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the only thing constant

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- Now -

 

They’re supposed to get six inches of snow tonight, they say. Already got four the other day.

Great.

Billy scoffs to himself, shakes his head as he thoughtlessly flips a burger. Too much snow, the car’s not gonna get any traction. Maybe he’ll drift right into a ditch on his way home. It’s a good enough reason to call off work, anyway.

He lifts his apron from the bottom to wipe at his forehead, at the single bead of sweat working its way down his temple. It’s freezing outside, but back in the kitchen, it’s hot. It’s always too fucking hot in there. The clock above the stove has a layer of grease over it that hasn’t been cleaned in years, but he can still make out the time: 6:45. Just long enough to catch a quick smoke break before the dinner rush.

Minutes later, he’s got the burger plated with all the fixings, fries included, and set on the pass. Pulls out his pack from his back pocket, hitting them on the heel of his hand as he makes his way through the kitchen. When he gets to the wide hallway, he hesitates.

To the right, the dining room. To the left the alley. He’s more than ready for that smoke, but...

He rocks back and forth on his feet. It’s just under a week until Christmas. He knows what that means. It’s not healthy, someone - maybe a therapist - might say, how often he’s checked in the last few days. Every hour at least. Probably more. It’s more than not healthy - it’s fucked. How his heart plummets into the sweaty soles of his shoes every time he scans the dining room and doesn’t find what he’s looking for.

But he’s got a feeling. They’ll be there; he knows they’ll be there. It’s a tradition, after all. Those rich, family-types take their traditions pretty seriously.

His chest gets tight, breath caught in his lungs, as he takes those few slow strides to the dining room door. As always, hoping for it, hoping against it, all at once. He presses his palm against the surface and pushes, nice and easy. Just enough to peek his head out. It only takes a few seconds, gaze systematically sweeping over the tables, before he’s got all the information he needs.

He lets the door swing closed and turns on the spot. Scrunches his nose, sucks at his teeth. Takes a second to process his disappointment and his relief.

Whatever. He’ll be there, or he won’t. Doesn’t really matter.

Billy’s been telling himself that a lot lately.

When he gets out to the alley, he cranes his neck until he hears it pop, then slips a cigarette from his pack and lights up.

It’s been one year since Billy’s caught a glimpse of him. And that’s all it is, really. Just a flash, a shadow of his past. It’s become a sort of tradition of his own, he guesses, to steal that brief look. See how he’s changed, how he’s stayed the same. There’s only so much Billy can discern in a handful of seconds, tucked away behind a thick metal door. The first time, he wasn’t expecting it, not really. He’d almost stumbled backwards into a waitress holding a tray of hot soups, then ran outside and tried not to be sick.

The next year was easier. He was ready for it, then. The next year, even easier. And now here he is, four years after the end of the world, ready to take part in the only Christmas tradition he’s ever given a shit about.

If he shows up.

Billy shivers. The frigid wind is freezing the sweat right on his skin. He hadn’t even thought to grab a jacket. Still, he’s pretty sure that’s not why he’s shivering.

He smokes his cigarette all the way down to the filter, flicks it behind the dumpster, and hastily makes his way back inside. Purposely averts his eyes from the dining room door as he steps back into the kitchen.

Three burgers, three salads, two chicken sandwiches and a slice of meatloaf later, it’s coming up on 7:30 and Billy’s rattling down to his bones. The grill’s empty, for the moment, so now’s his shot.

There’s an echo in his head as he walks toward the dining room.

Oh, my folks and I have dinner at Benny’s every year around Christmas. It’s where they went on their first date, or whatever. So it’s just, like, a thing we do.

And really, Billy knew that. Even the first time. He remembers it so clearly. Sometimes, when he’s got a few beers in him, he wonders if that’s why he applied at Benny’s in the first place, all those years ago. Plenty of places were looking for line cooks back then. But that was the first place he went.

He tries not to think about that, as a rule. He needed a job. Benny’s was hiring. End of story.

Swallowing down the lump of anticipation in his throat, he presses his way discreetly through the dining room door.

As it turns out, he doesn’t even need to look around. Because they’re there, right in his line of sight. Tucked in a booth up against the window. Billy’s hands start tingling, his head dizzyingly light. The moment he’s been waiting for has arrived and just like every year, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

Even from behind, Billy can tell Steve’s parents are dressed to impress. Who, Billy doesn’t know. Maybe each other, because God knows there’s no one else worth impressing in this dump. He sees the pearls draped along the back of Mrs. Harrington’s neck catching the light, the gleam of Mr. Harrington’s wristwatch.

But when he drags his eyes over to his true target, he goes cold. Cold like he’s standing in the fucking alley. He has to clench his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering.

He doesn’t - understand.

Because, Steve looks great. Just like every year, he’s wrapped in a richly colored sweater - this year it’s green - and his hair is coiffed just so, his eyes are bright and his mouth is quirked in a smile while he listens to his parents talk. He throws his head back in a laugh and it’s everything that Billy expected, everything he waited to see. Except.

One of his arms is draped over the shoulders of a fucking girl.

And time just - stops. Or it doesn’t, but he wishes it would. He needs it to. He needs to take it all in, make sure he’s really seeing what he thinks he’s seeing.

Bright red lips draw his eyes first. Can’t miss ‘em. Her sequin neckline’s so big it’s draped halfway down one arm. She’s got dusty brown hair climbing so high, it’s practically defying gravity - the two of them must share hairspray, he thinks, ludicrously. Next to Steve, she’s probably the brightest thing in this shithole.

It’s all Billy can do just to breathe, nostrils flaring. He can’t take his eyes off the way Steve’s holding her. Cupping her bare shoulder, casually rubbing her arm when she speaks. Rooted in place, he swallows and swallows and still he feels choked. Can’t even bring himself to blink.

He tries to make out what they’re saying, but of course that’s futile. They’re too far away and all he can hear is the clinking of silverware, and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” playing softly through the overhead speakers.

This isn’t - right. It repeats in his head, intrusive and unnerving as a scratched vinyl - this isn’t right, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. This one stupid, pathetic moment is supposed to belong to him; it’s the one thing he has left, more than he ever thought he’d get after Steve hightailed it out of Hawkins all those years ago, and now it’s ruined. Completely fucking destroyed.

He’s been standing there too long. He knows that. Knows the scene isn’t gonna change no matter how long he waits it out. Normally he’d already be back in the kitchen, debating whether to crack open some champagne or lay down face first on the grill top. But that worked for him. That cocktail of euphoria and pain, garnished with a dash of bittersweet regret - that always hits the spot. He was looking forward to it. Instead, he’s standing dumbfounded in a doorway, gawking at the Harringtons’ table like it’s his first day on Earth.

The spell fades just a little when Becca, radiating campy holiday cheer, glides up to dole out their drinks. She whips a pad out of her apron pocket, clicks her pen with a little flourish. Billy shuffles back slightly, letting the door close a few inches, but he can still see them. He doesn’t need to hear to know Steve’s dad is ordering the ribeye and roasted potatoes, Steve’s mom the grilled cod with mixed vegetables, and for Steve himself, a burger, medium well, extra onions. He orders it almost every time they go out. Used to, at least.

Refined palate you got there, Harrington, Billy used to say. Steve would roll his eyes and shrug. Take an enormous bite while staring Billy down. Billy would threaten, under his breath, not to kiss him until the mountain of onions worked its way out of his system. Then they’d leave, and he’d spend the rest of the night with his tongue in Steve’s mouth.

“Uh, excuse me.”

That’ll be Patricia. The smoker’s rasp is a dead giveaway. She steps into his line of vision wearing a scowl and holding up a tray of dirty dishes that seems like it should be way too heavy for her to handle.

“Sorry,” Billy says, shaking himself. He takes a big step back and she budges past him hastily. The door swings closed behind her, hiding the dining room entirely, and it’s enough to break his trance. With a deep, purposeful breath, he turns and marches back to the kitchen.

It’s just as stuffy and sweltering as it was before, but he can’t stop shaking. He picks up a spatula and starts drumming on the counter just to have something to do with his hands. Something to drown out the noise in his head.

He never should’ve gone out there. It wasn’t worth it, it never is. He’s nothing but a creep, a loser, chasing hits of nostalgia like a fucking junkie. This was bound to happen eventually, what the fuck was he expecting?

He’s still drowning in his own head when Becca walks in and slaps an order down onto the pass.

“Table 14,” she says, and Billy whips around, snatches up the slip of paper.

The ribeye and cod are there, just as he expected - he flushes with pride, just for a moment, at getting that right - but no burgers. He reads the looping scrawl, brow furrowing deeply.

“What’d the girl order?” he barks.

“What?” Becca asks, just as she’s turning away.

Billy thrusts the slip out to her. “Table 14, which one did the girl order?”

