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Scrawny Motherfucker With A Cool Hairstyle

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Billy apologizes.

Steve’s lurking outside of the Snow Ball, not trying to be creepy, rather trying to have a smoke before he goes home for the few hours before he has to come back and drive Dustin home. He’s in an arguably shitty mood, feeling like he needs to just be somewhere that isn’t  here,  so when he glances up to see that Billy Hargrove is marching across the street looking a little unhinged and like he  might  be looking for a fight, he rolls his eyes and shoots a quick prayer to any higher power that might be listening that it doesn’t escalate.

Steve keeps his mouth shut tight, only opening it to take puffs off of his cigarette, blowing smoke into Billy’s face once he’s close enough. Steve can’t tell if Billy’s pissed off or embarrassed and he wonders which one of them is the faster draw, wondering if he could get into his car and speed off before Billy could even think to pull anything. He knows he looks a little freaked out as he looks Billy up and down. Billy’s fists are clenching and releasing over and over, his eyes are a little wide, and Steve pinpoints it — he’s trying to think of something to say.

Eventually, Billy’s hands raise, to gesture gently as he chooses his words very deliberately, speaking slowly and steadily; “I owe you an apology.”

He sounds… surprisingly genuine, but Steve’s face still seems to start aching worse whenever Billy’s in the general proximity, and although he has an astounding aptitude for forgiveness, he still snaps a little bit to say, “You’re fucking right, you do.”

Billy obviously wasn’t expecting that. He seems to wince, a little bit. “Can you hear me out for, like, a minute?”

Steve looks down at his watch, tilts it a bit until it catches the light of the street lamp behind Billy and he can see the time. When the second hand is at twelve, he says, “You got a minute. Start talking.”

Okay. Shit.” More hand gestures. “I’m not trying to be a dick, and obviously — obviously nothin’ I say is going to undo what I did, but tensions were high that night, and I kinda — I got into it with my old man, and I was — I was mad, I took that out on you and those kids, and that was totally wrong of me, so. I’m sorry.”

Steve puts his watch hand down and rolls his eyes. “Why are you apologizing, man?”

I don’t know.”

That’s a fucking lie, and funnily enough,” Steve stands up straight, no longer leaning against his car, and gestures with his hand holding his mostly finished cigarette, before he continues, “you beat the shit out of me for lying to you. How do I know you’re,” he does a little gesture towards Billy, “not going to turn around and beat the shit out of me again, or that you’re not going to start threatening an already very fucking traumatized group of thirteen year olds again?”

Billy takes a few deep breaths. “Look. I’m trying to be —  better,  or whatever the fuck, but I suck at words. I don’t know if I’m going to pick another fuckin’ fight, or if I won’t, but  right now,  Harrington, I’m genuinely fucking sorry, and I’m tryin’ — I am  trying  to reach out here. I’m gonna — if it means anything, I’m gonna apologize to Max and her gaggle of shitheads too.”

Steve sneers a little bit and drops his cigarette butt to the ground, grinding it with the heel of his shoe. “It doesn’t mean  nothing,”  he grumbles. “I’m not gonna forgive you yet, because you broke my fucking nose and I’m still pissed about that, but…” He groans, and sighs. “I appreciate the effort, Hargrove.”

Okay.” Billy smacks his lips a few times, and claps his hands together once. “I got shit to do, but, uh, thank you, for — for listening.”

And with  that,  he walks back towards his Camaro, and Steve doesn’t quite know what to think.

*

Steve still doesn’t quite know what to think when Billy places a piece of gum, still in its wrapper, in the center of his open notebook in the one class they share together. He taps the stick of gum, once with his index finger, before he’s walking past him and to his own desk. He turns around once he hears Billy sit, looks at him, but he has his eyes glued to the chalkboard up front, and his arms crossed over his chest.

Steve ends up slipping him a scrap of notebook paper with,  “Thanks,”  written on it and a cigarette in the hallway on his way to his next class.

And that becomes a  thing.  Billy doesn’t really talk to him, or do more than nod a little awkwardly in passing, but every day, early in the day, he’ll find Steve and slip him a piece of gum — usually spearmint or cinnamon, sometimes bubblegum — and Steve will find a way to give him a cigarette after he gets the gum.

It’s a weird sort of truce, but sometimes — a lot of times — the highlight of Steve’s day is finding a piece of gum on his notebook or slipped into his pocket, even once slid through the vent in his locker. It’s just a  thing,  and the fact that it’s a thing he has going on with Billy quits mattering after awhile.

*

Steve doesn’t get invited to as many parties, not anymore, mostly because he doesn’t show up half the time, and he remembers  why  he never shows up about two and a half hours into it when everyone’s arguably wasted.

He’s in a bathroom smoking a cigarette and drinking from a glass of scotch later in the night when he hears someone fiddling with the door knob. The lock clicks and in tumbles Billy, very obviously  not sober  and holding a bobby pin in his hand, kicking the door shut behind him.

Billy stumbles forward, kicking at Steve, trying to get him out of the way, before he’s dropping to his knees in front of the toilet, and, oh god — Steve has half a mind to set his glass down, and to hold his cigarette between his lips, so he can reach for Billy’s hair, holding it out of the way.

Steve sort of hates that he has a tendency to take on the role of  caretaker,  even with people he’s supposed to hate, people he’s on the road to  not  hating, because he holds Billy’s hair out of the way, and even ends up with his arms around his shoulders because they’re both  drunk  and Billy’s dry heaving turns into sobbing.

Steve takes a moment to reach up, to wad a bunch of toilet paper up in his hand, and to wipe Billy’s mouth off. The toilet paper goes into the toilet and Steve stretches up to get a few fingers on the handle of the toilet, flushing it, before his arms return to being wrapped around Billy’s shoulder.

Steve’s  really  drunk, more than he thought he was, and it takes him a little too long to notice that Billy’s hyperventilating. He smacks his lips a few times, cheek against the back of Billy’s shoulder, and, okay, the leather of his jacket is kind of comfortable. He sucks on his teeth for a moment before saying,  “Billyyy,  y’gotta breathe. You need to breathe to feel better.”

He tries his best to breathe in a rhythmic pattern, deep and hard enough that Billy starts to copy him. He’s breathing mostly normally, hiccuping here and there, and Steve’s pretty sure he’s blacked out at this point, because he leans into Steve’s chest to whimper out an,  “I’m sorry.”

