Billy stands, back to the wall, next to the bathroom door that’s just a little ajar. Inside, he can hear Steve rifling around Kelsi’s medicine cabinets, searching for that elusive bag of weed he’d talked about.
The hallway’s empty. Most of the party guests left after that big scene downstairs or are already tucked away into one of the many rooms, tangled together in the sheets of queen-sized beds. Still, Billy feels oddly exposed, like he might get caught out for— what, stealing weed? Hanging around Harrington voluntarily?
He chews the inside of his cheek aggressively, crossing his arms. He wishes Harrington would hurry up. Standing outside like this, arms crossed, he feels like a bouncer or a guard dog, of sorts. A loyal, waiting, stupid dog, guarding its master as if anyone cares if two dickheads steal shit from the host at a party like this.
“Got it,” Steve emerges, holding up a Zip-Lock of the promised good.
Took you long enough, Billy almost says, before catching the words by the edge of his teeth. He doesn’t want Steve to know he was bothered by the waiting. That he thought of it at all. He shrugs and follows Steve into the bathroom.
He hesitates for a moment before leaving the door ajar behind him. Almost closed, so that no one can see them from outside, but not fully shut, which would feel like too loud a statement. Like he wants to be alone with Harrington, or something.
When he turns around, Harrington is situating himself comfortably on the ground, leaning against tastefully-done creamy white wall. Billy eyes the space next to him and decides against it, opting instead to stand, leaning his body against the door. His weight is too much for it, of course, and it eases to a close with a soft click. It sounds all too loud in the little space.
His eyes snap to Harrington but he’s not looking at Billy at all, eyes intently focused on his hands. Billy watches as his long, nimble fingers expertly roll a joint, all neatness and subtle grace. Distantly, Billy thinks those fingers would be good for guitar-playing.
Before he knows it, Steve’s giving the paper a final lick and he finishes it off with a neat little roll. He presents it to him like tada— the fucking dork— and pats himself down, searching for a lighter. He reaches into his pockets and frowns, brows knitting together, when he comes up empty.
Billy sighs, nearly rolling his eyes. He knows Steve doesn’t smoke— heard Tommy bitch about Steve quitting enough times to know— he wouldn’t have a lighter on him.
Billy waves his Zippo in front of him, motions lazy and loose.
Steve’s eyes lock onto the blue Zippo. They widen by a fraction and for a moment, his entire body stills, visibly freezing up.
What the hell? His lighter is just that, an ordinary thing, you could probably find it at the store downtown. In any other circumstance, he wouldn’t believe anyone could get spooked by a lighter but he’d literally seen Harrington have a panic attack over a pool, like, ten minutes ago so—
He flicks it on, holding the flame steady in front of Steve’s face, bidding for his attention. A small, treacherous part of him wonders if he’d actually lean in and let Billy light it up for him.
“Right,” Steve says. He sounds foggy and distant.
For a second, Billy thinks he might actually have to shake Harrington out of it. But then he reaches over and plucks the lighter out of Billy’s hand. Billy tries very hard not to feel the cold inside him, yawning like an empty chasm. It’s not like he expected anything— he’d just helped the guy out this one time, s’not like they’re friends, but—
Steve lights up, inhales deep around cupped hands. Instantly, a soft, relaxed expression unfurls across his face. Steve’s face has always been soft, with big wet eyes that are sort of droopy at the ends, the little moles peppered across his face, and his jaw isn’t even that strong— it’s what makes his face so punchable to Billy. But it looks impossibly softer now, now that Steve is actually relaxed.
He’s never seen Harrington like this before, he realises. He watches, mute, as Steve takes another draw and tips his head back, almost smiling. He stretches like a cat, long long legs swallowing up the space between them until the tip of his sneaker is touching Billy’s.
Irritation floods him and he snaps back to his senses. King Steve, still acting like he’s fucking royalty. It makes him feel weirdly off-his-game, seeing Steve so relaxed in front of him, lying with his legs sprawled out, leaving him barely even enough space to stand.
I nearly killed you last November, he thinks about saying. He’d laugh it out, mean and vicious, break this strange truce between them and go back to antagonising Steve at basketball next Tuesday.
He doesn’t say it.
“Aren’t you gonna roll one for me, asshole?” Billy says instead.
Steve lifts his head, eyelids droopy as if he can’t even decide if paying attention to Billy is worth opening his eyes all the way. “Do it yourself.”
Billy huffs impatiently, reaching for the bag. Unexpectedly, Steve snatches it away, faster than he’d expect from someone who was lying on the floor like he was boneless a mere second before.
