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you're cold (and i burn)

Chapter Text

Steve was used to patching his own wounds. He didn’t remember learning how, being taught. He guessed it was more of a survival instinct than a formal education, figuring out how to mend himself. Put the pieces back together. The ones you could see. The ones you couldn’t.

Apply pressure. Stop the bleeding. Wash it out. Wrap it up. Leave it alone. Maybe it’ll feel better in the morning. Let it heal.

Keep a bat in your trunk. Keep another by your bed. Make sure your sneakers are always tied. Lock all the doors. Lock them again. Try to sleep. Maybe it’ll feel better in the morning. Let it heal.

The Battle of Starcourt wasn’t a wound the rest had prepared him for. It didn’t bleed. It burned. Raged beneath his skin. Ran like fire in his veins. Opened old scars he thought had faded. Ripped out years worth of stitches that stretched across his body like constellations. Ached and stung for hours that turned into days and just when he thought the fire was dying, it would flare, flames burning bright. In his lungs. Beneath his feet. Behind his eyes.

Let it heal, he told himself. Let it all fade. The bruises marring his face. The cuts lining his cheeks. The prick of a needle in his neck. The echo of the Mind Flayer’s scream. Of Billy’s scream. His body hitting the floor.

One simple switch, stroke of fate, and it could have been him. Could have easily been Steve. Him under the Mind Flayer’s control. Him screaming. Him hitting the floor. Him they were mourning.

He pressed the heels of his shaking hands against his eyelids and stars exploded in his vision like fireworks. Like the Fourth of July. Maybe one day the colors shrieking across the sky wouldn’t blend with the helpless ring of Billy gasping for air, the endless stretch of white noise that followed when the gasping ceased. Wouldn’t make him lightheaded. Dizzy. Disoriented.

It will fade. Let it heal.

Steve could hardly even remember the first few days after it happened. Not with the way his memory had gone hazy and blurred from stress and lack of sleep. Moments of clarity bled through randomly if he thought about it hard enough.

Joyce sitting them down and explaining what had happened to Hopper. The endless stream of non-disclosure agreements that were pushed into their faces. The first newscast that talked about the mall. Robin’s face when they finally properly told her about the Upside Down.

She was a major reason he’d been able to find the surface after days of drowning. Robin. She helped him come up for air. Pulled him out of his head when he got too quiet. Dragged him to the movies when he’d be going home to an otherwise empty house. Teased him at the video store like she would do at Scoops.

He knew how lucky he was to have her.

Dustin, too. Asking him for rides. Inviting him over for dinner. Making him tag along at the arcade. Showing up to hang out at the video store.

It all seemed normal. Played like normal.

Until he went to sleep and the nightmares stung like someone had poured salt in his mending wounds. Pushed on his bruises. Shattered him and hid the pieces.

They were always similar. Variations on the same theme. Starcourt. The Mind Flayer. Billy.

Sometimes they would play out like reality. He’d be forced to watch Billy die again, hanging over the railing, useless from the second floor. Forced to listen to Max sob over her brother while he struggled to run down the broken escalator.

Sometimes the dreams would stray. The Mind Flayer would turn and look up, kill him. Or Robin. Or the kids. Or El wouldn’t be able to get through to Billy and nothing would stop the Mind Flayer from following through with its plan to get her.

He’d wake up with a jolt that made it feel like he was falling. Always out of breath. Hair damp with sweat. Sheets tangled around his body. Sometimes he was silent, as though the dreams had crept in like a poison that killed him slowly. Sometimes he’d be screaming.

This had happened once before. In the first few weeks after the demodogs. When the Upside Down was still raw and terrifying and painfully new.

The nightmares had faded then. They would fade again. Eventually.

Move on. Let it heal.

Maybe that’s why he said yes when Max asked him to help move boxes out of Billy’s room after the dust settled. He could hear her voice. Too many. Too heavy.

Just like his wounds. His grief. Too many. Too heavy.

Robin had been dumbfounded when he told her he was going. They were in the middle of reorganizing the horror section by year-because apparently alphabetical was too archaic-when he dropped the bomb.

She’d gaped at him. Went dead still so that she could just stare.

“Lemme see if I heard you right,” she started. “You’re gonna go there and clean out Billy’s room? Like Billy Hargrove’s room?”

He shook his head, deliberately not looking at her. “I’m not cleaning out his room.”

“Really?” Her voice pitched up in that way it did when she thought she was right. “Because it sounds like you’re going there to clean out his room.”

“No it’s not-Max asked for help, alright? She said she can’t move his stuff out by herself.”

“Doesn’t she have parents for that?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” He reached over her to shove a cassette onto the top shelf. “Her brother just died. I feel bad.”

“Her step-brother just died and he beat the shit out of you not too long ago,” she said, matter of fact. “Or did he hit you so hard you forgot?”

“That was like months ago,” he said, leaning further into her space so that she had to move with a huff. “And you don’t get to use that because you weren’t even there.”

“Coulda been if you’d gotten the stick out of your ass sooner.”

“I didn’t have a stick in my ass.”

“Yes you did,” she said, lips twisted into a smirk. “The douchebag stick.”

“Whatever,” he mumbled. “That’s still not the point.”

“Well what exactly is the point? Because I don’t see one.”

“You don’t have to see one,” he argued. “I’m gonna go ‘cause it’s-it’s the right thing to do, okay? Let it go.”

“Okay, okay. Fine, you win.” She waved the videos she had in each hand like a white flag. “Go be a knight in shining armor, but don’t come crying to me when your arms are sore tomorrow.”

He didn’t care what she had to say about it, though.

Saying yes felt right. Like an apology. A eulogy Steve knew he couldn’t speak given his and Billy’s history. An understanding of the penance Billy thought his sacrifice would serve.

A sacrifice, a penance that would reap no rewards. Would never change anything. Would never help Billy find peace. Would never erase July 4th, 1985.

Go help Max. Let it heal.

The Hargrove-Mayfield house was nothing like he had expected. Bright. Open. Warm. Curtains printed with bright flowers. Pretty vases filled with seashells. Cream-colored walls accented with teal green. It wasn’t hard to imagine the way it all probably clashed with denim, with a battered leather jacket. With jagged edges and a sharp tongue.

In that way, Billy’s bedroom was everything he had expected. Cold. Empty. Lifeless. Still only half packed up. Walls lined haphazardly with band posters. Sheets crumpled down at the end of his bed. Thin tapestry hiding one of the windows halfway. Bedside table littered with belongings; cassettes, headphones, a telephone, pack of cigarettes, glass ashtray.

Steve hadn’t known he’d been holding his breath until Max picked up one of the cardboard boxes from the floor and walked past him. He released it with a shaky exhale, loud to his own ears like he’d been running sprints. He picked up a box, small and deceptively heavy, and followed her outside. Dropped it into the bed of the run-down pickup truck parked in their driveway.

They made this same trip a few times. Back in, back out. Back in, back out. Until there were only two more boxes left.

Max took one, walked past him. He heard the distant slam of the screen door as she went back out to the driveway.

Alone in Billy’s room for the very first time, his eyes wandered, gravitated instantly towards his bed. Those crumpled sheets. The same way Steve’s looked when kicked his off in the morning. The same way he’d leave them until it was time to go to sleep again. Certain he’d be back to pull them up to his neck and rest under their safety.

Billy would never be back to pull them up. To rest.

Something like nausea pulled uncomfortably in his gut, threatened to spread up his chest and spill over.

He tore his gaze away and it landed back on the bedside table. Attention drawn to the glass ashtray on display towards the front. Entirely out of place amongst the rest of his things, worn, tattered, and torn. Distracted by the way it sparkled in the light from the half exposed window behind it, bending the rays in every which direction.

It was heavy in his hand when he dumped it out in the garbage in the corner, cleaned it, brushed it off with the sleeve of his jacket.

Newly polished, he walked it back over towards the window. Examined it. Ran his thumb over its dips and smooth edges, hard lines and rounded corners. Delicate. Ornate. Watched the way it refracted the light into a rainbow onto the stark white wall. Angled his wrist, followed the beam around the room until it landed on the last cardboard box.

He hesitated. Thought of this pretty, little glass ashtray buried in the bottom of one of those boxes. Frowned at the thought of it being stored away. Hidden beneath records and clothes. Lost. Forgotten.

The screen door swung open with a pang and, before he could think, he stuffed the ashtray into his jacket pocket. Zipped it closed just in time for Max to walk through the doorway.

“There’s one left, Steve. What’s the hold up?”

His lips pulled into a tight smile. “Nothing. Just, uh, needed to catch my breath.”

He picked up the last box and left Billy’s room behind him. Kicked the screen door open with his foot, dropped the box off in the bed of the truck.

As he wiped his hands off on his jeans, a beat up Cadillac parked along the curb. Two doors slammed. Out from one came a petite woman with burnt orange hair, kind of young, very pretty. Definitely Max’s mom. Out from the other came a man with hard eyes, set jaw, broad shoulders. Definitely Billy’s dad.

He approached Steve with heavy, stomping footsteps on the gravelly driveway. Zeroed in with a shark like focus that made Steve feel like he should be backing up.

“You were helping Maxine, right?” His voice was a stern hum, reminded Steve of some general he might see in a war movie. Made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.

“Yeah, we just finished up actually. I’m Steve.” He held his hand out, offered what felt like a polite smile, but Billy’s dad didn’t extend his own, didn’t acknowledge it, not even when he set his feet. “Steve Harrington.”

“How much do I owe you?” he asked, gruff, short.

Steve felt his lips twitch, his eyebrows pinch. Let his hand fall slowly, uncomfortably. “Owe me?”

“For helping her.” He got his wallet out of his jeans and began to rifle through it. “How much do you want?”

“Oh. I don’t-” he stared blankly at the ten-dollar bill being pushed in his direction, “I don’t want anything. Max called in a favor and I wanted to help.”

He didn’t seem like the man to offer anything twice and proved Steve’s suspicion when he shoved the wallet back into his pocket, made like he was going to push off his heel to keep walking.

Steve panicked in the awkward tension, spoke on pure impulse.

“I’m really sorry about Billy,” he said, the words spilling out before he could think better of them. “It’s awful what happened to him.”

Billy’s dad stopped dead in his tracks and Steve watched the sharp line of his jaw as it clenched, mouth a thin line.

He knew the story the public had been told. That Billy had been in a car crash. Knew Billy was reckless enough for the story to be more than halfway believable. Knew the totaled Camaro and his broken body made up for what little doubt might’ve been leftover.

He could have guessed Billy didn’t have the best home life, that there was something deeper lurking beneath the macho, go fuck yourself attitude that he played at so well.

He never could have guessed Billy’s dad would laugh. A sound so ugly and harsh that it cut through him like glass, suddenly afraid of the cruelty his next few words might possess.

Steve was almost grateful that he walked past him without a word. Max’s mom trailed close behind, threw him a tight-lipped smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes before she disappeared into the house. Max waved to him from the window and he tried to smile back, but he didn’t feel much of himself in it.

The long drive back to his house was shaded hues of orange and pink as the sun set in the sky above him. Gave way to the quiet, starry night sky and the constant chirp of crickets out in the woods. Little more than a faint drone beneath the radio, which he had up so high it distorted the notes. Distorted the ring of a dark laugh in his ears.

When he walked in the front door, he went right up the stairs. Ignored his mom as she called from the kitchen that she had a plate saved from dinner if he wanted it. Ignored his dad before he could start with whatever and where exactly have you been all day?

He locked the door behind him and unzipped his jacket. Went to throw it on his bed like he normally did, but stopped when it hung heavier in his hands than usual.

He’d forgotten all about the little, glass ashtray he’d taken from Billy’s room. Pulled it out of the pocket. Turned it over in his hands. Eyed it carefully. He wondered if anyone noticed it was missing yet. Wondered if anyone would notice it was missing at all.

A thought that both hurt his stomach and eased his guilt about stealing it.

He placed it down gently on his bedside table, all but empty except for his lamp and clock. Mirrored the way Billy’d had it, out in the middle, pushed towards the front like it was on display. Begging to be looked at.

Steve didn’t even smoke anymore. Gave it up sometime in the spring. There was still the occasional restless cigarette here and there, but nothing consistent, not steady like the habit used to be.

He liked the way the ashtray looked, though. Liked how it reminded him of a simpler time. Not of monsters, but of persistent teasing and the occasional shove at basketball practice. Of a fight that put an end to all of that, but not to Billy’s eyes, which Steve felt on him constantly through the halls, in class, the locker room. Put him on edge. Made him a little hot under the collar. Had him wishing that Billy would just open his mouth and say something, put an end to the stalemate and let things return to how they used to be.

He liked the way looking at it helped him remember that Billy. Not his body lying flat and bloody on the floor of Starcourt mall. Liked the way it made him feel.

Let it heal.

He fell asleep with his head tipped in its direction. Splayed out on his stomach, hands folded beneath the pillow. Deep and dreamless for the first time in days.

He woke once to the sound of a hard thud across the room. Like something had fallen. Maybe got knocked over in another room. He squinted into the darkness, hardly even lifted his head off the pillow. Saw nothing.

He thought nothing of it.

So he fell back. Back into that peaceful, perfect sleep.

Chapter Text

It was almost like Steve forgot what a full night’s sleep felt like.

The way it made your muscles feel a little looser. The way it made the air smell a little sweeter. The way it made the world a little brighter. Made it easier to walk. Breathe. Talk.

Exist.

“Well would you look at the pep in that step,” Robin teased when he walked into work that morning with a smile, plopping two coffees down on the counter. “And he brought the good stuff, too. You remembered-”

“Three sugars and skim milk instead of half and half.”

“And I-”

“Hate when there’s foam so please make sure you explicitly ask for no foam, Steve. I’ll die if I taste foam,” he mimicked.

Her eyes went wide. “Impressive.”

“It’s the pep,” he said, smug.

“I like it.” She took a testing sip of the coffee and raised her eyebrows like she was surprised when it didn’t make her gag. “So are you always this happy after an afternoon of manual labor? Because if that’s the case, I think there are some boxes outside that’ll really make your day.”

“No shot,” he laughed. “And it wasn’t the manual labor so much as the amount of sleep I got after.”

“Ah, knockout. Red Leader put you to work that bad, huh.”

“Nah, not bad,” he shook his head. “It was good actually. And I think it-I don’t know. Helped. Somehow.”

She shot him a look.

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Yeah, no, It’s great,” he agreed.

“What’s the face for then?”

“I don’t know,” he said, looking down at his hands, curled around his cup. “I’m just kinda afraid it was a one time deal, you know. Like, ‘Here. Feel better but also fuck you.’

“You’ll be okay,” she said in that way that told Steve he wasn’t allowed to argue even if he wanted to. “Trust me. I’ve got a sixth sense for these things. Nothing’s gonna say ‘fuck you’ just yet.”

By the grace of God or whatever the hell was looking down on him, she was right. Sleep did come easily that night. Continued to come easily.

Again the next night. The night after that. On and on for days until the dark circles beneath his eyes were little more than faint shadows. Perfect all but for the thud would wake him once, find him staring into the empty space until a second wave of exhaustion would crash and pull him under.

Tonight, it was that same hard thud that woke him for the ninth time in as many days, but it was something new that perked his ears. The soft pad of footsteps. The creak of his floor. Silence. The sudden awareness that he was being watched.

He inhaled slowly, let consciousness take its time to seep back into his bones. Rolled over onto his back without any real grace and brought a hand up to wipe the sleep from his face.

His blood went cold at the pair of eyes looking down at him.

Blue like steel. Painfully familiar.

The name fell from his lips like a gasp.

“Billy?”

It was as though the word summoned a wind. Wiped away a set of steel blue eyes and a head of golden curls like a breeze had blown through the room and Steve was left to lie helpless as the boy looking down at him disappeared into the air without a word.

Like he’d never even been there at all.

He stared at the empty space, frozen in place, in time. Different from the empty space he’d grown accustom to. Unable to move or look away. Wondering if another breeze would come and bring the image back.

Bring the boy back.

No such wind came.

He held his breath until his alarm went off. Hours later, sunlight harsh in his eyes, bright where it peeked in through the curtains.

Finding the motivation to get out of bed and go to work took about forty-five minutes longer than usual. He toyed with the idea of calling in sick more than once, but he knew Robin would see right through it. That she’d end up at the house after her shift to catch him.

He didn’t look in a mirror before he left. Didn’t need to see his reflection to know that he looked like shit. Not when Robin was just going to tell him what he already knew was true.

The bell had barely even dinged above his head before she started.

“Well you look like hell,” she stated, casual, like they were discussing the weather. He ignored her, put his keys down on the counter with a sigh. “What’s the matter, Popeye? Somebody break into your house and try to steal your spinach?”

“No.” He shrugged out of his jacket, tossed it onto the floor. He leaned forward against the counter, ran his hands through his hair, closed his eyes, tried for a few steadying breaths.

Her smile began to fade when she realized he wasn’t in the teasing mood. That he was off. “Bad night?”

“Kinda.”

“Nightmare?”

“Not exactly.”

“You could take a nap in the back if you want.” She pointed back over her shoulder. “Keith won’t be in for another couple of hours and I can-”

“No, it’s fine. I-can we just, I don’t know. Talk about something else? Please?”

She took a second to think to herself. “I watched a really dumb movie last night.”

“Tell me about it.”

So she did.

She spent pretty much their entire shift rambling to him about anything and everything she could think of. Never let a beat pass without a word. Never let an awkward silence close around Steve’s throat.

He was grateful for that. For her. He now knew more about Katharine Hepburn and the forgotten virtues and magic of Old Hollywood than he ever cared to-I mean seriously, Steve. What self-respecting person hasn’t seen ‘Bringing Up Baby’? - but he was still grateful.

It was sheer exhaustion that found Steve asleep that night, eyes half closed as he changed out of his clothes and into pajamas. Eyes fully closed by the time he pulled his comforter up to his chin. Out cold before his cheek had made a lasting indent on the pillow.

But it was that very same thud that found him awake again. This time, with a jolt, shooting straight up in his bed. Already out of breath and eyes wide open.

His gaze went to the middle of his floor. To where he was laying.

To where Billy was laying, flat on his back, wincing.

Billy sat slowly, knees bent in front of him. He buried his face in his hands, pushed at his eyes. Even in the shadows, Steve could see the shake in his hands. The tremble in his shoulders. Heard the labored wheeze of his breaths, fast and uneven.

Gently, Steve kicked his sheets down, swung his feet over the edge of the bed to get a better look.

“Billy?”

His head shot up, eyes narrowed when they locked on Steve, like he was trying to figure out who it was staring back at him in the dark.

“Harrington?” His voice was small, harsh like it hadn’t been used.

Steve didn’t say anything. Just watched as Billy squeezed his eyes shut tight, pushed his palms against his temples, curled his fingers in his hair, tugged on it, let out a noise that sounded like a whine.

Steve all but jumped out of bed.

“Hey, hey, you’re okay.” He let his toes touch the floor, started to approach him, careful not to make his footsteps too loud. He stopped a safe distance away and sat down in front of him, cross-legged, intent. “Billy, you’re okay. It’s all over.”

But Billy still hadn’t moved and guilt wrapped around Steve’s heart like a vice, tightened when he finally opened his eyes, wet, glazed over with tears. Blue like steel.

“Am I dead?”

The vice tightened further. Around his heart. His stomach. His neck.

Steve didn’t trust his voice and so he nodded, once, slow. Watched the line of Billy’s throat as he swallowed, hard, silent as he processed the words.

“Fuck.” The word hung in the air no louder than a breath. A tear slipped from his eyes and rolled down his cheek. “I knew it. I knew it was gonna get me.”

“Knew what was gonna get you?” Steve resisted the urge to move closer. To reach out and touch. Comfort.

“That thing.” Billy wrapped his arms around his knees, pressed his forehead into them, hid his face, muffled his words. “In my head. It told me. It told me it would.”

“Okay, but it’s gone now. It’s gone, we got rid of it.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do. We-” Steve’s breath caught. “We killed it.”

Billy lifted his head again, blinked at him.

“Is that what killed me?” he asked, blunt, voice thick with an emotion Steve wasn’t sure he had a name for.

He turned his head towards the window, unable to look into Billy’s glassy eyes while he lied to him. “I don’t know.”

Billy went quiet then. The room grew still. Too still.

Steve turned back. He was gone.

Like a breeze had blown through the room.

Like he’d never even been there at all.

Steve sat there, blank, stared at the empty space until his alarm went off. Unable to shake the image of Billy Hargrove, the very same Billy Hargrove that he watched die a few weeks ago, crying in the middle of his bedroom. Hardly even an arms length away.

Robin didn’t even make a comment about what he looked like when he walked through the door. Just started to talk. Fill the silence.

Steve bought her lunch so that he didn’t have to say thank you.

But every time she so much as took a breath, he could hear the words playing in his head.

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

Over and over and over again like a broken record. Like a deep crack down the middle of a vinyl horror story.

He was still fairly zoned out, still thinking of the crying boy sitting on his bedroom floor by the time the sun had set and he had to pick Dustin up from the arcade. Dustin, who’d been rambling a mile a minute about who knows what for God knows how long.

Until he wasn’t.

“Steve?” Silence. “Steve?”

“Wha-what?” Steve asked, sitting up a little straighter, like he’d been shaken awake, but Dustin said nothing. “What?”

“Have you been listening to anything I’ve been saying?”

“Yeah! Yeah, of course I was,” he said, quick. Probably too quick. “You were talking about that, uh. Thing. You know. The one that makes you change,” he hesitated, “shapes? And stuff?”

“No.” Dustin was already shaking his head. “It’s not a thing, it’s a serum they’re trying to develop in Switzerland. And it doesn’t make you change shapes, it helps you change physical forms,” he explained. “Like in the one in 'The Nutty Professor'.”

“Cool, that’s-yeah. Very cool.”

“Have you even seen that movie?” he deadpanned.

“No?” He could see Dustin rolling his eyes in his peripheral vision. “Jesus, you need to stop hanging out with Robin. You sound just like her.”

“Yeah well I like her. She listens to me.”

“Come on, don’t be a dickhead,” he sighed, definitely too tired for this conversation. “I listen to you, too. I’m just tired.”

Dustin paused, lips turned into a frown. “Still not sleeping?”

“Not really,” he mumbled. “It’s been better, but last night was-it wasn’t great.”

Dustin went quiet next to him and the silence made Steve’s skin crawl, so bad that he contemplated turning on the radio. When he did finally speak, it was slow, like he didn’t know how Steve was going to react.

“Look, man, I get it. I do. But don’t you think it’s, I don’t know.” It took him a long second to keep going. “Time? To let some of it go?”

Let it heal.

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

“S’a lot easier said than done.” Steve’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, tried not to think of Billy’s steel blue eyes. Wet with tears. “People died. I-I can’t just, let it go.”

“Yeah but-”

“I’m not talking about this,” Steve snapped. “You wanna tell me more about your nerd serum or whatever? Go ahead. But just stop with this. I don’t wanna hear it.”

Dustin shifted his weight, obviously unsure of what to do with the sudden outburst. “Yeah, uh, sure. Okay. Whatever you want.”

And so they moved on.

Steve basically fell into bed the second he shut the door behind him. It was hardly even 10 PM, but he couldn’t help it, exhausted beyond recognition at this point and all too eager to quiet his thoughts if only for a little while. Quiet the voice in his head.

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

Let it heal.

He expected the thud that came. That woke him from a sound sleep.

He looked out across the floor. Watched Billy as he sat up, this time calmer, knees pulled up in front of him. The shake in his shoulders was gone and his eyes were slow as they scanned the room.

Steve walked over to him on soft feet. Stopped a few feet away, sat down in front of him. Billy looked at him, stared at him, silent.

Being so close afforded Steve the opportunity to rake his eyes over Billy’s strong frame, still clad in the white tank top and jeans he’d been wearing at the mall. Search for any sign of blood, any trace of his wounds. He found none. Not even a scratch.

It shook him from his thoughts when Billy spoke.

“Where am I?” His voice was small, but even, an obvious improvement from the night before.

The simplicity of the question made Steve’s head spin. “You’re uh, in my house. Or, well, my room.”

“Heaven is your bedroom?” he asked. Didn’t wait for Steve to answer before he dropped his eyes, mumbled, “Jesus, that’s some kind of sick joke.”

“No, it’s not-” Steve shook his head, blinking hard. “This isn’t Heaven.”

Billy leaned forward to rest his elbow against his knee, pillowed his forehead against his palm. “Downstairs then. Makes more sense.”

Steve might’ve laughed if the implication didn’t make him want to throw up. “No, it’s-it’s not Hell either. I don’t think.”

“Gotta be one or the other.” Billy lifted his eyes to find his again, face twisted with something like confusion. “I thought you said I was dead.”

So he did remember the night before.

The bluntness of the statement made Steve’s jaw go slack. Knocked the wind from his lungs. All he could do was nod.

Billy’s eyes followed the gesture carefully, quietly, burning with an intensity that sent a heat prickling up Steve’s neck.

“Am I a ghost?”

He asked it with the kind of resigned indifference that told Steve he already knew the answer.

Steve didn’t know why the question made his pulse speed, but his heart racked against his ribs.

“I guess so,” he said, didn’t really know how to answer him any other way. “Either that or I’m going crazy.”

“Crazy?” Billy asked, tilting his head, watching him. “What’s the matter, pretty boy? Afraid you’re dreaming me up?”

“Yeah. Kinda.” Steve shifted his weight, balled the material of his pajama pants in his fist, squeezed, mumbled, “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

The ghost of a smirk pulled at Billy’s lips, a gesture so familiar, so normal, so alive that it made Steve’s chest ache.

“See me in your dreams a lot?”

“Yeah.” Steve’s eyes dipped to watch the way Billy’s free hand twitched on his knee, fingers curling reflexively like there should be something in them.

“Anything good?”

Steve shook his head, huffed a humorless laugh. “No.”

“Shame.” The word was soft, made Steve look back up, narrow his eyes, just slightly. “But don’t flatter yourself. You’re not going crazy.”

Steve lifted his shoulders in a shrug that was half-hearted at best. “Could be. You don’t know.”

Billy chuckled at that and Steve wasn’t entirely sure why. “I know better than you do.”

Steve lifted his chin, challenging. “You don’t know me.”

“You’re right. I don’t,” Billy conceded. Balled his hand into a fist, let it go. “But I do know crazy,” he looked Steve up and down in that way that always made him feel small, “and you’re not it.”

Steve felt a heat prickle up his neck and whether it was from embarrassment or irritation, he couldn’t say for sure, but he scoffed, “Right. Because you’re the king of reading people all of a sudden.”

“No, Harrington, it’s because I’ve been there,” Billy said, serious, every trace of his previous amusement wiped from his tone. “And if you were there, you wouldn’t have to guess. So spare me the bullshit.”

Steve watched his fingers twitch again in the corner of his vision. It struck him suddenly that there weren’t very many times he’d ever seen Billy outside of school or practice without a cigarette in his hands. Or dangling from his lips.

A light bulb went off in his head.

Billy wanted a smoke.

Because apparently even ghosts were argumentative bastards without nicotine and Steve was laughing before he could help it.

“Something funny?”

“No, no. I just,” he shook his head, biting his lip to push down another laugh. “Do you like Marlboros?”

“Yeah, Reds,” he said, instinctive. “Why, you got ‘em?”

Steve nodded and Billy’s eyes brightened ever so slightly.

“Want one?”

“Christ, yeah.” His shoulders deflated with something like relief. “I would actually die for one right now.”

Steve gawked at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s a bad joke.”

“And I’m pretty sure you should go get a cigarette before I lose my mind.”

Steve was actually kind of smiling when he pushed up off the floor and walked over to his bedside table. He went into the top drawer, grabbed a lighter and his pack of Marlboros, took one out. He closed the drawer with his hip and picked up the pretty, little glass ashtray to bring back with him. Didn’t even give it a second thought.

When he sat back down, Billy adjusted his posture, sat up a little straighter, braced an elbow around one knee and let the other leg go out long. Steve dropped the ashtray onto the floor between them and placed the cigarette between his lips. Flicked the lighter on, curled his hand around the flame, lit the end, watched the smoke cloud his vision.

He was aware of Billy’s eyes on him, of the way he was watching his every move.

“What?” He closed the lighter, put it down next to him.

“Don’t think I ever saw you smoke before,” Billy said, something slow in his voice, like he was thinking. “And I don’t really see you as a Reds kind of guy.”

Steve took a long drag, purposefully ignored the front half of that sentence as he felt the smoke fill his lungs, the idea that Billy had been paying enough attention to know he’d quit. “Well what kind of guy do you see me as?”

A smile pulled in the corners of Billy’s eyes.

“Luckies.”

Steve let out a long exhale, shaky from lack of practice, watched the cloud of smoke thicken around his head. “The only people I know that smoke Luckies are girls.”

“Me too.”

Steve snorted as he pinched the cigarette in the middle and took one more breath in. Pulled it from his lips and held it out for Billy to take from him.

And the way it should have happened is that Billy’s fingers should’ve brushed his when he took it from him. Their hands should have touched and it should’ve sent a spark up Steve’s arm, something electric and strong that should’ve made his breath catch.

What happened instead was that Billy reached like he was going to take it and his hand went through Steve’s. Right through. Like it was nothing.

Steve’s breath did catch.

When he looked up, Billy was frowning. Deeply. Gaze locked on his hand, which he waved back through Steve’s, eyebrows pinched as he watched it go clean through. Waved his hand again. And again. Steve wanted to tell him to stop, but he was just as fascinated as he was freaked out. Maybe even more so.

It was Billy that broke the silence.

“Great,” he sighed, loud, frustrated. “That’s just perfect. First I’m dead and now I can’t smoke.”

But Steve had been thinking.

“Well. Hold on. Lemme just, uh.” He inched his fingers to the tip of the cigarette, to where his lips had been, left the whole rest of it wide open. “There. Try that.”

Billy looked weary as he reached back out, but he did so anyway, eyes widening when he was able to pinch the cigarette between his fingers and take it from him, careful not to touch Steve’s hand.

“I’ll be damned.”

He brought it up to his lips and hollowed his cheeks. Let his eyes flutter shut as he took a drag, exhaled around a noise that sounded suspiciously like a moan.

“Fuck, that’s nice.” His voice was low, almost like a purr. It made Steve’s stomach warm in a way he didn’t want to think about.

“Good, uh.” Steve swallowed, hard. Absolutely not staring at the way Billy had pursed his lips around the end of the cigarette. “Yeah, that’s good. I’m glad.”

Billy nodded.

He stretched his arm out long to tap the other end off into the ashtray, but his entire body tensed when he did, so sudden, immediate, that Steve thought he might have whiplash. He followed the line of Billy’s vision to the ashtray. That pretty, little glass ashtray. He felt his frown deepen.

“Where did you get that?’ Billy asked. His voice was harder now, much more like what Steve was used to.

“Your house,” he admitted, flicked his eyes towards Billy for some sort of reaction.

“My-?” He watched as Billy’s eyebrows pinched, like he was trying to work it all out in his head. “You were-when were you at my house?”

“Couple days ago,” he stated, vaguely uncomfortable. “Max asked me to. She, uh, needed some help with your stuff and I-”

“Took it?”

“Kinda.”

“Why?”

He shook his head.

“I don’t know. Thought it was sorta nice looking.”

Before Steve had the chance to process what was happening, to breathe, Billy was reaching out to hold it. Instinct found Steve putting his arm out and ultimately, he got to it first.

Billy tried to grab it from him, but just like before, his hand went through Steve’s. Through the ashtray.

“What are you doing?” Steve’s voice pitched up.

Billy gaped at him. “What am I-what are you doing? Give me that.” He tried to swipe it from his hands, but Steve’s hands were covering most of it, so his went right through. Again. “Hey asshole, that’s not fair.”

“I don’t care. Why do you want it so bad?”

“Because it’s mine.”

“Okay, but what’s the real reason?”

He scoffed. “Fuck off.”

Steve continued to push. “No, I wanna know.”

“Well, that’s just too bad.” His voice was getting louder now, echoed in the otherwise sleepy silence of the house, but Steve’s grip tightened. “Remember before? When you said I didn’t know you? That goes both ways.”

“So help me get to know you and tell me about it.”

“No.”

“Why not?” he challenged. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing if this is gonna, like, keep happening?”

“This?” he repeated.

“Yeah, you know. This. You. Showing up here.”

“How do you know it’s gonna keep happening?”

Steve shrugged. “I don’t.”

“That’s right. You don’t, but it’s not like I can take the goddamn thing with me and this could be my only shot. So how about you just give it to me and then later we can-” He tried to grab it again, but this time Steve flinched, held it tight to his shoulder.

Billy huffed an angry breath and Steve knew that noise. Intimately. Recognized it from a cold November night at the Byers house.

“Harrington.” His nostrils flared. Steel blue eyes frozen over with ice. “I’m not asking.”

Steve opened his mouth to fire back, but was cut off by a knock on the door.

He froze.

The knock came again, louder this time.

Billy gave him a look, urgent. “Will you just put that thing down and go answer the door before someone comes in here?”

His mouth closed with a snap, hesitant as he put the ashtray down.

Nervous and slightly on edge, he tore his eyes away from Billy to get up and open the door, which gave way to the sight of his mother staring up at him, arms crossed over her chest like she was cold.

