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Hawkins is a sleepy town. 

 

On the surface, it’s very much what you see is what you get. With its old diners, an ancient movie theatre, and a serious pothole problem, Hawkins looks just like every other shithole in small town America. Everyone knows everyone, the crime is petty, and if something exciting happens, everybody hears about it by sundown. The arrival of newcomers has always meant whispers, rumours, and excitement. Billy Hargrove, his fiery temper, and his Camaro were no different.

 

After he steps out of his car on that first chilly morning, the only thing Steve hears in the hallways at school for the next three days revolve around Billy. Billy is from California, Billy has an earring, Billy’s eyes are the sweetest blue I’ve ever seen, Billy answered all of Mr. Andrews’ questions in English like a pro, Billy, Billy, Billy.

 

Steve doesn’t really meet Billy officially until basketball practice on Monday when they’re paired up for a protective ball-handling drill. As Coach blows the whistle signalling them to start,  Billy shuffles up behind Steve, too close too close too close, and hisses, “Harrington, right?” but Steve can tell that Billy already knows exactly who Steve is. Steve’s body is slick with sweat - Coach had been working them hard all practice - and Billy’s is no better. Their arms practically slide against another when Billy reaches across Steve’s side to try and swipe the ball away. Steve retaliates, leaning back into Billy’s space and driving his shoulder into Billy’s chest, knocking his arm away and keeping his dribbling under control. Billy doesn’t give up though, keeps his feet firmly planted on the court as he reaches again, still talking.

 

“Heard a lot about you, man,” he says, his breath hot on Steve’s ear as he confirms Steve’s suspicions. Steve shivers involuntarily, willing himself not to get distracted.

 

“Oh yeah?” he says, tries to keep his voice neutral. Billy probably hasn’t heard anything good, that’s for sure. The only things people have been saying about Steve lately usually sound something like: Steve’s no fun anymore, Harrington’s fucking lost it, Steve left Math early because he fell asleep in his desk and starting screaming like a fucking lunatic, Steve, Steve, Steve.

 

“Yeah,” says Billy, making another swipe for the ball. Steve pivots so that he’s facing Billy, looking him dead in the eyes when he continues. “Heard you’re the best player this team has.”

 

Steve huffs. He is, but what is this guy playing at -- complimenting him so he can steal the ball? Steve doesn’t think so. He doesn’t bother answering, just crosses over swiftly when Hargrove reaches for the ball, pleased at the way he lurches forward as though he momentarily lost his balance.

 

“What? Not gonna say thanks?” Billy says, laughing a little and raising a challenging eyebrow. His eyes are bright, expressive, calculating. His voice is still friendly-like, not at all threatening in the way that Tommy’s has been for the past few months, but it makes Steve a bit uneasy. No one’s really been nice to him lately. 

 

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Steve replies, almost losing control of his dribble when Billy moves towards him again. The corner of Billy’s mouth quirks up when Steve successfully keeps the ball away from him. Suddenly, Coach blows the whistle and orders them to switch roles. There’s squeaking and shuffling as the team swaps positions. Steve walks towards Billy with the ball tucked between his elbow and his side. He’s about to hand it over when Billy meets him halfway, shuffles forward until they’re standing toe to toe. Billy puts one hand on the ball, the other fisting the thin fabric of Steve’s grey Hawkins basketball t-shirt, pulling Steve even closer. From this distance, Steve can see the way Billy’s long eyelashes fan across his cheek as he slowly blinks, the way his tongue darts out of his mouth to lick his lips shamelessly. 

 

“Wanna know what I think, Harrington?” says Billy, so quietly that Steve doesn’t think he’d be able to hear his words if they weren’t this close.

 

“Not really?” Steve responds, confused, trying to back out of Billy’s grip. Billy holds on, unrelenting. He’s smiling, his sharp eyes flickering over Steve’s form as though he’s impressed.

 

“You and me -- I think we’re gonna get along real good,” says Billy. He sounds like he means it, which is odd. Then he lets go of Steve’s shirt, steals the ball out of his hold, knocks Steve to the side, and drives for the basket. He whoops showily as the ball sails through the net.

 

Steve stands where Billy left him, brow furrowed.

 

 

-

 

 

Steve spends the most of his time at practice, at home, or with Dustin. It’s kind of fucked up, probably, that the most fun he’s had in a year is with some thirteen-year-old geek who’s at a constant ten on both the volume and excitement scale, but that’s Steve’s reality now, so.

 

Dustin is sweet in all the ways Steve never was as a kid, and he thinks it most likely has something to do with Claudia Henderson being the most understanding, doting, present mother of all time. Steve never had that from his parents. There was always something more important that needed tending to.

 

There’s an old photo, buckled and worn, that Steve found one day in the attic when he was looking for his baseball glove. It’s of him and Yvonne, his childhood nanny. He can’t be more than two or three years old, with big rosy cheeks and fluffy hair. He’s got an ice-cream cone clutched in his tiny fist and strawberry sauce across his lips, sitting on Yvonne’s lap with the biggest, happiest grin he could’ve mustered. She’s squeezing him tight, smiling bright and kind, her head tilted down at him like he was the cutest thing she’d ever seen. The photo is Steve’s favourite, because it’s so different from all the other one’s his parents have of him. Another photograph, this one blown up and mounted across from the fireplace in the sitting room, was probably taken around the same time as his picture with Yvonne, because he’s got a little cut on his forehead in both. This one is a family picture and Steve loathes it. In it, his mom and dad are sitting with him in between them, all dressed impeccably. There’s a green velvet bow tie on Steve’s neck, and his father’s left hand is hovering awkwardly above his mom’s shoulder, not even touching. Each of them have a palm pressed to Steve’s tiny shoulder like they’re trying to push him down and keep him still.

