, other than how much he wanted to be naked and squirming under Billy Hargrove? Was getting out of his classes for a week really worth that?
Steve chewed on his fingernail and rolled his shoulders. The dick probably wouldn’t even be good, not that Steve had a lot of experience there. He just had a feeling. If Billy would ever even take off his pants because that was too gay, like kissing Steve wasn’t like, the gayest thing, like sleeping with his face in Steve’s neck wasn’t this thing they weren’t talking about, that Billy hadn’t been up before anyone else so they wouldn’t see, even though Steve remembered.
Fucking Nancy. What the fuck did she know, anyway?
It had been what, three days? It was nothing.
Billy had fallen to the back of the pack, one arm around Jessica as he whispered things in her ear while pointing at old paintings depicting war and love, victory and destruction, the sort of primal scream Steve felt when he’d won a basketball game, when he caught Billy’s eyes across the court swimming with glory, the air in the court soupy with belonging as Steve slapped his teammates on the back and told them to drink some fucking Gatorade.
Jessica grinned and laughed before kissing Billy’s cheek and like, Steve wish he’d brought his flask, was wondering if it really would be so bad if he went for that cigarette when Jessica caught his eye and waved. With a tight smile he waved back. Jessica said something to Billy, poked his chest, pointed at Steve, but when Billy turned his head he wasn’t looking at Steve, he was looking at a painting of the Patapsco river.
After a late lunch they were let loose in the city with strict instructions to be at the Cracker Barrel on Nursery by six, which promised Steve enough time to get sunburnt as the afternoon heated the streets and Steve made his feet sore walking the concrete. Carol had a map of all the monuments and shops she thought were worthwhile, including some vegan bakery she thought would be adorable and some trinket shop that promised t-shirts, and magnets, which like, woah, motherlode, and while Steve had zero interest following around with Tommy and Billy after literally everything from the last few days, Carol had pouted and said Barb was coming, and Steve wasn’t a monster. He couldn’t leave Barb with them.
It turned out that Barb wasn’t coming with them, had no clue what Carol was talking about, but by that point Steve had already promised and there was no going back on a promise with Carol, she’d whine about it for all eternity and then Steve would be that bad guy for shutting her down.
It was almost like she wanted to be friends again? It was hard to tell. Carol was always a tough woman to read. She looped one arm through his as they walked through the busy streets, a little too wide as a collective. “So,” she said, “What’ve you been up to?”
Steve blinked, because what? But he couldn’t just stand there and say that with his mouth open, so he ran his free hand through his hair, ignored how chapped his hands still were from last week’s cold spell and said, “Not much, I guess? The usual? Just like, homework, parties. Sports.”
“Oh yes, sports,” Carol rolled her eyes. “I know you don’t do homework, like, ever.”
“Hey, I do,” Steve frowned. “I do a lot of homework. Like, all the time.”
“You never did before.”
“Okay, but like, I kind of have to now?” He said. He licked his lips and wished his flannel wasn’t tied around his waist so he could stick his hand in his jeans pocket. “It’s like, all Nancy does because she actually cares about shit.”
Jonathan was ahead of them, taking pictures of pigeons or some shit, and Steve felt a little bad about talking about Nancy like she was annoying when she wasn’t, but something about Carol always made Steve’s tongue a little loose. Carol planted her hand on her hip and rolled her eyes again. “The secret was refusing to do anything else with you? Christ, if I’d known that I’d have started in the fifth grade.”
“I didn’t know you cared about it?”
Carol huffed for what felt like the hundred thousandth time in a millisecond and lightly shoved Steve, nearly causing him to step on some chick’s admittedly feisty chihuahua. “Of course I cared, dipshit. I nagged you, like, all the time.”
“I don’t remember this.”
“Okay, so like, a lot of the time we were wine-drunk and just entertaining the idea of our textbooks, but I tried.”
And the thing was, Carol had always actually been studious and maybe he was an asshole. Maybe his crush on her for like a decade had never been as serious as he thought.
Up ahead, Billy’s earing glinted in the sunlight, dancing bright like the blue in his eyes when he scoffed at something Jessica said, because of course she came with them, she was Billy’s candy of the week, something sweet and watermelon, glossy and full of jingling laughter. Maybe Billy kissed her sometimes, when Steve wasn’t looking. Maybe he’d promised to take her to prom.
This time when Carol elbowed him her touch was light, her cupid’s bow a little pinched. “I know I’ve been kind of a bad friend,” she said. “But can we like, talk? Because you keep getting this look, babe, and I know it’s probably not my place, but like. Are you okay?”
Steve’s shoulders hunched without meaning to, which he was sure she could feel between their elbows. “You’re right, it’s not your place.”
“Steve.” She said, slowly, head tilted, and his chest grew tight. She could be a bitch, but never to him.
“I just have some shit going on,” he said. “Like, it’s dumb.”
Carol looked between him and Billy like she could read his line of sight, like women were actually psychic, which Steve was wondering if they might actually be between Nancy and Carol, the way Barb had smiled slow when she pat his knee, like she knew something he did. Carol pursed her lips and said, “Do you still like Jessica?”
She didn’t say it loud on purpose, but her voice must have carried, because Billy suddenly looked over his shoulder and met his eyes for only a second, just long enough to read something mean in them before he snapped his head back around.
Steve’s breath caught. With grit teeth, he said, “Not really? I’m just like, tired. You know what sleeping next to Tommy and Billy is like.”
“Oh my god,” Carol groaned. “Do they ever fucking snore.”
Steve shoved his sunglasses into his hair as they stepped into the cramped giftshop, t-shirt racks and spinning shot-glass displays looming like dipping trees on a forest path. It was sticky-hot inside, even with three office fans rattling in different corners. It was hard to believe that enough people visited Baltimore to warrant racks of ‘I heart Baltimore’ shirts and tacky rubber magnets, but Steve found himself checking price tags on thick white hoodies anyway, wondering if his mom would judge him for his tastes.
Not that she’d see the sweater much. He could probably buy a magnet and slap it on the fridge and no one would ever comment, not until they bought a new fridge and his mother took everything down, inspecting each dusty childhood picture and clipped coupon with a frown, unsure of when their family had collected such things.
Steve took his hoodie to the checkout and leaned against the counter as the shop owner chatted with Carol on the other side of the store, too pre-occupied by flirting with an underaged girl to turn profits. Not that Carol would ever spill her age. She knew she could get discounts. She would probably make a good lawyer some day.
“Ready?” she asked, coming up behind Steve with gift-laden arms.
“When you are.” He shrugged.
“I’m going to fucking eat my own arm,” Tommy whined, leaning on Carol like he didn’t have sixty pounds on her, like he thought his life fucking depended on it.
“Oh, baby,” she said, lips pursed, “We can literally see the restaurant, calm the fuck down.”
Steve had to agree, though. It seems like a decade since they’d eaten lunch, and the heat and the sun had made him sleepy and weak. Jonathan’s stomach kept rumbling like it maybe was eating itself, and Billy had gotten increasingly more irritable every time Jessica slapped his hand off her, put off by something he’d said right around the time they’d passed a statue of some dude on a horse. Steve didn’t even fucking know.
A gaggle of students stood outside the building, loitering between shrubs and benches and clogging access to the front door. As Steve walked up, Ms. Petunia was saying, “Okay, everyone, our tables are ready.” And like, thank fuck, honestly.
Steve was one of the last to push his way inside, Carol and Jessica up ahead as Jonathan fumbled with his camera. Tommy had slipped inside and hung a right to the bathroom, which left Billy at Steve’s back, standing a little close as they escaped the sun.
Startled by a hand in his back pocket, Steve whipped around to look at Billy, but Billy was looking ahead, already taking his hand out as he shouldered around Steve to catch up with Carol. Something hard poked into Steve’s ass.
Like Tommy, Steve hung a right, quickly hid in one of the stalls lining the back wall of the bathroom. He didn’t know what he was expecting to find in his pocket, exactly, but a ceramic magnet of Fort McHenry definitely wasn’t it.
Part way through dinner, Billy got up from the table and slipped out the side door, half-abandoned french-fries slathered with ketchup getting mushy on his plate. After about two minutes, sure that even Jonathan was distracted by Tommy and Carol screaming at each other about who even fucking knew what, Steve grabbed a fry off Billy’s plate and stuffed it in his mouth as he made his way out of that same side door.
Out in the parking lot night had set in and rain had fallen, leaving the concrete damp and fresh. Steve spun around, not even sure why he was bothering. The night was too cold for his flannel, but he’d left his jacket at the hotel when they’d stopped in earlier, so he shoved his hands in his pockets and walked around the shrubs edging the building until he spotted smoke rising from an alcove tucked into the back, by what he could only assume was a kitchen door by the clattering he heard as he approached.