Steve shushes him, puts his cigarette out on the side of the toilet bowl, and runs his fingers through Billy’s hair, which is damp with sweat and sticking to his forehead. He smells like a mixture of Aqua Net, cheap cologne, and spilled beer. “It’s cool, totally cool, man. We all get too drunk sometimes.”

No, no. M’sorry, ‘bout the fight.”

Steve might have rolled his eyes if he were sober. Instead, he holds Billy a little tighter and mumbles, “You already apologized,” into the top of his head. “You don’t gotta do it again.”

But I was — I was jus’ so mad at my stupid fuckin’ dad, an’ I — an’ I took it out on you, and that kid, ‘n that was wrong, ‘n I feel so bad.” Billy sniffles, sucking snot up through his nose, and it’s kind of gross.

He leans into Steve, sliding down on the floor a little bit, seeming to go boneless. Steve just holds him, swaying back and forth without really thinking about it, trying to somehow soothe him. “’s okay, now. ‘s cool.” He puts a hand on Billy’s cheek, too, and shushes him again.

Nooo, no, it’s not.” Billy shakes his head, and reaches behind Steve, fisting his t-shirt in his hand. “Sometimes — sometimes I jus’ look at your pretty face and — and all I see — all I see is what I did to you. An’ — an’ you’re so nice.”

Billy thinks I’m pretty. Jesus Christ.

Billy, buddy, listen to me. I got better. Like, please don’t hit me again, but all of this bullshit is temporary, man.” Steve tucks his cheek against the top of Billy’s head. “The shiner was temporary, my nose healed in like a month, and — and I’m fine, now. And you’re gonna be okay, because everything is temporary, and I got you, man. It’s gonna be okay.”

Steve wasn’t exactly planning on showing up to this party to end up consoling a drunk, crying seventeen year old, but needless to say, it’s the only remotely interesting thing that happens.

*

The party’s a few streets over from Steve’s house, and he ends up making Billy walk home with him. He has to hold him up the entire time they’re walking, to keep him from falling over, and Steve feels something in himself — the part of himself that really fucking hates Billy Hargrove — start to give. He’s tired and more preoccupied with getting him somewhere safe so he can sober up and hopefully sleep without having to worry about it than he is with hating him right now. And maybe he’s a sucker for weepy apologies, and maybe he starts to forgive him a tiny bit as they’re walking.

*

Billy’s stubborn.

This is a fact that Steve is wholly aware of, but he’s reminded of it when he’s trying to convince Billy that,  no,  Steve’s bed is absolutely  not  where he should be sleeping. He spends five minutes arguing with him, narrowly dodging Billy’s hand, which shoots out to smack him in the leg at one point, before reasoning with him. “Dude, at least take your pants off.”

Steve rolls his eyes when Billy mutters, “You jus’ wanna see my dick,” under his breath as he’s clumsily unbuckling his belt and unbuttoning his pants, lifting his hips up to tug them off. For fucking  once,  he’s wearing underwear, and Steve would hate that he’s aware of how often Billy forgoes underwear if it weren’t for the fact that they’re still in basketball together.

He only gets his jeans about half off, and Steve ends up pulling them the rest of the way off for him, picking Billy’s wallet, car keys, and lighter out of his back pockets, setting them on the side table, and acting like he doesn’t see what looks like burns from cigarette butts on his thighs because he  gets it  and he knows it’s none of his fucking business.

He gets Billy situated under his blanket, and leaves the room long enough to fill a glass with some water, setting it on a coaster on the side table, along with a few Tylenol. He’s about to leave the room again, to go sleep in one of the guest rooms, when Billy speaks. He’s still  drunk  and his words are slurring together, but Steve knows that he says, “You should stay. Don’t wanna be alone.”

And — it’s against his better judgment, but he’s fucking tired and the bed is  right there.

Billy looks — surprisingly  soft.  It’s because he’s drunk, Steve figures, but his expression is lacking its usual hardness. He even  smiles  (closed mouth, but still a smile) when Steve steps back towards his bed, flicking the lights off as he goes. They sleep facing away from each other, but Steve still has an easier time sleeping with another person in the bed.

*

Do you, uh, remember anything about last night?” is what Steve asks him over breakfast. (It’s not much of a breakfast. Toast and scrambled eggs. Steve offers him orange juice, too, but they both end up with coffee.)

Billy glances up at him. He looks tired yet a little manic, somehow. “Bits and pieces. I don’t — I don’t wanna talk about it.”

He’s at least being honest, which Steve appreciates. He just nods, says, “It’s cool,” and doesn’t press the issue.

(Later, when Steve drives him a few streets over so he can get his car, Billy leans across the console to give him a quick, but firm, hug, and mumbles, “Thanks for last night,” into the side of his head.)

*

Steve gets an entire pack of cinnamon gum dropped onto his desk the next day they’re at school together, and he may or may not write,  “I forgive you,”  onto another piece of scrap paper that he tapes to a cigarette for Billy.

*

Getting stoned with Billy two Saturdays after the  party  isn’t something that Steve thought was in his cards, but Billy  literally  bumps into him in front of a convenience store, which is where Steve’s had been buying rolling paper, a bottle of water, and a new pack of smokes. He’s standing outside, smoking the first cigarette from the pack when Billy makes his presence known by shoulder checking him on his way out of the convenience store.

He looks like shit, for lack of a better term. There’s a bruise high up on his cheekbone, red streaks, almost, in the way a bruise gets when it’s from a slap, and his eyes look red and a little swollen in the way they had the morning after the party, meaning he’s been  crying.  His hair is a mess, too, not styled so fucking meticulously, but looking a little damp, like maybe he showered and didn’t quite get the chance to get his hair dry. Steve settles on a safe, “Hey, man,” after about twenty seconds of awkwardly staring at each other.

Hey yourself,” is what he quips back. His voice sounds wrecked.

Steve watches as he roots around the pocket of his denim jacket, before producing a stick of spearmint gum. Billy holds it out to him, and Steve takes it, before handing him a cigarette back. It’s quite possibly the most charming way he’s ever had someone ask him for a smoke. Steve lights the cigarette for him, too, and they stand there smoking in silence, at least until Steve thinks to ask, “You get slapped, or something? That’s a nasty bruise.”

How can you tell it’s from a slap?”