She glances back and forth between her own handwriting and Billy’s face. “The… garden salad,” she says hesitantly. “Why?”

Of course she’d order a goddamn salad. That’s such a chick thing to do. Which leaves a tuna melt for Steve. A tuna melt? Since fucking when?

Maybe his tastes have changed in the last four years, moron, his psyche screams at him, but it just doesn’t make sense. None of this is right.

“Got it,” he says dismissively to Becca as he turns back toward the griddle.

A few more disorienting moments pass, and then there’s nothing else for it. He gets to work.

He moves methodically, mind going blissfully blank as he chops and seasons, flips meat, stirs sauces. Retrieves containers, checks temperatures, toasts bread. Plates everything up with mechanical precision. He could do this in his sleep.

Then there’s just the salad left to whip together. His nose crinkles in disgust as he starts ripping at a head of lettuce, tossing the shreds into a bowl. Fuckin’ salad. Stupid fuckin’ salad. Without giving it much thought, he digs out an overripe tomato, a wilted carrot, a wrinkled pepper and some slimy mushrooms from the bottom of the produce bin. Tries not to slice his own fingers as he slashes at the vegetables and tosses them haphazardly into the mix. He grabs an older onion and can’t help his private smirk when a pungent smell wafts out, burning his eyes.

This wasn’t his plan, not really, but once he starts he can’t stop.

Hands clenching at his sides, he surveys the array of ingredients on his counter. Reaches for a ladle to scoop a ridiculous amount of olives into the salad. Then goes for another scoop. Shreds in the sharpest cheddar he can find before snagging the pepper grinder, twisting and twisting until there’s a visible layer of pepper coating the surface, like dust settling after a catastrophe. To top it off, he bypasses the vinaigrette and goes straight for the vinegar, pouring it on until the lettuce is wilted and emitting an acidic smell.

It’s absolutely fucking disgusting. Billy is delighted.

Heart racing, he sets everything on the pass and dings the bell. When Becca comes in to pile everything onto a tray, Billy is idly wiping down the counters, the picture of perfect innocence.

He hears the kitchen door swing closed behind her. And then he waits.

The minutes crawl as he taps out an agitated rhythm on the countertop. Gnaws at his lip. Hopes this chick isn’t the non-confrontational kind, the sort of person who’s too chickenshit to complain about bad food that they don’t eat, but pay for anyway. That Wheeler girl was probably like that, Billy thinks. All smiles and curtsies and shit. So nice it makes you wanna puke. The kind of girl you take home to meet your parents. The kind that never complains.

But that monstrosity of a salad Billy put together? She’d have to be out of her mind not to say anything.

Midway through gulping down a glass of cold water, Becca steps back through the door holding a large salad bowl in her hands. Billy’s already-pounding heart kicks into overdrive. He eyes her while he downs the rest, finishes it with a smack of his lips.

“Problem?” he asks.

“Table 14 doesn’t like the salad. Says it doesn’t taste good. Too peppery?” she says, looking down into the bowl with concern.

Billy sets down his glass and starts striding toward the door before he can change his mind. “I’ll take care of it.”

“What? Why don’t you just make a new one? Where are you going?”

“I said, I’ll take care of it,” he calls as he sweeps into the hallway.

Shoulders back. Spine straight. Head held high. He takes one last breath before he pushes his way into the dining room. He’s got a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead, he knows. His hair’s a mess, tumbling from where he’s got it pulled back, and he’s wrapped in a grease-covered apron. None of that seems important. He doesn’t have a plan, just beelines for the table.

Before he even comes to a stop, he starts talking, worried that once Steve looks at him, he’ll lose his nerve. “I heard there was a problem with the food?”

“Oh,” Mr. Harrington says with a start. “Well, yes.”

Billy hears him from somewhere down near his left elbow, but his gaze is already locked, inexorably, in one specific direction.

Steve looks up at him, and Billy can actually see the blood drain from his face. He’s stark white, eyes wide, jaw hanging slightly. It’s the closest Billy’s been to him in years. He almost doesn’t look real. It hits Billy all at once that his dreams and memories have warped Steve’s visage over the years - the curve of his nose, the angle of his jaw, the tilt of his eyes. Billy realizes he’s been starting to remember some blurry doppelganger, and seeing the real thing? The rightness of it almost knocks him off his feet.

This was such a bad idea.

He looks away. He has to. Looks at the girl at Steve’s side instead, folding his arms over his chest.

“Um, yeah, my salad wasn’t… what I expected,” she says. Her eyes run the length of Billy, down to the hem of his filthy apron and back up.

Billy feels his hackles raise. Just like that. “You ordered the garden salad,” he says challengingly.

She’s quick to bite back. “Yeah, and it wasn’t good. It was way too vinegary, I couldn’t eat it.”

And yeah, she’s not wrong. She’s got every right to complain. But she sounds so entitled to Billy in that moment, he can’t stop his smirk, can’t hold back the complete bullshit that comes out of his mouth next.

“That’s our most popular salad. The vegetables were grown at the local community garden.”

They weren’t.

“That’s nice,” she says, “but I -” She pauses, looks to Steve for help. But Steve is frozen, doesn’t say anything at all. When Billy glances at him, he swallows, like he might be about to speak, but when his lips part again, nothing comes out.

Steve’s dad jumps in, politely asking, “do you think you could just whip up a new salad?”

“Sure thing,” Billy says, still addressing the girl - and her bright red lipstick, and her sparkling diamond earrings, and her ridiculous bare shoulder - when he asks, “So, no dressing?”

“Well, I think she wants dressing,” Mr. Harrington says, a little slow, like Billy’s an idiot.

The girl nods. Adds, “and if you could put less olives? I don’t really like olives.”

But Billy’s already tuning out of the conversation. He doesn’t give a fuck about her salad. Sensing the interaction coming to an end, he takes a chance and looks back at Steve.

And Steve’s still staring right at him. Their eyes meet and hold. Neither of them so much as blink.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he says quietly.

“Thank you,” Mr. Harrington says.

“How is everything else?” Billy asks, just to delay. He licks his terribly dry lips, and he sees Steve track the movement. Watches Steve’s gaze continue falling, like he can’t stop himself. To Billy’s chin, his neck, over to his ears, up to his hairline. Anywhere except his eyes. But then he finds those again, too.

“Oh everything else is delicious,” Steve’s mom says. Overly nice, like she’s trying to break the tension. “So flavorful.”

“That’s great,” Billy says, not looking at her. Eyes narrowing, he lifts his chin slightly and directs his next question straight to Steve. “How ‘bout the tuna melt?”

An agonizingly long moment passes in silence. Finally, Steve finds his voice, but it’s raspy. “It’s… fine. It’s good,” he says, before clearing his throat.

Billy glances down to find Steve white-knuckling a balled-up napkin. Like it’s taking everything he has not to haul off and deck Billy in the face.

Which, really, Billy probably deserves.

Just then, he knows he’s got to walk away. All he’d wanted to do was satisfy some sort of sick curiosity. Instead, he feels like he’s ripped open a carefully-stitched wound. Feels it bleeding for the first time in so long.

Dropping his arms to his sides, he says, to no one in particular, “let me see about that salad.”

With a nod, he raps his knuckles on the tabletop and begins to turn on his heel, but at the last second, something comes over him. He looks straight at the girl. There’s fire in his eyes and venom in his voice, and nothing he can do to stop any of it.

“Welcome to Hawkins, sweetheart,” he says, then makes a quick escape.

From behind him, he hears Mr. Harrington’s voice, shocked and indignant. “I beg your pardon?”

Billy doesn’t turn back. Not even to look at Steve one last time.

That oughta ensure the death of Billy’s Christmas tradition. If Steve’s just going to show up every year with some rich bitch on his arm, Billy’d rather he didn’t show up at all.


He busts his way back into the kitchen, jaw clenched, chest heaving. The air is hot and thick, but still somehow easier to breathe than it was out there. After a half-second of deliberation, he squats down and reaches to the back of a low shelf, pulling a pint of Jameson out from behind a bunch of dusty canned fruit. He just needs a couple swigs to get his head on straight. Needs to pour it over the oozing wound inside of him to stop it from getting infected.

After a few deep pulls, he caps the bottle and slips it back into place, feeling more himself with the smoky taste in his mouth, the burn in his throat. Then he gets to work on the salad. He puts it together correctly this time - he’s made his point, he thinks - and lets himself bask in the glory of his little ruse. Still filled with adrenaline, his pounding heart begins to slow.

It was surreal, being so near him. Meeting his eyes, hearing his voice. He thinks about the stunned look on Steve’s face. Catching him off guard like that… it feels like some kind of victory. A hollow one, but - still.

Next year, he decides as he shreds a fresh carrot into the bowl, he’s gonna save up all his vacation time to use during the Christmas season. Just in case.