 

Sometimes, when his parents are away for long enough that he can get away with it - which is most of the time - Steve takes it down from its place on the wall and tucks it under the couch so he doesn’t have to look at it.

 

It’s Friday, a week and a half since school began, and he’s supposed to be taking Dustin to Mike’s so he can play Dungeons and Dragons. He’s thinking about the picture of him and Yvonne when he pulls into Dustin’s driveway and the kid runs out with a tin of cookies in his hand, Claudia chasing after him in just her slippers.

 

“Dustin! Dustin, just-- oh my goodness. Wait! Wait, you’re forgetting something important,” she singsongs, dangling a house key midair. She waits, hands on her hips, as he trudges back up the driveway. When she hands it over, she gives Dustin a crushing hug and presses a kiss to his head before waving to Steve and heading back inside.

 

Dustin slides into his passenger seat, laden down with his backpack and the tin of cookies. He doesn’t offer Steve any, so Steve reaches out and snatches one for himself.

 

Hey,” Dustin whines. “Those are for Mike’s house.”

 

“Yeah, well,” says Steve. “I’m not invited to Mike’s house, and I’m taking you there, so I think you kinda owe me, buddy.”

 

“The last place you wanna be is Mike’s house,” Dustin mutters, but he hands Steve a second cookie anyways. He’s right, is the thing. Mike’s house is Nancy’s house, and Nancy’s house has too many people in it that he doesn’t want to talk to or even see. Like, for example, Nancy. Jonathan’s added presence is just an unlucky, unwanted, unappreciated bonus.

 

Steve snorts a little and takes a big bite from the cookie, letting the chocolate melt over his tongue and distract him.

 

“How’s school going?” he asks when Dustin doesn’t say anything else. They’re driving down Kerley Street, headlights almost useless in the heavy fog that’s been rolling over Hawkins since late that afternoon.

 

“It’s fine.” Dustin shrugs. “I think I might join band.”

 

“Cool,” Steve says. “You should.”

 

“Mike says it’ll be lame,” Dustin says. He’s fiddling with the strap of his backpack when Steve glances over at him.

 

“Mike thinks literally everything is lame,” Steve points out, turning back to the road. “He thinks I’m lame.”

 

“Which you’re obviously not.” Dustin nods. “So he’s probably wrong about band, too.”

 

“Exactly,” Steve agrees.

 

“I think Lucas might join with me,” Dustin informs him.

 

“Hm, that’s nice,” Steve says absently. He’s about to turn left to go continue their route to the Wheeler’s place when Dustin shrieks “Wait!”

 

Immediately, Steve slams down on the breaks, wincing as his seat belt cuts across his chest. “Jesus.” He looks around, nervous. He’s lucky there wasn’t anyone behind them, because they definitely would’ve been rear-ended. He can imagine his dad’s reaction to a phone call from Steve about him wrecking the Beemer, and it’s not pretty. “What the hell, Dustin?”

 

“I forgot to tell you, we need to pick up Max.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Max.”

 

“Yeah, I heard you,” Steve says, “But I don’t know who that is or where he lives? So, you gonna give me something to go off of here, or…?”

 

She lives on Old Cherry Road,” Dustin corrects him. “Do you know how to get there?”

 

“I’ve lived here for eighteen years, I know where Old Cherry Road is,” Steve rolls his eyes. “And since when do you have friends who are girls?

 

“Since last Thursday,” Dustin says. He looks way too proud of himself for Steve to say anything remotely funny about that, so he just drives on.

 

He drives until Dustin says, it’s that one, on the left, and Steve pulls up to a tiny house with Billy Hargrove’s unmistakable Camaro parked in the driveway. As his headlights sweep over the front of the house, he sees the curtain in the front window parting, and a small face peek out through the gap. A moment later, there’s a girl with wild red hair bounding down the front steps and swinging open Steve’s back door. Before she has a chance to so much as pull it shut, the front door of the house opens again and Billy’s standing there, brows furrowed.

 

“Ignore him,” the girl, Max, says.

 

She doesn’t close the door right away, so that means that Steve can hear it pretty clearly when Billy calls out, “Harrington, is that you?” and begins climbing down the steps onto the patchy front lawn. He’s wearing a variation of the clothes he usually wears to school: denim on denim and a gaudy button up that may or may not be buttoned at all.

 

“Jesus,” says Max. “Here we go.”

 

“Billy’s your brother?” Steve asks, twisting in his seat so he can look back at Max. They do have the same clear blue eyes.

 

She rolls her eyes and says, “Step-brother,” at the exact same time that Billy raps a knuckle against Steve’s window, startling him. Steve reluctantly rolls the window down, letting in the cool evening air, and consequently, the sharp scent of Billy’s cologne.

 

“What’re you up to?” Billy leans in through the window and peers around, making eye contact with Dustin, who waves sweetly at him, unperturbed. He turns to Steve, waiting for a response.