“Mom? What are you-” He braced his hand on the door, kept it halfway closed to block her from seeing in. “What’s the matter?”

“I thought I heard you talking to someone.” She leaned forward, eyes looking past him. “Are you okay?”

He swallowed hard. “Yeah, no, I’m fine. It was, uh, just a bad dream I guess.”

“Steve, if you’re having nightmares again, we can-”

“I’m fine,” he said, tried for a smile, knew it was weak, but his hand was itching on the door. Itching to go back. “Really, I’m okay. Go back to sleep.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Okay,” she nodded, took one more look past him as she said, “I’ll see you in the morning."

She gave him a smile before she went back towards her room.

He waited until he heard her door close to shut his own, but when he turned back, Billy was gone.

The breeze had swept him away.

Steve was left to look at nothing.

The crushed cigarette in the middle of the ashtray, with its line of thin smoke still trailing off the end, the only concrete proof he had that Billy had even been there at all.

He fell asleep with the ashtray clutched to his chest, tight, like a child with a teddy bear.

He slept through dreams stained a shade of steel blue. A shade that still had the power to make him shiver. Burn. Reduce him to nothing. Nothing but ash.

Only now, he had a place to fall.

Shiver. Burn. Fall.

Let it heal.

Chapter Text

Steve didn’t leave work the next night with the intention of stopping at Melvald’s.

Not with it being twenty minutes out of the way. Not with how tired he was.

Truth be told, he wanted to go home. Close his eyes. Go to sleep.

Wait for the thud. For Billy. The night before having left him equal parts confused and curious.

Disappointment was buried in there somewhere. In the way Billy left. Abrupt. As though they hadn’t been in the middle of the longest conversation they’d ever had.

Guilt lurked a little closer to the surface. In the way he hadn’t given Billy the ashtray. Selfish despite Billy’s tired blue eyes, begging, desperate.

The bell that rang above his head made him flinch, a harsh sound that cut unpleasantly into the warm Hawkins night, bounced off the cool linoleum of the dingy store’s tile floor.

His voice was rough when he asked the guy at the counter for a pack of Marlboro Reds.

He almost wished it was Joyce that was working tonight, she would’ve known, he wouldn’t have had to say it. To ask.

The other part of him was glad that it wasn’t her. She knew he’d quit. Had brought him countless lollipops and toothpicks to help the process.

But she would’ve had questions. He didn’t need them.

Before he went to sleep, he laid it all out on his desk. The brand new pack of Reds. A lighter. The ashtray. Wanted to make it painfully obvious what he was trying to do. What he was trying to say.

He woke up that night to the scratchy flick of the lighter, the familiar smell of smoke in his nose.

He could make out the faint outline of Billy’s silhouette in the dark, back to Steve. Illuminated by the soft moonlight that crept in from the window. The faint, cherry red glow of the cigarette.

Steve shifted on the bed, a little too hard on purpose, wanted it to creak so Billy would know he was awake without having to say so. He’d just gotten his back up against the headboard when Billy turned around.

He sat back with his thighs against the edge of the desk, cigarette in one hand and, now that he was facing him, Steve could see that he had picture frame in the other.

Billy’s voice startled him, but he was nodding towards his hand, towards the cigarette.

“What’re you staring at, Harrington? You want one or what?”

“No, m’alright.”

Billy’s eyebrows pinched. “So you don't smoke then.” A statement. Something he'd already known. 

“Not really."

"What about last night?"

"Special occasion,” he said, soft. “But I figured you could use a pack for yourself.”

Billy didn’t say thank you. Just looked down at the picture in his hands. Steve didn’t blame him.

“Where was this?” He put the cigarette between his lips and turned the picture around so Steve could see.

He squinted, made out the outline of him and his parents, one on each side of him, memory filling in the blanks that the darkness concealed. His mom’s wide smile. His dad’s big hand on his shoulder.

Like they were a happy little family.

“Grand Canyon,” he stated, fingers toying with the edge of his comforter.

“Long way from Hawkins.”

“Worst drive I’ve ever been on,” Steve agreed. “My parents dragged me there a couple years ago. Said it would help me find myself or something.”

For some reason that made Billy laugh and Steve’s head swarmed with thoughts about how nice the sound was before he could push them down.

“Did it work?”

“Definitely not.”

“Figures.” Billy put the picture frame back down, held onto the desk next to his hip. “Didn’t for me either.”

“You’ve been?”

“Uh huh,” he hummed. “My dad made me go with him the first time I got suspended. Said seeing nature might help me remember my place in the world or some horseshit like that.” He took another drag on the cigarette instead of elaborating, released it with a steady breath, smoke a long line from his lips. “S’that something your folks do a lot? Drag you places?”

“Sorta,” he sighed. “They used to a lot more when I was younger. Not so much anymore though.”

“What changed?”

“I don’t know.” He paused, watched the smoke dissipate into the air. “Too busy for it, I guess.”

Billy nodded, quiet. Waited a half a second before he picked up another, gave it a long look, turned it around.

“What about this one?”

Steve had to squint again, could see the slope of the freezers, the hard line of the counter. Dustin had taken it the day he’d gotten back from camp, gave it to Steve a few days after Starcourt burned down.

After Billy died.

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

Let it heal.

“That’s Scoops,” he said, simple, swallowed hard to rid himself of the lump in his throat.

There was something amused in the way Billy repeated, “Scoops?” back to him.

“Yeah, Scoops Ahoy. I worked there over the summer,” he said. “It was just an ice cream shop, but it had this, like, tacky nautical theme or whatever.”

“That explains the outfit,” Billy laughed, let it die quickly, made Steve’s cheeks burn a little anyway. “And the girl?”

“That’s Robin. She-we worked there together,” he avoided saying, until Starcourt burned down. “We still do, technically. Work together. Just at the video store now.”

Billy’s eyes dropped to watch his hand as he tapped the end of the cigarette off into the ashtray. “You two a thing?”

“God no,” Steve answered, automatic. Held in a laugh, smiled anyway as he thought about a swirling mall ceiling and Tammy Thompson. “Definitely not.”

“Definitely not,” Billy repeated, once, slow, more to himself than to Steve, looked back up to catch his eyes. “Why’s that?”

Steve hesitated, but it only took a second for him to realize that the only thing he was afraid of was Billy telling someone. Spreading rumors.

Except, he didn’t have anyone to tell anymore.

The only person he could possibly tell was Steve.

The thought made something pull uncomfortably in his chest.

“She’s my best friend, “ he settled on eventually, lowered his voice. “And I’m really not her type.”

“No?” Billy scoffed. “Because you’re what, too pretty?”

He finally let out a laugh at that, shook his head, mumbled, “Not pretty enough actually.”

It was obvious that wasn’t the answer Billy had been expecting to hear. Just tilted his head, narrowed his eyes like he was trying to figure out what Steve was saying, until a small smile cracked at his lips. Smoothed out his confused expression.

Maybe he understood, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was thinking something off the wall completely. Whatever it was, he didn’t say as much out loud.

Steve guessed he would never know.

His eyes followed Billy as he put the picture frame down, angled his head towards one on the wall behind the desk.

There was only one picture on the wall.

Steve didn’t have to look to see which it was.

“Tell me about that one.”

Not a question. A request.

Steve’s eyes fell to his lap, to watch his hands. Couldn’t take steel blue.

Didn’t have to look at the picture to see the Wheeler’s living room. The string lights. The big tree. Nancy’s hand on his leg. His arm around her shoulders.

The smiles on their faces.

“Christmas,” he said, short, determined to keep his voice even. “Mrs. Wheeler bought me that ugly fuckin’ sweater I had on and she said I wasn’t allowed to go until she got a picture of me in it.”

“And that’s one you thought should get framed?”

“No,” he said. Thought of the blue and red striped paper it had been wrapped in when it got pushed into his hands on New Years Eve. “Nancy did.”

Billy went quiet at that, Steve half expected him to be gone when he looked back up, but there he was. Just looking at him.

He watched as Billy crushed the end of the cigarette in the ashtray, pushed off the desk, walked towards him. Followed him still, with a more nervous sense of curiosity, when he sat down on the opposite end of the bed, legs out long.

The bed dipped beneath his weight.

Nancy never made the bed dip.

Something in his stomach coiled at the thought.

Billy’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. Softer, smoother than before, like maybe he was afraid of disturbing the air.

“You said something last night. Before I left.” He shifted his eyes sideways, swallowed. “You said we should get to know each other if this was gonna keep happening. Me showing up here. That it would be a good thing.”

Steve’s brow furrowed. “Yeah?”

“You meant that?”

“’Course.” he said, felt a small sense of satisfaction in the way Billy’s eyes went back to his.

Couldn’t have imagined the question that came next.

“What happened with you and Wheeler?”

His breath caught in his throat.

It was like someone flipped a switch. The blood in his veins shifted from hot to cold on a dime.

“Jesus,” he said, ran a hand through his hair. “Okay. You want the uh, long answer to that or the short one?”

Billy was watching him, close. “Dealer’s choice.”

“Okay.” He took a deep breath in, tangled his hand in the long hairs at the nape of his neck, held on tight. “You remember that Halloween Party Tina had?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “You looked pissed as shit when you left.”

Steve’s jaw went slack, surprised he even noticed that. Or cared enough to remember.

He ignored it.

“Yeah, well, that was about ten seconds after Nancy told me our, uh,” he took another deep breath, “our whole relationship was bullshit and that she didn’t love me and never did. Pretty much.”

Once again, Steve guessed that hadn’t been the answer he’d been expecting in the way it made Billy go so quiet. He bent one of his knees, wrapped an arm around it.

“How long were you together?”

Steve bit the inside of his cheek, thought back. “’Bout a year. Give or take.”

“That’s a real tough break, Harrington.”

“She was just being honest,” he said, let a humorless laugh fall from his lips. “I mean I wish she would’ve told me before she got shitfaced, but,” he shrugged.

“Alcohol sucks like that,” Billy agreed. “I still don’t really get where Byers fits into all of that, though.”

That made Steve sigh.

“I don’t, uh,” he shook his head. “I don’t either, but that might be all there is to it.”

“What do you mean?”

His fist tightened in his hair, tugged until it stung. “He fits. I didn’t.”

Billy nodded, blinked slowly at him through his thick lashes. “You still hung up on her?”

Steve paused.

She never made the bed dip.

“Not anymore,” he admitted, glad when Billy didn’t push the issue any further. He took it as his opportunity to get a little bold himself “Can I ask you something now?”

“Sure.”

“What’s so special about the ashtray I got from your room?”

It was Billy’s turn to sigh. “Again?”

“Come on. Please.”

Billy was already shaking his head. “Why do you wanna know so bad?”

“Because I think it means something to you.”

“It might,” he conceded. “And what if I don’t wanna talk about it?”

“I think I’d say that’s tough shit,” he said, simple. “You just said we should get to know each other and that means talking about stuff that’s hard sometimes.”

Billy paused. Hesitated. Steve watched the shift in his jaw, watched him curl his free hand around the necklace that hung from his neck.

His knuckles were white when he said, “Ask me again tomorrow.”

“What? Why?” Steve couldn’t believe his ears. “We’re sitting here now.”

“And I can guarantee we’ll be doing this all over again tomorrow, so just try your luck then.”

“But how do I know the answer’s gonna change?” Steve asked, could feel his cheeks heating with something like frustration. “You told me no yesterday and you told me no today. Why would tomorrow be any different?”

“I don’t know. It might not be,” Billy said, honest. “But I really don’t wanna talk about it right now, so just drop it.”

“So that’s it then. You get to ask about Nancy, but I don’t get to ask about some stupid ashtray.”

“Pretty much.” He put a hard emphasis on the words. Like a warning.

Steve was never good at reading warning signs.

He shook his head. “That’s bullshit.”

Billy’s eyebrows shot up. “What was that?”

“You heard me,” he said, voice low. “I said that’s bullshit.”

Billy eyes zeroed in on him then. Blue like steel. Cutting through the dark.

“I don’t owe you an answer.”

“Neither did I, but I gave you one anyway.”

“You really are entitled, aren’t you?” He let the necklace fall from his hand, fall to his chest. “Some spoiled fuckin’ princess that thinks some breakup is as bad as it gets. That there couldn’t be anything in the world harder to talk about than that.”

Steve’s jaw fell open, suddenly on his heels. “I never said-”

“You didn’t have to,” he spat, dry, mean. “You’re sitting there acting like we’re friends like we, like you’d even be talking to me if I wasn’t stuck here.”

“Billy, I-”

“No, you know what else?” he added, voice rising. “I didn’t make you answer any of that shit about Wheeler. You could’ve told me to fuck off if it bothered you that bad, so don’t throw that in my face like it’s my fault you spilled your guts.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to make it sound like that,” he said, hoping to cut this off before it got too bad, knew the fire in Billy’s eyes so intimately at this point that he couldn’t understand how it still put goose bumps on his skin. “I’m-”

“Save it.”

Billy was off the bed before Steve could even think of what to say next.

His heart leapt into his throat.

“Hey, where are you going?”

Billy didn’t answer. Kept walking. Footsteps heavy. Back to Steve.

Headed towards the door.

Steve sat up.

“Hey.”

Nothing.

He let his feet touch the floor with a graceless thud. Started after him.

“Hey, wait. Stop.”

Billy didn’t stop at the door. Didn’t stop to open it. Walked right through like it hadn’t even been in his way.

“Billy, come on. Wait.” Steve pulled the door open. “I’m trying to tell you I’m-”

The words died in his throat. No one was waiting for him in the hallway.

“Billy?” He walked further down the hall, eyes searching even though they hadn’t quite adjusted to the total darkness. “Billy, please. I’m sorry. Just come back. I’m sorry.”

He turned around when he got to the top of the stairs. Went back to his room.

“Billy?”

Nothing.

He was gone.

The breeze hadn’t swept him away.

He’d walked into it headfirst.

Steve felt like he was on fire. Flames licking at his skin. A thousand unspoken words burning white hot on his tongue.

Angry. Disappointed. Hurt. Cycled through a thousand different emotions over and over until exhaustion burned in his eyes and forced him to close them.

The fire still hadn’t died by the time he got to work the next morning.

Robin locked onto that immediately, stared at him as he threw his stuff down behind the counter without looking at her.

“Whoa there, sailor. Who pissed in your cheerios this morning?”

He knew she was just trying to break him up with a joke, but he wasn’t in the mood today.

“Fuck off.”

He walked past her and into a long row of movies.

He could hear her calling after him, voiced muffled and distant, but he just kept going. Didn’t stop until he had a massive box of cassettes in his hands that would keep him busy organizing for at least the next hour or two.

When that box was empty, he got another. Another after that. And another after that until eventually the world began to blur, dull and dim, unable remember where fiery red ended and steel blue began.

He kept himself occupied until it was time to pick his things back up from behind the counter and go. Left without a word. Without saying goodbye.

Drove home with the radio up so loud that the colors stayed separate, forced apart by the pounding in his ears, in his head.

He pulled into an empty driveway, walked into a dark house. Tore down the note that was taped above the stove. Eyed the hurried scribble of his dad’s lazy handwriting.

Had to go. Work called, needed me in Indianapolis. Be back Monday.

No phone number. No address. Not even the name of a hotel.

He crumpled the paper up before he could read it over again, let it fall from his fist to the floor. Stepped on it as he made his way to the fridge.

He went to sleep a little while later, numb, tired, belly full of cold pizza. He didn’t bother with pajamas, just slipped beneath the sheets in his briefs, buried his face in the pillow.

Let sleep drag him down. Out. Away.

Billy was already there when he woke that night. He opened his eyes slowly, careful not to move, not to make a sound. Didn't want Billy to know he was up.

Billy was perched on the edge of the desk. Hunched forward. Elbows on his knees. Face in his hands. Fingers pushing at his eyes.

Steve wasn’t sure how long he watched him like that. Watched the rise and fall of his shoulders. Listened to the long breaths he took in and out.

That red, angry feeling bubbled up in his chest and before he could think better of it, he was turning over with a harsh jerk of a movement, bed creaking loud beneath him.

He made the mistake of looking over at Billy while he did so. Saw the way he straightened to attention, eyes wide, lost.

“Harrington?”

Steve didn’t stop. Turned away from him. Screwed his eyes shut tight.

Didn’t open them when he heard the soft taps of Billy’s bare feet crossing the floor, nor when he felt the bed dip next to him, when Billy sat at his side. If he squeezed them shut tighter, he could feel the warmth of Billy’s hip where it should’ve been pressed to his side.

A warmth that didn’t exist anymore.

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

“Harrington, hey, come on. I know you’re up.” Steve didn’t move. He heard Billy sigh. “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left and it was fucked up and I know that, but you gotta let me explain.”

Silence.

“Would you at least just look at me?” he asked, almost like he was begging. “Please?”

There was something small in his voice, something tempting, something that made Steve’s hands ball in the sheets, made him hold on. Push down the impulse to turn over.

There was no real bite behind the words when he said, “Fuck off,” muffled by the pillow. Felt like those were the only words he knew how to say today.

“Yeah, I guess I deserve that,” Billy mumbled to himself. “But I want you to hear me out.”

Steve didn’t move.

“Okay, fine. If you don’t wanna talk to me, I get it. That’s fine, but just-just listen. Okay?”

Steve didn’t say anything. Nodded slowly against the pillow, material rustling against his cheek, his hair.

It was a long time before Billy spoke. Steve could feel his eyes plastered to his back, steel blue burning a hole into his skin. It took active thought not to squirm.

“The ashtray’s-it’s-it was my mom’s.” His voice was distant, unfamiliar, shaking in a way Steve had never heard from him before. Didn’t know was possible. “My dad kicked her out when I was a kid. Caught her with another guy. Made her leave.”

Steve opened his eyes slowly, locked them on the wall in front of his face, but he could only look through it.

He couldn’t move.

“She packed up all her stuff and left and I haven’t seen her since but she,” he hiccupped, “she forgot that so I kept it. It’s the only thing I have that was hers.”

His next few breaths were sharp, labored. Wet. Steve recognized the sound from when he found Billy that night on his floor.

Billy was crying. Trying desperately to hide it.

Steve couldn’t bring himself to do a damn thing about it.

Couldn’t do a damn thing about the way his breath caught when he heard Billy whisper, “God, you have so many of those stupid little dots all over you.”

Like it was a secret.

Like it was something he shouldn’t have noticed.

Like he forgot where he was. What they were talking about.

“Look, Harrington. I’m sorry I left, but I’ve never told anybody that before. I don’t-I don’t talk about shit like that, alright? With anybody.” Steve felt him shift, felt the way the bed dipped next to him, could feel the way he hesitated. “I’ll leave you alone now, but I just-I wanted you to know.”

Steve could’ve sworn he felt the breeze.

When he turned over, Billy was gone.

Bed still dented with the imprint of his body. Steve put his hand in it.

Flat. Empty. Cold.

Angry red gave way to a guilty shade of purple. Deep. Dark. Overwhelming.

Like the circles that had once been under his eyes.

Like a bruise that had once bloomed on his cheek. On his ribs. In his chest.

Let it heal.

The same shade as the smoothie he brought to work for Robin the next morning. The same shade as the sunglasses she used to cover her eyes while she listened to his apology, pushed them up once she took a sip and called him a dickhead for good measure. Made sure to call him it at least a dozen more times throughout the day so that he wouldn’t forget.

The same shade as the lighter he stopped back into Melvald’s for on his way home later that night.

The same lighter he left on his desk, on top of the pack of Reds he’d bought for Billy the other day, next to the ashtray.

The same lighter Billy was turning over in his hands when Steve woke up. Saw him sitting on the floor, back against the desk, legs out long. Eyes far away. Mind probably further.

He looked thoughtful.

The Billy he’d known had never been thoughtful.

Loud. Brash. With words like sandpaper that left Steve red and raw. Looks that left him redder. Rawer.

But never thoughtful.

Not quite like this.

Steve folded his arm, tucked it beneath his cheek.

“Hey,” he said, hardly louder than a breath.

Billy didn’t look up.

“Hey.” Clipped. Short.

Far away.

“I hope you don’t mind I got you that,” he said, motioned with his head towards the lighter. “Figured you could use a new one since mine’s kinda falling apart.”

“S’fine.”

Far. Still too far.

“You can sit up here, you know,” he offered, watched the way it made Billy blink a little harder, like he was considering it.

“I’m alright.”

“Please,” Steve said, pleading the tiniest little bit. “I feel like an asshole with you sitting down there.”

Billy stood without a word. Crossed the room. Still hadn’t looked at him by the time he sat down.

By the time the bed dipped beneath him.

Steve sat up to give him more room, Billy sitting on the opposite side of the bed, hands in his lap, legs folded in front of him.

Still. Uncharacteristically silent.

Steve decided to bite the bullet. Cut into the tension.

“I’m really sorry, you know.”

““You’re-?” Confusion hit hard in Billy’s eyes at the words, Steve saw it when he finally looked up. “What’re you sorry for?”

“I shouldn’t have made you tell me about the ashtray when you didn’t want to,” he explained. “You asked me not to and I didn’t listen and that wasn’t fair.”

“Oh.” Billy’s expression smoothed as the words took root in his brain. “I-thanks, I guess,” he said, still sounded a little weary, unsure.

“You know, I get why you left,” he admitted. “I don’t blame you for it either, but do you-can I ask you something?”

Billy’s nod was understandably hesitant. “Go ahead.”

“Do you have any control over that? Leaving? Or does it just happen?”

Billy pursed his lips as he thought to himself, curled his hand around his necklace. A familiar nervous gesture Steve was growing used to.

“Kind of,” he started, thoughtful. “I have to think about it really hard, but it’s-it gets easier if I’m like, feeling something. A lot.”

“Like how you got so mad?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Anything. Could be sad or nervous. Scared.”

Steve understood now. “Like when my mom knocked on the door.”

“Yeah, I think. I mean, I haven’t been,” he paused, “I don’t know. Doing this long enough to know for sure, but that’s what I think does it.”

“Makes sense.” It was Steve that lost his eyes this time, elected instead to turn his head, look over at his desk. “Do you think you could do me a favor?”

“What’s that?”

Steve bent his knees, looped his arms around them. “Could you maybe, like, tell me when you’re gonna leave? Instead of just bolting?”

“Why?” Steve could hear the familiar pull of a teasing smile in his voice. Finally familiar. “Miss me when I’m gone?”

He leaned his cheek against his forearm, ignored the way his heart was racing in his chest. “I don’t know.”

He didn’t have to see Billy to know that he was watching him.

“I don’t understand you, Harrington.” Steve couldn’t bring himself to look him in the eyes like he wanted, but he could hear in Billy’s voice that he was shaking his head. “You sit there and you say shit like that, but you couldn’t give two fucks about me when we were in school.”

“You were an asshole when we were in school,” he mumbled, matter of fact. “I don’t know if you remember, but one day you wouldn’t leave me alone and then the next day you beat the shit out of me and then,” he trailed off.

If Steve didn’t know any better, he’d say Billy was shifting. That he could feel the bed dipping next to him, rather than across from him.

“And then?”

“I don’t know. Then it was,” he turned his head, found that Billy had in fact moved, that he was sitting right on the other side of him. So close that if it were any other person, their arms would be brushing. “Then it was nothing.”

“My little sister did threaten to nail my balls to the floor if I ever talked to you again,” he said, not without a laugh, one that died as quickly as it came. “You might’ve missed that, though.”

“Yeah.”

Up this close, Steve could see better. See more. See the little flecks of green hidden in steel blue. The thick fan of his dark eyelashes. The freckles dusting his nose. His cheeks.

Billy’s features were so much softer up close.

“I’m sorry about that, by the way,” he said, voice little more than a whisper. Didn’t need it to be anything more in the limited space between them. “There was a lot going on that night and I was, well. Mad. And you were, I don’t know.”

“There?”

“Yeah.”

“S’alright. It was a long time ago and I get it,” Steve said. “I just wish you could’ve said that sooner.”

Billy’s tongue poked out to wet his bottom lip. “Thought about it.”

Steve found himself saying, “I know,” before he could think better of it.

“How?”

Something warm like blush spread up the side of Steve’s neck. “Saw you looking.”

Billy angled his head to one side, eyes searching for something Steve didn’t quite know.

“I didn’t know you noticed,” he admitted.

“Didn’t think I was supposed to,” he said, intent on keeping his voice even, calm as he gave his head a gentle shake. “We weren’t friends.”

“Why was that again?”

“You were an asshole.”

“Right,” he smiled, something soft. Warm. Different. Eyes half lidded, cast low on Steve’s face. “And how about now?”

“M’not so sure.” Steve’s eyes dipped to the strong bow of his lips. Pink. Full. Close. “Just. Let me know. Before you’re gonna go. And then we can go back to that one.”

“Yeah, yeah I can do that.”

But that didn’t come for hours.

Not until the sun peeked out over the trees beyond his house.

Until Steve’s alarm rang on his bedside table.

Steve sat with a start to turn it off, looked down at Billy next to him. Billy who was already looking up at him, eyes bright like blue steel, smile pulled soft.

They’d been up talking all night. At some point, Steve’s back began to hurt, so he laid back. Didn’t expect for Billy to follow.

Held in a gasp when he did. Ignored the butterflies in his stomach.

But they continued that way, talked, stared up at the ceiling as though there were stars.

There used to be. Those stupid little glow in the dark ones, scattered all across his ceiling. He’d gotten them when he was in the first grade, when he got his first hundred on a spelling test.

He told Billy as much.

He’d laughed. Told Steve he had the same ones, stole them from the dentist when he was six. Stuffed them into his pocket because he was only allowed to have one prize, but he had to have the stars and the yoyo.

It was only now that Steve realized how close they were.

How nice it had been to lay there next to him.

How comfortable. Simple. Easy.

Natural.

He rubbed at the back of his neck, tried not to think about how delicate Billy’s freckles looked in the hazy glow of morning sunlight.

Wondered how exactly he’d never noticed those freckles before.

“Y’leaving me, Harrington?” Billy asked, something playful in his tone.

“Yeah,” he laughed, ran his hand through his hair. “Videos don’t sell themselves, y’know.”

“Oh you’re right,” he agreed, condescending. “Who wants to stay here with me when you have a civic duty to perform?”

I do, Steve thought. Surprised himself with it.

Said, “The people need me,” instead.

He distracted himself from the temptation by getting up and going into his dresser for clean clothes. Went towards the doorway from muscle memory, stopped halfway there when Billy shifted and made the bed creak. Turned to face him from across the room. Awkward.

“I gotta shower. So I’m just gonna,” he trailed off.

“Okay.” Billy sat up, let his feet hang off the edge of the bed. Steve pretended not to notice the way they didn’t quite touch the floor. “I’m probably gonna, uh. Go. While you’re in there then. If that’s okay.”

“Yeah, no, that’s fine. That’s uh, yeah. Fine,” he sputtered, fumbled. “Thanks for the heads up.”

“Sure.” Billy smiled, but Steve didn’t see much of him in it. Wondered momentarily what that was about. “I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah, later.”

When he got back, towel around his waist and hair dripping wet, Billy was gone.

Just like he said he’d be.

But the breeze was warm this morning.

Pricked at his skin. Tickled his cheeks rosy pink.

Felt like healing.

He stared at the imprint Billy’s body had left on the bed before he left. Took a second to smile at it from the doorway.

Not an asshole. Not anymore.

He’d tell him as much later.

Chapter Text

It had taken Steve a long time to find an upside to his parents going on these extended business trips so often. He remembered middle school as a kind of blur. A haze. Empty. Lonely.

High school was different.

What was once empty turned into the opportunity to throw a party. What was once lonely turned into the opportunity to have a girl over.

Now though, it meant no one was there to notice he was going to sleep at 7 o’clock every night. That he was stopping in Melvald’s three times a week for a pack of Marlboro Reds. That his smiles lasted a little longer, laughs a little louder.

The unrelenting heat of July turned to the steady warmth of August and Steve was used to waking up and looking for a pair of steel blue eyes. Used to a smile that made his chest go a little fuzzy. To a laugh that made his lips pull before he could help it.

That laugh was the first thing that registered in his mind when he woke tonight, soft, low, like he wasn’t supposed to hear it.

His eyes were still closed when he asked, “Somethin’ funny, Hargrove?” words slurred, thick with sleep.

“No.” Steve could hear the smile.

Feel the dip in the bed.

He turned his head to one side, cracked an eye open to find Billy sitting at his hip, hand raised to hold a cigarette to his smiling lips, cheeks hollowed.

“What’re you lookin’ at me like that for?” Steve’s breaths were heavy and long, arms folded beneath the pillow.

“M’not lookin’ at you like anything,” he said. Lied. “Your hair on the other hand-”

“What’s’a matter with it?” he asked, defensive.

“Nothin’,” he said. Lied again. The word was mingled with smoke and Steve knew the smell would cling to his sheets, strong, wholly associated with Billy.

Steve pushed his face into his shoulder, tried to use it to get the hair off his forehead, flopped his head back down. “Better?”

“No.” Billy shook his head as he brought the cigarette down, switched it over to his far hand.

He reached his now free hand out towards him and when he got close enough, Steve closed his eyes, thoughtless, ready and willing to melt into the feeling of a warm hand in his hair.

The sensation never came.

When he opened his eyes, Billy’s smile was gone, lips pulled tight, eyes high on his face, avoiding Steve’s looking up at him. His arm was still extended, hand still moving just slightly, but Steve paid it no mind, focused on Billy’s eyes, each breath of cool air waking him more and more.

Steve watched Billy pull his hand back to run it through his hair, casual. Too casual. Eyes on the floor, cigarette between his lips, he stood and walked over towards the desk to tap the end of the cigarette off into the ashtray, shaking his head as though he hoped something would fall out of it.

Steve hadn’t moved. Just watched Billy’s hand curl into a ball at his side, watched it open and close, open and close, open and close.

He was still thinking about Billy’s hand when he was standing at the counter in the video store hours later. Still thinking about the uncertainty in Billy’s voice when he broke the silence after the fact and the way he couldn’t quite meet Steve’s eyes the rest of the night.

“Steve? Hey Steve?” A hand waved in front of his face. “Earth to dumbass.”

“Huh?” Robin stood at his side, stared up at him, definitely unamused, blue eyes unblinking, definitely annoyed. “You say something?”

“Okay, that’s it.” She threw the cassettes she had in her hand down on the counter with a smack that made Steve flinch. “What’s her name?”

Steve’s face immediately twisted. “What?”

“Spare me the doe-eyed Bambi crap, Harrington. I know there’s a girl,” she said, leaned her hip against the counter, crossed her arms over her chest.

“Are you nuts?”

“Definitely not and I can prove it,” she argued. “First of all, you’re moody as all shit. If you’re not happy, you’re a jackass, and if you’re not a jackass, you’re off in la-la land daydreaming about God-knows-what and on top of that? You never wanna hang out like, ever. So just put me out of my misery and tell me her name before I lose my mind.”

He had to bite his lip to hold in a laugh at the almost manic look in her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but there’s no girl.” She narrowed her eyes. “Seriously.”

“I think that’s horseshit.”

“You need a hobby.”

“Detective work is definitely better than a hobby.”

“Detective work?” He laughed openly at that. “Is that what it’s called when you stand there yelling at me like some kind of lunatic?

“No, obviously it’s in the evidence,” she said, matter-of-fact. “But what I’m standing here telling you is that I’m sick of you walking around here like some lovesick fuckin’ baby all the time.”

“Oh please,” he scoffed. “I am not some lovesick fuckin’-”

A pointed cough pulled them out of the argument, a head of burnt orange hair.

Max.

“Hey there, Red Leader,” Robin said, lightened the air with ease. “You need help with something?”

“No, I was just wondering if I could talk to Steve for a minute,” she replied, pointed back over her shoulder with her thumb. “Unless you guys are busy, then I can just come back some other time or-”

“Nope, you’re all clear.” Robin cut her off with a smile and picked the forgotten cassettes up off the counter. “Scream if you need me.”

Max’s laugh came and went too quickly, pinched. “Will do.”

Robin headed off into the stacks, not before throwing Steve a look over her shoulder that said, We’re not done with this, which made him stick out his tongue to say, Yes we are.

He was quick to turn his attention back to Max, though.

“So,” he smiled, grateful for the distraction, leaned with his elbows against the counter. “What do you got?”

“Nothing.” He looked down at her hands, empty all but for her skateboard. She didn’t elaborate, went quiet.

Steve’s smile began to fade. “You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. No, I’m good,” she nodded, emphatic. Too much. “We-I was just wondering if you were busy with this week?”

“I don’t think so.” He felt his brow furrow. “What’s up? You need a ride somewhere or something?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I,” she ducked her head, looked smaller than she normally did, younger, “I kinda need some help moving the rest of the boxes out.”

His brow smoothed at that, felt his face drop a little. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Steve couldn’t help but notice how wrong a frown looked on her, how it made her look too tired, as tired as he used to feel. “I tried to do it myself ‘cause Neil wants the room for an office or something and I didn’t wanna have to bother you again, but there’s just so-there’s,” she trailed off.

“Too many?” He offered. She nodded.

“It’ll be the last time, I promise.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, tried for a smile, tried for reassuring. “My shift’s kinda late tonight so I’ll stop by tomorrow.”