“I was kidding, man.” Steve says. “Anyway, we shouldn’t steal so much. Shit’s expensive, you know. M’not an animal.”
Billy looks at him, incredulous. “Then, what? You invite me up here to watch you get high?”
“No, dumbass.” Steve rolls his eyes, waving the joint about. “We can just share this one, see?”
See? He says like it’s so obvious. Two buddies sharing a joint, getting high together like one of them didn’t have to pick the smashed pieces of porcelain out of his hair after the other had struck a plate against the side of his head.
Billy could’ve laughed out of pure shock. Harrington is… really something else. He doesn’t know if he’s just the most forgiving person on this planet, or just plain stupid. Sharing a joint though… the thought of doing it with Harrington is so strange— but he seems at ease with the whole thing so Billy stuffs the discomfort away and holds out his hand, expectantly.
“Well? Hand it over, then.” Billy says gruffly.
Steve gives an over-dramatic little sigh. But he concedes and passes him the joint. When Billy holds it up, he gives his lighter back too.
Billy lights it up, carefully, and takes a draw. Not too much, he doesn’t know what to expect— what passes for good in this shit town is probably way off the mark— but holy hell.
It’s good. Amazing, even.
“What the hell is this?” Billy surprises himself by blurting out. An even bigger surprise— Harrington actually laughs at him, eyes crinkling. For a wild, mad second, it feels almost as if their roles are reversed: Billy, a small-town kid who’s smoking actual good weed for the first time, and Steve, city kid who’s smoked the good stuff all his life.
The laughter was a brief thing, but a smile is lingering on Steve’s face. It’s almost smug, the way it curls at the corner, giving Billy no doubt that Steve feels some sort of vindictive satisfaction at his reaction.
“Good, huh?” Steve says, snagging the joint from his grip and pulling it back to himself.
Billy nearly protests but Steve is quick about it, takes a draw, and hands it back almost instantly. It’s then Billy realises that Steve is kind of weirdly, incurably polite. His manners are impeccable, probably drilled into him from years of Rich Boy Etiquette lessons. He imagines all that posturing, all that posing Steve must have done to earn his title as Hawkins’ resident bad-boy. He can’t decide if it’s annoying and pretentious, or just kind of funny. Maybe a little of both.
Billy takes another draw, deeper this time. Feels it fill his lungs, makes his chest go floaty in that tingly, pleasant way. The smells of the bathroom jump into sharp clarity: the lavender air freshener, the faintest smell of bleach, the tinge of pool chlorine still clinging to their clothes.
He eyes the creamy floor below him. Now, relaxed and high, and seeing Harrington practically melting into the floor— so completely unthreatening— he feels kind of stupid for his insistence on standing.
His legs are tired. His back is sore. He’s had a whole day of desperately reigning in pent-up tension with no release and he deserves a fucking break, okay.
He sits. The action doesn’t go unnoticed by Steve, who opens his eyes and stares curiously as Billy adamantly avoids his gaze, positioning himself such that he can stretch his legs too. One of his legs ends up slotted between Harrington’s thighs, kind of dangerously near his junk.
Billy amuses himself by thinking one kick and it’s all over for Harrington Jr.s but Steve doesn’t seem all that bothered by it. Raising an eyebrow, he stretches his hand out again, a wordless request for the joint.
Billy takes another draw, just to be an asshole. Steve rolls his eyes, but accepts it readily when he hands it back over.
“So,” Billy says. He doesn’t really know where he’s going with this but weed makes him chatty unless he finds the will to reign it in. He thinks back to earlier— he doesn’t know why but the image of Harrington leaning over that blonde girl jumps instantly to the forefront of his mind. He thinks about how ridiculous it was, seeing washed-up Harrington play at King Steve again. How he’d seemed perfectly content on the sidelines, while Billy soaked up the admiration of all the people he’d once called friends. How he hadn’t noticed Billy at all, his dark eyes never straying from the girl in front of him, like the idiot didn’t know Billy could’ve just taken a swing at him and he’d be down on the ground again— and the whole thing was so, so stupid—
He tries to convey this, reaching deep inside his chest for the words, frustration clawing at him when he comes up short. He doesn’t know why it suddenly feels so important for Steve to know how much he annoys him, infuriates him, but it just is.
Instead, he says, stupidly, “What’s your deal with that blonde chick?”