Steve shifts back and forth. “Nancy’s slapped me a few times. I had it coming, but they bruised, and that…” He waggles a finger at the bruise, “looks like her slaps did.”

Billy just grunts, and turns to where he’s facing forward, toward the parking lot, instead of toward Steve. “Do you think I could crash on your couch again?”

“’Again’ would imply that you’ve slept on it before,” Steve teases. “My parents are gone. So. Y’know. If you need to, you totally can. And… if you want…” Steve leans over so he can speak into his ear and if he notices the way that Billy leans into him, he doesn’t comment on it. “I can roll one hell of a joint.”

Billy groans softly, head tilting back at the mere mention of getting high. “It’s like you’re finally speaking my language, Harrington.”

*

They end up sitting in Steve’s bedroom, on the floor next to the open window, passing a joint back and forth. Steve has his lights turned down low.

Steve’s face feels not quite  numb,  but sort of numb, and sort of like he can feel  everything  at the same time. He runs his tongue across the insides of his cheek, parting his lips slightly when Billy’s holding the joint to his mouth. “I was born to the wrong fucking family,” Billy starts while Steve’s inhaling as deep as he can. “I can’t afford to get good weed like this. Fuck.”

Steve makes it a point to blow smoke rings, smiling a goofy smile when Billy calls him a dork. “This shit cost me a pretty penny, man. Had to drive up to Chicago for it.”

I should’ve tried being your friend sooner,” Billy admits. Steve looks over at him, and he looks uncharacteristically relaxed as he’s examining the joint, as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.

For the weed?”

Yeah, totally.” It’s not the full truth. “You’re kind of annoying sometimes, but you’re, like… Not half bad, Harrington.”

“’Not half bad.’” Steve says the words, almost to see how they sound on his tongue. “I feel like that’s accurate. Not the greatest, but not the worst company in the world.”

You’re better company than fucking Tommy.” Billy groans, takes one more toke off of the joint, and passes it to Steve. “Jesus — every time I hang out with him, it’s like — he’s like a broken fucking record. Always bitching about whatever weekly fight he got into with Carol the Cunt, or you, or whatever the hell else. It’s like… Everyone in the world has — has layers, and there’s always more than what meets the eye, or whatever bullshit metaphor you wanna use, but with him… He has about as much depth as a traffic cone. Also, you have way better weed than he does.”

All his shit — all his shit is fuckin’ dry, and it burns your throat.” Steve coughs a little bit, and pats his chest. “I know what you mean about him, though. I dunno. I’ve — I’ve changed a lot since I met him, and I had this, like, moment of realization — he’s such a fucking douchebag, and I didn’t wanna be around him.”

Yet you’re hanging out with me.” Billy’s teasing him. He takes the joint back. “Tempted to cut him loose. I’m totally not one to talk about people being douchebags, but he’s, like… He’s a certain kind of douchebag.”

You’re tolerable when you’re not acting like a dick. With him, it’s like he forgot how to be a fucking person. Like, his douchebaggery doesn’t have an off switch.”

He’s a spoiled rich kid. He’s not even here, yet I can smell the entitlement.”

Steve giggles at that. “Honestly, man, you’re right. You’re so right.”

What about you? What’s your deal, Harrington? You are way more laid back than I thought you’d be.” The joint is down to the filter, and Billy hands it back to Steve, for him to finish it off. “If anyone was going to act like an entitled asshole, I’d figure it’d be you.”

Steve deadpans. “A bad break up with someone who was all wrong for me with a dash of trauma and shitty familial relationships.”

Trauma?” Billy looks… Scared, maybe.

Not you.” Steve’s sure to specify. “Jesus — that fist fight was the least traumatizing thing that fuckin’ happened that night. It sucked, or whatever, but I can’t — I don’t have the words to describe the kind of crazy that went on that night. I can’t — I’m not even allowed to talk about it.”

You’re not allowed?” Billy quirks an eyebrow. He turns a little bit, too, leaning against the wall, and facing Steve more so than before. He looks relaxed. He looks like he’s at home. It’s not an unwelcome sight.

Yeah.” Steve laughs, nice and dry and lacking any of its usual warmth. “A few people affiliated with the government turned up, made me sign a bunch of shit.”

You’re fucking with me.” Billy reaches over and jabs him in the arm with a few of his knuckles.

Steve rubs his arm, and shakes his head. He knows he probably has a very  not  okay look on his face, but he still nearly makes a face at the way Billy’s eyes widen.

You’re not fucking with me?”

He shakes his head. “Be glad you didn’t end up getting involved somehow. Probably woulda showed up on your doorstep too.”

Shit, man.” Billy sinks down a little bit more. “I’m too high for this.”

I’m not high enough.” Steve rolls his eyes. “You wouldn’t believe what happened anyways.”

I’m from, like, the white trash part of California. I’ve seen some crazy shit, Harrington.” Billy pushes himself back into a sitting position — a proper sitting position — and just… watches him.

I’m not talking about, like, real life crazy. I’m talking about horror movie crazy. I seriously can’t tell you, but trust me — that shit was fucking nuts.” Steve sits a little straighter too. “My point with all that is, though — I used to be a total asshole, but there’s bigger shit to worry about than high school politics.”

You’re right,” Billy agrees. He blows a lock of his own hair out of his face and Steve’s hand twitches with the urge to reach out and to brush Billy’s hair out of his face himself. He doesn’t do this. “We should hang out more. You’re seriously, like, really not that bad to be around.”

*

Billy doesn’t end up sleeping on the couch.

They sit on the floor for another hour, their conversation derailing into something more casual, and by the time either of them are ready to turn in for the night, Steve winds up asking, “Do you wanna just crash in here?”

Billy hesitates for a moment, before shrugging, muttering something about not giving a shit, and saying, “Sure.”

They don’t wake up cuddling, or anything like that, because this isn’t a movie, but it’s nice to sleep next to someone, Steve thinks. He’s always slept better with someone else nearby and he feels something warm blooming across his chest the next morning as he’s fumbling around his kitchen, putting together a quick breakfast, while Billy sits at the island and mumbles about a new record that a band he likes had just put out.

*

Steve gets two sticks of cinnamon gum slid into the pocket of his coat on Monday morning, and he ends up giving Billy two cigarettes instead of one. Billy gets some sort of small, shy, goofy little grin on his face when Steve gives him the extra cigarette.

