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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.”

Chapter Text

Practice is its normal brand of hell, and Steve is tired enough afterwards that he drives straight home rather than head to the diner with the rest of the team for an end of the week celebration. Billy had looked at him a little funny in the locker room when he declined the invitation, but Steve just put his head down and focused on finishing tying his shoelaces. Billy had been his usual, touchy self during practice, practically plastered against Steve’s back at any given opportunity. Steve is ashamed to admit to himself that he likes the attention, but it turns out that Billy has a way of getting under his skin.

 

During his drive back to Loch Nora, he debates turning the car around and going to the diner, if only to get to hang out with Billy for a while and try to figure out what exactly his deal is. He decides against it in the end and resigns himself to spending the night alone in his empty house.

 

He was supposed to pick up Dustin from Nancy’s at nine o’clock, but when he gets in the front door, he notices the light flashing on his answering machine. The message is from Dustin, who says, in his roundabout, loud way, that Jonathan is already over, so he’s going to take Dustin when he leaves with Will. Great, it’s not like Steve needed another reminder that he’s a total loser.

 

Since he doesn’t have to pick up Dustin from Dungeons and Dragons at the Wheeler’s, Steve feels a hell of a lot less guilty about picking the lock on his dad’s liquor cabinet and going to town. It’s Friday, he has no friends, he’s pretty sure that Billy Hargrove knows he likes boys, and he deserves a goddamn drink.

 

 

-

 

 

Okay, so, maybe getting loaded drunk all by himself wasn’t the brightest idea on a night when he was already feeling a little melancholic. Sue him. Steve’s picked the lock on the liquor cabinet so many times that he could do it in his sleep, and it doesn’t take much convincing to get Old Mr. Harris at the corner store to let him buy a six-pack of beer.

 

He left his house a while ago. It’s cold - definitely too cold to be outdoors without a coat. Steve shivers a little in his zip-up sweater, but he doesn’t want to turn around now. He’s already ten minutes into the woods. In another fifteen, he’ll be at the quarry.

 

He left the empty bottle of his dad’s whiskey hidden in a bush near his mother’s dying rhododendrons; if his mom ever comes home, maybe she’ll notice. Instead of whiskey, he brought a Corona with him on his walk, and now that’s almost gone. The other five bottles are in various states of empty, still on the kitchen counter, and sooner or later Steve will sneak those out to the garden so they can be a part of his experiment too.

 

He’s more than a little unsteady on his feet, but there are enough trees surrounding him that he never veers far off of the well-trodden path that leads to the edge of the woods on the side of the quarry. He’s just drunk enough that the fact that he’s completely engulfed in darkness isn’t enough to send him down a spiral of panic. In front of him, he watches as his warm breath pushes through the cold of the night. It makes him a little cross-eyed and a little dizzy. He ends up having to pause and lean against the rough bark of an old hickory tree so that he doesn’t tumble over. 

 

It’s been a while since he’s been in the woods. Hopper would be mad if he knew. Pissed. Disappointed. Would probably yell at Steve and ask him what his fucking problem was. Steve takes another swig from his beer. Fuck Hopper.

 

By the time he finally makes it to the quarry, he can barely feel his fingers. Nancy used to always remind him to dress warmly in the colder weather, and he didn’t even really listen to her when they were dating, so he sure as hell isn’t going to now. She hasn’t been bothering trying to talk to Steve lately. She did, at first. Back in the spring and throughout the summer when Steve was really off the deep end. She said she was scared and that she cared about him and that Steve knew he could always talk to her, right? Empty fucking promises. Steve almost knocked on her bedroom window, one night in late May, even crossed town and sat on the sidewalk across the street. Jonathan’s car was parked up the road, though, so he turned around and went home after an hour or so of picking at the grass springing up between the sidewalk cracks.

 

He sits himself down on the edge of the cliff, a little too dangerous for someone as wobbly as he is right now, and rests his beer against his leg. Below him, the water of the quarry looks cold and unforgiving - an expansive body of darkness that stretches far and only tapers off into a sinister looking tree line. Steve shifts, and his sneaker dislodges a rock that tumbles over the edge, down down down until it’s engulfed by the night. Steve doesn’t even hear it hit the water.

 

He didn’t hear Barb, that night. If he falls now, no one will hear him, either. A salty tear leaks from the corner of his eye, and Steve wipes it away furiously. His nose is numb from the cold and he sniffles, then uses his sleeve to wipe that, too. He drops his head into his hands and runs his fingers through the tangles in his hair. His head is pounding, feels fuzzy, and every time he closes his eyes the world feels like it’s tilted on its axis, twisted, dangerous, and disorienting.

 

The dizziness is distracting enough that he doesn’t hear the snapping of a twig behind him, or the muffled footsteps growing closer with each passing second.

 

He startles violently when something touches his shoulder, almost falling forward over the rocky ledge. His hands scramble for purchase, fingers scraping against the unforgiving permafrost, sharp rocks biting at his skin.

 

Just as he thinks that this is it, he’ll fall to a quiet, lonely death, meeting his maker with water in his lungs and booze coursing through his blood, an arm wraps around his chest, pulling him backwards and away from the treacherous drop.

 

“Fucking calm down,” the voice says as Steve thrashes instinctually in his hold. “Harrington, look, it’s me, it’s Billy, you idiot.”

 

Steve squirms some more, trying to pry the arm that’s holding him close to Billy off of his chest, but to no avail. He’s drunk, and a little shaky, and definitely not as strong as Billy on a good day, so, it’s not really his fault.

 

“What’re you doing?” Steve snaps, finally stopping his attempt to escape Billy’s arms. They’re in an awkward position - Billy must’ve fallen while pulling Steve away from the ledge, because they’re both on their asses on the cold ground, Billy sitting behind Steve, his legs splayed out to the sides with Steve nestled between them, breathing heavily.

 

“What am I doing?” Billy asks incredulously. “What are you doing?”

 

“Not that it’s any of your fuckin’ business--” Steve hiccups, “but I’m on a walk and you’re-- you’re ruining it.”

 

“Are you fucking drunk?” Billy asks, his arm shifting slightly so it’s resting more across Steve’s stomach than his chest.

 

“Yeah,” Steve says simply, suddenly reminded of his Corona. “Where’s my beer?”

 

“I don’t really think you need anymore booze, man,” Billy says, his breath tickling Steve’s neck. His voice sounds so close.

 

“Where’s it, though?” asks Steve, squirming again. Billy’s fucking strong, because he doesn’t budge. His arms are warm, wrapped around Steve like this. A little suffocating, but Steve’s afraid that if he stops moving, Billy might take them away.

 

“Quit moving like that, I’m not going to be blamed for you tripping and taking a dive into the fucking quarry along with your nasty Corona, alright?” Billy complains.

 

“It fell?” Steve asks, stilling suddenly. He feels his stomach swoop and his fingers freeze where they were trying to pull Billy’s grip off of him.

 

“Yeah, look, it’s not like I did it on purpose or anything. It was either you or the bottle, so…”

 

“It fell?” Steve repeats, a feeling of dread rising up in his throat. Suddenly, the darkness that he’d been able to ignore all evening feels suffocating.

 

“I just said that, yeah,” says Billy. “You’re drunk enough already, but if it makes you feel better I’ll owe you one, alright?”

 

“It fell,” Steve hiccups, “And I didn’t-- fuck, I didn’t hear it. I’m, I, why didn’t I hear it?

 

Billy falters for a moment, and Steve can’t hear anything but his own laboured breathing. “It’s like, real far down, Harrington. Bottles don’t make that much noise.”

 

Steve can hardly hear Billy, now. He feels like his ears are full of water, clogged and muffled. He tries shaking his head, as if he was a kid knocking chlorine from his ears after climbing out of his pool. He must’ve underestimated exactly how close Billy’s face was to his, because the next thing he knows, Billy is muttering aw, fuck, and Steve’s head starts hurting like he hit it against something hard.

 

“Why didn’t I hear her,” Steve moans, trying to stand up again.

 

“Harrington, what are you talking about? Stop fucking moving, you’re gonna make us fall,” Billy yelps. He must get tired of Steve trying to wiggle away, because he suddenly tightens his grip and rolls them over so that Steve’s front is pressed up against the cold dirt, his nose tickled by the last blades of grass that are holding strong against the chilly fall temperatures. The movement makes Steve’s stomach roll, and for a second, he thinks he might throw up. The nausea paired with Billy’s heavy limbs holding him down is enough to make him stop moving.

 

He doesn’t want to fall, he’s glad that he didn’t - the thought of dying alone and surrounded by dark water streaming in his mouth, his nose, and his eyes while he screams silently for help, until he’s so full of the murky liquid that all he can do is let it suffocate him -

 

Hey, hey hey hey,” Billy is saying from somewhere far away, and Steve sobs, because everything hurts and it’s not fair that he’s still alive and Barb isn’t. He kinda doesn’t even want to be awake right now, and with all the alcohol buzzing around his veins, he decides it’s a good idea to slam his head against the ground to knock himself out. He only gets to do it once, because it makes him so dizzy that he has to pause to collect himself so he can do it again, and by then, Billy’s got his whole body, head included, pressed so tightly against the dirt that Steve can’t move a muscle. His right hand rests as a barrier between Steve’s forehead and the ground, warm and gentle where it lays against Steve’s cold skin. That makes Steve cry even harder, the way the heat from Billy’s skin seems to wrap around him, reminding him that he’s not dead and alone at the bottom of the quarry, taken prisoner by the muddy floor, forever resting in a sea of broken bottles and broken dreams.

 

“Fuck, Jesus. You gotta breathe, Harrington. You don’t gotta say anything, but you need to stop hyperventilating, okay?”

 

“Let me up,” Steve manages to choke, tears dripping from his nose and onto the ground below him. It’s cold enough that they don’t even soak into the dirt, and suddenly he’s aware of how badly he’s shaking.

 

Billy moves to get off of him immediately, but his hand hovers worriedly, like he’s afraid that if he’s not holding Steve down, he’ll nosedive into the unmoving water below them. Steve just rolls over onto his back, taking gulps from the freezing air around him, wondering if it’s cold enough to freeze the tears on their path down his cheeks.

 

They sit there in silence, Billy fiddling awkwardly with the laces on his boots while Steve tries to breathe like a normal fucking human being. Billy is facing him, Steve can see that much, and he’s breathing exaggeratedly, like he’s trying to give Steve a pace to match. Once Steve works past the embarrassment of having to look at Billy Hargrove so that he can breathe without feeling like the night is trying to steal all the air from his lungs, he adjusts himself so he’s mirroring Billy’s sitting position and watches his chest rise and fall steadily, trying to get his own lungs to cooperate.

 

It takes a while, and even after Steve’s breaths have slowed to an almost acceptable rate and salty tears have stopped slicing through his carefully crafted facade, they don’t talk. Neither of them seem to know what to say, and just as Steve is about to stand up and stumble back to his house, Billy’s voice pipes up.

 

“C’mon. I’m giving you a ride home,” Billy says.

 

“No, you’re not,” Steve replies, surprised. He shifts away from Billy on the ground, and Billy looks more and more like he’s about to have a heart attack with every inch closer Steve gets to the edge.

 

“Uh, yes the fuck I am. If I leave you out here, you’ll freeze to death or drown, and I’m not having that on my conscience.”

 

Steve shivers.

 

“I don’t want …” he trails off. He doesn’t even know what he doesn’t want. To be left alone at the quarry? To go back to his empty, lonely, awful house? To get in Billy’s car?

 

“I’m not. Um, look, I don’t wanna--” Steve continues, still not really sure what he’s talking about.

 

“Let me give you a ride home,” Billy pleads, voice uncharacteristically soft all of a sudden. “I know we’re not exactly friends or whatever, but let me do this for you. Okay?”

 

“I can walk,” Steve tries to argue, digging his sneaker into a tiny patch of grass.

 

“You don’t have a coat,” Billy says, using the same tone that Steve’s dad does when he says something like, how could you be this stupid, this reckless, this naive, Steven?

 

“I’m fine,” Steve says, but even he can hear the way his words have been slurring together, making him sound sloppy drunk.

 

“Look at me for a sec, Harrington,” Billy says, taking a few steps towards Steve before cautiously crouching down on one knee. Slowly, he reaches his hand out and grasps Steve’s shoulder. Steve tries not to, but Billy’s eyes are right there, concerned and questioning and blue blue blue. When Billy seems content that Steve is paying enough attention to him, he says, “You’re real out of it. You’re drunk, you’re slamming your head around like you want to get a concussion. You’re only wearing a sweater, you’re crying, and I’m not convinced for a second that any of it is about that stupid beer bottle,” Billy holds up a finger with each point he makes. Steve’s eyes track the movement, watching Billy’s hands so intently that his eyes cross and he gets dizzy again. Billy’s got nice hands, Steve thinks. He thinks he’d like they way they’d feel--

 

“Are you paying attention?” Billy prompts, fingers snapping in front of Steve’s face. When he blearily nods, Billy continues, “You’re gonna stand up, and we’re gonna walk to my car, and then I’m gonna take you home. Got it?”

 

Steve swallows nervously and nods again. Billy nods too, his hand slipping from Steve’s shoulder blade to his elbow. He’s never been this gentle with Steve before. Not at basketball practice, not in the parking lot, and not at school. The closest Billy’s come to being this nice was earlier that morning in the Math hallway, but even then his touch was more casual, more friendly, more abrupt. Now, he helps Steve to his feet with a steady grip, his fingers softly chasing away the cold that has Steve shivering.

 

“Alright,” Billy says once Steve is standing. “C’mon then. I’m not parked very far away.” He lets go of Steve when they start walking, but Steve is having a bit of trouble keeping up with Billy’s brisk pace. The ground is uneven, riddled with rocks and errant branches. It’s not the path Steve took to get here, but it’s one that Steve recognizes as leading back to the main turnoff where people usually come to make out in their cars. Billy’s not here with anyone, though, which is weird.

 

“Why’re you here?” Steve asks, and Billy pauses up ahead. He turns around, puts his hand on his hip and frowns.

 

“It’s none of your business,” Billy snaps before trudging on through the trees, shoulders hunched. Steve tries to quicken his footsteps so he can catch up with Billy, but his feet are growing more and more unsteady with each passing step, and he ends up tripping into a bush.

 

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he hears Billy mutter before his footsteps get closer, his shadowy figure coming into Steve’s vision. “Do you always get this drunk by yourself?” he asks as he leans in to offer Steve a hand.

 

Steve reaches for it, misses, and tries again. This time, he manages to grasp Billy’s palm and with Billy’s help, extract himself from the bush.

 

“Are you always this fucking nosy?” he says in lieu of answering Billy’s question. Billy gives him the same treatment and refuses to answer the question. This time though, he walks next to Steve instead of ahead of him. Steve appreciates it, because it means that every time he almost drunkenly veers off course, he either slants into Billy’s side and can adjust himself, or he tilts away from Billy and Billy reaches out and pulls him back into his orbit. Steve stops saying thanks and sorry after the first few times when Billy just stays quiet.

 

It’s probably only a ten minute walk, but Steve is still relieved when he sees the blue car glinting in the moonlight.

 

The door handle is icy to the touch, and Steve has to give it a good yank before it swings open. It takes a second for Billy to round the car and open his own door, but once he does he lays down on the horn. The jarring noise in the silent night startles Steve. “Get in,” Billy calls, and Steve obliges, folding himself into the passenger seat.

 

When the door closes with a solid thud, Billy immediately begins fiddling with the heat, cranking it up as high as it can go. Steve catches a glimpse of himself in the side view mirror - his lips are practically blue. He doesn’t hear Billy trying to get his attention until Billy flicks him hard on the shoulder and says, “Harrington, you dumb fuck, I’m trying to talk to you, here.”

 

“Jeez,” Steve replies, twisting around to face Billy only to come face to face with Billy’s jacket dangling in front of him. The denim is light-wash, and it’s one of the ones that have the fuzzy inner linings. It’s a little impractical for Hawkins' weather, still, but it is a nice jacket.  “What’s this, a stripshow, or somethin’?” he says, mouth feeling cottony and slow.

 

Billy snorts, “Wow, okay, you’re definitely drunk. Put it on.”

 

“The jacket?” Steve asks, already reaching out to grab it. Billy lets him take it out of his hands, and Steve slowly pulls it across the console, his hands bunching the sturdy fabric. It’s a little softer than expected - Steve isn’t sure why, but he always kind of imagined the jacket as being sort of rough and cold, but it’s warm and flexible between his fingers, the sherpa lining soft. Huh. He wonders what it smells like --

 

“Are you sniffing my jacket?” Billy demands, and Steve freezes, his eyes startling open. He dares a glance over at Billy, who’s glaring at Steve with a look of utter confusion and astounded pleasure mixed across his features. Steve slowly lowers the jacket away from where he just had his face buried in it.

 

“Uh, yeah,” he says. “Sorry.”

 

“Had to make sure it was good enough for a rich boy like you to wear, huh?” Billy asks, shifting in his seat so that he’s facing the wheel and no longer turned towards Steve while Steve clumsily puts his arms through the sleeves, letting the fabric settle across his back. It’s a little too big around his shoulders, but the lining is wooly and worn, soft and comfortable. He huddles into the warmth and lets the weight of the jacket comfort him.

 

“No,” Steve blurts. “I just thought it would smell good.” And it does. Well, good is subjective. Steve likes the way Billy smells, so.

 

“Good?” Billy repeats, hand tightening on the steering wheel. Steve likes the way his fingers look like that. They’re still not driving, just sitting in the dark parking lot, surrounded by trees and fog. It’s easier to ignore the darkness when Billy’s next to him.

 

“Yeah, y’know. I dunno. Like you, I guess.”

 

Like me?” Billy’s voice is almost shrill, now.

 

“Stop repeating me. Yes, like you. S'what I just said,” Steve mumbles, trying to reach for his seatbelt so that they can leave already.

 

“You’re hard to figure out, you know that, Harrington?”

 

“I feel like I’m being pretty, trasp- traps- … uh, what’s that word?”

 

“Transparent?” supplies Billy.

 

“That’s the one,” Steve tries to snap his fingers. “Thanks.”

 

“Don’t mention it,” says Billy, eyes focused on where Steve is struggling to fit the seat belt into the buckle. He keeps missing.

 

“Can you turn on the light? I can’t see this fuckin’ thing,” Steve says. Billy obliges, flicking on the light and illuminating the car with its soft glow. Now that Steve can see the buckle, he theoretically should be able to get the seatbelt in. That theory, however, doesn’t take into account the fact that Steve’s hands are shaking. From the cold, the alcohol, or the intensity of his panic attack and subsequent proximity to Billy, Steve isn’t sure.

 

“Here,” Billy mutters, leaning in and taking the seat belt from Steve’s wobbly hands. “I got you.”

 

“Oh,” says Steve, watching as Billy’s hand comes into his view, softly prying Steve’s fingers away from the belt. Steve suppresses the urge to turn his hand around and clasp Billy’s fingers between his own. Billy buckles him in easily, swiftly, sweetly.

 

“Thanks,” Steve murmurs, looking up at Billy’s face for the first time since they turned the light on. “Billy, what happened to you?” Steve blurts, horrified at the angry splotch of discolouration that mars Billy’s cheekbone, turning his skin sickening shades of purple and blue.

 

Billy rears back, face settling into something hard and closed off. “Nothin’, alright? It happened at practice.”

 

“No, it didn’t,” Steve says, fingers reaching out to touch. “I was with you, the whole time, and I didn’t do that.”

 

Billy grabs his wrist, stopping him in his path. “Don’t,” he says seriously. Steve can feel the way his pulse thrums against Billy’s grip, strong and a little too quick.

 

“Did Tommy do it?” Steve asks, hand gone still in Billy’s hold. Steve’s lack of movement seems to make Billy feel as though he doesn’t have a reason to be holding Steve’s hand captive like this, since he begins to loosen his grip. Steve doesn’t like that one bit, so he starts squirming a little so that Billy’s fingers squeeze his wrist again. His thumb presses in on the centre of Steve’s palm, causing Steve’s fingers to automatically curl inwards and brush Billy’s warm skin.

 

“Jesus, no,” says Billy, sounding offending.

 

“Don’t lie,” says Steve.

 

“I’m fucking not,” Billy replies huffily. “Drop it, alright?”

 

“No. Are you alright?” Steve asks quietly. The silence in the car after he asks the question is almost deafening. Steve heart pounds as he watches Billy’s face shift from angry to confused to resigned. He doesn’t say anything, and neither does Billy. Eventually, Billy lowers their joined hands so that they rest on top of Steve’s thigh, then he extricates himself from Steve’s hold and turns the key in the ignition.

 

“You’re gonna have to give me directions to your place,” says Billy, eyes fixed firmly on the steering wheel.

 

Steve is a little thrown, a lot drunk, and pretty damned tired, so he just says, “Okay.”

 

 

-

 

 

Billy drives fast, and Steve’s stomach doesn’t seem to agree with that. By the time Billy roars up Steve’s driveway, Steve’s nausea is mounting, and he finds himself swinging the passenger door open before they’ve even stopped moving to hurl across the asphalt.

 

“Fuck,” Billy hisses, putting the car in park. “That’s gross.” Despite his words, his hand comes to rest on the curve of Steve’s back, his palm hot where it presses in and rubs gently back and forth until Steve stops retching.

 

“Yeah,” says Steve wiping his mouth, headache already forming at the thought of returning to his empty house. “Thanks for the ride, I guess.”

 

“Anytime, Harrington.” Billy shrugs. “Next time you feel like getting drunk out of your mind, call me up. It’s less pathetic when there’s two people.”

 

“I don’t think that’s true,” says Steve, already starting to climb out of the warm car and back into the biting winter cold. .

 

“No,” says Billy, his voice quiet. “Me either.”

 

 

 -

 

 

Steve wakes up the next day with a killer headache, a dry mouth, and a few more bruises than he’d had before he decided to get blackout drunk and traipse through the woods.

 

When he thinks about the way Billy watched him cry, the way they were practically holding hands in the Camaro, and the gentle press of Billy’s hand on his back while he threw up - it just makes his head throb even more.

 

He shifts around in his bed, trying to get comfortable. It must be pretty late, because the sun is shining through the cracks in his blinds with full force, making him hide his face in the soft cotton of his pillow to escape the light. He’s really warm, almost uncomfortably so. He isn’t sure why, because he knows for a fact that he doesn’t have the heat in his bedroom on, he never does, because he just sleeps better that way. He’s also been too lazy to switch out his lighter fall comforter for the heavy quilt he uses when the cold winter nights call for something warmer.

 

Grudgingly, he opens his eyes, squinting against the unpleasant brightness that assaults them the second they flutter open. When he looks across the pillow at his arm, he’s a little surprised to see the light denim fabric of Billy’s jacket. Billy’s jacket. Which he had worn to sleep, after he wore it in Billy’s car, after he sniffed it like a freak and internally preened because it smelled like Billy.

 

Well, fuck.

 

He lays in bed for a while, his eyes open and staring blankly at the ceiling. He knows he should probably get up and actually do some homework - he’s chapters behind in his reading for English - but he feels drained after his late night tromp through the woods. It’s past noon by the time he finally drags himself out from under the covers. He feels a little gross; there’s still dirt on his fingers and his eyes are crusted at the corners with sleep.

 

He drags himself to the shower, hoping that the warmth will help him feel more awake. It doesn’t, and he finds that he’s still so exhausted that he has to lean against the wall so that he doesn’t fall over. He keeps his eyes closed and pretends that he’s not alone while the water gushes over him.

 

He’s still keyed up, nervous, upset. Last night was the first time he walked through his backyard and into the woods in months. And of course, he just had to go on the one night Billy showed up.

 

Billy probably won’t tell anyone at school; he didn’t tell people about the last time he saw Steve freaking out in his car, or the time they had that weird conversation about Tommy while they sat together in the parking lot. That’s what Steve hopes, anyways. The absolute last thing he needs is for his classmates to have even more ammunition against him, for them to have more reasons to call him a freak.

 

Steve can’t stop thinking about Billy’s bruised face, either. Who had he gone and gotten into a fight with this time? Steve isn’t sure that he wants to know. Billy didn’t seem proud about the bruise, not like he was that time he and Greg Hynes had a flat out brawl on the track back during the first week of school, and he had a bloody nose that he walked around with like a fucking trophy.

 

With that thought, he shuts off the water and steps out of the tub. He forgot to put down the bath mat, so all of the water drips directly onto the floor as he walks across the room to fetch the towel he left hanging on the rack above the heater. He’s so fucking dumb that he forgot to turn on the heat, so the towel isn’t even warm, and now there’s a trail of water across the entire bathroom. Great.

 

Once he’s all dried off and changed into a pair of old sweats and a ratty t-shirt, he flops back down on his unmade bed. His head still hurts too much to even think about getting started on his English homework, but he manages to convince himself to head downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. He brings the cereal back up to his room with him, because at least in there he can lie down and wish his hangover away. He wastes the afternoon like that, lying on his side facing the wall, occasionally turning on the radio to kill some time when his head is no longer pounding. By supper time, it’s getting dark, and Steve is hungry but too tired to move. Instead, he rolls onto his back and lets his eyes wander over his room.

 

It’s basically stayed unchanged since he was ten, and he’s getting real sick of the plaid walls. They’re ugly, and they remind him of when his mom was picking out the wallpaper, and his dad said something biting about Steve being old enough that posters and toys were too childish for his bedroom. Steve looks at his empty walls, the almost bare shelves, listens to the silence of the empty house around him, feels that emptiness swell in his belly, climb up his throat, push tears to the surface of his eyes.

 

Angrily, he swipes a hand over his face. “Don’t fucking cry,” he tells himself, says it deep and authoritative like Dad does, sometimes. He’s realized, over the past few months, that it’s real hard to fall asleep when you can’t stop thinking about all the ways you’ve failed people, all the ways you’ve pushed people away, all the ways you’ve never been good enough. A hurt like that, biting at your insides and scrambling them up until they’re singing with pain, a hurt like that keeps you up real easy.

 

He hears his dad say, you never listen, Steven. You’re always in your head, you need to learn to pay attention, or one day you’re going to get in trouble.

 

Steve remembers nodding at the time, promising to do better, to be better. The words hurt, they made him feel sick, and hearing them from one of the only people in this world who ever pretended to give a damn about him tore him up on the inside, but he had learned a long time ago not to show weakness in front of his father, who’d sniff it out like a shark after blood.

 

He was right, though, is the thing. Steve is a bad listener. In school, in relationships, at home. He tries, god, he tries so fucking hard to listen, but sometimes it’s like his ears are full of cotton and he only gets choppy bits and pieces, muffled by whatever bullshit is going on in his head. He’s had teachers ask him if he was even paying attention to the lesson, and if he was, why are you doing so poorly on tests? Maybe we can get you some remedial help. He’s had girlfriends who’d ask him why couldn’t he understand this simple question? Nancy was better about it than some of the others, but every now and then she’d say something along those lines that had Steve’s cheeks flaming and his stomach in knots. His mom, fretting to his father when she thought Steve was asleep, saying things like, I think there’s something wrong with Steven, John. He’s-- he’s slow.

 

Steve doesn’t think he’s slow. He just. When he’s overwhelmed-- he tunes things out. It’s how he stays calm, how he copes.

 

That night, he was really overwhelmed.

 

The entire week leading, he’d been sick. Feverish, dizzy, a little off. But his parents were out of town, and it only made sense to throw a party. After all, the snow had just melted, and according to Tommy, everybody needed a little Friday night pick-me-up. It was a stupid fucking party that he didn’t even want to host, but Tommy and Carol were practically begging him, spouting all sorts of bullshit about how it’d only be the team, and a few cheerleaders, that’s all, Stevie.

 

They lied, because that’s the sort of people they were. Steve probably should’ve been able guess that from the get-go, but he didn’t, and now he’s all fucked up.

 

There were people he didn’t even know all over his house, spilling drinks on the sofa, digging into the fridge for snacks, jumping around to too-loud music and screaming and singing and dancing. He remembers feeling stickiness under his feet, a pounding in his head, and the overwhelming smell of booze in every room he walked into. It was his party, though, and everyone wanted a piece of King Steve. Girls asking him to dance, guys wrapping their sweaty arms around his neck and ruffling his hair good-naturedly, and lots of offers for drinks, or hits from joints, or pills.

 

You can only say no to so much, Steve had learned, so he took the drinks, smoked some pot, and politely pretended to be too invested in basketball to take any E. They loved him, he could basically get away with any old bullshit excuse, so it worked.

 

Nancy was there, which was weird, because Steve was pretty sure she hated his guts now, as if he was the one who went and cheated on her and not the other way around. She was sitting with Barb on one of the loungers by the pool, giggling about something. At least, Steve remembers thinking, she didn’t bring Jonathan with her. There were a few people splashing around in the pool even though it was still a little too chilly to be swimming.

 

Steve remembers the night like he’s seeing it through fog - everything is hazy. He knows he made small talk with some guys from the team, knows he drank a few too many beers in an attempt to feel a little more human, a little more anchored to the present, and he knows that by the time he retreated to the solitude of his room around three in the morning, there weren’t very many people left.

 

He remembers asking Tommy to make sure he locked the door and that everyone was gone before he headed out, and he remembers Tommy agreeing and trying to convince Steve to play a few more drinking games.

 

He remembers taking a while in the bathroom, letting the faucet run and run and run, steam billowing up in front of the mirror like a cloud, drifting over his face and fogging the glass. He remembers the way the house felt quieter when he returned to his room, the way Tommy’s obnoxious laugh floated up over the main staircase as he yelled goodbyes to Dennis and Greg, and the shuffling of footsteps of his classmates trickling out onto the front lawn. He remembers peering out of his bedroom window and seeing Barbara in the pool, serene as she floated, fully clothed, her arms calmly pushing back and forth as though she were making snow angels.

 

He remembers flopping into his bed, exhausted. He’d laid there, pillow over his head so that he didn’t have to hear the last waves of party-goers leaving the house.

 

He remembers that that was the last night he didn’t wake up screaming from nightmares, sweaty and panicked and guilty.

 

Because the next morning, when he woke up and finally made his way downstairs, the first thing he decided to clean up was the pool, which was notorious for having red solo cups floating in it on post-party mornings. Except, when he walked over to the edge, net in hand, he found Barbara Holland, face up and waterlogged, skin blue and eyes unseeing, sunken and warped through the water, lying at the bottom of his pool.

 

He thinks he might have screamed, but the whole memory is just a roar of static. He knows he called 911, stuttering and breathing so hard that the dispatcher couldn’t even understand him, because he kept saying, son, you’ve gotta tell me what’s going on. Where are you? Do you need the police?

 

Steve did need the police, because his classmate was lying dead -- and she was dead, Steve knew it -- in his pool, and she probably shouted for help, she was probably splashing around, desperate for someone to come save her, and Steve, Steve, who never could fucking listen, didn’t hear her.

 

Steve turns over onto his stomach, pretends he’s not crying as he tries to muffle his sobs in his pillow. It’s all running through his head now. The way he sat on the deck, back pressed up against the brick with the phone cord stretched through the back door as far as it would reach while the dispatcher reminded him to breathe. He was freezing, slouched there wearing only his pyjama shirt and boxers, his toes numb on the wood of the deck. When the sirens got loud enough that Steve knew they were in his driveway, he only had to wait seconds for a couple of police officers to run through the garden, paramedics only footsteps behind them.

 

He thinks one of the officers said something like, “Better call the morgue,” and that made him wail, and they finally seemed to notice that he was there, huddled on the ground, shaking and sobbing and wild-eyed.

 

It was Hopper who approached him first, knees cracking as he knelt down to make eye contact with Steve.

 

“It’s Steve, right?” he had said, and Steve nodded, although he’s not sure how visible it was given the intensity of his trembling. “Alright, Steve. I’m Chief Hopper, I dunno if we’ve ever been introduced?” and he held out a hand, big and steady and Steve was confused. How was he -- why was he -- so calm, sitting here, talking to Steve, who had just gotten someone killed--

 

“Woah, woah, woah,” Steve remembers Hopper saying, because Steve had just tilted to the side, dizzy and nauseous and feeling the need to get away. “You’re not going anywhere, kiddo. Wanna tell me what happened?” He pried the phone out of Steve’s frozen fingers and let it bounce against the deck, dial tone cutting through the noise surrounding them.

 

Steve had been distracted, head turned just left of Hopper’s face, watching over his shoulder as more and more paramedics filed into the yard. “Hey,” Hopper had prompted, his hand coming up to turn Steve’s face back towards him. “I need you to focus on me. What happened to the girl?”

 

“I killed her,” Steve had whispered, throat sore and voice hoarse.

 

“You killed her?” Hopper repeated, eyebrows climbing and grip tightening on Steve’s upper arm.

 

Steve promptly vomited all over himself and Hopper’s right leg.

 

He remembers expecting Hopper to yell at him, to bring out the cuffs and escort him off to the station, to call him a murderer. None of that happened. Instead, Hopper sighed heavily and called over a paramedic. Steve heard words like shock, he’s confused-- think there was a party, look at the mess around, get him to the hospital.

 

They got Steve loaded into the ambulance, still shaking as silent tears rolled down his face and onto his chest, which was bare after Hopper borrowed a pair of scissors and cut off his ruined pyjama shirt. Before they drove off, Steve watched in horror through the tiny window as the emergency responders pulled Barb’s lifeless body out of his pool.

 

He was checked over by a few nurses and a doctor, and he’d sat alone in the room until Hopper came in, maybe an hour later, and made Steve tell him the whole story.

 

It took a while to get it all out, because Steve kept on having to stop and calm himself down, stumbling over his words, choking on his tongue. Once he was finally finished, Hopper leaned forward in his seat and grasped Steve’s knee, squeezing. “You didn’t kill Barbara, kid.”

 

“I did--” Steve had wheezed, upset. He had wanted, more than anything, to have someone with him. Nancy, Tommy, even his parents. Just someone, so he wouldn’t have felt so alone.

 

Steve remembers how serious Hopper’s face looked when he said, “You did not. You didn’t, and I don’t want to hear you say it again, alright? Accidents happen, and that’s what this was. It’s sad, and awful, and terrible, but what it’s not is your fault. Got that?”

 

When Steve remained silent, Hopper prompted, “Steve? This is where you nod and say, yes, Chief, I understand.”

 

“I understand,” he lied quietly. He felt like he might throw up again, and before Hopper could remove his hand from Steve’s knee, that’s exactly what Steve did.

 

“Oh, kid,” Hopper had muttered, clearly unhappy at being puked on by Steve, again.

 

Once a nurse arrived, cleaned Steve up, and offered him another hospital gown, Hopper recommended a therapist that he thought would be able to help Steve. He handed him a napkin with a phone number and said to make sure to call him if he needed anything, then made Steve promise that he actually would.

 

Steve didn’t use the number for weeks, too embarrassed and scared to admit he needed someone to talk to. Instead, when he couldn’t sleep, he’d climb out of bed, into a coat, and out his backdoor. Through the garden and into the woods, off to try and feel alive. Sometimes he’d be so tired that he couldn’t remember where he was or how he got there. Those nights were the worst.

 

People had been worried, at first. Tommy used to trail behind Steve in the hallways at school, hands twitching like he was ready to catch Steve if he fell over, his eyes full of concern.

 

“Look man,” he had said, “If you want to talk, you know I’m here, right?”

 

“I know,” Steve had replied, his stomach churning like it was seconds from crawling up his throat.

 

Once, during Steve’s nightly neurotic traipse through Hawkins, he found himself on Tommy’s front step, banging on the door until someone swung it open. It was Tommy, and he immediately shushed Steve, looking back into his house nervously and pulling the door shut, leaving them both standing in the cold.

 

“Steve? What the hell, man?” Tommy had whispered. “Are you alright? Fuck-- you don’t look so good.”

 

“I’m--” Steve had begun, “I’m not okay.”

 

“Is this about Barb?” Tommy asked, voice all gentle, and Steve felt his blood boil.

 

“Of course it’s about Barb,” he hissed. “I killed her.”

 

“What? No, Steve, you didn’t--”

 

“Yes, I did, I fucking killed Barb and it’s your fault,” Steve’s voice wobbled as he pointed an accusing finger at Tommy, jabbing him in the chest.

 

What?” Tommy had said, surprise colouring his tone.

 

“You made me throw that party,” Steve breathed heavily, trying to get his words out through the anger that was coursing through him. “I didn’t want to, and you made me, and-- and I’m so fucking dumb and now she’s dead and I wanna die. Tommy, I wanna die.”

 

“Woah, Steve,” Tommy leaned in, grabbed his shoulders. “Come inside, okay, I’ll call your parents--”

 

“They’re not home,” Steve had said, shoving Tommy away. “I’m alone,” he snapped, started to turn away from Tommy.

 

“You’re not-- you’re not alone,” Tommy had stuttered, and then he reached out and pulled Steve in by looping an arm around his stomach, unrelenting. The pressure had made Steve’s stomach roll, and he vomited all over his sneakers. It wasn’t much, because he had barely ate anything that day, so it was more bile than anything else, but it was still gross and embarrassing.

 

“Get the fuck away from me,” Steve had snapped, upset. His vision swam, and Tommy looked a mixture of confused, concerned, and angry. “This-- you made me like this,” he said, choked up.

 

“She drowned,” Tommy insisted. “You didn’t do that; it was a freak accident. It’s not your fault and it sure as hell ain’t mine, Stevie,” and then, because Tommy is nothing if not cruel, “Why do you care so much, anyways?”

 

“What the fuck?” Steve had said. “How could you say that?” Steve remembers how his throat had felt ready to close over. “She was-- she was a person, Tommy, and it’s my fault she’s dead.”

 

“Okay, sure, but it’s not like you were into her; you weren’t even into Nancy.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve remembers himself asking, remembers how thrown he was by the comment.

 

“Oh, come on, man,” Tommy had huffed, eyes to the sky, shifting back and forth from foot to foot. His hair was all puffed up from sleep, and he was only in a robe and an old pair of boxers that Steve knew were his favourite. “I’m not stupid, or blind, you know.”

 

Steve still hadn’t understood, had just widened his eyes and gestured for Tommy to go on. He could feel the way his heart thundered beneath his ribcage.

 

“I see how you look at me, sometimes. At the other guys. I know you’re, uh … look, I know you li--”

 

“Shut up,” Steve blurted, heart racing, because he was suddenly and painfully positive that he knew exactly what words were about to come out of Tommy’s mouth. “Shut the fuck up.”

 

“Steve--”

 

Shut up. I fucking mean it,” he said, already backing away from Tommy. “I don’t want to talk to you,” he continued, almost vibrating with nerves. “Ever. Just leave me alone. I wanna be alone.”

 

Steve.

 

And Steve had left him there, gaping outside of his front door, the night silent around them.

 

 

 

Hopper had found Steve about an hour later, walking down Mirkwood, shivering with scraped, bloody knuckles.

 

“Steve,” he had called from the cruiser. “Thought I told you to call.”

 

“I didn’t need to call,” Steve had countered, still walking. His throat was sore; he thought that he may have been shouting while he punched some trees, but he couldn’t remember, and that bothered him more than the pain in his hand did. Looking back, he remembers wondering at the time if Tommy had called the police on him. Now, Steve thinks that he probably did.

 

“Really? Doesn’t seem that way to me,” Hopper said. “Why don’t you come get in the car?”

 

“Why, so you can yell at me?” Steve asked, but he had stopped walking in the other direction.

 

“No,” Hopper had replied slowly. “So I can make sure you’re safe.”

 

“Yeah, I bet,” Steve had snapped, huffing.

 

It had taken another ten minutes for Hopper to convince Steve to get in the car, and another fifteen for Steve to convince Hopper that he wasn’t going to go home and do anything extreme. The next morning, Hopper had shown up at his doorstep and dragged him to Dr. Owens’ office on the other side of town. After a drawn-out and awkward appointment, Steve had made the shrink and Hopper some promises that he wasn’t sure if he could actually keep, like that he wouldn’t wander into the woods at night or engage in risky behaviour.

 

When Hopper finally brought Steve home, after a ride that was equal parts silent and excruciating, he had said, “I mean it, son. You’re not feeling so great, you call me. You’re a good kid and I don’t want anything bad happening to you. You’re gonna be fine.”