It felt a little bit like relief when her lips lifted at the corners.

“You’re a lifesaver.”

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

Relief replaced itself with regret as he swallowed around the lump in his throat.

“Don’t mention it.”

Let it heal.

He and Billy were sitting across from each other on the bed when he brought it up that night. They both had their legs out long, woven side by side as though they’d been threaded, Steve’s, Billy’s, Steve’s, Billy’s. Comfortable.

“Max stopped over at the video store today.”

“Oh yeah?” Billy asked, clearly didn’t think much of the statement. “She rent Carrie for the nine hundredth time or is she finally watching something else?”

“No, she uh,” Steve started, suddenly unsure of himself, how to put it. “She needs my help moving some stuff.”

There was something confused in the way Billy’s brow pinched. Something defeated in the way it evened out a few seconds later.

“My stuff.”

Steve nodded. His stomach twisted when Billy lost his eyes, locked them onto the wall next to his head, looked past him.

“Is that alright?”

Billy pursed his lips, took a second to think the question over. “Gotta be, right? Not like I’m gonna use any of that shit anymore.”

“I guess,” Steve said, shifted a little uncomfortably at the statement, at the tight line of Billy’s mouth and the sharp line of his jaw, silent. “Are you mad?”

“No.”

“Well you look kinda,” Steve shook his head, “I don’t know. Like you’re something.”

“M'not anything, Harrington. I’m just tired,” he sighed, blinked the blank look out of his eyes in favor of something much more familiar, more alert. “I’ve been staring at your ugly fuckin’ wallpaper for weeks and it’s got me wound so tight I can’t think straight.”

“My wallpaper,” Steve deadpanned, couldn’t help the confusion that spread at the sudden change in subject. “You’re sitting there with that look on your face because of my wallpaper.”

“It’s killing me.”

“That’s a-”

“Bad joke. I know.” Steve felt his heart jump a little when Billy stood. “Don’t you have like a living room or something?”

“Yeah, downstairs.”

“Fantastic.” Billy took a few steps towards the door, eyed Steve on the bed. “You coming or what?”

Steve was quiet when he stood, followed Billy down the hall, down the stairs.

He expected Billy to stop when they got to the foyer, ask him where to go, but he just kept walking and soon they were going the wrong way. Steve couldn’t help but speak despite himself.

“Hey, living room’s on the-”

“I want something to eat.”

Billy made the left to the kitchen instead of the right to the living room and the pieces fell into place in Steve’s head.

Liar.

“You’ve been down here before,” he said, meant it as a question, couldn’t control the way it came out as more of a statement.

“Couple times.” He walked over to the fridge, pulled it open, harsh light bouncing off his cheeks. “Anybody ever tell you you snore?”

“No.” Steve lifted himself up to sit on the counter, hands gripping the edge. He watched Billy close the fridge, open a cabinet, look, close it, open another. “Are you looking for something in particular or-”

“Oreos.”

“Next cabinet on your right. Top shelf.”

It took Billy a few seconds to find the package, a few more to walk it over, put it down on the counter next to Steve’s hip. Pulled a cookie out for himself and another that he held out to Steve without a word.

Steve was careful not to touch his hand when he grabbed the cookie from him, the night before a harsh reminder of that odd reality.

“This is a weird question, but I’m gonna ask it anyway,” Steve said, let it serve as a kind of warning. “Do you even get hungry?”

He watched the way Billy’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled, laughed around the cookie he’d shoved in his mouth, muffled, soft. Steve pushed the one in his hand clean into his mouth to dampen a smile of his own.

“No,” Billy said once he’d swallowed, stuck his hand back into the package, “but Oreos taste good whether you’re hungry or not.”

“Okay, fair,” he conceded, watched the way Billy licked his lips before he took a bite of the next one. “Watch the crumbs, asshole.”

Billy’s eyebrows lifted. “Or what?” he asked, teasing, made a show out of rubbing his finger against the edge of the cookie in a way that was decidedly not suggestive. “Mommy gonna come down the stairs and yell at me, pretty boy?”

“Maybe.”

For some reason that made Billy laugh. “No, she’s not.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do. They’re not here.” The way he stated it, all casual and easy, made Steve’s mouth go a little dry. “Actually, they’re never here.”

“Never?” Steve asked, surprised.

“I might’ve looked around more than a couple times,” he admitted. Another lie.

Steve shook his head. “You’re unbelievable, you know that?”

“Some people like it.” His smile was wide, charming, and Steve pushed down the urge to roll his eyes, pushed the butterflies down along with it. “But seriously. Where the hell are your folks if they’re never around?”

“Business trips,” Steve said, shrug in his voice.

“Both of them?”

“I mean, technically s’just my dad that’s gotta go.” Steve shifted his weight, both hands back on the edge of the counter. Needed to hold on, to feel grounded. “My mom doesn’t work, but she uh. She doesn’t,” he trailed off.

Billy leaned his elbows against the counter, angled his head to look up at Steve, thick lashes framing steel blue. “Doesn’t what?”

He bit the inside of his cheek. “She doesn’t really trust him. Going away by himself that long.”

Something in Billy’s eyes hardened at that, but there was something else, something sad, distant in the way he asked, “He screw around?”

Steve recognized the tone.

My dad kicked her out when I was a kid. Caught her with another guy. Made her leave.

“I don’t know,” he said, dropped his eyes to the line of smooth muscle that stretched along Billy’s shoulder, the urge to reach out and touch, soothe, ease the sudden tension in Billy’s stance so strong, so real that his grip on the counter began to hurt. “I hope not.”

Steve was startled when, instead of Billy’s voice, he heard the sharp crinkle of him reaching back into the Oreo package.

Once again Billy pulled out two, one for himself and one for Steve. When Steve took it, looked up, settled again on steel blue, he saw that Billy was smiling. Not the sly smile, with narrowed eyes and lips pulled higher on one side. Not the charming one, all teeth and sparkle.

The warm one. Soft. Easy. The one that barely stretched his pink lips, all in the heat of his eyes, that made Steve ache and time itself stand still.

He watched Billy pinch the end of the cookie, tilt it towards him. “Here’s to fucked up parents, huh?”

A laugh bubbled in the back of Steve’s throat. He reached out, tapped his cookie against Billy’s. “To fucked up parents.”

Steve was too busy laughing when Billy took half a bite of his cookie to do the same, the soft crunch the only sound for what had to be miles. It was instinctive for his eye line to fall, just to watch, the curve of Billy’s throat, the bob of his Adam’s apple when he swallowed, the purse of his lips, covered with crumbs.

He waited for Billy to wipe them off when he finished the cookie, but he never did, still dusted with black.

Steve’s hand twitched.

“Hey.”

Billy tipped his head back, eyes finding Steve’s through the darkness. “Yeah?” His voice was low, deep.

“You, uh, you got something.”

Steve gestured towards him with his chin, didn’t want to say on your mouth out loud. Didn’t think he could.

Billy understood what he meant, though. Poked his tongue out from between his lips, ran it along the lower one, slow.

Never took his eyes off Steve.

Missed a spot on the corner.

“Did I get it?”

“No you-“ Steve reached his hand up before he could think better of it, stopped it halfway to Billy, redirected, tried to save himself. Pointed to the corner of his own mouth instead. “Right there.”

Billy dropped his jaw slowly, parted his pink lips, licked at the corner and then at the other for good measure.

Never took his eyes off Steve.

“How ‘bout now?” The question fell into the air like it was nothing. Steve couldn’t breathe. “Harrington?”

Steve cleared his throat, pulled his gaze away, fixed it on the fridge. “Got it.”

He shoved his cookie in his mouth to keep from saying something stupid.

If he felt Billy’s eyes on him, well, he pretended not to notice.

When they returned to Steve’s room after hours of cookies and laughter and maybe a little bit of Carson-Leave me alone, Harrington. I like him- Billy stopped at the doorway.

This was generally where he’d say goodbye. He always waited until Steve’s alarm went off, until the sun was burning in their eyes and the birds were letting them know the rest of the world would be awake soon, too.

Small smiles. Nervous laughter. Soft voices.

See you later?

Yeah. I’ll be here.

Steve waited for the words as he crossed the room, turned off the blaring alarm with a solid push and went over to the dresser to pick out some clothes.

He didn’t hear anything, felt everything. Felt Billy’s eyes, watching him. He was rummaging through his sock drawer when curiosity got the best of him and he finally turned his head.

Billy was still in the doorway, shoulder pressed against it, hands shoved in his pockets. His head was tipped to one side so that his temple touched the doorframe, the line of his neck open and bare for Steve to rake his eyes down.

Steve was halfway to opening his mouth when Billy began to speak.

“You know earlier, when you said you were gonna go to my house to help Max or whatever,” he started. “When did you say you were doing that?”

“I didn’t, I don’t think,” Steve said. “But I’m going later. After my shift.” Billy nodded, didn’t say anything. He let his chin fall slightly, eyes dropping to the floor. “You’re really alright with it?”

“Yeah, yeah, no it’s fine. I don’t care, it’s just.” Billy stopped there, hesitated.

Steve just wished would pick his head up, that he could look and find something hidden in steel blue that Billy wouldn’t say out loud. Steve kept his mouth shut, though. Waited. Let the silence wash over him, surround him in a way he wouldn’t have been able to a few weeks ago.

Let it heal.

“Just be careful, okay?” The words were earnest, thoughtful. Not what Steve had been expecting at all. “Don’t fuck around while you’re there and go home before you do anything stupid.”

“When have I ever done anything stupid?” he teased, wanted to lighten the mood, but Billy didn’t bite. Didn’t move.

“How many times have you had your face smashed in?” Steve felt his face heat, bit his tongue to hold in the nasty comment he had lined up, knew Billy didn’t mean it poorly. Knew it was coming from a good place. “Just trust me on this. Do what you gotta do and then leave.”

Steve spoke around a bit of a sigh, a little confused, but ultimately willing to do just that. To trust him. “I will.”

“Okay.” Billy lifted his eyes, offered Steve a tight smile. “I’ll see you later then, yeah?”

“Yeah. I’ll be here.”

Billy pushed his shoulder off the door and walked off down the hall. At a point, the sound of his footsteps faded, and Steve knew that meant he was gone. Left alone to think about whatever had changed Billy’s demeanor so suddenly. What it possibly could have meant.

He kept Billy’s words in the back of his mind when he pulled up to the house after his shift, parked along the street, a run-down pickup and a dusty, old Cadillac taking up the whole driveway.

He took a second to wonder where Billy might’ve parked the Camaro every day. Where he would’ve found space for it. If there had even been space for it at all.

Steve didn’t know why he’d been expecting anything different. Maybe it was just his brain’s way of playing with him, dampened, bogged down by the echo of Billy’s voice in his head, the steel blue of his eyes, but the house was still very much the same when he walked in.

Bright. Warm. Almost delicate. Fragile like the glass and shells that still lined the shelves.

Billy’s room felt a little different somehow. Smaller maybe. He knew it should’ve been the opposite, that the emptiness should’ve opened it up, made it feel bigger, but now it was empty. Packed. Walls white, bare, ready to close in on him. Trap him. Hold him.

It was almost as though it had been the things, the posters, the clutter that made the room feel bigger. More alive.

More like Billy.

Do what you gotta do and then leave.

There were a few boxes in the same corner as last time, five or six at the most. Too much for Max on her own, but quick work for two. She was already over there trying to get a good grip on the smallest one.

It was the box over on the bed-or the exposed bedsprings that used to have a mattress atop them-that caught his eye. Large, ripped at the edges, topped with overflowing manila folders.

Max must have seen him eyeing it in the way she stopped at his side to say, “Don’t worry about that one. It’s Neil’s.”

“Neil?” He asked. “That’s your-”

“Billy’s dad. Yeah.”

She didn’t wait for any more questions, just turned on her heel and left the room.

Steve didn’t quite know what to make of that, decided it would be best if he left it alone. He went over to the corner to get his hands on a box and followed Max out.

Each trip in and out he caught little glimpses of Billy’s dad and Max’s mom in the kitchen, conversation too low for his ears to catch. Just a solid hand gripping at the counter. The flash of orange hair walking dishes across the room. The jut of a strong chin and the hard gaze of stronger eyes.

Any other house, he might’ve stopped in the kitchen before he left, said a quick hello, made a joke or two, played nice in the sandbox. He almost considered it, too.

Almost.

Until he remembered the way Billy’s dad had laughed. Harsh and cruel in a way that still made the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stand when he thought about it.

No.

Do what you gotta do and then leave.

So he did. He got in his car and went home.

Walked into an empty house.

Went to sleep.

The smell of smoke was strong in his nose when he woke, so strong that he half expected Billy to be sitting at his hip. Expected to open his eyes and find him right there. Right next to him. Weight dipping the bed.

His brow furrowed when Billy wasn’t in his immediate line of vision, squinted into the darkness and saw his silhouette over by the window, back to the room, short cigarette in hand, long trail of smoke licking off the end.

Steve was sure to make the bed creak when he sat up. Billy didn’t move. He was slow in his approach, afraid to startle him, made his footsteps fairly heavy on the hardwood floor, let Billy know he was there. Awake. Alert.

He felt his frown deepen when his eyes caught the ashtray on his desk, caught the sight of four cigarettes stubbed out, scattered across the glass.

Billy had been here a while. Waiting.

He blinked hard when Steve stopped at his side. Blank. Didn’t acknowledge him.

He brought the cigarette up to his lips for a long drag and Steve couldn’t help but look. The moonlight was soft on his cheeks, smooth on his freckles, along the slope of his nose and the bow of his even lips.

The breath he used to exhale was shaky, unsure, loud in the cool night air that filled their lungs.

Nothing like the silent gasp Steve choked on when Billy opened his mouth and cut through the silence between them like a shot.

“Take me over there.”

Chapter Text

Take me over there.

Not a question. Not a request.

A demand. An order.

Every trace of the uncertainty Billy had projected only seconds ago was wiped away by his words.

Steve was frozen. Cold. Colder than the steel blue of Billy’s eyes. The chill that had bitten at his neck that night in November. That night at the Byers’ house.

Billy was standing in front of him now like he’d stood in from of him then. Back straight. Chest puffed. Shoulders back. Lazy cigarette dangling from tight lips, necklace on his chest. Something guarded and slightly aggressive in the steel blue of his eyes. Cut off. Distant.

Resigned.

Dangerous.

Made it difficult for Steve to breathe. To think. Talk. Focus on anything that wasn’t the shake in his hands. The twitch of his confused brow. The faint crackle of Billy’s cigarette when he hollowed his cheeks and brought it back down to his side.

“Over where?” Steve asked, faint.

“My house.” The words made Steve’s stomach sink. “You know how to get there in the dark?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Good.” Billy crushed the end of the cigarette in the ashtray, pushed off his heel. “Come on.”

Steve could only stare when Billy walked away, out towards the door. Nailed to the floor, planted.

Billy was half through the doorway when he looked back over his shoulder.

Steve’s throat closed around the words, caught them, trapped them. Useless, helpless as Billy waited for him, looked him up and down with a gaze that sent a spark up his spine.

Choked on them when Billy finally turned and disappeared through the door.

“Hey, wait.” His legs carried him out of the room, almost caught him up to Billy on the stairs, feet heavy, clumsy beneath him. “Billy, wait up. What are you-where are you going?”

He could hear the jiggle of the front door down at the bottom, the echo of Billy’s voice in the foyer saying, “My house,” again, as though the answer was any more sufficient now than it had been a minute ago.

Steve had half a mind to stop in the kitchen and grab his keys before he followed Billy out to the car. Didn’t bother to lock the door behind him.

The two of them were seated side-by-side, keys idle in the ignition when Steve turned his head and looked at him.

Billy was stiff, rigid. Tense in that way that made Steve want to reach out and touch. Soothe. Let his hands say what his mouth couldn’t. He didn’t quite understand where that impulse was coming from lately. Often. Didn’t want to think about it too hard.

“What are we doing this for exactly?” he asked, wanted something, anything that might give away what was going on in his head.

But the distance in Billy’s eyes was nothing compared to the distance in his tone.

“Want to.”

He closed his eyes, let his head loll back against the headrest. Steve might have called the gesture lazy if he didn’t know Billy’s jaw was clenched. If Billy’s hand wasn’t holding onto his knee with a grip that had his knuckles white.

Steve continued to wait. Watched the clock blink.

3:17

3:18

3:19

He didn’t know why he was hesitating like this, why he couldn’t just turn on the engine and put his foot on the gas.

He hadn’t felt the need to hesitate around Billy since the harsh squeak of sneakers on the gym floor had become nothing but a distant memory, faded, forgotten. Replaced, turned over by the warm lilt of his voice and the soft ring of his laugh.

Nothing like the sharp huff brought him back down.

“Jesus, Harrington.” Billy’s hand went to the handle. “Go back to bed. I’ll walk.”

Steve turned the key in the ignition before Billy had the chance to pull the door open. Stopped him. Shut him up.

Billy’s hand fell to his lap. Steve pulled out of the driveway.

The air was thick between them, cloudy. Like how it got sometimes when Billy was smoking and Steve could only make out the pink of his lips, the steel blue of his eyes. Billy had forgotten his cigarettes back at the house, took to clutching at his necklace with one hand, biting his nails on the other. Jittery. Uneasy.

The nervous energy was rolling off him in waves that cracked steady and constant. Like an unforgiving tide that gave you one deep breath at the surface, let you feel safe for just a moment before it sucked you back under and knocked the air out of your lungs all over again.

A far cry from the arrogance, the effortless fuck you that always waited behind his teeth, bared and ready to bite. Bruise. Leave you bloody and broken.

Remember November?

Steve had only been to Billy’s house twice, two fast, fleeting occasions, but he already had a lasting impression of it. An image of it in his mind. Normal, typical in that middle-class, middle-America type of way. Warm, unique in that vases filled with seashells, flowers printed on the curtains type of way.

Above all else, Steve got the impression that it was strong, sturdy. Held up by hard eyes, broad shoulders.

The fact of the matter was, the house looked smaller in the dark. Sadder. Heavier somehow. Like Atlas crumbling under the weight of the world.

Except then he angled his head to look at Billy, whose face was in profile, eyes locked on the house with a gaze that burned hot, and it struck him that maybe it was Billy that looked more like Atlas. Like he was carrying a weight, unspoken, heavy on his shoulders.

Maybe he needed to shrug.

Let it heal.

Steve was careful to keep his voice low, even when he spoke.

“You okay?”

Billy nodded once, a harsh jerk of a movement. “Just give me a minute.”

He didn’t wait for Steve to answer before he opened the door, left it half open as he took a few steps out towards the house.

Steve held his tongue, just watched with a nervous curiosity as the line of Billy’s body became a silhouette, backlit in the glow of hazy street lamps and soft moonlight.

He wasn’t sure how long he watched Billy stand there like that, still, static, staring at the house like maybe he was afraid to disturb the air, the calm, cool August night air.

His eyes followed the movement when Billy reached down, picked something up, and then stood tall again. Billy tilted his head, turned whatever it was over in his hand, once, twice, a third time before his fist closed around it and he threw it at the house, hit the siding with a dull pang.

A pebble.

Before Steve could properly process what was going on here, Billy had already reached down for another. Threw it. Reached for another. Threw it. Steve could hear him, hear the grunt he let out with each throw, understood the effort, the anger hidden, inherent to such a noise.

Knew first hand just how strong, how unstoppable Billy was when he was making angry sounds like those.

Steve was powerless to watch as Billy reached for another pebble, threw it. Reached for another. Threw it. Reached for another and another and another, let the rocks get bigger and bigger, grunts lower, pangs louder, until finally Billy picked up a stone and hurled it at the front window with a force that shattered the glass, a deafening crack that scattered clean shards across the lawn.

Silence rang in Steve’s ears like white noise. Like even the air had lost control. Taken it too far.

If it hadn’t been so quiet, Steve might not have heard the rustling in the house, might not have noticed how, one by one, each of the lights went on. The world was waking, but Billy hadn’t moved a muscle and fear wrapped itself around Steve’s heart.

“Billy,” he called out. Nothing. Another light went on, closer to the front door. “Billy, come on, man. We gotta go.” Another light. The fear climbed up his chest, settled in his throat, frantic. “Billy, they’re coming, let’s go.”

One more set of lights and finally Billy began to retreat, backed up slowly, tripping over his feet, sent him stumbling into the car.

The front door swung open, gave way to the angriest version of Neil Hargrove that Steve had ever seen when he put his foot on the gas and tore off down the road.

Billy had turned all the way around to look back over his shoulder, to watch as the house, the man now standing in the middle of the street faded into the darkness, melted into the night.

He was still out of breath when he fell back against the seat, panting, eyes wide, wild, glazed over with tears that he wiped off his cheeks with the heel of his hand, pressed it down hard over his eyes. Kept the other one curled tight, secure around the pendant of his necklace.

Steve hands were shaking so badly he could barely hold onto the steering wheel, vision blurred, showing him the road in a blended mix of two and three.

It was muscle memory that got them to the quarry, pure muscle memory.

Billy jumped out of the car like the seat had been burning his skin, like the cool air would soothe a wound on his back. His shoulders.

Steve was slower to get out, circled around to the trunk so that he could lean with his lower back against it. He crossed his arms, watched Billy pace back and forth in the dirt. He took a few long moments to try and calm his shaking hands, slow his breathing pattern. Didn’t last long before the curiosity took over.

“Do you mind telling me what the hell that was about?” Steve asked, tried not to shout, couldn’t exactly help the way his voice carried in the open, empty air. “I mean, Jesus. He could’ve seen you.”

Billy’s voice was quiet in comparison, but the word that fell from his lips packed a punch like Steve had been hit in the gut. Kicked in the ribs. Last November.

“Good.”

Steve flinched, felt the phantom pain of a fist crashing into his cheekbone. “Good?”

“Yeah, good,” Billy spat, kicked the dirt beneath his bare feet, narrowed his eyes like a new fire had suddenly been ignited in them, “You know what? I actually kind of hope he did. I hope he saw me, the son of a bitch. I hope he saw his poor little fuckup son and dropped dead.”

“Oh, what are you talking about?” Steve asked, almost added an eye roll for good measure. “You don’t mean that.”

“Don’t I?” Something in the question made Steve close his mouth with a snap, made him stop. Billy didn’t stop, although what he said next made Steve wish he had. “He used to beat the hell out of me, you know. Really. Used to just go to town. Knock me around for shits. Like it was nothing.”

Here’s to fucked up parents, huh?

That question had made him laugh 24 hours ago.

“I had no idea.”

“Nobody did. That was the whole point.” There was something bitter in the way he said it, angry, hurt.

Something in Steve’s brain clicked.

“All those bruises you had.” The words tumbled from his lips before he could push them down, couldn’t take them back now. “I-I thought maybe you got them at practice.”

Billy didn’t say anything, just eyed him, watched him. Steve knew what he was thinking, could hear the echoes of a conversation they’d had weeks ago. A conversation that had turned tables. Exposed secrets.

Started with Steve.

Saw you looking.

I didn’t know you noticed.

Didn’t think I was supposed to.

Steve wished he could say now what he couldn’t say then.

Didn’t think I was supposed to, but I was looking, too, you idiot. I was always looking.

But he still couldn’t. Still felt them climb up, get stuck in his mouth.

In the silence, their silent conversation, Billy seemed to soften. Deflate.

He walked over to the car and stopped next to Steve, leaned down so his hands were resting on the trunk, supporting his weight.

He spoke through a sigh. “Yeah, you and everybody else.”

Steve could almost taste the blood in his mouth, just kept getting hit and hit and hit. “Billy, I’m so-”

“Don’t,” he said, the word an obvious warning. “Don’t do the ‘I’m sorry’ thing. Say whatever the hell you want, but don’t say sorry.” He ducked his head and his curls fell down messy over his forehead, covered part of his eyes, shielded them. Hid them. “It doesn’t help anybody.”

Steve’s hands ached so badly they hurt.

“How can I help then?” he whispered, offered. Felt the vice around his heart loosen ever so slightly when Billy tipped his head to one side, helped get the hair off his face, helped Steve catch his eyes. “Look, I know I couldn’t-I couldn’t do anything before, but I want to now. I wanna help.”

Let it heal.

He wasn’t sure how long Billy stared at him after that, how long they stood there, just breathing, looking at each other, but Steve’s feet began to hurt. He needed to move, adjust. Couldn’t bring himself to break up the moment.

Billy shook his head, huffed a humorless laugh.

“Always trying to save somebody, huh, wonder boy?” There was no bite to the words, no insult hidden beneath them, voice dropped low. “But for what it’s worth, you do. Help.”

“I haven’t done anything.”

“You’re you,” he said, simple, like that was enough. “I’m me, but you’re just,” Billy shook his head again, let his eye line fall down Steve’s face, lashes fanning across his cheeks, “you.”

“I don’t get it.” Billy’s eyes followed his lips as they moved and Steve’s insides were on fire, held in a gasp when Billy tilted his chin up, parted his lips.

“You don’t have to.”

Steve’s eyes fell as Billy whispered. He could taste the words on his tongue, warm like wine, felt them bloom, explode in his chest. Drunk on diction and syntax. It didn’t take much effort to imagine the way Billy’s breath should’ve ghosted on his mouth, mixed, mingled with his own. Smooth. Nervous. Excited.

The glint of something metallic around Billy’s neck caught his eye in the moonlight.

His necklace.

Billy was still leaning forward, weight forward, made it so that his necklace was hanging into the air rather than resting flat on his chest like it always did.

There was a chance.

Steve knew what a risk it was to try to reach out, to try and touch it, but he lifted an unsteady hand, slow, gave Billy fair warning before he caught the pendant in the palm, ignored the butterflies that spread low in his stomach when he realized he was touching.

He was touching.

He ran his thumb over it, the letters, the dips and smooth lines. Wondered if the dips and lines of Billy’s body were this smooth.

When he lifted his eyes back up, he noticed Billy’s hadn’t moved. He’d been watching him. Silent. Intent.

“Where did you get this?” Steve asked, little more than a whisper.

Billy’s lips quirked at the edges. “How long have you been waiting to ask me that?”

Steve resisted the urge to tug, pull, didn’t feel like testing his luck. Testing fate. “A while.”

Billy stood a little straighter, still leaned with his hip against the car for leverage. Steve was careful not to let his hand fall, not to touch him. Didn’t want to lose this.

“Max got it for me.” His eyes dipped again. “Gave it to me the first birthday I had after our parents got married. Said something about how I was the only person she knew that surfed and didn’t have one.”

Steve’s chin fell towards his chest to make it easier to look at the pendant, to read the words fanned out along the top. “Saint Christopher.”

“Supposed to protect people.” Billy ducked his head, too, looked along with him. In a better world, Steve could’ve rested their foreheads together. “Well, protect travelers technically, but I think regular people are supposed to fit in there somewhere, too.”

Steve acknowledged him with a nod, hesitated, “Did Max know when she gave it to you?” The words felt wrong, ugly. “About your dad?”

“No,” he said, soft. Steve didn’t quite know what to say to that, kept his mouth shut, waited for Billy to keep going. “You see her around a lot?”

He hadn’t been expecting that. “Sometimes,” he said, thought to himself for a second. “Mostly just when she stops in the video store or I’m dropping Dustin off or whatever.”

Steve could see the flutter of Billy’s eyelashes when he blinked, long, hard.

“Do you-could you just, I don’t know,” he paused. “Keep an eye on her? Make sure she’s not getting into anything stupid?” he asked, made Steve’s heart do something funny in his chest. “She can take care of herself just fine, but she does dumb shit when she’s with all those other little idiots so it would be-it would be cool. If you could do that.”

“Yeah,” Steve nodded softly. “Yeah, I can do that.”

Billy went quiet after that. Thoughtful.

He pushed his hip off the car, stood up straight, made the pendant slip from Steve’s palm. His hands went to the back of his neck, slow, and then suddenly he had each end of the necklace in each hand, open, undone. He took half a step closer to Steve, crowded into his space.

“What are you-”

“Hold still.”

Let it heal.

Steve could only watch when Billy leaned forward, reached around him to do the clasp behind his neck. Didn’t dare to move. Breathe. Steve closed his eyes and he swore he could feel the warmth of Billy’s chest, less than an inch away from his own. Felt the chill, the ache that took its place when he took half a step back again.

He didn’t know why he expected the necklace to be heavier, that he would be able to feel its weight around his neck. The pendant settled feather light on his chest, the barest, gentlest touch.

Would Billy’s touch be that light?

Billy said nothing, just offered him a small, crooked smile that lifted one side of his lips higher than the other. Fleeting.

In one quick motion he turned, put his hands on the trunk, and lifted himself up to sit on it. When Steve was done laughing, he did the same. They both barely fit next to each other, only mere inches separating their sides, even less separating their hands where they each held on.

Billy turned his head, let his eyes fall to the middle of Steve’s chest, half lidded like he was tired. Maybe something else.

“Looks good.” Steve felt his cheeks heat, hoped it was too dark for Billy to see them go pink. “Maybe you’ll have better luck with it.” There was something resigned in his voice, something sad. Dark.

It was too much, too real. Steve let his gaze fall towards his lap, lost his eyes, noticed how close Billy’s hand was to his own. He could reach out and touch it if he wanted.

God, he wanted.

He swallowed hard, felt the corners of his lips twitch up. Didn’t say thank you. “To fucked up parents then, huh?”

Billy huffed a short laugh that Steve felt rumble in his chest. He watched Billy spread his hand wide, reach his pinky out, ghosting it through his. Didn’t say you’re welcome. “To fucked up parents.”

Let it heal.

There was a special kind of beauty to moonlight. A kind of mystery. Something clean and cool about the way it helped hide and reveal a shade of steel blue that made Steve’s pulse speed. That he chased in the comfort of his bedroom and then again in his dreams. Ran and ran and ran, just always out of reach.

Moonlight was beautiful, but sunrise was everything.

Billy was made for the hours between five and seven AM, when the sky was shaded orange and yellow and maybe just the tiniest bit pink. When his eyes were bright with soft sunlight and the freckles along his cheeks lit up his face like stardust.

Made watching him leave that much harder.

I’ll see you later?

Yeah. Later.

Steve drove home with one hand on the wheel, the other curled around the necklace that now hung from his neck. Passenger seat empty. Cold.

At some point in the drive, he decided he was going to call in sick to work. He was already late and didn’t feel like making up the hours after the fact. Picked up the phone when he walked in the door.

Hung up on Robin mid-sentence.

“Steve, you don’t even sound sick. Why the hell are you-”

Slapped the phone back down onto the holder and went into the kitchen to make something to eat.

He distracted himself well enough in the few hours he had until he needed to take Dustin to the arcade.

Ate. Slept. Cleaned. Fought with the radio when it lost signal for no reason at all. Watched rerun after rerun after rerun of an old Western show he didn’t know the name of because there was never anything else on midday and it was still better than watching Soaps.

The nap he’d taken around noon didn’t do much by means of helping cure his tired body. He held in more than one massive yawn, eyes on fire, barely open to begin with, when Dustin was finally in the car next to him, moon high in the sky. He’d turned the radio up when he noticed Steve wasn’t going to be all that talkative, sang along, bopped his head. Filled the silent gap Steve left wide open.

A gap that, when not filled with music, was filled with Billy’s voice. Like always.

Do you-could you just, I don’t know. Keep an eye on her? Make sure she’s not getting into anything stupid?

Steve lifted a hand to turn the dial, turn the music down. Dustin’s eyes went wide.

“Hey, what are you doing? I like that one.”

He went to turn it back up, but Steve pushed his hand away.

“I’ll turn it back up in a second. Just lemme ask you something,” he started. “Do you talk to Max at all?”

“Pretty much every day,” he said, without hesitation. Steve resisted the urge to smack him on the forehead.

“I mean about real shit, stupid. She’s been through a lot these last couple weeks.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t really talk about it,” Dustin stated, something in his tone made Steve think it wasn’t for the lack of their trying. “I don’t know. It seems like she’s alright, though.”

It was subconscious, the way Steve reached into his shirt, pulled the pendant out, held it between his forefinger and his thumb. “Okay, well can you just, make sure she knows I’m here? Like if she ever needs somebody to talk to. I mean, she’s got my number, just make sure she knows she can use it.”

“Sure, I’ll tell her.”

“Thanks, man.”

“No problem,” Dustin smiled, pointed at the radio. “Can you turn my song back up now?”

“Dipshit.”

Steve let the necklace drop from his fingers and did just that. Maybe changed the station before he put his hand back on the wheel. Smiled when Dustin nearly jumped out of his seat to change it back.

He was pretty grateful Dustin was catching a ride home from Jonathan later, helped him feel a little less guilty about not offering so that he could go home and go to sleep.

His eyes caught the sight of the pretty, little glass ashtray on his desk as he changed out of his clothes, the five cigarettes scattered throughout. Let it sink in just how long Billy had probably been standing there, smoking, thinking, waiting for him to wake up so that he could unleash his demons. Get them off his mind. His chest. His shoulders.

Steve dumped it out in the garbage, put it back down next to the half-empty pack of Reds and the purple lighter.

The little spot Billy had cut out for himself in Steve’s world.

Because even if the world didn’t have a place for Billy, Steve did.

Steve did.

He fell asleep with the cool metal of a necklace on his skin and smile on his lips.