*

Hawkins High has an open campus during lunch, one which Steve usually takes advantage of, but he’s not in the mood to drive, since the roads are slick as shit, and since it’s pizza day in the cafeteria, so he ends up eating lunch across from Nancy and Jonathan. Jonathan doesn’t eat, rather sleeps with his head in his arms and Nancy’s jacket covering his head. (He sleeps like he’s dead.) Nancy says something about how he’d stayed up the night before with Will, and Steve doesn’t ask any other questions. There’s still a pit of resentment in his gut towards Jonathan, but he’s not about to knock the guy for being a good brother.

Things are getting easier, he thinks. He’s starting to feel like he can talk to Nancy like they’re  friends  again, and he’s pretty sure that there’s always going to be a part of himself that loves her, but three months can do a lot to dull the ache of heartbreak. Added — Billy’s standing across the cafeteria, staring at him with a blank expression on his face and a stick of gum between his fingers, as if to  ask.

Nancy doesn’t quite know what’s going on, so when she sees Steve with a cigarette in his palm, held up to where Billy can see it, and only for a moment, she gives him some sort of wide eyed look and says, “You  idiot.  Put that down.”

Three months isn’t a long enough period of time to dull the sting of her calling him an idiot, apparently.

Steve shushes her, though, because Billy strides towards their table. To an outside point of view, it looks like they high fived, when in reality he plucks the cigarette from Steve’s palm and leaves a stick of watermelon gum in its place.

At  that,  Nancy’s eyebrows shoot up, curious and judgmental.  “What?”

We made up.” Steve shrugs. She still has a way of making him feel small.

Right.” She rolls her eyes.

Steve sort of regrets sitting with her.

*

He fully regrets sitting with her when Billy manages to get him alone after basketball practice. Steve’s sitting in his car, chewing the stick of watermelon gum from lunch that day and listening to one of his feel-good mix tapes, when there’s three sharp knocks on the window of his car. He startles — more than one would expect from a few knuckles on a window — and he barely recovers from being startled before Billy takes it upon himself to crawl into the passenger’s seat.

He jiggles his legs a little bit, and rubs his own arms, before reaching for the knob that controls the temperature of Steve’s heater to turn it up. “So cold I’m gonna get frostbite on my dick. Jesus.”

Thanks for the imagery,” Steve mutters. “I’m not driving you home, because your car is, like, right there.” And it is. Steve’s pretty sure that Billy makes it a point to park next to him if only to be a dick.

I know, Harrington. I’m the one who parked there.”

Then why are you here?”

To proposition you.”

Oh?” Steve can’t help the shit eating look on his face, and he can’t help that he giggles at the mortified expression on Billy’s face.

Not like that, you freak.” He gently smacks Steve in the shoulder. “Jesus. I meant that we should start hanging out during lunch. I’ve hit my limit on Tommy’s bullshit and I can’t fuckin’ fathom that you’d rather hang out with Wheeler and her creepy boyfriend.”

*

And that becomes another  thing  that they do. Nearly every day, when Steve gets out to his car so he can drive somewhere and get himself lunch, Billy’s leaning against the passenger’s side smoking a cigarette and waiting for him.

They’re a few weeks into their lunch arrangement, sharing a Caesar salad and a few cups of black coffee, when Billy asks, “Whatever happened with you and Wheeler?” They don’t usually talk about anything substantial — usually just about their morning classes and basketball, sometimes music,  sometimes  gossip — so Steve’s a little caught off guard by the question.

It’s kind of hard to explain over lunch,” Steve mumbles. “I mean. We broke up. I’m starting to get over it now, though.”

I know you two broke up.” Billy rolls his eyes. “C’mon, man. You gotta have something juicier than that.”

Why do you even wanna know?” Steve stabs his plastic fork into a bit of chicken and a few pieces of lettuce, before handing the dish back to Billy. (He thinks that, maybe, it’s a little weird that they’re sharing a salad, but Steve’s trying to be frugal with his money and Billy doesn’t seem to give a shit.)

Just to have the satisfaction, if I’m being honest.” A rare moment of vulnerability.

Steve knows he’s doing it on purpose. He picks and chooses which moments to act like a person and Steve feels like he’s going to wind up regretting it when he says, “I’m not gonna go too deep on it, but she did something super shitty, and she wasn’t — she wasn’t, like, always the  nicest  to me. I don’t wanna pull out any big words, or whatever, but we’re better off as friends, not lovers, and currently it’s like I’m just trying to remind my brain of that, I guess.”

Huh.” Billy nods, and shrugs, before taking a pretty large bite of the salad.

You should tell me something about yourself.” Steve reaches over to steal another piece of chicken.

Like what?”

I dunno, man. I don’t really know much about you. It’s not wrong of me to assume that there’s a person under that macho persona of yours, is it?”

Billy shrugs again and pushes his sunglasses up on his nose. They do have that in common — wearing sunglasses at inappropriate times. He’s quiet for a moment, kind of like Steve caught him off guard. Steve’s half expecting him to list his favorite songs or tell him his favorite color, but instead, he says, “Sometimes — sometimes I gotta wonder if I’m, like, actually a person. Which sounds fucking stupid when I say it out loud. It’s like I don’t feel like myself, but also… Was there ever a  me  to begin with? Like — there’s the me that beat the shit out of you because — because it’s like… That gave me some semblance of control, but there’s also the me that’s sitting here with my heart on my sleeve. There’s also the me that lived the first half of my life with two loving parents, and then there’s the me that doesn’t get to have a mom or really even a dad anymore. There’s the me that takes out all of his problems on everyone he knows, and then there’s the me that’s trying to do  better  than that, because I don’t — I don’t wanna end up like my fucking dad.”

Steve knows he could try coddling Billy, try comforting him, but he doesn’t feel like that’s the kind of thing Billy would really appreciate right now. “Sometimes I don’t recognize myself in the mirror,” is the first thing he thinks to say. “I feel like  that  sounds stupid. Sometimes I look in the mirror, though, and it’s like… I know that’s me, I do, but that’s — that’s not the  me  that I know. I keep expecting to see preppy, stupid, high school junior Steve, but all I get is this fucked up dead in the eyes look from high school senior Steve. Like — I’m afraid of the dark and swimming in pools. Who the fuck is afraid of those things, y’know?”