 

“I’m on chauffeur duty, apparently,” Steve says, tipping his head towards Dustin and then Max. “They’re going to play some magic game at the Wheeler’s house.”

 

Dustin rushes to explain further at the same time as Max mutters, “Great.”

 

“S’this your kid brother?”

 

“No,” Steve says.

 

“Why? Do we look alike?” Dustin beams.

 

“Sure, kid,” says Billy absently. Dustin’s smile stretches wide across his face, and he nudges Steve with his elbow.

 

“Here that Steve? Like brothers.”

 

“Yeah, buddy,” Steve replies. He loves Dustin -- he does, but this is encroaching on embarrassing territory. Billy’s definitely heard the rumors by now; Steve has no friends besides the weird kid he babysits every now and then. A real king. Yeah, right. More like a fucking jester.

 

“You know you’ve gotta be back before nine, right?” Billy says, craning his head to peer in at Max, clearly annoyed.

 

“Billy,” Max whines. “That’s--”

 

“Ridiculous, bullshit, stupid - yeah, I get it. I’m not the one who makes this shit up, remember? What’s the address, I’ll get you at half-past eight.”

 

“I can take her home,” Steve blurts, and Billy’s attention slides back to him. It’s a little overwhelming having his face so close to Billy’s, especially in the confines of his car where he can’t actually move anywhere. Billy has his arms tucked through the window, leaning in oh-so casually. His fingers dangle, coming close to brushing Steve’s left arm.

 

“No,” Billy says, “I’ll get her.”

 

“No, really,” Steve insists. “I don’t have anything better to do.”

 

“Are the bitches in Hawkins really that bad?”

 

“Billy!” Max snaps, “Will you shut up, already?”

 

When Steve turns his head to Billy, he almost has to look away again. Billy looks oddly pleased with himself. Whether that’s from annoying Max or teasing Steve, Steve can’t tell for sure. What he can tell is that, despite his smarmy grin, Billy sounds pretty insistent that he pick Max up from the Wheeler’s.

 

“They live on Maple Street,” Steve says, now that he’s clued in to the fact that Billy isn’t going to let him drive his sister home. He stares straight into Billy’s ridiculously blue eyes as he says it, too. Billy’s eyelashes are insane. “Big brick house, Reagan sign, can’t miss it.”

 

“That’s like, every house on Maple Street,” Dustin pipes up. “Jonathan’s car will be in the driveway. It’s ugly. Ford LTD, can’t miss that.”

 

That makes Steve wince and Billy laugh, seemingly surprised. He flicks his tongue out and swipes it across his bottom lip, shaking his head in amusement.

 

“Keep working on the hair, kid. You’ll be as pretty as King Steve some day. Later, Harrington. Be ready at eight thirty, Maxine.”

 

“Later,” Steve murmurs, throwing the car into reverse and slowly backing away, watching as Billy’s figure gets swept up in the fog, blurry as he goes back into his house.

 

 

Billy called him pretty.

 

 

Once they’re back on the road, Max starts talking. “You know my brother?”

 

“Thought he was your step-brother?” Steve looks both ways before he rolls through a stop sign.

 

Steve,” Dustin admonishes.

 

“No one is around,” Steve says, and it’s true. Hawkins looks like a ghost town tonight. “You’re safe, cool it.”

 

“Whatever,” Max interrupts Dustin’s lecture on road safety . “Step-brother, brother, it’s all the same thing, isn’t it?”

 

“To-may-to, to-mah-to,” Dustin mutters.

 

“Yeah, I s’pose. Anyways, yeah -- he’s on the basketball team with me.”

 

“Oh,” says Max. “Okay.”

 

Steve drops them off, pretends his heart doesn’t lurch when he looks through the living room window and sees Nancy and Jonathan laughing, bathed in the warm light of the fireplace. It’s not like he wants to be there - he doesn’t. But he wants something. Someone. Wants the feeling of all-consuming emptiness that’s been swirling in his chest for months to evaporate. 

 

He drives home, listening to Springsteen crackle through his speakers, almost running over a pigeon on Forest Road. 

 

 

-

 

On Sunday, Dr. Owens asks Steve if his parents have been home lately. They haven’t, and he sighs heavily when Steve tells him so. He suggests spending more time with Hopper, or another adult figure who Steve trusts. Steve doesn’t even really think that Hopper likes him, but he tells Dr. Owen’s that he’ll try.

 

He asks if Steve’s been taking his medication. Steve has. Sometimes. But other times he forgets - well, forgets isn’t really the right word. It usually happens when he’s lying in bed, too tired to move, too upset to open his eyes and go down to the kitchen cabinet where he keeps the pill bottle. He says yes and lies about the forgetting part, but he thinks Dr. Owens can tell, because he pauses momentarily and watches Steve intently before he writes the renewal for his prescription.

 

Dr. Owens wants to know if Steve has made any new friends. He’s concerned that Steve’s loneliness is exacerbating his anxiety. Steve thinks of Tommy shoving him in the hallways, and people glaring at the back of his head, and Nancy ignoring him while she hangs off of Jonathan’s arm. He thinks of Billy saying, I think we’re gonna get along real good. He thinks, maybe.

 

He says no.

 

On his way out, Dr. Owens pats his shoulder and reminds him not to forget about any more appointments.