A thud.

A laugh.

A cough.

A creak.

All sounds he was used to waking to. All sounds he associated with a head of golden curls, a pair of eyes, bright like blue steel. All made his pulse speed. Welcome. Familiar.

The doorbell didn’t fit in with that group. Made his pulse speed in a way that almost hurt. Made his heart rack a little too hard against his ribs. Made his hands itch for a bat.

He rubbed a hand over his face, wiped the sleep from his eyes, looked over towards the clock.

9:15.

Too early. Not early enough.

The floor creaked beneath his feet on the stairs, louder than his yawn, the scratch of his hand as it ran through his hair.

He pulled the door open as the doorbell rang loud in his ears again.

One quick up and down from the pair of eyes staring back at him and he was already being spoken to.

“I knew you weren’t sick.”

Robin.

He gaped at her.

“What are you doing?”

“Rekindling our friendship,” she stated, adjusting her weight beneath the pillow she was holding and the plastic bags that dangled from each her arms. Steve almost considered laughing. “We’ve both got the day off tomorrow. So tonight? We are hanging out like friends and I’m going to sleep over at your stupidly huge house and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“But I-”

Nothing you can do about it.”

She didn’t give him the chance to argue. Walked into his shoulder, pushed past it and turned the corner to go to the living room.

He had no choice but to lock the door behind her. Follow her into the living room.

Ignore his sinking heart.

His poor, battered heart.

Chapter Text

Robin was perceptive. Generally, it was one of the things Steve liked about her most.

He liked that she was clever. He liked that she could dive headfirst into a half-baked plan to decipher a Russian code. That he didn’t have to say it for her to know he was having a good day. A bad day

It gave him space to breathe, to exist. Exist in a world where he didn’t have to tread so lightly, where he didn’t need to swing a bat with nails at the words he couldn’t bring himself to say out loud.

He could just be.

But Robin was always perceptive and tonight, it was one of the things Steve hated about her most.

Made him wish she wasn’t quite so clever. That they were still sitting in the back of Scoops listening to Russian, tugging their hair, torturing their exhausted brains.

She hadn’t even been sitting on the couch long enough to make an indent.

“Were you asleep just now?”

Perceptive.

“No.” But he didn’t look at her when he said it. Might as well have kept his mouth shut.

“It’s not even ten yet, you big weirdo,” she said, pulled a stack of cassettes with bright covers out from one of the bags next to her. “I’m pretty sure I was still in diapers the last time I went to sleep that early.”

“I don’t think most people wear diapers until they’re 14,” he teased. She narrowed her eyes at him, but he chose not to acknowledge it.

Neither did she.

She didn’t need to hear it to know she was right and he knew deflection was akin to admission, but he changed the subject anyway. Pointed to her hands and asked what movies she brought with her.

But she kept her eyes open.

Butch, Sundance, and Etta hadn’t even made it to South America.

“Since when do you wear a necklace?”

Perceptive.

Like a punch.

He was suddenly all too aware of the pendant in his palm. The hard lines, the dips he’d been worrying his thumb over, idle and aimless since the room had gone dark. Had been trying to focus on the orange, the yellow of the desert, the soft ring of Robin’s laugh nearby.

Anything that wasn’t the slope of Billy’s nose, the bow of his lips, the curve of his chin. How badly he wished he could trace his lines, his contours, once, twice, again. Again, again, and again.

He knew them all, Billy’s curves and his edges, by memory. Could draw him without looking. Without a pen, without paper.

He knew them behind his eyes, behind his ribs, buried deep in the marrow of his bones, but not beneath his palms.

So close. Too far.

An optical illusion.

“Last couple days,” he said. Lied.

Even in the dark, he could tell she was looking at him. Could feel her eyes burning his cheeks.

“Huh,” she hummed. “That’s cool. Where’d you get it?”

“Thrift shop.” The words came quick, too quick. He coughed a little to cover his tracks, pointed with his thumb towards nothing in particular. “You know, that uh-the dinky one? Off Cornwallis?”

“Oh yeah. By that sleazy motel?”

“Yeah.” He dropped his hand back into his lap. “That one.”

“Weird,” she said, laughed after a second, mostly to herself, made Steve tilt his head the tiniest bit. “I didn’t think they sold any jewelry.”

The knots in his stomach tightened almost painfully. “Guess they’re trying something new.”

She looked like she wanted to say more and Steve waited for the words, took a second to prepare himself for whatever lie he was going to have to tell next, but she stopped there. Let it go.

And so he breathed.

Steve tucked the necklace into his shirt, hid it against his heart. Only pulled it back out after the second movie ended and Jimmy Stewart had fallen out of that stupid window he was so keen on. When Robin’s breathing evened and her cheek was snug against a pillow.

It was instinctive the way his eyes flicked towards the clock, thoughtless.

1:45.

Maybe.

He was careful not to move the couch too much when he stood, slow, let the cushion spring back as he removed his weight from the equation. Avoided the creaky floorboard and thanked all his lucky stars he was wearing socks to pad the noise. Wanted nothing more than for Robin to stay asleep while he went up the stairs.

His ears were perked as he tiptoed towards his bedroom, turned the doorknob gently, and pushed it open.

He was met with darkness. With nothing. Not even a lick of smoke off the end of a burnt cigarette.

Something green balled in the pit of his stomach, twisted and settled low, heavy. Something green and gross and tight as he sat down on the edge of his bed, locked his hands onto the mattress and squeezed. Stared at nothing.

No one.

Not even the moon was out to play, covered by thick clouds. Hidden. Asleep.

He should be asleep. Robin was asleep. Maybe Billy was asleep.

Maybe he forgot.

Steve laid back with his legs still hanging off the edge of the bed, feet planted on the floor. Green flooded up his chest, hung in the hollow of his throat. Heavy.

His limbs were heavy. His eyes were heavy. His heart was heavy.

Two out of three, fixable problems.

He’d take it for now and when Billy showed up, he’d wake him.

He’d wake him.

“Wake up.” A hand pushed at his shoulder. “Hey asshole, wake up.”

Steve grumbled, turned over to hide his face in a pillow. “Five more minutes.”

“No way.” And before he knew it, the pillow was being ripped out from under him, sent his nose crashing into the mattress with a force that made his eyes water. “Come on. It’s almost ten and I told Dustin we’d take the nerds out to breakfast.”

He turned over slowly, face twisted from pain and lack of sleep and something a little green. The realization that the voice talking to him was too high, the eyes looking back at him too warm, too wide.

“I don’t remember signing up for that.”

Robin had walked over to the other side over the room, over by his desk.

“No?” She pulled the curtains open and the ring rang metallic in his ears, harsh, like the sunlight that made him squeeze his eyes shut. “Man, that’s just too bad, but you know what they say. A promise is a promise and I for one don’t plan on-”

She stopped mid-sentence, left the words to hang in the air. Dissolve into silence. Into nothing.

Slowly, Steve opened his eyes again, squinted across the room to find her stopped in front of his desk, back to the rest of the room. He didn’t have to see through her to know what was hidden behind her silhouette.

A purple lighter, a half-empty pack of Marlboro Reds, and a pretty, little glass ashtray.

“You’re smoking again?”

Perceptive.

His hand rubbed at the back of his neck as he sat up, fingers catching at thin metal, warm from sleep.

“Sort of,” he said, shrug in his voice. “Mostly just when I can’t sleep.”

Not a total lie.

Green fell to the pit of his stomach when Robin turned on her heel, took three long strides, and sat down on the edge of the bed across him from. Her knee knocked into his and her eyes were wide, ringed with day old eyeliner and smudged mascara, but full of concern.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” she said. Stated. Pushed the words at him with unwavering certainty.

“No there’s not,” he said, but she was already shaking her head.

“Yes there is.” Same tone. “How many times do I have to tell you that I’m a detective before you get it through your thick skull that I know you, dipshit?” she asked, only half teasing.

He pinched the clasp of the necklace between his forefinger and his thumb. Squeezed. Tight, like the line of his lips.

The line of hers.

She just looked at him. Was probably waiting for him to speak, to explain himself. To tell her that she was right, that she was wrong, but he could give as good as he got now. Didn’t quite drown in long silences, didn’t feel them prick at his skin like poisoned thorns.

So he kept quiet.

Kept the words on the tip of his tongue.

My entire life revolves around seeing Billy Hargrove and I want-

I want.

“Steve.” Her voice was soft, even. Pushed guilt into the green until it mixed in dark, blended solid. “Whatever it is that’s bothering you-”

“Nothing’s bothering me,” he said, cut her off, watched her eyebrows pinch. “I’m fine.”

“Well yeah, I mean, I hear you, but you’re-”

“I’m fine,” he insisted, added in a, “Really, I am,” for good measure when she stared at him, blank.

“You sure about that?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, probably a little too emphatic, but managed a small, halfhearted smile as he pushed up off the bed. “Come on. We should probably pick up the losers before they eat each other alive.”

He didn’t wait for her to follow. Didn’t even let her finish with, “Steve, wait. Can you just-“ before he walked through the door and headed off down the hall.

Robin was slow to follow. He was already in the kitchen, slipping his feet into his shoes, searching for his keys, when he heard her tidying her things in the living room.

It was only a second before he found his keys on the counter next to the fridge, glinting bright gold against the cool grey marble. Though, the weight of them in his hand didn’t hold his attention for too long.

Not when, just inches off the counter, stuck to the side of the fridge, he noticed there was a folded sheet of paper, held in place by a purple magnet.

Purple like a lighter.

Something warm pulled in Steve’s chest as he took it down, flicked his eyes towards the doorway to make sure it was empty. He opened the paper with shaking hands, a heartbeat that thumped near deafening.

He didn’t quite recognize the messy scrawl, the tilt of the letters, the drag of what had to be a left hand across the words, but then again, he really didn’t need to.

See you later, pretty boy.

He could hear the words so clearly, had heard Billy say them so many times before. In the locker room, in the halls. Near the window, next to his bed. In life. In death. The echoes racked against his ribs and filled his lungs like clean air.

Suddenly he could breathe again.

Let it heal.

He traced over the letters with his thumb. Tried to imagine Billy in his kitchen, searching aimlessly for a pen in the tidy drawers, hissing foul words under his breath every time he opened the wrong one. Could picture the way he would have rolled his eyes when the only one he could find was in a sleek wooden case, Steve’s dad’s initials engraved gold in the otherwise smooth burgundy shine.

Steve had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing out loud at the thought.

He read the words over one more time, a second, maybe a third, before he folded the paper down small and stuck it in the back pocket of his jeans. Tucked it away. Stored it. Safe. Secure.

He walked out of the house and left green on the other side of the door, closed it, locked it behind him. Drowned it in steel blue, in five familiar words and the promise of later.

From Billy’s lips to his fragile heart.

Later. Which took nothing short of forever.

Steve had every intention of coming home after breakfast. Coming home, going back to sleep, and waiting. Always waiting.

But breakfast took so long it bled into lunch. Lunch so long it bled into a movie, which bled into a second. Bled into the arcade and the deafening shriek of Steve, Steve, Steve, I almost had it that time. Did you see? I almost had it.

The whole day bled through and through, but if you cut him open, his blood would still bleed a cool shade of blue.

His bed felt a little bit like heaven around midnight. Back to back late nights after weeks of falling asleep while the sun was still up pulled at his eyelids, pulled the sheets up to his shoulders, pulled him into a dreamless sleep that stilled his whole body. Stopped the earth on its axis.

Thud.

He wasn’t the only one that crashed in the aftermath.

Billy was perched on his desk, one knee bent in front of him, elbow wrapped around it. The other leg hung low, toes just barely brushing the floor. The cigarette between his lips was long, new, but Steve could see the plume of smoke from the ashtray near his foot, gave him some idea of how long he’d been sitting there, eyes on the window.

Steve was already in the process of pulling the covers back when he sat up, hardly finished the motion by the time his feet hit the hard wood of the floor.

One, two, three full steps found Billy turning his head, a fourth found Steve on the desk across from him, almost mirroring him. One leg folded in front of him, the other out long.

Billy wasn’t quick to break the silence. Comfortable. Tense. Just hollowed his cheeks, took a slow pull on the cigarette, dropped his hand to rest on his knee. Brought it back up for another. And another.

Steve watched as he let the clouds fill his lungs, let the suspense fill his own thoughts. Every exhale blew a thin line of grey smoke in his direction. He felt something bloom warm in his chest as his lips parted to meet it.

Billy’s voice was a welcome addition to the sensation.

“You know, that was the first time I’ve ever seen somebody else here.”

A statement. A fact.

Steve felt a crease form between his brows. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Billy shrugged, took another long drag. “You’ve got this big, empty house. Folks are never home. Nobody’s ever around to bother you.” Smooth, casual words as he watched himself tap the end of the cigarette off.

The crease only got deeper. “So?”

Billy tipped his head to one side, lifted his eyes, watched him, curious. “You never thought about taking advantage of that?”

Oh.

Steve said as much, couldn’t catch the sound as it tumbled past his lips, blinked hard. Thought back. “Well yeah, I mean. I used to.”

“Used to,” Billy repeated, slow. Thoughtful. His lips were hollow around the cigarette again when made a soft noise in the back of his throat. Understood. “King Steve.”

Steve could taste the words on his tongue, mingled with smoke.

“King Steve,” he repeated, with none of Billy’s pride, nor his amusement. Found himself looking at the pinch of Billy’s fingers around the cigarette, fading, shrinking by the minute.

Billy’s voice was low when he spoke, careful. “What changed?”

I did.

Steve hesitated, leaned forward, curled in. Hunched his shoulders and let his elbows rest on the tops of his knees. Billy’s pendant fell from its place on his chest into the air between them. Two days and Steve already felt too light without it resting against his skin. Without it there to ground him.

“Some stupid party.” He gestured with his chin towards the window, the yard beyond. “Nancy’s best friend died out in my pool.”

Billy blinked hard at that and Steve knew it couldn’t have been what he’d been expecting to hear, not with the way his fingers twitched, the way his lips twitched.

Steve even watched his brow twitch, pinch. Watched the little crease form between his eyes, tighten his face, close it off. Steve closed his fist around the hem of his pajama pants.

He couldn’t read the look in Billy’s eyes, hated him a little bit for it. Hated that he could still keep secrets after so many weeks in each other’s company.

The words were careful again. “What happened? She drown?” Steve shook his head once, slow, but it was enough for Billy to understand what he meant. For something dark to pull at his shoulders, his posture, glaze over in his eyes. “The shadow.”

“Not exactly,” he said, thankful that the answer wiped some of the sudden darkness from Billy’s expression, brought him back down, “but it was close enough.”

Billy sighed, brought his other leg up from the floor, crossed it over the other one, held onto his ankle with his free hand. “That’s-”

“Yeah,” Steve said, quick to cut him off. Didn’t want to relive that memory a second longer than he had to. It was his turn now anyway. “How come you didn’t wake me up last night?”

Billy hesitated, pursed his lips. Looked down at Steve’s, back up. Little more than a flash.

“I thought about it,” he admitted, the statement a little more stark, more bare than Steve had expected, “but you looked tired.” His eyes left Steve completely then, let his gaze drift back towards the window, out towards the sky. “Still do.”

“That the only reason?”

“No,” Billy said. Scrunched his nose, quick. Released it, quick. Too quick. “You had a chick over.”

Steve struggled to bite back a laugh, was sort of glad he couldn’t when the sound caused Billy to look at him again, speak again.

“What’s so funny?”

“Robin’s not a chick,” he said, nodded towards the picture on his desk, the one Billy had asked him about all those weeks ago. “I’m-”

“Not her type,” Billy stated, stopped Steve dead in his tracks. “Not pretty enough or some horseshit like that, right?”

“Yeah.” Steve felt himself flinch a little at that, recoil, the words almost exact. “Just like that.”

Billy nodded once.

Never took his eyes off Steve’s.

“How come you never have girls over?”

Steve’s jaw went slack, almost landed in his lap.

“What?”

“Come on, Harrington. Big, empty house,” he explained again, matter of fact, like they were talking about something normal, something easy. “You’re telling me you never wanted to bring a girl back here?”

Maybe it was easy.

Girls don’t ever stay through the night. They don’t stay until the sun trades places with the moon. Don’t stay until the light burns bright and gives way to a deep blue sky that seems pale next to a pair of steel cut eyes.

It was subconscious, the way he ducked his head, couldn’t quite lift his eyes to meet Billy’s when he said, “I used to.”

Subconscious still how he stretched his pointer finger out long, watched it ghost through the material of Billy’s jeans. His leg.

So close. Too far.

An optical illusion.

“Used to,” Billy repeated. The second time tonight. Repeated himself once more. “What changed?”

You did.

“I did.”

Billy didn’t push, just stared.

Silence settled thick in the air.

Steve kept his eyes locked low, unable, unwilling. Unfocused.

He hadn’t been aware Billy brought the cigarette back up to his lips until he heard it crackle, until he heard it spark, heat. Cherry red. Like the skin on his neck. Hot.

Like the thin line of smoke his lips parted open to meet. To catch. To breathe.

Girls wouldn’t taste like Marlboro Reds.

The soft tap, tap, tap of ashes against the tray hit Steve’s ears next. The even lull of Billy’s breathing. The heavy thump of his heart.

His breath caught in his throat when a hand curled around the pendant that hung in the air between them. Billy’s pendant. Billy’s hand. Free. Strong. Firm. Sure.

Girls don’t have your hands.

The cigarette was back in Billy’s mouth before Steve could take another breath. Pulling, drawing smoke.

Billy’s cigarette hand dropped, dropped out of view, out of sight, out of mind, without taking his eyes off Steve.

But he didn’t let go of the breath, held it. Held onto the necklace.

Then, carefully, he pulled.

Asking. Inviting.

Steve couldn’t help but lean into it, let himself be tugged forward. Just the slightest bit forward. Into Billy’s space. His orbit. Couldn’t help but tilt his head, ache at the white-hot coil of knots in the pit of his stomach. Part his lips when Billy’s eyes fell to watch them.

Time stood still when Billy opened his mouth, when he let the smoke leave his lungs, slowly, deliberately. With enough control that Steve could understand what was happening, what he was trying to do.

Steve let his lips fall further then, let his eyes close, let himself dive in. Breathed in, felt the smoke, Billy’s air hit the back of his throat, travel down, surround him, consume him.

The crackle came again and with it, more air, more smoke, more Billy. More, more, more.

When the air was clean, when it stayed clean for five of the longest seconds Steve had ever lived through, he opened his eyes, found that Billy was smirking, pretty pink lips curled tight, pulled higher on one side than the other.

Girls don’t have your mouth.

He didn’t loosen his grip, though. Kept Steve there, raked his eyes down his face, back up, down again. Left them there. Left them to linger. To tease.

“I thought you didn’t smoke.”

Steve huffed, low, hoped Billy could feel the warmth of it on his lips. “I thought you were an asshole.”

He could feel, rather than see, the way Billy swiped his thumb along the chain, felt it tickle his skin. Was so focused on the sensation, of Billy touching, almost touching, that he nearly missed when Billy spoke again, soft. Spoke into existence the words Steve had only ever heard in the echoes of his dreams.

“I should have kissed you when I could.”

Girls don’t light me on fire from the inside out.

All he could do was whisper, wonder.

“What’s stopping you now?”

All Billy could do was fan the flame.

“Steve.”

Steve.

He had been so many things. So many different things.

He’d been Harrington. He’d been pretty boy. He’d been some spoiled fuckin’ princess that thinks some breakup is as bad as it gets.

He'd broken. Bloody. Battered.

Shattered.

Torn apart and ripped to shreds and put back together all in one breath. One hit.

But he’d never been Steve. Not to Billy.

“Billy-”

“You know what’s stopping me now.”

Billy let go of the necklace before he could answer. Let go, leaned back, pushed himself up off the desk. Walked away. The bed creaked beneath his weight as he settled down on it, flopped onto his stomach, pressed his cheek into a pillow, hid his hands beneath it.

Steve was caught in his orbit now. Followed him without thinking, fell down onto the bed next to him. Flat on his stomach, cheek in a pillow, face in Billy’s direction. A near perfect mirror image.

It should have been weird, might have if they hadn’t done this so many times before. Spent countless nights side by side, talking, learning.

Instead it was easy. Easy to lay there, to stare into Billy’s eyes despite the electricity, the heat. The newfound understanding of you too and the want.

I want.

Billy wants.

But all it would be was want. All it would ever be was lying side by side, breathing each other’s air, wanting, hoping for things that were too often too scary. Too real.

Too late.

The soft timbre of Billy’s voice brought him out of the thought. “You should sleep.”

Too early.

Steve shook his head, cheek scratching at the pillow beneath it. “You just got here.”

“And you look exhausted.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Steve went to open his mouth, to go back, but Billy cut him off. “I’m serious, you should really go back to sleep.”

“I don’t want to,” Steve said, hated the ghost of a whine it mixed with, made him sound young, desperate. “You wont be here when I wake up again.”

Billy’s voice was calm, even, sure when he said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right here,” but Steve didn’t move, kept his eyes open. “Trust me, Steve.”

A smile softened his eyes and Billy’s gaze dipped to watch it spread across his lips. “I like it when you call me that.”

“Steve,” he said again, low, smooth. Like the word was brand new, like he needed his tongue touch every letter.

Without a word, Steve curled towards him, curled closer. In. As close in as he could get without shattering the illusion. In Steve’s peripheral vision, he could see Billy’s hand, fingers outstretched, just barely trying touch at the middle of his chest, moving slowly. “Sleep.”

So he did.

And Billy kept his promise.

Steve hadn’t moved much in his sleep, had pretty much knocked out the moment he closed his eyes. Billy had though. He was on his back, eyes locked in the ceiling, hands folded behind his head. Casual. Exposed.

Steve took his first few shaky, conscious breaths as an opportunity to let his eyes adjust to the light, dragged them down the line of Billy’s jaw, the jut of his chin, back up to the rosy pink of his cheeks and the steel blue of his eyes.

Billy didn’t flinch when Steve said, “Hey.”

Just turned his head, said, “Hey,” back. Smiled. Warm. All in the crinkles at the corners of his eyes and the slight pull at the edge of his lips. “You sleep okay?”

Steve hummed, adjusted his head on the pillow, pushed his cheek into the sleep warm material. “What were you thinking about?”

“California.”

“What about it?”

“I don’t know.” Billy turned his gaze away, turned it back towards the ceiling. “I wish I knew you there, I guess. Before all of this.”

“You know me here,” Steve said, though his voice had pitched up, almost like he’d asked a question, but Billy was shaking his head.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same, though.” There was something hard in his tone, definite, certain. “I mean, it didn’t have to go like this. Things-it could’ve been different.”

“Different,” Steve said, though repeating it didn’t quite help him understand it.

Confusion only spread worse when Billy spoke again, voice little more than a whisper, a hush. A secret.

“I don’t think I would’ve been so afraid of you out there.” He paused. Steve wasn’t sure he was breathing as he watched Billy’s Adam’s apple bob, watched his eyelashes fan across his cheeks as he closed his eyes. “I was always so fucking afraid of you.”

“Why?”

Billy’s eyes were on his then. Wide and blue and vulnerable in a way that Steve would have once told you was impossible. “You really have to ask?”

Billy wants.

Billy has wanted.

Steve could only look, let Billy look back.

Whatever he was going to say, whatever he wanted to say, was cut off by the deafening ring of his alarm clock. The deafening ring of reality. Of real life and the real world that existed outside of these four walls. Outside the safety of his bedroom and the certainty of Billy’s place at the center of his life.

It was like time stood still as he sat up to turn it off, got out of bed without a word, went over to his dresser.

It took a moment for Billy to do the same. The bed creaked beneath him when he did, his feet hit the floor with a soft tap. Tap, tap, tap.

By the time Steve had his things together, Billy was already waiting by the door, carding a hard through his hair, eyes somewhere near Steve’s feet.

He muttered his usual, “I’ll see you later then, yeah?” Something a little soft, a little shy in it.

He turned when Steve said, “Yeah, later,” and tried to walk away, but Steve spoke again before he could push the impulse down. “Billy?”

The word stopped him just short of the hallway, made it so that he looked back over his shoulder. Found Steve’s eyes. Took all the air out of the room.

“Listen, about what you said before, I don’t-,” Steve’s heart was in his throat. “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

Billy didn’t say anything. He blinked hard, nodded, slowly, but he never said anything. He waited another second, but as easily as he had stopped, he was off again. Disappeared down the hall until his footsteps were nothing but a memory.

Steve just stood. Choked on the words that were stuck in his throat. All the words he could have said. All the words he should have said.

You don’t have to be afraid of me.

Monsters are real and sometimes they live in the woods. I have this bat that’s got nails in it and you never stood a fighting chance against that thing. That shadow.

There are so many things to be afraid of.

But please-just please.

Don’t be afraid of me.

Chapter Text

Don’t be afraid of me.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.

Steve couldn’t move. The fireworks around him flared blinding in his vision. Bright pinks, brave purples, cyan blues, all hues of something pretty, something nice, like carefree life on a perfect summer night.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

The flares wouldn’t stop. The monster wouldn’t stop.

It was down there. Billy was down there. Screaming. Looking that ugly thing square in the face and screaming. Just screaming. God-fuck, why couldn’t he just stop screaming?

Jab. After jab. After jab.

Was it pain that pulled the sound from his throat? Defiance? Hubris?

He always did have a little too much of something golden in him not to fly too close.

Too close. Too close.

Too far.

Steve couldn’t move. The monster was falling, Billy was falling. His body hit the ground with a thud that echoed up Steve’s spine, closed his throat, stole the air from his lungs and used bare hands to tear at the bleeding heart in the middle of his chest.

Steve couldn’t breathe. “No,” he gasped, a hollow ghost of a broken sound.

Billy couldn’t breathe. His shallow, shaking attempts at air pulled Steve forward, but Robin’s arm wrapped around him, stopped him. Trapped him.

“Let me go.” He pushed at the hold she had on his waist, but that only made it tighten. Lock.

“Steve, you can’t go down there.”

Billy’s down there.

“Let me go.” He thrashed against her, dragged her forward, resisted as best as he could, but the arm was firm and Billy’s gasps were getting softer.

No, not yet. Wait, wait, wait. Let me help you. I can save you. Let me save you.

“No, it’s not safe yet. You can’t-”

“Let me go!”

He pushed hard off his heel, surged forward, finally broke free of her hold and ran for the broken escalator on a pair of legs that were only a second away from giving out beneath him.

No one was moving. He was the only one moving. Billy was gasping-he was dying-and Steve was the only one moving.

“Billy.”

Steve couldn’t hear him anymore. Couldn’t get his legs to move fast enough. Couldn’t tear his eyes away from where Billy wasn’t even moving at all.

The escalator was so tall. When did it get so tall? He ran and ran and ran and the jagged steps stretched and spanned in front of him for what had to be miles.

I can save him. I can save him if I can get to him. Why can’t I get to him? I need to save him.

“Billy.” Steve was crying, face soaked with tears, clothes with sweat. The name on his lips a prayer. “Billy. Billy, Billy-”

“Steve?”

His voice was so close. Billy was so far, but his voice was so close.

Stay here with me. Don’t leave. Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go, don’t-

“Please, Billy. I-”

“Steve.”

He woke with a gasp.

Billy’s eyes were wide, steel blue and soft and something sort of scared above him. Next to him. Sitting at his hip.

Steve couldn’t catch his breath. His pulse was too quick, heartbeat too loud.

He ran a shaking hand over his face, through his hair, damp, slick to the touch. Tangled his fingers in the thick strands at the back of his head and tugged, made it sting.

Let it burn.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Billy’s tone was calm, soothing. “Look at me, you’re okay.”

Billy’s voice was soft and Steve wanted to look up, wanted to look at him, but he could still hear him screaming. Why couldn’t he just stop screaming? Why-

Steve couldn’t breathe again. Not with tears stinging like flared fireworks in his eyes.

“You gotta breathe,” Billy said, still much too calm. Nothing like a scream. “It’s over now. It was just a dream.”

Steve looked at him then, blue eyes blurred and wide and just so goddamn full of something like life, like living. He squeezed his eyes shut tight again and tears burned white hot on his skin.

“Oh fuck, please don’t cry.” The bed creaked beneath Billy as he moved, creaked near Steve, dipped along his side. Billy’s voice was even closer now. Even softer. “Come on, pretty boy. Don’t cry.”

What else am I supposed to do when I just watched you die?

Steve wasn’t sure how long it took for the tears to stop, for his breathing to slow and his heart to go quiet. Submerged, drowned himself in the warm, slow cadence of, “It’s okay. I’m here. You’re okay,” so close, so constant, steady, and sure that he swore he could feel each letter engrave itself on his ribs.

When he finally opened his eyes, Billy was right there, laying next to him, facing him, the tip of his nose less than a breath away from his own. Steve wondered if he could count all of Billy’s eyelashes from here.

“Sorry.” His throat was tight around the word, voice rough, raw.

“Don’t be,” Billy said, easy, gentle. Steve let his eyes dip low to watch his lips as he spoke. Let the movement guide him, soothe him. “You okay?”

Steve nodded, didn’t really know whether it was a lie or not, didn’t trust his voice to give away the answer before he could help it.

“Just haven’t gotten one that bad in a while. Not since-” Billy’s tongue poked out to wet the corner of his mouth and Steve’s breath caught in his throat, air stuck in his lungs. “Since.”

If Billy understood what he meant, understood the since you that was implied there, he didn’t say as much out loud. Just blinked, reached a hand out to rest flat on the pendant that hung off Steve’s neck and into the sheets between their chests.

“You wanna talk about it?

Steve almost considered it.

“Not really.”

Billy gave a gentle tug on the necklace and the chain burned warm against his skin, a hot brand of Billy’s touch, the only way he could touch.

“Okay.” Just like that, he dropped it. “Got something you do wanna talk about then?”

Impulse.

“What’s your favorite color?”

A tiny laugh bubbled in the back of Billy’s throat, sent butterflies to spread wide in every direction. “You’re not serious.”

“I’m not the one laughing,” he pointed out, asked again to prove it. “What’s your favorite color?”

Billy’s eye line fell as he shook his head, once, blinking slow. “You’re ridiculous.”

Billy wants.

I want.

“Answer the question.”

“Okay.” Billy’s lips were pulled high as he adjusted, as he folded his arm on top of the pillow and rested his cheek against it. “I like red. Happy?”

“Very,” he said, but Billy didn’t answer right away, was just looking at him. “I think you’re supposed to ask me mine now.”

“Pushy, pretty boy.” Steve might have rolled his eyes if it hadn’t meant taking them off Billy for even a second. “What’s your favorite song?”

“Are you kidding?” Billy shook his head again and this time, it was Steve’s turn to huff a laugh. “How is that any better than asking me my favorite color?”

The teasing pull of Billy’s lips was so easy, so pretty. Almost as pretty as his eyes. “Because I said so. Now tell me.”

“Okay. That’s easy,” he deadpanned, couldn’t quite wait for the answer to ruffle every one of his feathers. “‘Cruel Summer’.”

Billy’s eyebrows rose slowly as he processed the words. Hook, line, and sinker.

“The Banarama song?” Steve nodded. “Your favorite song is a Banarama song,” he repeated, tone even, lifeless. “Like actually.”

“Yeah,” he said, had to bite his lower lip between his teeth to push down the bright smile that threatened to take over his entire face.

Billy just shook his head. “I should’ve asked about the color.”

Steve let that smile take over.

Let the steel cut blue of Billy’s eyes and the slow rumble of his voice like dark thunder wipe away dreams of screams and Starcourt Mall.

Let it heal.

With healing came bravery. A kind of bravery Steve wasn’t sure didn’t also border on stupidity. Maybe bled into stupidity. Mixed and mingled with it so deep that they were one and the same.

That’s what he figured he and Billy had always been, though. Equal parts stupid and brave. Two sides of the same fading coin.

Where could you count something like that as currency?

Out in long lounge chairs next to Steve’s pool. Back at the quarry. In the front seat of his BMW.

Steve had been hesitant about this at first. Didn’t quite know what to say when Billy sat in front of him with the question on his lips.

“What do you think about going outside?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said, careful. “You really think that’s a good idea?”

Billy lifted his shoulders, let them go, fiddled with the cigarette between his fingers. “I don’t see why not. We did it that one time and got away with it, right?”

Steve had to admit he had a point. “Well, yeah, but you don’t think that was just like, beginner’s luck or something?”

Billy was already shaking his head. “Luck is for suckers.”

Made Steve’s mind up for him when he stood and motioned with his head for him to follow.

As if he ever wouldn’t.

Two sides of the same fading coin.

They cashed in with quiet curiosity and hushed questions surrounded by open air and sky. In the knowledge and shared understanding that stupid and brave didn’t always mean reckless and loud.

Sometimes it was soft smiles and words that, once upon a time, you wouldn’t have given voice to, wouldn’t have dared to wonder.

It was easier to let some thoughts run free out in the open somehow. Irony maybe. Despite the way they’d been doing this for weeks-for months. Dancing around each other, around truths they both knew, both understood, but didn’t always have the tendency to express.

Just easier. With Billy in various t-shirts Steve would throw at him if they left his room, begged him to wear because, even though Billy insisted he didn’t get cold, the leaves were changing colors and it was officially chilly enough for Steve to need a sweatshirt.