Wanna know a secret?” Billy’s biting his cheek and when Steve locks eyes with him, he only maintains eye contact for a few seconds.

Sure.”

I have to sleep with candles lit at night. Makes me feel like a fucking child, but if I wake up and it’s dark, I freak out.”

That’d explain why you didn’t care about me keeping my lights dimmed while we slept,” Steve mutters.

Billy doesn’t say anything to that, but he does reach over, salad basically forgotten between the two of them, and squeezes his fingers around Steve’s wrist. He only keeps his hand there for a few seconds, but it’s enough to get the point across. It’s a gesture of  comfort  and it’s so small and little and Steve tries really hard to ignore the way he wants to fucking  coo  at him over it.

*

Steve hopes that Billy turning up on his doorstep with a busted lip and a nasty bruise starting high on his cheekbone that spreads into a black eye doesn’t become another  thing.  Steve’s exhausted and a little too high strung right now — hasn’t slept in about two and a half days — so he just blinks a few times, yawns once, and steps back.

Billy gets the hint to enter the house. He plops down on the floor in the foyer to tug his boots off before Steve has a chance to ask him to do so, and Steve ends up having to take Billy’s hands in his own to haul him back up. The first thing that either of them say comes from Billy. He stands in front of Steve, close enough that Steve goes a little cock eyed trying to maintain eye contact, and says, “You look like shit.”

You look like someone fuckin’ punched you out,” comes Steve’s defensive response. “I haven’t gotten much —” any “— sleep in a few days.”

Billy scrunches his face up a little bit, before stepping back, and making his way to Steve’s living room, which is where he takes a seat on the couch, wincing as he does so. Steve sees him cradling his ribs — the ones on his left side — which is enough to prompt him to grab the largest ice pack that’s in the indoor freezer. (His family is the kind of family with indoor and outdoor freezers.)

He comes back to the living room with the ice pack in his hands, and holds it out towards Billy. “I can get a towel for you to wrap around it, if you need.”

Billy hesitates. He hesitates, eyeing the ice pack a little warily, before taking it with a level of gentleness that Steve wasn’t quite expecting. (The few times he’s had to hand Billy anything that wasn’t a cigarette, he hasn’t ever been particularly gentle or careful about it.) He mumbles out a meek little, “Thanks,” before wedging the ice pack between his left arm and his ribs, under his denim jacket but over his t-shirt.

Steve ends up lying on his back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling and yawning every thirty seconds or so.

Billy has his feet up on the coffee table, slouching a little bit. He casts his gaze over Steve, in favor of looking at the TV, if only so he can ask, “Why haven’t you slept in so long?”

I just can’t.” Steve shrugs as best as he can. “I’ve been living off of coffee and cigarettes pretty much.”

You’ve been eating, right?”

Steve lifts his head up, to see that Billy’s frowning, and, god,  concern  is a weird look on his face, but it’s not unwelcome. “I’ve been eating. Last thing I need is to faint during basketball practice.”

You really need to sleep, man.”

Steve snorts, and slides his hand up his shirt to scratch at his stomach a little bit. “Unless  you  want to lay in bed with me and hold me until I conk out, I highly doubt that’s happening any time soon.”

And, truthfully, the last thing out of Billy’s mouth that Steve was expecting was, “I’d do it, if you asked.”

Steve’s too tired to get flustered over it. “Why?”

Returning the favor, and all that, since you’ve let me sleep over three times.”

Three?”

If you think you’re getting rid of me tonight, you’re fuckin’ wrong.” Billy says this in a way to where, although it sounds like a statement, it’s more of a question.

That’s true, yeah.” It’s a yes, a permission granted. “How ready are you to sleep?”

Mm… I’m getting there.” Billy smacks his lips. “I’ve… had a rough night. I could — I could use the rest.”

*

Billy holds him.

Steve doesn’t think he’s ever quite relaxed into someone like he does with Billy. He’s softer than he looks, letting Steve basically burrow down into his chest once they’re under the blankets. He keeps one hand in the small of Steve’s back and the other on one of his shoulder blades. Being close with another guy like this is  new  for Steve, but he’d be lying if he said he’d never thought about it, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t like the way that Billy holds him.

Billy’s fingers splay out over his shoulder blade, then come back together again, sort of  rubbing,  and Steve slowly slides his hand up until his fingers are in Billy’s hair. It’s — it’s just a touch too  intimate,  but he feels Billy holding him a little closer, until Steve tucks his head under Billy’s chin, and they don’t talk about it.

*

Things change, after they cuddle.

Steve doesn’t miss the way that Billy  hovers.  He’s not obvious about it, because subtlety is sort of his  thing,  but there’s a few times over the course of the next month that Billy eyes him a little weird, even mouthing,  “You good?”  at him a few times from across the hall or gym or classroom or  wherever .

Steve always nods once, and Billy always nods back, as if to tell him that he’s allowed to seek him out if he needs it.

And it’s weird. Billy being  nice  — it’s weird. Steve knows that Billy’s only nice to him, specifically, because he’s not  blind.  He sees how he interacts with other students and knows that he occasionally gets into fights, but with him — he’s  nice,  and he’s… gentle. Steve isn’t complaining. Truthfully, he sort of likes the attention.

*

In April, Tina throws another party.

Steve isn’t usually the kind of person who gets  that  drunk, and has a tendency to sneak off to make himself throw up every time he gets roped into a keg stand, but he’s a little stressed, since finals are going to be coming up in another month, and since he has to worry about what to do with the rest of his life, so he shows up with a pint of whiskey, a fresh pack of Marlboro menthols and ends up sneaking off to sit in the hall bathroom.

It’s not an ideal location to get drunk at, but in here, at the very least, the music blaring through the house is muffled, and it’s comforting instead of overwhelming. The bathroom’s been redone since Steve’s last been here, too. The wallpaper’s been replaced with some sort of muted baby shit  green  paint and as Steve’s taking a swig of whiskey from the bottle, forgoing a shot glass, he thinks about what a fucking  ugly  color it is.

Of course, though, he’s interrupted a few swigs later by the lock on the door being picked. He rolls his eyes into the back of his head, and holds the bottle of whiskey with the hand that he’s holding his half finished cigarette in, getting ready to push himself off the ground for whoever’s entering, but the door swings open and — it’s Billy. Because of course it’s Billy.