“So,” he said, leaning on the wall next to Billy. “Fort McHenry?”
“No,” Steve said, pulling out a cigarette of his own. He put out a hand, and after a second, Billy handed him his lighter. “You got anything to say about it?”
“Did I say anything about it when I gave it to you?” Billy asked. “It’s nothing. Just shut up about it.”
Steve didn’t want to believe it was nothing, found it really fucking hard to believe it was nothing, but took a slow drag of his cigarette anyway, wondered if it would start raining again, if the downpour would drown them out. He squinted towards a yellowing lamp post in the middle of the lot and said, “This is really fucked up.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Billy said. “Didn’t ask you to follow me. Go back inside.”
“And waste this?” Steve knocked the ash off his cigarette. “It’s like we’ve got a ritual now, smoke, pretend we hate each other.”
“We do hate each other.”
Steve scrunched his nose, pitched his voice as he said, “Really?”
Billy closed his eyes, as if for patience, and said, “Harrington, go the fuck inside, I don’t need your shit.”
Everything was too cold again, like the museum air, like the top of the tour bus the other morning with Steve’s forehead pressed into the metal guardrail, like the water dripping on his ankle as he slept in the bathtub. Suddenly, Steve wanted to bite, heart tight and teeth aching.
“Two days,” Steve said, “In two days we’re on that bus.”
“Wow.” Billy rubbed one hand on his jeans. “You learning to count or something? Fucking finally.”
“Yeah, I’m getting good at it.” Steve turned and leaned the side of his head against the wall, took in Billy’s earring dancing as he moved his head, the way his cheeks hollowed as he took another drag. Billy wasn’t wearing a jacket, just his stupidly tight t-shirt, and Steve could see every rise and fall in his chest, every stray hair he’d missed when he was shaving.
“It’s a cute gift,” Steve said. Billy turned his head and gave him a hard look, lips pressed together. Before he could speak, Steve went on, leaning in closer, letting his voice dip low and smooth. “I got you something too, you know. Something to remember me by.”
Billy rubbed his nose, something cruel in his eyes. “Two days and I’m not even going to remember your name, dipshit. Remember? You’re just fun.”
“But Billy,” Steve said, stepping forward just a bit. “You gave me something. It’s only fair. Besides I didn’t spend any money.” He grabbed Billy’s wrist and tugged him close to kiss his cheek, breathed hot in his ear as Billy jerked back and Steve jabbed the end of his cigarette between Billy’s thumb and forefinger.
“Jesus fuck!” Billy hit Steve in the face, making him stagger. Steve hardly felt a thing beyond the coil in his gut and the laugh in his throat.
“Something to remember me by.” Steve’s lips pulled tight over his teeth as he rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth. He shout have expected Billy moving forward, really, should have known better like he should have known a lot of things better, but he wasn’t thinking until Billy had his wrist in his hand and his own cigarette pressed to the tender skin beside his thumb.
Maybe Steve deserved it. He still punched Billy in the shoulder and slapped Billy’s hands, their cigarettes falling as Steve’s breath caught in his throat. Billy kissed him like air was short, their shoulders pressed into the wet, dirty bricks as the sky began to drizzle.
When Billy dropped to sit against the wall, Steve didn’t follow. He cradled his burnt hand, kicked Billy lightly in the leg, and went back inside.
By the time Billy came in, he was wet, cold, and had no more fries.
I complained that the last chapter took me a long time, but oh my god, grad school is draining?
I hope this was worth the wait, haha.
As always, I love to hear what you guys have to say, and to scream with you? Screaming is fun.
Tons of thanks and love to uncaringerinn who makes this what this is, and huge thanks to you guys for reading and sticking by.
If we haven't spoken, feel free to hit me up on tumblr @eternalgoldfish? I love friends.
One more chapter to go, hopefully within the next month!
The room felt sticky-sweet with Jonathan in the lobby talking to Nancy on the phone and Tommy off with Carol doing who knew what. Maybe they were in Carol’s room, kissing slow like Billy placed kisses on Steve’s neck, not grumbling about Steve’s hands in his hair as Steve tilted his head back against his pillow and sighed in the slivers of gray morning light that peeked through the hotel curtains. They were alone for the moment, their scheduled trip to the Maryland Zoo postponed until the rain cleared, breakfast over by eight thirty, leaving them to wander the hotel and sink back into their sheets, grow restless within minutes.
Steve tugged lightly on Billy’s hair and rest the other hand on Billy’s shoulder, pressing his nails into Billy’s soft t-shirt as Billy bit for every other kiss he placed, like he was trying to remind Steve of whose neck was bared, who would be weak. Steve had never been the sort to let that slide, but with Billy resting over top of him, Steve’s thighs squeezing Billy’s hips, Steve was willing to cave and let the moment stand, was willing to let Billy believe he would play possum, if only for one thunderstorm in a distant city.
“You’re so lucky,” Steve said, breath hitching. “I should punch you.”
He’d thought about it, when Billy had followed him into the room like he hadn’t been an ass the night before, like he hadn’t banged Steve’s shoulder into the brick wall so hard it bruised, then kissed him sound. Like Steve hadn’t wanted to see Billy bleed.
Billy grunted and kissed his shirt collar before nipping his bottom lip, pulling on it until it slipped from his teeth. “Yeah, whatever, sorry,” Billy said.
Whatever. Steve pulled Billy back to his lips by the neck and licked the roof of his mouth, wrapped a leg around Billy’s waist to bring his hips down. Would Jonathan finish with Nancy and come back soon? Would Tommy walk through that door? Steve felt electric, chest thumping from unknown deadlines.
If Billy was too proud to show his belly, then Steve would press their bodies until they were even, gasp into his mouth and turn their bodies sideways until Billy’s head rest on the same pillow, kisses made clumsier by the angle but no less heated as he slipped a hand under Billy’s shirt, under the back of his waistband.
Billy grabbed Steve’s wrists and dug his fingers in, pinned Steve’s hand to the bed.
“Billy,” Steve breathed, eyebrows creasing and lips half-open, eyes shut as he pressed their foreheads together. The pressure was not tender, Steve did not feel kind.
Billy pressed their lips together and propped himself up, one leg between Steve’s as he loomed over him, Billy’s hair loose and messy as it tickled Steve’s cheeks.
“You owe me,” Steve reminded.
“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Billy said, all sharp teeth, but he rolled his hips slowly and captured Steve’s gasp with his own moan, licked Steve’s lips as he worked his thigh against Steve’s clothed cock. It wasn’t nearly enough, could hardly ever be enough, but Steve bucked against him anyway, moved into the feeling as Billy worked them slowly, peeling sharp breaths from Steve that felt like fresh memories, phantom dreams.
“You’re the worst,” Steve said, heatless but hot, mouthing Billy’s cheek, “Fucking impossible.” There was no reply but panting, no sounds but soft grunts until Steve’s breath stuttered with orgasm, boxers sticky and too-warm with Billy moaning against him, gorgeous and foolish, making Steve feel bare.
Billy was worth nothing. Billy was merely a split forehead and a tacky fridge magnet, one cigarette burn, or a freckle.
As they boarded the bus to Hawkins the next evening, already too tired from a long day of wandering the city, Steve just wanted to sleep the next ten hours. Maybe if he greeted Hawkins in the morning he’d feel a little less stiff about what he was leaving behind. Carol kept meeting his eyes in the line to get on the bus like she knew something, and while he doubted it, he still couldn’t shake whatever twisted thing he was feeling.
Honestly, he kind of wanted to lie under the bus and see if it would leave without him, running him over in the process, but that was a little morbid even by his standards, and he’d put up with way too much shit over the last few days to off himself when the end was already so near. Or so he thought, until Tommy cornered Carol into a seat in the back of the bus and Jonathan slid in next to Barb. The last person he thought would follow him in to the row across from Tommy and Carol was Billy, but there he was, stretching out in the aisle seat with earbuds in and his thumb scrolling Instagram.
Steve pressed his forehead against the cold glass and ignored Billy’s sneaker bumping into his leg as Billy crossed one ankle over his knee, stance spread as wide as it would allow while he slouched low in his chair.
That morning, Steve had woken to Billy’s lips pressed to his temple, chapped and warm as he murmured something about home and loss, something about Steve that Steve couldn’t comprehend in the early hours, too foggy and bogged down by wishful thinking. Steve had said something stupid like, baby, I’m here, or, I already miss you, and nothing after that had mattered. Tommy had rolled over in the other bed and Billy had pushed Steve away.
The next time Steve had woken, Billy was in the shower, and Steve was alone.
Billy decided to take off his shoes, because he was a disgusting animal. Even with his eyes closed, Steve could tell when the shoes slipped off, partially from the faint smell, which, gross, and partially from the way Billy pressed his foot against the side of Steve’s thigh and rolled his toes, pushing them hard enough for some of them to crack.