October turned the world orange. Turned Steve towards beer to warm his insides when he and Billy were out by the pool.

One night in particular. Maybe a few too many beers.

“Who was your first kiss?”

Steve was on his back, staring up at the stars, half-empty can pillowed on his thigh. He turned his head to one side once the question slipped, watched Billy’s eyebrows raise, amused.

“Where the hell did that come from?” There was no bite to the words, softened further by the smile on his lips, the laugh that lurked somewhere behind his response.

“I don’t know. My brain probably,” Steve said, rolled over onto his side, locked his eyes onto Billy’s dim profile. “Or maybe I just wanna know.”

“Yeah, okay.” He laced his fingers together and tucked his hands behind his head, tipped it back to expose the long line of his throat. “Jackie Peterson.” Casual. “Sixth grade.”

Steve whistled. “Sounds like a real whirlwind romance.”

“Could’ve been,” Billy said with a bit of a shrug, a resigned indifference, “if she hadn’t tackled me in the middle of the beach to do it.”

Steve was laughing before he could help it. “No way.”

“Oh yeah, she knocked me right the fuck over. Got sand in my hair and everything.” Billy scrunched his nose up, but he was laughing, too. Despite himself. Caught his breath eventually and said, “What about you, huh? Who was yours?”

Steve hummed around the edge of his beer can. “Sadie Baxter.” He took a long sip, felt it slide warm down the back of his throat. Settle low. “Fourth grade. She told me I brought the best present to her birthday party so I just,” he trailed off.

“Just what? Planted one on her?” Billy was smiling, wide and genuine, eyes light and bright with it. Steve wished he could bottle it up and the save it for rainy days.

“Yep,” he said, popped the p. “And then she told her mom and her mom told mine and next thing I knew, I wasn’t allowed to touch the TV for three weeks.”

“Get out of here.”

Steve just angled his head, nodded, pursed his lips in a tight smile that said seriously, my life is that tragic and took another decent sip to finish off the can.

Billy didn’t say anything after that. Steve sort of took that to mean they were moving on, that they were moving past the subject almost as quickly as they’d stumbled upon it.

His eyes were closed, content in the comfortable silence when Billy’s voice cut into the cool night air that hung all too easy between them.

“Who was your first kiss that counted?”

Steve didn’t think much of the question at first. Said, “Pretty sure we just covered that,” around a smile, a tone that teased.

Could hear the shake of Billy’s head when he said, “No we didn’t. It’s a completely different question.”

Saw it for himself when he opened his eyes and caught Billy’s.

“How?”

“I mean,” Billy took a second, thought to himself. Took a breath that lifted his chest and deflated it with a sharp exhale a few seconds later. A little huffy. A little cute. “I don’t know. I guess like, your first kiss didn’t change anything the way you thought it was gonna, right?”

Steve felt himself nod. “Yeah.”

“And the story you’ve got to go with it isn’t life changing or cute or whatever so much as it’s fuckin’ like, dumb, right?”

Steve laughed once, an easy sound. “Sure.”

“So what’s the first one that wasn’t then?” he asked. “Dumb, I mean.”

Softer. Braver.

Steve felt his cheeks heat. Felt a little thrown off by the question, the genuine curiosity, the honesty it had taken for Billy to have asked, the honesty still that it was going to take for him to answer.

And almost like he could sense the sudden pang of nerves, Billy’s hand came into the lower half of his vision, wrapped around the pendant that had fallen from his skin, had been laying idle against the lounge chair. Ran his thumb over it in smooth circles. Encouraged him.

“Okay,” he said, started, looked down towards Billy’s chest as he thought back, felt that annoying tuft of hair fall down over his forehead. “That’s uh-that would probably have to be Melissa White.”

“Why?”

She’d had long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Tanned skin from a family home down south they’d visit whenever school wasn’t in the way. A sense of humor that could cut you in half if you weren’t paying attention.

“Pretty much? I had a crush on her for like, ever and Tommy dared me to dance with her at the Snow Ball. Thought I was gonna die, but she just said sure.” He could almost feel the butterflies. “And then when it was over, she kissed me.”

Billy was smiling when he looked back up, a small, little thing at the corner of one side of his mouth. “Changed your life that easy, huh?”

“Sent me straight to cloud nine,” he laughed. Ran a hand through his hair, pushed it back from his face. “What about you?”

Billy’s face didn’t move, nothing tightened, nothing changed, but somewhere, his hand stilled. Hesitated.

“Alex Walker.”

Didn’t elaborate. Eyes on Steve’s, mouth a thin line. Barely even a smile.

Steve itched in the silence.

“What happened? She tackle you into the sand, too?” he asked, teasing. Wanted to lighten up whatever had made Billy so still all of a sudden.

Billy didn’t bite on the bait. Just shook his head. Once.

“No,” he said, voice low. “He didn’t.”

Soft and brave.

“Oh.” The sound fell soft from his lips like it had in July, after a drug-fueled confession about love and life and Tammy Thompson.

Billy didn’t look as vulnerable now as Robin did then, never really allowed himself to be vulnerable, to be seen, but Steve knew about the masks he wore. The ones he hid behind. Could see in the whites of his eyes and the tensing easing tensing easing of his jaw that he was scared.

He was scared and he was waiting. Watching Steve and waiting. Waiting to see how Steve would react even though he had all but begged Billy to kiss him not too long ago. Begged and wished and wanted, but that didn’t matter at a time like this, not exactly. Not when Billy was laying himself so bare. Steel blue so sharp that it sent a warm flush up Steve’s neck.

Made him smile. Watched Billy’s eyes flash down and back up.

“So you tackled him then?”

A horrible joke, more than worth it when Billy’s laugh rang clean in his ears, when his shoulders dropped with something like relief and he threw the pendant back at Steve’s chest with a quiet thud.

Stupid and brave.

Got stupider and braver a couple nights later. Out at the quarry. After a few nights on top of cool sheets and safety between four plaid walls.

Quieter.

Steve was lying on his stomach, face down on the blanket he’d pulled out of the trunk, the same one he now kept in there for the few nights when this was their destination of choice.

Billy was on his back, chin tipped, eyes towards the stars. His hands were flat, one on his chest, the other on his stomach. Third, maybe fourth cigarette of the night pinched comfortable between his fingers.

They’d been sharing them. The cigarettes.

Started when Steve leaned over and plucked the first one right out from between Billy’s lips. He could see Billy’s smile in the corners of his eyes, watched them dip, fall half-lidded as he hollowed his cheeks.

“Once upon a time, you told me you didn't smoke anymore.”

“You’re right,” Steve conceded. “But that’s before I was out buying some jackass four packs a week.”

Billy titled his head to one side, almost playful. “He sounds hot.”

Steve didn’t say anything. Just let his eyes wander, dragged them down Billy’s face, down his neck, his chest. Took a long pull. Brought his eyes back to Billy’s and let the breath go.

Slow.

He wasn’t surprised when Billy took the cigarette back from him after a few steady drags. And back. And forth. And back again until Billy was crushing the end and lighting another. Crushing the end and lighting another.

There was only maybe an inch of space between them. Steve tried not to think about the lack of warmth at his side, focused his eyes on Billy’s arm instead. The hard line of his forearm, his bicep where the t-shirt had ridden up.

The fact that his skin was smooth, free of goose bumps, hard ripples that would have matched the ones raised on Steve’s own.

“Do you ever miss being alive?” Steve stopped breathing the moment he asked it, when the words were given voice and Billy flinched like they had burned him. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I don’t-I shouldn’t have said that.” Steve pushed himself up onto his elbows. “God-shit. Look, just-you don’t have to answer that. I didn’t mean to-”

“I know,” Billy said, flat, nodded easy with it.

Didn’t do much to calm the nausea building in Steve’s stomach. “I’m really s-”

“Steve.” A little louder, sharper. “It’s okay.” A fact.

Steve swallowed hard, felt it all the way down. Didn’t say anything as Billy looked up at him, eyelashes fluttering wild as he blinked. Deep in thought.

Parted his lips to say, “I don’t know,” so softly, like he was hoping the wind would sweep away the noise before it could hit Steve’s ears.

It did, though, hit Steve. A blow that would have knocked him out cold, but he would have preferred a crack to the cheek over the lifeless lull of his voice. Didn’t move despite the shiver that crawled up his spine.

“What does it feel like?”

Stupider.

“Nothing.” The answer was simple, matter of fact. Something Billy didn’t have to think about. “Just feels like I’m back at that mall. Waiting.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know,” he said again, something more confused, less certain pulling at the edge of his voice. Brought the cigarette up to his lips and spoke through the smoke when he let it go. “Something good, I guess. Something real.”

“Do you ever get it?” Steve asked. “Anything real?”

“Yeah,” Billy said, slow. Steve watched him through the cloud of smoke that dulled the sharp lines of his features. Hid him away. “Nighttime.”

Without another word, he got up and walked to the edge of the cliff, brought the cigarette up to his lips for one last drag and threw it down, as far as it could go.

Left Steve alone before he could say it.

Me too.

I want.

Stupid and brave.

When they drove home later that night.

Billy was driving, one hand on the wheel, the other out the window, fingers tapping lazy against the roof of the car in time with the music on the radio, some station he’d turned on.

Steve didn’t mind, not really. Knew, to some extent, that Billy felt more comfortable this way, that he missed it. Driving. Missed the Camaro most of all, but would also take whatever chance at freedom and independence he could get.

Steve wanted to give this to him, wanted to give him that little bit of freedom, that little bit of something after the way he’d dropped so flat after that question earlier. That careless, simple question. Hated himself for being the reason Billy’s eyes never quite lit up the same way again, that his smile never quite hit full power.

Steve wanted to make up for it somehow. He wanted to put himself out there the way Billy’d had to, wanted to expose a little bit of his soul. The light parts, the dark parts. The empty bits that lay somewhere in between.

“I get nightmares sometimes,” Steve said. "Bad ones." Held his breath, watched the flutter of Billy’s eyelashes when he broke so suddenly into the silence.

“I know,” he said, without a hint of condescension, pity. Didn’t take his eyes off the road. “About what?”

Well.

“Everything.” It wasn’t a word so much as a breath, a whisper, and Billy stopped tapping his fingers, opened up the air for Steve to speak into. “I mean, it’s like-it’s like these last two years are all fuckin’ like, in there and I can’t get them to shut up.”

The words hung heavy when Billy didn’t say anything. Pursed his lips like he was looking for the right thing to say, maybe anything to say at all. When he spoke again, both hands were on the wheel.

“They’re just dreams though, right?” Steve had to strain to hear him over the radio, voice low, even. “All that shit is gone. It-it’s dead.”

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

“Doesn’t always make a difference.”

Billy nodded at that. Slow. Thoughtful.

Paused.

“You ever listen to the Scorpions?”

Steve wasn’t sure his eyebrows had ever pinched so fast, so hard in his life.

“No?”

“Of course you don’t,” Billy said, let out a tiny huff of a laugh, caught it quick, like he knew now wasn’t the time. “But whatever, that’s not that point. There’s this song they got. China White. Do you know it?”

“Not really.”

Where the hell was he going with this?

“Okay, well, change that sometime. It’s a good one.” Steve could already feel his brow smoothing, his lips itching to pull. “And anyway, there’s a line in there. ‘It’s up to you to fight the evil in your mind.’ It’s-” He hesitated, Steve watched his hands tense and ease and twist around the wheel. “It’s what I thought about sometimes, when shit got bad. Made me wanna fight back.”

Huh.

Billy was already shaking his head before he could answer, though. “Probably stupid, but-”

“It’s not stupid. I-” Steve swallowed hard, felt his brain trip over itself as it tried to find the words that would explain just how not stupid, how brave he thought it was. “It helps, I think.”

Billy nodded, twisted his hands on the wheel again. Steve wanted nothing more than to take one in his own and pull it into his lap. Flip it over, trace the long lines. Find his scars. Wipe them away.

Was drowning in that thought when Billy spoke again. Brought him up for air.

Soft. Like a secret.

“I’d fight them for you if I could. The nightmares.”

Steve’s heart felt suddenly like it was too big for his chest. Like maybe it was expanding and cracking his ribs, one by one, so that it could fall out and see Billy for itself.

Knew it would have Billy’s name written on it if he could only hold it in his hands.

He couldn’t think of anything better to say than, “Thanks,” around the lump that had grown in his throat. Felt a little dumb, a little useless for it.

But Billy’s eyes were lighter, softer when he turned his head to catch Steve’s, maybe even brighter with the haze of warm morning sunlight mixed into steel blue.

Billy had never asked, but that was Steve’s favorite color. A shade, a hue he didn’t even have a name for, but maybe it had always been less of a color and more of a feeling.

A feeling that left his stomach hot and silly when Billy turned his head to look back at the road.

Steve kept smiling. Billy kept driving.

They kept pretending.

Pretending like this was normal, that this could be normal. That he and Billy were allowed to have this. Allowed to be open and honest and free in the world that existed beyond the Harrington house.

Allowed to want. To want and be wanted and have that be enough.

Maybe it was. Enough. Enough to have Billy smile at him and laugh at his jokes and lick at his lips when things got quiet and tense, like he was telling him.

I would, you know. I would if I could.

I want.

To have Billy at all, Steve knew, was enough.

But stupid and brave were stupidest and bravest most of all back in his bedroom.

In his dreams.

In his dreams, Billy’s hands were warm.

Billy was in front of him and his hands were so warm. Spread wide on his sides where he’d slipped them beneath his shirt. Rough with callouses, felt like heaven against his skin.

Billy had him pushed back against the door, was stood between his legs, with Steve’s hands threaded in his curls and his pink lips at the corner of Steve’s jaw. He trailed smooth kisses down his neck, up his throat, stopped every so often to bite, to suck, to leave marks Steve knew would stain his skin for days.

Steve tugged on his hair, tugged him up, pulled him forward to slot their mouths together and kiss that teasing smile right off his lips. He titled his head, angled to deepen the kiss, moaned when Billy licked at the seam of his lips, again when one of Billy’s hands travelled down his side, along the line of his thigh. To curl his hand behind his knee and pull it up towards his hip.

He took a step forward in doing so, lined up their hips just right and oh, oh that’s what Steve needed. Could tell from the sigh Billy breathed into his mouth that he was right there with him.

Billy broke the kiss to nose at his cheek, the sensitive skin below his ear. Wasn’t fully breathing as he rolled his hips, made Steve gasp once, again.

“Billy,” he sighed, closed his eyes, let his head loll back against the door. Reached a hand around to Billy’s ass and pulled him closer, harder.

Billy’s breath was hot in his ear, fire, words like kerosene. “Feel so good, Steve. So good.”

Constant, confident.

Like the steady cadence of the name on his own lips.

“Billy, Billy, Billy-”

“Steve?”

“Yeah, yeah, me too.” He was so close he could see stars. “Billy, I’m-”

“Steve.”

His eyes shot open.

He was flat on his stomach, breathing ragged, heavy. His pulse was loud like thunder in his ears, the throb between his legs even louder, couldn’t quiet it long enough to catch his breath. He had to twist to look up, to look at him.

Billy was sitting at his hip, silent. Watching him. Lips parted just slightly and blue eyes blown like he knew exactly what Steve had been thinking. What he’d been thinking about doing. About them doing.

Looked like he wanted to eat him whole.

“I-”

“Move over.”

Steve blinked at the words, blinked up at him, hard. Swallowed, harder. Moved over, closer to the far side of the bed and opened up space for Billy to fall into, to move the covers over and lay between the sheets with him.

On their sides, facing each other.

Steve could hardly breathe. Could hardly focus.

“What are you doing?” he whispered, let his eyes dip as the corner of Billy’s lips twitched up, pulled higher at one side than the other.

“I could ask you the same thing.” Teasing. Eyes half lidded, burning hot. “Think I got a pretty good idea though.”

Steve’s chest was still heaving. “You don’t know shit.”

“Okay,” Billy laughed, quiet. Let it settle into silence. Into flat air that reminded Steve just how badly his whole body was screaming and aching and needing and- “You don’t have to stop, you know.”

Steve’s breath hitched. “What?”

“You don’t have to stop,” he said again, gentle. Encouraging. “You can keep going if you want.”

I want.

“Really?”

Steve had never seen someone’s eyes sparkle the way Billy’s were now. Didn’t know it was possible.

“Yeah.” Breathless.

Steve’s throat was like sandpaper. Couldn’t bring himself to speak, to answer. He worried his lower lip between his teeth, bit it so hard he thought it should’ve drawn blood.

A beat passed. He nodded.

Slipped a hand beneath his waistband and gasped, felt a spark travel up his spine.

He was already so close.

“You wanna tell me what you were dreaming about, pretty boy?” Billy asked, words like a hum, low, something amused, maybe curious in his tone.

What was the use in lying?

“You,” he whispered, felt goose bumps ripple along his skin when he twisted his wrist. “You and ah-and me.”

“What about us?”

“Wanted you.” It felt so good saying it out loud, so good. Finally.

Billy’s breath caught then. Softly. So only Steve could hear. As if they weren’t the only two people in the entire world.

“I want you, too.” And God, if that wasn’t the greatest thing Steve had ever heard. “The first time I saw you, I wanted you. Never saw somebody so perfect in my whole life.”

“Shut up,” Steve said, laughed a little, gasped a little more.

“It’s true. I got out of my car and you were just standing there like some fuckin’ angel. Thought you were gorgeous,” he admitted and Steve couldn’t help the way it made heat coil low in his stomach. Made his hand drag a bit faster, rougher. “Still do.”

“Fuck, Billy.”

“I know,” he said, in perfect time with a hard tug that pulled something like a moan from Steve’s lips. “There you go. Just like that.”

“I’m close,” he said, but Billy didn’t stop. Never stopped talking.

“I used to have dreams about you, too, you know.” Heat got hotter. Steve had to close his eyes, screw them shut tight. Let Billy’s voice guide him. “Wanted you so bad. Wanted to touch you. Fuck, I wanted to kiss you. You have no idea how bad, Steve.” The words wrapped around him, tugged him, pulled him closer, pushed him down, down, down. “Would’ve given anything just to kiss you.”

Panting. “Yeah?”

“God yeah.” Billy practically moaned, a half strangled sound that clawed its way out of the back of his throat. “Felt like I was on fire whenever you came near me.”

Steve felt himself nod, couldn’t push it down. “Me too.”

Couldn’t believe what Billy said next.

“Almost did it once, too. Almost just gave in and did it.”

The admission made Steve shiver, stole the breath from his throat. “When?”

“After the last game. When we lost to that prep school from Indy. We were the last ones left in the showers and you said I had a good game and I-” Billy paused.

Steve could picture it. The way Billy’s eyes had gone wide after he said it. The way Billy ran his tongue along his lower lip. Slow. Dragged his eyes down Steve’s chest.

The way Steve turned the water off and walked away before Billy could answer.

Billy swallowed hard. “If you hadn’t left when you did, I would’ve pushed you up against the wall and ruined everything.”

The words fell from Steve’s lips before he could stop them.

“I would have let you.”

Billy moved closer then, Steve could feel it. Could feel the dip of the bed so close in front of him. The words even closer.

“Let go, Steve. Come on.” Before he knew what was happening, Billy was wrapping his hand around the pendant dangling from his neck. Tugged once. Burned. Whispered. “Let go.”

Steve was gone.

Tipped over the edge, with a gasp, a shudder that racked through his entire body, made him shake, put stars behind his eyes and warm knots in his stomach. He let Billy’s voice hold him steady with the constant hum of, “That’s it, Steve. There you go. That’s it,” in his ear. In his lungs. Wrapped around his ribs and coiled tight around his heart.

He wasn’t sure how long he laid there like that, eyes closed, trying to catch his breath with Billy whispering something and nothing and everything all at once into the space, the empty air that separated them.

Billy was right there when he finally opened his eyes. Steel blue so close it steamed, cooled along the hot plane his skin.

Steve was flushed, knew his cheeks were red. Flustered. Could hear it in the way his voice shook when he said, “Hey.”

Didn’t hate himself for it because Billy had never been close. His eyes had never been so bright. So real.

“Hey,” he said, rubbed his thumb in smooth circles around the pendant. Soothing. “You okay?”

“Uh huh,” he hummed, pushed his cheek into the pillow. Sleepy. “Peachy.”

Billy didn’t laugh, looked like he wanted to.

His smile turned sideways, mischievous. “I can’t believe you actually did that.”

Steve lifted his shoulder, let it go. “You told me to.” Matter of fact.

“Right.” He did laugh then. “’Cause that was all my fault.”

Steve nodded, agreed. “Always heard you were a bad influence.”

“The worst.” And he looked like he was proud of it. Like he was a little something else, too. “But I think you could use somebody like me. Too perfect.”

“Shut up,” Steve said again, turned his nose into the pillow, hid his face. “You said that before.”

“Still true.” Steve’s cheeks were going to be stained red for the rest of his natural born life.

“Come on.” He slipped his hand beneath the pillow, tightened it in the sheets. “You’re just saying that because you’re stuck with me.” He meant for it to be playful, for it to be teasing, but Billy didn’t bite. Didn’t budge.

“No I’m not,” he said, made Steve look back up with the force of it. The seriousness. “I wouldn’t bullshit you.”

It’s bullshit.

Steve’s heart was in his throat, thick with an emotion he suddenly didn’t have a name for. Couldn’t speak around it. Couldn’t speak around the echoes of Nancy’s voice, of an idea, an insecurity that still hit a little too close to home.

Billy tugged on the necklace again and it burned against his skin. Brought him back.

“You asked me the other day if I missed being alive,” he said, spoke slowly. Softly. “You remember that?”

Steve’s eyes were narrowed in on his, locked. “Yeah?”

“I wasn’t lying,” he started. “I don’t know if I do and sometimes I don’t, but when I’m with you I,” he paused, swallowed. Whispered. “When I’m with you, I do. I miss it.”

Steve wanted to say something, wanted to cut him off somehow, but he couldn’t. Let him continue instead.

“Look, I know that was different. And I know we can’t,” he nodded between them, didn’t elaborate, didn’t need to when Steve knew what he meant, “not really, but that doesn’t meant I don’t want to and-”

“Billy,” he cut him off then, gentle. Would’ve given anything to be able to reach up and smooth the pinch in his brow, run his fingers along the soft skin of his cheek.

“Steve.” And Billy said it in that way only he could, only he had.

Steve’s heart was beating so loud he thought Billy should’ve been able to feel it. Feel how strong it was. Understand that Steve would tear it out of his chest if he could. Would tear it out and rip it in two. Give one half to him and keep the other for himself.

Just because he could.

One heart in two bodies.

Two sides of the same fading coin.

Let it heal.

It wasn’t long before the sun came up. They hadn’t moved by the time it poked bright at the edges of the curtains, cut into the darkness. Had just taken the time to look at each other, to speak words no one else would hear. Words no one else would ever know about.

Billy hadn’t even gotten up for a cigarette. Not when his fingers twitched. When his nose scrunched. Pretended like he didn’t need it. Continued talking.

Continued pretending.

Billy took a while to get going when the alarm finally went off. Longer than normal. Didn’t move when Steve got up, nor when he went to his dresser for clean clothes, since skipping a shower was definitely not an option this morning.

Not after that wake up call.

Billy was at the edge of the doorframe by the time he’d finished, though. Shoulder against one side, head tipped towards it, too. Steve walked over, stood across from him, leaned his shoulder on the opposite side.

He couldn’t read the look in Billy’s eyes when they looked at each other, almost sort of carefully closed off. Dim. A little soft. Mouth pulled into something only vaguely reminiscent of a smile. Like an echo.

“What?” Steve asked, huffed a short laugh into the word.

A word, a sound that wiped the look away, brought Billy back, helped pull his lips higher. Made him shake his head.

“Nothing.” Steve didn’t totally believe him, but Billy pushed away from the doorframe with his hip before he could go back at him. “See you later, pretty boy.”

“Later.”

Steve didn’t watch him disappear down the hall. Chose instead to listen. Waited until the footsteps had faded to look into the dark, empty space. Matched the hole in his chest that appeared around this time every morning.

He could almost understand why Billy was in such a daze. Well, maybe not why, but rather, could understand the very fact that he was, considering he was in something similar. Spent God knows how long in the shower, warm and lazy. Hazy.

Lost himself under the water to thoughts of Billy and all the things he’d said. The way he’d said them.

His hands were wrinkled by the time he got out. He carried his dirty pajamas back to his room and let his eyes drift over towards the clock.

8:55.

His heart sank.

Shit, shit. His shift started in five minutes and he was going to catch so much shit for being late.

Robin was going to be up his ass and Keith was going to threaten to fire him again and he just, he didn’t need any of that. Not today.

He bolted across the room and threw the dirty clothes into the corner, didn’t care if they got any dirtier. He reached under his bed for a pair of shoes and hopped to pull one on, pulled on the other as he reached across his desk to grab his keys with one hand, reached towards the chair for his jacket with the other. Tugged it on, pocketed the keys.

He turned on his heel, but as he did, a loose shoelace got caught under his foot. He tried to catch himself, to brace for the fall, but the force, the surprise of it was too strong and his hip knocked into the corner of the desk and-

Crack.

That pretty, little glass ashtray hit the floor with a crack.

Deafening.

Broke into no less the fifteen clean pieces that scattered all across the floor and Steve’s jaw was on the ground somewhere with them. His eyes were wide, mouth open. Couldn’t breathe even if he wanted to. Hopeless and helpless as the pretty, glass pieces glinted in the sunlight, refracted the rays into rainbows onto the walls. The ceiling.

White noise rang in his ears like the air was screaming.

His hands, down at his sides, were shaking.

Billy’s mom’s ashtray was lying broken on the floor and Billy was going to kill him.

He was going to be late and he was going to get fired, but Billy was going to kill him.

His mind was spinning as he bent down to pick up the pieces, caught his hands on jagged edges, cut them up, drew blood, cursed under his breath for not thinking to get a dustpan as he set the broken pieces down on the desk and inspected his palms.

He winced. Turned his head.

9:01.

Shit. He didn’t have time for this.

Billy was going to kill him, but he was going to get fired and he needed to leave. He left the room in a daze and took off down the hall, down the stairs. Out the front door. Locked it shut behind him. Stomach in knots.

He had all day to think of something to tell him. To imagine the way Billy was going to explode and think of all the ways he could explain himself and have Billy understand that he knew how monumentally bad he fucked up and how sorry he was.

He tried to breathe. Tried to think about how well he and Billy knew each other now. That Billy knew he would never do something like this on purpose.

Billy had to listen to him. He had to forgive him. He had to.

Right?

Chapter Text

Steve didn’t get fired, he got lucky.

Keith’s car died before he even got to the end of his driveway. Phoned from his house that he’d be stuck there until somebody could come by and give him a jump. Yelled at Robin, made sure she knew to keep the store safe and tidy while he was gone.

Steve breathed a massive sigh of relief when Robin’s smiling face was the only one waiting behind the counter to greet him. He dropped his stuff off next to hers with a huff, rested his elbows on the glass, buried his hands in his hair.

Tried to catch his breath.

Robin lifted herself to sit on the counter next to him, hands braced on the edge.

“Come on, what’s it today?” she asked. “Oversleep? Dog eat your homework?”

He decided not to dignify that with an answer, just tilted his head to one side so that he could shoot her a look.

She lifted one hand in friendly surrender. “Not the time. Got it.”

He took another long breath, closed his eyes.

Sighed.

“Just a bad morning,” he said.

Took his hands from his hair and opened one to rest his cheek against his palm, but he hissed when he pressed against the tiny cuts the glass had left.

That pretty, little glass ashtray.

“Shit.” He brought his hands forward to get a better look, had to narrow his eyes in the store’s harsh light in order to see.

Robin made a sound above him, voice pitched up. “Jesus, did you get caught in a wood chipper? What the hell is all that?”

“No, I-” he hesitated a second, caught the words quick. “I dropped a vase.”

“And then what? Jammed all of the pieces into your hands before you left?” She took one of his hands in hers, brought it closer to her face, kept it open wide. “You’re lucky you don’t need any stitches.”

“Shut up, it’s not that bad.” He pulled his hand away and folded his arms on the glass in front of him, rested his chin against them. “Just an accident.”

“Yeah and from the look on your face, it seems like it was a pretty bad one at that.”

Perceptive.

He caught the inside of his cheek between his teeth, bit down hard. Nodded once. “You’re not wrong.”

She laughed a little at that, easy. “Don’t tell me you broke some sacred family heirloom.”

Her tone was teasing, but Billy’s wasn’t. Somewhere, back in the thick of his skull.

Back behind his ribs.

The ashtray’s-it’s-it was my mom’s.

The crack still rang harsh in his ears. Deafening. Quick, how easily it had fallen. How easily it had shattered.

Broke without a thought as to who would be left behind to pick up its pieces.

Something like a shiver crawled up his spine, pulled at his chest, at the chain around his neck that still burned from the tug of Billy’s hands.

Let go, Steve. Come on. Let go.

He sighed again, eyes on the floor, locked, set on staring through it when he said, “I broke some sacred family heirloom,” and effectively killed any trace of her laughter.

“Tough luck. Bet your old man’s gonna freak, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said, suddenly unable to push down the nausea that had been threatening to spill with each passing second. The fear. The way Billy was going to look at him when he realized. “Something like that.”

He pushed himself up before she could answer, walked out from behind the counter. Searched the aisles for the nearest box of unsorted cassettes and put his head down.

Tried not to look for Billy on the cover of every case he saw. Failed.

The eyes were never blue enough. The hair was never gold enough. Mouth never pink enough. Smile never soft enough.

Steve could only hope to God that his explanation would be good enough.

He’d always been shit with his words and that thought wasn’t helping. Intrusive, ugly. So startlingly true that it made it a little harder to breathe when he let it get too loud.

He was shit with his words and Billy was quick with his anger. This had disaster written all over it. Especially if he didn’t think hard enough about what he was going to say beforehand. He wasn’t going to be able to wing it here, not by a long shot.

So, he let his mind drift, focused on Billy’s pendant, on Saint Christopher, cool on his chest, tried it let it guide him towards the right words. The right way to put it. The right way to make it sound sincere.

The right way to make Billy forgive him.

Lost track of time and kept his hands busy stocking the shelves.

He finished with that first box of cassettes and left it empty, moved on to find the next one while he thought about I’m sorry. Finished with another, left it empty, thought about I’m sorry. Another, empty, I’m sorry.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

He was on the fourth and final box of cassettes around noon, when Keith finally came in and Robin left for lunch. He jumped an hour later when she dropped a greasy Burger King bag into his lap without a word.

Didn’t bother opening it.

Let Dustin have it when he stopped by after school a couple hours later.

“These fries are like icicles, man." Dustin's face was twisted, cheeks puffed with at least five or six that he hadn’t bothered to test beforehand. “How long have they been sitting here?”

“I don’t know.”

Dustin swallowed, reached a finger to prod at the inside of his mouth. “Shit, what if I chipped a tooth?” He leaned in closer to Steve and opened his mouth wide, distorted his next few words. “Can you see if something’s missing in there? I think I-”

Steve pushed his face away with an easy shove, cut him off. “Nobody said you had to eat them, stupid ass.” He extended his arm out towards the bag. “I’ll just throw it out if you-”

Dustin snatched it away before Steve could reach. Shoved a handful of fries into his mouth for good measure.

Steve let him speak until the bag was empty and his mom was honking out front.

Until he’d almost forgotten that his hands were covered in cuts and that Billy’s mom’s ashtray-that pretty, little glass ashtray-was laying in pieces on his desk. Until he’d almost forgotten what that loud, ugly crack sounded like.

Almost. Not quite.

He let cold air fill his lungs when he clocked out and started off towards his car a little while later. When nothing stood between him and the soft ring of reality.

The mess on his desk. The broken glass that shattered and split his skull.

He ran through the words while he drove, eyes locked forward, hands tight on the wheel. Ran through them again and again so that maybe, when the time came, he wouldn’t have to think about it. Wouldn’t have to worry about messing it up.

Maybe the apology would just fall right out.

I’m sorry, Billy. I’m so sorry. It was an accident and I didn’t mean it and I don’t know how to make it up to you, but I will. I promise I will.

Over and over and over.

Whispered the words out towards the bare road in front of him, bare like the driveway he pulled into fifteen minutes later, the foyer he walked across and the dark kitchen he finally stopped in.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

He didn’t bother to make himself anything to eat before he shot up the stairs, knew it would spoil on his tongue, turn in his stomach.

His eyes were burning and his skin was too tight and he knew it was something close to exhaustion, what with the clock so close to six and the memory of last night to remind him he hadn’t gotten all that much sleep to begin with.

The first time I saw you, I wanted you. Never saw somebody so perfect in my whole life.

The echo of Billy’s words, the echo of want-I want-sent fire up his spine, melted at the icy chill of fear, of anxiety frozen so tight in his stomach. Reminded him that there was still time, that he still had a chance.

I want.

Billy wants.

He could cling to that. Had already been clinging to it for months, what was a little while longer?

He wasted a good hour on a shower he didn’t need, second of the day. Water hotter than sin, a steady stream of pressure he hoped would ease the tension in his shoulders.

Sort of did, mostly didn’t.

Bed came next. Bed, not sleep. Not when he could see Billy’s face, closed off and hard, every time he shut his eyes.