Billy rolls his eyes when he makes eye contact with Steve. “What the fuck is it with you drinking in bathrooms?” he grumbles out as he steps in and kicks the door shut behind himself. He locks it again, too.

You’re not here to hurl again, are you?”

Billy makes a face and shakes his head. “No.” He slides down against the wall, until he’s sitting on the floor next to Steve. He doesn’t quite have it in himself to complain when Billy’s taking his pack of menthols and stealing one, partially because he follows the theft with, “You didn’t give me one at school yesterday.”

Oh. Sorry.” Steve hands Billy his Zippo. “Been a weird few days, man.”

Apparently so, if you’re drinking from the bottle like that.” He gestures towards the whiskey, and Steve ends up handing it to him. Billy takes a swig of it, and shivers. “Shit. Always pegged you for a whiskey snob.”

You don’t drink the expensive shit if you’re trying to get wasted. It’s like, the first rule of teenage rebellion. Never waste your money if you’re going to drink it all in one night. Unless you’ve stolen it from your parents, in which case…” Steve shrugs as he takes the bottle back. “Why are you in here, if not to smoke my cigarettes and steal my whiskey?”

Same as you, I guess. Here to smoke and get away from the noise for a bit.”

They sit there in silence for awhile after that. The whiskey’s starting to hit Steve about the same time as the nicotine does, and Billy doesn’t complain or say anything when Steve slides down a few more inches, until he’s able to lean against Billy, with his head on his shoulder. He just hands Steve the whiskey bottle again.

You good, Harrington?”

I’m in a shitty mood. I probably — probably shouldn’t have come here.”

Aren’t parties supposed to be, like, the thing you go to to forget about your bullshit?” Steve winces at his word choice.

Yeah, but it’s different when the party’s being held at a place where a lot of your bullshit fuckin’ started.”

Billy frowns a little bit, even if Steve can’t see him. “What do you mean? If you’re talking about the keg stand bullshit—”

Stop fucking saying bullshit. Jesus.” Steve’s skin feels a little too tight. “I don’t give a shit about the keg stand record. It’s just…” He lights another cigarette, and waits to respond until he’s breathed a lung full of smoke. He exhales and loops his arm around Billy’s. “Do you really wanna know about what happened with Nancy?”

I mean… In a sort of nosy way, sure. But — you don’t have to say anything. Like… If it’s one of those things you gotta keep to yourself, that’s totally cool too, dude.”

No. I need — I need to talk about it. No one fuckin’ lets me talk about anything.”

I let you talk about shit all the time.”

Well, yeah. I know you do, which is just… It’s weird — Billy Hargrove being the only person that lets me fuckin’ talk, and doesn’t dismiss me or call me an idiot or tell me that it’s all bullshit. That’s what she did, by the way. Always called me an idiot, and — and she stood in here, in this bathroom, drunk off her fuckin’ ass, and told me that everything about our relationship was bullshit. Told me that I was bullshit. I get saying stupid shit when you’re drunk, but — but I was under the assumption that we were in love, and she basically stood in here and said it was bullshit. And when I asked her about it after the fact, she couldn’t even look me in the fuckin’ eyes and tell me the truth.”

Steve isn’t expecting Billy’s hand to find his own, but it does, and the next thing he knows they’re holding hands. Billy’s hands are warm and kind of sweaty and Steve sort of likes it. He likes how it seems as if their hands fit together perfectly.

It’s like — it’s like she had the touch of Midas, y’know? If I was good enough for her, then I’d be golden. But. Apparently I’m bullshit.” Steve’s chin quivers a little bit and he continues once he recovers from another swig of the whiskey. “I changed everything about myself trying to be perfect for her — and, mind you, I changed for the better — but I did all that, because she pretty much told me to, only for her to say it was all… Bullshit. Like, she turned me into this better person, and it was, like, magical almost, and then she gets drunk once and has the nerve to say it’s all bullshit, that I’m bullshit, that my fucking love for her was bullshit. Then she goes and fucks Jonathan Byers, of all the god damn people she could have fucked, and I guess — I guess the circumstances were extenuating, or whatever, but she did that. Told me everything about our relationship was bullshit then goes and fucks the dude who took pictures of — of us about to fuck! He did that. He seriously camped out behind my house and… took pictures of her with her top off.”

That’s… fucking insulting. Jesus. I’ve never liked her. Everything about her just seems… Thinly veiled. And I’m not stupid — I know how much her breakin’ up with you messed with ya. I pretended like I didn’t care, but… I don’t know. You’re kind of up on a pedestal to me, and the idea that she had the audacity to… Hurt you like that pisses me off.” Billy rubs his thumb against Steve’s.

I really shouldn’t have come to this party,” Steve mutters. There’s half an inch of tears in his eyes that aren’t falling and his cheek his squished into Billy’s shoulder. “It’s been months, and I’m still hurt by it all. I gotta wonder, too, if she was right sometimes.”

Billy ends up nudging him back, and tugging his hand away. He takes the whiskey bottle, and sets it on the floor nearby. Steve thinks he needs to get rid of whatever idea he has of who Billy is, because he’s not expecting him to do or say anything more than he already has. Billy’s hand comes up, until it’s on Steve’s cheek, cupping it, and he keeps Steve there, looking him in the eyes with some sort of hard look on his own face. “I’m gonna tell you something, and I need you to listen to me, okay?”

Steve licks over his top lip, before cocking his jaw a little bit, trying his best to not start crying as he nods and mumbles out a, “Yeah.”

Okay. Steve, you are not bullshit.” He means it. “You’re not stupid, you’re not an idiot, and you’re not bullshit.” Billy puts his cigarette out on the tile floor before continuing. “I’m not — I’m not trying to be weird, but you…” His other hand comes up, cupping Steve’s other cheek. “You are so lovely. Maybe I’m biased, because you’re the only person who’s ever bothered to give me a chance to be good, but I don’t — I don’t even have words for it. You are just so good. Any girl would be lucky to have you, and if Nancy — if she’s too blind and dumb to see that, then that’s on her.”

Steve flicks his cigarette into the toilet, and his hands come to rest on Billy’s forearms. His heart is pitter-pattering in his chest. “I’m gonna end up kissing you if you keep talking like that,” he admits. It’s sort of a joke, but there’s a lot of truth to it, too.

Are you being serious?” Is what Billy asks him. Steve can see how pink his cheeks are.