“You’re disgusting,” Steve muttered, forehead still pressed to the glass, cheek partially cushioned by his arm as he slumped in his seat.
When Billy didn’t reply, Steve dropped a hand to Billy’s foot and squeezed. He should have known better, but he didn’t, the press of Billy’s body touching his too grounding as he ran a thumb over Billy’s shin, just under his jeans. Something writhed in his chest, molten and unyielding, and he found himself pressing his nail into the skin enough to bite, but not enough to pull away.
Breath had coated the glass in front of Steve’s mouth, and when he opened his eyes the highway was blurred and ghostly as it slipped past. Billy didn’t move his foot. He took the sting, wiggled his toes against Steve’s wrist, and kept his eyes on his phone like everything was nothing, because it was.
Three hours in they hit a truck stop along the highway and everyone piled out, Billy’s foot falling from Steve’s grasp the second the wheels stopped turning, even though they were the last ones out. The stop was nothing more than a few small buildings, a gas station, a convenience store, a dinner, and a motel with exterior stair cases, busted railings on the second floor, and a sign that promised vacancies like anyone would ever want to stay.
It was dark outside the glowing lights of diner, the kind of dark that only forests had, and Steve scuffed his sneakers in the dirt as he walked, wishing he hadn’t left his sweater on the seat of the bus. They had twenty minutes and he wanted a piss, a bottle of water, and maybe a bag of chips to keep him awake for a little while, long enough to keep him from doing something else stupid with Billy sitting so close for so long.
Part of him hoped Carol or Barb would want to change seats. Hell, part of him hoped he could snag the seat next to Carol just to get away from everyone with teeth. She was still mean, but not to him, and he kind of missed resting his head on her shoulder on nights they were feeling starry and alone.
Carol stood at the checkout counter with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of water, nails clacking on the surface and the cashier rung her through. Steve leaned over her shoulder and said low, “You have to switch seats with me.”
She jumped and swung around, hit him on the arm with an open palm as she said, “Christ, don’t do that.”
“I didn’t do anything,” he claimed, holding up his chips and water as if they were evidence.
She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest, the Skittles bag crinkling as it scrunched in the crook of her arm. “I’m not trading with you. I’ve hardly seen Tommy all trip with the way you guys were being all buddy-buddy.”
“Hey, I hung out with you too.”
“Yeah, but not as much as you did with him. I thought you were getting on better with Billy? Tommy said you were snuggling up together,” she said, the end of her sentence slipping into her impression of Tommy when she thought he was being shit, which was a lot more often than she would ever admit, for how long they’d been devoted to each other, but Steve supposed that might be part of long term love, not that he had ever really known.
His relationship with Nancy was almost a year, but he’d seen how that had gone stale, how it had been all wrong. His neck heated as he laughed, wondered if Tommy had really seen, if he’d share it around like the backstabbing snitch he could be. “I wasn’t sleeping on the fucking floor,” he said, with no heat. “You’ve met him. No way his grubby hands were touching me.”
Carol clucked her tongue. “I’m not trading with you,” she said. “You’re big boys, you can handle sitting together for a few hours.”
Steve wasn’t sure that was true, but turned to walk out of the shop anyway, only realizing once he’d gotten on the bus that he hadn’t paid, hadn’t been asked about it, and hadn’t clarified who else Tommy had told, who else could know. Did Tommy have evidence, or was he just being an asshole?
Steve sunk deeper into his seat and ran a hand over his face. Tommy hadn’t said anything to Billy, because if he had, Tommy’s face would be bruised seven different shades. Tommy probably didn’t know shit.
Still, Steve’s heart felt shaky, breathless, and he had no fucking clue why.
They rolled in to Hawkins in the early morning, Steve waking as they bounced over the nasty speed bump in front of Bradley’s Big Buy. His head had fallen to Billy’s shoulder at some point, perhaps left there only by the grace that Billy was snoring softly beside him, his own head leaning against Steve’s as the whole bus started to rouse.
It had been a long seven hours since their only stop and Steve wasn’t sure when he had fallen asleep. The last thing he remembered was the glow of Billy’s cellphone screen as he had jostled Steve to get him to plug his charging cable into the port under the window. After that, he thought he remembered Billy’s face illuminated in the dark, his blue eyes and heavy eyelashes cast in shadows as he left what could only be lecherous comments on Hawkins’ girls’ Instagram posts.
Steve assumed they were lecherous, while awake he hadn’t had the candour to rest his head on Billy’s shoulder and peer at his screen to find out, had figured that would probably earn him a black eye. He was already returning home with a scraped forehead and finger-shaped bruises, he didn’t need another reason for his mother to fuss over him when she inevitably showed up unannounced on the weekend, sure to be home at least one day a week to promise she cared.
Carefully, Steve shifted enough to look at Billy’s face, neck straining from the angle as Billy’s eyes fluttered open. “What?” Billy asked, but it was soft, not startled, like maybe he had known some things Steve didn’t, and Steve, despite his best intentions to do nothing else stupid, wanted to kiss Billy’s soft frown once more, felt achy and elated with it.
For all of three seconds, Billy kissed back, squeezed Steve’s hand on the arm rest between them. Then Barb quietly asked Jonathan a question from the seat ahead of them and Billy shoved him off, not unkind.
But Billy’s face? Billy’s face was mean, meaner than it had been in weeks. He licked his lips and said, “Never touch me again.”
And well, Steve could do that.
Basketball seemed to be an exception, Steve’s teeth grit and cheeks going hot as Billy moved against his back, trying to block him or grab the ball. Every shove made Steve grimace a bit more, made his lungs a little tighter, had him falling against Billy’s chest to push him around.
It had been a week of cold shoulders, a week of Billy making out with Molly Darlington at lunch and wiggling his tongue in the gym changerooms. Rumour was, they got together the day the trip got back, Billy’s brief fling with Jessica just a romantic placeholder for their week away. Just a bit of fun. Just the bile crawling up Steve’s throat.
He elbowed Billy in the gut and spun around fast enough to dribble twice and pass to Tommy, who grabbed the ball, made the shot, and fucking whooped.
“That’a boy,” Steve called. His shirt stuck to his back with sweat that was maybe his own, maybe wasn’t, and the grin on Tommy’s face was enough to make him laugh.
“You sure took your time,” Tommy called back.
As coach blew his whistle, someone thumped Steve’s back hard enough to jerk him forward, nearly toppling him into Sean Clements. “Watch your fucking elbows,” Billy sneered.
“Watch your fucking dick,” Steve shot back. “People might think you want to stick it in me.”
Billy’s nostrils flared. Coach blew his whistle again. “Are we playing basketball? Come on, set up.”
On his side of the line, Billy put his hands on his hips and ran his tongue along his chin, like he thought that wasn’t a come on, like he wasn’t trying to make Steve hot. Steve wanted to tell Billy that, too, tell him how eager he always looked to lick Steve up and down, tongue lolling down his chin like a hungry animal. Instead, Steve crouched, arms at the ready when the ball went into play.
Tommy caught the ball and ran down the court, only to have it snatched by Billy as he blocked Tommy’s shot. Sneakers screeched on the yellowed hardwood as Billy turned, Steve covering him instead, front to his back, heat on his neck, sweat soaking Steve’s shirt as they breathed as one. Then Tommy stole the ball.
The showers were running cold again, bleeding icy rivers down Steve’s back as he fought his body temperature back under control. The other guys cursed and moaned, stomped their feet as Steve let the spray splash his face and numb his cheeks, eyes shut and neck tipped back, water leaking into his mouth.
He knew without looking that Billy would be two showerheads over from him, the showerhead he always took, like he knew Tommy would be right across the circular structure. Justin Pierce would be beside him, but Justin always showered fast, simply soaped up and down and rinsed off while the rest of the team lingered. That left Steve next to Billy.
Steve ran his hands through his soapy hair and scrubbed his face, let the water flood it all, thought of the first time Billy had gotten all up in his face after practice, turning off the water on him, all slow grins and soft condolences about Nancy. He’d been nearly flirting, and wasn’t that the kicker, in retrospect. He hadn’t been trying to make Steve’s heart beat to tear him down. He’d been trying to make him uncomfortable.
Congratulations, he’d succeeded.
“Yo’, Steve, let me use some of your girly soap,” Tommy said.
“It’s literally Old Spice. We literally use the same soap,” Steve said, but didn’t open his eyes, didn’t even try to stop him.
“It’s girly because it’s yours.”
“That literally doesn’t make sense.”
“You literally need to stop whining,” Billy drawled, spinning his nose ring.
Steve cracked his eyes, but still heard more than saw Tommy reach around the round head of showers to grab the bottle from the shelf, heard Ryan Carlisle say, “What the fuck, man? Don’t touch me.”