Slowly, the cold crept back in, the fear, close, close, closer with each passing second.

He flipped onto his stomach and buried his face into his pillow around midnight. Pushed at his eyelids until he saw stars and tried to wipe the harsh curl of Billy’s lips from his mind. The strong curl of his fists.

The phantom pain of those fists against his cheeks and a blue, November wind that cut clean at his skin.

Billy was going to be angry, of course he was, but Steve knew how to handle the anger now. Had handled angry Billy more times than he could count on both hands, still had a faint scar up by his hairline to prove it, but things were different now.

They were different now.

He had Billy’s necklace on his chest to prove that.

Billy was going to wake him when he got there and he was going to hear Steve out. Billy was going to hear him.

Billy wants.

He fell asleep with his hand clasped tight around the pendant, Saint Christopher confident in his palm, body curled up, close to the wall. Just enough space left at his side for someone to fall in next to him if so they wanted.

His dreams were empty.

His sheets were emptier.

Totally bare when his alarm went off and woke him with a start, a gasp that sat him straight up in bed, stole the breath from his throat and sent realization to hang hollow in its place.

He hadn’t woken up. Billy hadn’t woken him. There was no indent in the bed next to him, no trail of smoke to fill his nose.

Steve was quick to push the covers off his legs, to swing them over the side of the bed and let his feet hit the floor. Headed out of his room and down the hall.

“Billy?” The echo bounced off the walls, down the stairs. “Hey, Billy, I’m up. Are you down here?”

His footsteps were loud, heavy on the hardwood floors, ears perked, eyes open, searching for even the slightest of movements. Room to room to room.

Living room, empty. Kitchen, empty. Backyard, empty.

“Billy?”

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Steve walked back up the stairs with a furrow in his brow and his lower lip caught between his teeth. Heart up in his throat.

The house too dim, too dull without steel blue eyes to light it.

Maybe Billy didn’t want to talk.

Maybe Billy had seen the mess of glass on his desk and left.

Maybe Billy didn’t want to hear him and that thought was an angry, black claw that scratched at Steve’s chest. Scratched and poked and stuck itself so deep it didn’t know its way out.

But he knew Billy was rash when he was angry. Did shit he didn’t mean, regretted it after the fact.

He crossed the room and sat down at his desk, pulled an empty notebook out from one of the drawers. Opened it up to a blank page. Started.

Billy,

I guess you saw it and I guess you’re mad and left. Can’t say I blame you.

I’m just sorry, okay? I’m really sorry and I’ll say it out loud if you wake me up. If you want to hear it. I get it if you don’t want to.

Last night was

Waking up without you around was

I missed

See you later?

Steve

The claw in his chest retracted, little by little, with each word he put down on the paper. Felt his breaths come a little easier, a little smoother as the ink dried, as he capped the pen and read it over again.

Hoped the rushed scribble would be legible to eyes other than his own, that the whole thing would read as sincere rather than desperate.

Well. Maybe a little desperate.

He left the note out on his desk in the off chance Billy showed up while he was at work, didn’t really care too much that the odds were slim. Billy had never shown up during the day, but he’d never left during the night without leaving a note or saying something, either.

Steve wasn’t taking chances.

He spent the entire day thinking about that messy, little note on his desk.

About how bright the white sheet would be in Billy’s tanned hands, how smooth his steel blue eyes would sweep as they moved across the messy scrawl of his words, left to right and left to right.

Spent the entire day itching, trying not to crawl out of his skin with each ring over the door, each helpless customer at his side. Each minute, each second.

He left during lunch, drove around aimless for as long as he could and didn’t bother stopping anywhere for actual food. Came back, spent the rest of his day hiding in the messy stacks, left Keith up front and Robin lounging in the back while he pretended to organize the comedy section.

For four hours.

The drive home was decidedly more frantic than it had been the day before. Less here’s the plan, more hopehopehope.

He stopped in Melvald’s for a fresh pack of Marlboro Reds on the way. Knew the other pack was getting pretty low, that it maybe only had one or two left and that a new one could maybe help soften the blow.

Hadn’t even needed to open his mouth before the guy behind the counter handed a pack to him. He ignored the way it made it cheeks heat and gave the guy his money so that he could get the hell out of there and back into his car.

There was another car parked alongside his when he pulled into the driveway. Dark, sleek, free of scratches. The same one that had left six weeks ago and hadn’t been back since.

'Chicago will be quick,' his mom had said as she kissed him on the cheek. 'Just a meeting or two.'

She hadn’t wondered why he was awake when she knew his shift didn’t start for another two hours. Didn’t care that there were dark circles under his eyes or that his closet door was only half closed.

Just gave him one more smile and closed the door behind her before she went back down the hall.

Billy had been smirking when Steve turned back around, smug, with his shoulder against the closet doorframe and his arms crossed over his chest. Head tipped towards Steve, ready to tease.

'Looks like it’s just gonna be you and me all alone in Casa Harrington then, huh?'

Just you and me.

Saint Christopher felt a little too heavy on Steve’s chest.

He had the pendant in his palm as he opened the front door, acknowledged his mom’s, “Steve!” with a halfhearted, “Hey,” and took the stairs two steps at a time.

But his room was empty. His room was empty and the note was exactly where he’d left it. Uncreased, untouched.

Billy hadn’t been here.

Disappointment settled solid behind Steve’s ribs, sharp. Poked and prodded with a thick, black claw, but he tried his best to push it down, push it out.

He’d known the odds were low; he wasn’t allowed to be this let down. Not when he still had tonight.

Billy would read it and wake him tonight.

He took the new pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and placed it down over the note, the empty space down at the bottom of the sheet. Turned on his heel, went back down the stairs.

Continued pretending.

He made nice with his parents during dinner in a way he normally wouldn’t, needed the distraction to mask the disappointment somehow, to push it further down, push further it back.

Force the claw out and far, far away.

So he sat. Answered questions in a way that would make his father happy, smiled in a way that would make his mother happy. Nodded when she said they’d be on a plane to Aspen tomorrow at noon, felt his knuckles go white, grip tight around his fork. Pushed around at the food his plate and dumped it in the garbage before his mom could see he’d only eaten half of it at best.

He was back up in his room by 7:30, told them the day had been long and that he had an early shift in the morning.

They didn’t ask any questions, just smiled and said goodnight.

Steve went up to his cold, empty bedroom and went to sleep.

Empty room, empty dreams, empty sheets.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

For the second morning in a row, Steve woke to the sound of his alarm instead of Billy’s voice. Disappointment got heavier, darker.

That thick, black claw was back to poke sharp between his ribs. Stuck so hard it almost hurt to breathe.

Steve stood, dragged his feet across the floor as he walked over to his desk.

The new pack of cigarettes hadn’t moved. The note hadn’t moved. The mess of glass hadn’t moved.

Okay. So Billy had left again.

And he was mad. Like. Really mad.

Steve sat down at his desk, put his elbows on the smooth wood, and buried in hands in his hair. Tugged, let it sting.

Pushed back at those same few nauseating, intrusive thoughts.

Billy’s wild eyes on a cold night in November. His hands balled into fists that crashed, unrelenting and unforgiving, into his cheeks.

The fact that he felt a little like he was floating, untouched and untethered, without the teasing echo of Billy’s voice fresh in his ears.

He pushed back this time with the knowledge that, yes, Billy’s anger was his vice, but also that he himself wasn’t without fault here either.

In some twisted way, Steve knew he deserved this, to be iced out. That breaking Billy’s most prized possession was so beyond fucked up that he’d be lucky if Billy ever talked to him again.

But Billy would have to come down from the cold eventually.

Steel blue could only stay sharp for so long.

Steve added a line at the bottom of the note before he stood up.

P.S. I’m really sorry.

One more before he left the house.

Let me make it up to you.

Wrapped his hand around Billy’s pendant and didn’t let go until he disappeared into a sea of cassettes.

He lost himself a little in the process, exactly how he wanted. How he’d become a little more than used to.

Didn’t flinch when Keith told him he was doing something wrong. Didn’t go when Robin invited him out for lunch.

Didn’t realize it was Halloween until Dustin and Mike came into the store around four to show off their costumes.

“We’re gonna start hitting some houses around six if you wanna join,” Dustin said. He was dressed up like Indiana Jones and his hair was too big under the hat on his head, made it sit a little crooked.

Made him look younger than Steve liked to remember he actually was.

“Yeah maybe,” Steve nodded. Lied right through his teeth. “Might go to a party or something, so. I’ll let you know.”

Dustin didn’t push any harder and for that, Steve was grateful.

Robin wasn’t quite as forgiving, though. Rounded the corner once Dustin and Mike had left and stared at him with wide eyes.

“I didn’t hear you say you were going to a party,” she deadpanned, waited a beat. “Did I?”

He wasn’t looking at her anymore when he lifted his shoulders in a halfhearted shrug. Focused his eyes on the row of movies in front of him.

“I don’t know. I might.”

“Oh yeah? Where?” He could tell from the sound of her voice that she had her hands on her hips. That she was going to wait patiently for an answer no matter how long it took for him to find one.

He said the first name that came to mind.

“Tina’s.”

“Tina’s?” she repeated, scoffed. Something like amusement hiding behind the word. “Didn’t Nancy like, break up with you at Tina’s last year?”

“You know she did,” he snapped. “And I don’t really get why you have to bring it up.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Her voice had pitched up, defensive and high. “What's your issue? I was just trying to make a joke, you big fuckin’ dingus.”

“Well that’s great, but I’m not in the mood,” he bit back.

“You’re never in the mood anymore,” she said, quick, matter of fact. “All you do is mope around all the time and I’ve been trying to get the stick out of your ass for days now.”

He tried not to roll his eyes, failed. “I don’t have a stick up my ass. I just got a lot on my mind, alright?”

“Yeah, and you know what helps with that?” She poked him in the shoulder, made him look her in the eyes. “Talking about it.”

He didn’t even hesitate long enough to consider it.

“Think I’ll pass.”

He left her alone in the aisle and disappeared into the back to calm his temper.

To slow his pulse, regain his composure.

She didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t deserve the attitude or the anger, but Steve was wound so tight he was afraid he was going to shatter. Was afraid any wrong step was going to send him off the edge and scatter the pieces.

Who would be there to pick him up then?

The drive home today was a little slower, what with the way he had to dodge all the kids that were already out trick-or-treating. Jesus, was it really the end of October already?

How could it possibly be Halloween when he was still so stuck on the Fourth of July?

The driveway was empty. The foyer was empty. His bedroom was empty.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

That claw pushed harder into his heart. Sharp black pain drew bright red, drew blood.

And Steve finally-finally-let it drip.

Before he could fight the impulse, he went downstairs, went into the kitchen. Grabbed an unopened bottle of whiskey from the back of the liquor cabinet and brought it back up to his room.

Next, he took the last Marlboro Red out of the old pack on his desk and brought it down to the floor with him, sat at the foot of his bed with his back against it. Lit the cigarette up with a familiar, plastic purple lighter.

And then, as he took a hard drag, as he puffed his chest with an inhale reserved for a man’s dying breath, the world went a little hazy.

Everything just sort of, well. Slowed.

Time slowed.

His mind slowed.

Smoke filled his nose, filled his lungs, slow.

He let the scent curl around him so strong that he could almost trick himself into thinking Billy was there next to him. If he closed his eyes. Squeezed them shut tight.

Tight, tight, tight as he could possibly get them.

He released the smoke in a long line from his lips when the shadow of Billy’s silhouette greeted him in the dark hall of his mind.

Couldn’t help but wish Billy had been waiting on the other side to catch the breath. Waiting to take it from him. With him.

He hollowed his cheeks for another long pull and opened the bottle, blew the smoke out, replaced it with warm whiskey. Wrapped his lips around the bottle, tilted his head back.

He counted to five as the alcohol cut sharp at the back of his throat, swallowed. Felt it settle hot, low in the bottom of his stomach.

Slower. The world definitely felt slower.

Thought maybe if it crashed, if it stopped spinning and fell clean off its axis, he wouldn’t even notice.

What was worth noticing without Billy at his side to see it, too?

He brought the bottle back up to his lips, tipped it. Counted to five and felt the warmth spread like fire all the way down. Felt a silent plan form in the front of his skull as the alcohol took root and the nicotine hit his system.

He was going to stay awake.

He was going to stay awake and he was going to keep his eyes open long enough to see Billy and stop him from leaving himself.

Billy wasn’t going to dodge him anymore and he wasn’t going to slip away before the alarm.

Steve was going to talk to him. He was going to stay awake and he was going to talk to him.

He took another sip on the bottle as his eyes found the clock on the other side of the room.

7:45

It wasn’t even 8 o’clock yet and he was already half past tipsy.

Keg King.

That must have been in some other life. A life before monsters and ghosts and BillyBillyBilly.

A better one. Or maybe a worse one. Maybe the answer was in the bottom of the bottle.

He tipped it back and closed his eyes to try and find it.

Failed. Slowed further.

He knew he hadn’t eaten all day-or in days, for that matter. Knew that wasn’t going to help him where the alcohol was concerned, but it didn’t help him feel any less stupid about getting drunk so quick.

Not as he took another long sip, another long drag on the cigarette. Ignored the ring of the doorbell and the scream of excited kids outside as he found the clock again and locked his eyes on it.

Tight.

7:52

8:36

9:27

10:43

11:11

‘Make a wish.’

He swallowed a big mouthful of whiskey at the memory of Billy’s voice, the memory of a night when they’d laid side-by-side and stared up at the ceiling, the one that used to have those little glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to it.

‘What?’ Steve had asked, turned his head to meet Billy’s eyes, unable to help the pull at the corners of his lips.

‘It’s 11:11, man. Come on. You know the rules,’ he explained, sounded too naïve, too young to possibly be big, bad Billy Hargrove. Made something warm flood up Steve’s chest. ‘You gotta make a wish.’

How could anybody argue with that?

‘Okay.’

Steve was smiling as he closed his eyes. As he let his mind wander and settle on something he’d never have the courage to say out loud.

I wish this feeling would last forever.

Billy’s eyes were still on him when he opened them again. Soft, close.

Warm.

‘Make one?’ he asked. Steve nodded. ‘What was it?’

‘Can’t tell.’

Billy blinked slow, hardly even moved. ‘Why not?’

‘Won’t come true,’ he stated. ‘Pretty sure that’s in the rules somewhere, too.’

Billy just shook his head, mumbled something that sounded like, ‘Whatever,’ and let out a huff of a laugh.

Let silence fall into the air between them.

Steve waited a few long seconds before he spoke again. Whispered. Hardly even let the words leave his tongue.

‘What about you?’

‘What about me?’

‘Did you?’ he asked. ‘Make one?’

Billy’s eye line dropped, slow. Dragged it down Steve’s face and shook his head again, so gentle, so soft, that his cheek didn’t even rustle against the pillow.

‘Didn’t have to.’

‘Why not?’

Billy’s lips were pulled into a smile when Steve’s eyes fell to greet them.

‘Already got everything I could want.’

11:11

Steve closed his eyes, made a wish with warm whiskey in his belly and hot smoke in his lungs.

I wish Billy was here.

He opened them again.

11:12

Nothing.

11:13

12:38

1:46

2:29

3:23

‘You know they say this is the most haunted time, right?’

Steve had turned his head, moved his eyes from the stretch of Billy’s legs, out long next to his own, to find steel blue. ‘Huh?’

Billy motioned with his chin towards the clock. ‘3:23 AM. They say more paranormal activity happens right now than any other time of the day.’

Steve couldn’t bite back a laugh. ‘Who the hell says that?’

‘I dunno,’ Billy shrugged, mumbled around the cigarette between his lips. ‘Scientists or some shit. Friend told me about it once.’

‘Sounds like a crock.’

Billy lifted an eyebrow, lifted his lips into something like a smirk.

‘Says the guy with a ghost sitting right next to him.’

3:23

No ghost.

3:24

Another sip with a five-count stretch.

3:25

4:50

5:40

The world outside was quiet, the room blanketed in the beginning of soft sunlight.

They’d been lying on their sides. Nose to nose. Billy’s hand wrapped tight around the pendant to keep Steve close.

Spoke as he rubbed his thumb in smooth circles around the cool metal.

‘What’s your biggest fear?’

Steve’s lips quirked up.

‘Ghosts.’

‘Shut the fuck up,’ Billy said, laughed despite himself. ‘Be serious.’

Steve was still too busy counting Billy’s freckles to voice his answer. ‘You first.’

‘Okay,’ he started, paused a second to think. ‘I mean, I don’t really have one anymore, but it used to be getting stuck here. I guess. Not making it back home.’

‘To California?’

‘Yeah.’ There was something distant in the way he nodded, something far off that helped Steve’s smile fall slowly. ‘Just wanted to be able to surf again, you know? See the ocean again. Go whenever I wanted. All that shit.’

Steve had never even seen the ocean.

‘I’m sorry.’

But Billy was quick to say, ‘I’m not. View here’s not so bad,’ with eyes so focused, so intent and honest and raw that it sent Steve’s heart up into his throat. ‘Your turn, pretty boy.’

What’s your biggest fear?

Easy.

‘Being alone.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know.’ Steve’s voice was low, like he was saying something he shouldn’t. ‘Being by myself. People leaving.’

Billy smiled at that, for some reason. Not cutting or mean, but soft. So small Steve wasn’t sure he would’ve seen it if he wasn’t so close.

‘Good thing you don’t have to worry about that anymore, huh?’

And there was something, something in Billy’s tone that made Steve lose his eyes, something amused. Made Steve lower his gaze until it was level with Billy’s chest, free of all the scars and wounds a monster from hell should have left.

‘Steve?’ Billy tugged on the chain. ‘Hey.’ Nothing. ‘Hey, look at me.’

‘What?’

‘No.’ Billy tugged again. ‘Look at me.’ So he did. ‘You heard me, right? I won’t-you don’t have to worry about that anymore.’

Steve swallowed hard, wanted to look back down, but he knew Billy would only ask him to look right back up again.

He felt totally bare, stripped down, exposed when he said, ‘’Course I do.’ Felt like he couldn’t breathe with Billy’s eyes so close. ‘Everybody leaves.’

Billy was already shaking his head.

‘Not me.’

Steve almost laughed. ‘Come on. You can’t know that-’

‘Yes, I can.’ Billy cut him off hard, shut him up with a certainty Steve wasn’t familiar with. Didn’t know what to do with. ‘I don’t know what you think, but I’m not everybody. I’m not your parents and I’m not Nancy Wheeler.’

Steve paused at that, let the words hang there before he nodded, once. Conceded a little.

‘I know.’

‘Okay, then know you got me, alright? You got me and I got you and I’m not going anywhere.’ Billy pulled on the pendant again when Steve stayed quiet for a few long seconds. ‘I got you, Steve.’

And Billy sounded so sure of himself, so serious that Steve had no choice but to believe him.

No choice but to smile when Billy said it again.

‘I got you.’

5:41

Why did he ever let himself think Billy would be the exception?

5:42

6:20

7:30

‘You’re the best friend I ever had, Harrington. You know that?’

The sun had been rising steadily over the quarry, rising and standing to wake the rest of the world. Shaded Billy’s cheeks orange and warm and maybe the tiniest bit pink. Which, maybe wasn’t entirely the sun’s fault.

Steve had wondered if his own looked the same.

‘Sounds like you’re going soft on me, Hargrove.’

They were past this, long past this. Past Harrington and Hargrove and last name pretenses. Past pretending they weren’t two sides of the same fading coin.

That their edges didn’t line up and their broken pieces didn’t fit together.

Billy scoffed at his side, laughed, short and humorless from he was sat on the trunk of the BMW next to him.

‘I died fighting a monster from another dimension. I think I’m allowed to say whatever the hell I want.’ Steve might’ve had a comeback if the words weren’t still so sobering, tried not to choke as Billy took one last drag on a short cigarette. ‘And it’s true anyway so just. Believe me or don’t.’ He flicked the cigarette towards the ground, kept his gaze set straight to watch it fall. ‘I don’t care. Let’s just-’

‘Billy?’ The word, one word, just his name, short and soft and perfect on Steve’s tongue, cut him off, stopped him dead.

‘Yeah?’

‘Me too. I-’ he swallowed hard, throat tight around the words. ‘You are, too.’

The sun had nothing on the light in Billy’s eyes.

7:31

The world was too dark without him.

7:32

8:00

The alarm went off.

The bottle of whiskey at his side was empty.

The space at his side was empty.

His room was empty.

Billy hadn’t shown up.

Steve scribbled another line at the bottom of the note with tears prickling in his eyes. Let them fall as he stumbled out the front door and got into his car.

Left without looking back.

From his heart to his hands,

I miss you.

Chapter Text

I miss you.

Just give me a chance.

I don’t know what to do anymore.

Waking up without you here is the worst.

This sucks so bad.

Billy, come on.

I hate this.

Please.

Days passed.

The end of the note got longer.

Longer like the days, sad and vacant without much to look forward to.

Without Billy to look forward to.

Without Billy in his bedroom. Next to him. Smiling around a cigarette and talking, laughing, being as the moon rose and fell.

On bright nights, it was hope.

On dark nights, it was doubt.

Doubt that Billy was coming back. Doubt that he’d ever give Steve the chance to right the wrong. Fix the mistake.

Mend what he broke.

On the darkest nights, the doubt was darker. Colder.

Because, on those nights, the doubt wasn’t in whether or not Billy was coming back. It was more in whether or not he’d ever really been there in the first place.

In whether or not Steve had just been dreaming the whole thing up.

If Steve didn’t have Saint Christopher, cold and sure, on his chest, a thin chain around his neck, he wasn’t sure he’d believe that Billy had ever really been there at all.

But he did. Have Saint Christopher. A reminder of the reality of Billy and of what they had.

What they have, present, Steve tried to remind himself.

He repeated it with every swipe of his thumb around the pendant. Every smooth circle.

Billy’s coming back. Billy’s real and he’s coming back.

Days passed.

The mantra repeated.

Over and over and over again.

Over so long October bled into November. Leaves, orange and red and yellow, fell and left their branches bare. Left the nights colder, darker, like the circles under his eyes.

Darker than ever.

As if they’d never taken the time to fade from July to Billy.

The circles. The fear. The nightmares.

Let it-

I want it to-

Why won’t it just-

I don’t know how to-

Not without-

Billy healed wounds he didn’t even know existed, and without him, it was like they all split back open again. The stitches that stretched across Steve’s body like constellations. Stars long forgotten in favor of cheeks bright with stardust, hair speckled with sunshine.

Ripped back open.

Dark. Raw. Bloody.

Panic and pain a thick black claw between his ribs. Poked and prodded and twisted.

What was outside? What was waiting in the woods? Why didn’t that shadow choose Steve when he was always so alone?

He still had a bat beside his bed. Still made sure his shoes were always tied.

Went to work and lived his life, normal enough to push the fear down until it was little more than a whisper.

A whisper that shouted come nightfall. Echoed into empty air.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

The echoes bred nightmares. Dreams that weren’t always scary, so much as real.

Billy smiling. Billy laughing. Billy pulling back the covers to lie in bed next to him.

Pleasant and warm and perfect until the crack rang out and Billy disappeared into the air like smoke. Just like he had that first time Steve saw him. The first time he left without warning.

Like a breeze had swept through the room and carried him away.

That’s when Steve would be left alone. Left alone to stare into empty space while the breath left his lungs and his heart lodged itself up into his throat. Frantic. Desperate.

Frantic and desperate still when he woke with a gasp, hair, shirt damp, panting.

Room empty.

Completely alone.

Because nightmares, they didn’t always look like nightmares. Except for when they did.

When Billy was lying dead on the floor of Starcourt Mall and Steve’s legs were too slow beneath him.

Terror coated neon, gasps masked with firework screams.

Fourth of July to Halloween and before he could blink, the Byers’ and El were coming back for Thanksgiving.

Schools were closed, stores were empty, and Steve was on the couch with a bowl of cereal in his lap, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade bright on the TV.

The calls came through one after the next.

He couldn’t say no, not exactly. Not to Dustin, who needed a ride. Nor to Joyce and, what Steve deemed, her sad mother voice when she rang next.

So. Steve went to Thanksgiving.

Went through the motions and hoped the holiday could fill the black space in his chest, get his mind away from his bedroom.

Away from his bedroom and from loss and from BillyBillyBilly-

He went. Tried for normal as he stopped at the Henderson’s to pick up Dustin on the way to the Byers’ house, which, still hadn’t been sold off in all the time they’d been away.

Did what any person’s supposed to do on Thanksgiving.

Sat around the table a while. Put a bit of everything on his plate. Made nice.

Dodged questions and comments from Dustin after dinner as the group sat on the couch, tired and warm from food and company.

Food Steve hardly ate, company Steve hardly talked to.

“Man, what’s wrong with you?” Dustin’s voice was loud at his side. Louder than the rest of the conversations scattered across the crowded living room. “You hardly even ate anything.”

“So?”

“So? It’s Thanksgiving. I’m pretty sure if you don’t at least double your bodyweight, they throw you in jail.”

Steve threaded his fingers together on his lap, squeezed them tight to keep from rubbing at his eyes. Dragging them through his hair.

“Whatever.”

He kept his tone clipped, just this side of harsh in the hopes it would keep Dustin from going on.

Except, nothing really ever kept Dustin from going on.

“You know what else? I wasn’t gonna mention it, I wasn’t,” he started, like he was doing Steve a favor, “but you look like shit. Like. Real shit.”

Eloquent.

Steve squeezed his hands tighter.

“Appreciate that, bud.”

“I’m not trying to be a dick, Steve, but it looks like you got the shit kicked out of you.” Steve’s breath caught, high in his throat before he could stop it. Trapped the words before he could stop what Dustin was going to say next because it was in this living room that- “Like really. Your eyes look black. Remember how they got last year after Billy-”

Steve was up off the couch before the rest of the sentence could leave his lips.

Ignored the call of, “Hey Steve! Hey, wait up. I-” as he went out the front door and sat on the steps.

Put his elbows on his thighs, ducked his head, tugged on his hair until it stung and the pain was louder than the name ringing fresh in his ears.

Billy.

BillyBillyBilly-

It was here that it had happened. Out on the Byers’ front lawn.

He’d been right here when Billy drove up. When the Camaro’s engine shook the house and Billy greeted him with a smirk, coiled knots, nervous and tight in the pit of his stomach.

Am I dreaming, or is that you, Harrington?

Steve had been hearing those words in the back of his head for over a year.

Had been plagued by them for months, but when he closed his eyes, Billy wasn’t standing across the yard. He wasn’t angry. They weren’t two breaths from fighting and the world wasn’t crackling with chaos.

Billy’s head was on the pillow next to his. His eyes were blue, calm and steady like steel. His words were warm, wild, curled around him like fire.

I used to have dreams about you, too, you know. Wanted you so bad. Wanted to touch you. Fuck, I wanted to kiss you. You have no idea how bad, Steve.

Steve pushed at his eyelids hard enough to see stars. Hard enough to push the image back.

To push him back.

His eyes. His eyelashes. His freckles. The slope of his nose. The pull of his lips.

Pushed, pushed, pushed.

Hard enough to wipe away his face, but not nearly hard enough to wipe away the echo of his voice, the ghost of his touch.

The thought of he should be here, he should be here next to me, I don’t know where he is, but he should be here-

“Steve?”

It was a small voice that cut into the silence. High.

El.

A tear slipped free from Steve’s eye that he wiped on his shoulder, hoped to God she hadn’t seen him do it.

“Yeah?”

He turned his head just far enough to look back at her, head poked out from the open screen door, big eyes wide and wise.

She hadn’t even been looking at him more than ten full seconds.

“You’re sad,” she said, soft.

Tore at the perforated edges of Steve’s bloody heart.

“Little bit,” he admitted. Knew it was sort of useless to lie when this kid could probably see the shine of unshed tears in his eyes.

When she could definitely poke into his head and see for herself if she wanted. Probably already had.

She offered him a sad sort of smile from the door, sympathetic in a way Steve thought a kid shouldn’t quite know how to do.

“Cookies,” was her next word, something a little brighter in her eyes for it. “Joyce-she made cookies. I-They help,” she said, words stilted, but kind. “With sad.”

The smile that spread across Steve’s lips helped another few tears slip free from his eyes.

“Yeah, they do,” he said, wiped at his cheeks with the heel of his hand, let out a soft laugh. Motioned with his head towards the house. “I’ll be in in a minute. I just-”

He stopped when she nodded once, when it was clear she knew what he was trying to say.

She hesitated at the door, though, didn’t turn on her heel like he expected. Wasn’t really looking at him anymore.

Not at him so much as through him.

Like a ghost.

The thought was a rock in his stomach. Heavy. Hard.

“Y’okay?” he asked, equal parts genuine and curious.

She averted her eyes, was looking at the ground next to him as she shook her head, paused another long second. Let the silence drag on in a way that had, once again, started to make Steve’s skin crawl.

All these days, all these weeks alone.

Alone, alone, alone.

It was another second before she picked up her head and smiled like she hadn’t just stuck Steve’s personal brand of poisoned thorns into his side.

“Okay,” she said, both as an answer and an ending. Turned on her heel. Let the screen door shut with a smack behind her and disappeared into the house.

He didn’t follow her, not right away. Waited a couple minutes for the tears to stop stinging, for the redness to fade around his eyes.

Sincerely hoped that nobody noticed the rings or the shine when he finally got up and went back in.

El was at his side almost immediately. Looked up at him with those wide, wise eyes as she handed him a cookie.

And another after that. Maybe a third. Definitely a fourth.

He wanted to ask. If she knew. If she’d taken a look into his head and seen what had become of his life.

What had become of him. Of Billy.

Them.

He didn’t, though, just took cookie after cookie after cookie and let her hug him hard before he left to go back home.

Let himself feel not so alone, not so empty.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

When he went back home, the darkness crept back in.

The glass was broken. The pack of Reds was full. The letter left long.

He picked up the pen. Scribbled.

Wish you were here today.

He laid back on his bed. Stared at the ceiling. Thought about glow-in-the-dark stars and a smile brighter than the sun.

Morning came.

Days passed.

The end of the note got longer.

I hope you’re okay. Wherever you are.

I feel like I’m looking for you everywhere.

Bet I’d be making you wear a whole coat now with how cold it is out. Hope you’re not cold.

The house is real quiet without your dumb laugh.

I still miss you.

Can’t you give me like, something? To let me know if you’re okay?

You can take the smokes, you know. If you want. I got them for you.

Thought I saw you today.

It’s so fucking cold out.

Billy.

I hope you miss me, too.

Dreams kept bringing him back. Kept bringing him closer.

Close, close, closer, but always just out of reach. Too far to touch. Too far to save. Steve had smoke on his lips and a hand around the pendant on his neck, but close was never close enough.

I should have kissed you when I could.

Maybe reality had always been a nightmare. Demodogs and Mind Flayers. Ghosts that went bump in the night and begged him to come closer.

Closer, but never quite close enough. Never quite next to him. Never quite touching him.

Close, close, closer until he was gone.

Crack, bang, boom, the wind swept through. Took him away.

Sometimes, Billy was silent. Sometimes, Billy was screaming.

Sometimes, Billy was dead.

Because the nightmares, they didn’t always look like nightmares. Except for when they did.

There was so much ice in Steve’s chest he thought he should’ve been numb.

He’d never been less numb in his whole life.

Never been colder in his whole life.

Dead leaves cleared and gave way to new snow. November to December. Thanksgiving to Christmas.

The Byers and El were back again. For a couple days. To do gifts and spread holiday cheer and all that.

The phone calls begging Steve to go to the party on Christmas Adam were easier to stomach than they’d been at Thanksgiving.

Maybe even made him laugh for half a second.

“Adam?” he’d asked. “What the hell is Christmas Adam?”

He could hear the way Dustin huffed on the other side of the phone.

“December 23rd, Steve. The party’s on December 23rd. It’s the day before Christmas Eve. So that makes it-”

“Christmas Adam.”

“Exactly.”

A little dumb. A little funny.

Steve was laughing before he could help it.

So. He went to Christmas Adam.

This one was at the Henderson’s. Early December had been good to Joyce, found her with a buyer and an offer on the house that had been way too good to pass up.

Steve couldn’t help but think she looked brighter for it as she told the story to Mrs. Henderson, one hand on a mug, the other waving in the air like mad.

Lighter, definitely. Brighter, maybe.

Maybe that was just the Christmas lights.

It was easy to feel lighter, brighter with all the kids around. With the decorations and the gifts and the endless ring of laughter that filled the Henderson’s small living room.

He let it, let it Band-Aid the black space, the blank space and bloody wounds that steel blue eyes had left in their wake.

Tried not to think about the brand new bottle of Malibu he had hidden in the back of his closet.

‘You ever had it?’ Billy had asked, fingers careful at the end of his cigarette as he handed it over to Steve.

‘Nope.’ Steve shook his head, focused on keeping the pinch of his fingers far from Billy’s. Brought the cigarette up to his lips and took a long pull. ‘Never.’

‘That’s the good shit, pretty boy. You should get some.’

Steve had laughed around the cigarette, brought it down, held it back out to him. ‘Here I was thinking you were a sucker for cheep beer.’