 

“Right,” Steve had replied. “Fine.”

 

 

 

Now, months later, he’s still disgusted with himself. He can barely sleep, and he has no friends. On top of that, his parents are still in Germany -- France? Steve isn’t sure -- and completely unavailable, both emotionally and physically. The only people he has who give a damn are the kid he babysits and the Chief of Police, who only cares because it’s his job, and he’d probably have to deal with a lot of paperwork if they found Steve’s body at the bottom of the quarry.

 

It’s harder now than it was back in the spring to pretend that everything is okay. Then, the entire town was mourning. It made sense then for Steve to go see the therapist, feel guilty, and not sleep. Fast forward to now, and it seems like no one else even remembers.

 

Steve can’t forget.

 

He’s been pretty good at not wandering around the forest late at night, or drinking himself to sleep, or finding trees to punch. Hopper checks in on him on a semi-regular basis, seemingly convinced that Steve’s doing fine. Back at the beginning, when Steve was seeing Dr. Owens regularly, he still left his house at night at least twice a week. Sometimes Hopper or one of the officers on patrol would see him and take him home, other times Steve would just sit in the woods and wait until he could see the sun break the horizon. Hopper always seemed disappointed when he found Steve wandering around, exhausted and twitchy, and, more often than not, refusing to talk.

 

By late June, Steve was no longer going on his late-night walks or seeing Dr. Owens, despite Hopper’s insistence that he keep going to the appointments. But Steve was getting better and better at pretending that he was feeling good when Hopper called to talk to him, which seemed to calm his concerns at least a little. Hopper must’ve been worried that a kid stumbling around the woods crying in the middle of the night would reflect poorly on his abilities as the chief, and Steve has always tried his best not to disappoint people, even though it seems like he always does anyways. So, instead of wandering off at night, Steve would sit on the floor by the fireplace and watch cartoons, or take too-long, too-hot showers that turned his skin pink and his fingers pruny.

 

The last time Steve went on a midnight stroll, before last night, was in July. He’d been good, leading up to it. No escapades into the forest, no panic attacks where people could see him - he’d been good. But, that particular day, there was a kid at the community pool who’d been under the water for so long that he stopped breathing momentarily. He’s fine, now, but it was all over the news, and Steve had watched with a lump in his throat as the news anchor offered pool safety tips. That night, he couldn’t stop himself. He felt so sick by the time he stumbled back into his house that he actually did call Hopper, breathing all heavy into the phone while Hopper told him to stay put, I’ll be right there. Sometimes, on nights like those, when Steve’s panic was intense enough that he didn’t want to be alone, he’d turn on the television and listen to infomercials until he drifted off, or called one of those telemarketing numbers where a robot would talk to you. That night, the night Steve had finally called, he and Hopper sat together on the couch and talked, talked, talked until Steve could barely keep his eyes open. When he woke up the following day, there was a notepad on the coffee table with Hopper’s messy scrawl across the paper. It was a list of days and times, from July to December, for Steve’s renewed appointments with Dr. Owens.

 

He’s got an appointment, tomorrow. Sunday, October 6th, 11:00am, reads the note that Hopper wrote. Steve’s had it pinned to his fridge with a magnet since that morning. He’s not sure if he’s going to go. He sure as hell doesn’t want to; he’s too tired to deal with feelings, but he knows that Hopper will hear all about it if he doesn’t show up again. He’s been lying in bed for hours with no luck falling asleep. His head is too busy, his house is too empty, his heart is too full. Steve holds out ‘til almost two in the morning before he shuffles out of bed and across the room to his desk chair.

 

He takes Billy’s jacket back to bed with him and curls into it, pressing his face into the lining and breathing deep.

 

He’s asleep in minutes.

 

-

 

Dr. Owens asks about Nancy, about school, about Steve’s walks through the woods. Tells him that Hopper said Steve was feeling better lately, that he hadn’t been doing anything risky. Asks Steve is that true? Steve’s mind fills with images of him at the edge of the cliff above the quarry, drunk and upset and thinking about Barb. Steve falters, and Dr. Owens leans forwards in his chair, eyes kind behind his glasses. He says, you can tell me, Steve. I’m only here to help.

 

Steve just shrugs.

 

Dr. Owens clasps his shoulder on his way out and tells Steve that he’s proud of him for coming to the appointment, like Steve’s that fucking messed up that even just showing up is an accomplishment worthy of praise. It makes Steve’s stomach twist.

 

Steve’s back home by half-past one. He picked up a sandwich at the diner on his way back home, too tired to even think about making himself something to eat. It’s chicken. His favourite.

Chapter Text

On Monday, Billy walks Steve to Math again. He doesn’t say anything. Not about Friday night at the quarry, not about the principal’s ugly new haircut, not about the way the P.A. system has been emitting a weird screeching sound all morning. Steve kind of just rolls with it. If Billy’s not going to make fun of him for crying and trying to knock himself out, he’s not gonna complain about it.

 

Billy’s face still looks bad. It’s worse in the light, now that Steve’s sober. That means it was probably really bad when it was fresh on Friday night. He hears rumors that Billy got into a fight with a nobody passing through town, just for a bit of fun. Steve doesn’t think that’s true - he hopes it’s not, because, fuck, that would be so stupid. Who does shit like that? He wants to ask Billy if it’s true, but he doesn’t want to be the one to break their silence, at least not with a question like that. Steve’s memories from Friday are admittedly a little fuzzy, but the memory of the anger in Billy’s eyes and the reticent expression he wore when Steve noticed the bruise is clear in Steve’s mind.

 

It’s kind of nice to have someone walk him to class. He used to like doing it for Nancy - not that this is the same, at all. Billy’s probably just trying to make sure that Steve doesn’t blab to their classmates that Billy Hargrove is capable of being nice, at least if you’re drunk enough and pathetic enough that he’s afraid you’re gonna nosedive into the quarry. Billy’s walking so that the side of his face with the bruise is facing the lockers, leaving Steve walking on his left, dodging stray elbows from hallway traffic walking in the opposite direction. When a group of juniors come barrelling down the hall, hooting and hollering and, for some reason, dragging a bag of recyclables that clang against the floor, Billy tugs Steve sideways just in time.

 

“Thanks,” says Steve, once the racket has passed, speaking to Billy for the first time since Friday night when he left Billy’s car.

 

“Don’t mention it,” says Billy.

 

Steve is pretty sure he means it literally.

 

-

 

The next day, he slides into the empty seat next to Steve in the cafeteria and steals a carrot stick out of his fingers. It’s weird, at first, and Steve can tell that Nancy thinks it’s weird, too, because he can feel her eyes on the back of his head the entire time he and Billy are eating. Fuck Nancy. She doesn’t get to care about what Steve does or who he does it with anymore. She thinks he’s crazy, and Steve tells himself that it doesn’t matter.

 

“What book are you reading?” Billy asks after a few minutes, surprising Steve.

 

“Oh,” he says, moving his pencil case from where he was using it to hold the pages of the book open. “Catcher in the Rye.”

 

“Salinger, nice. It’s good,” Billy says, taking another carrot and crunching noisily.

 

“Is it?” asks Steve, flipping through the pages. He’s still only a few chapters in - and a few chapters behind where he’s supposed to be by this point - but he still doesn’t really get it. It’s not like a lot of the other books he’s read in English class. It feels a little too close to home, and that makes him uncomfortable.

 

“You’re the one reading it,” Billy says, jabbing the cover with his finger.

 

“Then how do you know it’s good?” Steve counters, mimicking Billy by poking the book again.

 

“Read it last year,” Billy answers easily. Of course he did. Genius Billy Hargrove and California’s superior education system. Steve should’ve known. “Anyways. What do you think?”

 

“I like it,” Steve lies. “But I’m not very far yet. I, uh, don’t really like reading.”

 

“He’s got short stories, too,” Billy tells him. He pauses, like he’s deliberating whether or not he should keep talking. “I can tell you a few good ones if you want.” Steve is kind of surprised that Billy’s even talking about books, let alone recommending additional reading, like the assigned novels aren’t already enough all on their own.

 

“Maybe,” says Steve. Internally, he knows he’d never read them, but if Billy’s playing his weird brand of nice, Steve can, too. He pushes the rest of his carrots towards Billy.

 

“Thanks, man,” Billy says, as if he wasn’t already helping himself. Steve kind of hopes Nancy is still watching. Look, he thinks. I’m not alone. I’m fine. Billy is actually halfway nice to me. He doesn’t treat me like I’m two seconds from having a meltdown. Take notes.

 

Later, once Billy leaves for class and Steve is throwing his garbage into the trash, Jonathan comes over and grasps Steve’s shoulder amiably. Like they’re friends, or something. Hah. Steve knows that Hopper has probably told Joyce, and in turn, Jonathan and Nancy, about all of Steve’s ridiculous problems, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been giving him a wide berth, simultaneously treating him like trash and shattered glass.

 

“You good?” Jonathan asks. Steve shrugs, annoyed. Nancy must’ve asked him to come over and check on him. Steve kind of wishes she’d stop acting like she cared about him. She didn’t when they were still dating, and she definitely didn’t when Barb died -- when Steve needed her the most. So why should she now?

 

“Yeah, man. Fine,” Steve replies. Jonathan seems to take him at his word, because he just nods and walks off awkwardly.

 

-

 

Steve’s getting his textbooks from his locker when Billy sneaks up behind him and says, “Boo.”

 

Steve startles violently, dropping his physics textbook onto the floor, sheets of his hastily written notes spilling out from between the pages.

 

“God, don’t do that, asshole,” he huffs, bending down to pick up the papers before people have a chance to walk all over them. His chicken scratches are already messy enough, he doesn’t need a dirty footprint to add to their illegibility.

 

“Didn’t realize you were scared of ghosts,” says Billy, kneeling down to help Steve, even going so far as to take the papers from Steve’s hands and fix them into a nice, neat pile. Steve watches the obnoxious ring on his finger glint under the ugly fluorescent lighting of the hallway. Billy’s hands are smart. Deft. Quick and capable. He hands the pile along with the textbook over to Steve, who immediately stands up and shoves it back into his messy locker.

 

“Are you a ghost?” Steve asks, slamming it shut and twisting his lock around, one two three times.

 

“No,” says Billy, hefting his own bag a little higher on his shoulder. “It’d be kinda cool, if I was, though.”

 

“If you say so,” replies Steve. “It would explain how you always manage to follow me around, I guess.”

 

“You think I follow you around? What, like a stray fuckin’ dog?” asks Billy.

 

“You’re like, always around, so,” Steve says, shrugging.

 

“There are like, three places to go around here-- scratch that, two. How do I know you’re not following me?”

 

“Trust me, I’m not,” Steve deadpans, starting to move away.

 

“Are you going to Mona’s party?” asks Billy suddenly.

 

“On Saturday?” Steve asks, pausing to look back at Billy, who is doing a poor impersonation of someone who is completely at ease, leaning back against Steve’s locker with a look of determination on his face. The bruising by his eye has mostly cleared up now, and if Steve wasn’t paying as much attention to Billy’s face as he has been lately, he probably wouldn’t be able to notice it at all.

 

“That’s the one. You goin’?”

 

“I don’t think so, no,” Steve scrunches his nose. There’s not really a reason for him to go to parties like that anymore. He’s surprised Billy doesn’t already know that. He expects Billy to deflate at his response, but instead he perks up instantly.

 

“Right, me either. So. I gotta question for you,” he says, fiddling with the zipper on his jacket.

 

Billy’s been wearing the same leather jacket all week. He doesn’t really have a choice, seeing that Steve still has the jean jacket draped over his desk chair. Steve doesn’t really know how to bring it up. Like, what’s he supposed to say? Hey, man. Remember how you found me crying at the quarry and gave me your jacket? I still have it at my house, and I’ve been taking it to bed with me to help me fall asleep. Should I bring it to school and give it back to you? The truth is, as ashamed he is to admit it to himself, before he started dragging Billy’s jacket to bed with him, Steve can’t remember the last time he slept through the night. He hasn’t been this well-rested in half a year.

 

“Uh, okay,” says Steve, trying to shove his thoughts to the back of his mind. “Shoot.”

 

“Wanna hang out instead?”

 

“With you?” Steve shuffles closer to Billy to reduce the risk of someone overhearing their conversation. The abrupt change in topics has thrown him, and he falters while he tries to make sense of the conversation. He’s not sure he actually heard Billy properly. If he did, well, then Billy just asked him to spend time with him on a night where every other teenager in Hawkins will be getting drunk at Mona Blackmore’s house.

 

“That’s what I just said, yeah,” Billy says, starting to look more visibly self conscious. Steve hasn’t really noticed it before, but Billy kind of blushes, even under that sun-kissed, golden tan. It’s a stark contrast to the normally tough exterior Steve is used to seeing on Billy, but it’s also really fucking cute. He shakes himself. Stop that queer shit.

 

“Oh,” says Steve. “Okay. Yeah, sure.” He waits for Billy to reply, but Billy stays quiet, a smile blooming across his face. Steve nods, Billy nods back. When Steve’s pretty sure he’s not going to get any more words out of Billy, he turns away.

 

“Hey, Harrington?” Billy calls after him. They’ve been standing at Steve’s locker for long enough that the usually bustling hallway is empty and echoey around them.

 

“Yeah?” says Steve.

 

“Wear my jacket.”

 

-

 

Steve is like, kinda freaking out.

 

For a couple of reasons. One of them being that he’s pretty sure Billy asked him on a date. Which is like, all kinds of crazy. Well, he doesn’t know if Billy meant it that way, but that’s what it feels like to him. Billy can’t be gay, though. He’s too normal to be gay. Too tough, too smart. Dad always said that queers were freaks. People like Steve, not people like Billy. So, Steve is wrong. He knows he is.

 

The other reason he’s nervous is that he can’t find anything that looks cool enough to wear with Billy’s jacket.

 

His clothes are all boring, and plain, and a little too sweet. It worked well with his old preppy boy image, but lately, every time he pulls on a pastel polo, a striped turtleneck - he feels like he’s slapping a bandaid over a gaping wound. Look, it’s me! Rich boy Steve Harrington, with his perfect hair and perfect clothes and perfect life. If you focus on the pullover, maybe you won’t notice the dark circles the size of craters below my eyes!

 

He groans, flopping back onto his bed, taking Billy’s jacket with him and burying his face into it. It still smells faintly of the woods, of Billy’s cologne. Steve has stopped trying to pretend he doesn’t like it.

 

There’s a feeling, once that he’s grown accustomed to but hates with a ferocity, bubbling his stomach. He’s nervous.

 

His parents still aren’t home.

 

He screams into the fabric.

 

There’s a problem, see. Once he started sleeping with Billy’s jacket, he hasn’t been able  to stop. He tried. On Sunday, and on Monday, and on Tuesday, but each and every night, he wound up stumbling across his room in the darkness until his fingers landed on soft denim and he felt his heart settle in his chest. Night after night, his seemingly endless battle with insomnia and nightmares was single-handedly fought off by Billy Hargrove’s old jean jacket.

 

At lunch today, he’d been restless. Eyes darting around the cafeteria trying to see if Billy entered the room. He was sitting alone today, like usual, and Nancy and Jonathan offered him their usual stiff smiles. Steve tried to pretend he didn’t see them as he looked out for Billy, munching half-heartedly at his pretzels, his bag of baby carrots untouched in his backpack just in case Billy didn’t have any lunch again. Billy never showed up first nor last, though, and when the bell signaling the end of lunch rang, Steve felt like kicking himself for feeling so disappointed. Get a fucking grip, he thought to himself, it’s not like he’s obligated to be your cafeteria buddy. Except, Steve kind of wishes that Billy was. Talking with him is nice. It feels natural, and easy, and a little bit scary, but only in a good way. Talking to Billy makes his heart beat a little faster and his tongue a little heavier, but he still finds himself yearning for more time spent together with Billy.

 

Tonight, after his conversation earlier this morning with Billy about hanging out, he isn’t sure what to do. He doesn’t want to give Billy back his jacket smelling like Steve, because if he’d just worn it that one time like a normal person and then hung it up and forgot about it, it wouldn’t have traces of Steve’s laundry detergent or cologne on it. He doesn’t want to wash it either, because then it won’t smell like Billy anymore at all. So, he had reasoned, he had better hang it up and stop clutching onto it in the dark like a scared little kid with their favourite stuffed animal.

 

He manages to fall asleep, much to his surprise. Less surprisingly, he wakes with a scream around three-thirty, his heart in his throat and sweat dripping down his heaving chest. He’s been having these goddamn nightmares he can’t remember for months. All he can scrape from his memory is blue and quiet and panic. He knows what he’s dreaming about, he knows why he can’t even look at his backyard anymore, and he knows that he probably deserves it.

 

He also knows that with Billy’s jean jacket cradled between his hands, he usually manages to sleep like a baby. His head hanging in defeat, Steve trudges across the room and yanks the jacket from the back of his desk chair. He looks down at it, vision blurry from sleep and the remnants of his dream.

 

“What the fuck am I doing?” he mutters to himself. Billy would probably kick his ass if he knew Steve was cuddling up to his jacket every night.

 

Probably.

 

Steve can’t think anymore. All he knows is that there’s a hell of a lot more to Billy Hargrove than Billy wants people to believe there is. Steve’s pretty damn sure that he’s seen a side of Billy that nobody else in Hawkins has, and the person that Billy lets himself be around Steve might just be okay with Steve finding comfort in a silly jacket.

 

 

-

 

 

“I meant on Saturday, you idiot, not at school. Everyone’s gonna think we’re fucking.

 

“Well, you weren’t exactly specific, so forgive me for misunderstanding your demand, Hargrove,” Steve hisses back just as viciously, huddling self-consciously into the jacket.

 

It’s Thursday morning, the wind is positively howling, and Steve is standing in the deserted parking lot with Billy, waiting for the first bell to ring to signal the start of first period. He fell asleep curled into the jacket last night, and he only took it off for a moment this morning so he could slip out of his pajama shirt. Now, he feels uncomfortable and twitchy as Billy stands in front of him, hands shoved into his jean pockets as he looks at Steve appraisingly.

 

“I didn’t think I had to be that fucking specific.” Billy rolls his eyes.

 

“Well, what am I supposed to do now?” asks Steve, gesticulating wildly. “Freeze to death?”

 

“That’s a little dramatic,” says Billy.

 

“Rich, coming from you,” Steve mutters, and Billy laughs.

 

“Harrington, you haven’t seen dramatic from me.”

 

“Whatever. Do you want me to take it off?” Steve asks sullenly, embarrassed. He scuffs the toe of his shoe into the pavement, watches the gravel leave a faint scratch against the white canvas.

 

“And deprive everyone of the sight of you in your baby blue cashmere sweater and my jacket?” Billy reaches out and drags two fingers down Steve’s chest, his touch a jolt to Steve’s heart.

 

“You don’t have to be mean.” Steve huffs, going to shrug the jacket off. “And it’s not baby blue. Look, I don’t have any fucking-- Metallica shit to wear with this.”

 

“But it is cashmere, right?”

 

“Oh, fuck off,” says Steve, ready to rip the jacket off his body and throw it at Billy.

 

“Hey,” Billy laughs, grabbing Steve by the arm. “Relax, Harrington. I like it. Looks good on you.”

 

“You like it?” Steve repeats, stopping his movements. The wind howls again, right in Steve’s face, and he chokes a little as it takes his breath away. Billy shifts slightly so that he’s standing toe-to-toe with Steve, his body acting as a buffer between Steve and the gusts of wind.

 

“The bell’s about to ring,” says Billy, and Steve has no other choice but to follow Billy into the building, jacket still sitting comfortably on his shoulders.

 

 

-

 

 

Billy waits until they’re alone in the locker room after practice before he approaches Steve. Steve watches as he double checks to make sure the room is empty before sitting on the opposite bench, hair still dripping from the showers. Steve forces his eyes to focus on Billy’s face and not drop down to his bare, damp, glistening chest.

 

“So,” says Billy, bringing a towel to his shoulders, wiping off the excess water. “What do you wanna do?”

 

“What, like now? I dunno, go home and eat, I guess,” says Steve, pulling his sweater over his head. He’s starving, now that he’s thinking about it. “I’m pretty hungry.”

 

“No, on Saturday,” Billy corrects, making no moves to start dressing himself. He’s got his boxers on, and that’s it.

 

“I dunno. You’re the one who asked me, did you have something in mind?”

 

“Kinda,” Billy says, finally reaching for his gym bag and pulling his t-shirt over his head. It’s grey, and Steve watches, entranced, as the dampness from Billy’s skin soaks through the flimsy fabric and turns the shirt dark where it clings to Billy’s chest.

 

“Alright,” says Steve. “You gonna tell me, or what?”

 

“How d’you feel about popcorn?” Billy asks.

 

“Popcorn?” echoes Steve. “Um, it’s good, I guess? I like it a lot with butter.”

 

“And candy?” prompts Billy, a grin tugging at his lips.

 

“Some of it. I don’t like the chewy ones, like, y’know, gummies?”

 

“Lame,” says Billy. “And movies? How d’you feel about movies?”

 

“Everyone likes movies,” Steve says, bringing his foot up to the bench so that he can tie his laces.

 

“Not everyone likes them,” Billy argues. “You don’t know that.”

 

“You don’t know that they don’t,” Steve replies. “Not like they ask about that shit on the census.”

 

“Whatever,” Billy says. “You like them, that’s all that I give a damn about. So that’s settled.”

 

“What’s settled?” Steve asks. “Are we going to the Hawk?”

 

“You kidding me?” Billy fake gags. “That place blows, it’s full of little kids. No, we’re going to the drive-in.”

 

“It’s almost winter,” Steve reminds him slowly. It’s October, but it’s getting cold enough that Steve wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up to snow dusted over Hawkins within the next week.

 

“You afraid of a little cold? Indiana boy like you?” Billy asks, leaning in and swiping his tongue across his lips. Just then, the door to the locker room bursts open to reveal Coach hauling in a bin of basketballs.

 

“Oh,” he says, surprised. “Didn’t realize you boys were still here. Everything okay?”

 

“Everything’s good,” Steve assures him, watching out of the corner of his eye as Billy retreats away from him, sitting up with his back straight against the wall.

 

“Just peachy, sir,” Billy adds with a smile.

 

Coach nods, pleased. “I’m glad you boys seem to be getting along. It’s good for the team, gives us that extra edge on the court when we’re working together like a cohesive unit. Keep it up, alright?”

 

“Yes, coach,” they say in unison, and they stay quiet as they watch him deposit the bin of balls into the corner and head back to the door.

 

“Make sure you leave through the main door on your way out, okay? I’m locking up the gym,” he tells them.

 

“Sure thing,” Billy says, already facing Steve again. The door thuds behind Coach as he leaves, and Steve releases a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He’s not sure why he was so nervous; it’s not like he and Billy were doing anything wrong. They were just talking about hanging out over the weekend, like normal teenagers. But there’s something different, about this. He thinks he knows what it is, but it makes him feel like throwing up whenever he thinks about what that would mean.

 

“Where were we?” Billy asks, and Steve blinks rapidly, shoving his thoughts away.

 

“You were pretending you actually enjoy being cold,” Steve deadpans.

 

“Very funny,” says Billy, rolling his eyes. “I never said that. Fuck the cold, forreal. But the drive-in is way better than the theatre. That shit is nasty. This way, there’s less people, better seats, all that jazz.”

 

“I guess so,” Steve agrees. “I s’pose it helps that we get to sit in the car. My seats are pretty comfortable.”

 

“Uh uh,” Billy interrupts. “No way. We’re taking my car.

 

Steve scrunches his nose, unsure. “We were in your car last weekend, why can’t I have a turn?”

 

“Mine has a bigger back seat,” Billy replies, and Steve very nearly has a heart attack.

 

He’s sure his face is beet red when he chokes, “What?

 

“Relax,” Billy says, standing up. At some point, he had pulled on his jeans and boots, and Steve hadn’t even noticed. He crosses the small distance between the two benches and pats Steve’s shoulder. “I’m just fucking with you, Harrington.”

 

“Right,” Steve replies. “Right.”

 

Billy grins down at him, something smug and mean, but his eyes tell a different story, one that Steve is having trouble reading. “Anyways. If you want to drive so bad, how ‘bout you take us down to Benny’s for a burger?”

 

“On Saturday?” Steve asks, finishing up tying his laces so that he doesn’t have to look at Billy and choke on his words.

 

“No,” Billy says. “Now. You said you were hungry, right?”

 

“Yeah, starving,” Steve tells him, and his stomach rumbles as if on cue.

 

Billy laughs, a small, quiet thing. “See? So, whaddaya say, Steve-o? Burgers?”

 

“Alright, sure.” Steve shrugs.

 

They walk out of the building together, sneakers crunching on the leaves that litter the parking lot. The wind that was so wild in the morning has died down to a more comfortable breeze, and the sun is peeking out from behind the treeline, overwhelmingly bright but providing next to no heat. Steve shivers a little against the cold, and Billy must notice because he says, “My jacket not doing it for you?”

 

“No,” Steve says, probably a little too quickly. Is Billy going to ask for it back now? God, he really hopes not. “No, it’s perfect-- uh, good. It’s fine?”

 

“Oh,” says Billy as he tries the handle on the car door.  “Uh. Cool. You gonna let me in?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve says, fumbling with the keys. “Gimme a sec.”

 

Once they’re on the road, Billy fiddles with the cassettes in Steve’s glovebox, hemming and hawing about which awful tape of Steve’s to play. Eventually he decides on Seven and the Ragged Tiger, which, to Steve’s surprise, he calls acceptable. Steve can see him mouthing the words to Union of the Snake out of the corner of his eye and decides not to say anything about it, because he thinks that if he does, Billy will stop, and Steve kinda likes watching the way his lips move.

 

Benny’s is looking busy as they pull into the lot. Steve glances over at Billy, worried that he won’t want to go inside, but Billy just swings open the door and starts walking towards the diner as casually as ever, leaving Steve to scramble to catch up.

 

There aren’t too many seats left to choose from, and they end up sitting squashed together at a tiny table in the corner.

 

“Roomy,” Steve wiggles his legs around, accidentally knocking their knees together.

 

“Watch it,” Billy says, no real heat in his voice as he looks over the menu. “Aren’t you gonna look at yours?”

 

“Pretty sure I’ve got it memorized,” he says honestly.

 

Janie ambles over then, notepad in hand, gum popping between her lips. She used to go to Hawkins High, was a senior when Steve was still a freshman. She’d never left Hawkins, just got a job at Benny’s after high school and stuck around, popped out two kids and lives by the river with her bumpkin boyfriend. “Ready?”

 

“Can I get some pancakes?” Steve asks, watching as Billy’s eyebrows shoot up.

 

“It’s suppertime,” Janie says slowly, like Steve’s never learned how to tell time or something.

 

“Yeah, I know.” Steve shrugs. “Benny always makes them for me anyways.”

 

“Weird,” Janie mutters under her breath, scribbling down pancakes with pursed lips. Her pencil drags across the paper noisily, like she’s pressing it in hard. “What about you, Billy?” she asks, voice suddenly chipper. Steve can’t help but roll his eyes. Fucking typical. Girls in this town used to look at him like that. He doesn’t miss it, exactly; it had always felt so fake. But there’s something about Janie looking at Billy like that that’s really pissing him off. Billy seems to notice Steve’s annoyance.

 

Billy glances over the menu, hand on his chin, fingers tapping against his cheek as he thinks. After a moment he pauses, looks up, and makes eye contact with Steve. Steve blinks back at him slowly, a little lost as to why Billy looks so much like the cat that’s got the canary. A slow grin spreads across his face before he turns to Janie. “Y’know what? I’m going to have the pancakes, too, Jenny,” he says, smiling sharply.

 

Steve notices the second her flirty smile slides from her face. Billy one-hundred-percent just purposely forgot her name. He wouldn’t be surprised if Janie came back with a pot of hot coffee to pour all over both of their laps.

 

“Alright, then,” she says, pulling the menus across the table and walking away without asking what they wanted for drinks.

 

“Well, then,” Billy snorts. “Great service.”

 

“Don’t take it personally. She hates me.” Everyone does.

 

“Why?” Billy asks, fingers tapping against the vinyl tablecloth. He’s got that intense look on his face again, the one that makes Steve feel like every ounce of Billy’s attention is focused solely on him. Maybe it is. Is it bad that he hopes it is?

 

“I dunno,” Steve lies. Billy doesn’t buy it, just gives Steve a look that says, really, man?

 

“She asked me out once, ages ago,” Steve says. “I dunno. I said no.”

 

King Steve,” Billy mock salutes him, and Steve immediately tugs on his hair self-consciously. “Wow. Tell me more, your majesty.”

 

“Hardy har har,” Steve says, fiddling with the salt shaker. Just then, a baby starts crying across the restaurant, cutting off Billy’s would-be reply with a loud wail. The parents are shushing it halfheartedly, still slurping down their coke.

 

“Jesus,” Billy laughs, turning in his seat to locate the source of the shrieks. “I love this place.”

 

“You hate it already,” Steve replies, sliding the salt across the table. Billy scoops it up expertly, shakes it one two three times into his open mouth, tongue licking over his lips salaciously.

 

“Why’d you gotta be like that?” Steve complains, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, rolling his eyes.

 

“Like what?” Billy asks, suddenly the picture of innocence. Cherubic, or whatever, with those big baby blues.

 

“Y’know,” Steve says, flopping his hand around in Billy’s direction. “Like that.

 

“This?” Billy grins, slouching back in his chair. Steve can tell that he’s got his thighs spread wide, taking up a ridiculous amount of space. He holds both of his arms out to the side, gesturing at himself. “This is just who I am, baby.” At that, Janie returns, sour-faced at Billy’s antics.

 

“Here are your cokes,” she says, placing them down a little too roughly in front of them.

 

“We didn’t order coke--” Steve starts, but she’s already walking away.

 

Jee-sus,” Billy says again. “She musta really wanted that date, huh?”

 

“With you or me?” Everyone knows that Janie messes around on her poor hick boyfriend. Larry. Or Lance. Something like that. At least he got a few cute kids outta the relationship, because Steve doesn’t think Janie’s giving him much else.

 

“I don’t think it matters.”

 

“I s’pose so,” Steve mutters. He looks forlornly at the glass in front of him. “I am not drinking coke with pancakes.”

 

“Want me to flag her down so you can order a glass of milk?” Billy asks, already chewing on his straw. Steve knows he’s joking, but--

 

“Honestly? Yeah, dude. Milk and pancakes? Does it get any better than that?”

 

“I always drink water with breakfast,” Billy says.

 

Water?” Steve asks incredulously. “You gotta be kidding me. Please tell me that’s a joke.”

 

“Why would that be a joke?” Billy sounds all offended, and like, he should.

 

“Um, because it’s the grossest thing I ever heard? You can’t drink water with breakfast.”

 

“Why the fuck not?” Billy asks.

 

“Okay, so there are two possible scenarios, right?” Steve begins, waiting for Billy to nod before he continues. “Scenario one. You wake up, go get breakfast, drink water like a freak, and it just tastes like morning breath--”

 

“Okay, no--” Billy begins, and Steve waves him off.

 

“I’m not done, dude. Scenario two is you wake up and brush your teeth first thing, ‘cause some people do that. I don’t, but some people do, so anyways. You brush your teeth, then you go get breakfast and drink your nasty water, and then it just tastes like toothpaste.”

 

“It doesn’t taste like either of those things. It literally just tastes like water.”

 

“Water has no taste.”

 

“Debatable.”

 

“Whatever. But why would you drink water when there are like, so many more, better options? Like, it doesn’t have to be milk. What about juice?”

 

“I dunno. My old man never buys that shit.”

 

“He’s never bought you juice?” Steve asks, surprised. When he was a kid, he like, lived on O.J.

 

“No.” Billy doesn’t elaborate, and Steve’s curiosity is piqued now.

 

“Why not?”

 

“He’s just-- he’s not good with that kind of stuff.” Steve doesn’t know what the fuck that’s supposed to mean. It’s buying juice. Maybe he’s a health freak. Whatever. Or maybe Billy’s dad is a hardass like Steve’s. But, maybe his mom is nice? Steve’s mom isn’t, not really when it matters.

 

“What about your mom?” Steve asks.

 

“She’s uh, she’s not around,” Billy admits, voice suddenly dropping low. His eyes flick away from Steve’s for the first time since they sat down, and Steve winces, feeling embarrassed. He’s always gotta open his mouth and say something stupid.

 

“Oh,” he says, faltering while he tries to figure out something to say. “That sucks. I’m sorry, man.”

 

“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” Billy says, his demeanor shifting as his voice goes back to normal. He sits up straighter in his seat, twists around and catches Janie’s eye. “Hey, Jenny? Can we get some milk over here?”

 

-

 

“Where are the pretzels?” Dustin demands for the third time, slamming another cupboard closed with such force that Steve can’t help but flinch. Sure, his parents aren’t around often, but if they come home to cupboard doors off their hinges and dents in the wood, they’re gonna have something to say about it.

 

Jee-sus,” Steve turns around, faces Dustin with his hands on his hips. Feels a bit like an exasperated parent. “There are no freakin’ pretzels, dude. How many times I gotta tell you that?”

 

Dustin sighs, scrambles off the counter he’d been standing on. He mirrors Steve’s position, all haughty. “Steve, we’ve talked about this. Movie night means pretzels.”

 

“That’s not a thing.”

 

“It is a thing!”

 

“Since when? Says who?”

 

“Uh, since we started movie night. And says me. It’s our thing.”

 

“We don’t have a thing, Christ, Dustin. Look, I told you, I got like, crackers, and popcorn--”

 

“Stale popcorn,” Dustin interrupts.

 

“I had some last night, it’s fine,” Steve lies. Can popcorn even go stale? He doesn’t think so.

 

“For supper? Steve, you can’t have popcorn for supper all the time. Mom thinks you don’t eat enough, and I tell her that’s not true, but I think she’s right. She’s right, isn’t she? You don’t know how to cook. Oh, oh god. You’ve been living off of popcorn, haven’t you? Jesus. Oh my god, Steve--”

 

“Dustin, just. Just chill out. I’m not living on popcorn. It was a snack, alright?”

 

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Dustin says, all sincere and child-like. Sometimes Steve forgets how young he really is, with all the big words he uses and how mature he likes to act. But when he turns on those puppy eyes, all Steve can think of is how goddamn innocent Dustin is.

 

“I’m not lying,” Steve promises. “Look, you want pretzels that bad, we’ll go get them.” He scoops his keys off the kitchen table, jingles them in the air. “You can have shotgun.”

 

Dustin runs out the door like there’s actually competition for the front seat. Jee-sus.

 

 

 

Steve is exhausted by the time he drops Dustin home later that night. Dustin has been yammering on and on and on - not during the movie, but at every other possible moment - about everything under the sun. He talked about school, and about some gadget Lucas was building, and about Max and her scary older brother.

 

“Scary? What, no,” he says, slowing to a stop at a red light. “Don’t worry about Billy. He’s uh, he’s nice.”

 

“Really?” Dustin asks. “How would you know?”

 

“He plays basketball with me.”

 

“Just because someone is good at basketball doesn’t mean they’re nice, Steve,” Dustin says, all matter-of-fact.

 

“No, you’re right,” Steve agrees. “But Billy’s my friend.”

 

“You have friends?

 

“Shut up,” Steve snaps, accelerating through the intersection once the light turns. He knows that he’s not the King Steve he used to be, but having a twelve-year-old kid cooing over him making friends makes him feel about three feet tall, and also like he’s talking to his great-aunt.

 

“No, I’m serious. Steve, that’s great!” Dustin rushes to say, and Steve’s heart aches a little with how sincere Dustin actually sounds.

 

“Thanks, I guess,” he concedes. It does feel nice to have someone who he can call a friend. If he can call Billy a friend. He isn’t sure yet, but he thinks he can. Billy feels like a friend. Feels like more than a friend, a small, dirty part of Steve’s brain whispers, and Steve tries to push the thought away.

 

“Is that who gave you the jacket?” Dustin asks, and Steve’s heart just about stops.

 

“What?”

 

“The jacket,” Dustin repeats. “The one that was on your bed?”

 

“You were in my room?” Steve asks.

 

“Well, yeah. Sorry. I was looking for the pretzels!”

 

Dustin,” Steve hisses, annoyed.

 

“I was hungry, okay? Anyways. That’s Billy’s, right? It was the one he was wearing when you brought me to pick up Max. Back in September, remember--”

 

“Yeah, I remember,” Steve interrupts.

 

“So, is it his?”

 

Christ, the kid doesn’t know when to quit it. Steve supposes there’s no real harm in telling Dustin it’s Billy’s. He can just say that Billy left it by accident while they were working on a project, right?

 

“Yeah, it’s his,” Steve says. “He forgot it the other day when he was over.”

 

“Why’d you wear it to school on Thursday?”

 

Great. Fuck.

 

“How’d you know what I wore to school on Thursday?” Steve asks. He’s outside of Dustin’s house now, car idling at the curb, but Dustin doesn’t seem ready to get out, and Steve needs to make sure he keeps his mouth shut about this.

 

“Uh, I saw you. Obviously,” Dustin says, slow like he’s worried Steve doesn’t understand how eyes work.

 

“Right,” Steve falters. “I just wore it, so uh, I could give it back to him.”

 

“Then why do you still have it?”

 

Fuck.

 

“He um, didn’t have room for it in his backpack,” Steve sticks to his lie, uncertain of how to proceed.

 

“What about his locker?” Dustin asks. Steve really wishes Dustin wasn’t so … empirical.

 

“He … doesn’t have a locker.” God, can this car ride be over already?

 

“Well that’s just ridiculous. How can he not have a locker? Is it because he’s cool?”

 

Steve would close his eyes if he wasn’t driving, that’s how much of a headache he’s developed in the last sixty seconds. “No, it’s not ‘cause he’s cool,” he says. “Just, don’t worry about it, alright?”

 

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Dustin says, practically tumbling out of the car the second Steve rolls to a stop outside of his house. “Don’t tell my mom about how many pretzels we ate, okay?”

 

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Steve repeats, nodding dutifully, knowing full well if Claudia Henderson asks about what he’s feeding her son, he’ll save himself an earful on healthy eating and just lie.

 

 

 

The moon hangs low over Hawkins, bright and full. It’s almost midnight and the roads are practically deserted. The quiet of the night is lost to the sounds coming from his radio. He slows to a crawl at a four-way stop, knowing that the chance of another car is slim, and continues through the intersection without stopping. Before he knows it, there are red and blue lights flashing in his rearview, the quick wail of a siren startling him over the sounds of Gordon Lightfoot crooning through his speakers.

 

Sometimes I think it’s a shame when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain, sings Gordon, and Hopper raps on Steve’s window. Steve rolls it down, turns down the radio volume to a low hum, making his nervous breathing all the more noticeable.

 

“Hey, Hop,” Steve mumbles, eyes darting away from Hopper’s unreadable gaze.

 

“Steve,” Hopper greets. “Have you been drinking?”

 

“What?” Steve splutters, caught off guard. “No. Are you freaking kidding me?”

 

“No, I am not freaking kidding you,” Hopper says. “Smoking?”

 

No,” Steve insists, reaching over to turn his radio off. “I just dropped Dustin home.”

 

“Is that so?” Hopper asks, his fingers tapping on the side view. “If I call Mrs. Henderson and ask if that’s true, is she gonna say yes?”

 

“Please don’t call Mrs. Henderson,” Steve says. If Hopper calls Claudia, she’s going to want to know why Hopper needs to know where Steve’s been, and then she’ll know that he got pulled over, and that Hopper thinks he’s crazy, and then he won’t be able to babysit Dustin anymore, and as much as he complains about it, Dustin is kind of one of the only people on this planet he actually cares about--

 

“Why shouldn’t I?” Hopper asks, and Steve hesitates before replying.

 

“I’ve been good,” he says, voice wobbly.

 

“You’ve been g--”

 

“I haven’t skipped my appointments,” Steve blurts. “Any of them. For weeks. Even when I feel awful and I really don’t wanna go, I still go because I know it’s part of our deal.”