Tommy hit Ryan’s chest with a wet slap, and before Steve could tell them to knock it off, Ryan was already shoving Tommy, sending him in to Billy as Billy growled.
“You guys know the shower rules,” Billy said.
Steve grabbed his bottle back and rolled his eyes, setting it back on the shelf with more force than necessary, and muttered, “Better not let your tips touch.”
“What was that?” Billy asked, “You’re just full of smart shit to say today, aren’t you, Harrington?”
Steve pushed his hair back and lifted his eyebrows, looked him square in the face. “You’re making it real easy.”
So he wasn’t surprised when Billy’s hands landed on his shoulders, or surprised when he tripped backwards over his own feet and knocked his head on the wall, but it sure as hell hurt like a bitch, his vision swimming black a second as the uneven floor tiles dug into his ass.
“Shut the fuck up,” Billy said.
“Your bedside manner is really lacking.”
For all the reasons Steve had thought Billy’s dick might be in his face, Steve looking up at him from the floor of the shower was not one of them, not like this, anyway, with Billy towering and mean, flaccid with eyes burning. It made Steve’s jaw a little more comfortable when he kicked Billy’s shin, tried and failed to knock him off his feet.
Billy didn’t think it was all that funny, if the twitch in his neck was anything to go by. “You wanna fucking die?”
“Shower rules,” Tommy reminded, almost as if he was on Steve’s side, and wasn’t that a fucking wild idea?
Billy looked between Steve and Tommy, nostrils flared, before he hit the shower off and grabbed his towel from the rack. “Shower rules.”
“Oh my god,” Steve said, bringing his hand down from the back of his head, taking in the blood on his fingers. “It’s almost like you guys think touching another man’s naked ass is gay!”
There were a lot of people lingering in the hallway when Steve left biology to get a drink of water, a lot more people than there should have been for ten twenty-three on a Tuesday, when classes were in full swing. It wasn’t a problem, exactly, but he’d been looking for a few minutes of calm, silence away from warring lab buddies who couldn’t decide who got first shot at disembowelling their fetal pig. Like, fucking gross. A girl had shrieked two tables over, Tommy cackling as the tiny heart from his tiny pig bounced off her arm and smacked wet, wounded on the floor, and Steve had raised his hand to leave.
Steve wasn’t squeamish, right? Like, cutting the flesh apart, picking at the liver, seeing what things made a body pulse with life was interesting, made way more sense that tracing diagrams in a book, but it was hard, and the smell was too much, and when Laurie had said, “What the fuck, Tommy? Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with you?” Steve had known he was done. Needed air.
Rotting, antiseptic smells still clung to the inside of his nose as he pushed through the hallway. No amount of scrubbing his face seemed to do any good.
He was bending over to get a drink from the fountain, hips jutting out in the hall, just minding his own fucking business, when Molly Darlington rushed by. She smelled sweet and complicated, something candy and baby powder that clogged Steve’s nose as bad as the rot, worse than formaldehyde.
“Don’t touch me,” she said. Steve’s gut twisted as he heard a smack, caught a hint of Old Spice. Pain built in his temples. He was stuck staring, mouth slightly open, as Billy tried to touch Molly’s shoulder again, got his wrist slapped for the effort.
It had been a week and a half. Billy’s track record wasn’t normally that bad.
“Babe, come on,” Billy said, mouth puckered, long eyelashes fluttering as he placed a hand on a locker to cage her in. He wore that shirt he wore at the fort, the button up he never buttoned up, the one with the short sleeves that clung to his arms. “I didn’t mean that.”
“You called me Jessica!” She said. “How could you not fucking mean that? I knew what they were saying about that trip was true, can’t fucking believe I actually listened to you.”
“It was just fun with her,” Billy said. “Wasn’t sure you’d go out with me.”
Molly scrunched her shoulders practically up to her ears, face going as red as her long, curly hair. “We were flirting before the trip, Billy. You said you wanted to go out with me. I don’t know what part of that you misunderstood, but I’m not here to fuck around, and if you’re going to, if I don’t mean anything, I don’t need you.”
The crazy thing, the thing that really had Steve’s mouth open, was that anyone, literally anyone, believed Billy wasn’t messing around, believed he’d be in a relationship longer than a month of smooth moonlight dates, kissing under the bleachers, fucking in the back of his car. He had a reputation. Sometimes in the changeroom he put cologne on his fucking dick.
So why did Billy’s forearms make Steve’s mouth dry?
“Do you need something, Harrington?”
Steve snapped his mouth shut, met Billy’s sneer. “Didn’t you hear her?” he said, putting his hands on his hips. “She said not to fucking touch her.”
Billy let his arm drop, turned to face Steve. Something under Steve’s ribs jangled around, tugged his muscles and choked his throat, clogged his lungs with baby power and antiseptic, Old Spice. Billy echoed his posture with hard eyes and said, “And how is that any of your fucking business?”
“I was just thinking, like. I know some people like boundaries? People who have broken up with me really nicely, with like, really clear guidelines. This just feels really fucking familiar, you know?”
Steve dug his fingers in to his hips, tried to keep his smile sweet as he turned to Molly. “Do you want him to leave you alone?”
Molly shoved Billy’s chest away, straightened her sweater as she stepped away from the locker. “Thanks for the help, but I can handle my own shit,” she said. “Fuck both of you.”
“You’re welcome,” Steve called to her back. Half way down the hallway already, she turned just long enough to flip him off.
“Jesus fuck,” Billy said. “Leave me alone.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I picked this water fountain because I knew you were about to get all handsy with your newest thing next to it. Really helps shake up my biology period.”
Nancy would tell him he was being misogynistic, dehumanizing, but Billy grit his teeth and flared his nostrils, shoulder-checked Steve hard on his way past.
Spinning around, stupid, Steve hissed, “You’re a fucking asshole.”
“Yeah? No fucking surprise.”
There were too many fucking classes between the history trip and the end of the term, too much time to rot with the same people, all praying for the freedom of graduation. Steve sat with his face on his desk in history class, the whole room dark as Ms. Petunia showed them slide after slide about what a drag the Plague of Justinian was for the Byzantine Empire.
“The Plague of Justinian, much like the plagues of medieval Europe, decimated the Empire’s population,” She said, turning over the slides. A grotty wound flipped on to the screen, some poor bastard’s arm. Steve glanced at the projector for just a second, just long enough for his stomach to churn. “This led to a shortage in labor and considerably strained resources as agriculture and trade were disrupted by the massive casualties.”
Steve was aware that he was being disrespectful, aware that he was insulting Ms. Petunia, but had no will to move, bored to tears as Jonathan scribbled lines all over the notes he was meant to be taking, really ingraining the paper into the desktop. Every jagged drag of Jonathan’s pen echoed through Steve’s desk, vibrated right through his skull.
Everything had been making Steve’s skin itch lately. He’d snapped at Becky for asking for a pencil, because he literally only ever kept one pen on him, in his jeans pocket, why the fuck would he have a pencil? Before he realized how fucking insane that was. She’d let him know it, too, gave him a look that said he was off the deep end, and maybe he was starting to believe it.
Honestly, Steve’s prospects once school ended were not great. He hadn’t heard back from a single college, had started grinning through more awkward conversations with his dad about following in his footsteps, getting a business degree, raking in that cash. Steve mostly wondered how much he would have to pay someone to run him over with a bus. His dad probably set his credit card limit high enough for that kind of expense.
“Now, this plague only lasted from 541 to 542, and was suspected to be brought to Constantinople by infected rats harbored on grain ships arriving from Egypt.” The slide flipped, exposed grayish rats with ticks, a gross artistic rendering of death.
Someone kicked the back of his chair, making the legs grind the floor with a harsh scrape and Steve’s forehead clunk against the desk. He sat up but didn’t have time to turn around before there was something pointy jabbing in to his spine, an open pen tip probably drawing broken lines on his white t-shirt.
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” Billy whispered.
Steve looked to Ms. Petunia, who was busy reading something off the projector, before swivelling around to Billy, ignoring how the pen pulled and stuttered over the fabric of his shirt. “Can I help you?”
Billy dug the pen down Steve’s arm, fast, hard enough to sting, leaving a welted trail of blue veins in the dim light.
“Fucking hell,” Steve hissed, twisting around with one hand raised to knock the pen away.
If anyone looked over when the pen clattered to the floor, Steve didn’t notice, too busy clutching his arm and biting his tongue, holding in the part of himself that wanted to jump over the desks to find out what Billy was made of, like he didn’t already know, hadn’t already met those fists.
Billy leaned back in his chair, snide and easy, teeth glinting blue from the projector slide as he ran his tongue around his gums. His hair hung around his neck today, soft curls ghosting his chin and the collar of his Hawkins High Basketball crewneck. With his thumb and forefinger, he twisted his nose ring, looked Steve up and down slow in a way that made Steve’s stomach grip differently all together, anger melting into something softer, warm but with more bite. Nails closed around his stomach and squeezed.