As he’s putting the finishing touches on the damn salad, he’s interrupted by a knock at the door.

“What?” he calls, stirring in the dressing.

Another knock, more insistent.

Setting his spoon down with a frustrated sigh, he goes over and rips the door open, shouting, “what?!”

And finds himself standing face-to-face with Steve.

This time, he’s the one caught off his guard. He feels himself deflate instantly. Completely unprepared, he digs for some kind of remark, but comes up empty.

“Can I talk to you outside?” Steve says. He looks furious.

For the briefest of moments, Billy remembers the last time he saw that look on Steve’s face.

Billy looks behind him, like maybe he can use his job as a way to get out of this, but there’s nothing on the grill. Jesus Christ. He was out of line for sure, but he never thought Steve would actually do anything about it.

“I really shouldn’t -”

“Billy.”

And, well.

He kicks himself for how easy that was. He’s usually so good at telling people to fuck off.

Ducking his head, he mumbles, “fine, come on,” then pushes past Steve and heads out to the alley, Steve in tow. It’s started to snow, light little flurries dancing in the wind. As soon as he hears the back door clang closed, he rounds on Steve. Buries his hands in his jean pockets, eyeing him from a few feet away.

A heavy silence falls over them. Steve wanted this confrontation, so he’s gonna have to be the one to break it, Billy decides. When he does, it’s pretty much what Billy expects.

“What the fuck, Billy?” he spits, shoulders rising violently.

“Good to see you, too, pretty boy.” A small thrill runs down his spine at hearing himself say those words.

“You work here, or something?” And that’s a stupid question. He always used to ask stupid questions like that.

“Well, I’m not doin’ this for my health.”

“Since when?” Steve asks accusingly.

“Gotta pay the bills, right?”

“Yeah, but do you have to pay them by working here?” Steve says, a little frantic, eyes wide and wild.

“You don’t have an exclusive claim on this dump just because your fuckin’ family deigns to eat here once a year,” Billy says. As if he and Steve didn’t used to come here all the time. As if they didn’t fuel up here before games, or study together in the corner booth, or kick each other under the table over late night plates of fries. As if this building isn’t saturated in memories.

“Don’t talk about my family like that,” Steve says, subdued. “They like coming here. My dad was really looking forward to this.”

Billy snorts. “Ha, yeah, your dad doesn’t seem too happy with me.”

“Well, he can join the club.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, are you pissed at me? Great, guess you’ll be leaving the state any minute, then.”

“Yeah, I’m fucking pissed,” Steve says, slow and deliberate, like Billy’s some kind of moron. Must get that from his dad. “You fucked up Samantha’s food on purpose.”

Samantha. Steve and Samantha. Wasn't that disgustingly quaint. “And why would I do that?”

Steve throws his head back, groaning at the heavens. “Oh, fuck off.” Looking back at Billy, he says, “Don’t play all innocent. I know you. I know that shit was intentional.”

Billy purses his lips. “Oh, yeah?”

“You sure didn’t look surprised to see me when you came over to the table,” Steve says, eyes narrowed.

Billy shrugs. “Guess I’m just a professional.”

“Yeah, a professional asshole.”

And Billy almost laughs. He was always terrible at comebacks, too.

Instead, he schools his expression and digs his cigarettes out of his back pocket. Shakes one loose. “Okay, if you know me so well, tell me why I’d risk my own job sabotaging your girlfriend’s food.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Steve says. “Maybe because you love fucking with me? Maybe because you thought it’d be hilarious to embarrass me in front of my - parents.” His stutter doesn’t escape Billy’s notice.

“I’ve got better things to do than embarrass you, Princess,” he says. The old nicknames come out so naturally. They taste so familiar on his tongue.

“Don’t call me that,” Steve’s quick to say.

Billy rolls his eyes. He puts his pack away, popping the cigarette between his lips and speaking around it, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You’re right, I’ll leave that to Samantha.”

Steve shakes his head, blowing out a breath. “Wow, you really have not changed. You’d think after four years you’d have transformed into something resembling an adult.” Looking away, he adds, more quietly, “I don’t know what I expected.”

“Who asked you to have any expectations?” Billy asks, pulling out his lighter and cupping a hand around the flame to light his cigarette. He takes a short drag. “You think I sit around trying to figure out how to better myself on the off chance you might come harass me at work one day?”

“No, that’s true. I don’t have any expectations of you,” Steve says. He’s facing Billy again, and his gaze is fucking penetrating. “I don’t think of you at all.”

Somehow, Billy doubts that. Steve may not think of him kindly, but Billy’s willing to bet he thinks of him. It’s in the tension of his limbs, the quaver in his voice, the way he flinches when he looks at Billy too long, like it stings. Billy starts to wonder if Steve’s wound is just as fresh and open as his own. Nevertheless, he says, “that makes two of us, amigo. Why don’t you go back to your precious family dinner and let me get back to my job? Make sure you tip your waitress. I saw your dad’s watch, I know you can afford it.”

“Oh my god,” Steve growls, taking a decisive step forward, then another, glaring at Billy all the while. When he stops, he’s close enough to touch.

Billy simply holds his ground. Takes another drag, tilting his head back to blow smoke into the night sky.

“Look who’s still feisty,” Billy says, because he can’t help it. Runs his tongue over his bottom lip.

“You’re still so goddamn frustrating,” Steve says. “You make me wanna -”

“What?” Billy challenges. “You wanna hit me? Hit me. You never did know how to throw a good punch, I doubt that’s changed.”

He knows Steve won’t, but it feels good, trying to goad him into it. Feels like old times. Like the times even before the good times. When all he had were scraps of Steve’s attention to get by. When he’d take all he could get. This feels like that, and for all that Steve has criticized him about how little he’s changed, he has to admit, he almost feels seventeen again in that moment.

“I’m not a fuckin’ teenager, Billy,” Steve says, annoyingly solemn. “I don’t deal with shit that way anymore.”

Yeah, Billy knew Steve wouldn’t rise to the bait, but it still rankles. “Then what do you want? Why’d you even bring me out here?”

“Because I - I needed to -” Steve looks over Billy’s face, mouth working silently. Just as he looks like he might crumble, he drops his head. Takes a deep breath, runs his fingers through his hair. Finally, he looks back up, composed once again, and says, “look, I just want you to know that that was real fuckin’ petty, what you did.”

It suddenly strikes Billy that this is now the closest he’s been to Steve in years. He pulls on his cigarette to buy some time while he considers that. Flicks at the end, sending ash fluttering to the asphalt. “What do you want me to do, go out there and beg for forgiveness on my knees?”

Steve shakes his head vigorously. “No. You’re done talking to my family. Stay the hell away from them.” He bites his lip for a second. “And from me,” he adds.

Billy scoffs. “That shouldn’t be a problem, seeing as you live 500 miles away.” Immediately, he kicks himself again. That’s way too revealing. He’d sooner drown himself in the quarry than let on that he once took a ruler to a map of the US just to calculate the distance between Hawkins and Minneapolis.

“And who’s fault is that?” Steve asks bitingly.

Their eyes are locked now, and the whole world seems to shrink down to Steve’s nearness, his anger. It’s late December and the wind is picking up, tiny snowflakes whipping at his skin, but he doesn’t feel it. Doesn’t have any idea how much time has passed since they’ve been out here. It’s just him and Steve, staring each other down, both strung so tight, it’s impossible to tell who might snap first.

“Oh yeah, I really held a gun to your head,” Billy says. “No one made you leave, you did that all on your own.”

“It’s not like I had a reason to stay. What was I supposed to do, die here alone? Miserable? Mopping floors at the world’s shittiest diner?”

He’s trying for a low blow, but Billy doesn’t let it get to him. He accepted his fate a long time ago.

“No, I get it, you did what comes natural to you. Some of us stay and deal with our problems, some of us run like cowards. You did what you had to do.”

Steve barks out a laugh. “That’s real rich coming from you.”

Billy flicks his mostly unsmoked cigarette somewhere off to the side, not looking where he’s aiming. He shuffles, just barely, closer. Drops his voice low. “Look, you come back to town, you’re gonna run into ghosts of your past. It’s not my problem. You don’t like it? Stay the hell outta Hawkins.”

“Me?” Steve bursts indignantly. “This is my home! I have every right to -” He cuts himself off, just as Billy is preparing for things to reach a head. Closes his eyes and breathes in through his nose, out through his mouth. When he opens them again, he looks utterly resigned. “Fuck it,” he says, and there’s no edge to it at all. “I’m not fighting about this. There’s no point. All that shit happened forever ago. My life is totally different now, and by next week, none of this will even matter.”

With that, he turns on the spot, plods his way back to the door. Shakes his head like he’s disappointed, and Billy gets that. He’s disappointed, too.