Steve gives him a strange look, which, granted, he probably deserves. They’re not teenage girls gushing over their love lives. They’re not even friends. Billy’s surprised that Steve even bothers with an answer.
“Not much. She was cute, but I mean,” His look darkens. “Definitely not happening after what Tommy and Carol said to her.”
Well, that’s a whole barrel of worms Billy’s not keen to get into right now. Billy cocks his head, mulling over Steve’s words. He realises the oddity immediately: “Cute, huh? I thought you were hung up on that Wheeler chick for, like, eternity.”
He half-expects Steve to scowl and turn away from him. Or walk out altogether. It’s really hard to tell what might set him off when it comes to Nancy Wheeler. But he snorts, actually gives a wry little grin at that. “Of course that’s what you’d think. Tommy tries to get everyone to believe that I’m pathetically hoping that one day, Nance’ll turn around and go damn, Steve, I should’ve seen it all along! I actually do love you. Believe what you like, but I’m not an idiot. I know I’m not Jonathan.”
Billy can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy at his words, the rawness of them under the casual tone. There’s also a creeping discomfort at Steve’s honesty. He’s being so, so honest and Billy doesn’t know why—
also, Not Jonathan? No shit, Billy thinks. Seriously, what is that Wheeler chick smoking? Between Harrington with his perfect hair, his notoriously disarming grin and the gorgeous backseat of the Beemer— and Byers with that bowl cut fucking superglued to his head and the way he slinks around with his creepy little camera— how is there even a competition?
There’s a moment where Billy realises he’s missed his cue to speak. Steve’s probably been looking at him, waiting for a response and it’s made it all too obvious he got lost in his own train of thought. But Steve takes it all in his stride, simply takes another hit and puffs out the smoke, before picking up the slack in their conversation.
His eyes get weird and soft. “Of course I’m ‘hung up’ on her. I loved her, you know?” Before Billy can even register the shock at such a casual admission— such a glaring display of weakness, he goes on. “But I know I have to move on. It’s healthier, and all that shit.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” Billy comments, for the lack of a better response in the face of Steve’s sincerity.
“Maybe not,” Steve says. They both know what he’s referring to— Tommy spreads all the wild, daredevil past conquests of King Steve with the pride of a mother boasting about their child, despite his proclaimed disdain towards Steve-of-the-present. “But I was an asshole and things change. I changed— at least I hope so.”
“Yeah,” Billy says. His tongue feels fat and heavy in his mouth, clumsy. “Yeah.” He knows how to sneer at Harrington, grin, and taunt, and jeer, and bark— rile him up good, until he’s scowling and flushing, like, what the fuck’s your problem, Hargrove? He doesn’t know how to deal with this, this odd, fragile honesty Harrington’s offering for god-knows-what reason. The sheer vulnerability throws him off, makes him feel oddly exposed as well. The sensation is dizzying.
So of course, Billy does what he does when he’s thrown off-balance: strike out.
“Who was the girl that ran away?”
Immediately, the open, soft look in Steve’s eyes shutters. In a flash, he’s distant again. He looks away. Billy feels the searing, irrational urge to grab his face and jerk it back towards him— he wants the openness to come back, it was just there, why’d he have to ruin it like always—
He bites his tongue. Waits for Steve to come back to himself.
He’s forming words in his head, Billy can practically see it, but it looks like he’s sifting through piles and piles of them, because he grasps them slow and stringing them into a sentence is an even slower affair.
“She was… Nancy’s best friend.” Steve says finally. “Barb. Barbara.”
Seconds tick away in silence. When it becomes clear that he’s gone quiet again, Billy prods further. “Okay… so, why’d Barb run away?”
Steve’s eyes flash, darkening. “She didn’t,” he mutters. “She died, Billy.”
The shock of hearing his first name— again— out of Steve Harrington’s mouth barely registers, before his next words are already out of his mouth.
“Well, did they ever find a body?”
Steve’s head snaps towards him so fast he wonders how he doesn’t get whiplash. “I’m not lying, man.” He says fiercely, eyes burning with an intensity that Billy doesn’t know how to respond to, how to deny. “They couldn’t.” He adds, almost a whisper. Billy ignores the way the words— they couldn’t— send a chill down his spine. Harrington’s probably in denial, he tells himself, that his friend left without telling him. He’s soft like that. There’s no reason to be spooked.
“Tommy said the police found her car at a bus stop on the way outta town, right? I mean,” Billy fumbles a little, trying to go for jesting. “She probably did just run away. Shithole of a town like this? I’d run too if I could.”