If only people were willing to run over teenagers with busses for free.
Ms. Petunia cleared her throat. “Is my lesson interrupting something?” she asked.
Steve quickly turned around in his seat, tried to sit up straight. From behind him, Billy said, “No, Ma’am, just waking Harrington up for you.”
“That’s not your job,” she said, but glared at Steve a moment, turned to the next slide and said, “Thank you.”
The burn in Steve’s chest licked up his neck, strangled him in his chair.
Every time Steve saw Nancy it felt like it had been forever, even if he knew he saw her every day, nearly saw her every time he was at his locker to swap out text books, biology for history, history for English.
The first day he was back after the trip, she had frowned and said, “You didn’t buy me anything?”
Steve had shrugged and replied, “Jonathan got you a ton of stuff. I helped pick the snow globe?” Like that had helped, or like it was even true. After two weeks, he still didn’t have a better reason.
He didn’t see the big deal, anyway, and refused to feel guilty for it, even when she leaned against the locker next to his with books in her arms and pursed her lips at his Baltimore hoodie, or let her eyes dart to the Fort McHenry magnet holding up a picture of her and Jonathan at the Byers’ barbeque last summer.
Steve tugged on the strings of his hoodie and swapped his English book for his computer science text, sighed. Said, “Are you sure you don’t want to come to the party on Friday? I think it would be fun, you know. Us, Jonathan, maybe we could bring Barb?”
Nancy scrunched her nose. “You know Barb wouldn’t want to go to that.”
“She wouldn’t.” Nancy shook her head. “Since when do you talk to Barb so much, anyway?”
“Since she’s our friend?”
With a half smile and a bit lip, Nancy pushed away from the locker and closed the door of his. “I’ll ask her.”
Post Malone thumped over Tommy’s dad’s new sound system, making Steve’s blood feel sluggish and pulsing as he wandered from the living room to the kitchen, one too many beers passed gullet and another Solo cup in his hand. Nancy hadn’t shown, something about homework, or Jonathan, or maybe her brother’s birthday party, he couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter, anyway.
He fumbled his phone out of his back pocket and bared his brightest smile, holding his cup up by his crinkling eyes as he found the right filter and took a picture. He looked wasted, even under the cute cartoon freckles and wide-rimmed glasses, autumn leaves falling behind his head like they weren’t careening towards May. Sloppy, he typed missin u, picked contacts and hit send.
Nancy would probably be too busy to reply to him. God, maybe he needed air. He made it halfway to the backdoor, phone back in pocket, before a hand grabbed his wrist.
“Steve!” Carol said, tripping over her own feet and sloshing her drink to give him a hug.
“Hey,” he laughed, arm around her waist. When Tommy had planned his practical joke, he clearly hadn’t considered how Carol would react. She was still Steve’s friend on Snapchat for a reason, although Steve would admit to not editing his Snapchat friends in a while, was pretty liberal about who he added. Carol had been mad at him along with Tommy for ditching them for Nancy, but. After decimating his social status she’d calmed down, hadn’t quite apologized, and. Well, he’d always been a sucker for her laugh.
“You just get here?”
“Nah, I’ve been here for like, what, maybe an hour?”
“Really?” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I didn’t see you.”
“Yeah, well, I was kind of sticking to the fringes, so.” He took a sip of his beer around her shoulder.
She tilted her head slightly, tried to get a view of his cup before placing both her hands on his shoulders. Smiling, coy, she said, “We should dance.”
“I don’t know, Carol,” Steve said, bit his bottom lip. “I’m not really feeling it tonight?”
“Just one song?” she pleaded. “I miss you too.”
Had he sent her his message? His tongue felt too big in his mouth, cottony and bloated like an overfed goldfish. He blinked, finished his cup, set it down on the kitchen table. Some song by some rapper he didn’t know spilled over the room, faster than rockstar, with a base that made his heart bend and kick. “Yeah? Yeah,” he said, putting his hands on her waist. “But if Tommy’s mad, it’s not my fault.”
“Tommy can fucking bite me.” She winked.
There was too much happening, it was too hot. Somewhere in all the bodies he’d lost Carol, a little too smashed to handle spinning in circles with her hands clasped in hers, laughing and scooping her up by the waist, grinding on her like friends did after a few too many drinks. He weaved his way out of the crowd, stole a bottle of something from the fridge on the way to the back door. It was a fucking Bacardi Breezer, tasted like Steve was fucking fourteen again, but cooled his lungs as it fell down his throat, made the music pound with his heart a little less.
Someone had written STEVE HARRINGTON SUCKS DICK on the backdoor with mahogany lipstick, and Steve wished he hadn’t lost Carol, because it would have been really fucking validating to add, YES HE DOES. But maybe Steve was just drunk, ran his hand through the lipstick instead before he opened the door and stepped out into the night, rubbed the red off on to his jeans as he went.
It was cold outside, not as cold as it had been two weeks ago, but still enough to raise goosebumps on his arms. Late April had a way of doing that, being warm and mild one day, offering a late snowfall the next. Indiana weather was hellish all year. Stupid global warming or whatever. Nancy would have a better answer, but she wasn’t here, and Steve didn’t have the energy to pull out his phone, not when he was already trying to navigate to the bench he knew was tucked around the side of the back porch, facing the forest. He needed to mellow, then he needed to go home.
What he didn’t need was someone sitting under the shitty porch light, hair a murky blonde and tight black shirt straining over his biceps. Billy took the cigarette from his mouth and grimaced, let the smoke out of his mouth in a dramatic cloud.
It would have been smart to walk away, but Steve had never been known for his brains.
He took a seat next to Billy, stole the cigarette from his hand, ignored Billy’s silence and raised eyebrows as he put it to his lips. Cardi B spit rhymes inside as Steve leaned back, knees wide like Billy’s, casual, too tired. After a moment, Billy huffed and took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, fished another one out and lit it up, hazy eyes momentarily bright in the soft flame.
Steve licked his lips and took a drag. Asked, “We still just having fun?”
Billy shrugged, looked out into the woods, gave a wry laugh in response. “Stop talking.”
The evening outside the house was still, too still, made the sweat on Steve’s skin even colder as he tapped his shoe against Billy’s before crossing it over his knee. Billy didn’t even flinch, just kept his eyes on the darkness and the trees. When Steve held the cooler in his direction he took it, didn’t even look at what it was. Maybe there was something Steve was missing, but all he saw were shadows and the starry night.
“Ugh,” Billy pulled the bottle back from his mouth, lips curled and tongue out. “Why are you drinking this?”
Steve shrugged, said, “Just found it.” Like that even meant anything. He took back the bottle and let it rest on his knee, knocked the ash off the cigarette in his other hand.
“Christ,” Billy muttered. “You ever think about anything?”
Which sounded like something Steve should be offended by. “I think about a lot of things.”
Billy leaned back, one arm across the bench, and took a long drag. The backdoor slid open, laughter and shrieking tumbling out, followed by what sounded like retching, some poor bastard blowing chunks over the banister. Thank fuck the smell didn’t carry, although Steve still scrunched his nose anyway, rubbed the back of his thumb across his top lip.
Maybe it was wishful thinking, or the warm buzz under the gooseflesh raising along his arms, disgust in his belly, but Steve could swear he felt a finger run along the back of his neck, just under his shirt collar. He didn’t dare move, just took a drag from his cigarette, held it in his lungs a little too long.
Billy smoked lazy, like he was alone, until his cigarette was burned to nothing. He didn’t look at Steve even as he closed a heavy hand around the back of his neck, squeezed a little too hard. For a moment, Steve leaned his head back, exhaled, accepted Billy’s short nails, refused to admit what the hiss in his gut was. Then Billy stood to throw the butt over the railing, rubbed his hands on his jeans, and left.
The backdoor opened and closed. Steve’s cigarette lay dead on the porch, half under his shoe as he sipped on his Breezer, neck colder than ever, colder than his arms. The world ahead him swum through half-closed eyes, couldn’t keep them open as the orange fizz on his tongue felt like it was climbing up his nostrils. It was like standing too fast or getting hit on the nose, left him empty-headed and blinking.
Billy Hargrove took a screenshot!
Steve didn’t really remember making it home or how he got in bed. He thought maybe he remembered some flashing streetlights, someone laughing, but he wasn’t sure if that was before or after he left the party. He remembered Carol with her arms around his neck, Billy’s shifting eyes under the yellow porch light. Someone threw up, Steve was pretty sure, but not anyone he cared about, so.
He rubbed sleep from his eyes and tried to get a better look at his phone, nearly dropped it on his face for the millionth fucking time, like he did every morning, like, god, could he not get one damn thing right? The liquor had his brain aching, like, literally had him feeling tender, and maybe that’s why he was hallucinating. He had to be hallucinating.