 

“Steve--”

 

“And I’m taking my meds,” Steve soldiers on. “Most of the time. I wasn’t feeling great last weekend and I didn’t, but I have been, really, Hop.”

 

“Listen, Steve,” Hopper tries, and Steve cuts him off again.

 

“Sorry, I’m sorry. But-- just. I don’t wanna be-- Dustin’s my friend. Please don’t call Mrs. Henderson,” he pleads. He even wills his eyes upwards to meet Hopper’s stare instead of maintaining eye contact with his steering wheel like he had been doing while he was talking.

 

“Alright, kid,” Hopper says after a few excruciating minutes of silence. “I’m not gonna call Claudia--”

 

“Thank you,” Steve breathes in relief, but Hopper holds up a hand to signal that he wasn’t finished.

 

“But you ran a stop sign.”

 

“I barely ran it,” Steve argues. “No one else was around. It’s the middle of the night.”

 

“I was around,” Hopper points out. “And haven’t we talked about you wandering around in the middle of the night?”

 

“I’m-- I’m not wandering,” Steve says, upset. He can feel his eyes prickling, doesn’t like the way Hopper sounds disappointed, not even letting Steve explain why he’s out driving. “I was driving Dustin home. I’m in my car.”

 

“I don’t want you falling back into bad habits,” Hopper says, and Steve thinks he can detect some anger in his tone. Look, Steve doesn’t do good when people are mad at him. It makes his chest tighten and his body tense, ready to flee.

 

“I’ve been good,” Steve repeats, trying to keep the wobble from his voice. “I’m not doing that stuff anymore.”

 

“Have you? Been good? Mrs. Jennings told me she saw you heading for the quarry last Friday, drunk as all hell.” Mrs. Jennings is Steve’s nosy neighbour, old and rude, forever trying to make his life miserable, apparently. He’s pretty damn sure that half of the times the cops found him wandering around over the summer were because of phone calls made by that old bat.

 

“That wasn’t about … that,” Steve says, lies through his teeth as something cold and unwelcoming settles in his stomach. Images flash through his mind; of the hazy forest, of the bottle falling, of Billy’s hands settling him while he cried. Of the jean jacket that’s on his pillow, still smelling faintly of Billy.

 

“Oh, so that’s just a thing you do, now? Stumble through the woods for a bit of end-of-the-week fun?” Hopper’s voice is growing colder and louder with every word, and Steve has to work to keep from doing something stupid like shivering or flinching.

 

“I’m not a fucking basket case,” Steve bites out. Then, quieter, “I wanna go home now.”

 

Hopper sighs, all heavy-like, like just talking to Steve is draining for him. It makes Steve feel like dirt, makes him feel stupid, makes him feel like maybe he is crazy.

 

“Alright, kid,” Hopper says. “Let’s get you home.”

 

He follows Steve in his cruiser all the way back to Loch Nora, pulls in behind Steve in the driveway, and doesn’t drive away until Steve’s inside with the lights on and the door locked.

 

After Steve got out of the car, Hopper leaned out his window and squeezed Steve’s shoulder, patted his back, told him to call if you need anything.

 

Steve trudges down the empty hallway and up the quiet stairs, has to convince himself to not tear the stupid telephone from the wall.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes up with a sour taste in his mouth and Billy’s jacket plastered to his face. It’s late, almost lunchtime according to his alarm clock, and Steve dreads the thought of getting out of bed.

 

On Thursday, when Billy dropped Steve home from the diner, he told Steve he’d be by to pick him up around seven o’clock. Be ready, he’d said, as if Steve wouldn’t be buzzing in anticipation for his arrival all day.

 

Steve spends the afternoon puttering around. He makes toast, vacuums the living room carpet - which was full of popcorn and pretzels, thanks to Dustin and his shenanigans - and takes a scalding hot shower that turns his skin pink. To his own surprise, he even answers some questions for his English booklet. He has to put on his abhorred glasses to do the work. A combination of a shitty sleep and the tiny words were giving him a headache without them. He hardly ever wears them; they feel too clunky on his face, and the possibility of being called four-eyes is just embarrassing. Now, whenever he has them on, he gets a little dizzy because he’s not used to the prescription. He also hates the way they pinch at the skin behind his ears and the bridge of his nose. He scrunches up his face and looks at himself in the mirror above his dresser after he slides his English homework back into his backpack. The glasses aren’t terrible, but he’s so unused to seeing them on his face that it just looks wrong. Nancy used to think they were cute. Tommy has always called them fugly. “Fuck you, Tommy,” Steve mutters out loud before tugging the frames off his face and folding them neatly into their case.

 

By the time six-thirty rolls around, Steve’s practically thrumming with nerves. It takes him nearly twenty minutes to decide on a pair of jeans and shirt. He ends up in a simple red sweater and his favourite Levis that Nancy used to say fit real good. He doesn’t want to look overdressed, like he’s trying too hard, like he thinks this is a date. If Steve’s honest, he doesn’t have a clue what to expect. The drive-in is a pretty classic make-out spot in Hawkins, but maybe Billy doesn’t know that. Or maybe he does, and he doesn’t care, because he’s so straight that the thought of him and Steve going to the movies together seeming queer doesn’t even occur to him.

 

Usually, boys don’t encourage other boys to wear their clothes. It’s something that football players do with their girlfriends - boxy letterman jackets across their girl’s back, too big and too obnoxious and too romantic. Billy’s jacket fits Steve like a glove, a little roomy around the shoulders, just enough for Steve to comfortably tuck his face into the collar and breathe deep.

 

Usually, boys don’t invite other boys to the movies. Or rub their thighs through their jeans. Or walk them to class.

 

Billy has done all of those things and more, and Steve isn’t sure how to feel about it. Okay, sure, in a way he knows how he feels about it: giddy, flattered, nervous, scared, noticed, understood. But he doesn’t want to feel any of those things if Billy doesn’t actually like him that way. Maybe California boys are just more tactile than Steve’s used to. Maybe Billy just thinks of Steve as a good buddy, someone who’s not completely unbearable to shoot the shit with. The best that Hawkins has to offer. Steve pretends that that thought doesn’t bother him as much as it does.

 

He’s ready and waiting at the front door when the clock strikes seven, just like Billy told him to be. There’s a thermos of hot chocolate at his feet, a pair of mittens stuffed into the pockets of Billy’s jacket.

 

He’s ready and bouncing his leg at seven-oh-five.

 

He’s ready and increasingly nervous at seven-ten.

 

He’s ready to punch something, or cry, at seven-fifteen, and he almost does at seven-twenty when he hears the tell-tale sound of Billy’s camaro pulling in to his driveway. Steve takes a breath and checks his hair in the mirror hanging in the hallway just outside of the foyer. It looks fine - it always does - but he runs his fingers through it, adjusting a couple strands so they fall over his forehead.

 

“Okay,” he whispers to himself, shaking his arms out. “Fucking be cool. Calm down. Okay. Shit. Okay.”

 

Once he’s plastered a look of cool indifference across his face, he opens the front door. Billy’s in the Camaro bopping along to whatever song he’s got playing, curls bouncing as he moves. Steve smiles to himself as he turns around and locks the door behind him. Not like anyone in Hawkins is gonna rob the place, but just to be sure.

 

When he slides into the passenger seat, heart thumping at what must be a dangerously unhealthy rate, Billy looks over at him, tongue poking at a newly split lip.

 

“Hey,” he says, “Sorry I’m late.”

 

“It’s okay,” Steve says, even though he was about to self-implode before Billy miraculously showed up. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, Harrington. I’m fine,” Billy says, the picture of very much not-fine. “Was kinda worried you’d be tired of waiting for me, though.”

 

“Oh,” says Steve, not about to tell Billy that he had been feeling closer and closer to retreating to his bedroom and sulking for every minute that ticked by without Billy’s arrival. Despite his impatience and anxiety over whether Billy was going to show, Steve thinks that he’d wait … well, a hell of a long time for Billy. That probably makes him some sort of pathetic, but it’s the honest-to-god truth of it. Billy still has the car in park while he waits for an answer. He’s looking at Steve like-- Steve isn’t sure like what, exactly, but whatever the look is has got a flush rising in his cheeks.

 

“What?” Steve says, squirming. “Why’re you looking at me like that?”

 

“Nothing. No reason,” says Billy, tearing his eyes away. When he doesn’t say anything else, Steve answers his previous question.

 

“I’m not tired of waiting. Just glad you showed up.” He thinks the painful honesty of how glad he truly feels slips through in his tone, because Billy relaxes a little in his seat, hands loosening from their death-grip on the steering wheel.

 

“Is your-- are you really alright, Billy?” Steve presses, eyes focused on Billy’s lip, where a tiny bit of blood is pooling.

 

“Yes, Steve. I was just fucking around with Tommy earlier, that’s all.”

 

“Tommy did that?” Steve asks, incredulous.

 

“Didn’t I just say that?” Billy snaps, and Steve bristles at his tone. He remembers the offended way Billy acted last week at the quarry when Steve asked him if his bruise was from Tommy, doesn’t know why all of a sudden Steve is supposed to know that Tommy splitting Billy’s lip open is to be expected, or some shit.

 

“Jesus, alright. You don’t gotta be so mad. I just wanna make sure you’re okay.”

 

Billy wilts a little in his seat. “I’m okay. Really. Sorry for being-- yeah.”

 

“It’s alright,” says Steve, ready for the atmosphere in the car to evolve into something less charged. “Um, are we still going to the drive-in?”

 

“Yeah,” says Billy. “If you still want to. I know we’re a bit late, but. There’ll probably still be plenty of spots to park. It’s cold, so.”

 

“Yeah, it’s kind of miserable,” Steve agrees, takes a moment to curl into Billy’s jacket further, and Billy’s eyes suddenly light up, like he’s just noticed that Steve’s wearing it.

 

“You look nice,” Billy says, sotto voce, and Steve swears his face is on fire. Billy is probably just teasing, but he’s flustered by the comment all the same. When someone as handsome as Billy looks at you, blue eyes bright and pink lips parted, tugging ever so slightly into a devastating grin, you blush. It’s like, basic biology, or whatever.

 

“Thanks,” Steve says after a moment, keeps looking at Billy, can’t stop looking at Billy. Besides the split lip, Billy looks just as gorgeous as ever; curls a little wild, clothes all tight denim and leather, an open shirt showing off his toned chest. Looking at Billy reminds Steve of looking at the sun. He’s bright, he’s beautiful, and if you stare too long, you might just get hurt.

 

Billy’s not looking at Steve like he’s gonna punch his lights out for staring too long, he’s looking at Steve like he genuinely does think Steve looks nice in his jacket, looking at him like Steve used to look at Nancy.

 

“Yeah, ‘course, pretty boy,” Billy says, finally shifting the car into drive and pulling around to exit Steve’s driveway.

 

 

-

 

 

“So what are we watching?” Steve asks once Billy pulls the popcorn through the window and hands it to him. Steve settles the bag on his lap, hopes the grease doesn’t leak out onto his jeans.

 

“Uh, so about that…” Billy awkwardly fiddles with the zipper on his jacket, twitching. “I didn’t really check out what was playing before I invited you and--”

 

“Oh, Christ,” Steve groans playfully. “What idiotic movie did you drag me to?”

 

“It’s got good reviews,” Billy insists, “Both do.”

 

“It’s a double feature?” Steve asks. “Fuck, we really will freeze.”

 

“I brought blankets,” Billy mutters, gesturing to the back seat before pulling onto the field where the the movie has already started to play. Steve can’t tell what it is, but he has a feeling Billy is about to fill him in. Steve places the popcorn on the floor between his sneakers and next to his thermos, reaches behind him, and pulls two heavy quilts onto his lap.

 

“Oh,” he says, fingers bunching in the fabric. “They’re warm.”

 

“I had them in the dryer before I left. To warm them up,” Billy replies, already fiddling with the radio to tune into the movie.

 

“Really?” Steve asks, eyebrows rising in surprise. Picturing Billy loading quilts into a dryer is comical for some reason. On the other hand, he can’t help the way the thought of Billy warming up blankets for makes his heart flutter. “That’s really nice of you, Billy.”

 

“What can I say, I’m a thoughtful guy,” Billy deadpans, but Steve sees the way his mouth twitches, how his eyes take on a pleased glint.

 

“Anyways,” Steve tears his eyes away from Billy’s mouth. “What movies are we watching?”

 

“Well,” Billy says, turning up the volume. “This is Amadeus.”

 

“Oh god,” Steve groans. He looks to the screen, lets the music wash over him. “You’re not serious?”

 

“Yeah. Dead. I brought booze.” Billy pulls out a flask from his pocket and offers Steve an apologetic grimace.

 

“That’ll make the hot chocolate more exciting,” Steve says, shrugging, and Billy immediately snorts. “What?”

 

“You really brought hot chocolate?” Billy asks, sounding absolutely delighted. Steve doesn’t know what he’s so amused for - afterall, Billy’s the one who brought blankets. What’s a little hot chocolate between friends?

 

“Yeah,” Steve says. “What’s so funny about hot chocolate?”

 

“Nothing,” Billy holds his hands up. “Nothing’s funny. Promise.” His tongue peaks out between his lips, and Steve wonders if it’s irritating the cut.

 

“Okay,” Steve says slowly after a beat. “So, what’s the other movie?”

 

“Monster Dog,” says Billy, and Steve reaches across the console to hit him.

 

“You’re not serious,” Steve says, looking at Billy with wide eyes.

 

“Sure I am,” Billy says. “Says so right there, on the sign.” He gestures to the billboard they passed on their way in.

 

“We can’t watch that out here, at night!” Steve whisper-yells as an older couple walks past the Camaro, popcorn in hand. On the screen, Tom Hulce is doing something ridiculous in an ugly wig.

 

“Why not? Don’t tell me you’re scared of a stupid slasher flick, Harrington,” Billy teases, prodding back at Steve, his finger digging in sharply at Steve’s side. When Steve squirms away, Billy readjusts his grip so that his hand is spread across the curve of Steve’s waist, warm even through the fabric of the jacket. Steve can’t help the way his body stills at the touch of Billy’s fingers, the way his throat tightens, the way his stomach is suddenly full of butterflies.

 

“I am not,” he says, only for Billy to quirk an eyebrow and scoff.

 

“Sure as hell seems like you are,” Billy says, fingers digging into Steve’s side with renewed purpose, like he’s trying to tickle him. Steve jolts, surprised, and Billy laughs.

 

“You startle kinda easily, huh?”

 

“You’re gonna make me knock over the hot chocolate,” Steve grumbles instead of replying, embarrassed that what Billy said is true, and Billy pulls back and coughs a little.

 

“Right. Here, give it to me, I’ll mix you up somethin’ real special.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure you will,” Steve snorts, leaning over to pass the thermos to Billy. Billy tips the flask and pours the whiskey -- it smells like whiskey, anyways, so Steve assumes it is -- and keeps pouring until Steve grabs his wrist, says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down there, big guy. I want it to still taste good.”

 

Billy grins at him, takes a swig, and nods with his lips pursed. “Not bad, actually. Want some?”

 

“Yeah,” says Steve. “I do. Please.”

 

Billy hands it over and Steve takes a sip, lets the warm liquid slide down his throat, a little burny, a little chocolatey. It’s not half bad. It’ll do the trick, at least. As he lowers the thermos from his face, he finds Billy’s still watching him intently. “Not bad, Hargrove,” he says, locking eyes with Billy.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” says Billy, already reaching for the popcorn. “They gave us like, no butter. The fuck.”

 

“It’s less messy this way,” Steve points out, handing one of the quilts to Billy after he shovels a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

 

“I like messy,” Billy replies, salaciously licking his fingers and sending Steve a quick wink that makes Steve’s head spin a little.

 

“Yeah, I bet,” he says, hopes his voice sounds more sarcastic and less … affected.

 

They sit through the first movie like that; bundled in their respective quilts, occasionally rolling their eyes at the on screen antics and fighting over who gets to hold the popcorn and who’s hogging the spiked hot chocolate. The movie itself is actually not half bad. A little silly, maybe, and not entirely Steve’s normal taste, and certainly not Billy’s. All the same, Steve watches Billy out of the corner of his eye, and when he thinks Steve isn’t paying attention, he chuckles silently along with the film. There are lots of parts where Steve doesn’t really get what’s going on, but the music is nice enough that he doesn’t really mind.

 

By the time the movie is drawing to a close, Mozart dead and his laugh echoing from the radio as the screen fades to black, Steve’s breath is rising in cloudy puffs. He’s got the blanket wrapped tightly around him, so he’s not completely freezing, but there’s a definite chill creeping into the Camaro. Billy must be cold too, because his cheeks are pinked up and he’s actually got his shirt buttoned up, which-- talk about unprecedented.

 

“You freezing your ass off yet?” Steve asks, amused.

 

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Billy replies. “What’d you think?”

 

“It was fine. Interesting.”

 

“Kinda fuckin’ sad, too,” Billy adds, and Steve nods in agreement.

 

“Yeah, it kinda was.”

 

Steve shuffles around in his seat and pulls the quilt tighter across his shoulders. Billy watches him closely, eyes trained on Steve’s movements. “Are you freezing your ass off? I thought you Hawkins boys were made sturdy enough for weather like this.”

 

“Yeah, no,” Steve huffs a laugh, reaching across the car to pull the thermos from Billy’s hand. He takes a gulp, trying to be conscious of how much is left so that they don’t run out too soon. “Maybe if I was moving around? Then yeah, I’d be fine. But staying still and shit? I’m trying not to shiver, man.”

 

“Maybe you should’ve worn a warmer jacket,” Billy says a little quietly.

 

“Uh, I dunno if you forgot, but you asked me to wear this, genius.” Steve’s almost hurt that all of a sudden Billy’s acting like he wasn’t the one who lent Steve jacket in the first place, then told him, specifically, to wear it tonight.

 

“Since when do you just blindly do what I say? Pretty sure we’d fight a hell of a lot less at practice if you did.”

 

“I don’t just do what you say,” Steve argues. “It’s just-- you asked. You wanted me to.”

 

“Uh, yeah. So the fuck what? You just do things ‘cause other people think you should?” Billy’s still looking at him all intently, blue eyes blazing and making Steve nervous and, if he’s being honest, a little turned on.

 

“I wore it because I wanted to,” Steve snaps. “Jesus. Alright?”

 

“Okay,” Billy says. “Yeah. Right. Okay.”

 

“Do you like, uh,” Steve mutters, picking at the lapels of the jacket under the blanket. “Do you want me to take it off?”

 

“No,” Billy quickly says, even leaning in towards Steve as he says it, voice sharp. “I mean. You’d freeze for sure without it. So.”

 

“Yeah, I mean, but like. After, like when we’re done here. You’re probably missing it, huh?” Steve pretends that voicing that thought doesn’t make his stomach clench. Giving Billy the jacket back means a return to his awful sleep habits. It’s not like the jacket miraculously cured his insomnia, or whatever, but having something in his bed with him, something that smells good - and smells like someone Steve likes - has been a great comfort.

 

“I mean, it’s not that bad,” Billy says after a heavy moment of silence. “You kind of need all the help you can get, fashion-wise.”

 

Steve rolls his eyes, because of course Billy has to make this even more embarrassing. “You said you liked my clothes,” he reminds Billy.

 

“Huh? When?” Billy asks, reaching over to take back the hot chocolate. It’s almost empty now, Steve can tell by the easy tip of the thermos.

 

“On Thursday. Before school, don’t you remember?”

 

“Nah, I think you’re making shit up,” Billy says. “Doesn’t sound like me.”

 

“Except you literally said that, so…”

 

“Oh yeah? I don’t think so, Harrington. I’ve never really been a pastel turtleneck kind of guy.”

 

“Okay, fuck you, Hargrove. I don’t wear fucking-- fucking pastel turtlenecks. Christ.”

 

“I’m pretty sure you do, but whatever. Either way, in no universe would I compliment your clothes. No offence.”

 

“Okay,” Steve coughs, blowing a lock of hair from his forehead. “Do you not remember saying that you liked what I was wearing? You said, I like it, you look good, and like, that’s fucking verbatim and shit.”

 

Billy laughs at that, a quiet thing, not showy and loud like he does at practice when someone does something stupid, or makes him mad. Just a small huff, an uptick at the corner of his mouth. His eyes look particularly blue in the dim light of the car, and Steve finds himself transfixed.

 

“I wasn’t talking about your clothes.”

 

“Then what the hell were you talking about?” Steve asks, confused. Billy must be just teasing, now, because Steve might have a shitty memory, especially school-wise, but he knows for a goddamn fact that he wouldn’t misremember Billy saying stuff like that to him.

 

“I was talking,” says Billy, all slow and deep, “About how you looked in my clothes. In my jacket.”

 

“You’re pretty full of yourself, huh?” Steve snaps, annoyed. “Whatever, I don’t need you to think that I look so damn stupid all the time that the only way to, I dunno, salvage my fashion sense is to slap your stupid jean jacket over me like a fucking bandaid.”

 

“That is not what I fucking meant. At all,” Billy says, voice strained. “Do I gotta fucking spell it out for you?”

 

“No,” Steve lies, embarrassed, because he’s feeling a little lost.

 

“And, what? You’re fine with that?” Billy asks, only serving to further confuse Steve. Steve doesn’t really know how to respond, so he just shrugs.

 

“No? I don’t, uh, mind. I like wearing the jacket?”

 

“Okay,” Billy says, almost to himself. “Okay. Um. Alright, cool.” Then he drinks down the rest of the hot chocolate, topping it off with a long swig from his flask. He offers the flask to Steve with a nod, and Steve takes it from Billy’s hand, tries to keep it steady in his cold hands. He doesn’t drink for as long as Billy did, the burn a little too much, but he hopes this will warm him up a little.

 

A lot of people are filtering out of the drive-in now that the first movie has ended, and Monster Dog is due to start any minute. Why couldn’t they have come on a night where they played The Breakfast Club for the millionth time? That, at least, wouldn’t have Steve all jumpy like this. He doesn’t want Billy to think he’s being a baby, but scary movies were never really his favourite thing.

 

The movie starts up, and Steve is trying to unclench and relax, but it’s kind of hard when they’re sitting in the pitch black while creepy music filters out of the car’s speakers.

 

About halfway through the movie, Steve is shivering again - he’s a little scared of the movie, sure, but he’s also freezing. They’ve gone through all the whiskey, so he’s even a little buzzed, which is probably why he has the confidence to do what he’s about to do.

 

“Hey,” he says, voice quiet compared to the screaming coming from the movie, and Billy startles, composing himself before turning to face Steve.

 

“Hey,” Billy repeats, making a weird face. “You need somethin’?”

 

“Uh, no. Well, kinda. Are you cold?”

 

“Yeah.” Billy shrugs. “There’s not that much left of the movie. But I can take you home, if you want.”

 

“No, no,” Steve says, even though he is getting pretty tired. “Just. You know how they say like, blah blah blah, body heat, or whatever?”

 

“Uh, sure?” Billy replies, brow furrowed. At that moment, another scream pierces through the air, and Steve feels himself flinch, watches as Billy does the same.

 

“Maybe we can, like, huddle together in the back seat?” Steve suggests, feeling brave. When Billy’s mouth opens and closes stupidly, Steve soldiers on. “Y’know, to get warm?”

 

“Right,” Billy replies, a little wide-eyed. He seems to take a moment to compose himself, a disinterested look covering his face like a mask. “You that desperate to get a piece of this, Harrington?” he teases, completely brazen, and Steve snorts a little, tries to keep his cool. Billy is right, of course, but Steve doesn’t have to let him know that.

 

“Alright then,” Steve says. “Let’s do this.” He peels the quilt from his shoulders and throws it into the back seat before squirming back there himself, legs folding clumsily. He watches as Billy goes to open the door, yells, “No!”

 

Billy looks at him like he’s in a daze or something. Maybe the movie is scaring him, too. “You can’t open that,” Steve points out. “You’ll let all the cold air in.”

 

“I’m not wiggling back there like a fuckin’ weirdo,” Billy replies.

 

I just wiggled back here,” Steve says, already pulling the quilt back around his shoulders. “Come on, Billy. I’m cold.”

 

“Yeah, like I said, fuckin’ weirdo,” Billy says, but he flicks his blanket back and quickly follows it, squeezing between the front seats until he’s flopping down next to Steve. Already, Steve can feel the warmth radiating from his body and can smell the fresh scent of his cologne that had been starting to fade from the jean jacket. Steve hopes, somewhat hysterically, that maybe some of the scent will rub off on him during the movie.

 

“How do you wanna do this?” Billy asks once he’s settled, and Steve hadn’t exactly thought this far ahead. Here, in the backseat, their view isn’t as great, but Steve doesn’t really care that much about this movie, so. It’s a tight squeeze back here, and no matter what BIlly said -- joked -- about earlier, Steve’s back seat is hands down way roomier than Billy’s.

 

“What if we like, just sit like this,” Steve says, arranging himself so that his thigh is pressed up all along Billy’s. “And then we can huddle under both blankets.”

 

Cuddle?” Billy says incredulously.

 

“No,” Steve chokes. “Huddle. With a h. Huddle, Hargrove.”

 

“I’m just messing around.”

 

“Right. Obviously.”

 

All of a sudden, the music soars to a new terrifying volume, and Steve can’t help but reach out and grab blindly at Billy’s arm, fingers grasping tight around Billy’s bicep.

 

“Sorry,” he coughs once he realizes what he’s done, embarrassed.

 

“It’s alright,” Billy says, making no move to remove Steve’s hand from his arm. “This movie is pretty fucked.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve says. “It is.” He leaves his hand where it is but loosens his grip, just leans against Billy’s side. He curls his legs up onto the seat, his knees bumping the side of Billy’s leg. Steve’s whole body feels wound up, and Billy feels just as tense at his side. Steve’s heartbeat is out of control, wreaking havoc in his chest, and he hopes that Billy doesn’t notice.

 

He doesn’t even know what’s going on in the movie anymore, just knows that he doesn’t like it when the screen is all dark and he doesn’t know what scary werewolf thing is about to appear. He can’t tell if Billy is paying attention, but he can feel the muscles in Billy’s arm move minutely as a result of the incessant tapping of his fingers on his own leg. There’s another jump-scare, and Steve can feel the way Billy’s body jolts at the surprise, making Steve feel better about his own nerves.

 

It is warmer, pressed together like this, so at least Steve isn’t a complete icicle anymore. He’s totally gonna blast the heat when he gets home - he’ll deal with the annoyed phone call from his dad about running up the electricity bill when it inevitably comes.

 

Whenever the music rises, or something terrifying happens on screen, Steve squeezes a little at Billy’s arm. They’re both under the blankets, still shivering and hardly able to actually see the movie from their position, but Steve is resolutely pretending to be focused on the movie and not how Billy’s muscle feels under his palm. It feels a little wrong, to be touching Billy like this. The touch is hardly scandalous, really only innocent, but Steve isn’t doing it as a normal pal, he’s doing it because he hasn’t been able to take his eyes off of Billy’s impressive biceps at basketball practice. He’s doing it because he’s been longing to be close to Billy for weeks, and that’s just-- not normal. He feels like he’s being dishonest here, somehow. Like, if he tells Billy what he’s thinking, he’d get a punch to the nose and shoved unceremoniously out of the car and onto the hard ground. But, on the other hand, this feels like taking advantage, and that’s just gross.

 

Steve’s hand stays put, but his mind is swirling. He wants to touch Billy. Like, really, really touch Billy. Not just over his leather jacket, not just when he’s guarding him during practice, not just Billy’s friendly arm around Steve’s neck when they win a game. He’s feeling guilty, thinking to himself, okay, count to ten, move your hand, when another scream echoes from the radio and Billy’s arm shifts and falls heavy and solid around Steve’s shoulders. Steve startles and twists his head to try and see Billy’s face in the dark. The light from the drive-in screen illuminates his face briefly, casting shadows across his cheekbones, making his eyelashes look even darker and longer than they normally do, which is saying something.

 

“Uh,” says Steve, struck dumb by the way Billy’s arm is pressed up against his back.

 

“What?” Billy asks, eyes not moving from the screen. “Are you scared?”

 

“No,” Steve snaps, scrunching his nose. “Are you?”

 

“No. Now shut up. I’m trying to watch this.”

 

Except Steve is pretty sure that Billy hasn’t really been watching the movie for at least ten minutes. He knows for a damn fact that he hasn’t. All he’s been able to think about is Billy’s heat at his side. Nodding, confused and thrumming with something, Steve settles under Billy’s arm and pretends to pay attention to the movie. Billy’s hand is spread wide, fingers digging in a little where they rest atop Steve’s shoulder, under the blanket but on top of his -- Billy’s -- jacket.

 

Just being close to Billy like this simultaneously puts him at ease and on edge. The movie seems a lot less scary when he has the constant reminder that he’s not alone. That constant reminder is Billy’s all-consuming presence, and it’s making Steve just as nervous as he is calm. The screams from the movie and the eerie twitching of forest around the drive-in seem dulled by Billy’s proximity and the way his hand feels on Steve’s body, how his touch warms Steve down to the bone. At the same time, his heart is in overdrive for the very same reason. He kind of can’t believe they’re doing this. He knows that he insisted to Billy that this was huddling and purely for the purpose of not freezing to death, but this is as close to cuddling as it gets.

 

Billy doesn’t seem to be going through the same inner turmoil as Steve. He just stares resolutely ahead at the screen, unmoving besides the slow blink of his eyes. The only time he does move is when Steve squirms or flinches, and then his arm squeezes Steve a little tighter, pulling him into his orbit so that their sides are pressed close, Steve practically curled into Billy’s chest. It would be embarrassing if Steve could bring himself to care. Instead, it just feels good. Being close like this really does help to warm him up, and soon enough, he’s cozy under the blankets and under Billy’s arm.

 

After a while, the movie hits a bit of a lull, and the speakers are no longer spitting out screams or slasher music. Steve finds himself struggling to keep his eyes open. He didn’t exactly sleep that well the night before, not after his conversation with Hopper. His head was full to the brim with thoughts about Barbara, about the woods, and about Hopper being disappointed in him. He had laid in bed for longer than he’d like to admit, thinking about how a police officer who barely tolerates him cares more about his well-being than his own parents do.

 

Those thoughts are quieted now; the whiskey and the warm cocoon of blankets and Billy surrounding him brings to him a sense of peace that he hasn’t felt in a long, long time. The warmth that envelops him makes it too easy to let his eyelids flutter closed, exhaustion weighing them down and sealing them shut. He hazily feels his head droop, his forehead coming to a rest on Billy’s chest. He doesn’t remember much after that, just knows that the quiet coursing through him is permeating through his skin from Billy’s fingertips.

 

 

 

 

 

Steve wakes up to Billy saying quietly, “Alright, Sleeping Beauty. You gotta get up now.”

 

He blinks blearily, startled and mind muddled. He’s curled up in the back of Billy’s car, swaddled in blankets, his hair sticking to the side of his face with sleep-sweat. Billy’s not in the car with him anymore. Instead, he’s standing up outside, hand on the door where he’s holding it open and leaning in to rouse Steve.

 

“Huh?” Steve mumbles, trying to right himself. He feels the kind of discontent that always comes with waking up unexpectedly. He drags a tired hand over his eyes, rubbing away the fuzziness that’s obscuring his vision. When he blinks again, it becomes clear that they’re back in his own driveway.

 

“Time for you to go to bed,” Billy says from where he’s got a knee leaning on the backseat. He offers Steve a hand, and Steve takes a long moment to extract his arm from the pile of blankets he’s under to take it. Billy’s hand is cold to the touch, a startling juxtaposition to the heat that Steve feels pouring from his own body.

 

“Uh,” Steve says unintelligently, and Billy huffs a small laugh as he pulls Steve into an upright position. “I fell asleep?”

 

“Yeah, Harrington,” Billy says. His voice sounds so much softer than it usually does, like someone’s taken a knife and scraped away the layers of indifference that usually coat his tongue. “You did.”

 

“Oh,” Steve says, feeling his cheeks burn a little. Fuck. That’s embarrassing. It’s like, midnight, and Steve conked out in Billy’s car like a five-year-old who begged to stay up past his bedtime and fell asleep anyways. “Shit. I’m sorry, man.”

 

“You looked like you needed it.” Billy shrugs. Now that Steve is sitting up, he leans back a bit and starts fiddling with his lighter. Steve immediately misses his closeness.

 

“I mean, yeah,” Steve laughs a little at the truth behind it. Damn, if he thought he slept good with Billy’s jacket to keep him company, this is a whole ‘nother story. “But we were supposed to be hanging out.”

 

“It’s cool, man. Shit happens.”

 

“Yeah, I guess so. Still. You left me back there while you were driving?” Steve asks. He pulls the blanket a little tighter around his shoulders. With the car door open like this and the cold air pouring in, Steve is quickly feeling more and more awake.

 

“Yeah. You were like, passed out. Forreal. You slept through all the screaming at the end of the movie and everything, like dead to the world.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Mhm. You drooled on me, actually. So, you kinda owe me for that.”

 

Oh god. Steve buries his face in his hand, tries to laugh to cover his embarrassment. He fell asleep on Billy. “Fuck, dude. I’m sorry.”

 

“Already said you don’t gotta be,” Billy says. “Here, c’mon. I gotta get home before N-- before my dad freaks out. Curfew, or whatever.” He offers Steve a hand again, and Steve takes it, again. This time, he lets Billy pull on him until he’s standing on the pavement of his driveway.

 

“Thanks for taking me home,” Steve says while he shucks the blanket from his shoulders and back into the car. His breath rises visibly in front of him. He follows the puff of air as it rises up, taking a minute to watch the stars flicker overhead. Billy’s voice draws him back to the present.

 

“It’s fine. Thanks for uh, coming to the movies with me,” Billy says. He mumbles a little, his eyes darting away from Steve before coming back and settling on his face in his typical intense fashion.

 

“Right, yeah.” Steve waves him off, like, no problem. He feels like he should be the one thanking Billy; for the fun night, for the whiskey, for letting him sleep on his chest.

 

“You should really go to sleep,” Billy tells him as he shuts the car door and starts walking towards Steve’s front door. “You were kinda fussing around in the car on the way back. D’you always sleep like that? All squirmy and shit?”

 

“I guess, yeah,” Steve admits.

 

“That blows,” Billy says, boots scuffing at the doormat outside the front door. Steve fiddles around in his pockets for his keys, fingers clumsy and fumbling over the cool metal.

 

“It’s whatever,” Steve brushes him off, not wanting to get into that. Like, ever. “You should probably get back before your curfew.”

 

“It’s whatever,” Billy repeats, smiling a little. Under the light of the porch, Steve’s attention is brought back to the cut on Billy’s lip. He wants to reach out and brush his fingers over it, clenches his fists at his sides to make sure his sleepy brain doesn’t let him do anything stupid. He’s about to turn and put the key in the lock when Billy’s hand on his arm stops him.

 

Billy doesn’t say anything, just hesitates for a moment, staring at Steve unblinkingly until Steve gets nervous and blurts, “What?”

 

“Nothing. Just--” Billy’s arm shoots up and tugs at the collar of Steve’s jacket. He adjusts the denim from where it was sliding off Steve’s shoulder, bunched from sleep. “There. That’s better.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve murmurs nonsensically, eyes darting over Billy’s face.

 

Billy gives him one last smile before he pivots and hops down the few stairs to get back to the path leading to the door. He turns around, hands shoved deep into his pockets and grins handsomely as Steve dumbly waves at him.

 

“You’ll try and get some sleep?” Billy calls out, still walking backwards.

 

“I will.” Steve always tries. It’s the sleep evading him, not the other way around.

 

“See you Monday, Harrington.”

 

“See you, Billy.” As he turns and begins to unlock his door, he hears the roar of the Camaro as it starts up. He twists the key in the lock and waits to hear the familiar screeching of it’s tires, but it doesn’t come. He pushes the door open and steps in, turning around in time to watch Billy nod at him before finally putting the car in reverse and backing out of the driveway. Steve waits until he can no longer see Billy’s tail lights before he shuts the front door and ascends the staircase to his bedroom, heart pounding in his chest.

 

-

 

Steve spends the rest of the weekend in a Billy-induced haze. He thinks about Billy’s eyes while he folds his laundry. He imagines the touch of Billy’s hands on his body while he’s taking a shower. He wonders if Billy is a good cook as he sets a microwavable dinner down on the kitchen island.

 

Nancy calls late on Saturday afternoon and asks him if he wants to go to the movies with her, Jonathan, and Will. Steve can’t think of anything he would like to do less. He makes something up, says Aunt Irma is in town for the weekend and he can’t leave her alone. He doesn’t even have an Aunt Irma, but Nancy eats the excuse right up, like she never wanted him to say yes in the first place.

 

All her call does is bring back memories of the night before, and what it felt like to have Billy’s arm wrapped around him, his heartbeat thudding against Steve’s ear. It’s all he can think about. Over and over and over again. Obsessive and probably a little unhealthy, but the memory makes him feel lighter than he has in months.

 

The next day, when Dr. Owens asks him if there’s a specific reason as to why he’s in such a pleasant mood, Steve shrugs, and thinks about saying nothing at all. Dr. Owens looks hopeful, though, and Steve feels awake and happy and bright. So, instead of keeping quiet, he says, “Um, I think I made a friend.”

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Steve hears Billy’s voice ring out. It’s noisy in the hallway with everyone chattering about the weekend and the party at Mona’s place - which Steve is glad he didn’t go to, because apparently the cops showed up. The last thing he needs is for Hopper to be even more disappointed in him. He isn’t even sure that Billy is talking to him; his voice is loud and distinct, but he’s got enough people drooling over him in this goddamn place that he could be talking to anyone.

 

Harrington,” Billy calls a little louder, and Steve’s whole body swivels at the sound, as if Billy’s vocal cords have a direct line to the control of his movements.

 

“What’s up?” Steve says, slamming his locker shut as Billy crosses the hallway to stand next to him.

 

“Not much.” Billy fiddles with the strap of his book bag, picking at the slightly frayed material.

 

Steve waits for him to say something else, but he doesn’t, so Steve replies unsolicitedly, “Yeah, me either.”

 

“You left this in my car,” Billy says, pulling his book bag around to open it up and pass Steve’s empty thermos.

 

“Oh, I forgot about that,” Steve says, reaching out to take it. “Thanks.”

 

“Yeah. Figured if I gave it back, you’d make hot chocolate again next time.”

 

“Next time?” Steve tries not to sound surprised. Yesterday, at his appointment, Doc seemed incredibly pleased when Steve told him that he actually had plans with someone his own age. When he asked Steve if he had fun, Steve said yes, and when he asked if they were going to hang out again, he had only shrugged; he did fall asleep, after all. It’s not like he had been great company.

 

“Did I stutter?” Billy says, all bite. Steve can’t help but roll his eyes a little at him. “What, was that one scary movie too many for you?”

 

“No,” Steve scoffs. “I can’t even remember what happened during that one. Which, like, not complaining, but-- no. I’m honestly kinda surprised you wanna hang again. I was pretty boring.”

 

“You weren’t boring.” Billy says it like he’s trying to figure out a less offensive word to describe the way Steve couldn’t even stay awake.

 

“I literally fell asleep.”

 

“You were tired--” Billy says, and Steve is a little touched that Billy sounds offended on his behalf, but he crushes that feeling down until it lies tamed in the pit of his stomach. Steve shoots Billy a look that has him rolling his eyes at Steve. “Alright, you were a little boring while you were passed out. But when you were awake-- I mean, your screams were funny.”

 

“I didn’t fucking scream once,” Steve says, knowing for a fact that that’s true. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you jumping in your seat every five minutes.”

 

“I did not,” Billy argues, looking around nervously like someone’s going to overhear Steve and his too-cool reputation will be forever ruined.

 

“You did, but it’s alright, Hargrove. Your secret's safe with me. I promise,” Steve says, lacing his voice with honey as he mockingly placates Billy, patting his shoulder as he speaks.

 

“It better be,” Billy mutters, already falling in step with Steve as they make their way down the hall. “Hey, can I ask you somethin’?”

 

“Just did.”

 

Wow. Clever.”

 

“That’s my middle fucking name,” Steve informs him drily. He’s feeling giddy, talking with Billy like this. He’s always liked banter. Teasing, flirting, the back-and-forth of it all. Not that this is flirting. Jesus. Of course it isn’t.