 

-

 

 

September is already half over, and there’s a definite chill creeping into the air.

 

After another exhausting, too-long practice, and a too-long shower, Steve finds himself alone in the locker room. It’s kind of echoey, in here, and it never smells nice, and the walls are an ugly mustard colour that really need to be repainted. All in all, it’s a pretty typical high school locker room, but for some reason, it really gives Steve the fucking creeps. Like, he’s not a pussy, he doesn’t get scared just because he’s by himself in a slightly dim, strangely quiet room. He doesn’t.

 

The way the silence stretches and encompasses the space reminds him of the weeks following that night, where he’d wander out of his house, through the backyard - don’t look don’t look don’t look - and into the woods. He’d walk into the dark canopy of the trees, shivering while the moonlight glimmered through the boughs. The sound of his own breathing would be the only noise besides the snapping of twigs under his feet. Steve used to love the woods; their smell, the peaceful quiet. Now, the shadowy trees make him feel like his heart is going to beat out of his chest - thump thump thump.

 

The heavy blanket of silence in the locker room offers the same feeling of oppression, now. He hurriedly pulls his sweater over his head, slips on his jeans and sneakers, and leaves the eerie hush of the secluded space behind him.

 

Once he’s outside, he takes a frantic gulp, letting the brisk autumn air fill his lungs and pinch at his cheeks, waking him up. Wind howls past his ears, a car beeps in the distance, and the shouts of kids from the playground at Hawkins Middle carry on the breeze.

 

“What’s wrong, Harrington?” calls a voice that Steve has learned to dread over the past few months. Tommy is standing next to Billy in the parking lot, with Billy sitting on the hood of his car, arms crossed. Steve doesn’t answer - it’s not worth it.

 

The only reason people talk to him anymore is to ask him if he’s got a spare cigarette or if he’s gonna start roaming around town in a half-asleep daze again. Ever since April, he’s been an outcast. Most of his former friends just ignore Steve now, but Tommy has taken to treating him like he’s a lunatic. In fairness, Steve did sleepwalk to Tommy’s house at three in the morning, vomit all over his front step, and call him a murderer, so, like, Steve kinda gets it.

 

He’s also not totally surprised to see Billy spending time with Tommy. Someone as good-looking as Billy can gain popularity pretty damn quickly in a town like Hawkins. Steve’s sure that all Billy had to do for everyone to fall in line was bat his pretty eyelashes a few times. Smile that handsome smile, turn on that low-toned, charming voice. After all, It used to work for Steve. If the girls at Hawkins High want Billy, then the boys want to be him, so of course the next best thing is to be his friend. Tommy had always been such a clinger. So, Billy and Tommy’s so-called friendship? Makes complete sense to Steve. For his part, since that night when he picked up Max, Billy’s barely said a word to Steve outside of practice. Whenever Steve sees him in the halls, he’s got a girl on his arm and Tommy blabbering away at his shoulder. During lunch, he roars off in his car to God knows where, and in physics, the only class they share, Billy sits at the very back of the room and somehow manages to correctly answer every question Mrs. Pierce asks him when she thinks he’s not paying attention. Steve, who pays so much attention that he leaves class everyday with a headache, still doesn’t understand Billy’s answers, let alone Mrs. Pierce’s questions.

 

Practice is a whole ‘nother story. The guy doesn’t fucking shut up. Like, ever.  He’s all, Nice drive, Harrington! Hustle, hustle, hustle. Plant your fucking feet and draw a charge, you’re practically handing them free throws when you move like that. Jeeeesus, who taught you how to screen? Wake up, Harrington, and fucking rip down a rebound for once in your life.

 

“I said, what’s wrong, Harrington?” Tommy repeats, sounding annoyed that Steve is ignoring him. Steve knows the tone in his voice, is intimately familiar with it. It’s the one that says I’m playing at being a big man, the one that Tommy uses when he’s about to be particularly cruel.

 

Steve still doesn’t answer, keeps walking. He’s heading in their direction, because he needs to get to his own car. He’s parked all the way at the back of the lot since this morning he slept in and showed up late. He’s had a hard time getting out of the bed in the mornings, what with the way he hasn’t been sleeping, too distracted by the faint glow of the pool that still somehow manages to creep through his bedroom blinds.

 

He can tell Tommy is frustrated with his lack of response, probably because he wants to look tough in front of the new king. If Billy is as smart as Steve thinks he is, he’ll have realized by now that Tommy is completely full of shit. Even Steve was smart enough to know that everything was about status for Tommy, and, according to every adult in his life and every friend he’s ever had, he’s a fucking idiot, so that’s saying something.

 

When Steve gets close enough, Tommy steps out into his path, cutting him off.

 

What, Tommy?” Steve finally demands, coming to a halt. He’s no longer relieved to be outside, in the open, in the light. He wants to go home, curl up in the big chair behind his dad’s desk in the study with the lights off so he doesn’t have to look outside. It’s the only room in the house that has somewhere comfortable to sit and doesn’t face the backyard.

 

“I asked you what’s wrong, maybe you didn’t hear me?” Tommy says. Billy is silent, and when Steve darts his gaze over, he’s not even moving - his cigarette dangles between his forefinger and thumb, smoke rising up in the air and mingling with the warm puffs of his breath.