Snapchat from Billy Hargrove
There was no planet on which he’d added Billy on Snapchat, but there his name fucking was, sitting innocently in his inbox, apparently having taken a screenshot of something.
Steve bit his lip, ignored the dread crawling up his throat, and opened the message. Billy lay in bed, shirtless and squinting, the angle taken downward so it caught his hand covering his left eye, and his chest down to his abdomen. The image cut off just below the waistband of his sweatpants. You literally just saw me.
There was a second message, same angle, whole hand over Billy’s face, that read, fuck off.
So reasonably, Steve took a picture of his own, lips pouty and hair sleep-crazy, face resting on his arm as he lay on his side. Who the fuck would miss you?
Snapchat from Nancy Wheeler
Steve groaned into his history homework, hair still a mess, and unlocked his phone, almost didn’t want to see it with his head throbbing so loud. He could practically hear her voice between his ears, which was impossible.
Nancy had sent a picture with her face resting on the table, chin on hand in front of a pile of eggs. She looked ready for the day, hair braided around her crown in a way that Steve had always thought made her look like a queen, lipstick soft pink and eyes smiling. Sorry I couldn’t make it. Did you have a good time?
Steve huffed, sat up to take his next picture. Sort of. Danced with Carol. Fucking messaged her and Billy too, and who knows who else.
Billy? Nancy asked, her lips pursed. Her next message came with a cat filter, which Steve still didn’t understand, but. She wrote, I thought you like, weren’t a thing?
Steve. Nancy’s face was sad beside her coffee mug, like she hadn’t done worse, like she didn’t still take his breath sometimes. Do you want me to come by?
Steve sent a picture of his homework, stuck an emoji heart next to his pen. It’s nothing. It was just an accident. I don’t even like him. I need to finish this homework.
Okay, well. Nancy sent a picture of her toast, complete with a Saturday filter. Let me know if you need anything.
If Billy’s goal was torture, he was succeeding. Steve could hardly breathe with Billy chasing him around the court, on his heels the second someone passed Steve the ball. It wasn’t new, exactly, but the way Billy kept looking at him was. It was like Steve had somehow managed to flip a switch, making him even more of an asshole than usual.
It had been three days since the party, three days since Steve had been more of an idiot than usual, and maybe Steve was projecting, but that message was only thing he could think Billy would be mad about. Had he spent that much time stewing? What had he even done with the screenshot he took, if he was going to be fucking mad about the whole deal anyway?
Steve couldn’t get his head around any of it any more than he could get his head around Nancy’s concern. Let me know if you need anything. Billy Hargrove’s dick seemed like too tall an order for her talents, and that Steve was even thinking that had him bitter already. Wanting Billy and being mildly interested in Billy after a few iffy make out sessions were not the same thing. Steve didn’t want him. He wasn’t that fucking needy.
The ball passed to Billy and Coach waved to Steve with raised eyebrows, non-verbally telling him to get his ass in gear, get the ball back for his side. Being one of the best players on the team, as well as team captain, was a goddamn curse. Who even thought he should be captain? Like, why had he signed up for this bullshit?
Whatever, Steve managed to make it to Billy too fast for Billy to make it very far, too many people between him and the basket. With good timing, Steve knocked the ball from his hand and turned away, realized a little too late that the rest of his team was on the other side of Billy and Billy had him up against the wall.
“You always have to fucking challenge me,” Billy said, voice practically a growl as he pushed up against Steve, chest to back as he tried to sneak around to get the ball.
Steve dribbled just barely inside the line as he tried to figure out how to get away. If he was fast, he could duck around Billy’s side, maybe get the ball to his team before Billy got it off him, but he would have to be fast, and that was a difficult concept to process with Billy breathing in his ear the way he was.
“Um, yeah, that’s the sport?” Steve said, like maybe Billy was the one failing English class.
“Fuck you,” Billy said. “You can’t cover, like, Tommy or something?”
Steve’s lips curled. “I’ll have to bring that up with Coach next time he wants you to give me a hug.”
“Leave me alone.”
“You leave me alone. Fucking god, you’re everywhere. You keep touching me.”
“You came over here first.”
“Not on fucking Friday.”
“You came to me first then too, Jesus Christ, are you always this full of shit? No wonder that fucking Wheeler chick dumped you. Su-per fucking needy.”
The way Billy spoke made it sound like he was rolling his eyes, groaning and harsh like he knew how to needle Steve’s insides. The ball bounced off the edge of the line next time Steve hit it. He had to shove Billy back to get things under control.
“It’s pretty pathetic, you know?” Billy continued. “How fucking hopeless you are. Just want all this shit you can’t have. Poor King Stevie. Just some sad fag.”
Steve heard a grunt and a body hit the floor. He turned his head and grabbed the ball between both hands as Chuck Greensborough sat up, cradling his shoulder, light tears pooling in his eyes. His shoe was untied. What a fucking loser.
“You good, Greensborough?” Coach called.
Chuck bit his lip, shook his head. Coach rubbed his nose and walked over to the kid, hauled him up to his feet. “Come on, let’s get you to the nurse.” He waved his hand at the team. “Keep playing.”
Steve dribbled the ball once. Billy pushed flush to Steve’s back the second coach was through the door, whispered, “Guys like you deserve to die.”
Something in Steve snapped like dental floss, all wound between his teeth and wrapped on his tongue. He whipped around and clocked Billy, felt his fist connect before he could register his own rage, told the wetness pricking his eyes was the anger. The ball bounced uselessly on the floor, missed chance. No one swept in to grab it.
Surprised, Billy took the punch and staggered backwards, his pinwheeling arms the only thing keeping him from toppling over. He was on Steve the next second with grit teeth and a bloody lip, wailing on him harder than Steve could have managed, with one hand gripping Steve’s shirt collar to keep him in line.
Steve hit Billy on the side of the head with a heavy fist, hoped he saw stars. Billy didn’t seem to see much but fire if the cry he gave was any indication. He let go of Steve’s shirt long enough to shove him off his feet but was on him the next instant to pin him to the floor, all snarls and grabby-hands.
Every day coach told Billy to take out his nose ring, to tape down the small hoop in his ear, but Billy wasn’t a listener, couldn’t follow a rule for his fucking life, and Steve gasped under the next fist that met his face. With one swift tug he clawed at the earring, felt the skin give as Billy choked on a cry. Steve’s nails were slick in seconds, although he wasn’t sure he’d pulled the ring all the way out. He couldn’t see, honestly, Billy’s grit teeth the only thing in his line of sight as Billy’s fist connected with his cheek again.
The back of Steve’s head throbbed as it bounced against the hardwood. He hit the side of Billy’s face, open palmed, the blood on his fingers smearing along Billy’s cheek.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Coach said. “Don’t just stand there! Hart, call security. Boys!”
One second Steve was bracing for the next punch, the next Billy was being hauled off him, just barely restrained by Coach’s arms. With his eyes so bleary, Steve heard more than saw Billy’s elbow hit the side of Coach’s face, but he sure heard Coach bellow, “Hargrove! Hargrove, stop, or I swear to god--”
“He hit me first!” Billy said.
“And you hit me,” Coach replied, hauling him back more.
Steve sat up, ears ringing, and was acutely aware of the blood dripping from his nose. He put a hand behind him to brace himself and felt something circular under his palm. It was the fucking earring. He’d pulled out Billy’s fucking earring. The blood wasn’t what made Steve’s gut sink, although it was already pretty fucking sunk, was already practically in his fucking knees when Billy had opened his fat mouth.
Steve rest the ring in his palm as he waited on the floor, watched the light catch on the metal and the blood as he tilted it back and forth. Fuck, just. Fuck.
So, as far as punishments went, Steve thought weekend detention was pretty fair. It sucked balls, but. He would take sleeping on a desk in Mr. Smithson’s class all Saturday over being suspended, which he really should have been, honestly, but the school maybe got more donations from Mr. Harrington than Steve was willing to admit to any of his classmates, and that maybe swung the final verdict in his favour. Paired with Steve’s shitty grades, his dad would have lost his fucking mind over a suspension.
So, yeah, sleeping on his desk in Mr. Smithson’s class with Billy across the room, frowning seriously at his novel for English class, felt like a mixed blessing. About fifteen other students blinked blearily at the books in front of them, quiet but for Cassidy Springton popping her bubblegum in the corner. She was gorgeous, all electric blue hair and tasteful eyeliner, looked like she belonged on the hip of a boy like Billy, or maybe like a boy like Billy belonged on her hip.