 

“Yeah, I’ll bet. Anyways. Can I?”

 

Yes, Billy. What?”

 

“Have you started studying for the physics test yet?”

 

“No. What? No. When is it?” Steve startles. A test is news to him.

 

Billy laughs a little, and slows to a stop next to the water fountain. He bends over and takes a long drink. Steve tries his very hardest not to stare at the way Billy’s ass looks in those jeans. Like, he tries really hard. When Billy’s head emerges from the fountain, his mouth is wet and his lips are pink and Steve is honest-to-god about five seconds away from tenting his pants in the middle of the hallway.

 

Fuck Mondays, and fuck Billy Hargrove.

 

“It’s on Friday. Are you serious right now?” Billy says.

 

“Uh, yeah. Like, is it really? When did she tell us that?”

 

“She’s reminded us every day for the past week and a half. It’s on the blackboard. Big white letters and shit.”

 

“What? I didn’t see that,” Steve complains. Christ, he’s never going to be able to do well in physics at this rate.

 

“How is that even possible? You sit up front,” Billy points out. He sounds confused.

 

“I’ve got the shittiest eyesight ever, man,” Steve groans. He’s embarrassed himself in front of Billy enough already at this point that telling him yet another Steve Harrington Secret isn’t going to make much of a difference.

 

“So? Get some fucking glasses.”

 

“I’ve got glasses,” Steve mumbles, hating the way he can see Billy’s eyes light up at the information.

 

No. Forreal? You’ve got glasses?” Billy asks, voice tinged with something that almost sounds like joy.

 

“Shut up.” Steve waves in his face. “Yeah, and they’re ugly. You wanna see them?”

 

“Hell fuckin’ yeah,” Billy says, practically bouncing on his feet. “Show me.”

 

“I don’t have ‘em here,” Steve says, surprised that Billy is this devoted to being able to make a four-eyes joke.

 

“Why not? Kinda seems like the sort of place they’d be useful.”

 

“I never really use them.”

 

“Maybe if you did you’d know about the test,” Billy sing-songs. They’re still standing in front of the fountain, and Steve notices a tiny freshman awkwardly hovering with her water bottle, evidently too nervous to ask them to move. He reaches out and tugs at Billy’s arm, revels in the way Billy’s body automatically and without hesitation leans into his touch and follows his lead away from the fountain.

 

“I suppose,” Steve concedes once they’ve moved to the side and out of the way. “Fuck. I really am gonna fail.”

 

“That’s kind of why I was asking,” Billy says, shifting from foot to foot, leg bouncing.

 

“What?” Steve furrows his brow. 

 

“I wanted to know if you wanted to study together. Y’know, figure problems out and stuff.” Billy starts to walk again. Steve follows him like a lost puppy, not even sure where they’re headed.

 

“You don’t really seem like you need much help with physics,” Steve says, thinking back on all the times Billy has effortlessly called out correct answers in class that had Mrs. Pierce smiling and Steve frowning at his textbook in complete and utter confusion.

 

“Everyone can use help,” Billy mumbles. “I like studying in groups. Makes me get things better, you know, talking about it and shit.”

 

Steve hums. “Um, alright. Should I like, invite some guys from the team--”

 

No,” Billy cuts him off immediately. “I mean, no. Like, I thought just me and you.”

 

“Oh. Okay, I mean, yeah, sure. You just said studying in groups, so I thought--”

 

“Two is a group.”

 

“Is it though? It’s more of a pair, I think.”

 

“Whatever. So, whaddaya say? Me, you, physics. After school this week?”

 

“What, like every day?” Steve asks, eyes wide. He never studies that much, and despite Billy’s evident brains, Steve didn’t really think that Billy was that type of student either.

 

“Not every day,” Billy amends. “After practice, though. So, that’s Tuesday and Thursday this week, right?”

 

“Yeah, I think so,” Steve pauses, thinking. “That’s right. Tuesday and Thursday.”

 

“Wicked,” Billy says, and he sounds like he really means it. “Is your place parent free?”

 

“Always is,” Steve replies, heart immediately in overdrive once he realizes that he’s just invited Billy into his house for a study date. Session. Study session.

 

“So, does that mean I get to see them?”

 

“What? No, they’re not home,” Steve says. He literally just said that, but whatever.

 

“Not your folks,” Billy says. “Your glasses. You kinda owe me, ‘member? This can be like, your penance for drooling on me.”

 

“Oh,” Steve says. He shifts his stance, scratches at his head as heat rises in his cheeks. He’s hoping that nobody heard Billy say that. “I mean, I guess.”

 

Billy’s grin only grows in size at his reply, his stance becoming less fidgety. “Alright,” he says, drawing out the vowel all obnoxiously. “Catch you later.” And then he’s off, strutting down the hallway. Steve watches him leave, entranced and nervous and definitely about to be late for first period. Fuck.

 

 

-

 

 

Steve doesn’t want to start studying without Billy, so after school lets out for the day, he drives around Hawkins for a while, trying to decide on something to occupy his time. He technically could -- and should -- be doing other homework, but the sun is out and Steve wants to take advantage of it while he still can. It’s the kind of day that makes a walk in the woods sound like a nice, relaxing way to pass time, but Steve is aware that if anyone from the police department sees him so much as breathe in the direction of the trees, they’ll call Hopper on his ass.

 

Instead, Steve makes the decision to take a walk in one of Hawkins’ only public parks. It’s clean, and quiet, and there’s a big pond where ducks pester people for food that Steve likes to sit next to. There’s a bench directly under an apple tree that he usually sits on, and he’s pleased to see that it’s free when he arrives. The shade that is normally cast from the leafy boughs is absent, and the afternoon sun shines down on his face, warming him up. Steve turns his face to the sky and closes his eyes, taking deep breaths of the cool autumn air and letting it fill his lungs.

 

His mind, which was full of thoughts about the drive-in, and physics, and his out-of-control crush on Billy, is at ease out here in the fresh air.

 

Being alone, Steve has realized, is freeing in a way. He doesn’t have to be on all the time. There’s a lot that people come to expect of you when you’re the rich kid, and Steve’s never felt like any of those expectations sat quite right on him. The way he used to act, the person he used to be -- before Nancy, before Barb died -- was a persona he wore like an ill-fitting skin. Bunching and uncomfortable and smothering. Now that he’s shed it off, he’s no longer tethered to that person, to that life. He’s also keenly aware of just how naked that makes him. Bare. Vulnerable. On display for anyone who cares to look hard enough.

 

Billy’s been looking at Steve. Really looking, like he’s paying attention to all of the chinks in Steve’s armour, cataloguing every imperfection with a careful eye. The thought alone is terrifying. Add in the fact that Steve’s stomach fills with butterflies whenever Billy so much as glances at him, and Steve has himself a perfect recipe for disaster.

 

People don’t love Steve the way he loves them. They just don’t. It’s a fact, and he’s okay with that. Really, he is.

 

He’s good at being alone.

 

 

-

 

 

Steve’s in the middle of reheating some leftover lasagna when the phone rings. No one really calls him, not anymore. Tommy used to, a lot. Asking Steve if they could go for a ride in Steve’s car, or throw a party at his house. Nancy did, too, but Steve called her a hell of a lot more than she ever called him. He guesses that should’ve told him something, and if he were any smarter maybe it would have. Dustin calls, sometimes, but Steve knows he’s at Will’s right now, because that’s all he talked about on Friday night. His parents have already filled their monthly phone call quota, so it can’t be them either.

 

That leaves Hopper, so Steve sits at the kitchen island and lets the phone ring, and ring, and ring, until the sound almost blends in with the static rushing through his head. He thinks, dazedly, that maybe he should’ve ripped the phone off the wall when he had the urge after his and Hopper’s last encounter. What’s the point of answering? He knows exactly what Hopper’s gonna say. Treat him like he’s nuts, ask him in that awkward tone if he’s doing alright, pretending like checking up on Steve is something more than an obligation he feels he has as the unlucky bastard who dealt with all of Steve’s bullshit trauma firsthand. He probably laughs at Steve behind his back. Steve’s thought about it more than once, and it makes his ears burn and his stomach twist uncomfortably; imagining Hopper heading back to the station and rolling his eyes at the other officers, talking about how he had to go and talk the crazy Harrington kid down, again, because he’s scared of the fucking shadows in his living room.

 

The phone stops ringing.

 

And starts up again, not even ten seconds later. Steve pushes the palms of his hands against his eyes. Tired. So, so tired. He wonders, briefly, if maybe Billy would ever care about him enough to call him, just to really see how he is with no ulterior motives. No one in his life has ever seemed to be able to before, so Steve doesn’t understand how or why that would change now, but it’s a nice thought - one that quickly sours when he reminds himself that there’s no way a guy like Billy would ever want to be with someone like Steve. First of all, the thought of Billy Hargrove being a queer is on a whole new level of ridiculousness that Steve is ashamed to have even imagined. He feels that familiar tendril of guilt tug at his gut, twisting him up. Wrong wrong wrong. He tries to think of Nancy instead, of how, when they were together, he finally thought he was doing something that would make his dad proud. Make him pay attention. Maybe even give Steve a pat on the back. He thinks of how he’d hold Nancy’s hand and wonder would this make dad happy? Am I doing this right? Is this what love feels like?

 

Holding Nancy’s hand, kissing Nancy, having Nancy felt, at least for a while, like a ticket into his dad’s good graces. Can’t be a fag if you have a girlfriend. Right? It felt like obligation, and some kind of sick safety that made Steve’s head spin whenever they kissed. It felt like everything he should want, and nothing like what he did want.

 

And then. At the movies, with Billy -- Steve doesn’t have words to describe those feelings. Just having Billy’s arm pressed up against his own had butterflies swarming in his stomach and climbing up his throat, like he might just fly away with how light he felt. Billy, who had let Steve fall asleep on his shoulder. Billy, who drove Steve home and said that Steve looked nice in his jacket. Billy, who Steve can’t stop thinking about no matter how damn hard he tries. He’s confused. He wants Billy, but he can’t be queer, because dad told him he couldn’t be. But he thinks of Billy, and he wonders what if what if what if.

 

 

-

 

 

Practice on Tuesday comes and goes with the normal amount of pushing and yelling that’s to be expected when a dozen teenage boys are running around in a gym for almost two hours.

 

Tommy shoves Steve a little too hard when he thinks Steve’s in his way during the three-man- weave drill, and Billy sets a moving screen on him in retaliation when Coach isn’t looking. Steve has a little laugh at that, and Billy throws him a wink. Tommy huffs and whines about it for the rest of practice.

 

He takes his time in the showers, still rubbing shampoo into his scalp by the time most of the team has packed up and left. Billy’s still there, as per usual, water running over his too-ripped body in tantalizing rivulets. Steve tries his best to keep his eyes averted, but Billy is constantly moving in his periphery, talking and joking and flicking shampoo lather in Steve’s direction.

 

“You got snacks?” Billy asks, when they’re finally the only two left in the locker room.

 

“Huh?”

 

Snacks,” Billy draws out the word. “You know, like food?”

 

“Um,” Steve pauses, blinking suds out of his eyes. “I mean, probably. I dunno? Probably.”

 

“You strike me as the kinda guy who’s mom gets real excited about him having a playdate and ends up making a platter of hors d'oeuvres,” Billy continues, flicking off the water on his own shower head, but staying where he’s standing as Steve finishes rinsing off, feeling incredibly self conscious.

 

“Ha ha,” Steve says drily. “Funny, but no. She’s not home.”

 

“But if she was …” Billy trails off, his voice sounding like he means then I’d be right.

 

“If she was, she’d be back for three days, tops, and she’d be holed up in her office, drinking wine and ignoring me,” Steve replies. “So, no. Not exactly a snack-making type.”

 

“Shit,” Billy falters. “My bad.”

 

Steve’s cheeks burn at that, relieved that the steam from the shower is excuse enough for the flush. The admission sort of just slipped out without his permission, and he silently curses himself for spilling that tidbit of information to Billy, who obviously doesn’t need to hear Steve whine about his problems.

 

“Whatever, it’s fine. At least we don’t have to worry about her interrupting us.”

 

“Yeah,” says Billy, sounding funny. “Wouldn’t want that.”

 

Steve finally finishes rinsing off and shuts off the water. Billy is still standing next to him, stark naked and completely  unbothered. “Um,” Steve says. “I’m gonna dry off.”

 

“Yeah, right. Me too,” says Billy, as though he’s coming out of a daze and had just realized that he’s standing two feet away from Steve with his junk out, talking about Steve’s mom.

 

Steve’s body is damp as he pulls his clothes on, his jeans sticking to his thighs as he pulls them up as quickly as possibly. Billy takes his time, but Steve notices that he’s pointedly not looking in Steve’s direction.  A little relieved and a little disappointed, Steve continues to dress himself at a more reasonable pace.

 

Once they leave the gym and start heading outside, Steve begins talking again. They’re walking side-by-side, gym bags bumping as they descend the small hill that leads to the parking lot.

 

“We can take my car, and I’ll drop you back here after we’re done?” Steve suggests, glancing sideways at Billy, who’s sucking on a lollipop, lips tinged red.

 

“Can you just drop me home, after? My uh-- my dad drove me today,” Billy mumbles around the candy.

 

“Sure,” Steve says, “That’s fine. At least you won’t have to worry about your baby getting scratched up or somethin’ if you leave it here for hours.”

 

“Yeah, that would be shitty,” Billy agrees. “Don’t really know what to expect from hooligans in a hick town like this.”

 

“Watch it,” Steve threatens jokingly. “Someone might hear you and take a garden hoe to your paint job.”

 

Billy snorts, pivoting slightly so he’s walking with his body tilted towards Steve. Steve feels like they’re orbiting around each other, unable to pull away, but not truly able to shift any closer. Stuck, waiting, so close. So close.

 

The ride back to Steve’s is uneventful, pleasant, even. Billy hums along to the radio, asks Steve a couple of questions about the abandoned lot near the quarry, makes a couple little jokes about school. Steve smiles and laughs and pretends not to panic when he sees a police cruiser coming in the opposite direction. It’s not Hopper, and they don’t stop him to check in like they sometimes do, and Steve breathes easier once they’re out of his rearview.

 

Billy whistles as they pull up Steve’s driveway. “Geez. It looks even bigger in the light,” he says, and Steve shrugs, embarrassed.

 

“You’re here alone, like all the time?”

 

“Yeah,” he says. There isn’t much else to say. Like, oh, yeah, it’s big and empty, and sometimes I think I can hear noises when I’m home alone. A girl died in my pool and now I’m afraid to sleep in my own bed, because every night I dream that I’m drowning. When I close my eyes all I can feel is water filling my lungs. He’d rather keep his dignity, thank you very much.

 

Neither of them move to undo their seatbelts - Steve was surprised that Billy buckled his in the first place - so they just sit there, the radio playing at a low hum. Steve looks over at Billy, who’s licking away at his lollipop like it’s his goddamn job, tongue laving over the red glass. He notices Steve looking and smiles around the lollipop.

 

“Want a lick?” Billy asks suddenly, eyes sparkling. He drops his voice as he says it, all suggestive-like, in the way that Steve used to use on girls. He knows what game Billy’s playing.

 

“Sure,” he replies, and Billy’s eyes widen in surprise, like he wasn’t expecting Steve to respond like that in a million years. Normally, Steve probably wouldn’t, but he’s felt weird all day. Maybe this will make him feel better. Steadier. In control.

 

When Billy doesn’t make a move, Steve leans over in his seat and wraps his fingers around Billy’s, which hadn’t moved from the lollipop stick. Slowly, because he wants to give Billy a taste of his own medicine, Steve retracts the lollipop from Billy’s mouth and guides it to his own, tongue stuck out and waiting. He makes sure to keep eye contact with Billy as he does it, no matter how much Billy’s eyes make his heart pound against his ribcage. The lollipop is slick with Billy’s saliva, which should be gross, but Steve doesn’t care. Steve wants to swap spit with Billy - not necessarily like this, but he doesn’t think his dreams about kissing Billy’s soft lips are going to come true, so he’ll take what he can get.

 

Steve blinks slowly as he licks a stripe across the glass candy before dipping his head and closing his mouth around it, sucking a little too enthusiastically. “Mmm,” he hums, eyes flickering back to Billy’s. He looks up at Billy through his eyelashes in time to see Billy swallow, his throat bobbing as he watches Steve fixedly, body held taut like he’s unable to move.

 

“Is it good?” Billy asks, voice scratchy. His eyes are transfixed on Steve’s mouth, and Steve feels victory swell in his veins. There are two spots of colour high on Billy’s cheeks.

 

“So good,” he says, licking the lollipop one last time as he takes it out of his mouth. His fingers are still intertwined with Billy’s around the stick, and with a sudden burst of confidence, he steers the lollipop back towards Billy. He pauses and waits for Billy to get with the program. It takes a moment, but Billy slowly opens his mouth, letting Steve slide the lollipop back in. As Billy’s lips close around the candy, Steve releases his grip on Billy and shifts back in his seat.

 

“Thanks,” he says, feeling awkward now that he doesn’t have the lollipop as a prop. That feeling in his stomach is back, niggling at his gut, clawing at him like it’s gonna climb right out of his throat.

 

“No problem,” says Billy, bewildered.

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t take long for them to set up camp at the dining room table, textbooks open, calculators and pencils and review sheets spread across the surface. Steve settles into the seat across from Billy, ready to get started.

 

“I think you’re forgetting something,” says Billy. Steve frowns, trying to think. Did he take out the wrong textbook or something? He looks across the table and sees nothing amiss.

 

“What?” he asks, turning to Billy in askance.

 

“Don’t play stupid,” Billy replies. He’s sitting there, chin in hand, looking at Steve with a smirk playing on his lips. Smug, Steve thinks. Handsome. Annoying. Charming. Fuck off.

 

“Don’t gotta play stupid,” he mutters. “Just comes naturally.”

 

Billy’s grin turns into a slight frown at Steve’s words, and he shakes his head. “That’s not what I-- your glasses, Harrington. You promised I’d get to see them.”

 

“I promised?” Steve repeats incredulously. “I don’t remember promising you shit, Hargrove.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Billy counters. “Pretty damn sure you said I’d get to experience King Steve in all of his four-eyed glory. Y’know, as payment for driving your sleepy ass home the other night.”

 

“If you were gonna complain so much about driving me home, maybe you shouldn’t’ve done it.”

 

“Oh really? And what? Just left you to freeze to death at the fucking drive-in?”

 

“Sure.” Steve shrugs, like being left alone in the dark like that wouldn’t have made him lose his shit. “Whatever. If that’s what you would’ve rathered.”

 

“I didn’t fucking say that’s what I wanted to do,” Billy argues, and all of a sudden both of them are staring at each other, jaws clenched, tense and ticked off.

 

“That’s what it seems like,” Steve mutters, fingers picking at the eraser of his pencil. The pink material flakes off in shavings across the dark hardwood, rubber dust that Steve chooses to stare at instead of looking at Billy. “Like, if it was that much of an inconvenience for you that you like, require payment. That’s like … kinda implying you didn’t want to do it. But. Whatever, it’s cool.”

 

“I’m not-- Harrington,” Billy waits pointedly until Steve looks at him. “I’m joking about the payment. You weren’t a fucking inconvenience. Just-- you know. Seemed like the only way I’d get to see the specs, so…”

 

“What d’you wanna see ‘em so bad for?” Steve scrunches his nose up. Glasses are - well, they’re a lot of things. At first, they were Steve’s parents’ hopeful solution to his poor performance in school. He remembers dad saying, maybe now he’ll actually learn to read. He remembers feeling silly with them on his face, too big on his tiny head. He remembers Yvonne smiling at him, her face bright and eyes sweet. Steve doesn’t know when she developed crow’s feet at her eyes. Maybe they’d been there all along, maybe he could only then see them properly. You look so handsome, sweetheart, she’d said, and Steve had felt happy enough until the next morning when he walked into Mrs. Walters’ fifth grade class and Howie Clarke called him mean names. At recess, Steve hid the glasses in his backpack. After lunch, he failed his spelling test. 

 

Steve knows it’s silly, that it’s been a decade, but he still doesn’t like people seeing him wearing his glasses. His parents still think he wears them to school; when they used to actually be home, he’d wear them in the kitchen every morning at breakfast, and made sure to put them back on before he walked in the front door at the end of the day.

 

The glasses, or lack thereof, almost act as an excuse. Steve thinks that maybe if he did wear them, and he was still dumb enough that his writing was illegible and the concepts on the blackboard still looked like foreign scribbles, it would be proof that he really was as slow as his dad always told him he was.

 

“I dunno,” says Billy. “Just gotta thing for sexy librarians, or somethin’.”

 

Steve snorts. “Sorry to disappoint. I’m pretty sure I look more like a freak who spends too much time by himself, like, reading.”

 

Ooh, reading. That works, too,” Billy teases, his tongue poking out between his lips, still stained red from his lollipop. “C’mon, man. Don’t be a pussy.”

 

“How is not wearing my glasses for you being a pussy?” Steve asks, watching as Billy shrugs.

 

“Just is,” he says, like that’s the ultimate reason. Steve envies his confidence. “So, whaddaya say? Gonna whip those bad boys out for me?”

 

For me. Steve thinks he’d do a hell of a lot. For Billy.

 

“I guess,” he says, and Billy raises his fist into the air in celebration like a total jackass. “Just-- wait here. I gotta go get them.”

 

Steve doesn’t look at Billy as he walks away, trudging up the stairs to his room to retrieve his glasses from their permanent home in his nightstand. He holds them up to the light of his bedroom window and grimaces. They really are ugly. Technically, they’re in fashion. But in Steve’s opinion, nobody looks good in wire-rimmed glasses. He frowns as he slips them on, pointedly not looking in any mirrors as he returns to the dining room. Before he rounds the corner, he pauses.

 

“Billy,” he calls out, fingers tapping against his mother’s gaudy wallpaper. “You can’t fuckin’ laugh at me, alright?”

 

“What’s there to laugh about?” Billy says, and Steve can already hear the amusement in his tone.

 

Alright?” he repeats.

 

“Jesus, alright,” Billy replies with a snort. “So bitchy.”

 

“That’s it. I’m taking them off,” Steve says, hands already travelling up to grip at the arms of the glasses. He forgot how uncomfortable they felt against the backs of his ears. He also forgot just how sharp everything looks when he has them on. It’s almost dizzying.

 

“Christ, relax, would you? I’m not gonna laugh. Like, if it makes you feel better, I’ll frown for the rest of the night. All devastated and shit. Is that better?”

 

“You don’t gotta do that,” Steve sighs, pausing before taking a deep breath and entering the dining room, glasses still perched on his nose. He doesn’t look at Billy as he crosses the room. He’s sure his cheeks are flushed fire-engine red. Billy stays quiet as Steve sits down across from him, immediately fiddling with his papers. When Billy still doesn’t say anything, Steve finally looks up.

 

Billy’s chin is back in his hand, and another smile is tugging at the corners of his mouth. This one is different from his smirk earlier. It reaches his eyes, and the only adjective Steve can think of to properly describe it is soft.

 

“Alright,” he says when Billy doesn’t say anything. “You get one joke. Use it wisely.”

 

Billy purses his lips and spreads his hands out. “I’ve got nothin’.”

 

“Nothing? I find that hard to believe,” Steve says.

 

“Well, not nothing. But no jokes.”

 

“Spit it out then,” Steve rolls his eyes, expecting an insult.

 

“You look real nice,” Billy says, and Steve scoffs.

 

“I look like a fuckin’ dweeb.”

 

“Never said that they were mutually exclusive,” Billy comments, and Steve doesn’t know how to reply to that. He doesn’t know what mutually exclusive means, but he doesn’t want to tell Billy that, so he just flips open his physics book.

 

“Are we gonna study, or what?”

 

Billy smiles at him then, bright and full. “You betcha. Let’s ace this shit.”

 

 

 

 

By the time they finally decide they’ve spent enough time studying, Steve is exhausted. His brain feels like it’s been lifting weights for three hours, and his eyes are about to droop permanently shut. His stomach hasn’t lost that queasy feeling of wrongness that’s been floating around all day.

 

Billy had been helpful - there are definitely some things that had flown directly over Steve’s head that now make sense thanks to Billy’s explanations. At first, it was hard to pay attention to what Billy was telling him. He’d be talking about -- well, about physics -- but he’d use his hands to demonstrate what he was talking about, and Steve kept finding his attention drawn to the shape of Billy’s fingers, and the slow way he smiled when Steve answered a question correctly.

 

“You gonna fall asleep on me again, pretty boy?” Billy’s voice startles Steve out of his daze, his eyes flying open as he jerks in his seat.

 

“No,” he says, pushing himself upright. In his exhaustion, he’d somehow managed to slump over the table. He goes to rub at his eyes, surprised when his fingers meet glass instead of skin. He pushes his glasses out from his face a little and presses his fingers against his eyes, trying to rub away the headache. He’s never going to understand physics in the effortless way Billy does, but at least now he’s got a fighting chance at passing.

 

“At least this time you’re already at home,” Billy says. “No more debts to pay.”

 

“Ha ha,” Steve says drily. “I still gotta take you home.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. I can walk,” Billy says, already gathering up his school stuff and shoving it into his book bag.

 

Steve frowns. “No way, man. It’s late, and it’s freezing out. I’m driving you home.”

 

“You don’t gotta,” says Billy, and Steve can’t help but notice how ironic this is given their earlier conversation.

 

“I know I don’t have to,” he says. “I wanna. So shut up complaining.”

 

“Alright, fine,” Billy grumbles, as if Steve’s telling him they’re about to crawl to Billy’s place across a field of nails.

 

Just as Steve’s about to push his seat back from the table, the doorbell rings. He tenses, surprised.

 

“Expecting company?” Billy asks, leaning back in his chair, getting comfortable.

 

“No,” Steve mumbles, biting his lips. A moment later, there are several loud knocks against the front door in rapid succession. Steve can practically hear the door shift under the force. “Um,” he says, slowly rising from his seat, nervous all of a sudden. “Are you?” he jokes, and Billy’s whole face just drops, shutting down completely.

 

“I’ll uh, go get that? I guess? Yeah. Um, you can wait here,” Steve says.

 

Billy frowns and stands up, something a little anxious bleeding into his normally confident posture. “I’ll walk out with you,” he says, squaring his shoulders. “I mean, we’re leaving in a few minutes anyways.”

 

“Right,” says Steve, trying to pretend that the thought of having Billy behind him when he answers the door isn’t comforting. It shouldn’t be -- Billy’s an impulsive teenage boy, all chaotic anger, a boy who laughs about gross noises and picks too many fights. The knocking starts up again, and Steve hurries out of the room, Billy on his heels.

 

He’s not sure who he’s expecting when he swings the door open, but it’s not Hopper. Steve’s blood boils at the sight of him, still pissed off from the other night.

 

“Steve,” Hopper practically growls, before his eyes catch on Billy over Steve’s shoulder. “Billy.”

 

The look on Billy’s face is one of simultaneous nerves and relief.

 

“Chief,” Billy greets, at the exact same time that Steve says, “Not now, Hopper.”

 

Steve looks at Hopper, and Hopper looks at Billy, and Billy looks at Steve with the biggest what the fuck expression Steve has seen from him yet.

 

“Did you need something?” Steve asks coolly. He’s gotta stay calm, or he’s gonna slam the door in Hopper’s face and really look like a basketcase. Hopper glances over at Billy, like he’s trying to decide how much to say in his presence.

 

“Just checking in,” Hopper says, twisting his neck like he’s trying to peer past both Steve and Billy and into the house. “Were you home last night?”

 

“Yes,” Steve scoffs. As if he’d be stupid enough to tell Hopper otherwise, even if it weren’t true.

 

“Oh, really? ‘Cause I was callin’, and your phone just rang and rang.”

 

“Yeah, I heard it.” Steve shrugs, trying to ignore the way he sees Billy’s face scrunch in confusion out of the corner of his eye.

 

“You heard it,” Hopper repeats, hand resting on his belt, like the way cops sometimes do when they want to remind you they’re armed. What the fuck ever, Steve isn’t afraid Hopper’s gonna shoot him.

 

“That’s what I just said, isn’t it?.”

 

Steve--” Billy hisses, like maybe he is worried about Hopper shooting Steve. Hopper’s eyes dart towards him, assessing.

 

“It’s alright, kid. Steve’s just--”

 

“Steve’s just what?” Steve snaps. “Crazy? Hysterical? What’s the choice adjective this week--”

 

“Hey,” says Hopper, voice low. “Never said either of those--”

 

“No, but it’s what you meant,” Steve replies, unable to stop his treacherous mouth from moving. He’s heard the talk around town. From his neighbours, the kids at school, the guidance counsellor. Dr. Owens. He knows full well exactly what everyone’s been thinking about him, saying about him. Billy must’ve heard it too, by now. He doesn’t really want to be having this conversation with Billy here, but he can’t help it. This friendship, if Steve can even call it that, was bound to end soon enough anyways. Billy would have eventually realized how messed up Steve is all on his own, probably. Whatever, Steve will help him out. Speed up the process, do it for him.

 

“No,” Hopper says. “I was just checking in. You didn’t answer last night and I--”

 

“Ever think that’s because I didn’t want to talk to you?” Steve says, icy. It feels like the hallway is shrinking around them, Hopper’s figure going fuzzy for a moment. Steve blinks to clear his eyes.

 

“What?” Hopper looks a little surprised, furrowing his brow before glancing over at Billy again. “Steve, son--”

 

Don’t call me that.”

 

“Kid,” Hopper sighs. “How ‘bout I take Billy home, and come back, and we can talk.”

 

Billy shrinks back at that. “Uh, I can walk, sir.”

 

“No,” Steve and Hopper snap at the same time, and Billy visibly swallows.

 

“No, really. My old man wouldn’t be real happy about me being taken home in a cruiser, no matter what the reason was.” It sounds like it physically pains Billy to let those words out of his mouth, and Steve’s attention is pulled from how angry he is at Hopper to a sense of worry for Billy. “I’ll walk.”

 

Steve doesn’t want Billy to walk home, and he doesn’t think Hopper does either, but he’s so mad that he doesn’t want to be on Hopper’s side about anything right now. Billy looks out of place, and uncharacteristically anxious, and Steve feels a tremendous sense of guilt about the turn their study session has taken.

 

“I already said I’d drive Billy home,” Steve tells Hopper, tries to keep his voice a bit calmer.

 

“Okay,” Hopper says slowly, like he really doesn’t understand what’s going on.

 

“So I’ll take him.” Steve is already reaching into his pockets for his car keys. Billy reaches out and grabs at Steve’s wrist, and Steve flinches, surprised. Billy snaps his hand back immediately.

 

“I can walk,” he says, voice taking on it’s usual tone, all standoffish and a little rude.

 

“Yeah, but I promised I’d drive you,” Steve says, then turns to Hopper. “I’ll take him home and then come back here, okay? And then you can yell at me or whatever.”

 

Billy doesn’t seem to like the sound of that, and neither does Hopper, but no one stops him as he brushes past them both and makes his way down the front steps and over to the car.

 

“Billy?” he calls out, lump in his throat. “You ready to go?”

 

“Yeah,” Billy replies, voice faint. “Uh, see you, Chief.”

 

“Yeah, kid. See ya,” Hopper says. He stands in the doorway and watches as Billy climbs into the passenger seat, still staring as Steve pulls out of the driveway and off into the darkness.

 

It’s silent between them for the first few minutes of the drive, the only sound being the faint hum of the radio and the way Billy’s fingers are scratching at his denim-covered knee.

 

“Sorry,” Steve says eventually, not sure what else he really can say.

 

“Don’t sweat it. Can’t believe you just talked to a fucking cop like that.” Billy’s voice sounds awed, and a little worried, as if he thinks Steve’s really gotta be loony to do something so risky.

 

“It’s just Hopper.” Steve shrugs, turning left on Mirkwood. “He’s a pain in my ass.”

 

“Seems more like you’re a pain in his,” Billy mutters, and Steve reaches out across the console to slap his arm, sharp. “Hey!” Billy snaps, reaching out and slapping back at Steve. “It’s true.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve replies. Billy’s not wrong, not really. He dodges another slap. “Quit it, man, you’re gonna make me crash.”

 

“You already ran a stop sign,” Billy points out, twisting in his seat like he’s gonna be able to see it from the back window.

 

“What? No I didn’t.”

 

“Broderick and Oak, yes you did.”

 

“There’s no stop sign there,” Steve argues. There definitely isn’t. He’d know, he’s been living in Hawkins a hell of a lot longer than Billy has.

 

“Figures you’d think that. Surprised you didn’t notice it just now with your fancy glasses and all,” says Billy, and Steve jolts in surprise. He had forgotten he’d been wearing them. He goes to take them off, but Billy reaches out and stops him, not quite as abrupt as he had been back in Steve’s porch. Steve’s foot falters on the gas, and he glances over at Billy before slowly lowering his hand. Billy’s hand follows his, still gripping loosely at his wrist until Steve’s fingers rest on the wheel.

 

“Leave ‘em on,” Billy says, all simple. “For my safety, y’know.”

 

“Yeah, ‘cause you’re totally a guy worried about his safety,” Steve points out, thinking about all the times he’s seen Billy with bruises and split lips.

 

Billy shifts uncomfortably in his seat, shrugging and apparently ready to change the topic back to Steve. “Is he really gonna yell at you?”

 

Steve stiffens. “I’d say so, yeah.”

 

“About what?”

 

Honestly, Steve isn’t sure. About not answering the phone, about not being open and honest at his appointments, or with Hopper. About being out late at night when he should be curled up in bed like a normal person. “I dunno.”

 

“How do you not know why the chief of police is pissed at you?” Billy asks in disbelief. “If I had a cop showing up at my door like that, fuck, my dad would kill me before they would even have time to explain why they’re--” Billy cuts himself off, suddenly interested in Steve’s glovebox.

 

“I mean,” Steve falters, a little thrown by the quick descent into silence. He feels sick. He’s felt sick all day, and now Billy is looking at him like he’s dumb, and his head pounds. “Um. I know why, sort of, but it’s like, not really?”

 

“Not following,” Billy mutters.

 

“I know, but I … don’t know,” Steve continues. He’s not ready to actually give Billy any legitimate reason, probably never will be if he has any hope in the world of Billy not running for the hills and calling him a freak.

 

“Alright, keep your damn secrets.”

 

“Says you,” Steve mumbles. “How do you know Hopper?” Billy’s head whips towards him. They’re just pulling onto Billy’s street now, and something in Steve’s gut tells him not to pull into Billy’s driveway. Instead, he parks a little ways down the road, just off an old abandoned lot with overgrown hedges. Billy glares at him a bit, and looks away. When he looks back, moments later, his expression is softer, less sharp.

 

“Drive safe, Harrington,” he mutters, slamming the door hard as he exits the car.

 

Steve watches him walk up the sidewalk and into his house like he’s in a trance, his eyes glued to Billy’s back. He tells himself that he doesn’t pay any attention whatsoever to the way Billy’s ass looks in those jeans.

 

 

-

 

 

Hopper’s waiting on the sofa when Steve gets back to his house. He throws his keys onto the coffee table, likes the way they clang against the glass ashtray and how the sound makes Hopper glare.

 

“You’re pushing it, Steve,” Hopper warns, but he sounds tired, like he doesn’t really mean it.

 

“Sorry,” Steve says anyways, because he really doesn’t need to work that hard to make Hopper dislike him even more. Steve grinds his heels down into the carpet, probably getting dirt stuck in the fabric from the soles of his sneakers. He crosses his arms, thinks that maybe the pressure will make his churning stomach behave.

 

“Planning on sitting down?”

 

“Wasn’t really on my to-do list, no.”

 

“Steve--”

 

“Can you just get this over with and get out?”

 

“What exactly do you think this is?” Hopper asks. He leans back against the sofa, mimicking Steve’s folded arms.

 

Steve doesn’t know, because he doesn’t know anything, and isn’t that the whole fucking problem?

 

“I dunno. Figured it has something to do with you thinking I’m not holding up my end of the deal.”

 

“What deal?” Hopper huffs, throwing his hands up.

 

“Come off it.” Steve drags a hand over his face. Sick sick sick, he’s gonna be sick. “Y’know, the whole, Steve, if you go see the shrink and stop getting lost in the woods, I won’t lock you away in a psych ward.”

 

“Why in God’s name would I put you in a psych ward?”

 

“Because--” Steve stops and heaves a breath. “Um, I don’t know. Because I’m crazy? ‘Cause I killed someone? Take your fucking pick, I guess.”

 

Hopper leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Steve,” he says slowly, and fuck, Steve hates it when people talk to him like that. Hates it hates it hates it. It reminds him of his dad, and of all his teachers, and every other adult in his life who’d talked to him for less than ten minutes and decided that poor Steve Harrington needs a little extra time to understand some things.

 

“See?” Steve says, hates the way his voice cracks. “See? You think I’m stupid--”

 

“I don’t,” says Hopper vehemently.

 

“Stupid, crazy fuckin’ murderer--”

 

“Did you take your medication this morning?” Hopper cuts in, and he sounds like he’s trying to be kind about it, but all it makes Steve do is choke on a sob, because no, he didn’t, but is it that fucking obvious? He can’t even seem normal without those dumb pills?

 

“Alright,” Hopper stands up from the sofa, and suddenly Steve is all too aware of how big Hopper is, and how little power he really has in this situation. He’s tall -- almost as tall as Steve’s dad. Steve shuffles back, legs feeling like lead, dragging against the carpet as his heart thuds in his chest. “C’mon,” Hopper says, reaching out for Steve, making Steve flinch. Hopper frowns, takes another step forward. “Steve,” he says, and this time it makes Steve close his eyes, trying to keep the tears at bay. God, he’s being such a baby--

 

“C’mon, kid, let’s get you your--”

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve’s voice wavers as he stumbles backwards, away from Hopper’s outstretched hand. “I’m sorry, sorry, I’ll be better, I’ll be good--” his back hits the fireplace, and he doesn’t have anywhere else to turn when Hopper’s big hands reach out and grasp Steve’s shoulders, firm. Steve doesn’t like that one bit, and shoves back at him. Hopper clearly wasn’t expecting it, because he moves easily enough, and then Steve pushes past him, eyes blurred. He doesn’t want to go to the fucking hospital, and he wills his legs, which feel numb and rooted to the floor, to move. In his dazed hurry, he manages to run directly into the coffee table, and he goes down  hard. His head hits the wood with a heavy thwack.

 

Hopper’s hands are back on him almost immediately, turning his head this way and that. Checking for blood, probably. Steve’s head throbs - there’s no way in hell that won’t bruise.

 

“Fuck. I’m sorry,” Hopper says. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I shouldn’t’ve-- I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that.”

 

“I’ll be good,” Steve insists again, vision swimming. He can feel the way his entire body is vibrating, but almost distantly. It doesn’t feel real. “Please don’t-- please?”

 

“Kid. Steve,” Hopper says, lost for words. “I’m not gonna-- do anything. Christ I-- I came over here to see if you were alright--”

 

“Well, I’m not,” Steve hiccups. “Can you go now?”

 

“What can I do to help?” Hopper asks.

 

Steve doesn’t know. Nothing. Anything.

 

“You can s-stop trying to ruin my life.”

 

“Ruin your life?” Hopper repeats incredulously.

 

"You're making all my friends not want to-- to be with me anymore! I know you're telling Nancy and Jonathan about how messed up I am. They-- they fucking look at me like I'm on the verge of a breakdown, like I'm p-pathetic. You're trying to get Dustin away from me because you think I'm not good enough to keep him safe. And now you're gonna make Billy find out that I'm all messed up, that I'm not worth anyone's time, let alone his--"

 

Steve cuts himself off, pressing his palms against his itching eyes, surprised again when his fingers meet glass instead of skin. He rips the glasses off angrily, tossing them off to the side. He hopes Hopper steps on them.

 

“Let’s get you some fresh air,” Hopper finally says, and before Steve can stop him, he’s crossing the room and pulling the curtains away from the back door. Almost immediately, the hypnotic blue pool lights flicker against the dark walls of the living room, and Steve nearly stops breathing.