But he’s not about to let Steve have the last word.

“Sorry your girlfriend didn’t like her salad,” he calls to Steve’s back.

Steve pauses, hand on the doorknob. Then he looks over at Billy and says, “you know what? She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my fiancé.”

And Billy’s stomach plummets. He suddenly feels like he can’t find his footing, like the ground has dropped out underneath him.

How long’s Steve been holding onto that bit of ammo, he wonders. He didn’t notice a ring before. He didn’t even think to check. The normal Billy, the one without a cavernous, festering wound inside of him, would probably offer some kind of sarcastic congratulations in response. This Billy can’t even speak.

“Thanks again for the great fuckin’ service,” Steve says, pulling the door open. And then he’s gone.

Billy stands there, shivering in the cold, until Becca pops her head out. Asks if he’s okay. He’s not, of course. Nothing’s fucking okay. Nothing’s been okay for a very long time.

The rest of the night passes in a haze. He cooks and cleans, works and works and works so that he doesn’t have to feel. But the wound’s already infected, he knows, and he’s itching out of his skin.

At 1 am, when Billy leaves the diner, it’s snowing in earnest. There’s already a thin blanket of it on his car, the ground, the whole world. He slips into the driver’s seat feeling rather numb. But not numb enough.

So he shifts into drive, and heads straight to the bar.

 

-~-~-~-~-~-

 

- Then -

 

“Don’t, don’t. Wait, stop, just - hold on.”

Billy takes a long, drawn-out breath. To cool down his blood, his skin, his brain. He’s got a lap full of a sweaty, shivering Steve, whose knees are braced tight on either side of his hips. Hands clamped hard around Steve’s rib cage to keep him from moving. If he does, it’ll be all over - too soon, far too soon. His cock is pulsing, twitching, moments away - in through his nose, out through his mouth, he breathes himself back from the edge.

Steve doesn’t seem to be breathing at all.

It’s always like this, nowadays. Somehow. By some fucking miracle, it’s always like this.

Just thinking about that almost makes him come. So he doesn’t.

He slides his hands firmly up the muscles in Steve’s back, tugs him closer. Plastered chest to chest, sticky and hot. He squeezes his eyes shut, buries his face in Steve’s neck, and opens his mouth. Jaw wide, teeth sinking into the taut muscle leading down to Steve’s shoulder. Not hard enough to mark, but hard enough to ground him, to stop him from yelling, from crying, from giving everything away. Another deep breath in, and then out, sweeping audibly over and into Steve’s skin.

Steve tastes sweet and salty under his tongue. Catching his flavor doesn’t do Billy any favors in his effort to temper down his imminent orgasm, but he can’t help it. It’s right there, ripe for the tasting.

“Can I - can I -” Steve pants into Billy’s hair. He’s trembling from the strain of staying still, full as he is with Billy, close as he must be to tumbling over himself. He’s hard, hard as he ever gets, cock wedged and leaking between them.

“I don’t wanna come yet,” Billy pleads. Almost doesn’t recognize his own voice, low and gravelly as it is. “Just - I need a second.”

Steve nods. One arm is curled around Billy’s shoulders; his free hand slides into Billy’s hair and combs through.

It’s a good distraction - for both of them, probably. The tightening in the base of Billy’s spine starts to unwind. He cracks his eyes open and focuses on a patch of peeling wallpaper next to Steve’s dresser, studies the shape of it until the urgency recedes.

He loosens his fingers where they’re clutching at Steve’s back, at the meat of his shoulder blades. Lets his hands fall to Steve’s waist. Leans back enough to look at Steve’s face - rich, brown eyes, glazed and unfocused, tiny beads of sweat speckling his furrowed brow. Lips chapped from all of his heavy breathing, so Billy wets them with his tongue, because they’re too dry, and Steve’s too fucking gorgeous, and kissing him feels like coming home.

He loses himself in the heat of Steve’s mouth, Steve’s hand still tangled in his hair, tugging, scratching at his scalp. Drops his jaw and invites Steve in, feels Steve’s tongue lapping at his own, flicking against his teeth. Feels Steve’s breath wash over his face, like he’s been holding the air in for hours, days.

Steve starts to rise up without Billy’s prompting, driven by the kiss, driven by need, and it’s okay - Billy can take it now, he’s ready. He guides Steve up by the waist to show him as much, then tugs him back down.

The pace resumes - Steve’s riding him in earnest again and it’s so good. So good it scares him, because it’s always like this, always, which doesn’t seem possible, and yet -

“Oh, fuck,” Steve groans against Billy’s mouth, cutting off his thoughts. It breaks the kiss, which feels wrong, so Billy takes him by the lower lip, pulls it between his teeth. He has to keep kissing Steve, right now, or he’ll break apart completely, he knows he will.

He grips Steve’s cock at the base and squeezes, because Steve feels close. He can tell in the tension of Steve’s muscles, the blush that’s rising up his chest. But no - not yet. Every time with Steve feels like the best it could ever be, but what if this one really is? He wants it to last.

It won’t, though. Not much longer, not for him, no matter how hard he tries to stop it. Everything’s starting to blur at the edges. His heart is working overtime, launching him toward the finish line.

The thing is - the universe has never done anything but take things away from him. And now it’s giving back, in the form of - this. This fucking boy, who looks at him without contempt, who touches him without fear. Who wants him. Belongs to him.

God, Steve fucking belongs to him.

When he remembers that, he suddenly knows what he wants to do.

“Slide off, baby,” he breathes, taking Steve by the waist to direct him.

Steve’s too caught up to protest. Just rises up on his knees, letting out a faint whine when Billy slips out. Billy settles Steve back down on his lap, one hand reaching up to brace him by the back of the neck, the other curling around his own cock.

It’s not enough, right now, to come inside Steve, where the evidence of it is lost, unseen. This is what he’s aching for. He wants to paint Steve - the most perfect, unblemished canvas - with himself. Wants to stain Steve’s skin, hang him up in the gallery of his memories like precious art, too valuable to be exposed to the public eye. It’s just for him. Just for them.

“Watch,” he says. The hand on Steve’s neck coaxes his head down, thumb stroking at his jaw, the sharp spot just under his ear. “I’m gonna come, fuck. Watch.”

Together, they watch Billy pull himself off in long, firm strokes. There’s nothing but the wet sound of it, laid over a persistent background track of their harsh breathing. Steve stares down, transfixed, mouth slack. He knows what’s coming, the muscles in his stomach contracting as if in preparation, his untouched dick bobbing on its own.

“Do it,” Steve whispers, so quiet Billy’s not sure he even knows he’s saying it. Like it just slipped out.

It hits Billy like a fucking freight train. The muscles in his abdomen, his lower back, his thighs, all clench brutally, and he lets out a throaty groan, gripping himself tight. Come stripes Steve’s belly, splatters onto his chest, drips down to his thighs. It’s a magnificent goddamn sight, even better than what he was picturing. He examines the way it glistens on Steve’s skin as he tries to catch his breath.

He feels outside of his body as he unfurls his fingers one-by-one from himself. Watches, as if from above, while he slips his hand into the mess and slides it upward, crude as finger painting. Smears his come along Steve’s chest, over his nipples, along each clavicle. And Steve just lets him, chin tucked down to watch Billy work.

There’s no filter between Billy’s brain and his mouth right now, so he says exactly what he’s thinking.

“You look so good like this. You look like you belong to me,” he murmurs.

Soft and spellbound, Steve says, “I do.”

Like it’s just a fact. The most natural of all truths. Billy’s throat closes up - he almost can’t fucking take it.

With his pointer finger, he swipes along the edge of Steve’s belly button. Gathers up a dollop of come and, without much thought, brings it up to linger just in front of Steve’s mouth. Immediately, Steve’s lips part in invitation. A sigh of wonder escapes Billy, his spent cock stirring feebly at the sight.

Steve’s tongue peeks out, resting along his bottom lip. Like a runway, welcoming Billy’s finger to land. The moment he presses down, giving Steve a taste, Steve’s lips close around his fingertip and begin to suck lightly, lapping away every last bit.

“Jesus Christ, Steve,” Billy mutters, dazed. It’s so warm and wet in there, Billy wants this moment to stretch on infinitely. Instead, he slips his finger out, this time using two to scoop up more than before.

Doesn’t let Steve have it though. He’s only the canvas. Billy’s the artist, and his vision is still incomplete.

He dabs a bit onto Steve’s chin - which prompts Steve to tilt his head back, mouth falling open even wider - then down, a straight line along his neck, over the bump of his Adam’s apple. Takes more from the palette of Steve’s stomach, and outlines Steve’s lips with it, covering them like gloss. Steve licks it off hungrily as soon as Billy pulls away.

And if he’s so hungry for it, who is Billy to deny him?