 

“I heard you,” Steve replies, trying to sidestep Tommy, but Tommy cuts him off again.

 

“Everything okay?” Tommy asks, all faux concern, voice dripping with poisonous honey. “You’re breathing kinda funny, Harrington.” Steve can remember a time where Tommy had asked him that question and actually meant it, and his stomach flips uncomfortably.

 

“Well, some of us actually work hard during practice, you see,” Steve replies, contempt lacing his words. Tommy is right, he is feeling a little wheezy, but it has more to do with the overwhelming silence that he can’t seem to escape than with the laps Coach made them run before they left.

 

“I don’t think so,” says Tommy wickedly. “You’re shaking. Aw, are you upset, King Steve?”

 

“No,” begins Steve, but Tommy cuts him off. He’s getting close, eyes Steve up and down like he’s a piece of garbage and not like they were attached at the hip for the last decade. Steve is taller than Tommy, smarter than Tommy, but Tommy has always been meaner than Steve. Always knew how to get under Steve’s skin, how to make him scared during sleepovers and flustered from teasing.

 

“Gonna have another episode? Cry and throw up everywhere like a little bitch?”

 

“Shut up, asshole,” says Steve, trying to brush it off like there isn’t bile climbing up his throat, like he isn’t afraid to glance over and see the look on Billy’s face.

 

“Oh you are,” hoots Tommy, turning back to look at Billy as if to say, get a load of how fucking pathetic this guy is, Hargrove. Steve takes Tommy’s momentary lapse in attention as a chance to escape, but Tommy is faster than Steve, too, and he shoves Steve so hard that he goes flying into the side door of Billy’s car. It hurts, and it knocks the breath out of Steve as quickly as the cold air gave it to him when he first left the gym. Steve grimaces, his reflection pale and tired from where it looks up at him from the glass window.

 

Billy speaks up for the first time since their confrontation began, says, “Get off my car, Harrington.” He doesn’t sneer it like a threat, just a statement. Neutral, kind of firm and maybe a little curious.

 

“Right,” Steve nods. “Sorry.” He pushes himself off the Camaro, stumbles forward a little in an attempt to get away from Tommy and his sharp tongue.

 

“No worries,” says Billy, quiet-like.

 

“So, what?” Tommy blazes on, ignoring them, like Billy’s unwillingness to play along is only encouraging him. “You’re a prissy little faggot, is that it? Crying about sissy shit and moping around all quiet like you’re too good for everyone? Tell me, Stevie, what is it about a couple psychotic episodes that makes you so high and mighty all of a sudden, huh?”

 

Steve flinches at that word, his heart rate tripling. Tommy doesn’t-- he’s never used that against Steve, before. Steve’s new position lets him see Billy just behind Tommy’s shoulder, lets Steve watch Billy’s eyebrows raise, followed almost immediately by the balling his fists and clenching of his jaw. Steve automatically thinks, fuck, I’m about to get punched.

 

“Knock it off, okay, Tommy,” says Steve, a little too quietly to seem even remotely intimidating. He wraps his hand around his stomach, tries to convince himself that he doesn’t feel like his lungs are about to combust, that his stomach isn’t churning like a warning.

 

Tommy opens his mouth, steps towards Steve like he’s about to really lay into him, when Billy speaks again.

 

“Stop.”

 

Tommy falters, turns around. Steve can imagine the look of dumb confusion on his face.

 

“What?” he says, lost.

 

“I think he’s had enough, man,” says Billy, all nonchalant and cool as a cucumber. The way his breath escapes from his nose and floats into the air makes Steve think he looks like a dragon.

 

“What?” Tommy says again. “Hargrove, dude, he’s-”

 

“He’s fucking vibrating, s’what he is, moron. Your whole tough guy act, though? Kinda pathetic, if I’m bein’ real here.”

 

Tommy splutters, Billy continues to sit unblinkingly, and Steve has to force himself to walk at a normal pace to the end of the parking lot to reach his car. By the time he fumbles with his keys and manages to unlock the door, his own breathing is coming in uneven spurts, and his lungs feel like they’re rattling around in his chest, knocked loose and desperate for escape. His fingers are icy cold, but he’s sweating, and upset, and he doesn’t like the way the setting sun is casting shadows from the dark thicket of trees at the end of the parking lot over the roof of his car.

 

When he finally gets the door open and throws himself into the driver’s seat, he feels his heart rate skyrocket and his breathing becomes wheezy again. He shoves his face into his hands so he doesn’t have to look at the ominous woods laid out before him, and lets the tears that have been gathering in his eyes fall, running hot over his palms.

 

He sits there for a while, shaking and trying to get his chest to stop heaving. He isn’t sure how long he’s been there, crying in his car like a weirdo, but when he finally takes his head out of his hands, the sun has set and his car is shrouded in twilight. The only lights around come from Mr. Bishop’s third floor art classroom - and, Steve notices with a jolt of surprise, the interior light in Billy’s car, which hasn’t moved from where it was parked during his confrontation with Tommy.

 

Steve startles when he realizes that Billy is still there - waiting for him? He isn’t sure. When Billy sees that Steve has noticed him, he stares for a minute, gives Steve a slight nod, and then starts up his car and drives off into the night, interior light still shining. Steve watches it grow smaller and smaller, until it looks like nothing bigger than a firefly, flickering in the distance.