Billy huffed. ‘I only drank cheap beer because it was free. Never said anything about liking it,’ he stated. ‘Bottle of Malibu on the beach, though? Nothing I wouldn’t do.’

‘Yeah?’ Steve watched Billy nod, slow, dragged his eyes down Billy’s face, stopped at his lips while he took a drag. ‘What’s it taste like?’

‘Coconut.’

Steve couldn’t stop the next laugh that bubbled in the back of his throat.

Hold on,’ he said, paused a second to catch his breath. ‘You’re telling me that not only do you hate cheap beer, but you like drinks that taste like coconut?’ he teased, might have felt bad if Billy hadn’t been smiling, too.

Cheeky, lips pulled higher at one side. ‘Love ‘em.’

‘Oh my God.’ Steve’s whole face had felt like it was on fire, spurred on by the half-lidded look in Billy’s eyes.

Something like amused. Something like fond.

Unspeakably soft.

‘Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.’

The bottle had been sitting in the back of Steve’s closet since early October. Bought on a whim. Once upon a time.

Had been saving it for a day like Christmas.

For somebody like Billy.

Steve didn’t get anything for anybody else, didn’t expect to be given anything. Stared with wide eyes when he saw his name under the tree and found three little gifts all bunched together waiting for him.

First, was a copy of The Hobbit. From Dustin. Marked like hell with thin post-it notes that poked out from the edges of the hard cover, some lines highlighted yellow, others underlined black.

Steve had never been one for reading and he knew the gift was more about Dustin wanting him to understand what they were all talking about than it was for him to actually like it, but there was something undeniable about a book well-loved. Worn and torn in just the right way.

He’d give it a shot.

Next was, well, another book. From El. A cookbook filled exclusively with cookie recipes. Steve was laughing as he hugged her, mussed her hair.

Nobody else quite got the joke, but he knew the small smile on El’s lips matched the one on his own.

That was enough.

The last was a string bracelet. From Max. The box had fit perfectly in the palm of his hand and inside it sat the thin twist of string. Red, white, and blue braided together.

Red, white, and blue.

Fourth of July.

Red.

I like red, happy?

Blue.

Billy’s eyes.

I want.

Steve held his wrist out to Max, let her tie it, triple knot tight, secure.

String on his wrist and Saint Christopher on his chest. How Hawkins had existed, how he had existed before that Camaro tore into the parking lot that shitty October morning, Steve would never understand.

He’d never question it either.

The rest of the night passed, flew by fairly smoothly. Mike spilled hot chocolate on the rug. Lucas held onto a hot Christmas light the longest (and also burned his fingers the worst), but nothing was broken. Nothing was on fire. No one was crying.

Everyone was here and happy and-

Not quite everyone.

A feeling that got a little stronger around 9:15 when Steve took a look around the living room. Counted the kids.

One, two, three, four, five-

Five. One missing.

A head of bright orange hair.

Steve got up from the couch as quietly as he could. Threw a mental thanks up towards the sky when the conversation didn’t stop around him, when no one so much as looked in his direction.

One, two, three, four, five kids kept talking in the living room, Joyce and Mrs. Henderson kept talking at the small table in the dining room.

Max, bright orange hair and all, was standing by herself in the kitchen. Back against the counter. Arms crossed over her chest.

Head tilted forwards so that her hair fell down over her face and covered her eyes.

Made Steve think of him. Of Billy. Of how many times he’d stood something like that. 7AM sun in his hair. Head tipped. Eyes on the floor.

See you later, pretty boy.

Two months later.

When was later?

Steve swallowed the thought down. Focused on the present situation. On Max.

He hesitated in the doorway, didn’t totally want to interrupt her moment, but couldn’t shake the idea that no one should be alone on Christmas, either.

Even if it was, technically, only Christmas Adam.

Nobody should be alone. Not himself. Not Max. Not anybody.

He knocked on the doorframe, soft, hardly let his knuckles touch the worn wood. Didn’t flinch when Max’s head shot up, when she wiped at her blue eyes, ringed bright red.

“Hey,” she said, casual despite the shake of her voice. Betrayed by it.

“Hey.” He took a step further into the room now that he knew she wouldn’t get spooked. “You okay?”

She nodded, and her voice was stronger, more confident when she said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” but she was still looking down at her feet.

And Billy’s voice was louder.

Do you-could you just, I don’t know. Keep an eye on her?

Steve held his breath. Took another step forward.

“You can talk about it,” he offered, stopped at her side and mirrored her, back against the counter. Eyes down towards his feet. “If something’s bugging you.”

He could see her shake her head in his peripheral vision.

“It’s alright. I don’t wanna bother anybody-”

“You’re not,” he said, tried to shake how much like Billy that sounded, that habit Billy had of pushing it down, pushing back the pain so nobody else had to see it, nobody else had to deal with it. Steve knocked his shoulder into hers, “And I really don’t mind. Honest.”

He didn’t turn his head fully, wanted to give her the privacy enough to think to herself, but he watched her out of the corner of his eye. Watched her, heard her suck in a breath, hold it. Let it go with a huff.

“I just miss him.” The words were soft, watery. Steve was suddenly glad she couldn’t pick up her head, could already feel his own eyes filling, air gone stale in his lungs. “He just- he sucked, you know? He sucked so bad and he was such a dick, but at Christmas he was-he was better.”

She paused to sniffle, to suck in another hard breath and wipe at her eyes.

Steve couldn’t speak. Let her continue.

“Every year, he was better around Christmas. And it’s not like he got me stuff or anything. I mean, sometimes he did. Like last year he got me this cool Star Wars poster ‘cause mine got all ripped up in the move or whatever, but then sometimes he didn’t. Which was fine. I don’t care, but I just.” She paused again. Shook her head and lifted her chin. Turned. Met Steve with wide, wet eyes. “I miss him. A lot.”

Steve would never know what it was that made him say it. Would never know if it was the fear, the loneliness. If it was the big, black hole in his chest or the big, blue eyes looking up at him so soft, but he did. Say it.

“Me too.” The words fell out before he could think better of them, watched her blink a little harder for having heard them. “I miss him, too.”

They never even said a name. Never said just exactly who he or him was.

Didn’t have to.

Her eyebrows pinched slowly. “You do?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. Hesitated a second before he echoed her words. “A lot.”

She blinked hard as she processed what he was saying, what it meant.

“You, but you guys-you were-were you, like, friends?”

You’re the best friend I ever had, Harrington. You know that?

Steve could taste the words on his lips. Taste the smoke on his tongue.

“Something like that.”

“Huh.” The noise was easy, thoughtful. Calmer than he’d expected as her brow smoothed back out. “I had no idea.”

Steve couldn’t help a short laugh as he said, “Nobody did. We uh, didn’t wanna freak anybody out.”

A laugh and a smile. For irony’s sake. Faded slowly.

Max watched him through it.

“So what do you do then?” she asked. Voice quiet. “When you miss him, I mean. To help.”

Like smoke on his tongue.

I cry.

I hold onto his necklace and I think about his laugh because I’m afraid I’m going to forget it and I cry.

I want.

Every last trace of his smile was gone. He could feel it. The downward turn of his lips, the sting in his eyes. Maybe that was the reason Max took half a step closer, pressed her shoulder to his bicep.

He didn’t ask.

Bit the inside of his cheek until it hurt. Until he admitted it.

“Nothing,” he said, used every ounce of willpower not to choke around the lump in his throat. “I don’t really know what to do so I guess I just. Let myself. Miss him.”

“Huh.” The sound at his side was soft again. The words softer. “I never thought about that.”

“S’not really great advice but,” Steve let the words trail off. Brought his free hand up to rub at the back of his neck.

“Better than nothing,” she said, quiet, like it was a secret.

Max tipped her head to rest her temple against his arm then. He would’ve moved to wrap it around her shoulders, pull her into his side, but she’d already gotten both her arms around the crook of his elbow. Hugged it, held it tight.

He knew a lifeline when he saw one.

“Better than nothing,” he agreed, pretended not to feel the way her grip tightened on his arm.

Pretended not to think about the way Billy’s grip had tightened on his heart without ever having held it in his hands.

Spoke again to push it down.

“But it doesn’t have to be nothing anymore.” He could almost feel her frowning, was quick to clarify. “I’m here, like, whenever. You got my number and I got a walkie and I’m not the worst listener in the world.”

She sniffed again, forehead rubbing against the side of his arm as she nodded. “You’re right.”

“’Bout time you noticed.” He felt something warm, like pride, like satisfaction bloom when the joke made her laugh, even if it only lasted a second. Steve kept his voice soft. “And I mean it. You don’t have to do this by yourself.”

“I know,” she agreed. Left it there.

He waited another beat, just let her be, let her exist, before he gestured with his chin towards the door. “Come on. We should probably get back, huh?”

“Probably,” she said, slow. Released the grip she had on his arm and took a careful step off to her side. Brought her hand up to chew on her thumbnail, eyes once again on the floor.

Until they weren’t.

When she looked up at him, there was something in there, in her eyes, wide and round. Something like Billy looked whenever he had something he wanted to say, but even more like Billy, she must have thought better of it.

Shook her head. Pushed off her heel. Walked to the other side of the kitchen.

Only stopped at the edge of the doorway to look back at him over her shoulder. “You coming?”

He pushed off the counter with his hip, stopped quick at the doorway to ruffle her hair, to give her an encouraging smile and say, “Did you know Joyce’s cookies are good enough to make you feel better about literally anything?”

Max tilted her head to one side. Smiled. Followed him out. “Did you know you’re kinda crazy?”

He knew. He laughed anyway.

Kept an eye on her the rest of the night and felt his chest go a little lighter when she talked to El with bright eyes. Smiled around her third cookie.

He didn’t have any.

Light settled slowly, evened until it burnt, until it was hot and hollow and open and empty.

Back home in his bedroom. Sat on the floor, fingers playing at a new string bracelet, red, white, and blue around his wrist.

Brand new bottle of Malibu in his hand. Coconut on his lips. Sweet and bright and something like good, something like Billy might taste on his tongue.

Sharp. Perfect.

Alone.

Christmas Adam.

Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Days passed.

The end of the note got longer.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve.

Why doesn’t anybody tell you how sad ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is?

I can’t really remember the last time I saw my parents.

I think I remember the last time I saw you too much.

I don’t know how to make my chest stop hurting.

I’m freezing.

I miss you.

Billy.

The days between Christmas Adam and New Year’s Eve passed. Slow.

Work was slow. Home was slow. Life was slow.

Scotch helped with that. A little bit. A pretty, little glass bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet.

Pretty, little glass bottle. Pretty, little glass pieces on his desk. The cuts on his hands had long faded. The cut of alcohol strong, new.

Drained it, day by day by day.

New Year’s Eve came as a kind of a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, he was off. Didn’t have to go to work. Didn’t have to set an alarm. Could lie in bed as long as he wanted and wander around the house in pajamas all day.

On the other hand, he was off. Didn’t have to go to work. Didn’t have the hum of annoying customers or expectant managers to pull him out of his head.

Just himself. An empty bedroom. An empty house.

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Bad and boring got worse as the day went on. As the hours passed silent, without so much as the ring of the phone to keep him company.

He didn’t get a single phone call all day. Not a single invitation. Not a single familiar voice to unknowingly do him a favor by way of giving him an excuse to get of the house.

The TV only ate the silence so much. The radio only ate so much at what was leftover.

The sun rose and fell and the phone hadn’t rung and the silence was too much.

At least there were beers in the fridge. Something to light a fire at his insides, to slow the world and spin it silly, smooth.

A slow night in a slow world for slow thoughts.

Ringing in the new year alone.

Three beers past 8 PM and a shitty couple reruns of Bonanza later, lazy, drowsy, sweatshirt hood pulled up over his head because it was just too fucking cold, a sound knocked him out of the daze. The haze of loss, of cold loneliness in a big house with one soft heartbeat.

A fist, insistent against the front door.

It took a second for the noise to register in his mind, to realize it wasn’t just another gunshot off the TV. That somebody was outside waiting, not patiently, but waiting nonetheless.

Three beers weren’t enough to do a whole hell of a lot, the earth was still steady beneath his feet, his stomach hadn’t flipped over itself yet. So he knew he wasn’t making it up when he opened the front door and saw Robin on the front step.

Robin. With plastic bags, both black and white, lining her arms. A plan bright in her eyes.

Brought him back to the night after Billy had given him his necklace and then hadn’t shown up because Robin had been there. On his front doorstep. Waiting.

Like she was right now.

He swallowed hard as he took a step back, opened the space up for her to walk through. Shut the door behind her.

Only when she was halfway to the living room did he say, “Hey.” Winced at the rasp in his voice, harsh from underuse.

Cleared his throat to try and get rid of it.

“Hey,” she said, huffed as she dropped the bags down on the coffee table with a clink. Narrowly avoided knocking over the three empty beer cans and half empty fourth that he’d pushed into the corner. She pointed towards them with an eyebrow raised. “Am I crashing any plans or-”

He shook his head, easy. “Nah, I was just,” he trailed off, gestured with his head towards the TV.

Watched her eyes go wide as they settled on it.

Bonanza? Are you kidding?” She was quick to grab the remote.

“What? It’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad? Jesus, you really have gone off the deep end,” she said, something teasing in her tone. Clicked, clicked, clicked through the channels until the bright lights and screams from Times Square filled the dark living room. “Now that’s more like it.”

He watched her sit on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, untie her shoes, throw them across the room.

He waited a second before he sat down next to her, unsure, something uncomfortable and green in his chest. Grabbed his beer to keep from rubbing at the back of his neck.

“I mean, it’s not that I don’t want you here, but I thought you said you had plans,” he said, thought of the twinkle in her eye when she’d said it at work yesterday.

Oh yeah. Big plans. Gotta start the new year off on the right foot and I intend to do just that.

“I do,” she said. Leaned forward. Reached both hands into the black bags and pulled a bottle of wine out from each. “They’re called Cabernet and Sauvignon.”

He snorted. “Starting the new year face down on the floor then,” but she was quick to shake her head.

“Oh no. They’re not both for me.” She pushed one into his chest, nearly knocked the beer out of his hand to do it. “That one’s for you.”

His face twisted as he took it from her, watched her reach into one of the white bags for a corkscrew.

“Uh. Why?”

“Because,” she stated. Started at getting the cork out of her bottle. Twisted. “I’m sick and tired of you not telling me shit. So.” She paused to pull and smiled when the cork came out with a pop, smug and proud. “Now that that’s done, you’re gonna open your’s. We’re gonna take a sip every time they show that ugly fuckin’ ball on the TV, and you’re gonna tell me what’s going on.”

She held the screw out between them, eyes locked on his. Waiting.

Green grew, spread, rapid along with dread, but Robin was waiting. She was watching.

Choice wasn’t even an illusion.

He took a long sip to finish off beer number four, put it down on the coffee table, and took the screw from her hand.

Watched her smile grow.

“Atta boy.”

It only took, maybe, about 30 seconds for him to realize how serious she was.

Had hardly gotten the cork out of his own bottle before she was nodding towards the TV.

“Bottoms up, huh?”

He followed her eye line across the room, to the gaudy, apple-shaped ball at the top of Times Square.

When he turned back, she had her bottle tipped towards his, smile on her lips. Choice not even an illusion.

He tilted his own, tapped it against hers, and they each took a long drink.

Wine on top of four beers. He was fucked. It was only a matter of time.

An hour, in fact.

It only took an hour before the real questions started coming.

He held her off as long as he could, gave noncommittal answers along with shrugs in the hopes she’d drop it.

Just tired.

I dunno. Kinda lonely I guess. Nothing I’m not used to.

No, the Gate didn’t open back up.

Yes, I eat.

Yes, I sleep.

Yes, I’m having nightmares again.

No, I don’t need a nightlight.

Yes, I saw the ball, will you just give me a second? I have like, three Twizzlers in my mouth.

Alright, alright. I’m drinking. I know.

The effort was admirable, his, hers, but there were four beers in his belly. Four beers and three quarters of a bottle of wine.

His resolve was fading, and Robin was nothing if not persistent.

“Come on, I know there’s more to it than just the normal shit. There’s something you’re not saying.”

The ball was back on the TV and they both tipped their bottles back before the other had to say anything. Bought him a minute.

But wine was bitter on the roof of his mouth. The world was spinning. He was tired of carrying it alone.

He stretched his legs out long in front of him. Leaned back harder against the couch. Bit down on the inside of his cheek and held his breath.

Said finally, “You’re not gonna believe me,” which, for some reason, she found funny.

“I sincerely doubt that,” she laughed. “Whatever it is, it can’t be that crazy.”

Green had climbed so high he could taste it back behind his teeth. Tried to wash it down with more wine, closed his eyes, counted to five. Let it burn all the way down. Winced.

“You’d be surprised.”

He hiccupped around the rim of the bottle, but she didn’t even flinch.

“Try me.”

So.

He did.

Started from the beginning.

Not from Fourth of July, but from October 1984. From the roar of an engine and ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’.

The category five storm named Billy Hargrove that had swept through his life and ripped it off its foundation.

October. Basketball. The Byers house.

Fourth of July to an ashtray. Bumps in the night to a boy crying on his floor.

To arguments and answers. Understanding and eyes. Smoke and Saint Christopher.

All the way through to broken glass.

To empty, empty, empty.

She kept her mouth shut the whole way through. Just let him talk. Listened, nodded when she thought it was the right time, put a hand on his knee when his eyes filled with tears.

Handed over her bottle when he realized his was empty and let him keep talking after a five-count sip.

She didn’t speak right away once he was done. They’d long muted the TV and it was only in the thick silence that Steve realized it was past midnight, that the hosts were wrapping up the broadcast and street cleaners were working on sweeping up confetti.

When she did finally speak, it was just a sound, hardly a word.

“Huh.” Thoughtful. Just like Max had done. “So you and Billy,” she said, let the words hang there.

“Me and Billy,” he agreed, stomach tight at the sound of his name.

So dizzy he could hardly see straight anymore.

She looked up at him through her lashes. “Do you-”

“Yeah,” he said, even though he wasn’t totally sure which words were coming next.

-miss him?

-want him?

-need him?

-love him?

It didn’t matter. Not when they were all true.

Not when the answer to each was yes.

“Huh,” she said again. Took her bottle from Steve’s hands. “I’ll be honest, I never would’ve guessed you were all fucked up because of Billy Hargrove’s ghost so,” she tipped it in his direction, “kudos to you.”

She brought it up to her lips and took a drink, face twisted as she put it down on her lap.

He swallowed hard. “Told you it was crazy.”

“Yeah maybe,” she agreed, “but we’ve kinda cornered the market on crazy, don’t you think?”

She had a point.

“I guess.” He was laughing before he could help it. “So you believe me then?”

“’Course.” She knocked her shoulder into his as she put the bottle down on the floor next to her. Far away from him. “Now lemme ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

She sat up a little straighter. “So you think Billy stopped showing up around the same time you knocked the ashtray off your desk.”

“Yep.” Popped the p. Took a deep breath. “Same day. ’Cause he hates my guts.”

“Sure he does,” she said, something like sarcasm in her tone. Kept going. “And the glass. From the ashtray. You said you still have it.”

“Yeah.

“Where?”

“Up on my desk.”

“Okay,” she nodded, paused. Like she was thinking. “And how big would you say the pieces are?”

It was his turn to pause then, eyebrows now pinched. “I don’t know. Maybe like,” he lifted his hand up in front of him, held his forefinger and his thumb an inch or two apart, “that big? Little smaller?”

“But the whole thing didn’t like, completely shatter.”

She looked the tiniest bit more sober now than she had three seconds ago. Reminded him of the way she looked deciphering Russian.

Made his heart beat a little faster.

“Right.”

“And you have all the pieces?”

“I think so.” Where the hell was she going with this? “Why?”

Despite his confusion, she smiled. Sat up further. Turned to face him and folded her legs in front of her.

Stopped his heart cold with four short words.

“Put it back together.”

Steve felt his jaw hit the floor.

Felt all the air leave his lungs.

“Put it back together,” he deadpanned. “You want me to just. Put it back together.”

“Yeah,” she said, like this was just a normal conversation on a normal New Year’s. “You said he stopped showing up when it broke so.”

“So what?” Steve huffed, almost too drunk for this line of logic. “You’re saying he’ll come back if I fix it?”

She lifted her shoulders. “Maybe?”

“That’s ridiculous.” He leaned forward to reach over her, to grab the wine from her side, but she slapped his hand away. Made him sit back.

“What if it’s not, though?” she asked. “What if it works?”

He had his jaw clenched so tight it was starting to hurt. “It’s not gonna work,” he said, hard. Sure. “He’s not here because I fucked everything up and he doesn’t wanna see me anymore. That’s all there is to it.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m pretty damn sure.”

“Okay, look. I get why you might think that and I know how Billy used to be,” she started, calm at his side despite the anger, the irritation he knew was rolling off him in harsh waves, “but after everything you just told me? Him dipping out for no reason just doesn’t sound right.”

“Yeah, but it’s not for no reason,” he argued. “I broke his mom’s ashtray.”

“Even then. It doesn’t sound like something he’d do, at least not on purpose.”

“Not on purpose,” he repeated, slow. Let the words roll off his tongue. “What does that mean? You think he, like, can’t come back?”

“Kind of?” She was a little more hesitant now, careful in a way she hadn’t been a minute ago. “Think about it. All that shit at Starcourt happens, right? Everything blows over and goes back to normal and it’s not until you help Max out and steal the ashtray that he starts showing up here. Then after you break it, he’s nowhere to be found.”

God, he needed another beer.

“So what are you saying?”

“Well. What if he’s like, tethered to it or something?”

Huh. He almost made the noise.

Held his breath instead. Considered it. Let it go in a harsh stream from his lips.

“I don’t know. It sounds kinda,” he trailed off.

“Kinda what? Crazy?” She laughed. “’Cause I’m pretty sure we just established we’ve both seen a hell of a lot crazier.”

She had a point. Another one. The millionth one she’d had since he’d known her.

He blinked hard, the inside of his cheek worried between his teeth. “Okay, say you’re right,” he conceded. “Say you’re right and somehow he’s connected to it. How would you even put glass back together?”

Her smile widened. “Glue.”

Just like that, any sign of hope dropped off in his stomach. Replaced itself with something redder. Darker.

He shook his head and tried to stand. “Jesus, Robin-”

“No, I’m serious.” She stopped him short with a hand on his leg. Pushed on it. Kept him there. “You know how many Christmas ornaments we’ve saved with glue because my dog won’t stop knocking them off the tree? Trust me. It works.”

He hesitated then. Took in the smooth shine of her eyes, the kind pull of her lips.

Let it sink in slowly that she wasn’t joking. Felt the red evaporate between his ears.

Hated the fact that he had to disturb the air in order to speak again. Hardly let the words form.

“But what if it doesn’t, huh?” He focused hard, struggled to keep the shake from his voice. The shake. The fear. The thick, black claw that poked holes in his dreams and twisted inside him. “What if it doesn’t work and he-” He choked on the back half of the sentence. Didn’t want to give voice to it. “What if it doesn’t?”

Her expression didn’t waver.

“What do you have to lose?”

Chapter Text

Ten days.

It took Steve ten days to put the ashtray back together.

Ten.

From January 2nd, when Robin brought the special kind of glue her family liked to use for their Christmas ornaments with her to work, to January 11th, when the mess of broken glass finally had a shape again.

Ten days. Or, well. Ten nights.

Steve spent ten nights on the floor with a mess of broken glass scattered around him. Silence a blanket over the world. Moon high in the sky.

Ten nights of focus, of concentration. Of a pink tongue pinched between white teeth and thin cuts on steady hands, glue on torn fingertips.

A heart that climbed higher and higher and higher with each new piece that fit into the puzzle.

Two pieces then five pieces then ten. Fifteen. Sixteen.

That 17th piece, though. That very last piece.

Steve had that piece in his hand when the clock struck midnight on January 11th. When the 11th became the 12th and ten days-nights-became eleven.

Eleven nights.

His hands were torn apart. The circles under his eyes were almost black. His heart had climbed so high in the back of his throat he could hardly breathe around it.

But he held that piece, that very last piece, in his hand so long it went numb. Sat on the floor with his back against his bed. Legs out long. Head tipped back to look at a ceiling free of stars.

Head screaming.

Finish it. Just finish it. Finish the puzzle.

Heart whispering.

Bring him back. Bring Billy back. Billy, Billy, Billy-

He knew where the piece had to go. Could see the crack along the top edge of the glass where the piece, the very last piece, would fit alongside the others.

He didn’t move, though. Didn’t stand up. Didn’t uncap the glue. Didn’t put the very last piece where he knew it had to go.

He just sat there, holding that thin piece of glass, no longer than his thumb, until the sun came up, until his alarm went off. Set it down on his desk next to the rest of the ashtray, 16 out of 17 pieces all aligned, and felt the cuts that the 17th piece, the very last piece, had left along his palm.

Felt them sting when he put his hands on the steering wheel, felt them sting some more when he pushed the door to Family Video open and heard the bell ding somewhere above his head.

Store empty on an early Saturday morning.

Took his jacket off behind the counter with Robin shrieking in his ear.

“So did you do it? Did you finish it?”

He had his head ducked as he pulled his arms from the sleeves. Couldn’t lift his eyes to look at her. Couldn’t look at the smile he could hear alongside her words. Shook his head.

“No, not yet.”

“What?” Her voice had pitched up, like a flinch.

He brought his shoulders up in a half-hearted shrug. “Didn’t finish it yet.”

“Well, what the fuck?” she asked, something like a scoff, like disbelief pulling at her tone. Maybe disappointment. “I thought you only had like, three pieces left or something?”

“Yep.” He threw his jacket on the ground. “And now I only have one.”

He waited for her to answer, for her to bite back with some witty comment, another question, but it had been at least five seconds, ten. Ten long seconds and she still hadn’t said anything. Made him look up, right into her big, round eyes.

“What?” he asked, had to do something to fill the silence, to brush off that ache, that chill tiptoed up his spine.

A chill that got colder, tiptoed higher the longer she looked at him.

When she spoke again it was slow, soft. As kind as he’d ever really heard her.

“Promise me you’ll do it later.”

He started to shake his head. “Robin-”

“Promise me,” she said again. A little harder this time. Kept going when he didn’t answer, when words and fear went dry on his tongue. “Look, I know you’re scared, Steve, but you’re never gonna know unless you just do it.”

He knew that. Had been thinking about that, that idea, for the last ten-eleven days. Nights. Caught the inside of his cheek between his teeth and bit down on it until he nodded. Conceded.

“I know.”

“So you promise then,” she repeated. Less a question than it was a statement. Her big blue eyes locked on his. “You promise you’re gonna go for it tonight.”

He knew he’d never win, not with her looking at him like that. So he just nodded again.

Said, “Promise,” and took her pinky in his when she held out her arm, hand balled all but for her pinky, out long. Squeezed it tight.

Ignored the cuts that burned on his palm with it.

Thought a little about how lucky she was that he still found sentimental value in the gesture. Thought a little more about how badly his hand was shaking once it was back down at his side.

Wondered how the hell he was supposed to put that piece back in with his hands shaking this much.

He tried to calm the shake as the day went on. The tremor. The colliding fault lines that racked earthquakes beneath his skin, through his veins, across his whole body.

Made it hard to focus on restocking shelves, on helping customers find what they needed. On listening to Robin tell him about this movie she saw the other day and then to Dustin about this thing he learned in this book from some library in the next town over when he stopped by after the arcade.

Steve was too busy shaking.

The fault lines were too busy colliding.

When the sun went down, when the world went dark, Steve was sure it registered a 6 on the Richter scale. The sun traded places with the moon and he wrapped a hand, a hand with an earthquake shake and a tectonic twitch, around the pendant that hung from his neck, rubbed his thumb over the dips, the lines, the letters.

Let the feeling of it, of Billy, of I’m doing this for Billy push the tectonic plates apart beneath his feet, between his ribs.

The next earthquake registered a 7, when he clocked out of work, let Robin wrap him up in a hug, and got in his car. Drove around town a while. Radio up to drown out his thoughts. Window down to strengthen the chill in his bones, to distract his senses.

The next earthquake was an 8. Came when he walked through the front door of his house.

And 8. 8 was a doozy. 8 left an aftershock.

8 left Steve to sit on the kitchen counter with his hands on his thighs, fingers digging into his muscle through his jeans while the ground still shook beneath him.

Head screaming.

Finish it. Just finish it. Finish the puzzle.

You promised.

Heart whispering.

Bring him back. Bring Billy back. Billy, Billy, Billy-

You promised.

Steve promised.

That promise was the only thing that got him to stand up something like an hour after he’d sat down. Clock on the wall set to half past ten.

He slid off the counter and the tectonic plates slid with him. Built a Richter scale 9 beneath his heels as he walked through the kitchen, the foyer, up the stairs and down the hall towards his bedroom.

He hesitated at his door, though. Paused. One hand on the doorknob, the other wrapped around Billy’s necklace, around Saint Christopher.

Saint Christopher.

Supposed to protect people. Well, protect travelers technically, but I think regular people are supposed to fit in there somewhere, too.

Steve knew he would always be protected so long as he had that pendant around his neck. He would always have Saint Christopher looking out for him. Would always have Billy looking out for him.

No matter what.

He took one last deep breath, turned the knob, and pushed the door open.

Walked across the room to his desk. To 16 pretty glass pieces all aligned and a thin 17th right next to them.

A long, long note next to that. The last line burned into Steve’s memory so bright it flared, flashed across his vision every time he shut his eyes.

I wish I didn’t waste so much time pretending like I hated you.

That Richter scale 9 finally hit the charts when he uncapped the glue. When he felt the deafening pound of his heartbeat between his ears. The shake of his hands out in front of him. The unsteady, shallow in-and-out-and-in-and-out of his breaths.

Drowned in the tidal wave that 9 brought with it. Anxiety a tsunami that filled his lungs, sent his heart to retreat to high ground and find safety in the hollow of his throat.

He spread the glue along the jagged edge of the 17th piece as slowly as he could. Did the same along the jagged edge where it would fit against the others. Wanted it to be perfect, for it to fit, to stick the first time.

Didn’t think he’d ever find it in himself to try again if it didn’t.

So he went slow, was careful. Put the glue bottle, the cap back down on his desk once the glue was all spread out.

When all the pieces were ready to go back together.

He took a second to steady himself, to steady his hands, his screaming thoughts. Took a deep breath in with a five count, held it for five, out for five. Did it again for the sake of his pulse, the pounding in his neck.

He could do this.

He could get Billy back.

He could put that piece in and turn around and find Billy in the middle of his room.

His life could go back to normal.

He picked the ashtray up in his left hand, 16 out of 17 pieces all in line, and the very last piece in his right.

Lined that last piece up, pushed it into place, closed his eyes.

Held his breath.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And-

He opened his eyes with a pinch caught between his brow.

The room was too quiet. The air was too still.

The room shouldn’t have been quiet. The air shouldn’t have been still.

He-He did the thing. He put the ashtray back together. He did what he was supposed to.

And the room was quiet. And the air was still.

He turned around and his room was-

Empty. Completely empty.

Billy wasn’t there.

Steve hadn’t slept in eleven days and he hadn’t seen Billy in two and a half months and he did what he was supposed to. This was supposed to work. He was supposed to put the ashtray back together so that he could get Billy back, but there was-

Nothing. No noise. No movement. No nothing.

There was nothing.

Steve was completely alone.

He had half a mind to put the ashtray back down on his desk before he could throw it at the wall. Felt his hands tighten around it, heard a soft crack after a long few seconds of earthquakes and aftershocks and tsunamis and I did what I was supposed to and-

He put the ashtray down on his desk and brought his hands up to his face, his eyes.

It was like he couldn’t breathe. Like he’d been running for days and couldn’t catch his breath no matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he wanted to fill his lungs with that still, dead air.

His eyes were on fire, could feel hot tears stinging behind his eyelids and pushed at them with the heels of his hands because he didn’t want to cry.

He didn’t want to cry because he knew this was going to happen. He knew this wasn’t going to work. He told Robin it wasn’t going to work and he let her convince him it would and he got his hopes up and it didn’t.

It didn’t work.

He opened his eyes and turned back towards his desk, leaned forwards to brace his hands on it. Tried to push down the nausea, the disappointment. The purple and blue and red that twisted inside him and coiled in his stomach when his eyes landed on the ashtray.

On 17 pretty, little glass pieces that promised him everything and gave him nothing.

It didn’t work. Billy wasn’t here.

Billy wasn’t here. He wasn’t here. Here. Billy-

The plates stopped shifting. Steve stopped moving.

Because his eyes had left the ashtray and stuck on the note. The long, long note he’d been writing all these weeks. Had one line at the top pop out at him so clearly it might as well have been written in bold.

I wonder what it feels like where you are.

He ran his eyes over the line, once, again, and with it, a memory punched itself to the front of his brain.

Billy. That night back in October at the quarry. Side by side. Half of Billy’s soul laid bare in front of them because Steve had slipped. Had asked him a question he had no business asking.

‘What does it feel like?’

Being dead. Steve had asked him by accident and he hadn’t meant it, hadn’t meant to ask, but Billy had been honest. He’d answered.

And Billy.

Billy had said, ‘Nothing. Just feels like I’m back at that mall. Waiting.’

Waiting.