Billy waits for Steve to respond in kind— roll his eyes, protest in mock-offence, defend the shithole he ruled over for seventeen years— that’s the kind of thing small-town boys like to do, isn’t it? Somehow, the memory of Princess proclaiming Hawkins the winner of the Best Cornfields in America award comes to mind—
But Steve doesn’t do anything. Just regards him with dark, tired eyes like he’s suddenly realised he shouldn’t have bothered talking to Billy at all. That’s how Billy knows he’s made a mistake, trying to make light of it all. He was actually trying to reassure Harrington that there’s a chance his friend is still out there, trying to go for comforting— but fuck, if he knows how.
Harrington’s still staring at him, or staring through him, now, like he’s disappointed him somehow. Like he’s gum at the bottom of his shoe that he wants to scrape off, but can’t really bother with.
Billy feels terrible. He just smoked the best weed he’s had in his life but now his hands itch for a cigarette, one of Neil’s Camels. He wants the scratchiness in his throat, and the ashy taste left on his tongue by a cigarette, the shitty kind.
Then, the silence is broken by Steve drawing in his legs, his sneakers squeaking against the tile. He’s curling into himself, Billy realises, like an injured animal. He rests his forearms on his knees and lets the joint hang limply between his long fingers.
Billy doesn’t ask for it.
“Tommy doesn’t know shit.” Steve says. “You know Barb wanted to go to college out-of-state? I didn’t. I didn’t know her, not really. But Nancy told me. She and Barb used to talk about going to colleges so far away from Hawkins they wouldn’t have to see anyone from here again. A fresh start, with people who’d get them.” He’s rambling now, Billy realises, his eyes fixated on some point on the wall above Billy’s head. Refusing to meet his eyes.
“Tommy was right about that, I guess. Barb wanted to get away from here. But he’s wrong, so wrong about everything else, because he didn’t know anything about her. She has parents who love her so much, like, I didn’t even know parents could—“ Steve gulps a little, like he’s losing air again. Billy almost leans forward to brace his shoulders, like he did earlier, before he reminds himself that Steve probably wouldn’t appreciate the gesture. “And Nancy. She wouldn’t leave without Nancy. She wouldn’t just run away.”
He puts the joint to his lips. Exhales. It seems to steady him, at least a little bit.
“Carol was right too. She hated me. And— and you know what? She was right to. Because she already knew which colleges she wanted and I don’t even know if I want to go college but I’m still here at a fucking high school party while she’s— she’s dead. She had all these plans and hopes for the future but she couldn’t even get to them because she’s dead, Billy. She died in my fucking pool.” Steve shuts his eyes at that, his chest still heaving at the exertion. “I can’t even fucking sleep at night because it gets so dark at my house and the only light from outside is from that stupid pool.”
Oh, Billy thinks. If he’d had his doubts about this girl’s death before now, he doesn’t have them anymore. Can’t, not in the face of Harrington’s wide-eyed, slightly crazed desperation. He almost wants to ask how she died but… something keeps him from asking. Maybe he’s better off not knowing.
“I know what you’re thinking, Hargrove.” Steve’s eyes open again, but they’re shuttered, flat. He’s shaking again, very slightly, but the tremor is starkly noticeable with just the two of them occupying this small space. “You think I’m a pussy. You could be right, I guess. Everyone’s moved on. Tommy and Carol don’t know in the first place and they’re assholes anyway so it doesn’t matter. Even Nance… And I’m just, stuck, somehow. Because what happened to Barb— it could’ve happened to any of us— me, Nance, the ki—“
He doesn’t know why he does it. He’s not thinking, really, just feels this overpowering surge of—desperationwantprotectiveness— something rush over him and the next thing he knows, he’s leaning right into Harrington’s space, wrapping his arms around his lean frame and pulling him tight, tight, against his own chest until the tremors cease and he can’t feel them vibrating through his own skin anymore.
Maybe because he could feel the onset of another panic attack coming, maybe because he couldn’t stand to see that haunted look in Steve’s eyes anymore, accusing him while he stands there feeling like the world’s biggest asshole— but in that moment, it all falls away against the heat of Steve’s chest and the tickling sensation of his soft hair brushing against Billy’s neck.
“What the…” Steve’s breath huffs out, warm against his neck. The surprise makes his voice go high in disbelief. “Dude, are you hugging me?”
Suddenly feeling very confronted, Billy scowls but doesn’t make any move to let go. “M’not. Hugging. I’m just—“ The pause lapses between them as he tries to find an adequate word to describe the position they’re in right now. “Holding you. You sounded like you were about to have another panic attack, idiot.”