He strokes Steve’s cheek with his clean hand, while his other busies itself with lifting more of Billy’s essence from Steve’s skin and feeding it to him. Steve takes it gratefully, suckling on Billy’s fingers, and he looks gone, almost as gone as Billy feels.

“I’m gonna make you come, okay?” he says softly. Steve catches his eyes, bites down on Billy’s fingertips. “It’s your turn, baby.”

Steve’s hips buck forward the moment Billy touches him, using his own release to slick up Steve’s already wet cock. The moment he does, Steve surges forward for a kiss.

When Steve’s tongue slips into his mouth, a bit of Billy goes with it. It should be gross, but it’s - not. It’s the hottest fucking thing he’s ever done, he thinks, Steve passing Billy’s come to him like this. He tastes the tang of himself, then urges his tongue into Steve’s mouth, giving the last bit back. On and on it goes until there’s nothing left but the taste of each other’s mouths, all the while Billy working Steve’s cock with focused enthusiasm.

Steve breaks the kiss suddenly to start moaning and gasping in earnest, pressing his forehead to Billy’s.

Billy may have been drinking tonight, but that’s not what he’s drunk on. It’s the smell of Steve, the sound of him. The reminder that this is real - that somehow he has this thing that he doesn’t deserve, but which keeps coming back to him, over and over. They say that’s how you know it’s meant to be, and maybe it is. Maybe they were meant for this, just the two of them.

They’re in a bubble of their own making - no, not a bubble, but a steel box with no windows, where no one can touch them, no one can see them. It’s perfect, and it’s safe, and it’s theirs. Steve’s moans echo in the space around them and Billy thinks - so long as they’re the only ones inside, so long as no one else knows where to find them, it can be this good forever.

Steve grasps at Billy when he comes. Then he slumps against Billy’s chest, blissed out and exhausted. Curious, Billy raises his hand to his mouth and has a taste. Together, they create a blend that is utterly and uniquely their own.

He lets the mixture coat his tongue and thinks how easy it would be to get addicted to this particular flavor. Thinks that now that he’s had this, he could never give it up.

Not in a million years.

 

-~-~-~-~-~-

 

- Now -

 

Everything hurts.

More than usual, anyway. Way more. His muscles ache, his throat is sore. Everything he cooks smells revolting to him - he has to brace himself over the garbage can more than a few times during his shift. The bare incandescents illuminating the kitchen burn his eyes, the clank of pots and pans set off a relentless pounding in his head and - okay. He may have overdone it.

And Wild Turkey is usually so good to him, too.

It’d been his closest companion last night, and it invited friends - Jim Beam and Evan Williams. Together, they smothered the sound of Steve’s voice, muddled Billy’s memory until he forgot the exact pattern of Steve’s face, kept him warm in the winter chill.

The details are a little blurry. He remembers the first several rounds, remembers haranguing the bartender - loudly - into giving him change to use at the jukebox, remembers playing some vaguely embarrassing games of pool. At one point, he knows, he got to that floaty place where he forgets to hate himself. But that was short lived.

He definitely hates himself right now. Because everything - really fucking hurts. On top of everything else, his hand is so stiff and sore underneath the bandages, it’s making it hard to work.

Unfortunately, he remembers that with nauseating clarity. Shadowed in the alleyway behind the bar just after closing time, keeping himself upright with his palms flat on the brick. Some backwater townie kneeling at his feet, doing his level best.

It wasn’t happening. Each time his dick flagged he punched the wall in frustration, and every time it stirred he punched the wall even harder, because it didn’t seem right that anything should feel good when inside he was such a raw, caustic mess.

Once the skin over his knuckles opened up, he pushed the guy off with a fuck off and a keep your fucking mouth shut. Pissed on the ground, and - in another genius move - drove himself home in the snow.

All in all, one of his sloppier nights. Seemed called-for at the time, though.

He checks the clock for about the hundredth time that day. Only twenty minutes left on his shift. He’s almost there. Eduardo’s scheduled for the dinner rush, and thank fuck for that, because Billy’s ready to go home and sleep for the next fourteen hours.

“Someone’s asking for you.”

Billy spins on his heel, which makes him a little dizzy, to find Patricia standing in the doorway, hands on her hips.

“What?”

“Somebody wants to talk to you,” she rasps, obviously annoyed at having to play messenger.

Billy squints. “Who?”

“How should I know? Some guy, some kid.”

No.

Right away, Billy’s heart kicks up a gallop in his constricting chest. It fucking can’t be.

“What does he look like?”

Patricia rolls her eyes, tosses her hand through the air helplessly. “I don’t know, about your age, brown hair, needs a haircut. What, do you want me to call in a sketch artist?”

“And he asked for me?” Billy asks, blinking. He’s too goddamn hungover for this.

“Yes, Billy, he asked for you. Now if you wouldn’t mind I got tables waiting and you still owe me four bowls of soup.”

“Right,” Billy says blankly. Just before she walks away, he shakes himself and says, “Can you tell him - that I -”

But he can’t finish the sentence. Doesn’t know if he should go out there, if he should just have Patricia say he’s busy. Or dead.

“Mother of Mary,” she groans. “I’ll tell him you’ll be right there.” Pointing a threatening finger at him, she adds, “Soup.”

On autopilot, he ladles out four bowls of lentil soup, sets them on the pass and - gently, delicately - rings the bell. Concentrates on that because he can’t think. It’s gotta be Steve, but what the hell does he want? What right does he even have, coming back here after what happened? Is he looking for round two? Maybe he has some other soul crushing news he forgot to deliver last night. Does he want to file some kind of complaint about that salad?

Billy scrubs his hands over his face. He really regrets that fucking stunt.

He regrets a lot of things.

Not going out there isn’t an option. Might be the smart thing to do, but the curiosity would eat him alive. No, he’s gonna go out there, but - he’s gotta buy himself some time.

So he reaches for the ground beef. If Steve really wants to talk to him that badly, he can wait.

By the time he’s done, his shift is coming to an end. Eduardo steps into the kitchen, wrapping his apron around himself, just as Billy is peeling his off. He greets his replacement, then shuts himself in the bathroom.

He examines himself in the mirror, taking down his hair and combing his fingers through. If Steve’s here to fight, then Billy’s determined to at least look good doing it. Struck with sudden concern about his breath, he rinses his mouth out in the sink, then stands straight, rolling his shoulders.

Let’s do this, he thinks. Makes sure to grab the warm plate on the way out.

Steve’s sitting on a barstool at the counter, coat and scarf bundled in his lap, despite the many open barstools on either side of him. He looks patient, if not a little restless, as he sits there sipping at a Coke, staring down at the formica.

Billy keeps the barrier between them when he approaches, staying on the inside of the counter. Slides the plate in front of Steve.

“Burger, extra onions, side of fries. On the house.”

Steve jolts, head snapping up. He looks first at Billy, then down at the food, eyes narrowing. “What’s this, some kind of peace offering?”

And yeah, maybe that is what it is. He doesn’t really wanna fight anymore. He’s too achy for that, too exhausted.

“You could call it that. I don't want to deal with you on an empty stomach. You’re a pain in the ass when you’re hungry. Plus, I figured it’d distract you long enough to book it, just in case you wanted to take that swing at me after all.”

“I told you, I don’t want to hit you.” Steve lets out an exasperated breath, then after a pause, adds out of one side of his mouth, “Even though you deserve it.”

Billy cocks his head, shrugs. “Yeah, well. Violence never solved anything. Burgers, on the other hand…” he trails off, nudging the plate closer to Steve with his index finger.

The good one, of course. The one that’s attached to a hand that isn’t torn up under fraying bandages. Violence never solved anything. Right.

A long moment passes where Steve simply stares down at the food. He sniffs, then licks his lips briefly. His fingers are fiddling in his lap, and it’s ridiculous, really. No one in the history of time has ever contemplated a burger and fries this hard.

Without prompting, Billy reaches down the counter and grabs a salt shaker, setting it down next to Steve’s plate. Tries to shake off the whisper of deja vu that creeps over him.

“So, if you’re not here to kick my ass,” he says a little mockingly, as if Steve didn’t have a prayer in hell anyway, “then to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Steve takes a deep breath. Manages to drag his gaze up, but lands somewhere in the vicinity of the clock behind Billy’s right shoulder. He lays his forearms on the counter on either side of his plate, hands in plain view.

“Look. I don’t like the way we left things last night.”

Now that’s a surprise. Billy folds his arms over his chest and waits. Watches Steve’s eyes dart around as he speaks, landing anywhere but Billy’s face.

“It shouldn’t have gone down like that. It’s been - a long time, and it just seems - stupid. To fight. Like, pointless. To leave things on bad terms. I mean, you were a dick -”

“So were you.”

Which is maybe a little unfair. Billy started it, he knows that, but he’s not about to take all the blame for what happened. Steve just forges on, though.