 

“Close it,” he hisses, already turning away. God, his head is smarting, and his stomach is no better; all twisty and churning.

 

“What?” Hopper says. Steve knows he heard him.

 

“Close the curtains,” he says, hating how croaky his voice comes out.

 

Hopper listens, at least, his expression changing to one of understanding. He firmly pulls the curtains over the glass and drowns out and light from the pool, then lowers himself to the carpeted floor, groaning as his bones creak.

 

Steve wants to call Billy. Really, really, really wants to call Billy. He doesn’t even know why, just has a feeling that maybe hearing his voice would make him feel better. But he doesn’t have Billy’s number. He thinks about how that would sound, just wanted to hear your voice, and realizes that even if he did have the number, he wouldn’t be able to call anyways.

 

Hopper crouches down next to Steve and doesn’t try to touch him again. “Should I get you an ice pack?” He looks incredibly awkward, all folded in on himself, unsure in a way that Steve hasn’t seen from him before.

 

“I don’t care,” Steve says, even though he does, because his head is throbbing. It feels hot, like maybe it got scratched against the sharp corner of the coffee table. When he raises his hand to feel his head, searching for blood, it comes away dry.

 

“Doncha think it might make you feel better?” Hopper asks, and Steve is tired. He nods, pulling himself off of the floor and heading towards the kitchen, not waiting for Hopper, who he can hear groaning behind him as he stands.

 

Steve’s sitting at the island with the ice pack pressed against his skin by the time Hopper reaches the kitchen. He slowly sits at the breakfast nook, his dirty uniform looking out of place in Steve’s mother’s pristine kitchen. Steve wonders if maybe he sat there to give Steve a height advantage, to make it seem like they were on even footing. Ha, yeah right. Steve’s aware that his heart is beating out of time, that his chest is rising and falling a little too quickly, that his cheeks are damp.

 

“Does that feel any better?” Hopper asks. Steve nods, even though it doesn’t. Nothing feels good.

 

“Steve--”

 

“Hop--”

 

“No, listen,” Hopper stops him. “I need to apologize. I haven’t been there for you like I should’ve been.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize,” Steve mumbles.

 

“No, I do,” Hopper says. “I know your folks aren’t around, and I know you’re still having, uh, some problems, and I’m sorry I made you feel like you couldn’t come to me about ‘em.”

 

“You didn’t,” Steve says, but he knows Hopper is right. He hasn’t felt like Hopper was someone he could confide in. If anything, he feels like someone Steve has to hide things from. Every time he leaves his house, he’s worried about Hop seeing him and thinking he’s doing something he shouldn’t be. At therapy, no matter how many times Dr. Owens tells him different, Steve is careful about how much he says because he doesn’t want Dr. Owens to tell Hopper about all the things Steve’s been keeping from him.

 

“I have, and I’m sorry,” says Hopper. “I’m never, ever, going to be mad at you for trying to deal with all this shit on your own. I’m just-- look. You’re a kid.” Steve huffs, and Hopper rolls his eyes. “You are. You’re a kid and you were dealt a shitty hand, and I think I’ve been making things worse. That’s why I came over. If you want me to back off, stop calling, stop checking in, I will. Okay? I will. But I want you to know that this?” Hop waves his hand around, as if to indicate Steve’s general being, “This isn’t a chore for me, you’re not pissing me off, you’re not crazy. I wanna help you out, kid, if you’ll let me.”

 

“Why?” Steve asks, swallowing. His mouth feels dry.

 

“Because. I-- I know what it’s like to be on your own, alright? It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I was where you are, and I didn’t have anyone to help me. I don’t want you to have to go through that. You don’t deserve it.”

 

“You don’t know that,” Steve argues. “You don’t know what I deserve. You don’t even know me.”

 

“I know enough.” Hopper shrugs, crossing the kitchen to pull out a bottle of water from the fridge. He cracks the cap and hands it to Steve. “I know you’re a good friend to Dustin. I know you help Ms. Vernon with her groceries, I know you’re sad, and I know you give yourself a hard time. Not everything is your fault, Steve.”

 

“Barbara--”

 

“Wasn’t your fault,” Hopper says. His voice is quiet, quieter than Steve has ever heard him. “I know you don’t believe that, but. We can work on it.”

 

“You’re really not mad.”

 

“I’m really not mad. A little miffed, sure, because when you don’t pick up your damn phone I get worried. S’pose we can work on that, too.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve nods. “Okay. Let’s uh, let’s work on it.” His head feels less fuzzy, his legs less weak. His head still hurts like a bitch, though.

 

He thinks his exhaustion must be evident on his face, because Hopper pats his shoulder and says, “Get some rest. Make sure you keep icing that, it’s gonna be a gnarly one. Sorry.”

 

“S’alright,” Steve hums. “Sorry for, y’know, acting like that.”

 

“Don’t be, it’s my fault,” Hopper insists. “Just-- promise you’ll pick up next time I call?”

 

“I promise,” Steve says, surprised to find that he actually means it. “And um. I won’t lie anymore.”

 

“Not about the important stuff, hey?” Hopper snorts. Steve wonders what counts as important. Billy feels important, but he can’t tell Hop about all the feelings rushing around his body about Billy. “Alright. You gonna lock the door behind me?”

 

“Yes, Chief,” Steve says, already following him to the front door. “Night.”

 

“Night, Steve.”

Chapter Text

Steve is damn exhausted as he pulls into Hawkins High’s parking lot on Wednesday morning. He slept alright the night before… for about an hour. The knowledge that Hopper doesn’t hate him after all, paired with the comfort of Billy’s jacket between his arms and the drowsiness brought to him by his pill, helped him drift off with relative and surprising ease. He woke up not long after, though, around two o’clock, from a dream he can’t remember. He couldn’t drift off despite how sleepy he felt, so he lay in bed, thinking thinking thinking. About what he was going to do with Dustin over the weekend. About his physics test. About Billy. He thought a lot about Billy. His bold smile, his drollish attitude. His blue eyes and his soft hands. What his skin might feel like under Steve’s palms.

 

He’s sitting in his car, eyelids heavy as he struggles with the zipper on his rain jacket, when two sharp knocks startle him. It’s Billy, because of course it’s Billy. Steve calls out, “Hang on, man.” He doesn’t want to get soaking wet and spend the whole of first period drenched. The rain is really coming down hard.

 

He opens the door and looks up at Billy. “Hey,” he says, surprised when his voice comes out a little scratchy. Probably from all the screaming he did last night. He’s about to get out of the car when Billy’s steady hands find his shoulders, keeping him in place.

 

“Harrington,” Billy says, and shit, he sounds pissed.

 

“Billy,” Steve replies, a tad confused. He doesn’t remember doing anything to piss Billy off, but it wouldn’t be the first time that someone was mad at Steve for something Steve couldn’t remember, or didn’t understand. Maybe Billy’s mad about Steve asking about Hopper on the ride back to his place last night. He seemed okay when he got out of the car last night, though, so maybe it’s not that--

 

“What the fuck is this?” Billy says. Shit, maybe pissed was an understatement. Billy sounds furious. His eyes are sharp, assessing, as he stares at Steve intently. His hand that isn’t tenderly holding Steve’s shoulder is curled into a fist against Steve’s car door. Rain droplets are coming in around him, catching on his curly blond hair and making Steve’s steering wheel wet.

 

“Um,” Steve says, trying to sort this out. He feels bogged down, sticky and slow like molasses. He’s racking his brain, but he can’t think of anything he could’ve done to make Billy angry like this. “I’m sorry?”

 

Billy pauses, furrows his brow. “For what?”

 

“I don’t know,” Steve admits, struggling to keep his eyes open with evert blink. He’s so tired.  “I made you mad.”

 

“What? No. No. Just-- hold on. Stay there.” Billy checks to make sure Steve’s limbs are all in the car before he swings the door shut, rounding the hood and sliding into Steve’s passenger seat. “I’m not mad at you,” he says once he’s inside Steve’s car, doors closed and rain pattering against the windshield. He says he’s not mad, but Steve can see his tensed jaw, the sharpness in his eyes. He may not be good at much, but he knows how to read people, and Billy’s definitely mad.

 

Steve blinks slowly at him, not believing his lie. “Okay,” he says. “I’m just-- okay. Sorry.”

 

“Stop saying that.”

 

“Uh, alright--”

 

“Did he fucking do that to you?” Billy snaps, and, like. What the fuck is he talking about? He isn’t making any sense, and he’s clearly mad, no matter how much he says he’s not.

 

“Did who do what?” Steve asks. Billy’s face softens a little, like Steve’s said something worth his pity.

 

“You don’t gotta pretend with me,” he says, pressing two of his fingers to his own chest. Steve is officially left in the dust here.

 

“Billy, I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“Harrington,” he says, closing his eyes briefly before turning his gaze back to Steve. “Did Hopper touch you? Hurt you? Did he do that to your head?”

 

Suddenly, everything falls into place, and Steve’s brain stops trying to furiously play catch-up.

 

“Oh,” says Steve, wearily raising his hand to poke at the bruised and split skin on his forehead. He’d barely given it a second glance in the mirror since last night. He’s not sure how it looks, but judging by the way it throbs and Billy’s fiery expression, it can’t be great. “That.”

 

“Yeah,” says Billy. “That.”

 

Steve tries to smile at him, swallows against the lump in his throat at the memory of his hysteria the night before that lead to his self-inflicted bruise. The smile doesn’t seem to reassure Billy much, so he says, “Don’t worry ‘bout it. It was my fault.” He doesn’t miss the way Billy’s eyes flash, the way he digs his fingers into his thigh, the way his whole body turns in his seat until he’s facing Steve.

 

“Hey,” says Billy sharply, before wincing and lowering his voice. “Harrington-- Steve. It’s alright, you can-- you can tell me, if he did. He can’t do that, I’m not gonna fucking let him do that.”

 

Steve shifts in his seat, uncomfortable. He gets what Billy’s saying now, understands why Billy seemed so mad, before. He can’t really fault Billy for thinking it, either. After all, in his panic last night, Steve had momentarily worried about that exact same thing. Not to mention, the last thing Billy knows it that Steve returned home to an angry police officer who was going to chew him out. Usually, when they’re having conversations like this, it’s Billy who’s shown up with bruises or a split lip, and Steve asking the all the questions. Billy, of course, avoids them like the plague, going tense and insisting that Steve not worry about it. Steve always acquiesces and pretends like Billy’s mottled skin doesn’t bother him. He hopes, perhaps naively, that Billy will do the same for him.

 

Billy saying that he wouldn’t let Hop do that to Steve is nice, if a little ludicrous. There’s not much Billy can do to the chief of police, but the sentiment remains and sparks a tiny flame somewhere in Steve’s chest.

 

“Hopper didn’t-- this isn’t his fault, okay? Drop it, Billy.”

 

No such luck.

 

“Well, then if he didn’t, who the hell did? You were fine when you dropped me off.”

 

“I told you,” Steve says, hating the way his voice cracks. He lets his eyes flutter closed momentarily. His early rise and all the excitement of last night are really hitting him, now. He tells himself a few more seconds, and then he’ll open his eyes again. His eyelashes feel glued to the skin of his cheek, his head impossibly heavy. He wonders, dazedly, if maybe it’ll roll right off his neck. Before he knows it, Billy’s hand is on his shoulder, shaking him.

 

Steve,” he says. “What the hell is going on? What’s wrong?” When Steve opens his eyes, Billy is leaning into his space, blue eyes swimming with concern. Steve blinks listlessly, lips parted as a tired little burst of air escapes his mouth.

 

“Nothing,” Steve says, and the more he thinks about it, the less true it seems. Maybe Hopper was lying last night. “Nothing is fucking wrong, alright? Jesus.” 

 

Billy’s hand slips a little on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve watches Billy swallow as his eyes dart away from Steve’s. When he looks back, his eyes shine with a determined glint. “Look-- I get if you’re, like, embarrassed, okay? I get it. But I’m-- I’m not gonna tell anyone.” He squeezes Steve’s arm, and Steve feels his sleepy eyes track the movement of Billy’s fingers against him like he’s in a trance.

 

“I told you,” Steve frowns, a little sluggish and a lot frustrated. “It’s my fault.”

 

“Stop saying that!” Billy says, angry again. “It’s not--”

 

“It is! You weren’t-- it was my fault. I was just. I was trying to get away from him, alright, and I tripped and fell, and I hit my head. That’s all.”

 

“You were … trying to get away from him?” Billy repeats incredulously. “Steve--”

 

“It’s not like that,” Steve insists, irritated that he can’t seem to get his words out right, can’t get his point across.

 

“Okay,” says Billy, placating. “Okay, but if it was--”

 

“Billy, it’s not,” Steve says, ashamed when he hears the way his voice breaks, glad that his eyes aren’t prickling like they’ve been doing lately. He’s not going to cry, at least. “You’re not listening to me,” he mutters, running the back of his hand across his eyes, just to make sure. He’s relieved when his skin comes away dry.

 

“God fucking-- okay. Okay. I’m listening.”

 

“You’re not,” Steve snaps, shrugging out of Billy’s grasp. Billy lets him go, sits back in his own seat and slumps against the headrest.

 

“I am, alright. I’m sorry.” That’s not a word Steve’s used to hearing from Billy, and it makes him deflate a bit.

 

“It’s fine. You’re just-- you’re just trying to be nice.”

 

“Doesn’t matter what I’m tryin’ to be if it’s making you upset,” Billy says, shrugging. The sentence makes Steve feel a little better, a little comforted. He picks at the lint on his pants. Listens to the rain thudding against the hood, watches it pour down across the glass, blurring everything outside of the confines of his car. They’re definitely going to be late for first period. Physics. Fuck.

 

“We’re gonna be late,” he observes.

 

“You gonna tell me how you got that bruise?” Billy asks.

 

“You gonna make me?” Steve bites back. He already told Billy, really. Not the whole story, like why Hopper was there in the first place, but enough of it. Anymore, and Billy’ll put together the jagged puzzle pieces of the truth and realize that Steve’s just as fucking crazy as everyone in town has been saying he is for the past six months.

 

“No,” Billy says simply. “Never gonna make you do anything you don’t want. Just. Y’know, if you do wanna tell me, I’m all ears.”

 

Huh. Steve wasn’t really expecting him to say that, thought that maybe Billy would pester him until he did say something. In his surprise, he finds himself giving Billy a half-truth.

 

“I have-- I get … anxious. Sometimes. Um, kinda like at the quarry,” he blurts, pausing and waiting for Billy to butt in. When he doesn’t, Steve continues, “It’s, uh, no big deal, but I did. Last night. And I was kinda panicking. And I tripped.”

 

“Alright,” Billy says after a moment. “I’m glad you told me.” Words careful, like he’d thought them through with great caution and hand picked them before they left the sanctuary of his mind and escaped through his lips, tumbling across the stale air of the cramped car and into Steve’s ears. “C’mon. We’re about to be late.”

 

Steve risks looking over at him. Billy didn’t even say anything, not really, about what Steve just told him. Why? Does he think it’s weird? Is he gonna stop talking to Steve, now? He didn’t, before, but maybe that’s when he thought it was a one time thing, and now he knows that Steve is a freak for real. Billy seems to notice the confusion on Steve’s face, because he leans over and squeezes at Steve’s shoulder again.

 

“Hey. I said it before, Harrington. I’m not gonna tell anyone. It’s your business, alright? Someone else gives you shit about it, lemme know.”

 

 

 

 

 

Steve walks across the parking lot with Billy trailing a half step behind him. They don’t say much of anything, except for when Steve holds open the front door for Billy and Billy mumbles a thanks. It’s nine-oh-two, and Mrs. Pierce has already started teaching by the time they slide into the classroom. She sends them a dirty look, but doesn’t pause her lecture. Steve slinks to his seat at the front of the room and leans over to pull his notebook from his backpack. When he sits back up, he’s surprised to see Billy in the chair next to his, already jotting down the problem set on the blackboard.  Billy normally sits at the back of the class, so this is an unexpected change. Steve shoots him a curious look, but Billy only looks at him and shrugs. Steve notices that his notes are neat. Impeccable. The kind of printing kindergarten teachers use. It’s weird.

 

“Pay attention,” Billy whispers jokingly, tapping Steve’s forearm with his pencil. Steve can only focus on the whispers behind them.

 

Billy’s sitting with Steve.

 

What the hell is Hargrove doing?

 

Maybe Steve’s paying him for his notes or some shit.

 

It’s certainly not like Billy to sit in the front of the room where everyone can see that he’s actually actively engaged in the lesson. Steve, on the other hand, is still struggling to stay awake. The dryness of physics and the dim lights of the classroom definitely aren’t helping. He finds himself almost nodding off a couple of times throughout the period, head lolling as his chin hits his chest, and Billy nudges him insistently both times until he shakes himself awake.

 

The bell rings to signal the end of first period, and the sudden noise is so startling that Steve jolts and his pencil flies out of his hand. Billy rolls his eyes but ducks down to pick it up from where it landed next to his foot.

 

“You good?” he asks, already standing up, swinging his bag over his shoulder. He sounds disinterested, bored. Tommy walks by and pushes at Billy’s shoulder, in that stupid we’re dudes but we’re friends way that Steve has always hated. Billy shoves back a little too meanly, catching Tommy off-guard and making him stumble. Billy pays him no mind besides that, and immediately turns his attention back to Steve once Tommy finishes grumbling and walks away.

 

“Yeah.” Steve shrugs. Billy nods, and leaves the classroom without another word.

 

 

-

 

 

Steve thinks he might be going crazy.

 

Not because of nightmares, for once. No, it’s because he’s come to a frightening realization.

 

He really, really likes Billy.

 

When he’s with Billy, he can feel himself light up, as though his stresses and worries fade to the background, muted and inconsequential. A smile from Billy, a light touch from Billy, a teasing comment from Billy, well, they take his mood and raise it so high that Steve gets dizzy from the surreal joy of it all.

 

He likes the way Billy chews his gum and smirks at the same time, like he knows how good he looks. He likes how Billy’s hands are always moving - now that they’ve hung out more, Steve knows he likes the way they feel on his body. How Billy’s arm felt around his shoulders at the drive-in. He likes Billy’s blue eyes, his stupid mullett, and his almost imperceptible freckles. He likes the way Billy treats him like he’s normal. Like he’s someone worth Billy’s time, instead of someone to put up with.

 

He likes these things, and he knows these things, and he’s stupid for it, because he really shouldn’t have those thoughts at all. Dad has made it perfectly clear what he thinks about boys like Ste-- boys who like other boys. Steve can’t be one of them. It’s just that simple.

 

 

Except it’s not.

 

 

Because Billy is everything Steve wants. Vivacious and brash, perfectly shameless and wholeheartedly burning, a fire in Steve’s lungs that he doesn’t ever want to go out. He thinks about adding fuel to the flame -- maybe brush his hand over Billy’s arm during practice, or take him back to Benny’s diner, buy him a burger. Share a milkshake. Drive around Hawkins, left hand on the wheel, right hand on Billy’s thigh. Touch him, kiss him, love him.

 

Steve wants it all, and he wants it with Billy.

 

 

-

 

 

They study again on Thursday after practice, and Billy doesn’t say anything about the fading bruise on Steve’s forehead, or make any comments about his glasses. Steve notices that Billy’s favouring his left elbow, awkwardly trying to keep it from knocking against the tabletop as he scrawls equations across the paper of his notebook.

 

“You alright?” he says, chewing at his eraser. It’s a gross habit, but he can’t stop himself. Yvonne used to scold him for it, but. She’s not here to say anything about it now.

 

“Huh?” says Billy, looking up from his work. His honey blond curls bounce over his forehead as his head snaps up. “What?”

 

“Are you okay? Like, your arm.”

 

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Billy asks.

 

Well, Steve thinks. He’s wearing a long-sleeve shirt. Wore it during practice, too. He didn’t shove Tommy around after school. He played nice during scrimmage. When he pulled up in front of Steve’s house in his Camaro after practice, his arm - which normally dangles out the driver’s side window - was held awkward and close to his chest, not even touching the wheel.

 

“I dunno.” Steve is lying. “Want an ice pack?”

 

Billy looks at him. Looks back at his notepad. Back at Steve.

 

“I guess. If you have one.”

 

Steve wouldn’t have offered one if he didn’t have one. He gets up from the table without saying anything, returns moments later with an ice pack wrapped in a dish towel. He slides it across the table, watches as it leaves a trail of condensation across the hardwood. Their notes are probably going to get damp, but he doesn’t find himself caring much about that, not when Billy’s sitting so awkwardly at the table, arm cradled to his chest.

 

Billy takes the ice pack, equally silent, and fumbles with it until his elbow is propped up against it. Steve doesn’t miss the way his lips press together, a tight burst of air escaping while Billy tries to school his face into a stony veneer. Impenetrable. Obdurate. Phony. That’s what good ol’ Holden would call it, anyways.

 

Steve watches Billy. Steve sees Billy. Really sees him. He wonders if Billy can see through his walls, too. 

 

He waits a few minutes, pretends to work through a problem in his own notebook, before he says, “I can get you some ibuprofen.”

 

“You don’t gotta do that,” says Billy, flipping to a new page in his textbook.

 

“I know I don’t gotta.” It’s an echo of their conversation the last time they were at this table. Steve pushes his chair out, stands up. “You want it or not?”

 

Billy glances up at him. Nods tersely.

 

Steve heads to the kitchen again, returning with a juicebox and a couple pills. Billy swallows them down at the same time, drains the juicebox in the process. “Thanks.”

 

“No problem,” says Steve, and then, because apparently he has no filter, “I was going to call you the other night.”

 

Billy’s head snaps towards him, eyes sharp. “Call me?”

 

“Yeah.” Steve squirms in his seat. “On Tuesday.”

 

“You don’t have my phone number,” Billy says. Sort of a question.

 

“No,” says Steve. He didn’t. Doesn’t. Probably won’t ever. It’s probably a good thing that he doesn’t, though. What would he have said? Hi Billy. I know I just dropped you off a few minutes ago, but I’m crying and I thought hearing your voice would make me feel better. Don’t worry, though! I’m not a fag!

 

Billy hums. Taps his pencil incessantly against the table. Eventually, he says, “Why?”

 

Steve shrugs. Pauses. Thinks. “I dunno. It’s stupid, like. I was-- last time I was freaking out, you were nice to me.” Dragged me out of a bush. Gave me your jacket. When Billy stays quiet, Steve repeats, “Like I said, it was stupid. Forget about it.”

 

“You can’t call me,” Billy finally says, and Steve nods, swallowing against the lump in his throat.

 

“Yeah, no, of course not.”

 

“It’s not like--” Billy cuts himself off, dragging a palm over his face. He looks tired. “It’s just … my dad. He doesn’t like it when, uh, when me or Max tie up the line. You know how it is.”

 

“Oh, right, ” Steve says, even though he doesn’t know how it is, not at all. His parents are never home, and when they are, Steve using the phone is not even on their radar of concerns. Fuck, Steve isn’t even a concern. “Yeah, no worries. I get it.”

 

“I can call you,” Billy blurts. “If you give me your number. I can call you instead.”

 

“Won’t that still tie up the line?” Steve points out, but a silly flare of hope flickers in his chest.

 

“I’ll call when he’s not home.” Billy shrugs, easy as pie. “If he’s not there to know he can’t be pissed about it.”

 

Steve ducks his head down, smiles to himself as he scrawls his phone number on the corner of his paper, tearing it off and handing it to Billy. He hopes his chicken scratch is neat enough for Billy to read. “There.”

 

“There,” Billy repeats, a little quiet. “You really can’t call my place, though, okay?”

 

“No, I get it,” Steve promises. “I won’t. Swear.”

 

Billy nods and tucks the paper into his jean pocket. “You won’t just let it ring?” he teases.

 

“Hah. For you? I dunno, man…” Steve plays along. Billy snorts and throws a wadded up ball of paper at him.

 

“Oh, it’s on, Hargrove.” Steve ducks under the table and throws it back, cackling as Billy’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

 

“You don’t want to start a paper war with me, Harrington,” Billy warns, already forming an arsenal of wadded up paper at his side, physics forgotten.

 

“I think I do.” Steve winds up his arm. “Sa-wing, batta batta batta.” He lobs the paper at Billy, who curses and throws himself off his chair to avoid the hit.

 

Steve cackles. “Agile.”

 

Billy’s head pops up over the lip of the table. Steve can’t see below his nose, but he can tell from the crinkles by Billy’s eyes that he’s grinning. “Heeeeey, batta batta batta,” he taunts, and before Steve knows it, a ball of paper is flying in his direction. He yelps and dodges it, surprised.

 

“I couldn’t see your arm!”

 

“Not my problem,” Billy counters, already tossing another piece at Steve.

 

 

-

 

 

The physics test goes … alright. Steve knows he missed one of the problems on the final page, but he thinks he might have gotten enough marks on the other problems to snag a B-. Billy, he’s sure, probably aced the damn thing. Just like he always does. Not that he goes around bragging about it -- Steve only knows because once, back in September, Mrs. Pierce suggested that Steve ask Billy to tutor him. The thought, at the time, was laughable, but Mrs. Pierce was adamant that Billy had a mind for physics and his help would prove beneficial to Steve. Turns out the old witch was right, but Steve’s not about to start sending thank-you cards or anything.

 

By the time Steve crosses the parking lot after school, Billy’s car is already gone. He tells himself that the disappointment curdling in his stomach is only because he wanted to talk about the test. Maybe bum a cigarette. He doesn’t need to spend all his time with Billy.

 

It takes him long enough to get to the car that Dustin and Will are running across the tiny field that separates Hawkins Middle and Hawkins High just as he starts to unlock his door.

 

“Steve!” Dustin calls. Steve closes his eyes briefly, preparing for the inevitable and impending headache. Dustin’s backpack straps dangle halfway down his arms, his curls bouncing as he hops over a boulder, kicking up a cloud of dust. Will follows behind him, running like Dustin is, but somehow less … chaotic.

 

“Hey, guys.” Steve waves, tossing his own backpack into the back seat.

 

“Hi, Steve,” Will replies, reaching out to steady Dustin when he trips a little, skidding to a stop a few feet away from Steve.

 

“What’s up?”

 

“Oh, the usual,” says Dustin. Uh, okay. Whatever that means.

 

“You need a ride or something?” Steve asks, already sure that he knows the answer. After all, Jonathan’s car is nowhere to be seen.

 

“Yes and no,” says Dustin. “Okay. So we need a ride--”

 

“So that’s a yes.” Steve rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Get in.”

 

The boys scramble after him, throwing themselves into the car. Dustin surprisingly lets Will sit in the front. Steve twists the key and is about to reverse out of his spot when Dustin stops him.

 

“So, like I said. Yes and no - we need a ride, but we thought maybe -- maybe, it’s okay if you don’t wanna -- we could go to your place?”

 

“Mine? Why?”

 

“Jon and Nancy are at my house,” says Will. “Friday is movie night, apparently. And we’re too loud.”

 

“What’s wrong with Dustin’s house?” Steve asks. He’s surprised with himself; the mention of Nancy and Jonathan doing couple things together no longer sets off a cascade of uncomfortable emotions. Come to think about it, he hasn’t been bothered by the idea of them together in … well, in months. At least not since September.

 

“My mom’s having a dinner party.”

 

“For civilized adults,” Will adds.

 

“Which you two obviously aren’t.”

 

Hey!”

 

“He’s not wrong.”

 

“I’m always right.”

 

“Nuh-uh. What about that time--”

 

“Hey hey hey. Alright. How does pizza for supper sound?”

 

His suggestion -- and invitation -- is met with a series of hoots and enthusiastic hell yeah’s. Dustin wants double cheese. Will wants half pineapple, please.

 

It’s already quarter-to-four, and it’s a Friday, so Al’s is going to be pretty damn crowded. There isn’t exactly a wide range of options for the residents of Hawkins to choose from for Friday night take-out. Steve decides to just swing by and pick it up now, seeing as they’re already in the car on the right end of town.

 

Dustin and Will wait in the car while he goes in and orders. There are only two people ahead of him, but shortly after he arrives, a gaggle of teenagers enter, making him glad they came when they did. Steve knows them. They’re juniors, and Steve’s on the basketball team with a couple of them. The group is rowdy and obnoxious, and Steve can hardly hear himself order when it’s his turn at the counter. This time last year, they’d probably be trying to say hey to him, or invite him to sit with them, but now, they don’t so much as look in his direction.

 

It only takes fifteen minutes, and then he’s back out in the fresh air, warmth from the pizza box seeping through the cardboard and into his palms. The scent is intoxicating. It’s been a long week, and he’d be lying to himself if he pretended he wasn’t excited to get home and chill out, shove a few slices into his mouth, maybe try to take a nap on the couch while Dustin and Will do whatever it is they’re planning on doing.

 

 

 

 

 

Two hours later, his eyes have fluttered closed to the sounds of Dustin and Will arguing about some lizard across the hallway in the kitchen.

 

He’s embarrassed to admit it, even to himself, but he hopes he did well enough on the physics test to impress Billy. Maybe get a congratulatory pat on the back, if he’s lucky. He longs, aches, dreams about Billy’s hands on his body. Besides the unavoidable bumping and pushing in practice -- and the awkward moment in the car where Billy was convinced that Hopper was smacking Steve around -- Steve hasn’t had the warm press of Billy’s touch since that night at the drive-in.  

 

If he told Dr. Owens how fucking pathetically desperate he was for some human contact, he’d probably get a carefully blank face, even more questions about his absent parents, and a conversation about his recurring feelings about loneliness. He’d say, Steve, let’s think about ways you can reach out and stop isolating yourself from people who care about you.

 

Good ol’ Doc Owens isn’t around to hear all of his thoughts though, so Steve’s mind shifts to an imaginary world where he’s not lonely, because he’s got Billy with him, and this version of Billy wants to touch Steve, wants to stay the night in his bed, and fills up that empty space in Steve’s house. His head. His heart. Imaginary Steve sleeps without nightmares, his head pillowed on Billy’s chest. He’s not afraid of fucking swimming pools. He gets good-morning kisses and good-night cuddles. He gets to tell Billy how beautiful his big blue eyes are. Gets to trace his fingers over every gorgeous curve of Billy’s tanned body.

 

Suddenly, the doorbell rings, startling Steve from his sleepy thoughts. His eyes open blearily just as Will’s head pops around the corner. He’s got pizza sauce on the corner of his mouth. “Want me to get that?”

 

Steve hums, waves a tired hand at him. “Yeah. Thanks.” It’s probably just Joyce.

 

He listens to Will’s socked feet pad down the front hall, and burrows back into the cushions, hiding his face from the light with a throw pillow. Distantly, he hears Will’s surprised oh and series of heavy footsteps heading down the hall. Hopper, he thinks.

 

“He’s in there,” says Will, and Steve shifts the pillow and opens an eye only to see Billy leaning against the entryway of the living room, boots on and cheeks flushed rosy from the cold. Steve shoots up from his prone position on the couch. God. He was just fantasizing about all the ways he wanted to get touched by and touch Billy, and now Billy’s here, right in front of him in his own living room. All perfect skin and sparkling eyes, thick thighs, broad palms. Golden and rosy and so goddamn handsome that Steve has to shake himself. Act normal, for once, damnit. 

 

“Asleep on the job?” Billy walks towards him, grinning. “And here I was, thinking you were responsible.”

 

“He’s not on the job.” Dustin sounds offended as he rounds the corner. “We’re hanging out.”

 

“You’re being babysat,” Billy informs him.

 

“No one’s paying him!”

 

Billy turns back to Steve and stands with his hands on his hips. He would look the epitome of scolding if not for his wolfish smile. “Aw, c’mon now, Stevie. You gotta capitalize on these opportunities, man.”

 

Steve sits up the rest of the way, scooting until his back is leaning against the armrest of the couch. He absentmindedly feels his face, hoping that there aren’t any embarrassing marks on his skin from where he’s had his head pressed up against a pillow for the better part of an hour. His hair is probably a mess, too.

 

“Shut up,” he says, mostly joking, but hoping that Billy won’t hurt the kids’ feelings by calling them -- well, kids.

 

“Nah, don’t think I will.” Billy plops himself down onto an armchair and props his feet on the coffee table. Dustin and Will watch him, apparently enraptured. “Damn, you got pizza? Where’s my invite?”

 

“You’re here now, aren’t you?”

 

“Yeah, but the pizza’s not.”

 

“Sorry.” Steve rubs at his neck. “Didn’t think we were hanging out tonight.”

 

“It’s cool,” Billy replies, craning his head to look at Will and Dustin. “Hey, you’re Max’s friends, right?”

 

They nod. “Yep,” says Dustin. “And you’re her brother.”

 

Billy doesn’t grimace and say step-brother, the way Steve’s heard him before. Steve wonders if he’s only adamant about that part when Max is around to hear him. “She’s not here?”

 

“She’s at Lucas’ house,” chimes Will. “It’s on the same street as the Wheeler’s.”

 

“Right. You got those uh, walkie-talkies?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Wanna do me a solid and tell her to be ready at nine? I don’t want to wait around. Again.”

 

The two of them hurry away, seemingly intimidated and ready to leave Billy’s presence. Steve huffs a laugh.

 

Billy turns back to Steve. “Hey,” he says, as if they hadn’t been talking for the last few minutes.

 

“Hi,” Steve greets. “Fancy seeing you here.”

 

“Yeeeeeah, well.” Billy shrugs. “Thought I’d see if you wanted to go for a ride. Celebrate bein’ done physics.”

 

“Fuck torque.”

 

Billy snorts. “Yeah, fuck torque. But anyways, it’s cool, I didn’t realize the dweebs were here.”

 

“Oh, we can still go,” says Steve, surprised with how much he wants to be on the road with Billy. “I’ll just have to drop them off first.”

 

“Yeah?” says Billy, hopeful. He pulls his feet from the coffee table and leans forward on his knees.

 

“Yeah.” He can’t hear Dustin or Will anymore. They’re probably upstairs. Steve fumbles around under the couch, face scrunched until his hand hits what he’s looking for. He hauls out his walkie, turns it on, and says, “Hey. I’m taking you guys home now, get your asses down here.”

 

“Oh my god. Don’t tell me you have one, too.”

 

“What?” Steve looks up and meets Billy’s eyes, which are swimming in amusement. “It’s useful.”

 

“You’re a nerd. Fuck, I can’t believe this. Actually, no, I totally can. Steve Harrington: nerd.” Billy spreads his hands out in front of himself and gestures at Steve.

 

“It’s useful,” Steve repeats, flushing. “You’re just jealous, Hargrove.”

 

Billy scoffs, and Dustin and Will thunder down the stairs, backpacks on and nearly knocking over the obnoxious vase at the base of the staircase.

 

“Let’s go.” Steve is already shrugging his jacket over his shoulder, looking for his keys. Billy hasn’t moved, still sitting comfortably on the armchair. Steve doesn’t miss the way he’s still holding his arm stiffly, like it’s bruised.

 

Dustin and Will hover by the door, and Steve watches Billy. Thinking. Finally, he says, “Hargrove gets shotgun.” At that, Billy lifts himself out of the chair and stomps his way to the front door.

 

“Hear that? Your babysitter likes me best.” He’s such an instigator. He shoves playfully at Steve’s shoulder when Steve rolls his eyes. “Don’t gimme that look. You know it’s true.”

 

“Does Steve buy you pretzels for movie night?” Dustin asks as they descend down the front steps and into the cool air.

 

“Nah, I’m more of a hot chocolate man.”

 

“You made him hot chocolate?” God, Dustin can be shrill.

 

“Yeah.” Steve shrugs, unlocking the car. “I can make some for you next time if you want it so bad. Geez.”

 

“Aw.” Billy pouts. “And here I was thinking that hot chocolate was our special thing.”

 

Steve flushes and notices Will looking at them curiously. “Shut up. Dustin, ask Billy if he can bring warm blankets to our next movie night.”

 

It’s Billy’s turn to blush, much to Steve’s surprise and pleasure. You’d think Billy’s golden skin would make the blush less noticeable, but he must blush easily or somethin’, because Steve can practically see the heat rise in Billy’s face, his cheeks turning a deep pink at Steve’s comment. It’s the same face he made when Steve stole his lollipop.

 

“Can it, Harrington,” Billy grumbles, ducking into the car. Probably to hide his rosy cheeks. Steve bites down at his own cheek to fight back a grin. He made Billy blush. Check-fuckin’-mate.

 

 

 

 

Dustin shuts the car door and tumbles up the pathway to his front door, Will straggling a few steps behind. Brian Wilson croons oom bop bop a little too loudly from the Beamer’s speakers, and Steve fiddles with his seatbelt as he waits for them to get inside safely.

 

“So,” he says once the Henderson’s front door slams shut. “Where should we go?”

 

 

 

 

Turns out Billy has lots of ideas where they should go. To the quarry. To Benny’s. Fuck off to Miami County and dip their toes in the Mississinewa, Max’s curfew be damned. Try to climb the water tower out at the edge of town.

 

Steve shoots down the ridiculous ones. He’s not driving to buttfuck nowhere, and he’s not in the mood to get arrested by Hopper because he climbed a goddamn water tower like a fifteen-year-old delinquent.

 

Since Steve is -- to quote Billy -- a total wet blanket, they end up driving around the backroads of Hawkins for nearly an hour before Steve decides enough is enough, and pulls into Benny’s parking lot.

 

They didn’t talk much about anything important in the car, but they certainly talked a lot. Billy made it easy to keep conversation going. He answered Steve’s foolish questions about zombie apocalypse survival and what if scenarios with thoughtful replies that had Steve laughing at how ridiculously serious Billy takes everything. He liked being able to glance to his right and see Billy’s smile out of the corner of his eye, bright and not dampened; no act on there in the passenger seat of Steve’s car. Steve can see Billy’s shields come back up the second the car door swings shut. Each and every step they take across the uneven gravel is like a piece of armour snapping onto Billy’s body. His back is straight, his lips tugged down in a scowl, his fingers dancing as his arms swing.

 

“What are you starin’ at.”

 

“Nothing.” Steve nearly trips up in a particularly large stone. He reaches the door first, and out of habit, pulls it open and holds it that way for Billy. Billy looks at him with this curious expression, nostrils flaring.

 

Such a gentleman,” he coos. “Don’t worry, Harrington. I’m a sure thing. You don’t gotta play sweetheart with me.”

 

“Just go inside,” Steve snaps, blushing.

 

Unlike their previous visit, it’s practically dead inside the restaurant, only one waitress -- not Janie, thank Christ -- and a handful of customers milling around. They get served relatively quickly, which Billy’s rumbling stomach clearly appreciates. Steve isn’t so hungry -- after all, he just had a bunch of pizza -- but he still picks happily at his fries and milkshake when Donna brings them over to their table.

 

Billy digs into his burger like he’s ravenous, licking ketchup from his fingers and stealing some of Steve’s fries.

 

“Were you raised by wolves?” Steve asks, laughing and pulling his plate towards his chest.

 

Billy makes a weird face. “Just one.”

 

Steve falters a little at that. “... your dad?”

 

Billy shrugs. “He’s a serious guy, y’know. No sissy bullshit ‘round our place.”

 

Sissy bullshit. Steve’s heard that one plenty. Dad’s really are all the same. 

 

“Do you guys … get along?”

 

Billy snorts. “Hell no. I don’t want anything to do with him, and he sure as fuck doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

 

Steve opens his mouth to talk, and Billy cuts him off, hands waving. “Don’t say you’re fuckin’ sorry, or I’ll dump this shake all over your rich boy pants.”

 

Steve snorts. “Noted. I’m real good at keepin’ my mouth shut.”

 

“Bet I can change that,” says Billy, all smirk and eyelashes. It only makes Steve laugh, hearing the voice that Billy turns on for the desperate women in Hawkins. It’s cute, almost, the way Billy thinks it comes across as genuine, when in reality, Steve can see through the act like it’s nothing more than a gauzy curtain.

 

“Oh yeah, big guy? I’d like to see you try.”

 

Billy smiles around his straw, tongue poking at the plastic. He winks, big and obnoxious and comedic in a way that has Steve laughing into his own shake.