He considers saying no. “Yeah.”

What if — what if I…” Billy licks over his bottom lick, once, twice. He leans closer. “What if I keep telling you how not bullshit you are?”

Then ’m gonna have to kiss you, dude. I don’t make the rules.” Except — he sort of does, at least right now, but Billy doesn’t comment on it.

I think… I think you’re a great guy, and even if you’re kind of annoying sometimes, anyone — anyone would be lucky to have you love them, because you’re… You’re kind. You care. You’re just — you’re so full of good.”

Steve does it. His head darts forward, until his lips are touching Billy’s, and,  oh.  He’s never quite understood all of those cliches about kissing, not until now. Billy kisses him gently and with a level of tenderness that he wasn’t entirely expecting. Steve’s a little too tipsy to really even be  decent  at kissing right now, but he puts his heart into it, and hopes that, somehow, the affection that’s bubbling up in his chest is translated into the kiss.

Billy seems to get it. One of his hands ends up on the floor to balance himself, and the other ends up tangled in the back of Steve’s hair. It’s nice, being on the same page as someone like this, Steve thinks, when Billy tilts his head and leans into the kiss a little more. He hasn’t ever thought, in depth, about kissing Billy like this, but it’s absolutely not what he expected. It’s not  heated.  There’s  fire  behind it, sure, and Steve’s never been over the moon for a kiss like this before, but he also doesn’t feel like he needs to put on a show or that he’s trying to coax Billy into sucking his dick or something weird like that. There’s no pressure for it to escalate and he  likes that.  It makes the situation less intimidating.

Billy’s the one that pulls away, and when he does, Steve doesn’t feel like he’s about to have a panic attack anymore. Instead, he’s smiling a little stupidly, and Billy’s offering him a kind smile of his own as he asks, “You wanna get out of here, man?”

Steve thinks he might be a little in love.

*

Billy turns up at Steve’s house the week after their kiss, this time sans any bruises or split lips, thankfully. He’s chewing on his cheek and frowning a little bit, in the way that he does when he’s worried or anxious, and Steve starts to wonder when he started figuring out his facial expressions. Somehow, saying anything other than, “Hey, man,” feels inappropriate, or like it’d be too much or too little. Hey, man is safe.

Hey yourself.” Billy shifts on his feet, and flicks a cigarette butt onto the ground, stomping it out with his boot. “Can we, uh…” He uses his finger to gesture between himself and Steve. “I think — shit, I’m not good at this, but, uh… Can we talk?”

Steve knows he sounds a little breathless when he says, “Yeah, of course,” before backing up and reaching for the lapel of his leather jacket, tugging him inside and shutting the door behind him. “If this is about me kissing you — I’m sorry. I was drunk —”

Did it mean nothing? If it meant nothing to you, then we don’t need to have this talk.” He looks… hurt. Kind of.

Steve picks at the bed of his thumbnail with his index fingernail. He bites the inside of his lip. “It didn’t mean nothing. It meant something.”

Okay, then, we need to talk.”

Billy makes a pot of coffee, and they end up sitting in the upstairs hall bathroom, because apparently, talks are best had on cold tile floors over coffee and cigarettes.

Billy’s nervous. He keeps digging his thumbnail into a chip in his coffee mug, and he flicks his cigarette out of his hand a few times. Steve doesn’t laugh at him over the cigarette, but it’s a near thing. He’s jiggling his left leg, too, only stopping when Steve brings his hand down on his knee. (Gently, of course.) “I know I was drunk, and emotional, but, like… I’ve never had a kiss like that before. Not with Nancy, not with nobody. I don’t know if that makes me gay, or what, but… It was a nice kiss, man.”

Billy’s quiet, real quiet, and his face twitches a few times before he says, “I’m gay.” His cheeks go pink and Steve can see the way his eyes water.

I’m cool with that,” Steve tells him. “Also, I mean… No straight guy kisses like that.”

Billy rolls his eyes and takes a sip of his coffee. “Can I talk?”

Always.”

Okay. I’m — I’m real shit at the whole… Verbalizing my emotions thing. First of all, fuck you, because I came here to tell you that if you say anything, you’re dead, but now we’re — we’re here.”

Steve has to bite his cheek to keep the smile off his face.

You asked me why I apologized to you, and I kinda… I didn’t, like, tell you the whole truth.” His voice is up an octave higher than it usually is and it cracks once near the end, and, god. Steve’s heart starts pitter-pattering again. “I meant the apology, obviously, but it’s, like… I apologized partially because when we — when we got into that fight, after that, I thought… I made the bold assumption,” he does a little gesture with his hand, “that I would stop getting this, like, fuzzy feeling in my stomach over you. Fuckin’ obviously, I didn’t, and avoiding you wasn’t working, so I figured, fuck it, I may as well apologize. Above the guilt and me genuinely wanting to try and be better, I still had this little crush on you and apologizing just… Seemed like a good choice.”

I love hearing you talk, but, like… Your cheeks are so pink, dude. It’s — it’s kinda cute.”

Billy makes a face and jabs Steve in the thigh. “Seriously, fuck off.”

Steve smiles. He sets his coffee mug on the floor next to him, so he has a hand free to reach up and twirl a lock of Billy’s hair between his fingers, partially because he just wanted to, and also to see how Billy would react. (He gives Steve a weird look, at first, but lets him do it anyways.)

I’m gonna keep going. I’ve been — I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve been tryin’ real hard to fuckin’… Formulate my thoughts, y’know, in a surprising gesture of emotional maturity, and you’re not gonna make fun of me for what I’m about to say, because I’m gonna say it once, now, and maybe if I’m ever, like, really drunk, I might say it in the future, but — when I first saw you, it was like — it was like seeing in color for the first time.” Steve quits playing with Billy’s hair, and his hand settles on the back of his neck. “I don’t know how else to describe it. I saw your face, and it’s like — everything got a little sharper, a little more intense. I know — I know I’m supposed to… Not have emotions. I’m this big bad asshole — I’m not supposed feel anything, but I have — I have emotions. I have a lot of fucking emotions — big emotions. I kept waiting — wanting you to turn out to be this fucking asshole, like everyone said you were, so I could get over it, but you’re just… You’re good.”

Billy looks him in the eyes, now. He looks — floored, maybe. He looks tired, too, like he’s never gotten a good night’s rest in his entire life.