 

 

-

 

Steve spends his week in a state of disinterest.

 

Tuesday, he takes Dustin out to get milkshakes. Dustin babbles the whole time about how cool Max is, about how mean she says her step-brother is, about Mike and about band and about a million other things Steve can’t remember. He can’t help it, but Dustin talks so fast that sometimes he has trouble keeping up, just blinks and nods and hopes Dustin doesn’t notice the way his hands shake on the wheel when they drive in the dark.

 

Wednesday, he goes grocery shopping - his fridge is nearing empty, and he was getting tired of only eating toast. Ms. Vernon is in the parking lot as he’s leaving, struggling to get her groceries out of her shopping cart and into her car, and Steve decides to be useful and help. She pats his cheek and calls him a sweet young man, but her eyes look sad, and Steve knows she’s probably thinking about that time in May she had to call the police because he was crying on her lawn at three o’clock in the morning.

 

On Thursday, after practice, his mom calls. She hasn’t, in a few weeks, and Steve would be lying if he said it wasn’t nice to hear her voice. She calls him honey and darling and promises that they’ll be home for a weekend soon. Whatever that means. They’d only been home for a total of nine days between April and September - Steve knows it’s nine because he keeps a tally on the notepad next to the phone, wonders when he’ll finally be able to scratch off that tenth line - so Steve isn’t counting on it, but sometimes it’s nice to hear. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend. Sometimes, he can close his eyes and trick himself into thinking he’s not alone in his big, empty house.

 

During the weekend, he tries to get started on the novel they’re supposed to be reading for English class. Catcher in the Rye. He’d overheard Jonathan and Nancy talking about it before; it’s supposed to be good. Steve doesn’t get it, though. Spends hours staring blankly at pages, praying that maybe if he looks at the words long enough they’ll make sense, seep into his brain and turn on a light switch, or somethin’. He looks at the damn book long enough that his eyes start to hurt, so he miserably pulls out his eyeglasses from their hiding spot in his nightstand.

 

He hates the way he looks with them on; would never even dream of wearing them to school, but they soothe the strain on his eyes. The frames feel clunky and unnatural on his face, and he knows that’s because he doesn’t wear them enough, not like he’s supposed to. They also make him dizzy, the clarity almost unnatural and unnerving. He takes them off after another hour or so, decides to just go to bed.

 

That’s all he really does now.

 

Basketball. Try to sleep. Wake up screaming. School. Act normal.

 

Lather, rinse, mother fuckin’ repeat.

 

It’s an easy enough routine to fall into. Steve can play the part just ... fine.

 

-

 

 

“What’s with the silent treatment, Harrington?” shouts Billy from across the parking lot. He’s sitting on top of his Camaro again, clad in his usual getup of too-tight denim and an unbuttoned button-up.

 

It’s been two weeks since Tommy pushed him around after practice. Two weeks since Steve had a panic attack in his car with Billy watching from across the parking lot. Two weeks of basketball practice, and seeing Billy in the halls, in class, and at the arcade. It’s been two weeks, and the guy still confuses the hell out of Steve.

 

Billy is perpetually angry about something; that much is obvious. Even when nothing is going wrong, when Billy got another A in physics, when Billy scored the winning basket at an away-game, when Billy was eating ice-cream at the diner with his weird little sister - there was something visibly burning just under the surface. Steve doesn’t think anyone else has noticed. Before last year, before that night happened, Steve probably wouldn’t have noticed either. He notices now, because he feels the same way. Like his skin is too tight, too hot, too restricting. Like his head is simultaneously filled with cotton balls and achingly empty.

 

Steve thinks that maybe if he talked about his confusion regarding Billy with Dr. Owens, Dr. Owens could at least offer some words of wisdom as to why Billy acts the way he does. However, confiding in his shrink isn’t something that Steve finds particularly easy.

 

So, Steve has been ignoring Billy. Not because of anything Billy did, but because he’s afraid Billy might understand, and somehow that’s even scarier, that there’s someone in Hawkins who is just as fucked up as he is. It’s easy enough to ignore all of his other classmates - they don’t want to talk to him anymore.

 

Billy is another story. He doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that Steve Harrington was officially knocked from his post at the top of Hawkins High’s social hierarchy the night that Barbara Holland drowned in his pool.

 

Obviously, Steve knows, it’s not because Barb drowned in his pool. It’s because of the aftermath; the way Steve walked around town like some kind of zombie, the way he stopped talking, the way he shut himself off from his old crowd of friends who didn’t understand how empty he felt. He’d wander through the woods at night, looking for answers in the dark. He barely slept, barely ate, barely felt alive. He’s been scared, guilty, and miserable. That holy trinity of overwhelming feelings has been all-consuming and bubbling inside of him for months. No one seems to understand why he hasn’t been himself, and Steve can’t blame them. He doesn’t really, either.

 

But Billy. There was something like sympathy, like indignant anger, like understanding, in his eyes that day in the parking lot. And that scares Steve more than Tommy ever could.

 

“There’s no silence,” says Steve, bypassing Billy and heading for his own car. Before he gets the chance, Billy’s hand shoots out and grabs Steve by the jacket, pulling him back towards the Camaro. Steve nearly trips on the rough gravel of the parking lot when Billy firmly but slowly pulls him backwards.