 

 

-

 

 

With the weight of the physics test and his anxiety about Hopper’s approval off of his shoulders, Steve manages to have a relatively stress free weekend. He does some laundry, reads some Catcher, and basically thinks about Billy every waking second.

 

He can’t even begin to describe the feeling of lighthearted hope that bubbles up inside of him when he thinks about Billy. Billy’s eyes, Billy’s voice, the way Billy smiles at him so brightly it sets his heart off into a dangerous staccato. That feeling of happiness has Steve on cloud nine, falling asleep to thoughts about Billy’s arms wrapped around him, making breakfast with Billy’s chin hooked over his shoulder, driving around Hawkins with his hand intertwined with Billy’s, down low where no one driving by can see.

 

Monday was a P.D. day, and by the time Steve pulls into the Hawkins High parking lot on Tuesday morning, he’s fantasized about dating Billy, kissing Billy, watching movies and cuddling with Billy, in just about every way imaginable. He let his imagination run rampant over the long and lonely weekend, and he’s a little sad to return to the reality where the touchiest Billy will get at school is a too-tight hand squeezing Steve’s shoulder, or sidling up behind him at practice under the guise of playing defence.

 

Mrs. Pierce doesn’t have the test graded yet -- By Friday, guys, I promise -- which annoys but doesn’t surprise Steve. He remembers a time where getting back tests caused him so much stress that he would lie to his parents for days, pretending that he didn’t have his results, even when he very much did. It was easier to wait until the day before his parents were about to jet off somewhere; they either never had the time for their anger to fester, or were too busy to scold Steve, which was fine by him. Now, he’s actually not doing half-bad, and his parents aren’t around to see it. He wonders, idly chewing on his pencil as he makes his way through the crowded hallway after the lunch bell, if they’d even care. If they’d call it a fluke. If they’d brush him off and ask if he somehow managed to cheat or bribe the teacher into giving him a better mark than he truly deserved. Oh, his dad loves that word. Deserve. Steve doesn’t deserve to come to movie night, he forgot to clean his room. Steve doesn’t deserve to stay the weekend in Indianapolis, his last math test was abysmal. Steve apparently doesn’t deserve two present parents that show him any ounce of caring that one would think of as normal  -- or even the bare minimum -- from the two people that brought him into this world.

 

He’s startled from his train of thought as a classroom door slams. It’s five past noon, and the crowds have filtered down to stragglers either heading to the cafeteria or their cars. It’s starting to be too cold to eat lunch on the lawn, but Steve peers out the window and sees a few brave souls plopped down on the quickly dying grass. The cold is probably seeping through their jeans, and Steve doesn’t envy their choice of a lunch table.

 

Billy wasn’t around in physics, or else Steve would’ve probably tried to make lunch plans with him. His car, on the other hand, is in the parking lot, so Steve is keeping his eyes peeled for Billy’s obnoxious haircut and his tight jeans. His other option is to eat alone in his car, or brave the cafeteria and deal with feeling Nancy’s eyes on the back of his neck while he munches on his apple. Thanks, but no thanks, he’ll pass, actually. The halls are quiet now, with no sign of Billy, so Steve zips up his sweater and pushes open the front door. The cold hits him like a wall, momentarily stealing his breath away. It’s freezing, for mid-October, but the sun is out and makes the outdoors look a hell of a lot more welcoming than it is. It’s a dirty trick, thinks Steve, that that stupid fiery ball of gas has such an effect on people’s moods, on their days. A bit of sunlight and some blue sky has people acting like fools, smiling more than they would be if the day had risen grey and dreary, content to sit in silence and soak up its rays while the cold nips at their cheeks. Steve can’t judge; he feels it lifting his mood, too. And if Steve’s sure of one thing, it’s that he’s not a goddamn hypocrite.

 

The thing is, he doesn’t find Billy, and that lighthearted, happy fantasy world he created over the weekend begins to crumble, bit by bit, until Steve is driving home after last period with his jaw clenched and something less than hopeful churning in his gut. Why didn’t Billy come to class? Why didn’t he tease Steve in the halls, walk him to class? Where was he at lunch? Did Steve do something to make Billy avoid him all day? Are they not friends anymore?

 

He knows, deep down, that if someone could hear his thoughts right now they’d tell him to cool his fucking jets. It’s one day, where Billy probably parked his car at school to keep out of trouble with his asshole of a dad while he roamed around town, smoking or getting into fights or whatever else it is that’s cool enough to occupy Billy Hargrove’s time. They’d say that Steve must know that he hadn’t done anything to piss Billy off and get ignored, so maybe he should just relax about it all and try to enjoy his evening, or be productive.

 

Right.

 

Steve knows all this.

 

And yet, he mopes around his house and keeps an ear out for the jangle of his phone. Billy has his number now, so he could call. He could call, and Steve could hear his voice, deep and low and soft in all the best ways. He could hear Billy’s voice and the insecurity raging in his stomach would simmer until it wasn’t there at all, and Steve could fall asleep without worrying if Billy’s decided to put a halt to their blooming… friendship.

 

That doesn’t happen, and Steve’s lying awake in bed at one o’clock in the morning, still hoping that the phone might ring. Billy’s jacket is snug to his face, and Steve shuts his eyes and breathes in deep. He must drift off, because a short while later he wakes to the sound of thumping coming from the front door. His alarm clock reads 1:28 in glaring red, and Steve bolts upright, legs floundering where they’re trapped under his sheets. The darkness of his room makes it hard to see, and he reaches out blindly until his fingers find his glasses. If he’s going to fight off a burglar in the dark, he might as well be able to see them.

 

He flies down the stairs, inexplicably not that worried about what’s on the other side of the door. He swings it open with such force that he almost hits himself in the face. He’s not sure what he’s expecting to see on the other side, but it’s not Billy.

 

“... Hi,” says Billy. He’s chewing at his thumb, eyes tired and face drawn. Around him, Steve’s driveway is eerily silent, the night sky blue and clear. Steve snaps his eyes away from the darkness and back to Billy’s face.

 

“Billy?” Steve says, although he’s not sure why. He knows who it is, afterall.

 

“I woke you up,” Billy states, heaving a sigh. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s alright.” Steve takes a step back. “Wanna come in?”

 

Billy nods, moving past Steve into the house. Steve closes the door on the crisp night air. It seems even more quiet once they’re both shut inside, and Steve is suddenly aware that he’s standing there wearing only his boxers, a threadbare pyjama shirt, and his freakin’ glasses.

 

“Um,” he says, cold and exposed and feeling incredibly out of his comfort zone. “You can just, like… sit down? Yeah, sit down. I’ll be right back. Right back. Just goin’ to put, um, some clothes on--” he walks directly into the bannister in his distraction, pitching backwards at the impact. Before he knows it, Billy’s warm hands are at his back, fingers curling around the sides of Steve’s waist as he rights him.

 

“Thanks,” Steve mumbles, scrambling up the stairs before he feels the urge to spin around in Billy’s arms and plant one on him.

 

When he returns, sweatpants on and glasses off, Billy’s perched on the arm of the smaller sofa, fiddling with the zipper on his hoodie.

 

“What’s up?” Steve says, crossing the room to plop himself down on the cushion next to where Billy has situated himself. He has to crane his head a bit to make eye contact, and ends up resting the back of his head against the sofa. Probably for the best, as it’ll hide his bedhead.

 

Billy doesn’t look at him, though. He just asks, “Wanna go for a ride?”

 

 

Who’s Steve to say no?

 

 

It’s two o’clock in the morning -- on a school night, no less -- and Steve is in the passenger seat of Billy’s camaro, cruising down a backroad with the windows cracked, cool autumn air rushing into the car. He’s lucky that, before they left Steve’s place, Billy suggested Steve take the jacket with them on their ride. At first, Steve thought… or hoped, that it was because Billy wanted to see him wearing it again. Now, he thinks that maybe Billy knew Steve would be seconds away from freezing to death without it.

 

Billy’s being quieter than usual, fingers tight on the steering wheel as they drive. The night around them is quiet, and the wind sneaking in through the window drowns out the lowly playing radio. Steve waits a few more minutes before prodding.

 

“Billy?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Is everything okay?”

 

Billy’s silent for a moment, hands readjusting on the wheel. Steve feels the car slow down. They don’t pull over or stop, but Billy’s definitely pulling back on the gas pedal. “Yeah, nothing to worry about, anyways.”

 

Steve hums, fidgets with the seatbelt strap. “Okay. Well. If there was something to worry about, y’could tell me, you know?”

 

Billy nods, almost imperceptibly. Steve plows on.

 

“I’m a good listener. And a good secret keeper, like, shockingly good. Just putting that out there.”

 

“Got it,” Billy says, and Steve can hear the smile creeping into his voice. “I’ve got you on speed dial.”

 

 

-

 

 

It starts to become a routine.

 

Steve can’t call Billy, or show up at Billy’s place unannounced -- or announced, for that matter; apparently Neil doesn’t like it when Billy has friends over -- but Billy can call Steve if Neil isn’t home. On those nights, Steve will get a warning before Billy’s camaro pulls into his driveway. Other nights, Billy sneaks out and shows up without a phonecall. Most of the time, Steve is still awake, waiting for sleep to overtake him, when he hears the telltale sound of Billy’s engine. Other nights, he’ll startle awake to the obnoxious doorbell, or pebbles against the glass of his window.

 

He’d asked Billy to quit it with that last one; he doesn’t know how to fix a broken window, and doesn’t want to deal with the aftermath of glass shattering all over his bedroom. Billy’d simply shrugged and agreed, but had said something along the lines of, you’re really destroying this whole ‘Romeo and Juliet’ vibe I was trying to recreate, Harrington.

 

Driving around with Billy is nice. The windows aren’t always opened, but Steve takes the jacket every time just in case. He likes watching Billy while he drives. He’s concentrated, yet relaxed. Steve especially likes it when Billy puts his hand on the back of Steve’s headrest and shifts into reverse. Steve feels a flutter in his stomach whenever it happens. He’s not sure why, exactly, but it’s strangely... hot. Something about the gesture radiates a mixture of competence and confidence, and Steve can’t deny that he likes it… a lot.

 

Sometimes, Billy’s scowling when he shows up, but by the time he drops Steve back off at his house, his face is open, and he’s usually smiling, joking. Steve doesn’t miss the way that some nights -- usually the nights that Billy shows up without a phonecall because Neil was home -- Billy holds his arm tenderly, or has a split lip, or has a teary sheen to his eyes like maybe he’d been crying. Steve tries not to mention it, because he’d already told Billy about being an open ear an doesn’t want to seem pushy. He figures Billy will tell him this shit when he’s ready, if he’s ready. Until then, Steve continues to draw his own conclusions, and they’re not particularly great.

 

Billy’s dismissive about the ups and downs of his home-life, much like Steve is about his own. He doesn’t say to Billy how lonely he feels in his big, empty house, or how lonely the goddamn place has always been, even with his parents to chase away some of the shadows. Steve thinks that maybe the loneliness isn’t in the house at all, that maybe it’s rattling around inside of him, eating up his insides and burrowing deep into bone. Permanent. He doesn’t say anything, and Billy doesn’t either, but deep down Steve is aware of exactly what kind of man Neil Hargrove is behind closed doors, and he’s fairly certain that Billy understands Steve’s relief over having some company on dark nights every now and again.

 

The thing is, every now and again morphs from twice a week, to four times a week, to almost every goddamn night within a month. Before Steve knows it, October has slid - with rain and fallen leaves - into early November. They’ve settled comfortably into a routine: Billy shows up at Steve’s. Steve climbs into Billy’s car, sometimes with snacks but always with Billy’s jacket. Billy drives them out to the edge of the woods. To the quarry. To the diner. No matter the location, they sit and talk. About nothing, about everything. Steve always finds his body tilted towards Billy’s, attuned to his every word, wanting to be closer closer closer, wonders what would happen if he reached out and rested his palm against Billy’s rosy cheek.

 

He doesn’t, because he’s a coward.

 

Billy teases and flirts, sure. He wraps an arm around Steve’s shoulder and squeezes him tight, he pokes fun at Steve’s expense, makes jokes that should be offensive but aren’t -- or at least, Steve forgives him quickly because Billy knocks into his shoulder jovially and says shit like, c’mon Harrington, y’know you're my boy, quit it with the frown. Steve goes home and obsesses over every detail of every charged conversation.

 

He feels like a little kid, out in a field, daisy in hand. He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not. Except the answer changes every time. It’s not worth it, he decides, to risk this friendship they’ve built from nothing when he’s coming from a place of such uncertainty. Still, he oscillates between conclusions on the daily:

 

Monday - Billy brings Steve a cool lighter he found at the arcade. He loves me.

 

Tuesday - Steve tries to get Billy’s attention in the parking lot, but Billy won’t look up from his conversation with Hank Randall. He loves me not.

 

Wednesday - Billy tells Steve he’s got nice lips on their midnight drive. He loves me.

 

Thursday - Steve gets a less than desirable grade on his Catcher essay, Billy says, “Better luck next time, four-eyes.” He loves me not.

 

Steve refuses to be a little bitch and write down his feelings -- he can only imagine what kind of reaction an honest-to-God diary would get out of his dad -- but he feels like he can’t keep track anymore. Billy brings so much chaotic joy into his life that Steve has barely had time to worry about anything but Billy. Which is great, theoretically, because he hasn’t been dwelling on Barb as he drifts off. Instead, it’s Billy’s blue eyes that are on his mind.

Chapter Text

It’s Saturday, and the first weekend of November is suddenly at Steve’s disposal. 

 

He’s supposed to be hanging out at Billy’s, for once. Something about Neil getting pissy and taking away Billy’s car keys after he got back from school. Billy didn’t mention what he did to deserve the punishment, and Steve suspects it was nothing at all, or at least something that would be nothing at all to any other normal parent on the planet. He had to wait until Billy called to give him the all clear; Neil and Susan were headed out of Hawkins for the weekend - Billy’s keys in tow. It’s just about seven-thirty when Steve pulls up outside of Billy’s little house on Cherry Lane. It’s not very often he gets to swing by without the guise of picking up Max. Now, for the first time, he gets to go inside. He’s feeling probably too nervous about such a simple thing, but he can’t help it.

 

Max is at Lucas’ house, under the condition that she never, and Billy means never tells Neil the truth about what either of them did that night. She had seemed eager enough to go along with the plan, and Steve feels secure in knowing that no one will be interrupting his and Billy’s hangout tonight.

 

Billy answers the door with a blinding smile. “Welcome to my humble abode, Stevie.”

 

“It’s my pleasure to be here,” Steve replies in a silly tone. “I even brought hot chocolate.”

 

“I knew I liked you for a reason.” Billy snaps his fingers before turning away. “Lock the door behind you, would ya?”

 

Steve flips the lock over. It’s a little sticky, so it takes a moment, and he wiggles the knob afterwards to make sure he actually has it locked properly. By the time he’s done with it, Billy has floated farther into the living room and has gotten himself situated on the couch.

 

“What, no grand tour?” Steve teases, hand on his hip as his eyes roam around the place. The walls are mostly sparse, with a few family photos scattered around. Billy’s only in two of them - one where he looks about ten, and another more recent one of him and his father standing side-by-side next to a barbecue, hamburgers sizzling in the background. Neil’s got a tight grip on Billy’s shoulder, like he’s keeping him still, and Steve is reminded of his own family picture that he still has stuffed under his couch. 

 

“What, you want one?” Billy snorts. The place is small, and Billy gestures around without any of his usual fanfare. “This is it. My room’s over there.”

 

“I don’t get to see it?” Steve presses.

 

Billy’s expression flashes from surprise to something that looks a lot like shyness. “Do you… I mean, do you want to?”

 

“Well, yeah,” Steve says, suddenly self-conscious about the request. “But, like, not if you don’t want me to.”

 

“It’s not that,” Billy reassures him, weirdly awkward. “Just. Maybe later.”

 

“Sure.” Steve settles down on the couch next to Billy. It’s only a loveseat, so they’re pretty close already, but Steve tries to keep his legs from brushing off of Billy’s. He feels like maybe that would be odd. 

 

Billy turns on some movie; Steve’s not really sure what it’s supposed to be about, or even the title, but Billy doesn’t seem keen on paying much attention so Steve pushes the sounds of the movie to the back of his brain. Instead, he focuses on the almost imperceptible breaths leaving Billy’s lips and the way the cushions on the sofa crinkle underneath them with every move they make. 

 

“Are you happy to have the place to yourself?” Steve asks with a half-smile. Bringing up Neil always seems to put a damper on Billy’s mood. He isn’t sure what bringing up Neil’s absence will do, but he’s hoping it’s the opposite.

 

“Hell yeah,” says Billy, kicking his feet up onto the coffee table as if to prove a point. “Is this what you feel like all the time?”

 

“Dunno,” says Steve, “Depends. What d’you feel like right now?”

 

“Like the fuckin’ man. Like I can do whatever I want and dad can’t see shit, he can’t say shit, and he won’t know shit.



Steve smiles, ‘cause it’s nice that Billy feels that freedom with his dad out of the house -- but sad that it takes his dad vacating the premises for Billy to be able to feel that relief in the first place. 



Steve scrunches his nose, ‘cause staying home alone has never felt like that for him. 



First, it felt like nervous nights curled up in his bed while Yvonne tucked him in and reassured him that mommy and daddy were only a phone call away. 

 

Next, it felt like being more surprised to find out that his parents were home than finding out they weren’t. It felt like growing up and Mom and Dad deciding that employing Yvonne to look after Steve was no longer necessary, it felt like frozen foods and quiet nights and waiting for the phone to ring. 

 

It felt like loud parties and spilled beer. It felt like John and Liz visiting for a few nights every couple of months, holed up in their offices before heading back out without so much as a see you later, kiddo. 

 

Now, it feels like florescent blue lights trickling through his front door, morphing into a climbing mountain of murky water that rises rises rises until it reaches the stairs, floods Steve’s room, rushes down his lungs and drags him down down down while it engulfs his big, empty, lonely house. 

 

Steve shrugs. “Sorta.”

 

Billy seems to notice Steve’s shift in attitude and changes the topic to something Steve could talk about for ages: candy. They get into a debate over sugary and sweet versus sugary and sour. Steve is firmly on sour’s side, and Billy is adamant that Steve has never been more wrong in his life. They laugh and push at each other, and before Steve knows it, his thigh is pressed up against Billy’s, their whole sides touching. Billy is like a line of heat against Steve’s body. 

 

Steve tenses once he realizes what he’s done -- because it was him that moved, not Billy. Billy is in the corner of the couch, pressed up against the armrest. He’s about to shift away and apologize when Billy’s arm comes to rest on the sofa behind him, stretching over Steve’s shoulders in an all-too-casual move. Billy doesn’t look at Steve as he does it, or after he does it. Steve follows suit and pretends they’re not doing anything different than they usually do, and glues his eyes to the TV screen, hoping to God that he doesn’t pop a boner from Billy’s mere proximity. That would be an all time embarrassing low, even for Steve, who has thrown up on his neighbour’s lawns and woken up screaming from a nightmare in the middle of English class.

 

Before Steve knows it, the movie is over and he’s stifling a yawn into the crook of his elbow. Billy catches him in the act and raises a questioning eyebrow.

 

“Sleepy?” he asks.

 

“No,” Steve lies. He doesn’t want to go home yet, feels this magnetic pull in his stomach that’s screaming at him to stay as close as possible to Billy, for as long as possible.

 

“Well,” Billy sighs, “In that case, you won’t say no to a ride?”

 

Steve would have to be a fool to do such a thing. He’s a lot of things - dumb, nervous, sleep-deprived, obsessed with Billy Hargrove - but not a fool. He pulls the keys to his car out of his pocket.

 

“Let’s rock and roll.”

 

“That’s fuckin’ dorky as all hell,” Billy replies, but gets off the couch with a blinding grin. “Wait here a sec, okay?” 

 

Before Steve can answer, Billy is leaving the living room and heading down the hallway, presumably to his bedroom. Steve is a little miffed he didn’t get an invite, so he shuffles to the small front porch and toes on his sneakers. When Billy returns, there’s a lump in his front jean pocket. “What’s that?” Steve questions.

 

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, Harrington,” is all Billy says in explanation. 



They’re twenty minutes into their windows-cracked, radio on low, midnight drive, when Billy awkwardly clears his throat. “So,” he says, then pauses. Steve glances over at him to see Billy’s fingers drumming across his thighs.

 

“So,” Steve repeats. “Everything okay?”

 

“Honky dory,” says Billy. “I made you something.”

 

“Oh?” Steve says, shock coursing through his body. “Uh, thank you, wow. What did you make?”

 

“It’s nothing, really,” Billy shrugs, glancing away. Steve can sense the self-consciousness rolling off of him in waves, knows how that feels, and wants to put it to a stop for Billy. 

 

“I’m sure it’s not nothing,” Steve says. “You’ve got me all curious now, man. What is it?”

 

Billy takes his hand from its perch on his thigh and shoves it into his jean pocket. Steve takes turns paying attention to the deserted road in front of them and at Billy’s painfully slow reveal. “Here.” Billy thrusts the whatever-it-is at Steve and immediately turns towards the window again. Steve fumbles with it, using his left hand to steer the car while he brings the object up to his point of view. 

 

“It’s a --” 

 

“Mixtape, yeah,” interrupts Billy.

 

“Oh, wow,” Steve says, genuinely taken aback. He’s … touched. No one’s ever made a mixtape for Steve Harrington before. This is the type of thing he’d make for other people, but being on the receiving end is new for him. “Wow,” he says again, “Thank you, Billy.”

 

“Don’t get too sappy about it,” chirps Billy. “Your music taste is crap. This is like, an intervention.”

 

Steve laughs, he can’t help it. “Oh, really?” he says, eyes darting over at Billy’s frame. Each street post they drive past illuminates Billy’s silhouette, casting a golden glow into the car, lighting up Billy’s dirty-blond curls from the behind. Steve thinks he looks like an angel, and has to swallow back the words bubbling up in his throat.  

 

“Really.”

 

“Okay,” Steve plays along, knowing it’s not the truth. Billy -- brave, strong, stubborn -- would not be this nervous about some gag gift he was using to stage a fake music intervention. Steve takes the gift for what it is: a gift. From Billy, no less. He moves to replace the cassette and slide Billy’s mixtape in, but all of a sudden Billy’s arm darts out and stops him in his tracks. His fingers are a steady pressure on Steve’s wrist, immobilizing him but not hurting him. Steve is sure he can feel the heat seep from Billy’s fingertips and into his wrist.  

 

“What?” Steve says, his foot hovering over the brake, worrying that something has gone wrong. 

 

“Nothing,” says Billy again, and Steve is sure that it’s nothing, but he stays silent and waits for Billy to explain. Billy doesn’t move his hand, and neither does Steve. If he does, Steve is afraid that Billy will just let his drop away, which is the last thing that Steve wants.  “Just… just don’t listen to it now, not with me around.”

 

“Oh, okay…” Steve says, a little confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be present for the intervention?”

 

“Ha ha,” says Billy. “Sure, but I think exposing you slowly will work better. With me, here, it would be me and the mixtape singing at once, that might be too much for your uncultured brain to handle, Harrington.”

 

Steve snorts. “Me, uncultured? I’ll have you know--”

 

“Blah blah, your parents tugged you around the world, you ate pasta in Italy, you swam with sharks. California is a goddamn mosaic of culture, Stevie. So many people from all over, all this food and music and clothing that just blows this small town America shit out of the water. You heard me, uncultured.”

 

“So mean,” Steve replies, not actually bothered, still caught up on why Billy doesn’t want him to play the tape. “You’ll help me, right? To be more cultured?” He sticks his tongue out, joking. Billy’s still touching him, his grip gentler, now.

 

“I’d help you with anything you want,” says Billy, voice soft but strong, sincere. 

 

“Me too, for you,” Steve replies, feeling something tug at his chest. 

 

They drive on, and Steve lowers his hand to the centre console. Billy’s follows with it. He lets go of Steve’s wrist, but when he lays his hand down, he presses the side of his pinky against Steve’s. Such a small touch shouldn’t be able to have such an effect, but Steve feels heat rise in his cheeks. He’s blushing, he’s sure of it. Tiny touches like these, well, they mean the world to him, to be honest. Not in general, like if a cashier’s finger brushed his, Steve wouldn’t be in a tizzy or anything, but with Billy? God, it’s like every touch sends jolts of dopamine straight to Steve’s lovesick heart.

 

Steve is almost back at Billy’s when he sees a familiar set of lights flashing in his rearview. “Fuck,” he whispers, just as the siren whirs a couple of times. He flicks on his indicator and pulls over to the shoulder. Billy’s looking around, confused. 

 

“You’re not even speeding,” he says, brows furrowed, He shifts in his seat to get a better look. “What’s this guy’s problem?”

 

“It’s Hopper,” Steve supplies. A look of concern immediately washes over Billy’s face.

 

“Are you alright, Steve? I can talk to him if you want.”

 

Steve knows he’s remembering last weekend, and Monday morning when Steve showed up to school, exhausted and teary eyed with a gigantic bruise on his forehead. “No, it’s okay,” Steve reassures him.

 

“Are you sure?” asks Billy, his hand shifting so that his covers Steve’s on the console. “If you’re nervous, or uncomfortable, or scared--”

 

A knock on Steve’s window interrupts Billy, and they immediately snatch their hands away from one another. Steve rolls down the window, and Hopper clears his throat.

 

“Hey, kid,” he says, voice deep and calm. 

 

“Hi,” Steve replies. 

 

Billy nods. “Hello, sir.”

 

Hopper ducks his head down, his eyebrows climbing when he sees who is in Steve’s passenger seat. “It’s awful late to be driving around, Steve.”

 

“I was on my way back,” Steve reasons, already anticipating Hopper’s comment.

 

“That always seems to be your explanation,” Hopper sighs. “You promise?”

 

“Promise,” Steve echoes.

 

“Feeling okay?” Hopper asks. 

 

“Yessir,” Steve says, so ready for this conversation to be over. The butterflies that were floating around in his stomach have turned into knots of embarrassment, having the Chief of Police pulling him over to check on his emotional well-being in front of his … in front of Billy.

 

“What time is your appointment tomorrow?” Hopper asks, and Steve truly wishes his seat would open up and swallow him whole. 

 

“Eleven,” he mutters. “I won’t forget it, I’ll be on time, I know the drill.”

 

“Alright. Drive safe,” says Hopper, and then walks back to his cruiser. Steve stays parked as he hears the sound of the door shut and as Hop’s taillights fade into the night. He purposely doesn’t look at Billy, partially because he knows his face is as bright as a tomato.

 

Eventually, Billy murmurs, “Steve?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Everything okay?” His voice is tinged with concern, and Steve can’t help but look over at him. Billy’s blue eyes, so lovely and expressive, are looking at Steve. Not with pity, but with care. 

 

“Mhm, it’s cool, don’t worry about it. Just, like. Aghh. Nothing, really. You still good to head back?”

 

“Yeah, that works for me. Thanks for, y’know, driving around so late. I didn’t realize it was like, an issue, with Hopper.”

 

“Oh shit, no no,” Steve rushes to correct him. “This is cool, this is fine. He’s just… there was like a whole thing about-- you know what? It’s old news. This is fine, I promise. I like late drives with you. They’re, like, really peaceful.” Billy doesn’t say anything, and Steve panics. “Is that stupid? Um, okay, they don’t have to be peaceful. They’re neat, they’re fun--”

 

“Hey,” Billy cuts him off. “It’s not stupid. They’re really nice for me, too.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Uh huh. Forreal. And I don’t tell lies, so quit it with the worried look, alright? You’re too handsome for early wrinkles.”

 

-

 

Steve falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, for once in his life. After dropping Billy off, he had the urge to listen to the tape, but something stopped him. Instead, he went back home, curled up in Billy’s jacket, and wiggled under his covers. He, even in his exhausted state, remembers to set an alarm so that he won’t piss of Doc Owens by missing his appointment. A fuckin’ plus thinking-ahead-skills. He deserves, like, a pat on the back or something.

 

Despite the alarm, Steve still runs out the door with not a minute to spare, barely making it to the office on time. The secretary gives him a knowing smile when he sprints in the door. “He’s ready, Steve,” she says, and Steve returns her smile with a small one of his own. She -- Tina, Steve thinks is her name -- looks taken aback. Gee, Steve thinks. Maybe he should be a bit more polite in here. Sure, he doesn’t necessarily like coming, but he’s got to admit, he’s been feeling better as of late, and he thinks Doc Owens has been playing, well, a part in that. 

 

He’s still in an okay mood as he leaves an hour later, no urge to nosedive into the quarry or gorge himself on chicken sandwiches from the diner. He even whistles while he’s walking to his car in the parking lot. The weather is shit, and Steve’s windshield is all fogged up so he has to wait while the car warms up until he can move, so he sits in the driver’s seat, rubbing his palms together and thinking of … no one. Someone. Billy. God, he feels crazy but whenever his brain tries to focus on something else, somehow Billy infiltrates his thoughts. What’s that saying? All roads lead to Rome? Well, in Steve’s mind map, all roads lead to Billy. Ugh. He feels weirdly pathetic just thinking about it. Billy makes him so happy, so overwhelmed with these fuzzy feelings, but at the same time, Steve doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. He’s not delusional; he knows Billy doesn’t like him like that. Sometimes, though, he lets himself daydream. After all, he’s only hurting himself, and that’s nothing new.

 

-

 

Steve’s half asleep, propped up on a pile of pillows, eyes drooping against the soft lamp-light that fills his bedroom when he hears footsteps on the stairs. It takes a moment for him to register what he’s hearing; he’s not used to being in the house at the same time as other people. He closes the book he had in his lap - fucking English class, this shit was never going to get finished on time - and looks desperately around his room for something to use as a weapon. Dad had always warned him to lock the doors, and he was pretty sure he did, but clearly he must be mistaken because those are definitely footsteps slowing to a stop outside of his bedroom door. He’s about ready to pick up his lamp and swing when his door inches open, and it’s Billy standing there, a little damp and visibly exhausted.

 

“Hey, pretty boy,” he says, voice rough as he enters the room. His eyes roam over Steve’s empty walls, his half-full laundry basket, and his messy dresser, seemingly intent on looking at everything except Steve. “What’re ya doin’?”

 

“Hi,” Steve falters, hands scrunching up his comforter. “I’m reading.” He sends a silent thank-you to whatever God may exist that he isn’t curled up with Billy’s jacket. For once, it’s hanging from the arm of his desk chair, and not smooshed up against Steve’s face.

 

“Reading,” Billy repeats.

 

“Yeah. What are you doing? Here, I mean.”

 

Billy tenses at that. “I can go.” He’s already turning towards the door, shoulders tight. Steve doesn’t miss the way Billy struggles to hide the disappointment that flashes across his face.

 

“No, no,” he insists, leaning forward and stretching his hand out. Billy turns to him and Steve awkwardly leans back, dropping his hand. He pats at the mattress a couple times. “Stay. You can stay. I was just asking.”

 

“You sure? I don’t wanna distract you.”

 

“Seriously? I’ve been looking at the same page for twenty minutes and I still don’t think I’ve read it once.”

 

“That’s a fuckin’ accomplishment.” Billy cracks a grin, slowly edging towards the edge of Steve’s bed. 

 

“Maybe I should see if I can set a world record,” Steve suggests, mirroring Billy’s smile. He feels like he’s coaxing a skittish animal, worried about saying something too sharp or too loud and having Billy run off.

 

“That’d be something,” Billy agrees. He trails a finger over Steve’s comforter, picking at lint. His hand is so close to Steve’s foot, and Steve stays impossibly still. “Would you thank me? In like, your acceptance speech.”

 

“I don’t think they have those,” Steve comments, wrinkling his nose as he imagines himself in front of a room full of cameras, saying, I’d like to thank my dad for always telling me being stupid would get me nowhere. Look at me now!

 

“But if they did,” Billy wheedles, and Steve snorts.

 

“You’d be the first person I’d thank,” Steve says. “Pinky promise.” 

 

“Woah, now that’s a little too serious for me, Harrington. I dunno if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” All the same, he sits at the end of Steve’s bed, leg jiggling. He reaches a hand out and offers Steve his pinky.  

 

“Wishy washy,” Steve says, but curls his finger around Billy’s, giving it a little shake. “Not hard to change your mind.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Billy hums. “Not all the time.”

 

“Maybe I’m an exception,” Steve says, immediately cringing at his own words, hoping Billy won’t dart off into the night.

 

“Yeah,” Billy surprises Steve. “Maybe you are.”

 

Steve just nods a little, not sure how to respond. He sort of likes the sound of that - being Billy’s exception. To what, exactly, he’s not sure, but Billy’s talks to him nicer than he does other people, and spends more time with Steve than he does with anyone else, and tells Steve things he’s never admitted out loud before, so. Steve kinda digs this exception thing. He realizes, all of a sudden, that his pinky is still wrapped around Billy’s, and he reluctantly pulls away, immediately missing the feeling of Billy’s skin against his own.

 

“How’d you get in?” he finally asks, glancing up at Billy, who sighs heavily and scooches backwards on the bed until his back hits Steve’s wall. 

 

“Used your spare key,” he mumbles, rolling his head over to look at Steve. “That alright?”

 

“I mean, yeah,” Steve assures him. “You can come over whenever, dude. It’s like, cool. I just didn’t know you knew where my spare key was?”

 

“Oh, c’mon,” Billy laughs. “Under a flowerpot? Hardly original. You’re lucky it’s just me, any old crazy person could break in, with like, minimal effort.”

 

“Jeez, comforting, thanks for that, Billy,” Steve mutters, finally giving up any semblance of looking at his book and placing it on his nightstand. 

 

“Y’know me: all smooth talk, all the time.”

 

“Whoever told you that was true is a filthy liar,” Steve says, delighted at the way Billy pretends to snarl, lunging towards Steve with a determined look on his face.

 

“Take that back,” Billy says, hands grabbing at Steve’s arms, trying to pin them down. Steve squirms against his grip, shoving against Billy’s solid chest as he laughs. Somehow, even with the rough and tumble nature of it all, Billy’s hands are careful where they hold Steve, warm and steady.

 

“You can’t make me,” Steve retorts, freeing his left hand and pinching lightly at Billy’s side. 

 

“You wanna fuckin’ bet?” Billy asks. “I’ll destroy you Harrington.” Maybe months ago Steve would be a little nervous that Billy was serious, that the strain in Billy’s voice was born of pure anger, but this close, he can see the way joy dances through Billy’s eyes and the small upturn of his mouth. Hands that he would have expected to be unforgiving and rough, are half-heartedly grappling for hold on Steve, fingers firm but almost friendly, gentle. Steve laughs, brings his leg up to his chest and pushes back against Billy with his foot, trying to keep him at bay. 

 

“I’d like to see you try, dude. I’m a wrestling champ.”

 

“Quit playing dirty. Using your feet is cheating,” Billy argues, and before Steve can make sense of what’s happening, Billy’s hand is wrapped around his thigh, pushing Steve’s leg away from where he was pressing it against Billy’s chest, and as a result, spreading Steve’s legs open. God, Steve doesn’t think he can even breathe. His brain is mush, all he can focus on is the heat of Billy’s fingertips on his inner thigh. Billy flops down against him, using his weight in his favour as he practically renders Steve immobile. He had an advantage, touching Steve’s leg like that, so it’s really not a fair fight. Steve lazily bucks up against him, knowing it’s pointless. Still, he tries to push back against Billy’s searching hands, wiggling his own arms and wrists from his grasp. It’s hard though - with the way Billy is lying on top of him, he has a limited range of motion, and before long, Billy’s got his fingers wrapped around Steve’s wrists, pressing them against the pillow above Steve’s head. Steve flexes in his grip, not surprised when Billy doesn’t give an inch, merely squeezes at Steve in response, his thumbs pressing down into the soft centres of Steve’s palms, causing Steve’s fingers to curl reflexively.

 

“Gotcha,” Billy says, all cocky and pleased with himself. 

 

“You cheated,” Steve grumbles, glaring at Billy. They’re awfully close. Billy’s hair tickles his forehead, his breath ghosting over Steve’s face. Stay calm, Steve thinks to himself. It’s hard -- and Steve is seriously worried about getting hard, because Billy’s weight is pressing him down into his mattress, and his legs are spread wide to accommodate Billy’s broad hips. He can feel the rough denim of Billy’s jeans through his flimsy pyjama pants, knows that he doesn’t have much of anything to hide himself behind.

 

“You started it,” says Billy, so quietly that Steve wouldn’t be able to hear him if they weren’t so close.

 

“You finished it,” Steve replies, nonsensically and just as quietly. Billy’s eyes roam Steve’s face, flashing through a series of hard-to-pin emotions before he releases his grip on Steve’s wrists and rolls off him, landing on his back at Steve’s side. 

 

“Anyways.” Billy coughs. “You gonna keep reading?”

 

Steve kind of needs to, if he has any hope of finishing the book on time, but Billy’s here now, and he doesn’t really want to. “No, that’s fine. D’you wanna go for a ride or something?”

 

“Nah,” says Billy, surprising Steve. Normally it seems like that’s all Billy wants to do. “Aren’t you supposed to be finished that by Friday?”

 

“Yeah.” Steve shrugs. “I’ll get there. Probably. Hopefully.”

 

“Don’t let me stop you. What part are you at?”

 

“Um. Holden just got drunk and called some girl. Sally.”

 

“Read it to me,” Billy says, settling back against Steve’s pillows, propping his head up on his fist.

 

“Really?” Steve asks. “We can watch TV, or somethin’.”

 

“Yeah, or we can do this. And I wanna do this,” replies Billy, as if to say and that settles that. 

 

“Uh, alright.” Steve shuffles around, flipping the book back open. He realizes, all of a sudden, that he’s had his glasses on this whole time, and Billy never even said a word about them. Huh.

 

I started walking over to the park. I figured I’d go by that little lake and see what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not.”

 

“I like this bit,” Billy says, out of the blue. Steve hums, curious, but keeps reading.

 

It wasn’t far over to the park, and I didn’t have anyplace else special to go to - I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep yet - so I went. I wasn’t tired or anything, I just felt blue as hell.”

 

Damn. Steve thinks he gets this kid.

 

Anyways, I kept worrying that I was getting, uh, pnoo--”

 

Pneumonia,” says Billy, not even looking at the page.

 

“-- pneumonia, with all those hunks of ice in my hair, and that I was going to die. I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet.” Steve pauses. Billy hums, so he continues.

 

Then I thought about the whole bunch of them sticking me in a goddam cemetery and all, with my name on this tombstone and all. Surrounded by dead guys.” Steve thinks Holden’s got a lot of weird opinions about a lot of weird things. “Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something.” Steve clears his throat, his finger tracing over the words.

 

“Keep goin’,” murmurs Billy, voice muffled by his palm. Steve glances over at him, notices that his eyes are closed. 

 

Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”

 

Steve keeps reading aloud. Holden talks about his dead brother, and how he doesn’t like leaving him in the cemetery, and about his little sister and how she’d feel if something happened to him. Steve’s glad that Holden has Phoebe, that he has someone who’d care about him if he died. Not everybody has that. Hell, Steve doesn’t really think that he has that. 

 

When Steve looks down, ten pages later, Billy’s head has slipped from his hand and is smooshed into Steve’s pillow, mouth open with a little bit of drool sneaking past his lip. His eyelashes, sinfully long and dark, are spread across the rosy skin of his cheek. Steve smiles fondly down at him, suppressing the urge to do something monumentally stupid like run his hand through Billy’s curls or trace the outline of Billy’s pink lips. 

 

He thinks, maybe, that he’s wrong. 

 

Billy. 

 

Billy would care if something happened to Steve.

 

He places the book on his bedside table carefully, not before dog-earring the page where he left off. He’s probably going to have to reread it, later. He’s never been good at reading aloud while simultaneously remembering and making sense of what is actually going on in the book. 

 

Once the book is safely tucked away, Steve flounders. He isn’t sure what to do, is the thing. Billy’s here, in his bed, curled up and looking so at peace that Steve is afraid to move. He could sneak out of bed and sleep in his parents’ room, sure, but that would involve jostling Billy and potentially making a racket with his creaky door. 