“But - I’m going back home right after Christmas, and I think it would’ve bothered me. It didn’t feel right. So. I just thought I’d come down here and,” Steve waves one of his hands around, like he’s trying to sift through empty space for the right words, “- try to clear the air.”  

And it’s not an apology by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels like one. It’s simple, and straightforward, and doesn’t ask for a response. Just knowing their argument was weighing on Steve’s conscience feels like another small win in a series of truly surreal victories in the last twenty-four hours.

“Consider it clear.” Pretty boy, he almost adds, a reflex, but there are too many people within earshot. “I’m not really the grudge-holding type.”

He thinks he can see Steve exhale, sees his shoulders slump a little.

“Alright. Well.”

Steve drums his fingers on the counter, both hands. Clears his throat. He’s obviously searching for a way to cut through the ensuing silence, and Billy can feel the awkwardness settling over them like a blanket.

“You gonna eat or what? I slaved over that.”

The way Steve squints down at his food, like he’s searching it for clues, almost makes Billy laugh.

“You didn’t spit in it or anything, did you?” Steve asks slowly.

Billy snorts. “And ruin my reputation as Hawkins’ finest mediocre truck stop diner chef? C’mon. I’d never mess with the food.”

At that, Steve looks up. Right at Billy’s face. Finally.

It’s easier, this time, when their eyes meet and hold. Without the audience. Without the shock - or the windchill - turning his nerves to ice. The remnants of last night’s mistakes dulling his senses just enough that it’s almost - almost - easy.

Steve’s cheeks take on the faintest tinge of pink before he turns away, scoffing. He grabs the salt, wearing something that looks suspiciously like a smile as he shakes it liberally over his fries.

“We should’ve reported you for that, it was disgusting. A new low, even for this place.”

“Yeah, well,” Bill says, leaning his hip against the counter. “Guess I was having an off day.”

The coat in Steve’s lap rustles loudly as he lifts off his seat to reach for the ketchup. “That makes two of us.”

Billy leans to grab the bottle before Steve can close his fingers around it, sets it down by his plate. “Oh, you mean hassling cooks in restaurant alleyways isn’t routine for you?”

“What, you didn’t like that?”

“Can’t say it was the most fun I’ve ever had in that alley, no.”

Visions come to him rapidfire, as clear as if from yesterday, as foggy as if from a million years ago. Sharing hazy joints and warm, syrupy kisses. Kicking cans back and forth in ridiculous games of Garbage Soccer, whiling away the time with nowhere to go and nothing to do but enjoy each other’s company. The memories hit him like a javelin to the chest, and he’s sure Steve remembers too, from the way he instantly looks down, swallowing thick and loud.

“Well, trust me, I don’t plan on making it a habit,” he mutters.

“Yeah, that was kind of a shitshow,” Billy says.

Steve laughs softly. Shakes his head.

“It’s always a shitshow with us.”

Billy’s breath catches. He presses his lips together tight. Lets several loaded seconds drip by.

“Look, my shift just ended. How about I grab a couple shakes and we go catch up over there while you finish your burger?” he says, gesturing to the corner booth. Their booth, once. Kinda. He pushes the thought aside, heart thumping wildly in his chest. There’s no doubt this time. He wants Steve to say yes.

Steve turns on his stool, eyeing the booth while Billy practically watches the gears turn in his head.

Then, he slips off his stool, gathering his winter gear under one arm, and simply says, “alright.”

The relief that courses through Billy is so profound, he has to lock his knees to make sure he stays standing. Tries not to let it show on his face. This is nothing. It’s a couple shakes and a conversation, for old times’ sake. That’s all this is and just because it’s so much more than Billy thought he’d ever have again, it’s nothing to fall apart over.

“Meet you over there,” he says. Slaps the counter to punctuate his words. Watches Steve collect his plate and walk away.

It’s just a conversation. They’ll catch up, and then they’ll go their separate ways. Steve back to Minneapolis, back to his fiancé, and Billy back to his run-down home. His run-down existence. It’s nothing, not really. But that doesn’t change the fact that he feels weightless, his hangover a distant memory.

Shit.



They navigate through the basics pretty quickly. Tedious grown-up formalities that only serve as reminders of how long it’s been.

But just as Billy starts to think he made a huge mistake, that he should’ve packed Steve’s food in a to-go container and sent him on his way, Steve mentions having recently bought the new Van Halen record and things - shift.

Just like that.

Once they get going, there’s no slowing down. There seem to be endless topics of conversation, each one as trivial as the next: They debate about whether Sammy Hagar can hold a candle to David Lee Roth. They commiserate about how Halloween 4 was a tragically underrated classic. Billy gives Steve shit for how long it’s been since he’s gotten an oil change. Steve gives Billy shit for how long it’s been since he’s gotten a haircut. They trade dirty jokes and dirtier rumors until Billy’s throat feels raw. He can’t remember the last time he talked so much. Doesn’t understand how it could be this easy.

They have so much to discuss, in fact, that Steve forgets about his dinner even as it sits in front of him, dying on the plate.

“Seriously, you gonna let that go to waste?”

“Oh shit, yeah.” Steve blinks down at his food like he’s only just realized it’s there. He licks his lips, swallows. Picks up the burger with both hands. “I’ve been trying to save up my appetite for this weekend, but - fuck it.”

“That so? I don’t think I remember you ever turning down a meal.”

“Yeah, I got a big Christmas Eve blowout at the Byers’ ahead of me, then a huge Christmas dinner the next day. I won’t need to eat for, like, a week after all that.” Holding the burger aloft, Steve glances at Billy and adds, “How about you? You got holiday plans?”

Billy sips at his melty shake, wondering if there’s anything to be gained by telling the truth. Lying - about this, at least - seems preferable. Because his Christmas plans? To be home alone, nursing a fifth of whiskey until he falls asleep in front of the TV? Pathetic at worst, a total bummer at best. Steve doesn’t need to know that shit.

“Oh, you know, the usual. Church, caroling, giving toys to orphans. That kinda shit.” He watches Steve polish off what seems like half his burger in a single bite, looking deeply satisfied, and jumps at the opportunity to change the subject. “I knew you didn’t like tuna melts, by the way.”

“What?” Steve says, food lodged in his cheek. Which is - very him. It’s almost a comfort.

Billy’s sprawled on his side of the booth, a little slumped, legs stretched out in front of him. He twirls his straw idly in his milkshake, watching Steve dab away the juices that are running down his chin. “You ordered a tuna melt the other night. It was fuckin’ weird.”

Steve shrugs. Dips a handful of fries in the pool of ketchup and says, “I’ve been trying to eat healthier these days,” before cramming it all into his mouth.

Billy raises a brow. “I see that.”

Scoffing, Steve gestures to the mostly-full glass in front of Billy. “That’s not exactly a protein shake, is it?”

“Hey, nothing wrong with cheating a little, every once in a while,” Billy says without thinking. His head goes fuzzy for a second, the unintended implication zipping through his awareness.

Steve blows past it.

“You do seem to be keeping up the Signature Hargrove Physique,” he says, giving Billy a quick once-over. Blink and you miss it. “So, you’re probably right.”

Billy flushes, mouth dry, shrugging as if to say, naturally. Just as he’s about to respond, his jaw snaps shut.

There it is again.

He can’t tell if it’s on purpose or not - maybe they’re both just on edge, fidgety - but Steve’s foot keeps finding Billy’s under the table. A quick bump of the toe of his shoe, rubber on rubber. There, then gone. Steve’s quick to snatch his foot away, pull it back toward himself with an apologetic little shuffle in his seat, but every so often, it starts to wander. And every time Billy feels it, he has to scramble to find the thread of the conversation.

“So tell me,” Billy says. “What is it they do for fun up in - where was it again? Milwaukee?”

Steve just gives him a look. Doesn’t bother correcting him. He knows Billy knows.

Which - Billy hates that. Always has. The way Steve could effortlessly wade through his bullshit and come out clean on the other side. Time and distance hasn’t seemed to dull that particular skill at all.

Somewhere in his consciousness, he knows hours are slipping away from them like water through a sieve. Steve finishes his burger, his shake, and most of his fries while the sounds of the dinner rush swell and wane. His coworkers start going through the motions of their evening routine - Billy doesn’t miss the curious glances they aim at him during each pass through the dining room floor. Shooting back the occasional dirty look or middle finger doesn’t seem to deter them, but it does make Steve laugh.

They don’t talk about the things they used to do when they were alone. They don’t talk about how it was before it wasn’t anymore. The name Samantha doesn’t fall from Steve’s lips once. Like she doesn’t even exist.

The weight of all they’re not saying presses down on Billy’s chest, getting heavier with each passing minute, but he’s glad to bear it. Wouldn’t dare lift it. He doesn’t want this to end.