Steve wiggles. “Gee, thanks.” His voice is dry, sarcastic but the initial tension he’d felt when he reached forward for him has disappeared. Steve’s body is pliant in his arms and he’s even leaning in a little. He can act like he’s annoyed by this all he wants, but his body will always betray him. Billy feels a strange sort of satisfaction at that, knowing he did that.
He made Steve feel comforted.
It could’ve been minutes or hours before they separate, slow and tentative. It’s Steve who pulls away first, reaching up a hand to ruffle his hair. It’s a bird’s nest, already, so Billy doesn’t bother pointing out that doing that will only make it worse.
“How’d you learn to do that, anyway?” Steve asks, off-handedly, as if they didn’t just share body heat for an abnormally long amount of time, like that’s normal.
“What?” Billy asks.
“Calm people down.” Steve shrugs. “I didn’t even know panic attacks were a thing until I had one so…”
He could lie, he knows. But for some reason, in this small, liminal space between them, it doesn’t even feel like there’s a choice.
“My ‘ma used to get them.” Billy says, eyes locked onto Steve’s. He won’t look away for this, he won’t. “All the time. My dad didn’t really believe in them so… it was always me calming her down. She taught me how. To count the breathing and all that shit.”
“Oh,” Steve says, so soft. He’s looking at him almost like he understands the gravity of what Billy’s just told him. Billy never talks about his mother, never. Yet, here he is, spilling his heart onto his sleeve for Steve fucking Harrington.
Will the wonders of today never cease?
“Look at us,” Steve laughs suddenly. “We’re a fucking mess. We came up here to smoke some good shit and now, what? We’re a waste of Kelsi’s weed.”
Billy jumps on that, grateful for the opportunity to change the subject away from dead mothers and dead teenage girls and dead everything else. “Speak for yourself, Harrington. I’m never a fucking mess, I look amazing.”
Steve’s nose wrinkles like he’s smelled something foul. “Your hair looks like someone dropped a raccoon in it.”
Billy raises an eyebrow, like Look in a mirror recently? Steve seems to get the message, scowling as he runs another hand through his poor, suffering hair. It only makes it worse. The damp air and chlorine from the pool has made his hair limp, shaken the product out of it, and now it keeps flopping into his eyes despite his efforts to sweep it back. It’s actually kind of grossly endearing— like seeing one of those poor wet dogs at the groomer’s, desperately shaking out their wet fur.
Billy only has a brief moment to wonder if actually just called Harrington endearing in his own head when he makes a motion like he’s getting up. Billy tilts his head back and raises an eyebrow at Harrington, who has pulled himself up into a standing position.
“I gotta go.” Steve says. He sounds almost apologetic about it too. “Got an early morning tomorrow. You coming?” He stretches out a hand to Billy, a near-mirror of the same motion earlier that night.
“Nah,” Billy says, willing his tone to remain casual. “Think I’ll just crash here for a bit.” Despite all they’ve gone through in the past few hours, he doesn’t know if he’d call them friends just yet, and he’s not ready to act like they are outside this space— saying goodbye to the remaining partygoers together, walking to their cars together— it’s all a bit too much for Billy.
But suddenly, an idea hits him. He’s struck by the feeling that he doesn’t want to let go of this night so quickly— he doesn’t want Steve to forget this rare, real moment of connection they shared, brief as it was.
So, without giving himself that much time to dwell on what is probably the stupidest idea of his life, he reaches into his pocket and tosses his lighter to Steve.
He catches it, unsurprisingly, reflexes as sharp as ever. He looks to him quizzically.
Billy wants to give him a sharp grin, like he always does when they’re ribbing at each other, but it involuntarily softens at the edges when he meets Steve’s eyes. He’s starting to regret this more and more with each passing second but he’s already given it to him, and he’s already in too deep.
“It’s a nightlight, Harrington. To help you get home alright, since you’re ‘fraid of the dark.” Billy grins, maybe a pinch too wide. Too genuine, but he can’t reign it in, not when Steve huffs out a disbelieving laugh, turning the blue Zippo over with his hands, marvelling at it like it’s worth millions and not three dollars at the gas station.
“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” Steve says, fighting a smile by biting the corner of his lip.
“Don’t cry about it.” Billy shrugs back, like it’s no big deal.
And it isn’t. Okay, so, he can’t last twenty four hours without a smoke but it’s fine, he’ll just bum a light until he can afford a new one from the store.