 

Billy was the one who climbed into his bed in the first place, the one who slotted himself between Steve’s thighs, the one who got cozy and demanded Steve read to him. Steve decides -- and hopes -- that Billy won’t be mad that Steve turns off his lamp and shimmies under his covers. Billy, he realizes, isn’t under the sheets, and in a moment of braveness, Steve tucks his comforter over Billy’s broad shoulders, freezing momentarily as Billy shifts in his sleep, a soft sound escaping his mouth. He doesn’t move anymore, doesn’t look like he’s going to wake up, and Steve sighs in relief. 

 

On his back, with the sound of Billy’s breathing washing over him, Steve whispers, “Goodnight, Billy.”



Billy’s gone when Steve wakes up around four o’clock. He can’t say he’s surprised, but he can’t quell the disappointment that rises in his throat.

Chapter Text

A week passes. Then two. Steve still hasn’t listened to the tape.

 

He goes to the movies with Billy, tucked away in the last row where no one can see or bother them. They go on late-night drives. Drink milkshakes. Get playfully rough during practice.

 

Sometimes Billy shows up, fuming from an argument with his dad, and Steve makes them food - nothing special, just sandwiches or eggs. Billy’s thankful and Steve’s worried.

 

Sometimes, Steve’s still awake when Billy’s car pulls up in the driveway at three in the morning, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, or from nightmares. Billy pretends not to notice, and Steve is grateful.

 

Tonight’s one of those nights, except Billy’s stuck at home watching Max, so Steve tries his damn hardest to fall asleep without the comfort of knowing he’ll get to see Billy later. He knows, though, that they have plans the following day, so he figures he can hang on to his sanity until then.

 

-

 

Steve’s thrashing in the pool, chlorine biting at his eyes as his fingers scrape against the concrete walls, trying desperately to breach the surface and breathe.

 

Steve’s sinking to the bottom of the quarry, down down down, his vision blurring at the edges like he’s being sucked into a blackhole. His mouth is open on an endless scream as water rushes down his throat, choking him. All he can see is blue; murky and distorted, his eyes burning.

 

He thinks he’s crying, but he can’t tell for sure, just knows that this is what dying must feel like - lonely and all-consuming, dark and getting darker, darker, darker, until his body hits the dirty bottom of the quarry. Sand rises around him in dusty clouds, settling over his limbs and pulling him down deeper, clogging his nostrils, drifting into his ears, his mouth, over his eyes, until all he can feel is the never-ending pressure that’s trying to hard to quiet him.

 

Help, he thinks. Someone help me, he can’t feel his legs, can’t breathe, can’t open his eyes. Everything is dark and quiet, and Steve wants to thrash and scream, but he knows nobody can hear him down here--

 

Steve wakes with a start, stomach churning as he scrambles to sit up in bed, sheets tangled around his sweaty limbs. Before he has the chance to do more than try to kick them away, he promptly leans over and vomits, bile burning at his throat as he coughs, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. His chest is heaving with the remnants of his nightmare niggling just behind his eyelids.

 

I’m awake, he reminds himself. I’m awake I’m awake I’m awake. He hiccups, trying to catch his breath. He doesn’t like the way his bedroom looks in the dark, fuzzy and full of shadowy corners. Fumbling, he reaches out and grabs for his glasses, turning on his bedside lamp. As his eyes adjust to the new light, Steve sniffles and looks around, his eyes falling on the jean jacket -- the jean jacket, Billy’s jacket, with a sleeve darkened from Steve’s vomit.

 

“Oh fuck,” he says, immediately cringing away from it. “Oh god, oh fuck.”

 

Steve’s not someone who can handle vomit, not really. Especially not for someone who’s had to deal with it so much in the last few months. One would think he would’ve gotten used to it, but he really hasn’t. Disgusted, he tries not to look as he gingerly picks up the jacket and slowly pads down the stairs to the laundry room. His legs are shaky, his entire body still vibrating from the remnants of his nightmare, and he has to stop and lean against the wall in the hallway a few times, breath rattling. When he gets to the laundry room, first he rinses the tainted sleeve in the sink, figuring that putting it in the washer as-is wouldn’t exactly be something his mother would appreciate. It’s not like she’d ever know, or has even used the washer herself, but still. Then, he throws the jacket into the machine, pouring in an excess amount of detergent.

 

He frowns. The jacket definitely won’t be smelling like Billy, now. It hasn’t for a while, if Steve’s being honest with himself. There’s always a faint hint of Billy on the jacket when Steve climbs out of the Camaro, or if they’ve been sitting next to each other at the movies for hours, but it never lasts long. Steve still likes to pretend that it does, breathes in deep with his nose pressed against the fabric.

 

-

 

“You’re not wearing the jacket,” says Billy as he pulls out of the driveway, and Steve immediately wilts in his seat.

 

“I’m sorry,” he blurts. “Billy, I’m so sorry.”

 

“What? Why?” Billy asks perplexedly. His fingers tighten minutely on the steering wheel. The movement is almost imperceptible, but Steve’s been paying a lot of attention to Billy’s hands these past few weeks, and he can tell that they’re full of tension.

 

“Please don’t be mad at me,” Steve groans, burying his face in his hands.

 

“Harrington,” Billy prompts, and when Steve doesn’t emerge from his embarrassed position, Billy reaches out and pokes at his shoulder, says, “Steve.

 

“I don’t want you to get mad at me,” Steve mutters, turning away so that he’s looking out the window instead of at Billy’s pretty eyes.

 

“I’m not gonna be mad,” Billy tells him. “Seriously. I don’t care if you didn’t wanna wear it, it’s cool.”

 

“I wanted to wear it.” Steve huffs. Billy’s car is still chilly enough that when he talks, his breath fogs up the passenger side window.

 

“Okay,” says Billy slowly. “Look, you don’t gotta lie to me. If you don’t want to wear it anymore, don’t, alright? I don’t need you tiptoeing around trying to spare my feelings, or some shit.”

 

“I do want to wear it,” Steve hisses, painfully honest. He can feel his cheeks flushing crimson at the mention of Billy’s feelings and what kind of implications that has. He hopes that Billy, for once in his life, is focused on the road and won’t notice him turning into a tomato in the passenger seat.

 

“Then why do you think I’m gonna be mad at you?” Billy asks, sounding confused.

 

“Because you will be,” Steve says. He knows that Billy will. Steve’s been sleeping with his jacket like it’s some kind of blanky for two months, and now it’s covered in vomit. Well, it was. Right now, it’s on tumble dry, probably.

 

“I don’t like it when you tell me how I feel,” Billy says, starting to sound agitated.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Don’t be sorry, just tell me what the fuck you’re talking about,” Billy slams on the breaks last-minute at a stop sign, causing Steve to lurch forward in his seat, the seatbelt biting into his neck.

 

“I-- okay, so. Okay. I threw up on it,” Steve mumbles.

 

“What?”

 

“I said--”

 

“I heard what you said,” Billy cuts him off. “I just mean. Like. How did you manage to do that?”

 

Steve shifts around in his seat a bit while he searches for the right words. He gets why Billy’s asking. He’s probably picturing Steve feeling ill, running to the coat rack in the foyer and just puking on the jean jacket, or something.

 

“I, uh, had a nightmare. And sometimes ... when I wake up like that, I get like-- I dunno. You ever feel so dizzy that you’re going to throw up?”

 

“Yeah,” says Billy, looking at Steve so intently that he can’t even remotely be paying attention to the road.

 

“Okay, yeah,” Steve says. “So, uh. Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Billy says after a moment of silence, “It’s not like it can’t be cleaned. But. I’m kinda confused about what the hell my jacket has to do with this.”

 

“See, I think this is where you’re gonna get mad at me,” Steve admits. The way they’ve been teetering on the edge of something is one thing, but admitting outloud what he’s been doing with Billy’s jacket is another. It feels like a big step in a dangerous direction. Steve knows that he likes Billy that way, but Billy is difficult to read. He flirts, and touches, and teases, but some guys do that for a laugh, and then they turn around and call people faggots, so. Steve is nervous.

 

“Did you use it to mop it up or something? ‘Cause that’d be pretty messed up,” Billy remarks, eyes darting over to Steve again.

 

“No, this is worse, I think,” Steve tells him, eyes to the roof of the car. He spreads his hands across his thighs, curling his fingers into the fabric.

 

“Geez, alright,” Billy replies. He sounds nervous. “Tell me, Harrington.”

 

Steve takes a breath.

 

And another.

 

And another.

 

He breathes until he doesn’t feel like his lungs are trying to claw their way out of his chest, until he’s sure that he’s got control of his vocal cords.

 

“I was sleeping with it,” he says and waits. Waits for Billy to pull over and shove him out of the Camaro, tell him to never fucking talk to him again. Waits, and waits, and waits waits waits.

 

The yelling and pushing doesn’t come, and they keep driving.

 

After a few moments, Billy says, “Why?”

 

“I can never sleep,” Steve blurts, and now that he’s opened his mouth, he can’t stop the wave of words that come pouring out, secrets slipping through his lips and into the open air. “I haven’t been able to sleep for months, and I feel so awful, all the time, like I’m two seconds away from just fucking-- just exploding or disappearing and, because-- because I killed someone. And that’s my fault, she’s dead because I never learned how to listen, that’s what dad said, and he’s fucking right, Billy. I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid and I can’t sleep and then, and then,” Steve swallows and plows on, throat tight and eyes itching, “Then you let me take your jacket home, and I’ve been wearing it to bed, sometimes, and sometimes I just hold it, and it’s makes me feel like I’m not so alone--”

 

“Hey,” says Billy, and all of a sudden the car isn’t moving anymore and Billy’s hand is on his arm, steadying.

 

“I knew you’d be mad,” Steve says, voice rough. He’s determined not to cry in front of Billy again; it’s too embarrassing. He starts unbuckling his seatbelt, ready to get out of Billy’s car and walk back to his house, their plans be damned.

 

“Woah, easy,” Billy says when Steve angrily fumbles with the door. He tugs on Steve’s arm until Steve stops trying to shift away from him. “I’m not mad,” he says. When Steve rolls his eyes and goes back to trying to escape the confines of the Camaro, Billy continues, “I’m not, Steve.”

 

“You are,” Steve groans. He feels sick. Billy is the only good thing he’s got. Steve doesn’t know what he’s gonna do without him.

 

Jesus, I am not,” Billy snaps. He’s leaning across the front seat, his head ducked so that he and Steve are face to face, despite Steve’s best efforts. “I dunno if you noticed, but I fucking like you, Harrington.”

 

 

Steve freezes.

 

 

It’s as if, in a split second, all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the car.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, throat tight.

 

“What the fuck d’you think it means?” Billy snaps, eyes locked intensely with Steve’s.

 

“I don’t know,” Steve says, but he thinks he does. He thinks that Billy means that he likes Steve the way that Steve knows he likes Billy. The way that includes Steve wanting to spend every waking moment at Billy’s side. The way that he longs to close the gap between them and kiss Billy on the mouth. The way that Billy feels like happiness, like home. Steve feels sick with how much he wants, but Billy reciprocating those feelings would be too good to be true - Steve’s never been lucky, there’s no reason for good things to start happening to him now.

 

 

Is there?

 

 

“Are you fucking with me?” he asks, feeling every muscle in his body tense up.

 

“No,” says Billy quietly. “Jesus, what do you think we’ve been doing for the past month?” He gestures between them, palm open and face scrunched. “These… hangouts? The mixtape? This isn’t just buddies, Steve.” He looks uncomfortable, and something about his expression makes Steve think that Billy is just as wound tight as Steve is and just as scared. The car is silent save for their heavy breathing and the quiet hum of the radio, which Billy must’ve turned down when he pulled the car over. They both sit stiffly, looking at each other without blinking or even moving. Billy’s hand is still on Steve’s arm, and Steve thinks that if it weren’t there, he’d probably float away.

 

After a minute, Billy says, “You gonna say anything?”

 

“Um,” Steve stutters, trying to ignore the way his heart is jackrabbiting in his chest. “Are you gay?” he finally blurts. Billy recoils immediately, snatching his hand away from Steve as he retreats to his side of the car.

 

“Forget I said anything, Harrington,” Billy mutters.

 

“No, look--” Steve tries to salvage the conversation. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

 

“Like what,” Billy says, voice like ice. The car is still stationary, pulled onto gravel next to the treeline. Every now and again, a car zooms by, throwing up dust in its wake. At this rate, Steve thinks, they won’t make it to the diner before nightfall.

 

“Like, I don’t mean-- I meant it, like I am asking, but not because I’m gonna tell.”

 

“Harrington,” Billy hisses, sounding very unlike the Billy that Steve’s been spending his time with. “If you say so much as a word to anyone, you’re gonna regret it. I’m not fucking around.”

 

“No, I’m not! I won’t,” Steve rushes to assure him. Then, “How did you know?”

 

“How did I know what?” Billy prompts, head turning slightly so that he isn’t facing completely away from Steve. His posture is still stiff, and Steve’s is no better.

 

“That you’re gay,” Steve whispers, cheeks burning.

 

“I swear to god, Steve,” Billy growls, and Steve fumbles for words again.

 

“I’m just-- look, I just mean. I think I’m-- I think I’m. Gay. But I also don’t really think … about it.”

 

Billy seems to take that in, his posture loosening slightly as his jaw unclenches. He runs a tired hand over his face and pinches at his nose.

 

“Well, do you like boys?” Billy finally says, turning his head to really look at Steve for the first time since he jolted back to his seat.

 

“Uh,” Steve hesitates. Steve likes boys. Steve really likes boys. Steve thinks about what it would be like to hold Billy’s hand, sleep in Billy’s bed, and have sex with Billy on a daily basis. Steve likes Billy more than he can even put into words. “Yeah.”

 

“Congratulations,” Billy tells him, voice cracking. He throws up his hands, shrugging. “You’re gay.”

 

“Oh,” Steve replies. “That’s it?”

 

“Yep,” says Billy, popping the p. “What, did you expect a chorus of angels to descend from the heavens and sprinkle glitter over you?”

 

“I thought faggots went to hell?” Steve says, unable to stop the words from spilling out. He watches as Billy tenses immediately in the seat. Another car drives by, but Steve’s ears feel like they’re filled with cotton, like nothing beyond the walls of the Camaro is even real.

 

“Okay, first of all, don’t fucking call yourself that,” Billy says firmly. He meets Steve’s eyes dead-on as he says it, and Steve can’t seem to look away. “Alright?”

 

“Sure. Yeah.” Steve nods, feeling chastised. It’s the word that Tommy uses. The word that his dad uses. The word that’s been reverberating through his head for months -- for years -- whenever he catches himself staring too long at someone in the locker room, or at the doctor’s office, or the grocery store. He hears the word and he thinks about the word and he still touches himself while he imagines Billy’s fingers tracing over his body and Billy’s lips against his neck.

 

“Do you even believe in hell?” Billy asks, shifting in his seat, the all-knowing, piercing look finally shifting and giving Steve some reprieve from its intensity.

 

“Uh, no,” Steve says. “But my dad says--”

 

“Yeah, dads are like that, huh? We’re not going to hell. Got it?”

 

“Okay,” and then, “I really like you,” Steve blurts, immediately slamming a palm across his mouth after the words tumble from his lips. Billy’s head snaps towards Steve so quickly that Steve thinks he can hear his bones crack.

 

“Are you gonna ralph again?” Billy asks.

 

“No. Yes,” Steve says, not moving his hand. He can’t believe he just said that out loud. It’s different than admitting it to himself in the safety of his head. Different than thinking about Billy’s lips when he slips a hand under his boxers late at night when he can’t sleep. Different than wondering what it would be like if he was Billy’s and Billy was his. This just made it real, and scary. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

 

“If you do, just-- try not to do it in the car. Okay?” Billy says. His voice is quiet, steady. He reaches across and bridges the gap between them. His hand lands tentatively on Steve’s shoulder, so different from all the familiar and easy touches they’ve gotten used to over the past weeks. He squeezes lightly. It should be comforting, but Steve is ready to vibrate out of his own skin.

 

“Um. Okay.” Steve’s head is spinning, his stomach twisting. He doesn’t think he’s going to be sick, but if Billy isn’t really responding to his confession and it’s making him nervous. “Are you gonna say anything?”

 

“About what?”

 

“About what I just said.”

 

“What, about liking me?” Billy asks, voice steady but cheeks flushed. God, he really is beautiful. Steve can’t believe how unfair this is. Steve feels like he gets to see a side of Billy that other people don’t. Billy, rough and mean, sweet and soft, thoughtful and sharp. Unapologetically loud and inexplicably hesitant. Billy is vulnerable with Steve in a way that makes Steve’s heart ache with yearning, like someone cracked his chest open and stuffed it with too many feelings before sewing it shut carelessly, feelings bursting out at the seams.

 

“Fucking-- obviously? What else would I be talking about?” He thinks there might be a few threads coming loose. 

 

“I’m not a goddamn mind reader, I don’t know, alright? What do you want me to say?”

 

“Geez, I dunno,” snaps Steve. He can feel the rapid thud of his heart against his ribcage, begging him to let it out. “Just any old acknowledgement would do.”

 

“I already said that I liked you. Is your ego that fucking huge that you need me to drop to one knee and profess my everlasting love?”

 

That smarts a little bit, and Steve pointedly looks out the window until his vision gets less blurry.

 

“Why d’you always gotta be like that, huh? Look. I’ve never-- I’ve never been gay with anyone before.”

 

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Billy says, running a hand over his face. Steve watches the way the obnoxious rings Billy wears glint in the evening sun, the way Billy’s deft fingers travel over the sharp curve of his cheekbone, thick and a little shaky. “You’re killing me here, Steve.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” Billy says, hand dropping down to his own thigh. Another car whizzes past them and both of their eyes immediately snap away from each other, guilty-like.

 

“Look,” says Billy a couple of silent moments later. “Let’s just forget about this. Go get food like we were gonna.”

 

“I don’t want to forget about this,” Steve replies, hurt. Billy’s words act like a gush of ice water over his head.

 

“No, not like that,” Billy rushes to say. “Just-- I don’t want to have this conversation with you here on the side of the road. I don’t want Neil to-- he might see us here. I dunno. Let’s get our pancakes, head back to your place. Alright?”

 

“Alright,” Steve agrees, relieved that Billy isn’t suggesting they pretend that this conversation didn’t happen. “Okay. Let’s do that.”

 

Billy nods minutely, fixes the radio, puts his hand on the back of Steve’s headrest and reverses back onto the road.

 

Steve tries to keep his insides in place.

 

-

 

It’s awkward, picking up the pancakes. They get them to-go, earning them a familiar eye roll from Janie.

 

They’re silent on the way back to Steve’s place, pancakes seeping heat through the paper bag onto Steve’s lap. Billy fiddles around with the volume for the entire ride, as though he can’t decide whether he wants it loud enough to drown out any attempt at conversation, or soft enough that he can hear the way Steve’s breath catches in his throat as he tries to stay calm.

 

They haven’t been this quiet around each other … ever, possibly. It’s suffocating, and Steve wants it to stop.

 

He fumbles a little over his keys while he tries to unlock the front door. Billy stands behind him holding the bag of food, completely silent. Usually he’s humming under his breath, or teasing Steve, or tapping his fingers against anything within reach. The quiet only makes Steve feel more shaky - like when you’re trying to get your food and put money in your wallet at the same time, and Mrs. Jones is behind you coughing impatiently.

 

“Shit. Sorry,” Steve mutters as he misses the keyhole for a third time. It’s not exactly warm outside, and he’s kept them out here for longer than he’d like to be, so he knows Billy feels the same way, despite his always pretending not to be bothered about cold weather.

 

“Steve,” Billy says, unwavering. “Look at me a sec.”

 

Steve does, awkwardly lifting his head as a strand of loose hair falls over his eyes. Billy takes an exaggerated breath and gestures for Steve to do the same. Steve does, letting his chest rise and fall in time with Billy’s for a moment.

 

“Alright?” Billy asks, shifting the bag of food to his other hip. Steve is reminded of the way Yvonne used to carry the laundry basket on her hip. When he was really little, she’d even put him in there with the linens and carry him around.

 

“Yeah. Alright,” Steve replies. He turns back to the door and inserts the key into the lock, hands a little steadier than before. He can feel Billy’s heat at his back as he twists the key and pushes the door open. It takes all of his willpower not to let himself sink back into the warmth.

 

Billy flicks on the hall light as they enter before pulling the door shut behind them. As the door swings shut, it feels like every bit of oxygen in Steve’s house gets pulled out with the motion, leaving Steve feeling breathless and nervous.

 

“Um. So,” Steve says, unsure what to do. “Um.”

 

“Let’s eat,” says Billy. He steers Steve towards the kitchen, turning on every lightswitch they pass on the way. The artificial light pouring from Steve’s mom’s expensive chandeliers at least chases away some of the shadows lurking at the corners of Steve’s mind, but Steve still has the all-consuming bubble of nerves about Billy bouncing around inside of him, gnawing away at his thoughts, picking at the stitches of his shield one by one. Steve’s chest feels ready to burst.

 

Billy sets their food onto the counter and waits patiently as Steve bustles around the kitchen, carding through the cutlery drawer and cupboards for plates and forks. He lays them in front of Billy before retreating and searching for something to do with his hands. He fiddles with the dishcloth hanging on the hook next to the sink and puts away a few clean bowls before he returns to the island where Billy is watching him putter. Sitting down in front of the plate that Billy has laid out for him, Steve is about to dig in before he shoots back up from the stool.

 

“Milk,” he says, aware that he sounds flustered. “Do you want some?”

 

“Sure,” says Billy. He still hasn’t touched his pancakes. His hand is clenched tightly around the fork, Steve can see the whiteness of his knuckles from his position by the fridge. Steve returns with two tall glasses of milk, cold and creamy. Billy utters a soft thanks as Steve sets the glass in front of him, and Steve offers up a closed mouth smile, not trusting his voice to remain steady as he feels his body thrum with worry.

 

Billy doesn’t start eating his own meal until Steve picks up a fork and shoves a bit of pancake into his mouth. They’re fluffy and just as delicious as always, but Steve finds the bite hard to swallow past the lump in his throat. His mind is racing with an overwhelming amalgamation of thoughts. What if Hopper shows up, right now, to check on Steve? What’s he going to do if Billy walks out of his life and never comes back? If his dad comes home and sees them together, what is he going to say? How is he going to explain how he feels about Billy if Billy asks? What if Billy expects more from him than he can give?

 

“What are we doing?” Steve asks when he can’t hold the words back any longer.

 

“Eating pancakes,” replies Billy, ever the comedian. Steve pushes his food around on his plate, silent. Billy glances over at him before placing his fork down on the counter with a clang. “We don’t have to do anything about it, y’know. About what we said in the car.”

 

“We don’t?” Steve asks, confused.

 

Billy shrugs. “No. Not if you don’t wanna, Harrington.”

 

“Okay,” Steve says slowly, trying to piece the conversation together with the questions running around in his head. Billy must be crazy if he thinks Steve wants to pretend tonight never happened. Steve doesn’t think he can just go back to pretending that he’s not head over heels for Billy. Billy pushes his stool back from the island and goes to stand up, reaching for his jacket. Steve stands up with him and grabs his arm, panicky. “And if I want to?”

 

“Want to what?” Billy asks. He stills at Steve’s touch, frozen in place with one arm in his leather jacket, the other clenching under Steve’s hand.

 

“Do … stuff,” Steve says, searching to meet Billy’s gaze.

 

Stuff?” Billy repeats, eyebrow quirked.

 

“Yeah, you know. Stuff. Things.” Steve shrugs, not even knowing what he means. He wants a lot, with Billy. He wants the falling asleep at Billy’s side, the holding hands, the foolish jokes, and the early mornings. He wants Billy to want him, more than anything at all. He wants to hold Billy in his arms and keep him happy and safe. He wants someone to come home to, someone who loves him wholeheartedly. He thinks Billy could be that, for him, for always. There’s no way he can say any of that out loud. Billy will laugh at him, probably. Sure, he said he likes Steve. For a fuck, in a convenient friends-with-benefits way, most likely. Steve’s used to it, but he can’t handle that with Billy without being desperate for something more.

 

“Like what?” Billy asks. His full attention is on Steve. Steve can feel it.

 

“I dunno. Like, everything,” Steve admits. He maintains eye contact with Billy, watches as his ridiculous lashes blink slow over his baby blues. Billy shifts, and Steve’s eyes are drawn to the way his chest moves with every breath he takes.

 

“So,” says Billy, closing the distance between them. All of a sudden, they’re standing chest to chest, eye to eye. He places a tentative hand on the curve of Steve’s waist, heat seeping from his fingers. “If I kissed you … you’d like that.”

 

Steve is taken aback by Billy’s boldness, can feel the way his body is begging to be closer to Billy’s. He eyes Billy’s lips, wanting. “Yeah, but…”

 

“But what?” Billy asks, already trying to retract his grip on Steve. Steve stills his hand with one of his own, shaking his head.

 

“I want to,” he admits. “So bad. But, like, I don’t know if you got it when I said it earlier. I really, really like you, Billy.” God, the words burn as they come out of his throat, painfully honest.

 

“I heard you,” Billy says, fingers flexing at Steve’s side. “I really like you, too.” He leans in, and Steve panics, reaching out to press both of his palms against Billy’s chest, keeping him at bay, no matter how much he wants the exact opposite. “What’s the matter? I don’t get it.”

 

“I can’t, like, hook up,” says Steve, embarrassed, because he knows he sounds like the exact type of clingy chick he used to date. “Not with you. If all this is to you is a-- a quick fuck, or some prank, I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”

 

“It’s not a prank,” Billy says immediately, voice pitched low. “I feel like it’s been pretty fuckin’ obvious for weeks now, but I’m crazy about you, Harrington. I wanna kiss you, yeah, and fuck you,” Steve’s breath hitches at that, “But I’m not just trying to get laid, here. I know it sounds cheesy, but. You’re kind of it, for me.” By the end of his little spiel, Billy’s eyes are locked on Steve’s, his cheeks flushed as he awaits for Steve’s response.

 

“Oh,” says Steve, stunned. “D’you really mean that?”

 

“Yeah,” says Billy, shuffling in closer still. “Every damn word.”

 

“Okay,” Steve murmurs. “In that case, yes. You can kiss me.” Just hearing those words leave his mouth, directed at Billy, puts his head in the clouds. This can’t be real. There’s no way he’s lucky enough to actually have someone who wants him back.

 

Billy doesn’t say anything, just slowly slides his hand from Steve’s waist up and over his chest and up to his jaw, cupping it with such tenderness that Steve is afraid he’s going to melt, right here, in the middle of his kitchen, between Billy’s careful palms. His own hands, still resting on Billy’s chest from where he was holding Billy at bay, curl into Billy’s shirt and pull him closer, fingers pressing against his firm chest.

 

It’s like time slows down as Billy tilts his head and moves towards Steve. His thumb traces the curve of Steve’s lips, the pad of his finger passing over Steve’s cupid’s bow. Steve inhales, giddy and disbelieving. When their lips meet, it’s a little clumsy, but just as wonderful as Steve had dreamed it would be. Billy’s lips are warm and soft, and Steve can taste the sweetness of maple syrup on Billy’s tongue when Billy slips it into his mouth as Steve parts his lips, deepening the kiss. They kiss, unhurried and heady, and Steve lets himself sink against Billy’s chest, his hands climbing until they can loop around Billy’s neck, drawing him closer. Emboldened by the way Billy’s hand -- the one that’s not cradling Steve’s face like he’s precious -- is rubbing slow circles against Steve’s lower back, fingertips teasing at the hem of his jeans, Steve shuffles forward, pressing Billy back towards the counter. Billy’s leg knocks against the stool, causing it to wobble and clunk as it nearly falls to the floor.

 

“Oops,” Steve laughs, and Billy grins before kissing the giggles away from his lips.

 

“Don’t worry about it, pretty boy,” he murmurs, breath tickling Steve’s face. “Whaddaya say we take this some place more comfortable?” He tilts his head in the direction of Steve’s living room.

 

“Yes,” Steve says, allowing Billy to kiss him as they shuffle backwards towards the living room, pausing every couple of moments to take turns pressing one another against the wall, incapable of keeping their mouths off of each other. By the time they finally make it to the couch, Steve is breathless and hopelessly turned on. He’s sure that Billy must have noticed the bulge in his pants by now, but he’s almost too nervous to see if Billy is sporting his own erection. Kissing like this is probably tame for someone as hot as Billy. That question is answered for him when Billy pushes him down onto the couch, immediately climbing on top of him, pressing Steve down into the cushions as he works his thigh between Steve’s.

 

“Oh,” Steve says, unable to stop the sound from leaving his lips. Billy is hard, the feeling of his cock pressing against Steve’s is unmistakable. Billy grinds his hips down, the friction biting, making Steve impossibly harder, his jeans definitely too restricting.

 

“Is that okay?” Billy asks, a smirk tugging at his lips, like he knows that Steve’s into it. Steve nods, dazed, because it’s more than okay, it’s great, it’s what he’s been shamefully dreaming about for months. “Huh?” Billy prompts, and Steve blinks slowly before responding.

 

“Yeah,” he says, voice cracking. “It’s-- yeah.” Billy smiles at that, ducking his head to bring their lips together once more, his hips grinding. Steve wants his jeans off, like, yesterday, but he feels awkward about asking for it. They’re moving fast, probably. But Steve feels like he and Billy have been on a collision course since day one, barreling towards each other at breakneck speeds, reckless and unavoidable, like this is where they were meant to end up. Steve’s been spending all his time either with Billy or thinking about being with Billy, and all he wants right now is to be as close to him as humanly possible.

 

Billy has his hands up under Steve’s shirt, fingers roaming over his happy trail, exploratory and warm. Steve revels in the way they feel against his skin -- this is so much better than hooking up with a girl. Billy’s hands are big and sure, spanning across his waist and confident in their every move. Steve feels safe in their steadiness. That feeling of safety is what gives Steve the courage to slide his hands down to his waistband, pulling at his zipper.

 

“You want these off?” Billy asks, lips shiny from their kiss.

 

“Yeah,” Steve nods, “Yours, too?”

 

Billy is quick to comply, kneeling upright on the couch to unbuckle his belt and speedily pull his jeans down over his thighs, kicking them onto the floor in a heap. He does it so fast that Steve pauses in his own undressing, watching the muscles in Billy’s thick thighs as he shucks his pants off. Like this, Steve can see the outline of Billy’s dick through his boxers, big and intimidating.

 

“Need some help?” asks Billy, already plastering himself against Steve again, wasting no time in fumbling for Steve’s zipper. Steve lifts his hips from the couch and lets Billy pull his jeans down his thighs. He shivers, both at the cold air and the way Billy is looking at him. Billy licks his lips, and glances up at Steve, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

 

“Should’a known you’d be this hot under all these dorky clothes,” he says, pressing a kiss to Steve’s mouth.

 

“You’ve seen me naked,” Steve reminds him, but Billy shakes his head, disagreeing.

 

“Not like this. This is-- different. I can’t-- you know how it is. You can’t look in the locker room. This is-- you’re gorgeous, Steve.” Billy looks flustered, like he’s shocked with himself for saying that out loud.

 

Steve’s heart flutters at the compliment, and his face feels as though it’s on fire. He’s too warm, and not warm enough at the same time. He wants Billy all over him.

 

“You look really good, too,” he says, and he’s aware it pales in comparison to Billy’s comment, but his brain feels fuzzy with desire, and it’s all he can muster. “Like, I mean look at you, you’re perfect.”

 

“Says you,” Billy mutters, and Steve can’t resist the urge to reach out and pull him down into a searing kiss, lips moving passionately as he grinds his hips against Billy’s, the sensation so much more now that their jeans are out of the way. The room feels stuffy hot, and he feels pleasure pooling in his gut; the combination of Billy’s hands dragging across his hips and their cocks rubbing together has him holding back a moan.

 

All of a sudden, a particularly large gust of wind rushes past the house, windows creaking with its force. Startled at the sound, Steve pushes himself into a sitting position, his attention pulled away from Billy’s mouth and redirected towards the large glass door on the opposite side of the room that leads to the backyard. Billy doesn’t seem to notice, just shuffles up with Steve and begins mouthing at the skin under his ear, teeth a gentle scrape as he sucks kisses against Steve’s neck. It feels good -- really good, but Steve’s body feels frozen. His eyes are caught on the door, where fluorescent blue light from the pool is bleeding into the dim living room, casting shadows across the floor. Steve’s breath catches in his throat as the noises of the room seem to fade behind a screen of white noise. He strains his ears, trying to listen, to hear anything at all besides the heaviness of his own breathing.

 

The sensation of Billy’s lips against his neck pauses, and he watches through a veil of panic as Billy follows his gaze to the door.

 

“Should we get in the pool? Go for a midnight swim?” Billy murmurs against Steve’s neck, and Steve can’t help the way he flinches. Billy pulls back from where he was mouthing against Steve’s skin, lips red and pursed in confusion. Steve feels like he’s back in his nightmare, underwater and tethered to the unforgiving concrete bottom of the pool, his vision blurred, eyes stinging with chlorine. He wants to open his mouth, but he’s afraid if he does, he won’t be able to hear himself.

 

“Hey,” Billy says, reaching up to cup Steve’s jaw. His eyes are concerned, like maybe he’s been calling out to Steve for a while. “You okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve replies, because he is; he’s not drowning, or dead at the bottom of his pool, or alone in bed in the middle of the night. He knows that he should be excited at the idea of getting wet and floating around in the pool with Billy, kissing and touching the night away. He also knows that his stomach is dropping at the thought of being anywhere near the pool.

 

“Just, uh, don’t really wanna swim,” he manages to say, relieved that his voice remains steady despite the building dread in his stomach. He wonders, briefly, if Barbara felt happy, before she died. If she knew what was happening, or if it took her by surprise. If she called out, water rushing into her lungs, as she thrashed and sunk to her grave. Steve wonders, and Steve trembles.

 

“Well, we wouldn’t really be doing much swimming,” Billy teases, leaning in to peck at Steve’s lips, almost chaste. He pulls away, eyes searching over Steve, who drops his gaze, embarrassed.

 

“I don’t want to do that,” he whispers, heard thudding uncomfortably in his chest. He can feel his eyes prickle and curses at himself for being such a pathetic loser. His fingers curl into the fabric of the couch as he tries to ground himself. He’s here, with Billy. No one else is around, no one is drowning in his pool. It’s fine. He’s fine.

 

“Okay,” Billy says, softly, with a hint of confusion lacing his tone. “That’s fine. We don’t gotta do anything you don’t wanna do.”

 

Steve feels the vice on his heart unclench a little at that, relieved but guilty. Billy wants to swim, to have fun in the pool, and Steve is being a baby about it. He’s been avoiding his yard and the pool for months, lying to Dr. Owens and Hopper and telling them that it doesn’t bother him anymore, that it doesn’t keep him up at night. The remnants of last night’s nightmare soar through his mind, and he tries to ignore them. Maybe he should just take Billy up on his offer. What’s the worst that can happen? He pretends his stomach isn’t climbing up his throat and says, “Are you sure? I mean, we can-- you can still-”

 

“I’m sure,” says Billy, voice suddenly incredibly serious. “We won’t do that. No biggie. I just wanna keep kissing you. I don’t care where.”

 

“Okay,” says Steve, ignoring the tightness in his chest and diving back in to press his lips to Billy’s. He’s glad Billy said that - he doesn’t know why he even tried to offer to go out there. If Billy had made him go out to the pool, Steve thinks he might’ve thrown up on the spot.

 

Billy hums, appeased, and tongues past Steve’s teeth, mouth open and slick with spit. It’s messy, and wet, and Steve wants more more more, wants everything Billy has to offer, but he feels off. Has felt off since this morning, when he woke up with sheets tangled around his limbs, tears in his eyes, and vomit dripping from his chin. He hesitantly raises a hand to the buttons of Billy’s shirt, blindly attempting to undo them, trying to distract himself. He’s a little shaky still, and he tries to shove his thoughts about Barb out of his head. He wants to be here, in the moment, with Billy, but it’s proving to be exceptionally difficult. His body seems to have a mind of its own, because his head swivels back to the door, fingers coming to a standstill at Billy’s chest. Billy’s lips are still moving against his, eyes closed and blissfully unaware that Steve is staring, transfixed, at the reflection of the pool in the glass. It’s been a while since he’s been down here in the nighttime without the curtains drawn. During the day, the light from the pool isn’t even visible, and he hasn’t been able to see it this closely, this clearly, for months. Memories are rushing through his mind; Barb’s body, lifeless and waterlogged, is forever engrained behind his eyelids. Unable to stop himself, he groans, bringing his hands up to his eyes, pushing in against them with the heel of his palm.

 

Billy backs off from the kiss, clearly confused. “Steve?” he asks, voice full of concern. “What’s going on?”

 

“Nothing,” Steve insists, pulling his hands away from his eyes. “I’m fine, I’m-- kiss me,” he begs, lurching forward to try and initiate a kiss, but Billy’s hands hold him away, firmly pressing his back against the arm of the couch.

 

“You’re not fine,” Billy frowns, thumbs rubbing soothingly against the skin of Steve’s biceps. “You’re not even hard, anymore.”

 

Steve looks away, embarrassed. He hadn’t even realized, too caught up in reliving that night over and over in his head. “I’m just … distracted. I’m fine, I wanna kiss you,” he says, pushing back against Billy’s grip, but Billy doesn’t move, just watches Steve intensely, eyes flickering over him like he’s searching for an answer as to why Steve’s acting so strange all of a sudden.

 

Jokes on him, Steve thinks. You can’t see someone’s fucked up head.

 

“You’re not,” Billy repeats. “I’m not doing this while you’re upset.”

 

“I’m not upset,” Steve insists, squirming in Billy’s grip again, desperate to prove that he’s ready to continue making out. His stomach feels all twisty and wrong, his throat is itchy, and Billy won’t stop frowning at him. “I’m not upset,” he repeats, like that it’ll make it more true.

 

“Baby,” Billy says softly, and god, Steve’s heart speeds up at that, but he doesn’t like that way Billy says it so sadly, like he’s talking to a wounded animal. “You’re crying.”

 

“No, I’m not,” Steve says, and as soon as the words leave his mouth, he chokes on a sob, suddenly aware of the dampness on his cheeks. “I’m not upset,” he tries again, voice catching in his throat, his vision becoming more and more blurry.

 

“It’s okay,” Billy soothes. Steve’s never heard Billy’s voice this soft before, didn’t know Billy could sound like this. “It’s okay. I’m sorry if I-- I think I fucked up. I won’t do it again, whatever it was. Just tell me what’s wrong. Tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll fix it.”

 

“I don’t wanna get in the pool,” Steve whispers, breath hitching. “I don’t wanna, Billy, I don’t--” he shivers, turning his head into the crook of Billy’s neck and scrunching his eyes closed. It’s dark and quiet like this, all tucked away from reality. Billy’s hand moves soothingly up and down his back in big strokes.

 

“We’re not getting in the pool,” Billy promises, even though he sounds a little lost. “We won’t do that. I’m not gonna make you do that.” Steve nods against Billy’s neck, reassured by his words. He’s shaking a little, tears leaking from his eyes and travelling over the bridge of his nose in salty little rivulets.

 

“Can we go upstairs?” he murmurs, voice muffled against the fabric of Billy’s shirt.

 

“Are you sure?” Billy asks. “I can leave, Steve. I won’t be mad.”

 

“I don’t want you to go,” Steve replies, hands bunching in Billy’s shirt, keeping him close. “Don’t go, okay? I’ll stop crying. Just-- stay?”

 

“I’m not going to leave ‘cause you’re crying,” Billy says, offended. “Jesus, I’m not gonna do that. I just thought maybe you’d feel better if I left. I dunno.”

 

“No. Why?” Steve asks, tears still leaking slowly from his eyes. He can’t bring himself to move from where he’s curled up in Billy’s arms. It helps that he can’t see anything like this, eyes closed and face tucked between Billy’s neck and the couch. His limbs feel weak, heavy and useless.

 

“Because I made you upset,” says Billy, like it’s obvious.

 

“You didn’t make me upset,” Steve tells him, head pounding. “I just uh… I don’t. Um. The pool…”

 

He isn’t sure how to say a girl died and it’s all my fault.