Because the thing is, Steve keeps smiling. He’s smiling that goofy, lopsided smile as he looks down bashfully at the table, rolls a balled-up straw wrapper between his fingers. Billy watches him talk, watches his body shift under the navy blue long-sleeved polo he’s wearing - which again, is just classic Steve. Watches his nose crinkle and bits of hair flop down into his face, until he finally has no choice but to admit it to himself - Steve is still insanely, effortlessly beautiful. Just like he was then, except he’s been sculpted by time. He’s lost that last little bit of his youthful roundness, looks more solid, more self-assured.

His jaw looks sharp enough to cut glass and Billy wonders, does he still run cold?

Shaking himself, he mindlessly reaches out for one of the leftover fries strewn on Steve’s plate.

Steve’s eyes dart down to the ratty bandage, brows knitting together.

“What happened there?”

Billy snatches his hand back, tucking it into his lap and out of sight.

“Oh, you know,” he says, sitting up straighter, running the fingers from his good hand through his hair. He swallows the shame that instantly rises up like bile, smothers the memory before it can solidify in his mind yet again - it’s not invited here, to this table. “Kitchen hazard. Comes with the job. They don’t have Worker’s Comp but there is an expired first aid kit, so, y’know. Perks.”

A mischievous, all-too-familiar gleam sparkles in Steve’s eye. “Couldn’t have been worse than the time you sliced your leg open -”

“Don’t.”

“- trying to open a bag of Doritos.”

“Oh my god,” Billy groans.

“During your switchblade phase, as I like to call it.”

“You had to bring that up,” Billy says, squinting. “What happened to not mentioning that? Ever?”

Steve starts cracking up. He’s beaming. “Well who opens up a bag of chips with a knife! God, you loved that fucking switchblade. You still have that thing?”

“No, no, the switchblade is retired.” Which is only partially true. He doesn’t carry it around with him anymore, but he knows exactly where it is. Right at the front of his nightstand drawer, just in case -

“Thank God for that, I’m pretty sure you qualified as a danger to yourself and others back then.”

Billy huffs. “Me? Where’s that bat of yours these days?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Steve says, winking, slipping his milkshake straw between his lips.

Leaning forward in his seat, Billy says, low, “Is that a threat, or are you trying to solicit a bribe?”

All that divides them is the wooden tabletop, and it seems to be getting narrower with each passing second. Steve sets down his empty glass and pushes it away. He matches Billy in both body language and volume, close and conspiratorial when he says, “That depends, what you’ll give me?”

Billy folds his arms on the table, looks pointedly into Steve’s eyes. “That depends. What do you want?”

The words hang suspended in the still air between them. As they scrutinize each other, the sound of the heat kicks on in the vent above them, drowning out the cheesy Christmas music, the clinking of dishes. But one sound does cut through - the shrill jangling of the bell on the front door.

It draws Steve’s attention, and Billy watches his face light up in surprise and delight in rapid succession, as the bubble bursts around them.

“Steve?!” comes a piercing voice from somewhere off to Billy’s left.

“No way!” Steve calls, breaking into a grin and immediately sliding out of the booth.

No sooner is Steve standing before someone barrels into him, arms folding around his neck. Billy doesn’t even manage to catch a glimpse of her before her face is tucked out of view, though he has a sinking suspicion he knows who it is.

Billy grabs his depleted milkshake and clenches it tightly, eyes trained to the table. When he glances over, he knows for sure. If the thick wool coat and swinging ponytail didn’t do it, the lanky, stringy-haired shadow trailing closely behind her would certainly do the trick.

“It’s so good to see you,” Nancy says, breathless and fond. “I heard you were in town but I didn’t think we were going to see you ‘til Saturday!”

“Just got in the other day,” Steve says, pulling out of the hug. “It’s good to see you, too, Nance, Jonathan.”

Nancy shifts just enough to give Jonathan room to step into a brief hug. When Steve pulls back, Nancy takes hold of his upper arm, gripping, keeping him close. That’s all it takes before Billy feels irritation bubbling up in his chest. It’s not fair, he knows - but what in this life ever is?

“What’re you guys doing here?” Steve asks.

“We’re picking up a couple frozen cakes that Jonathan’s mom ordered. They’re for Saturday - you’ll be there, right?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

Billy licks his lips. Looks around awkwardly until he spots a bit of water damage on the wall. He’s not sure what to say, if he should say anything at all, so he focuses on the stain, deciding it looks like a palm tree. But like, a short one.

“And are you bringing -” Nancy cuts herself off, looking at Jonathan, then back at Steve, grinning as giddily as a schoolgirl. “I mean, sorry if it was supposed to be a surprise, but - we heard you got engaged!”

Billy’s stomach sinks. Here he’d almost let himself forget.

Steve glances at Billy, then directs a small smile back at his friends. He reaches up to scratch through the hairs at the back of his neck, clearing his throat. “Oh, yeah,” he says timidly.

Nancy squeezes at Steve’s arm, her voice steady and warm. “That’s so great, Steve, honestly, that’s really great. Congratulations.”

“Yeah, congratulations, man,” Jonathan offers.

The symptoms of Billy’s hangover come rushing back full force, though he’s not sure it’s entirely accurate to blame his nausea on last night’s whiskey. The way everyone’s ignoring him, though, he thinks he could puke right here at the table and no one would bat an eye. Thinks maybe he should go for it.

“Thanks, guys,” Steve says, rubbing absently at his wrist. Billy rubs at his own wrist under the table.

“What was her name, Amanda?” Nancy asks, looking at Jonathan for confirmation.

“Samantha, I think?” Jonathan says quietly.

Steve nods. “Yeah, Samantha. And yeah, she came down with me. We’ll both be there.”

“Yes, Samantha! Is she with you now? Where is she?” Nancy asks, fucking grilling him, really. Taking up this precious time with all her dumbass questions. And how is it she already knows all about Steve’s situation? How does Jonathan know her name? Billy imagines himself hauling the both of them across the room, shoving them out the door and locking it behind them. It’s the least they’d deserve for taking Billy’s moment and, invisible as he apparently is, he’d probably get away with it.

“Oh, she’s not here. I was just.” Steve’s eyes dart fleetingly toward Billy again. For his part, Billy continues doing his best impression of the defective cappuccino machine as he sits there, unmoving and overheating. “We were just - catching up. Y’know, old time’s sake.”

“Oh, right,” Nancy says, finally looking Billy’s direction. “Hey,” she adds, impassive. An afterthought.

“Hey,” Billy says, voice tight.

It’s the first time since the Wonder Twins’ arrival that anyone’s acknowledged Billy’s presence. He can feel three pairs of eyes on him suddenly, and he takes a long, purposeful breath in an attempt not to turn red. The last thing he needs is for it to seem like he gives a fuck about any of this.

Nancy finally lets go of Steve, folding her arms over her chest. “I heard you were working here.”

Billy rolls his head in her direction. Smiles through gritted teeth. “Gee, Wheeler, sounds like you’ve just heard everything, haven’t you?” He tries to keep his voice even, but he knows he fails spectacularly.

At that, she rounds on him more fully. “Yeah, actually, I guess I have.”

That old familiar feeling comes rolling back like a tidal wave. The one that makes him want to get under someone’s skin, so deep they have no choice but to notice he’s there. The one that says, try me. See what happens. Billy can’t help but ride it. Almost wants to thank Nancy for giving him the chance to stretch his legs.

He sprawls out in his seat, affecting the most casual posture he can manage, even as his muscles ache with tension. With a dispassionate sigh, he throws his arm over the back of the booth and says, “Good for you, Princess. It’s important to stay informed.”

Steve scrubs a quick hand over his face, then up through his hair in one fluid motion before dropping it to his side. “Are you guys stickin’ around?” It’s obvious he’s only asking to be polite, which brings Billy no small measure of satisfaction.

“Well, I don’t want to intrude,” she says, eyeing Billy. Like he’s the intruder between the two of them.

“Yeah, you mind?” Billy says. “Kind of a two-man conversation going on here.”

She laughs, a haughty trill. “Oh trust me, I have no intention of joining you.” Billy feels his eyebrows fly up.

“Great,” he shoots back, watching Nancy’s eyes narrow. “Because you weren’t invited.”

“Great.”

It’s a battle of the wills as they stare each other down, Billy’s blood heating with each passing moment. He wants to scream that she’s not the only goddamn ex here, but, Billy realizes, she’s the good ex. The supportive ex. The one that finds out about Steve’s engagement and says congratulations, like she means it. Says she wants to meet her, when Billy wishes he didn’t even know her name.

Jonathan touches her elbow. “Nancy, c’mon, let’s get going. It’s late.”