 

“What’s your deal?” says Billy, still holding Steve in place. Steve twists away from Billy’s hands, backs up a few feet. Billy’s face is stony, but his eyes are bright - with what, Steve isn’t sure. He doesn’t know what Tommy’s said to Billy about Steve, what rumours he’s passed along, what bullshit he’s spouted.

 

“I don’t have a deal,” Steve replies, rocking from foot to foot as he watches Billy watch him. A few leaves crunch under his sneakers, and Steve presses his foot down hard, flattening them into the ground. It’s late enough in the fall now that there are more leaves on the ground than there are on the trees, and that always makes him unhappy, a sign that winter is so close around the corner. There’s something weird in the air of Hawkins when the seasons change.

 

“Obviously you do,” says Billy, drawing Steve’s attention back to him in time to see Billy shoving his hands into his pockets. It is a little chilly, today - the kind of cold that leaves you a little breathless, a little rosy-cheeked. “Everyone else in this shithole is practically on my dick, and you act like I’m fucking -- I dunno, Pestilence come to town.”

 

Steve snorts. That was funny. Billy takes Steve’s amusement as some kind of encouragement, apparently, because the serious look slips from his face and a smile comes out instead. Not the I’m gonna fucking knock you over grin he gets during practice or the I’m about to flirt my way to a free piece of pie smirk that Steve’s seen him give Janie at the diner, but a real, eye-crinkling smile.

 

“You like a guy with jokes?” says Billy, adjusting his stance and leaning back a bit against the hood of his car. The blue paint gleams in the late afternoon sun, and Steve uses it as an excuse to shield his eyes.

 

“Everybody likes jokes.” Steve shrugs, fiddling with the strap of his backpack as Billy continues to watch him, head tilted with the sun setting behind him, lighting up his blond hair like a halo.

 

“C’mere,” says Billy all of a sudden.

 

“What?” Steve says, thrown off. He takes a step back, watches as Billy shifts over to make room for him on his car. When Steve still doesn’t move, Billy takes a hand out of his pocket, pats the hood. The last time they were in this parking lot together, Billy told him to get off the Camaro - as if Steve had anything to do with being shoved onto it in the first place. Now, he’s inviting Steve to sit on it.

 

“I said, c’mere, Harrington,” Billy repeats, eyeing Steve like it’s a challenge.

 

Steve doesn’t lose challenges.

 

“Alright,” he says, and takes the couple steps towards Billy, towards the Camaro. He sits down gingerly, not willing to put it past Billy to hit someone for being too rough with his baby. The metal of the car is cool and Steve can feel it through the heavy denim of his jeans.

 

“Wanna smoke?” Billy says, and when Steve turns to look at him, he’s holding out a pack of Marlboros. Steve shakes his head and Billy shrugs and slides them back into the pocket of his jacket.

 

“You can, if you want,” Steve says, when he notices that Billy didn’t light one for himself.

 

“Nah,” Billy shakes his head. “I’m good. Just wanted to see if you wanted one.”

 

“Oh,” says Steve, confused. “Uh, thanks anyways.”

 

Billy smiles a little at that, tapping his fingers against his thighs. He’s always moving, Steve thinks to himself. Fidgeting with his pencil while Mrs. Pierce drones on about torque, sucking on a lollipop in the halls between class, chewing on his mouthguard during games - you name it, Billy’s probably doing it. Steve doesn’t think the guy knows how to sit still.

 

“No problem, man,” Billy says. Steve glances up at his face. He’s - well, Steve doesn’t know how else to put it. He’s never seen someone so good-looking in real life before. In magazines, maybe, people like Michelle Pfeiffer or Rob Lowe. But up close, with Billy’s bright blue eyes sparking in the sunlight, his cherry red lips stretched into a real smile - they can’t hold a candle to Billy.  Steve is embarrassed with himself for even thinking it, and he hopes the cold air can act as an excuse for any flush that rises in his cheeks.

 

“So,” Steve says, fishing for an explanation as to why Billy wanted him to sit down.

 

“So, what?” says Billy, cocking an eyebrow. He angles his body towards Steve’s so that he’s looking directly at him - Steve remembers Nancy telling him once that it’s called open posture when someone does that. He finds that weird - openness coming from Billy -  and suddenly he’s aware of how his arms are crossed defensively across his chest.

 

“Did you, like, I dunno, need something?” Steve prompts, unfolding one arm to gesture back and forth between them. Billy’s thigh is more or less pressed up against his own, and the heat radiating from it is a stark difference from the biting air and cold metal beneath him. There are only a few other people left on the premises, and none of them are near enough to notice how closely they’re sitting, so Steve doesn’t shift away. The warmth is nice, anyways.

 

“What, I can’t just want to talk to you?” asks Billy, pursing his lips. Steve feels a grin coming on, and he reaches up to cover his mouth.

 

“I mean, sure,” Steve replies, “But I don’t see why you’d actually want to do that, so…”

 

“You kiddin’, man? You’re the only person around here who hasn’t bored me to tears, yet.”

 

“Oh?” Steve says, feeling brave enough to actually make eye contact. “What about Tommy? Seems like you guys are palling around just fine.”

 

“No,” Billy says immediately. “Tommy’s a fucking dick.”

 

“Really?” Steve laughs. “That’s gotta be hard for him, you thinking that. Pretty sure he fuckin’ loves you, Hargrove.”