 

“Did something happen to you out there?” Billy asks, voice careful. Steve stiffens at the question.

 

“No,” is all he says, thinks no, because it’s Barb who’s dead, but he also thinks yes, because he’s the one who’s all fucked up in the head, on medications and seeing a goddamn shrink. Barb is dead and Steve has to live with the consequences of what he’s done.

 

Billy doesn’t press further, even though Steve can tell by the tenseness in his body that he wants to. He just runs a hand over Steve’s back, all gentle like he’s afraid Steve will shatter between his fingers.

 

“Can we go upstairs?”

 

“If that’s what you want,” Billy says.

 

“That’s what I want,” Steve assures him, although he’s not ready to show Billy his face. He’s sure his eyes are embarrassingly bloodshot, his cheeks flushed with tears. He feels a little shaky, like he’s ran a mile, and his palms are clammy where they rest against Billy’s back.

 

“Alright then,” Billy says. When Steve makes no move to actually get up and go upstairs, Billy squeezes him and presses a kiss to the crown of his head. “Wanna wait a bit?”

 

“No. Yes,” Steve admits. “Just gimme a sec.”

 

“Take your time,” Billy replies. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

 

They stay curled up for a few minutes, at least until Steve’s breath feels more steady and his eyes aren’t so itchy with the impending threat of a new wave of tears. When Steve feels ready, he slowly pulls away from Billy. “Okay,” he says. “I’m good.”

 

They hold onto one another as they scramble off of the couch. Steve’s left foot is all pins and needles, and he shakes it out before trying to take a step. The last thing he wants is to embarrass himself further in front of Billy by wiping out. Silently, the trudge up the carpeted stairs to Steve’s room. Steve is made painfully aware of how rosy and damp his cheeks look as they pass the hallway mirror. He and Billy both look a bit of a mess; neither of them have pants on, and Billy’s hair is out of place from where Steve had run his fingers through it.

 

As they enter Steve’s room, Steve immediately crosses the space to shut the blinds and pull the curtain closed, immersing them into darkness.

 

“Is this better?” Billy asks, sounding worried. “I can still leave--”

 

“Do you wanna leave? ‘Cause if you want to, you can,” he says, even though the thought makes his stomach turn. “I won’t stop you. But I’d like it if you stayed.”

 

“I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me,” Billy says, reaching out to drag Steve closer. He wraps his arms around Steve’s shoulders and pulls him in for a hug. Billy’s arms feel so nice and warm, and Steve lets himself relax into the embrace.

 

“I can’t believe we kissed,” Steve blurts, and Billy laughs.

 

“Believe it, pretty boy. Now that I know you actually want to, you’re gonna have a hard time keeping me away.”

 

“Sorry for freaking out and ruining it,” Steve says, grateful that Billy can’t see his face while they’re wrapped up in each other like this.

 

“You got nothing to be sorry about,” Billy says. “You couldn’t ruin that even if you tried. Promise. We’ve got plenty of time for more kissing.”

 

“You really still wanna do this?” Steve asks, hopeful.

 

“Are you kidding me?” Billy asks. “I’d have to be crazy not to want you. Forreal.”

 

“Ditto,” Steve murmurs, content. “D’you wanna, um, lie down?” When Billy looks hesitant, the way he did on the couch when he informed Steve that he was crying, Steve continues, “I know you don’t wanna do anything ‘cause I’m upset,” he utters the word with frustration, “But we can still just lie down together, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Billy agrees. “Yeah, okay.”

 

They shuffle towards the bed, still embracing, and Steve lies down first, scooching towards the side of the bed next to the wall, gesturing for Billy to follow him. Billy does, his muscles rippling as he climbs onto the mattress next to Steve, hair bouncing against his shoulders. He crowds in, arm slinking around Steve’s waist. Steve hums happily, twisting so they’re laying face to face. It’s so dark in the room that Steve’s barely able to make out the sharp lines of Billy’s face.

 

“What time is it?” Billy asks, and Steve is surprised to realize that he has no idea.

 

“Um,” he says, raising himself up on one elbow to check his alarm clock. “Almost eleven.”

 

“Really? Fuck,” says Billy. “Curfew’s twelve. Dad’ll be pissed if I’m late.”

 

“Oh,” says Steve, disappointed, his heart plummeting. “Can you stay a little longer?”

 

Billy hums, like he’s thinking. “Yeah. Fuck it. Let’s just relax for a bit. I’ll leave later, alright?”

 

“I don’t want you to get in trouble,” Steve says, reaching out to trace a finger over Billy’s collarbone. He can feel the rise and fall of Billy’s chest under his fingers, steady and reassuring.

 

“You don’t have to worry ‘bout me,” Billy tells him, and Steve rolls his eyes.

 

“Too late, I do. So, suck it up.”

 

Billy leans in and kisses him, lips sweet and slow against Steve’s, a calm thing compared to their heavy makeout in the kitchen and on the couch. “I’ll be fine. I’ll leave at like, ten to twelve. Problem solved.”

 

“You sure?” Steve asks, finger still tracing shapes into Billy’s skin. The motions help calm him down.

 

“Positive,” Billy says. “I wanna be here with you.”

 

“I wanna be with you, too,” Steve says, heart thudding at Billy’s words.

 

Billy adjusts himself on the bed, slumping down so he’s actually on his back, head on Steve’s pillows. He pats his chest, opens his arms, and invites Steve in. “Wanna cuddle?” he asks.

 

“Yeah,” Steve says, easy as breathing. He curls into Billy’s side and lets his cheek rest on Billy’s chest, lulled and comfortable by the way Billy’s arm settles around him, keeping him close.

 

“You totally tried to get me to cuddle you that night at the drive-in,” Billy whispers after a few minutes, and Steve laughs, hitting Billy on the chest.

 

“I did not, I was fucking cold,” he argues. He can feel Billy’s laughter.

 

“Yeah yeah, whatever you say, Harrington,” he replies. Steve opens his mouth again to argue back, but Billy shushes him. “Try to sleep. I’ll try my best not to wake you up when I leave.”

 

“I don’t really fall asleep like that,” Steve says honestly. “I’ll probably be awake for a while.”

 

“Just try,” Billy says. “For me?”

 

Steve is willing to try just about anything for Billy, so he nods. He thinks it should feel weird, probably, curled up like this with Billy, actually cuddling. Not to mention the fact that they spent the better part of an hour making out. It all feels so surreal, but it also feels right, like another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. Spending these past weeks with Billy, at the diner, in the Camaro, studying for physics, and listening to music, has gotten Steve accustomed to and grateful for Billy’s presence in his life. Now, this just feels like coming home.

 

Like he expects, he’s still awake by the time Billy gently extracts himself from Steve’s grip, struggling to stay quiet in the dark room. He must stub his toe on something, because Steve hears a whispered, “Fuck,” and a thud as Billy stands up.

 

“Billy,” he mumbles drowsily. Although he hasn’t yet drifted off, there’s something comforting about having someone in bed with him. It reassures him that he’s actually there, that when he closes his eyes, he won’t be sucked into an underwater nightmare.

 

“Shit, I woke you up,” Billy whispers, startling at the sound of Steve’s voice.

 

“I wasn’t asleep, don’t worry,” Steve says, voice just as quiet. “You alright?”

 

“Yeah, stubbed my damn toe on your nightstand, though.”

 

“Want me t’kiss it better?” Steve jokes, his face turned into the pillow. Billy chuckles softly, sitting on the mattress and carding a hand through Steve’s hair.

 

“Didn’t know you were into feet, Harrington,” he teases, and Steve just has enough energy to flip him off. Billy reaches out and grabs his wrist, hand sliding upwards to grip Steve’s, intertwining their fingers. “Maybe a kiss goodbye, though?”

 

Steve hums sleepily, twisting his neck and reaching blindly for Billy, who leans in and presses a kiss against Steve’s mouth. Steve’s eyes are adjusted enough to the dark that he can see Billy’s expression well enough to recognize the fond smile on his lips. “Don’t want you to go,” he murmurs, even though he knows that’s unfair. Billy smiles sadly, and Steve’s attention is brought back to his split lip. He thinks about all the things he’s not telling Billy, about all the things Billy’s not telling him.

 

“Me neither,” he says, kissing Steve again. “But I gotta. Want me to get you anything before I leave? Water, pyjamas?”

 

“No,” says Steve, content to stay under his covers in just his boxers and t-shirt. “Actually, wait. Yes. But not water.”

 

“Alright,” Billy replies easily, keeping his voice at a murmur. “Want juice, or somethin’?”

 

“No,” Steve shakes his head. “Do you think you can get your jacket for me? It’s still in the dryer.” It feels like a million years ago that he was in Billy’s car, telling him about the jacket fiasco, when in reality it was mere hours.

 

“Sure, ‘course,” Billy says. “The laundry room…”

 

“Is next to the kitchen,” Steve supplies. Billy nods and squeezes at his hand.

 

“Be right back.”

 

And he is -  right back, that is. Steve feels like he blinks and Billy is gone in one moment and there in the next. He must have picked up his jeans from the living room floor and put them back on while he was downstairs, because he’s sitting on the edge of Steve’s bed, fully dressed, with the jean jacket clutched in one hand.

 

“You still awake there?” he asks. Steve nods as best he can, head feeling heavy on his pillow. Billy’s smile is so nice, Steve thinks. He can barely see it through the sleepy haze that covers his eyes, but even through his fuzzy vision, he can tell it’s beautiful. “I got the jacket,” Billy trails off, sounding unsure. “Where should I put it?”

 

“Just here,” Steve says, reaching out. Billy hands it over, watching curiously as Steve opens the lapels and pushes his face into the fabric before pulling it towards his chest, half under his head and half in the crook of his arm. “Sorry for bein’ weird,” he mumbles, conscious of the way Billy is watching him.

 

“Don’t be,” Billy shrugs. “This is-- you’re-- it makes you comfortable, so. I’m all for it. Besides,” he adds. “I’m into it. It’s kinda cute.”

 

“It doesn’t really smell like you anymore,” Steve admits, choosing to ignore that last comment in lieu of looking at Billy candidly. Billy shifts and looks away, and Steve notices the way his cheeks have taken on a flush.

 

“I smell like me,” he says, like he’s trying to be smooth, but it just comes across as unsure.

 

“Yeah,” Steve replies. “You smell really nice, all the time.” He reaches out and rests a hand against Billy’s hip. “But you can’t stay over.”

 

“No,” Billy agrees. “I can’t. Maybe next time I’m over I can wear it for a while? Get it smelling all sexy again.”

 

“Shut up,” Steve huffs, his eyes fighting to stay open. “Never said you smelled sexy.”

 

“I know how to read between the lines,” Billy says, deadpan. “Seriously, though. I will.”

 

“Okay, that’d be good,” Steve says, because he’s too tired to explain the intricate details of why he likes Billy’s scent so much. “One more kiss g’bye? For real, this time?”

 

Billy’s fingers pause their movement against Steve’s scalp as he leans in and kisses both of Steve’s cheeks before coming back to his mouth, pressing a tender peck to Steve’s lips and then his forehead. “G’night, Steve.”

 

“Night, Billy.”

Chapter Text

Three weeks since Billy gave Steve the tape. One since their awkward-turned-romantic card ride. Steve is … floating, almost. That’s how happy he’s been. He can’t help himself, but he notices himself walking around Hawkins with a goofy smile erupting on his face every few minutes. He thinks -- knows -- he must look psychotic to anyone passing by, but since Barbara, he supposes that’s nothing new. 

 

Billy is just so much. Steve should’ve known, seeing as they’d practically already been dating in those weeks leading up to their confessions. Not so much in public, but in private? Billy’s hands are on Steve nonstop. In the back of his mind, Steve remembers Nancy talking about love languages. Steve has no doubt that Billy’s is touch. What he can’t, or refuses to, say with words, he says with his hands. An arm over Steve’s shoulder at the diner, his fingers intertwined with Steve’s while they watch a movie at Steve’s place, a soft hug, a subtle squeeze in the grocery line. A kiss in the park, lots of kisses in Steve’s bed.

 

Steve is over the goddamn moon , and Billy’s right there with him -- 238,900 miles. Steve looked that up at the library.

 

Anyways, the thing is, Billy can’t come over tonight. His dad’s home and being an ass. So, Steve is a little lonely, and a lot bored, and the mixtape with Billy’s dorky handwriting on it is just sitting on Steve’s desk, begging to be listened to. He recalls what Billy said that day in the car: “ These… hangouts? The mixtape? This isn’t just buddies , Steve. ” It makes Steve snort now, but he’s been aching with curiosity to listen to the tape ever since. Billy seemed a bit miffed the last time he asked if Steve had listened to it and Steve had said no, but Billy also absolutely refused to be around Steve when Steve played the tape. That in and of itself was a problem, since they were literally always together nowadays. Except, now.

 

Steve grabs the mixtape from where it’s been collecting dust on his dresser, toes on his sneakers, and makes his way downstairs and out the front door. He thinks he’s going to drive down past the old farm, just east of the quarry. 

 

He thinks about waiting until he gets there to slide in the mixtape, but he doesn’t think he can wait any longer. He doesn’t know how he’s lasted three weeks, when the only thing holding him back was a mountain of nerves. Well, actually. That’s probably also why it took three weeks. 

 

He coasts through Loch Nora, and finally fumbles with the tape, sliding it into the player. He waits.

 

If you leave me now you'll take away the biggest part of me, no baby please don't go…

 

Steve snorts. Chicago? Is Billy … cheesy? He finds himself grinning so wide his cheeks hurt. He’s blushing, too. How could he not be, with Billy including songs that say stuff like “a love like ours is a love that’s hard to find ”?

 

He’s at the quarry when the track changes. Leo Sayer, Steve knows this one too. His cheeks must be firetruck red, two rosy tomatoes. He feels his nostrils burn a little, like they do when he’s tearing up. When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you . God, his boyfriend is a sap. So is Steve, so he supposes it’s not like he can talk. He wants to turn the goddamn car around and drive as fast as he can to Billy. To hold him, kiss him, wrap him up in his arms and never let him go. 

 

The next track begins, and the next one, and the next one, and Steve’s been sitting on a dirt road behind the abandoned farm for thirty minutes, listening to Billy pour his feelings out through cheesy ballads with happy tears rolling over his flushed cheeks. Steve -- god, how could Steve deserve this? He deserves sleepless nights, getting pulled over by Hopper in his cruiser, eyebags and weird looks from strangers. It’s what he knows best. But Billy showers him with all this love even when he’s not around. 

 

He drives home with David Gates crooning baby, you know that dreams are for those who sleep, life is for us to keep in his ear. 

 

“I’d like to make it with you,” Steve hums along softly, a tiny smile etched onto his face.

 

-

 

Neil has a thing Saturday. That basically just means he’s going to the pub to get plastered. What it also means is that Billy can spend all day with Steve. 

 

They started the day with a late brunch at the diner. You can’t go wrong with pancakes. The only reason they were late was because, after Billy picked up Steve, they spent fifteen minutes still parked in Steve’s driveway making out. 

 

To say that Billy’s a bit of a tease is an understatement. He kissed Steve silly, his hand tracing the outline of Steve’s erection over the thick fabric of his jeans, his lips trailing kisses along his jaw, his mouth whispering sexy things into Steve’s ear, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up in anticipation. Only to lean back, throw the car into reverse, and take Steve to a diner that is very much public and off-limits to two guys making out. They sat there for half an hour, playing footsie, Steve getting more and more distracted by the purposeful and thorough way Billy licked maple syrup from his knife. 

 

They practically sped back to Steve’s, only slowing down when they saw Hopper parked on the side of the road leading to Loch Nora. He waved them along, and Steve couldn’t be more grateful. He thinks Hopper might notice the fact that he was using his bunched up jacket to hide his arousal, and he’d rather not deal with that horrific embarrassment at the moment. 

 

Upon re-entry to Steve’s, they beelined it for Steve’s bedroom, eager and flushed.

 

Billy is on top of Steve now, and they’re both shirtless; rutting against one another, hard in their pants. Steve can feel sweat at the nape of his neck, knows he’s flushed. Billy’s chain is dangling from where he’s leaning over Steve, the cool metal tickling Steve’s chest. Billy kisses like he does everything else - intensely. His lips are soft and his hands are steady, and the clash of feelings has Steve almost dizzy with want. Billy is panting into his mouth, sucking on his tongue, hands cupping Steve’s jaw. Steve has his hands resting on Billy’s waist, squeezing and rubbing at his sides, too nervous to drop his hands any lower to touch Billy’s ass. Steve leans back a little to take a breather, and Billy reattaches his mouth to Steve’s neck, lips hot as it ghosts over Steve’s skin, tongue flicking at his moles as he presses kisses beneath Steve’s ear. His mouth is sloppy, his teeth a pleasant bite against Steve’s skin, making him squirm.

 

“Don’t leave a hickey,” Steve breathes, surprised at just how ragged his voice sounds. 

 

“Don’t want people to know you’re mine?” Billy punctuates the question with a nip on Steve’s earlobe. Steve shakes his head.

 

“No, that’s not it,” he argues, cut off by Billy’s mouth returning to his to capture his lips in another searing kiss. He pushes back on Billy’s chest and Billy backs off a little, but doesn’t move his hands from Steve’s face. 

 

“What?”

 

“Just…” Steve falters, entranced by how hot Billy looks. “Just not up so high. I don’t want it to-- look, I like this, me and you. I don’t want people to start asking questions about where it came from and get you in trouble with your-- just, do it… lower.”

 

Lower , huh?” Billy smirks, already leaning his body back over Steve’s. The heat pouring off of both of them is overwhelming , and Steve knows he’s flushed from the apples of his cheeks down to his chest. 

 

“You heard me,” Steve says, raising a challenging brow. Billy smiles down at him before he shimmies down the bed, mouth tracing down over the contours of Steve’s neck, down down down until his lips tease at Steve’s left pec, just inches away from his nipple, directly above his heart. Steve can feel his blood pumping at a heavy thud - he’s gonna have goddamn palpitations. 

 

“Tell me,” says Billy, voice husky, “where you want my mouth.”

 

Steve swallows, feeling his throat bob under Billy’s fingers. “On me?”

 

Billy laughs softly. “Yeah, baby. Where ?”

 

Steve can think of at least seven places where he’s dreamt about having Billy’s mouth. He doesn’t know if he can say any of them out loud. His hesitance must show on his face, because Billy shifts until they’re faces are level again and says, “Anything. You name it, I’m your man.”

 

“My man,” Steve echoes, a silly smile tugging at his lips. Billy’s grin reflects Steve’s, lighting up his face. Steve lo-- likes it a lot when Billy’s eyes crinkle like that. 

 

“Hell yeah. All yours, Harrington.” 

 

Steve can’t really help the laugh that bubbles in his chest. “‘Hell yeah’? Really romantic, Billy.”

 

“I’m all about romance,” Billy replies, deadpan. He’s being sarcastic, Steve knows, but it’s also true. Billy is one soft-hearted guy. He likes cuddles, and kisses, and calling Steve to say goodnight, even when Neil is home and he’s nervous about being caught. He insists on treating Steve to milkshakes, and he’s always treating Steve’s comfort as his number one priority. 

 

“Yeah,” Steve whispers. “I know.” 

 

-

 

Steve wakes up a few hours later, his face tucked into Billy’s neck, their bare skin sticking together. “Hmm,” Steve mumbles drowsily, still not really awake, burrowing deeper into Billy’s neck.

 

“You awake?” Billy whispers. Steve can feel Billy’s chest move when he speaks. “Steve?”

 

Steve snuffles, his eyes still shut, crusted together with sleep. He feels Billy’s hand brush over his lower back, gentle. “I think someone’s sleepy,” Billy sing-songs, dropping a kiss to the crown of Steve’s head.

 

“Nuh uh,” Steve mumbles, shifting even closer to Billy. 

 

“Yeah you are, sweetheart,” Billy says gently. “Go back to sleep.”



-

 

Billy’s been off, this week. A little distant, a little jumpy, a little less touchy. Normally, he’s all over Steve. His hands, his lips, tracing paths over Steve’s skin, gentle but solid, always there. It grounds Steve, makes him feel calm and cared for. Billy still touches him, but he seems far away, somehow. Steve tries to coax it out of him, but Billy insists that nothing is wrong. It feels intrusive to pry more, so Steve mostly drops it. He’s still nervous, worried, scared, about what might be going on. He holds Billy a little tighter, kisses him more fervently, hugs him closely. Billy smiles at him when he does, strained but pleased. He kisses Steve’s eyelids, holds the back of Steve’s head when he gathers him in his arms. But Steve can see in Billy’s eyes that something is troubling him.

 

It comes to a head on an otherwise quiet Wednesday night, with Billy’s camaro screeching loudly into Steve’s driveway. Steve practically launches himself over the stairs at the sound, throwing open the front door just in time for Billy to fall into his arms, eyes teary and shoulders shaking.

 

“Billy,” Steve says, shocked. “Billy, what’s wrong?” He holds Billy close while he backs up, taking Billy into the cover of the house, closing the front door behind them. He knows Billy wouldn’t want to chance being seen out in public in any other state but his usual confident one. 

 

Through his laboured breathing Steve barely hears Billy’s muffled, “My dad.”

 

Steve’s heart breaks, but it’s just about what he’s been expecting this whole time. Neil is a piece of work, a real asshole with a penchant for roughing Billy up whenever he’s in the mood. Billy’s mentioned in passing how hard the man is to please, how tough he is on Billy about everything -- his grades, the people he hangs out with, what he wears, how he talks. Anything he can find to be displeased about, he’ll let Billy know. Whether that’s with his words or with his fists. 

 

Steve hates this. He loves Billy - all he wants is for Billy to be happy, for him to be safe, for his dreams to come true. He wants to be a part of Billy’s dreams, part of Billy’s future. So seeing Billy like this, vulnerable and hurting, sad and upset enough that he’s openly sobbing in front of Steve, turns Steve’s veins to ice and his fury to fire. He’s mad - so, so mad at Billy’s father, and the fact that he can’t do anything about it makes him want to scream.

 

“Okay,” Steve murmurs, rubbing his hand up and down Billy’s back. “Okay,” he says again. “Let’s get you upstairs, okay? You’ll be more comfortable,” Steve can feel his heart in his throat, but he needs to stay calm. He feels Billy nod, and carefully he guides him up the stairs and into Steve’s bedroom.

 

Steve sits on the edge of his bed, feet on the ground as Billy’s entire body curls around his side, his hands grasping desperately at Steve’s back as he trembles. 

 

All he can do is sit there, letting Billy bury his face in Steve’s stomach and cry. “ Shh ,” Steve murmurs, hand cradling Billy’s head gently, his fingers rubbing Billy’s scalp in soothing circles. “I’m here, Billy.” He tilts his own head to the ceiling, forcing back his own tears. He needs to be strong now. Stoic. He can be upset later. In private. Whenever that may be, because he’s getting the feeling that Billy won’t be leaving anytime soon.

 

When he turns his gaze back to Billy, he can’t help but lower his neck and press a kiss to the crown of Billy’s head. Billy’s still crying, soft whimpers muffled by the fabric of Steve’s pajama shirt. He can feel Billy’s tears seeping through to his skin, but he doesn’t dare move to grab Billy a tissue. Billy’s shoulders shake as he sobs, big ugly breaths racking his body. “ Baby ,” Steve says, heart in his throat. “Hey, you’re alright. I got you.” At that, Billy lets out a hiccup, like he’s trying to hold himself together and calm down. Steve runs a gentling hand over the curve of Billy’s spine, hoping it soothes him.  

 

“He--” Billy wheezes, voice barely audible. Steve waits patiently, ready to listen to whatever Billy wants to say. “I don’t get it,” he whines, throat thick with tears, voice rough from crying.

 

“What don’t you get?” Steve asks softly, carding his fingers through Billy’s hair slowly, making sure to keep his pressure light enough that Billy doesn’t feel trapped. 

 

“He hates me,” Billy whispers. “He really, really fuckin’ hates me.”

 

“Oh, Billy.” Steve sighs, heart shattering to pieces at how devastated Billy sounds, a stark contrast to his usual rough bravado. 

 

“I want to hate him so bad,” Billy continues, arms tightening around Steve’s waist. “But I don’t . Why don’t I? He-- I’m afraid of him, and he doesn’t give a fuck about me.” His voice cracks on every word, as though his throat is seconds away from splintering open. 

 

“He’s your dad,” Steve murmurs, keeping his voice quiet like Billy’s. “It’s okay that you don’t hate him.”

 

“I want to hate him,” Billy presses harder into Steve’s chest, tears still seeping out. “It’s not fair.”

 

“No,” Steve breathes, focusing on keeping calm for Billy’s sake. He’s so mad that he can feel his muscles clench and shake, but Billy doesn’t need Steve mouthing off his dad or ranting about shitty parenting. So, Steve does what he does best. He holds Billy and lets him hide his tear-covered face from Steve’s eyes. “It’s not. Hey, you’re alright, okay? When you think you can, try to take a deep breath. Whenever you’re ready. And I’ll get you a nice cold washcloth.” His eyes must be bloodshot and puffy by now, Steve’s sure of it. 

 

Billy hums, not moving. Steve can still feel the minute shake of his shoulders as he tries to hold himself together. He circles his palm over Billy’s back, trying to drain as much tension as he can. 

 

“Take your time,” he says again. “I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

 

After a few minutes, Billy shifts, removing a hand from it’s hold on Steve’s sweatshirt to bring it to his face. He rubs over his cheeks and breathes noisily into his palm. 

 

“Usually I’m the one saying this shit to you,” Billy mumbles hoarsely, still resolutely not making eye contact with Steve. Steve hums. Billy’s not wrong , is the thing. Steve’s got a hairpin trigger for waterworks these days, and Billy’s been there to experience it on a few more occasions than Steve would have liked. He’d always felt embarrassed being so vulnerable like that in front of Billy - at the quarry, in bed - because he was afraid that it would make Billy think lesser of him. That showing emotions and being upset made him crazy, unstable, damaged. Now, he knows that’s not true. Because while he’s devastated that Billy is upset, all he can think of is of what he can do to help him feel better. If that means cuddling in bed for hours while Billy cries, he’ll do it. If it means being silly and trying to distract him, he’ll do it. If it means holding Billy’s face in his hands and kissing away his tears, he’ll do it. 

 

“I needed that then,” Steve says slowly. “And-- and you need it now. It’s alright to be upset.”

 

“It’s stupid .”

 

Hey. It is not stupid,” Steve says, ducking his head and trying to catch Billy’s eye. When Billy shifts away uncomfortably, Steve lets him. 

 

“Did you think I was being stupid that time at the quarry?”

 

“No. You were having a panic attack,” Billy says, sounding offended. His voice is still thick with tears, but he finally sits up on the bed. His face is red and blotchy, and Steve tries not to wince when he notices the freshly blooming bruise under his left eye. He soldiers on, keeping his hand moving in circles over Billy’s back.

 

“Or what about when I freaked out on Hopper? Or when I cried that first time when the blinds were open?” Steve’s face burns just thinking about it, but he’s trying to make a point. 

 

No. Jesus, no. Of course not, Steve.”

 

Steve breathes a little easier at that. He knows Billy didn’t think so, but it’s nice to hear it. “See. Being upset isn’t stupid. It’s, it’s like, important . You can’t bottle all this shit up or else you’re going to explode.”

 

“Feels like I already have,” Billy mutters, rubbing at his eyes. His eyelashes stick together like spider legs, dark and even more pronounced against his watery irises. 

 

“I’m really glad you came over,” Steve whispers, reaching across to cup Billy’s face in his palm. Billy’s skin is scalding to the touch, and he leans into the cool press of Steve’s hand, letting his eyes flutter closed. 

 

“Me too,” Billy whispers hoarsely, eyes still closed. He looks peaceful like this, if Steve ignores the black eye that’s quickly forming. 

 

“Let’s get you a washcloth,” Steve says, hating the way Billy refuses to meet his eyes as he stands up from the bed. 

 

Billy stands stiffly in the bathroom, feet planted on the white tile as he waits for Steve to hand him the cloth. Steve makes sure it’s nice and cold before he wrings out the excess water and turns to give Billy the cloth. He hesitates before handing it over, eyes flicking over Billy’s defeated posture. 

 

“Can I…” he starts, waiting for Billy to respond. When Billy’s eyebrows simply furrow in confusion, he continues, “Let me help you.” He waits for Billy to nod before he steps into his space, careful careful careful . Billy leans back against the counter as Steve shuffles between his legs, gently urging him up until Billy gets the memo and lifts himself onto the counter. Steve raises the damp cloth to gently wipe away the tears staining Billy’s rosy cheeks.

 

“That feels good,” Billy murmurs after a moment. Steve presses the cool cloth against Billy’s eyes, soothing the itch that was left in the wake of his burning tears. “Thank you,” he says, even quieter.

 

“Of course,” Steve says, voice pitched low. “Always. I always want to be here for you.” He pulls the cloth away from Billy’s face and places it back on the counter. Billy blinks down at Steve sluggishly, big blue eyes watching him with intent. Just as slowly, he leans in and presses his lips against Steve’s, almost chaste. Then, he drops his head to Steve’s chest and takes in a shaky breath.

 

“I know,” he says. Simple. Steve doesn’t so much as hear him say it as he does feel him say it, the way Billy’s lips move against his collarbone, the way his voice reverberates through Steve’s chest. 

 

God , Steve thinks. This is what it feels like when someone loves you. 

 

-

 

Things feel a little different after that night. Not in a bad way, just … different. Billy doesn’t clam up as much when Steve notices a new bruise. He doesn’t change the topic when Steve asks him how he’s feeling. They’ve seen each other at their most vulnerable, and only trust each other more because of it. 

 

They have a routine, they have favourite places and inside jokes. Billy knows how to make Steve’s favourite foods, and Steve’s learned how to find a radio station that doesn’t make Billy’s ears “bleed”. Billy lets Steve fall asleep on his chest, and Steve kisses Billy’s neck in all of his most sensitive spots while he’s drifting off. 

 

A few times a week, they’ll go for a long drive. Coasting down Hawkins’ back roads, playing the mixtape Billy made for Steve at just the right volume, so that they can hear it over the wind rushing past the Camaro’s open windows. 

 

-

 

Months go by, and before Steve knows it, senior year is over. He feels such a weight lifted off of his chest, like he’s been underwater for so long, and finally, finally, he’s breached the surface. He treasures every breath, every moment. The way green grass, covered in morning dew, feels between his toes. The sweet taste of strawberry icecream from the diner on his tongue. The sound of Billy snoring softly in his ear. The smell of Billy’s shampoo. 

 

Visiting Dr. Owens doesn’t feel anywhere near as daunting as it used to, and Hopper’s checkups now serve to remind Steve that people have his back. That people care. 

 

He passed senior year -- and not even barely, he actually managed to earn some decent grades. Billy’s a pretty good tutor, once you get past all of the distracting kisses. 

 

It’s summer now, and they’re taking full advantage of the sunny weather.

 

With the sun blazing down on his back, Steve can only hope that the layers of sunblock Billy had helped slather all over his body will be able to withstand the scorching heat. It’s a lazy mid-summer Sunday, and Hawkins truly has no business being this hot. He’s standing on the wooden raft that floats permanently near the middle of the swimming hole, blue water lapping gently at the edges around him, giving the impression that the raft is drifting. The pond is mostly calm and quiet now, as the afternoon draws to an end. It’s nearing supper time, and the families still hanging around are sticking to the edges of the water, leaving Steve and Billy with the freedom and privacy to say and do as they please.



Billy is on his back, feet kicking lazily and sunglasses perched on his pink nose. His hair is curling on his forehead as it partially dries from the sun, and his natural golden highlights shimmer as he moves. Steve can see the distorted pattern of his bright red swim trunks through the rippling water.



“How cold is it?” Steve calls out to him, his own toes barely tickling the sparkly surface from where he’s sitting on the edge of the dock. He feels … okay . But nervous. Barbara is there, like always, in the back of his mind. Forever floating. Water-logged. Dead.



“Come figure out for yourself, lazy,” Billy teases, stopping his backwards movements in favour of turning upright, treading water as he flashes Steve his most persuasive smile. “C’mon, really,” he says. “Jump to me.”



“No,” Steve laughs easily, flicking a foot so Billy is splashed in the face. Sputtering, Billy removes his sunglasses to give Steve an unimpressed look, wiping water away from his nose. 

 

“My sunscreen isn’t dry yet,” Steve reasons. The deep blue water looks inviting. Looks endless. Looks dangerous.



So ? Mine isn’t either,” Billy tells him, and he’s right. More and more white streaks are sliding down Billy’s body the longer he floats in the water, creating a cloudy little puddle around him.



“But you don’t burn like I do,” Steve says pointedly, pinching at his pale skin, which looks like snow compared to Billy’s. Steve doesn’t even know how Billy stays so tan, with the depressing lack of sunshine they get. This is the first week all summer that Steve hasn’t had to wear a sweater or pants. It’s the first time swimming has even come up as a possibility, since that night on Steve’s couch when Billy suggested they take a dip in the pool. 

 

Billy still doesn’t know about Barbara. At least, he hasn’t heard about her from Steve. There was one night, a Tuesday in May, when Billy got a ride back to Steve’s after his shift at the pool from Hopper. He’d entered the house, more quiet than usual, and while they were curled up watching a dumb movie, Billy has casually brought up Steve’s aversion. 

 

“Hey, baby?” Billy had said. “Ever think about coming to the pool with me? After hours, y’know, I can help you, teach you how to--”

 

“I know how to swim,” Steve had interrupted, face hot. Billy’s palm continued rubbing his side comfortingly.

 

“Oh. Just, Hopper said--”

 

Steve had frozen in fear, but Billy went on to talk about how Hopper had mentioned Steve’s dislike for water. Nothing about Barbara specifically, but Steve isn’t stupid. He knows that Billy might suspect something. Besides, Tommy has the biggest mouth.



Steve looks out across the pond, at Billy beaming, his golden hair glistening in the sunshine. “Oh, I know, you’re like a lobster,” Billy replies, then he gets a mischievous look on his face. “Okay, Harrington. I got an idea.”



Steve groans, but plays along, buying time. “Shoot, smartass. What’re you thinking now?”



“I’m thinking,” Billy says. “That you have thirty seconds to jump off that raft and into my arms, or no sex tonight.”



Steve huffs. “As if. You wouldn’t refuse sex just because I don’t want to turn into a lobster .”

 

“Okay, whatever. Well, no pancakes tomorrow morning instead.”

 

“You wouldn’t ,” Steve narrows his eyes, trying to figure out if Billy is bluffing. He knows that Steve would die for his homemade pancakes. They’ve claimed this weekend to themselves - oddly enough, Steve’s parents are in town, but Billy’s aren’t, so Steve’s been sleeping at Billy’s place since Wednesday night. Neil, Susan and Max get back from their family vacation late Monday afternoon, so tomorrow morning is his last chance to wake up in Billy’s arms and stuff his face with Billy’s fluffy pancakes for who knows how long.



“Try me,” Billy counters, all dimply and twinkly eyed. “You’ve only got twenty seconds left.”



Rolling his eyes, Steve assesses his sunscreen situation. Safety first, after all. He pokes around, determines that it’s dried quicker than expected and that swimming now wouldn’t put his pale skin in too much jeopardy. Besides, jumping into Billy’s wet, strong arms always sounds like a good idea.



“Fifteen,” Billy sing songs, opening his arms wide. Steve squirms as far to the edge as he can, shifting so only part of his ass and his hands are resting on the firm wood. He takes a deep breath. He’s okay. He’s talked with Doc Owens about this. He’s suffered through a year of nightmares about this. He’s scared , of course he is, but Billy’s here. Waiting for him with a smile on his face and open arms. If anything happens, the dock is right there. The sun is out. There’s a lifeguard on the shore.



“I’m ready, hold on,” he says, sending a nervous grin Billy’s way. Billy gives him a nod, his smile never faltering. “If I’m doing this, you gotta agree that if I burn, you’re putting the aloe on me,” Steve warns, still second guessing his decision to enter the water.

 

“Obviously,” says Billy. “I’d do that anyways.”



It’s now or never, Steve thinks. He launches himself downwards, feels his hands make contact with his boyfriend’s slippery shoulders, then proceeds to feel his nostrils fill with water as he and Billy fall underwater. He has a moment of panic, afraid to open his eyes, but nearly as quickly as they submerge, they breach the surface, sun pouring over their bodies.



Coughing as they resurface, Steve feels Billy’s arms wind around his waist, pulling him close as they bob up and down together. Billy’s skin is warm from the sun, but quickly erupting in goosebumps from the refreshing underwater dip they just took.



“Weak,” Steve splutters when he catches his breath back. “You’re weak, Hargrove.”



“I’m touched, really. Thank you, sweetheart.”



“Shut up.”

 

Make me,” says Billy, licking his lips and eyeing Steve’s mouth, and god , Steve wants to.

 

“I dunno if I know how to kiss and float at the same time,” Steve replies, running a hand through his dripping hair and flicking the residue towards Billy. 

 

“We can kiss on the dock,” suggests Billy. “Get out, shake off, make out like we’re water-people who fell in love and traded our underwater lives for life on land.”

 

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Steve asks, furrowing his brow. Billy says weird shit, sometimes. It’s cute , how fucking odd he is. Steve loves it when he says kooky crap like that. “Besides, there are kids here, man,” Steve reminds him.

 

“They’re like, I dunno, a million feet away. Who cares?”

 

“We like, hate PDA, though,” Steve reminds him, but leans in and kisses his cheek anyways. Billy’s skin is warm, and soft, and oh-so lovely. Steve could kiss him forever, he thinks.

 

“Yeah, but I fuckin’ love you, Harrington.”

 

-

 

Steve lets his arm dangle out of the passenger window of Billy’s car as they speed across the countryside. Fields of barley rush past them, golden and stretching out as far as the eye can see. 

 

The wind in his hair and on his sunburnt skin is a welcome feeling, and Steve closes his eyes and breathes deep. Billy’s got his radio on an uncharacteristically calm station and his warm hand on top of Steve’s thigh. 

 

“You falling asleep on me, Harrington?” Billy asks, and Steve grins slow, letting his eyes flutter open dangerously - the way that makes Billy’s cheeks flush. 

 

“’Course not,” he says, twisting his fingers together with Billy’s and squeezing. “Just thinking.”

 

“Oh, yeah? About what?” Billy asks, his eyes leaving the road as he glances over at Steve. There’s no one around for miles, just long empty stretches of flat road, surrounded on either side by farmland. The evening sky is turning rich shades of violet and honey as the lowering rays of the sun stretch out across the fields, bright and auriferous. 

 

Steve hums, bringing Billy’s hand up to his mouth. He presses an easy kiss to Billy’s knuckles, to the back of his hand, to his palm. Soft soft soft , Steve wants to hold Billy like this forever.

 

“Nothing. Everything– just. You, really,” he says, feels the way his voice comes out scratchy in his honesty. The sun is gleaming in through Billy’s window, too, setting his hair ablaze, his curls fringed with evening sunlight. Steve thinks he looks like an angel; has to swallow his feelings so he doesn’t start crying like a real goddamn sap. 

 

“Yeah?” Billy asks, sounding hopeful, touched. His cheeks are rosy already, Steve can tell. 

 

“Mhm.” Steve shrugs. He lets their joined hands drop back to his thigh, content in the warmth it brings him. Billy’s hand twists away, though, and travels up Steve’s chest to cup the side of his neck, thumb rubbing light circles against Steve’s jaw. 

 

“Anything in particular about me?” Billy asks teasingly, and Steve’s breath hitches. Yes , he thinks. I want this forever. I want you forever. I love you forever. Will you be mine? Be mine? Be mine?

 

“I’m happy,” he says instead, and Billy grins over at him, full and gentle, and so, so beautiful. Steve’s heart does that crazy thing where it feels like it’s about to rabbit out of his chest, like Billy’s smile has a direct line to his heartbeat. 

 

“Yeah, baby,” Billy says, so quiet that Steve has to strain to hear him. “Me too.”

 

Steve watches the sun sink and fizzle against the horizon, her final rays a gentle song against his skin. 

 

He’s at peace, here with Billy by his side.