In front of Steve, Maggie Brightens was tapping her pencil on her desk. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from the moon tattooed behind her ear, peeking out from her ponytail. She always wore deep red lipstick, which was so unlike Nancy that it burned hot under Steve’s collar when he eyed her in the halls. It would be so easy to tap her on the shoulder and ask her out. She might say yes. He was starting to be cool again, after all, after picking a fight with Billy fucking Hargrove.
Plus, everyone had seen him dancing with Carol at the party. Over the last week, rumours had spread that the fight was about Carol, and that was wild in its own right, the idea that Billy would fight on behalf of Tommy. Steve didn’t think Billy had it in him to have a relationship like that—one where he maybe actually cared about other people.
Steve stretched and fought a yawn before getting up from his desk. Mr. Smithson glanced up from his book and squinted at Steve over his glasses. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, can I go to the bathroom?”
Mr. Smithson nodded, which was enough of a yes for Steve to wander out into the empty halls, aiming for the bathroom farthest from any populated part of the school. Really, Smithson was the worst teacher to be on detention duty, kind of like how he was the worst teacher to be leading a class trip. Steve could probably be gone for an hour, but he didn’t want to risk it, didn’t want to earn himself another punishment for shirking his first one.
His nose was still tender from Billy’s fist, his left eye purple and yellowish green. With the lights off in the bathroom, loose tendrils of sunshine bleeding from a high window on the left-hand side, Steve poked at the shadows under his eyes, grimaced at how the dark made them look deep and otherworldly. Twin chasms, sore through to his bones. Maggie Brightens probably would have said no.
“Moron,” he muttered. “Used to be so fucking good at this.”
Whichever ‘this’ he meant. He didn’t know, wasn’t really sure he cared as he turned the faucet on with jerky movements, spent a moment just watching the water rush out the tap and down the pipes. He felt a little washed up too, a little hollow, flushed out, wished there was something logical he could fill all that space up with. Not for the first time, he wondered if maybe sand was an okay replacement for his organs. When Nancy left, he’d thought about filling in his heart. Which part of him needed sand this time? Lungs, maybe? Where did stupid wishful thinking hurt him worst?
He cursed and splashed his face, grimaced as he got icy water all over the front of his t-shirt. There had to be a limit to all this, right? A point where he stood up and lifted his jaw, remembered who he was a month ago? Billy Hargrove had always been gorgeous, but it hadn’t mattered, shouldn’t have mattered as Steve dried off his face with the bottom half of his shirt, fabric hanging back against his body cold and patchy.
With eyes closed, he braced himself against the counter, tried to listen to the pipes whine and the coach outside blow her whistle at the girl’s soccer team. The bathroom door opened and shut, shoes screeched on the linoleum. Someone huffed.
“Smithson is shit at keeping track of who is in that room, holy shit.”
Steve grimaced but kept his eyes shut, knuckles locking on the counter lip. “I left before you did.”
“Did you?” Billy’s fly unzipped. “Didn’t notice.”
“You had to pick this bathroom?” Steve wished he could drown out the sound of piss hitting ceramic.
“It’s always cleanest.”
“It’s fucking Saturday. They’re all the cleanest.”
“Yeah, well.” Billy zipped his fly back up. “Habits.”
“Wash your hands.”
“You my fucking mom now?” Billy asked, but Steve felt their arms brush, opened his eyes when the water started to rush.
“Someone has to look after a pretty thing like you,” Steve said, stupid, cocking his head like Billy did when he thought he was being real smooth, real charming.
“You fucking stupid or something?” Billy scrubbed his hands, rinsed them, added more soap, wouldn’t look up at the mirror. “I thought I already beat some sense into you.”
“Yeah, well.” Steve turned and leaned his back to the counter, ignored the wet line and regret he immediately felt as overflow water soaked into the linen. “Yeah, I just. Am pretty fucking stupid, I guess.”
After a beat and a wry laugh, Billy shut off the tap. “Poor little Stevie. Did you fall in love with me? My thigh get you off that good?” He grabbed the front of Steve’s shirt and used it to dry his hands, kept eye contact and smiled self-satisfied as he rubbed his hands all over the fabric.
Steve frowned but didn’t knock him away, didn’t even try to move. Just said, “You’re gay.”
A vein in Billy’s jaw ticked, told Steve he’d fucked up again before Billy was gripping him by the collar, banging Steve’s hipbones back against the counter. Billy grit his teeth, said, even-toned, “I’m not.”
“You are,” Steve said again. He needed to keep his breathing under control, needed to remember that Billy had already shown him his worst. There was a band-aid wrapped around Billy’s earlobe. Steve had a ring sitting on his locker shelf.
“Do you think I’m deaf or some shit?” Steve asked, grabbing Billy’s wrist. “You think I didn’t hear all that crap you said to me? Think I imagined you all up in my space when I was sleeping? Because that was all fucking you, man. I didn’t ask for you to fucking spoon me or kiss my goddamn neck, or, or buy me a fucking magnet.”
Billy’s shoulders were nearly shaking, but the arm he jostled Steve with was solid, his eyes were hard. “It didn’t fucking happen.”
“Really?” Steve’s laugh was sharp, half-had. “God, every time, Billy. Every fucking time.”
Billy grabbed both of Steve’s shoulders and shoved, really jangled Steve’s bones as he spit through his teeth, “It was nothing. We had a deal.”
Steve could hardly get the words out, every syllable a struggle around dry laughter. “Sorry, apparently, I can’t fucking do it. Deals off.”
“I’m sorry?” Billy practically shouted. “You don’t get to make that call!”
“I just did!” It was like a toaster had been flung in the bathtub of Steve’s bloodstream, crackled at him all the wrong ways as he finally tried to shove Billy back. He felt a little delirious, realized he sounded a little bit like he was giving out bad dating advice as he said, “I’m sorry your sexuality is so hard for you, okay? Like, I’ve been there. Okay, I maybe haven’t, because I outed myself when I was like twelve because I just had to be the edgiest kid in Hawkins, but. It can be hard to know who you are. I respect that. But you are fucking gay, Hargrove.”
And it was a wonder he managed to say that much with the way Billy was glaring at him, almost like Billy was trying to decide if he could unattach the paper towel dispenser from the wall. It looked good for bludgeoning. Steve licked his lips and continued, “I’m not some shitty asshole. I’m not going to out you. But fuck, I can’t just. You are the fucking worst person I have ever met in my entire goddamn life and I still want you.”
Billy pushed him up against the bathroom wall—always with the pushing and shoving, Jesus—and leaned in close enough to kiss, just the right distance for Steve to see his sharp, pearly canines. “You don’t seem to understand me. I’m not gay. It’s really fucking simple. I cannot be gay, am not allowed to be gay, so I’m not. You were clearly a mistake.”
It cut Steve deep, somewhere under his ribs. Something between his belly and his skin was draining blood, left his abdomen dark purple and bloated as salt coated his tongue. He refused to let the bile gurgle up his throat, tried to find the key to Billy’s mind, instead. What he croaked was, “Not allowed?” Inelegant.
Billy’s mouth snapped shut, shoulders stiffened. “Yeah,” he said, slow. “It’s none of your business.”
“I wouldn’t tell,” Steve said, let it sit too long between their mouths. “I mean it. I was never going to tell. I wouldn’t do that.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
Lips set in a line, Steve let his hands rest loose on Billy’s arms, tried to meet his eyes. “Billy.”
Billy’s eyes flickered to Steve’s mouth one second, before darting back to his fists where they tightened on Steve’s shoulders. “Fuck you-”
Steve squeezed Billy’s elbow, mouth dry. “I’m serious.” He licked his lips. “Kiss me.”
The crooks of Billy’s arms caved, tension slipping as he stepped forward, cautious, snarling. “No.”
“Please?” Steve touched the fine hairs coating Billy’s jaw, eyes to Billy’s downcast brows.
Billy frowned and licked his lips, held both of them up by strings as he slowly inched forward to press their lips together, his chapped bottom lip tickling Steve’s chin. All it would take was one jerk of a finger to yank Billy back, one misplaced marionette wire. Breathing felt dangerous with something so tender near Steve’s tongue, so he pressed back until his head swam, let Billy pull away first to look at him with hard eyes.
“I don’t want to fight,” Steve said, voice hardly above a scratch. He felt like Molly Darlington with Billy’s lips to her cheek for the first time, ran his thumb over Billy’s jaw.
“Then leave me alone.” But Billy didn’t move as he spoke, didn’t even sway.
“You don’t want that.”
Careful, Steve slid his hand into Billy’s hair, brushed Billy’s temple with his thumb. It wasn’t fucking wishful thinking that had Billy leaning in to Steve’s palms, going pliant in his hands like he had in their hotel bed, or in the bathroom of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Steve said, “I’m not going to tell.”
Billy met his eyes and held him still, let their foreheads rest together like a moon landing. “My dad would kick me out,” he said, like it hurt. Like it was simple. “Shit, why couldn’t you be straight?”