He’d said he felt like he was waiting.

Said he felt like he was at the mall.

Waiting at the mall.

What if he was never supposed to show back up in Steve’s bedroom at all?

Steve almost fell over his own two feet as he ran down the stairs and grabbed his keys from the kitchen. Went back out to his car without so much as locking the front door to the house, without so much as a jacket to combat the January cold and took off down the road.

They hadn’t cleaned Starcourt up since the Fourth of July. Steve knew that. Lived less than ten minutes from it. Had heard the news people say that they’d had to halt the cleanup when the weather got too cold, but Steve knew for a fact that they’d never even started.

Starcourt had been left almost completely untouched.

He could see the wreckage from a distance. Thought it looked worse now than the last time he’d been here. When they were all huddled together, wrapped in security blankets. Wired and jittery and just downright grateful to still be alive.

The fire had taken its toll. The government’s attempt at getting rid of the Mind Flayer’s body after the fact had clearly taken its toll. The structure looked like it was on its last legs, roof blown to bits, walls on the verge of crumbling. Like maybe if the wind was strong enough, the whole thing might just collapse.

A big, bad wolf could huff, and puff, and blow it right down.

It was eerie, Starcourt, with none of the neon. None of the life. The chatter.

Made Steve’s skin ripple with goosebumps as he parked the car and ran. Dodged caution tape and 'Do Not Enter' signs and went right in through the big, black hole that used to be the main entrance. Right through it.

Right to the balcony that looked down over the lower level because that’s where he’d been.

That’s where Billy had been.

Down on the lower level.

Steve had seen it happen first hand. Had seen it happen so many times in his dreams, his nightmares, that he knew where to go. Knew where he’d been. Where they’d all been.

Where he needed to run and stop and look if he wanted to see-

Billy.

Every one of Steve’s ribs cracked in his chest. Cracked and split and broke so that his heart could jump out from its hiding place beneath them and fall off that balcony. Could land somewhere next to him.

Somewhere next to Billy.

Who was down there.

Lying in the rubble. Flat on his back. Motionless.

Waiting.

Panic shot through Steve’s body like it had that night. The Fourth of July. Like it continued to do in his dreams, his nightmares.

In his dreams, his nightmares, the broken escalator was too tall. The escalator was too tall and his legs were too slow and Billy would be gasping and then the gasping would stop and Steve, he never got there in time. He never got to Billy in time.

But Steve took off down the broken escalator this time, in real life, January 12th, and his legs, they weren’t too slow, and Billy, he wasn’t gasping. Billy was.

He was moving. He was sitting up.

There was a wince that pulled at his whole face as he sat up and put his hands down on the rocks that surrounded him, slipped a little as he did it and lost his balance, but he wasn’t dying. He was moving.

He wasn’t dying. He wasn’t gasping for air.

It was Steve that gasped this time. In real life. January 12th.

It was broken. The sound was broken and harsh and sad and it echoed across the empty, rundown space like Max’s voice had done when she’d cried over him on the Fourth of July. Over Billy.

Billy, who looked up with a shot.

Found him. Found Steve.

His face was still pulled into a wince. His clothes were filthy from the rubble he’d been lying in, that same pair of jeans and that same white tank top Steve had seen him in for months, would know blind. His feet were bare, curled around bricks and old rocks, skin a muted shade of black from the dirt, the debris.

Steve got to the bottom of the escalator and ran on broken, uneven gravel until he met Billy, standing now, in the middle of the lower level of what used to be Starcourt Mall.

It was instinct that made Steve stop a foot in front of him. An instinct that said, ‘Don’t touch. You can’t touch. You’re not allowed to touch,’ no matter how badly he wanted to wrap his arms around Billy’s shoulders and never let go.

I want.

Steve wanted and Billy was here and he wasn’t empty anymore

Empty, empty, empty.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

“I’m sorry.” The words tumbled past his lips before he could stop them. Had had them on the tip of his tongue so long he didn’t even need to think about them. Followed his instinct even further. “I’m so sorry I broke your mom’s ashtray. I didn’t mean to and I get it if you’re mad, but I fixed it and it’s fine now and I-”

“Steve.”

He stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of Billy’s voice, the sound of his name off Billy’s lips. Left his mouth to hang open, wide, breaths labored as he stared at him. At Billy.

Stared into steel cut eyes so blue, so bright he thought the mall didn’t need the neon to give it life anymore.

Billy’s eyes were bold, but his voice was shaking. His chest was heaving like he’d been the one running. His hands were trembling down at his side and Steve could see it, could see Richter scale tremor, the earthquake getting ready to set in his bones.

“Something’s different,” Billy said. “Something’s-something’s different.”

Steve felt himself flinch before he could help it.

“Different?” His voice had pitched up with it, with the confusion. “Wh-what do you mean ‘different’?”

“I don’t know.” Billy shook his head, started another earthquake between his ears. “I don’t know, but something’s different. I’m-I feel different.”

“Different how?”

Billy sighed, harsh. “Look. I know this is gonna sound crazy and I don’t know how it happened, but I swear to God my arm is, it’s-”

Billy didn’t move right away. Let the words hang in the air. Left silence to wrap around Steve like a vice, around his heart, his lungs.

Until he lifted his left arm and bent it.

Put his elbow in the line of Steve’s vision.

Steve felt his brow furrow, tilted his head to look at the long cut that ran down his forearm, from his elbow all the way to his wrist. Figured he must have scraped it when he’d slipped trying to stand.

The blood was a deep red that stood out against his skin, dark with a summertime tan, dirty, full of goosebumps from the January cold and-

Wait.

That wasn’t-that wasn’t right. It couldn’t be.

Billy wasn’t cold. Billy wasn’t bleeding.

He couldn’t be.

Steve blinked once, twice, wondered if maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him and if maybe he blinked hard enough, if he blinked again, and again, the goosebumps would disappear. The blood would disappear.

Because Billy never had goosebumps before. Billy never had cuts before.

Billy. Billy was dead.

Am I dead?

Is that what killed me?

Steve could hear the words as clearly now as the day Billy said them, but the world was cold now and Billy was tan.

And Billy had goosebumps.

And Billy was bleeding.

And Billy felt different.

The dots started to connect before Steve was even fully aware it was happening. Connected goosebumps and blood and different to a conclusion that nearly brought him to his knees.

Did different mean. Could goosebumps and blood mean Billy was. Was he.

If he was. It meant Steve could. It meant they could.

Steve’s eyes were wide when he brought them back up to Billy’s.

There was something sort of breathless, unsure pulling at his tone when he tried to speak again. Tried to give voice to the disaster of thoughts running rampant in his mind.

Tried to give voice to the idea that maybe Billy was. Maybe he was.

“Are you-”

Alive?

“I don’t know.” Billy cut him off before he could say the word. Sounded just like he did. Breathless and unsure. “I don’t know what else this shit would mean, but I don’t-I don’t get how.”

Despite the tone, Billy’s breathing was a little more even now. Chest a little more steady as it rose and fell, free of the Saint Christopher that’d rested against his skin the last time they were here. Free of the wounds that had ripped him apart the last time they were here.

The last time they were here. Steve was standing next to Robin the last time they were here.

It was her voice he had in the back of his head.

His own personal Jiminy Cricket that had been saving him since the day they met.

What do you have to lose?

All the air left his lungs with a rush.

“Robin,” he gasped, watched Billy’s eyebrows pinch with it.

“What?”

“Robin,” he said again.

Billy’s face was still twisted. “What about her?”

“She-she has this idea. About your mom’s ashtray,” he said, gestured a little with his hands because he needed something to do with them. “She thought maybe me breaking it sent you away and me fixing it might bring you back, but maybe it-maybe me fixing it-maybe it like-”

“Brought me back,” Billy said, something simple in it. “For real.”

Steve watched him swallow, hard. Watched him put his arm back down at his side and ball his hand into a fist so tight his knuckles went white. Saw it tense, ease, open, close.

Steve knew his own was doing the same down at his side.

I want.

Billy wants.

The question left Steve’s lips before he could think better of it.

“How do we tell?”

Billy didn’t hesitate.

“Touch me.”

Steve was lucky his knees didn’t buckle beneath him.

“What?”

“Touch me,” Billy said again. Took half a step closer.

Steve almost took a half step back on instinct.

Don’t touch. You can’t touch. You’re not allowed to touch.

He didn’t, though. Didn’t step back. Could see the freckles dusting Billy’s nose this close, the pink high on his cheeks, soft against his tanned skin.

The summertime tan he had in January. January goosebumps. Goosebumps raised on bloody skin.

Steve’s tongue poked out to wet his lips, to help him speak around the shock.

The fear.

“How do you know it’s gonna work?”

“I don’t.” Billy shook his head, tugged his lower lip between his teeth and spoke again when it slipped free. “But I want you to try.”

Billy wants.

“Billy-”

“Steve.” Billy said his name like he was begging. Like he was a little desperate with it. “Just try.”

I want.

Steve had earthquakes in his veins, but Billy’s eyes were begging him. Blue. Bright. Begging.

Some things were more important than doubt, than fear. Than what if it doesn’t and what if I can’t and what if we can never.

Billy was more important than anything.

Time stood still as Steve took that last half step closer.

He didn’t dare to breathe, but he got as close to Billy as he could. Stopped before the front of his shoes could nudge at Billy’s bare feet. Was careful not to touch him there. Didn’t want to touch him there.

Didn’t want to know from that.

Billy was watching him. Was watching his every move. His every breath.

Trailed his eyes down his face and brought them back up as Steve brought his hand up. Was looking right at him, right in his eyes as he reached up.

Reached out.

Held his breath.

And brushed his fingertips on Billy’s cheek.

Touched him.

Steve touched him.

And with it, all the air left the room.

The air was gone and the world had tipped to one side because his fingertips were touching Billy’s cheek, he was touching, he was touching, just a little and then all at once because Billy’s arms were around him in less time than it took for either of them to suck in a hard breath and suddenly Billy was everywhere because.

Because Steve had his arms around his shoulders.

And Billy’s arms around his middle.

And Billy’s hands spread wide over his back.

And Billy’s fingers digging into his skin.

And Billy’s knees knocking into his legs.

And Billy’s toes nudging at his shoes.

And Billy’s chest pressed to his.

And Billy’s hair tickling at his cheek.

And Billy’s nose buried in his neck.

And Billy’s breath hot on his skin.

And he. And Steve.

He breathed. Steve finally breathed. Breathed him in.

Breathed in the smell of sweat and dirt and blood and Billy and balled his hands in the back of Billy’s tank top and squeezed, held on tight as purple and blue and red replaced themselves with orange and yellow and pink, like morning, like sunrise.

Like the 5 AM sunlight that liked to light up Billy’s face. The same sunlight that Steve was thinking about, that was lighting him up inside when he whispered his name into the curve of his neck.

Just an easy, little, “Billy,” that fell from his lips like a prayer, like everything, like Billy was everything and felt a shiver crawl up his spine when Billy smoothed at the line of his shoulder blade with his thumb.

Brushed his lips over Steve’s skin when he spoke and tattooed the words on his neck.

“Hey, pretty boy.”

So soft, more perfect than anything Steve had ever heard in his life and it felt a little bit like he was being pulled apart, ripped at the seams.

Wanted to build himself a home in Billy’s arms and never leave. Never do anything but this. But stand here and hold him. Feel him. Breathe with him. Be with him.

There were so many words on the tip of Steve’s tongue. So many.

I can’t believe you’re here.

I’m afraid this is all a dream.

I felt like I was losing my mind without you.

You’re so warm.

I don’t ever want to lose you again.

I missed you.

But he left them there, on his tongue. Didn’t give voice to any of them.

There would always be time for words later.

Now was the time to feel. To be.

He wasn’t sure how long they’d been standing there like that, not moving, just breathing, just holding, just touching when Billy took his nose from his neck and pulled back, just slightly. Made him pull back, too. Just slightly.

Still so close their noses were brushing. So close Steve could count his eyelashes. The flecks of green in his steel blue eyes. All his freckles.

Was struck with the sudden urge to find out if Billy’s cheek fit as perfectly in the palm of his hand as it looked like it might and let go of Billy’s shirt with one hand to find out. Brought it up the curve of his cheek and found out. Found him. Felt him.

Ran his thumb along freckled skin, tanned and tinted more red now than pink. Warm. Flushed.

Alive.

Didn’t say, ‘You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ because words could come later.

Just kept touching him.

Because he could.

Felt one of Billy’s hands leave his back to wrap around his wrist and hold his hand there, to keep him there. Felt him swipe his thumb over the inside of it. Over his pulse. The hard beat of his heart that sent life beneath his skin.

Life that hummed beneath Billy’s skin now, too.

Steve wanted to feel it.

Slid his hand from Billy’s cheek to rest it against his chest. Over his heart. Felt the beat of it, the heat of it beneath his palm. A steady rhythm that had fallen in time, in tune with his own.

Tasted Billy’s breath on his tongue.

Watched Billy’s eyes fall and parted his lips to meet them. To greet them. To invite him in.

Because he could.

They could.

They could.

But as quickly as Billy’s eyes were down, they were back up again. Left Steve completely so that he could look around them, towards the broken pillars and the cracked ceiling. The hollow ring of memories and the Mind Flayer’s scream that still clung to the walls.

Steve could hear him swallow. Watched his Adam’s apple bob with it.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just,” Billy hesitated. Was slow to look back at him, had a pinch caught between his brow that Steve didn’t smooth out even though he wanted to. Even though he could. “Kinda wanna get outta here.”

Steve didn’t question it because he didn’t need to.

Just nodded as he reached down to grab Billy’s hand and threaded their fingers together.

Because he could.

Said, “Come on,” and walked back towards the broken escalator, up it, and out to his car.

Knocked his shoulder into Billy’s the whole way there.

Because he could.

Only let go of him as long as it took for them to both climb in and shut their doors.

But once the doors were shut, Billy was pulling Steve’s hand into his lap to tangle their fingers together again. Kept them locked, slotted together as Steve drove back towards his house.

Air thick with something Steve didn’t have a name for. Something heavy. Silent.

Helped put more words on the tip of his tongue. Questions this time.

Where were you?

Were you alone?

Could you see me?

Was it cold?

Are you glad you’re back? For real?

Did you miss me?

Steve wanted to ask, but he didn’t really have to. Didn’t have to cut into the silence.

Not when Billy was holding onto his hand with a grip so tight it almost hurt, a grip that turned their knuckles white and made Steve’s hand prickle with pins and needles. Like if he let go, if he stopped touching for even a second, Steve would be the one to disappear next.

Steve didn’t need to ask. He would, later, because words could come later.

But not now.

And he didn’t. Disappear.

Didn’t even make a wish when the clock on the dashboard read 11:11.

Just drove and let Billy hold his hand, let Billy touch him the entire way back to his house. Only let go so long as it took to get out of the car and felt Billy’s hand find his again the minute they got to the front door.

Held onto him all the way up the stairs and down the hall to the bathroom near his bedroom.

He had every intention of giving Billy a little while to himself so that he could shower, breathe. Didn’t totally want to leave him, didn’t want to take his eyes off him, but knew Billy probably needed a minute, or a few, just to be.

To process everything that had happened in the last hour.

He untangled their fingers and made to step away, but Billy’s hand found his wrist before he could. Caught him. Kept him there.

Stopped him cold and made Steve look right at him. Right at steel blue.

“Stay with me,” Billy said, soft. Hardly moved the air with it.

Steve didn’t move either. Just watched him. Kept his eyes in Billy’s and felt his heart give a kick when Billy said, “Please.”

Almost gasped when Billy stepped closer.

Put them chest-to-chest. Nose-to-nose.

Steve nodded, slow, watched a smile form in the crinkles at the corners of Billy’s eyes with it, just barely there, just for Steve to see as he took his hand off his wrist.

Settled it on Steve’s waist, fingers at the hem of his shirt. Still had his eyes in Steve’s when he tugged on it, the tiniest little bit. He didn’t move his mouth, but Steve could hear the question in it, in that one little tug.

Can I?

Steve said 'yes' in the way he lifted his arms, let Billy pull the t-shirt up over his head and throw it on the floor. Felt knots coil in the pit of his stomach when Billy dragged his eyes down his chest, sent a flush up his neck with the heat of it. The intensity of it.

Made Steve shift his weight between his feet. Made his hands itch. Made him want to see, too.

Billy’s shirt landed next to his a few seconds later, when Steve returned the favor and pulled it off him. Jeans went next, underwear soon after.

Steve couldn’t help the way his eyes fell, like Billy’s had done, slow, slower as he brought them back up. Up the hard line of Billy’s thighs, the jut of his hipbones. The cut of his stomach. The bumps of his ribs and the swell of his chest.

The dirt he had up his arms, up the line of his neck, at the corner of his jaw, all from lying in the rubble, the wreckage.

Found steel blue again when Billy caught his hand again, tugged again.

Pulled Steve with him into the shower and closed the curtain behind them, took away some of the light. Turned the knob in front of him and let the feeling, the smell of warm water, of steam fill the air.

When he turned around and met Steve’s eyes, he had droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. More trailing down his neck.

Steve wanted to catch it all on his tongue.

I want.

Thought maybe Billy might let him in the way his eyes had fallen half shut, locked low, somewhere near Steve’s collarbone. Like maybe he was having the same thought.

Billy wants.

They didn’t, though. Didn’t act on the thought. Didn’t move until Steve grabbed the shampoo bottle next to him and put some in the palm, rubbed his hands together to spread it.

Reached up and dragged his fingers through Billy’s hair and watched his eyes close with it. Watched his head fall forwards, let his chin fall towards his chest. Hummed when Steve moved his hands and went more and more pliant, more malleable the longer Steve touched him.

Billy still had his eyes closed when Steve curled his forefinger and hooked it under his chin, tipped his head back into the water to get the suds out, exposed the long line of his throat.

Closed still when Steve grabbed the soap and a washcloth and worked at getting the dirt off his skin, watched it all go down the drain. Paid a little more attention to his forearm, on cleaning the blood off it and making sure there was no dirt in the cut.

Closed still once he was clean, once Steve’s hands were free and he finally just.

Touched him.

Because he could.

Trailed the tip of his finger over Billy’s brow, the way he’d wanted to do so many times before. Continued a path down the line of his cheek, along his jaw, to his chin. Down the line of his throat and over every single bump, every dip of his ribs.

And all the way back up again.

So that he could trace over his lips.

That’s when Billy opened his eyes.

Steve was running the tip of his finger over the bow of Billy’s top lip when he noticed Billy had opened his eyes. Ran over it again as Billy put his hands flat on his ribs and slid them up, up his chest, his neck, until they were on either side of his jaw.

Took a step back as Billy took a step forward. And back. And back. And back until his back hit the wall, tile cold against his skin, made him arch towards Billy, made Billy take another step closer.

Pressed against him all the way up, all the way down.

So close he could almost taste his name when it fell from Billy’s lips.

“Steve?”

Whispered back.

“Yeah?”

“Remember-” he swallowed, cut off his words. “Remember that time I said I should’ve kissed you?”

Steve wondered if Billy could hear the way his breath caught. If he could feel it. The way he nearly gasped the next word.

“Yeah.”

“Said the only reason I didn’t was that I couldn’t.” Billy’s eyes had fallen again, half lidded, locked low. “But I can now.”

Billy wants.

Steve’s eye line dropped to Billy’s lips then, too. Pink. Parted.

Perfect.

I want.

Brushed the tip of Billy’s nose with his own when he nodded. Once.

Said, “Yeah, you can.”

A statement. A suggestion.

Billy didn’t move. Didn’t say anything.

The spray of the water was too loud as it hit the back of Billy’s shoulders. The steam was too warm for them to be standing this close. The space was too dark for Steve to see exactly what was going on in Billy’s eyes, to read him.

And then Billy tilted his head, tipped his chin. Ghosted his breath over Steve’s mouth and sent that heat to rush low in his stomach.

Heat that felt something like anticipation. Like excitement. Like finally.

And finally, Billy closed the gap to press their lips together.

Like it was the easiest thing in the world.

Like the rest of the world had gone dark, gone quiet, and thrown a match at them. Sent them up into flames.

Billy just kissed him and slid one of his hands to the nape of Steve’s neck to tangle his fingers in the long hairs there and.

Set Steve on fire.

Made it so Steve couldn’t do anything but feel him. Couldn’t do anything but lose himself to the feeling of Billy’s lips on his, the way his mouth moved, the way his body moved, slow. Gentle.

Gasped when Billy opened his mouth and again when he slotted a thigh between his legs. Made the fire, the heat spark hotter as he felt himself getting harder, felt Billy doing the same at his hip.

New and familiar. Overwhelming and not enough all at the same time.

Billy’s body a map Steve had spent months memorizing with his eyes. A map he hoped he could spend forever learning with his hands. Could memorize with his eyes closed. With his fingertips. With his mouth. His hips.

Billy wasn’t at his hip anymore.

He’d shifted his weight. He shifted his weight and took his hand from Steve’s cheek and Steve only had half a second to wonder what he was doing when he felt Billy take them both in his hand.

Groaned so hard at the feeling, felt it so deep in his core that he lost Billy’s lips with it. Buried his nose in Billy’s neck and slid his hands to hold onto the wet skin at the back of his shoulders and just.

Held on. In every sense of the term.

Leaned into the touch when he felt Billy’s lips on his temple and felt his jaw go slack when Billy twisted his wrist around them. Twisted. And tugged. And pulled.

Billy’s hand was so warm, so good. Big and strong and rough in just the right way, full of the kind of calluses that come from life, from living. So perfect and so very different from Steve’s own that he couldn’t breath, couldn’t speak. Couldn’t do anything but follow where Billy was guiding him, guiding them.

Just let him twist and tug and move.

Didn’t stop moving and rolled his hips a little to drag against his hand, dragged against Steve and added to the sensation so perfectly it put stars behind Steve’s eyes.

Pulled the words right out of Steve’s mouth.

“Fuck, Billy,” he moaned, muffled against the side of his neck.

“I know,” he whispered. Didn’t stop. “I got you.”

“Not gonna last.”

“Me neither,” he said, tugged again, hard. Made Steve screw his eyes shut tight. Sent more of that heat to spark low.

“Billy.”

Billy dragged his hand harder, dragged his hips harder. Licked flames with his voice when he dragged his lips over the shell of Steve’s ear and said the same thing he did all those weeks ago.

“Let go, Steve. Come on.” The words were hot. Perfect. “Let go.”

Steve was gone.

Came so hard his legs shook with the force of it. Held onto Billy so tight he was sure his fingertips would leave bruises, his nails would leave scratches. Little reminders of what they’d done and the fact that Steve could touch him now. Had touched him.

Didn’t want to do anything but touch him every day for the rest of his life.

Because he could.

It only took a few seconds for Billy to follow him over, for him to tip, too. Felt him shiver with it. Spilled over his hand with a gasp, a groan that Steve would remember until the day he died.

Fell a little harder against the wall as they caught their breath, as Billy leaned his weight a little heavier against him and felt it ground him, hold him steady. Ran his fingertips over the water-slick skin of Billy’s back and held back a hiss when Billy took his hand off them. Settled it on his hip after he’d cleaned it off in the spray of the water.

Billy took his nose from his neck once their breathing evened out, pulled back just far enough that they could look at each other. So Steve could see him.

Could see the flush high on his cheeks. The bright red of his kiss-stained lips. The easy pull that lifted them at the corners, smile so small, so warm Steve almost couldn’t feel the chill on his chest that those short, few inches between them had brought.

Billy’s smile was warm, but his eyes were even warmer.

“You okay?” There was something rough, wrecked in his voice.

Steve’s nod was easy, lazy. “Are you?”

“Yeah. I feel,” Billy’s laugh hit his cheeks with a rush, “I feel good. Real good.”

Steve swallowed hard, could still feel the press of Billy’s mouth against his if he tried hard enough. Felt himself start to smile before he could help it.

“Me too.”

Billy leaned forward again instead of responding. Kissed Steve again and brought his hand up from Steve’s hip to hold the side of his neck. Made Steve gasp with it. Made his heart jump with it.

Whispered, “You know how long I’ve been waiting for you?” against his lips and dumped kerosene all over the fire in the pit of Steve’s stomach.

First time I saw you I wanted you.

Steve just kept kissing him. Didn’t break away to say, ‘We don’t have to wait anymore,’ or, ‘I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for you,’ or ‘We can spend the rest of forever making up for lost time.’

He let his hands say it for him. The brush of his lips. The moan that clawed its way out of his throat and the unsteady shake of his breaths when the need for air got too strong and they had to break away.

Rested their foreheads together as the water started to cool off somewhere behind him and finally got out when cool became cold and it all became a little too much.

Got out and helped towel each other off, didn’t bother to cover themselves as they walked back to Steve’s room. Didn’t bother with clothes once they got there.

Steve paused at the doorway to turn the light off while Billy pulled the covers back on his bed. Saw the way the bed dipped beneath his weight through the dark, heard the way it creaked beneath him as he settled between the sheets.

Just like he, like they had done so many times before.

Laid together in a bed between four plaid walls, cool moonlight on their cheeks.

Instinct was a funny thing, though. Instinct stopped Steve a few inches away when he got into the bed next to him, kept that safe distance between them, kept his head on a different pillow from Billy’s.

So close. Too far.

But they didn’t have to settle for a hand curled around a pendant anymore. Didn’t have to settle for distance and proxy touches.

“Pretty boy.”

Billy’s hand curled around his wrist, pulled it closer. Pulled him closer.

Steve felt the air from his breath when he whispered, “C’mere,” and didn’t feel him stop pulling until their noses were brushing again.

Until they were chest-to-chest with his hand on Billy’s side and Billy’s hand on the side of his neck, thumb out long to play at the corner of his jaw.

Their cheeks on the same pillow.

Because they could.

They could now and Billy’s touch was just so light. Steve had always known it would be light.

Made it so he had to fight to keep his eyes open with Billy’s thumb trailing so easy along his jawline, over his cheek. Leaned the tiniest bit further into Billy’s hand to make himself move, to keep the touch from lulling him to sleep.

Moved a little more when he ducked his head and leaned forward to kiss him.

Because he could.

And because he wanted to.

Wanted to hear the way Billy’s breath caught when their lips touched, the way he gasped and tilted his head when Steve licked at the seam of his lips. The way he pressed in closer when Steve scratched a little at the skin beneath his nails and spread a hand wide over his ribs.

Felt Billy kiss him back with an ease, an effortlessness that only came from knowing each other.

From wanting each other.

Billy’s eyes were still closed when they pulled back a long few moments later, eyelashes thick, fanned across his cheeks. Still a little damp with water. Drew Steve’s attention to the circles under his eyes, dark.

Like he hadn’t slept in a long time.

Like he needed to sleep for a long time.

They had that now. Time.

Time to breathe and take it slow and sleep.

Steve still had so many things he needed to say, so many things he wanted to ask.

Like he’d done all night, though, he kept them on the tip of his tongue, stuck to the roof of his mouth. Locked them all away in the back of his head and left them for later.

Dragged Billy with him when he rolled from his side onto his back and felt Billy fit against his side like the last bit of glass in a 17-piece puzzle.

Two sides of the same fading coin.

Wrapped an arm around Billy’s shoulders and pulled him in closer. Felt Billy tangle a leg between his and lay a hand flat on his chest, pendant beneath his palm. Steve’s heartbeat beneath that.

All the layers of Steve’s fragile soul stacked together, one on top of the other.

Stole the words out from between his ribs. Little more than a breath.

“Missed you like crazy, you know.”

It was too simple a statement, really. Too easy. There were too many layers to ‘missed you’ and not enough truth to ‘crazy’.

But Billy whispered, “Missed you, too,” and finished the sentence with an easy kiss to the corner of his jaw.

Too simple. Too easy.

They didn’t have to say any of the things they really meant right now, though.

Real words, Steve knew, could come later.

Right now? He could just let Billy sleep.

Let the world go quiet around them and traced an easy finger up and down the bare skin of Billy’s back while the air went still. Helped lull him to sleep. Felt the even puff of his breath against his neck and the steady rise and fall of his chest against his side as the hours ticked by.

Steve didn’t sleep. Couldn’t. Couldn’t go to sleep and wake up with empty arms, find out that this had all been a dream. That this had all been some sort of elaborate prank.

One big ‘fuck you' from a universe that never liked to do him any favors.

His arm had long fallen asleep, had been numb beneath Billy’s weight for at least an hour or two. His legs were restless, itching from having been in the same position all night. His hair was still a little wet against the pillow, Billy’s against his neck.

They were both probably going to look a little ridiculous when they finally got up, if they ever got up, but it didn’t matter.

Nothing mattered because it was the morning and Billy was still here.

The universe hadn’t taken Billy away again.

Steve’s arms were still full and his heart was even fuller because Billy was still here and he didn’t have to go anywhere.

There was soft sunlight peeking in through the curtains and Billy’s breath had caught somewhere near his ear. Heavy, harsh. Nosed at Steve’s neck and tightened his arm around him, his hand around the pendant in his palm.

Instinct.

Steve buried his nose in his hair, let the thin strands tickle his skin as he took a deep breath in and felt Billy shift against him, felt him lean a little further into his neck.

“Billy.” Steve scratched at his bicep with his nails. “Hey, Billy.”

Billy hummed, Steve felt it vibrate in his chest. “Hm?”

“Guess what.”

“What?” Billy yawned.

Steve could hardly keep the smile off his lips.

“You don’t have to leave.”

Billy didn’t answer right away, but Steve could feel his mouth moving, could feel his lips shifting. Would say Billy was smiling now, too if he didn’t know any better.

Laughed when Billy said, “Say it again.”

And did.

“You don’t have to leave.”

“One more time.”

Steve rolled on top of him then, settled between his legs. Looked down and leaned down and punctuated every word with a kiss, heard Billy laugh with each of them.

“You.” A kiss to the cheek. “Don’t.” Another to his forehead. “Have.” A third to the other cheek. “To” A fourth to the tip of his nose. “Leave.”

The last one he let linger on Billy’s lips, let Billy inhale hard through his nose and bring a hand up to cradle the back of his head. To hold him there for a long second.

Was smiling up at him when Steve pulled away with a soft smack.

Warm. Eyes warmer.

“So you’re saying I can stay?”

Steve couldn’t bite back a laugh, reached down to push the hair back from Billy’s forehead as he said, “You’re crazy if you think I’m ever letting you go.”

Felt his heart give a kick when Billy said, “You’re crazy if you think I’d ever leave.”

And it was right then, right there, that Steve realized maybe that’s what love was.

You’re crazy if you think I’d ever leave.

A little bit like Billy had said all those weeks ago, during a conversation about their biggest fears.

You got me and I got you and I’m not going anywhere.

Maybe love was about staying.

Maybe love was a pair of steel blue eyes and a smile that had the power to heal wounds no one else could see.

Maybe love was warm where you used to be cold.

Cold would never be a strong enough word to describe the ice in Steve’s chest and warm would never be a strong enough word to describe loving Billy.

Because loving Billy was a bit like touching the sun. Like clear skies, calm winds, and melted wings.

But Steve had spent his whole life freezing.

And he’d never been so ready to burn.

Chapter Text

Steve had never given much thought to the idea of heaven. Not really.

If you’d have asked him six months ago, he might have said, “It’s this place up in the clouds where you smile all the time and don’t have to worry about anything.” Might have shrugged while he said it, lost your eyes to betray the easy lilt of his words and give away that fact that he didn’t totally believe it.

Didn’t totally believe in it.

But in the days after January 13th, Steve learned quickly that heaven wasn’t really a place at all.

Realized it around the same time they realized Billy couldn’t stay, not in Hawkins, not when so many people still thought he was dead.

That’s when Steve started to understand what heaven was, little by little, more and more each day.

Because heaven?

Heaven was falling asleep with tangled limbs and matching heartbeats.

Heaven was the smile that looked back at him in the morning and the whisper of five short words across a set of cool sheets.

“Come to California with me.”

Heaven was an afternoon of heartfelt goodbyes, with Robin under one arm, Dustin under the other, and Billy’s voice off somewhere promising Max that they’d figure out a way to get her out there for a visit once they got settled.

Heaven was sitting in the passenger seat of his BMW, with a road map in one hand and Billy’s hand in the other.

Heaven was a series of arguments over the radio, with slapped hands and raised voices.

Heaven was a diner in Missouri, with a shared plate of fries between them and Billy’s ankle hooked around his under the table.

Heaven was a cheap motel room in Oklahoma, with perfect little moans that bounced off thin walls and nothing but time.

Heaven was a drive thru in New Mexico, with two sets of hands reaching into a greasy burger bag and ketchup on the corner of Billy’s mouth.

Heaven was a sunset in Arizona, with Billy’s arm wrapped around his waist and Billy’s cheek on his shoulder.

Heaven was the bright, California sunlight that bounced off Billy’s hair and the warm, heavy smell of a beach in the late afternoon.

Heaven was the cool shiver that crawled up Steve’s spine when he stuck his feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

Heaven was lying next to Billy on the sand while the sun set and shaded the sky orange and pink.

Heaven was kissing Billy while waves crashed against the shoreline.

Heaven was trading soft I love you’s under a blanket of stars.

Heaven was peace and safety and freedom.

And heaven, most of all, was where he finally, finally-

Let it heal.