 

Billy snorts, tilts his head up and stares directly into the sun. The clouds are fluffy, today, and they open up just enough to cast shadows across the lot.  “Nah,” he says slowly, drawing out the vowel. “He’s not my type.”

 

“Not your type?” Steve repeats, stomach clenching uncomfortably, hoping Billy doesn’t notice the way he’s been blushing this whole time. He wonders if Tommy said something to Billy. Billy definitely heard him call Steve a fag, that day in the parking lot, so. Steve’s gut is telling him that Tommy probably has.

 

Billy scrunches his face. Steve’s heart starts palpitating.

 

“Freckled idiots who think they’re tough shit just aren’t my thing.”

 

“Right,” Steve mumbles, nodding. Trying to diffuse the tension, he says, “I dunno, though, I kinda like freckles.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Billy snorts. “Are you into Tommy, Steve?”

 

Steve’s face flames. Okay, sure, maybe when he was thirteen, he thought about kissing Tommy once or twice. Maybe when he was fourteen he had a crush the size of Jupiter. Maybe he cried a little when Tommy started dating Carol in the tenth grade. But that doesn’t count. Nothing counts when you’re that young and that stupid. Steve never told Tommy about how he felt, because he didn’t have a death wish. But with Billy’s words, and the memory of that night on Tommy’s front porch, he knows that Tommy must suspect something - Steve doesn’t exactly have a stellar poker face.

 

Dad has always told him that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Mom thinks that it’s endearing. Steve thinks it’s dangerous.

 

“No,” says Steve adamantly. “No. I’m not-- I’m not a fucking-- I don’t know what Tommy told you, okay, but I’m not, Hargrove-”

 

Billy’s hand lands heavily on Steve’s thigh, pressing it down, down, down when Steve tries to stand up. When Steve stops moving, Billy’s hand doesn’t leave. His fingers are unrelenting, strong, and spreading across the width of Steve’s leg, his fingertips resting on the inseam of Steve’s jeans. Steve swears he can feel the breath in his chest freeze. Can Billy tell?

 

You wear your heart on your sleeve, his mother’s words echo in his head. Steve could never manage to tell her that it’s because he has too much to keep inside of him.

 

“Relax, amigo. I’m not gonna say anything,” he says, squeezing Steve’s thigh like he’s trying to be reassuring.

 

“There’s nothing to say!” Steve argues, chokes.

 

“Alright,” Billy replies easily and releases his grip on Steve’s thigh. Steve suppresses a shiver at the loss.

 

“Alright,” Steve repeats, rubbing his palm across the back of his neck. “Alright.”

 

-

 

The next morning, Steve is prepared to arrive at school to rumours about him liking boys. He’s surprised, a little thrown, when he arrives and business carries on like normal. Just like most days, the vast majority of his peers ignore him. He gets a sneer from Tommy when he walks past his locker, and a tentative smile from Nancy as he takes a drink from the water fountain.

 

He’s straightening up after taking a few ice cold gulps from the stream when he feels someone’s presence behind him. Before he has a chance to turn around, a hand claps down on his shoulder. He would’ve guessed it was Nancy, if not for the force behind the gesture. Steve lets the hand pull him, pivoting on his right foot so that he’s facing the owner of the hand.

 

“Hi,” drawls Billy, smile wide and tongue peeking out between his perfect teeth.

 

“Uh, hey,” Steve responds. “What’s up?” he asks, trying to go for friendly.

 

Billy’s smile tapers down to something less predatory as he begins to walk down the hallway, the hand on Steve’s shoulder dragging him along for the ride.

 

“Oh, you know. The usual.”

 

“Right,” says Steve. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. They’re still walking down the hall, and Steve begins to realize that Billy seems to be leading him to the Math corridor, where Steve has his first class of the day.

 

“You going to practice today?” Steve asks, twisting his head to glance at Billy while they walk.

 

“Mhm,” Billy hums, coming to a halt outside of Mr. Taylor’s door. He leans casually against the wall, his denim jacket a stark contrast to the pale cream brick. His hand is still on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve is getting kind of nervous that this is all some weird ruse to lull him into a false sense of security so that Billy can get close enough to punch him and break his fucking nose.

 

Steve hopes that’s not the case, because if he’s being honest with himself, and for once in his life he is, he likes the way Billy’s hands feel on him. They’re a little rough at times, sure, but they’re soft too, and Steve likes the warmth that radiates through his body at the contact of Billy’s fingers.

 

“Are you?”

 

“Am I what?” Steve stutters, drawn out of his thoughts by Billy’s question.

 

“Coming to practice, Harrington. Jesus, you’re always in your head, huh?” Billy replies, hand slipping from Steve’s shoulder, and suddenly Steve can think again. It’s like he’s been underwater for the last five minutes, and now that Billy isn’t touching him anymore, his head has breached the surface and his ears are no longer clogged up with the barrage of thoughts that fail to say anything more productive than warm warm warm, Billy Billy Billy.

 

“Oh, right,” Steve huffs a laugh. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

 

Billy nods, pushes himself off the wall as the bell rings overhead. He takes a few steps back, his eyes roaming shamelessly over Steve. “See you there, Harrington.”

 

“Yeah,” says Steve, voice cracking. “See you.”