A weak smile broke Steve’s mouth, not even enough to betray teeth as he said, “I’m difficult like that.”
The loveseat in Steve’s living room wasn’t really big enough for two people, but he’d been lounging on it, playing some Red Dead Redemption, when Billy decided that walking in unannounced was a good idea. Steve’s parents were in New York, or maybe Paris, he couldn’t remember, but the house was safe, quiet, and Steve was shit about locking his front door. It didn’t matter that this was only the second time Billy had been over, the first just to smoke with Tommy, Carol, Jonathan and Nancy. Even Nancy had had one cigarette, drank three beers, waggled her eyebrows at Steve until he’d thrown an empty can at her to remind her to keep her mouth shut.
Was it weird to have Nancy in the same room as his old friends again? Too weird, felt like ghosts were moving through his house, echoing the first night Nancy had been over when they’d shotgunned beers and jumped in the pool, had sex together for the first time, gasped together so soft as Steve realized he was in love. No one really got why Steve wanted them all over, but. It worked, mostly. Felt like Tommy’s plan had backfired, brought them close again.
It wasn’t really like that when Billy came in on his own, banged the front door behind him like he fucking owned Casa Harrington. Billy called everything the dumbest shit. He was such a fucking knob.
Steve’d groaned and let his head loll against the back of the seat, asked Billy if he’d ever fucking learned to knock, but Steve kind of got the vibe that he had, he just didn’t care enough for niceties when he knew he could straddle Steve’s waist and kiss him through his grumbling, could make Steve weak in the knees with one fucking tilt of his head.
Steve wasn’t that far gone, but. Billy pressed down against him, knocked his controller to the side, and Steve was only mad that he died for like, half a second, too busy gripping the back of Billy’s shirt.
“Your parents still gone?”
“Good.” Billy leaned back enough to peel off his shirt, flexed like some douchebag, which he was. The afternoon light made Billy golden and strong, promised his lips to be plump and sticky sweet, not chapped for once. Steve ran his fingers over the hard planes of Billy’s abs, was leaning up for another kiss when his phone rang.
Fucking hell. Steve pushed on Billy’s shoulders, said, “I gotta take that, I promised I’d talk to her when she got back from her science fair thing.”
Billy huffed and flopped to the side, made a face. “Wheeler? Fuck, you at her beck and call?”
Steve grabbed his phone where it buzzed on the table and sagged back into the couch as he answered, “Hey, how’d it go?”
“Good!” Nancy, said, smile clear in her tone. “My exhibit was a hit? I have to get at least a 98% on it, Mrs. Gysbretches wouldn’t stop talking about it to like, anyone. I don’t think you can win a science fair, but I think I won the science fair.”
“That’s fucking sick! Congrats.”
“How is your homework coming? You have that big English paper due tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah, it’s uh.” He cleared his throat. “A work in progress.”
“You’re playing videogames.”
“Steve,” she whined.
“Look, I uh,” he started, stalled for half a second, kept his eyes on the coffee table as he licked his lips. “Billy’s actually here? Like, shirtless, and maybe about to murder me for picking up the phone.”
“You’re a slut.”
“I love you too.”
Steve knew there’d been a misstep in his conversation, knew Billy must be watching him with that twisted look he got when someone crossed a line. A little light headed, he ignored the buzzing in his ears and tried to focus on Nancy. Maybe Billy heard less than Steve thought over the phoneline. It was possible.
“Just go make out already, Jesus,” she said. The couch under Steve lurched,
“Yeah, bye,” he hung up, looked right at Billy with his shoulders already raised.
He was right. Billy’s fists were clenched tight-white, his nostrils flared as his jaw worked. He said, voice just below a shout, “You fucking told her?”
“She figured it out on the trip,” Steve said. He tossed his phone on the table, tried to keep himself from screaming back. “The rumour got to her and she figured it out in like ten seconds. I literally can’t keep anything from her.”
“Yeah, I can tell, she’s still got you fucking whipped.” Billy got off the couch and went to get his shirt. It was like the air was gone in the room again, left Steve as choked as he’d been in the bathroom with Billy trying to wash him off his hands.
“Hey, come on, it’s not like that. I’m not into her.” Steve got up. “It’s just. We’re still close, you know? I don’t expect you to get it. But. She’s not going to tell.”
“How would you know?” Billy spat.
“Because she cares!” A scream slipped past Steve finally, made Billy snarl slightly. Steve took three breaths, rubbed his hands over his face, tried again, softer. “She’ll keep it. I promise. Please don’t go?”
And it clearly wasn’t the perfect thing to say, but it was enough to make Billy pull his shirt on and shoulder around Steve to sit on the loveseat. “You got anything to drink?” he asked as he picked up Steve’s forgotten controller.
“God, are you good for like, literally anything?”
Music thumped through the floorboards loud enough to shake the walls. Every beat of the base moved through Steve’s bones from his toes up through his calves as he gasped with Billy’s mouth on his neck, hands in Billy’s hair.
“You’re so fucking gorgeous,” Billy murmured, pushing him against the counter, not caring that loose makeup powder of some gross kind covered the lip and was ruining Steve’s jeans. “So fucking easy, too. God, such a slut.”
And Steve was pretty sure he was offended, a little bit, moaned as his dick twitched and Billy bit his neck, but what he said was, “You’re going to make me soft, talking like that.”
“Not my problem.” But Billy had one hand messing with Steve’s belt buckle, already had his pants around his ankles as he rocked against Steve’s thigh. They’d only been at Molly Darlington’s party maybe an hour, had only had two beers each, but Steve felt sloppy and hot, couldn’t help but think about what Billy would be like on his knees, or with his fingers in Steve’s ass. Steve had never really thought about himself as the kind of guy to want to be fucked, but Billy had those fucking perfect fingers, kept his nails cut short and neat for basketball.
Steve grasped Billy’s shoulders, his hips, slipped his tongue into Billy’s mouth as he ghosted his fingers over Billy’s abdomen to brush the hairs sticking out of his boxerbriefs. “You literally can’t be nice for one second?”
“I think I’m really nice to you, baby,” Billy breathed over his lips, kissed him firm as he squeezed Steve’s ass.
It felt like a risk, to move his hand lower, to rub Billy through the cloth. Billy felt thicker in Steve’s fingers, somehow more real with a damp spot forming near his tip. Last time Steve had tried, less than a month ago, Billy had sneered, pushed away Steve’s hands, but now he only stiffened like he was working through something, and maybe he was, but he didn’t say no. Instead, he moved himself into Steve’s hand, a little too impatient for Steve’s brain to catch up with the moment.
Steve shuddered as Billy slid his hand inside his boxers. Billy getting himself off on Steve’s hand was the hottest thing, hotter than Nancy moaning with a showerhead between her legs, and wasn’t that a thought that shook him, had him panting in Billy’s neck.
He tugged on Billy’s underwear and got it around his knees, kissed him fast and needy as he said, “Want to fucking touch you.” He laughed deep and shaky, got a fist around Billy’s cock and jerked slow at Billy’s whine. “Please, baby, want to touch tips.”
“Jesus Christ,” Billy said. “You’re going to make me soft.”
“Nah, Hargrove.” Steve squeezed, ran his thumb over Billy’s tip, liked how Billy bucked back.
They never really pulled Steve’s boxers down, just pulled him out enough that the cool air shocked his system a moment, made their slick skin bump together as Steve took them both in his hand and Billy slid his in to the back of Steve’s shorts again, pressed his fingers in to the crack.
It felt like another pleaded braveness to say, breathy, “Play with my ass.”
Billy laughed, not mean, said, “What?”
And Billy was an asshole, but he listened, pressed his fingers lower until he was rubbing and pressing, teasing Steve just enough to be almost too much with the very idea of it, the future, the potential. The coil in his gut was too tight, too hot, broke and crested through him as he shook in Billy’s hands. He heard Billy say something like god or maybe baby, but he was too busy trying to keep his hand moving, trying to fight the livewires pumping his blood with the base as Billy spilled minutes later, sweaty and gorgeous, the counter keeping them standing.
People moved through the building below, kept with the beat, didn’t have a clue. Someone down the hall shouted, “Where the fuck did Hargrove go?” And it sounded like maybe Tommy, made Steve muffle a laugh in Billy’s neck.
Billy knocked their temples together, way harder than he would ever need to. “You’re never going to fucking let that tip thing go, are you?”
“Nah.” Steve grinned. They’d never live any of this down.
So. Holy shit? This is finished? It took way longer to write than I thought and got massively longer than I thought, but what else is new?
Thank you for sticking with me through all of this! I love every one of you!
Extra special love for uncaringerinn for putting up with me and reading this all over. You save me.
As always, comments are loved and appreciated!
If you want to hit me up, you can find me on tumblr @eternalgoldfish!