You’re allowed. To have emotions, I mean. I like you better when you’re not pretending,” Steve admits. “I like you either way, but… It makes me feel… happy, when you’re not putting on an act. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen yourself smile, but I’m telling you — it’s fuckin’ beautiful. And — and I appreciate, like, the honesty, obviously.” Steve moves his hand up from the back of Billy’s neck, lacing his fingers into his hair. He doesn’t ball his fist up or do anything to pull it, rather just keeps his hand there, maybe as a gesture of intimacy, smiling when Billy closes his eyes and leans into it. “Are you asking me out, man?”

Maybe. That depends. Are things gonna get weird?”

Steve shrugs. “I mean, I don’t think so. When you really think about it…” He rubs his fingers into Billy’s scalp, before continuing. “We’ve kinda… been dating for awhile. Maybe. I mean — not to, y’know, get ahead of myself, but… We eat lunch together almost every day. You’re at my house more often than not. There’s the thing with the gum and the smokes. Then… we kissed, that one time. And there’s the whole thing where sometimes you sleep over just so I can sleep. I also kinda… sometimes feel like you’re the only person I can talk to about stuff. I’m also, like… into you. Like that. And if the feeling is mutual, then… I don’t see why we shouldn’t.”

My dad would kill me if he found out I had a boyfriend, and I’m not even joking,” Billy mumbles. He opens his eyes, but he’s not making eye contact with Steve. “I’ve met your parents a few times, too. Can’t imagine they’d be too pleased.”

Fuck our parents.” Steve scoffs. “Dude, c’mon. Fuck your dad, especially, but… No one has to know. I mean, I’m not about to sit my parents down and tell them I got a boyfriend. They’re already pissed at me because I don’t wanna go to business school like they want. That’d be, like, the nail in the coffin, for sure. I’m not — I’m not gonna beg you, ‘cause if you want that, then that’s gotta be, like, something you choose without me hounding you about it.”

Steve ends up with his arms full of Billy after he finds himself being hugged. It reminds him of the one party, where Billy had gotten black out drunk and Steve had to hold him and calm him down, except this time, he’s not sobbing. He just has his face tucked against Steve’s shoulder, holding him tight. “I want that, more than you think,” he mumbles.

Steve squeezes him a little tighter.

I’m jus’ afraid that he’s gonna find out somehow, and y’know… Short of me getting my teeth kicked in for being a faggot, I don’t — I don’t want him to go after you, or something. Jesus — you shouldn’t be making me feel like I’m about to, like, explode. Way too fuckin’ nervous.”

After the year I’ve had, your dad is probably the least of my worries,” Steve tells him. He runs his hand over Billy’s hair. “If you’re — if you’re feelin’ too nervous, I do have a few bowls worth of weed left. That’s another thing, man — date me, and you can totally bum weed from me.”

Billy snorts. “You’re a fucking dork. Jesus.”

We also don’t have to, like… label it. It’s just — we obviously have feelings for each other, or whatever, and I mean… Until you tell me to get lost, I’m probably not gonna be fucking anyone else.”

You already aren’t fucking anyone else,” Billy points out, lifting his head a little bit. “Shit — you aren’t even fucking me!”

There’s a first time for everything.”

Billy actually laughs at him. He pulls away from the hug to do it, too, and Steve can feel himself going red in the face.

Billy doesn’t laugh too often, but Steve’s heard him laugh enough that he can tell the difference between his actual laugh, and the charming little fake laugh he uses with the girls he flirts with. His real laugh is more of a shriek, and he usually only laughs for a little bit before choking on his spit and coughing, and it really shouldn’t be so fucking endearing. Steve’s cheeks are definitely burning, but he’s starting to fall into his own fit of giggles as he’s reaching over to pat Billy on the back.

Later, once they’ve moved from the bathroom to one of the pool loungers next to, shockingly enough, the pool in Steve’s backyard, Billy says, “I really don’t wanna label it, because of my dad, and because I’m — I’m afraid I’m gonna freak myself out, but can we, like… Do… boyfriend things, and also not date anyone else…?” His voice sounds thick and suddenly the arm he has around Steve’s waist feels heavier than ever. “I feel stupid.”

You’re not stupid, man.” Steve adjusts his position, hiking a leg over Billy’s, getting comfortable. “What counts as boyfriend things?” Maybe he’s teasing a little bit. Maybe.

Fuck off, Steve. You know what I mean.”

*

Steve gets a stick of bubblegum flavored gum slid into the back pocket of his jeans on Monday.

At first, he thinks Billy’s copping a feel (and, really, in hindsight, he probably was) but when he reaches into his back pocket once Billy’s walked off, he finds the stick of gum. On the inside of the wrapper is a heart doodled in black pen and, oh. Steve’s own heart catches in his throat, and he’s sure to carefully stick the wrapper into his binder before popping the gum into his mouth.

*

Dating Billy in an unestablished and non traditional way is different than it was dating Nancy, Steve realizes. He knows it’s unfair to compare the two, but Nancy’s the only other person he’s ever been serious about, and she’s the only person he has to compare what he has with Billy to.

Things with Billy don’t feel so one-sided and Steve doesn’t feel like he needs to be someone else just to get the time of day from him. Billy’s surprisingly honest about his feelings — an open book, maybe — and doesn’t leave Steve in the dark. When he’s mad, or upset, or frustrated, Steve’s going to hear about it, and they’re going to talk about it, because Steve grew up in a household where no one fucking talked about anything, and Billy grew up in a household where he wasn’t allowed to talk about his problems, so they talk, a lot, and it’s shockingly refreshing.

More on the petty side of things, Steve learns (well, he learned awhile ago, but it’s a bit more obvious now that they’re now allowed to be a little looser with their words around each other) that Billy doesn’t get belligerent when he’s drunk. For the most part, he’s goofy and a fucking sap and instead of tearing Steve down he always gets this sort of starry eyed look on his face whenever he looks at him, sighs happily, and says, “I’m so glad you’re m’ boyfriend,” with a dumb, shy little smile on my face. “Coulda been aaany of these fuckin’ jerks that got to be with you, but it’s me. I’m glad you chose me.”

And Steve, regardless of if he's drunk or high or both, always says something along the lines of, “It’s always you, baby," back to him, if only to see the wide, genuine grin Billy gives him.