Billy shifts his gaze over to Jonathan, who looks so uncomfortable, Billy might pity him if he wasn’t so annoyed. “Yeah, Byers, better get those cakes to your mommy before they melt.”

Nancy rolls her eyes. Turns her head to speak over her shoulder. “You’re right, we should go.”

No matter how cool she’s trying to play it, Billy can see that she’s rattled. Her face is flushed, lips pursed, movements stiff as she turns back toward Steve for a departing hug. Like it’s taking everything she has to keep it together.

Billy knows the feeling.

“We’ll catch up later, okay? It really was so good to see you. I can’t wait to meet Sam.”

Steve smiles a close-lipped smile, nods into the hug before pulling back. “I’ll see you guys Saturday.”

“See you,” Jonathan says, raising his hand in a small wave.

Nancy’s eyes dart to Billy almost imperceptibly. Then she leans forward, onto the tips of her toes, and pecks a quick, friendly kiss to Steve’s cheek. “Bye,” she says, smiling and turning to leave.

“Bye,” Billy says, loud and sarcastic. He can’t seem to stop himself. “Careful driving home, lotta snow out there. Wouldn’t want you driving into a ditch.”

“Billy,” Steve says quietly.

But the words just keep coming. He’s 17 again and riding the wave for all he’s worth, until he falls, until all that’s left is the pull of the Pacific’s icy undertow.

“I mean, if you wind up in the hospital, where are you gonna get all the town gossip from, right?”

He’s jittering in his seat, leg bouncing under the table. He doesn’t need to look at Steve to know he’s pissed. It’s too late. The wave’s already crested, now it’s time for the plunge.

“Leave it,” Jonathan says, soft, setting a hand on Nancy’s waist.

But Steve must love ‘em stubborn, because Nancy turns on the spot, facing Billy full-on.

“Speaking of,” she says, slow and pointed.

Suddenly Billy realizes he’s made a huge mistake.

“Sorry to hear about your dad. Such a shame. Hope he makes a speedy recovery.”

Except she doesn’t sound sorry at all. She sounds like someone who knows they’ve won. A saccharine smile blooms across her face as she waits for Billy to reply, knowing he won’t.

All the blood drained from Billy’s face, he looks at Steve. Steve’s already looking back.

“Nancy, come on,” Jonathan urges. “Why don’t you wait in the car while I get the cakes?”

“Okay,” Nancy says. To Steve she adds, “see you Saturday,” then she turns away with a little huff, and pads toward the door without another word, the jingling bells announcing her departure.

Billy’s breathing hard as Steve slides back into the booth, looking a little dazed.

“Well, that was…”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t expect to see them here.”

Fidgety, in desperate need of something to do with his hands, Billy reaches for a cup of creamer and sets it face down on the table, flipping it over with one finger. “I know.”

An awkward silence descends over their booth. It’s fucking terrible. This was destined to go South one way or another, Billy should’ve realized that from the start. He never should’ve done this. He should’ve just shaken Steve’s hand, wished him a good night and a great life and been done with it. Nice as it was for a while, somehow not having it at all seems better than watching it end so unceremoniously.

Billy picks up a nearby steak knife and idly digs the tip of the blade into the wood grain. His manager would kill him for doing that, but he’s gotta do something, and he can’t seem to look at Steve at all.

“So,” he says finally. “I guess we should…”

“What’s up with your dad?” Steve asks. Like he can sense the window of opportunity closing. “I didn’t know that he… was, uh. Is everything okay?”

Billy tries to burn a hole through the table with his eyes. His head really fucking hurts. He’s queasy as hell, his mouth tacky, and god, is he tired. He’s so, so tired. Thinks wildly for a second that maybe he’ll be the one that ends up in a ditch tonight, when he inevitably falls asleep behind the wheel. This has been a disaster. He wants a drink. He wants his bed.

“Yeah, he, uh,” Billy mutters, stopping to suck at his teeth, take a shaky breath. “He was in an accident, so. He’s in the hospital for a little while. No big deal.”

“Oh,” Steve says, voice unbearably soft. It only makes Billy’s head pound harder. “I’m sorry.”

Billy feels his lips quirk up on one side. Sorry, he says. Yeah, sure.

“Save your pity, Harrington.”

In his peripheral vision, he sees Steve set his hand on the tabletop. Sees it creep forward, then stop.

“Listen, I’m - it’s been -”

“I’m gonna go out for a square. You want one?” Billy asks. Whatever Steve’s got to say, he doesn’t want to hear it. Not sure he can handle it, no matter what it is. Four years. They tried. Game over.

“Oh, I don’t - I don’t smoke anymore,” Steve says sheepishly. And of-fucking-course he doesn’t.

Billy tries to keep his tone light. “Wow, first the tuna melt, now this. Minneapolis must be the land of self-improvement.”

Then he feels it. A foot against his, kicking gently at his shoe. This time, it doesn’t feel like an accident at all.

“I knew you knew where I live,” Steve says in a playful drawl.

When Billy looks up, Steve’s smiling. It’s small, but it’s there.

Despite his mood and the acid in his throat, Billy smiles back. As involuntary as everything else.

“C’mon,” Steve says, gathering up his coat, wrapping his scarf around his neck. “I could use some fresh air, anyway.”

Billy nods and rises from his seat, patting his back pocket to feel the slightly crushed pack of smokes. “Be right back.”

Minutes later, Billy emerges from the back wrapped in his coat, denim with a thick fleece lining.

“So you do have one,” Steve says, flicking at the collar as they make their way outside.

Billy knocks a cigarette out of the pack and slips it between his lips. “Yeah, yeah. You’re not the only one who can improve themselves.

They stand in companionable quiet, mostly, watching their breath curl into the night air. The cold is a refreshing shock to his system. It calms his stomach, his mind. It’s been a strange night.

Steve tugs up his sleeves, revealing an - honestly, pretty dorky - digital watch. When he glances down at it, his easy smile fades, taking the remnants of Billy’s mangled hopes with it.

“Guess you should probably get going,” Billy says. “You got people waiting on you.”

He tries very hard not to think about who all that list includes.

“Guess so,” Steve says. Restlessly, he looks over to his car, back at Billy, then back, and back again. Takes a deep breath, exhaling audibly, sounding almost frustrated.

Billy just watches him, taking a long drag from his cigarette. Finally, he sees something come over Steve’s expression. Some sort of resolve settling into place.

The look he gives Billy is unspeakably earnest. His eyes are wide, his lips slightly parted. His neck works as he swallows, before taking a small step closer. It’s the sort of look that Billy wants to cower from. It’s too open, too soft, too sincere.

Billy stands tall in the face of it, breathing out smoke through his nose, and thinks he might remember the way Steve looks in this moment for the rest of his lonely life.

“I’m glad we did this,” Steve says. “This was - good.”

“Yeah,” Billy says. He’s not sure if it was. But if Steve thinks it was, that’s good enough for now.

Steve cocks his head slightly, considering. “Maybe we could touch base again sometime.”

“Maybe.”

“At the very least, I come back every year around this time.”

I know.

“Oh.”

“So, maybe next year.”

Billy drops his cigarette, crushes it into the snow. “You know where to find me.”

Steve hums.

They look at each other for what feels like a long time. Just the two of them, together in the snow outside Benny’s. It feels like old times, but also so, so different.

Steve’s the first one to move. Not away, but towards, pulling Billy into a hug. Every muscle in Billy’s body tenses on instinct, but the moment Steve tightens his hold, he relaxes all over. Melts right into it even as his heart kicks up, arms rising to wrap around Steve’s back.

He breathes Steve in - he smells the same. He may have changed his diet, he may have quit smoking. He may not be the man Billy remembers, but goddamnit, he smells the the fucking same. And the way Billy feels in his arms - that hasn’t changed either. It’s so much. It’s all been so much, and Billy has to hold his breath to resist the humiliating urge to cry. He just squeezes Steve back instead.

“Take care of yourself, Billy,” Steve says into his hair.

Billy nods. They pull away from each other at the same time, and he manages to choke out, “you, too.”

With one last bittersweet smile, Steve turns and plods through the snow to his car.

Billy watches him brush the snow from his windshield, fiddle with his keys. He can’t tell if Steve’s moving slowly or if it’s just his imagination. It seems crazy to watch Steve leave again. It doesn’t seem right, that that should be the end of it. But what else is there?

“Hey,” he calls out. Steve’s head pops up just as he’s pulling his car door open.

“You, uh - you get all your Christmas shopping done?”

Steve pauses, then says, “Actually, no.”

“Me either,” Billy says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Would you wanna, like, go do that tomorrow? You can help me pick something out for the brat.”

Steve smiles that stupid lopsided smile like he made it just for Billy. Maybe it’s the glow of the streetlamp, but Billy swears he sees Steve’s eyes shine with promise.

“Yeah, we should do that. Let’s do that.”