“Can’t promise I won’t. Shit, I think I’ve gotta go home now, sob into my pillow for a few hours.” Steve rolls his eyes. “And wear a fucking jacket, you prick. I know you’re used to living it up at the beach or whatever in California but this is Indiana, man. Get with the programme.”
And then before Billy can react, Steve shrugs off his jacket and throws it at him. Not gracefully either; it smacks Billy right in the face, causing him to accidentally take in a heady whiff of lavender and maybe sandalwood— Steve’s scent.
“Thanks for the smoke, Hargrove. See ya Monday.”
By the time Billy finds his way out of Steve’s stupid jacket, he’s already off, padding down the hallway, probably smirking all satisfied to himself, like he’s done Billy the biggest fucking favour.
Billy hates it. He hates that he can feel the grin threatening to seize control of his lips, just barely restrained by fiercely biting down with the tip of his teeth. Oh, he’ll see Harrington on Monday, alright.
Briefly, he entertains the thought of shredding the jacket up, returning it in scraps. Pictures the priceless look on Harrington’s face— here’s your jacket, you jackass— but no. He’ll return the jacket in perfect condition, he thinks. The sheer look of surprise that’ll be on Harrington’s face when he realises that Billy didn’t do anything to destroy it will be even better.
Satisfied, Billy settles back down against the wall. He wasn’t lying when he said he might crash here for a bit. Frankly, after a day of holding in all his rage and dealing with all the revelations about Hawkins in the past hour, he’s pretty damn spent.
Yeah, he thinks, he’ll just catch a few Zs. Wake up in a few hours and head home.
And if he slips on the jacket after a brief moment’s hesitation, well, it’s not like anyone’s there to see it, and Steve was right: It’s really fucking cold in Indiana.
Billy nods off to the scent of lavender, sandalwood and the faintest tinge of pool chlorine.
The first sign that something is wrong is the bright, harsh sunlight streaming in from the window. When Billy wakes, his first instinct is to shield his eyes with an arm. It’s too damn early to be dealing with a hangover, he thinks, grumbling. He doesn’t even get hangovers, usually. But last night…
Last night comes back in flashes: Steve socking Tommy in the face, his panic attack, the bathroom, sharing a joint with Steve, the lighter—
What time is it?
There’s a bright spot of pain at his right temple, pounding away and Billy can’t fucking think. There’s a lump in his throat and he feels so parched that he thinks his throat might just dry up and fall out of his mouth.
He stumbles out of the bathroom, not even bothering with the noise he’s making. He crashes his way down Kelsi’s stairs to her massive living room— god, why is her house so fucking big?— all the while, scanning desperately for a clock.
Neil wanted him home by eight.
There it is— on top of the mantle, where the fireplace is—
Billy feels his heart sink, low, lower than his chest, like it might just fall right into his stomach and dissolve away.
Heart in his throat, he drives back home. He tears up the Hawkins’ roads, watching the roadsigns flash past him with a kind of sinking dread that lies heavy in his stomach, heavier in his bones.
How could he have forgotten? Steve’s soft, relaxed expression— Good, huh?— his warm, steady weight against Billy’s—
He grips the steering wheel a little tighter, jaw clenched so tight, he feels like it might snap.
How could he be so fucking stupid?
When he gets home, all the lights are on and there’s noise coming from the television. Max is watching her Sunday morning cartoons. Neil’s car is in the driveway. It all builds to the ominous feeling looming over their bright, cheerful yellow kitchen.
Neil’s face is stormy. When he catches sight of Billy in the doorway, he doesn’t say a word, simply folds his newspaper shut and sets it down, eyes boring straight into Billy’s, waiting for an explanation.
There isn’t one he can give.
Neil knows this too. He gives up the pretence of impassivity almost immediately, scrutinising Billy with an obvious once-over. Something he sees must piss him off, Billy can tell, by the little twitch of his moustache. Billy’s heart leaps further up his throat. He doesn’t want to speak. It feels like he might choke on it, all that irrational anxiety and fear he feels in his father’s presence.
“What time,” Neil begins, words slow and deliberate. He hasn’t moved from his place at the dining table. Billy feels the fear inside him blanch anyway. “—did we say you would be home today?”
Billy keeps his spine ramrod-straight and says, carefully, voice betraying no inflection of his tone, “Eight o’clock, sir.”
“Mm. Eight o’clock.” Neil nods sagely. Like they’re in agreement. “And what time is it now?”
Billy doesn’t dare tear his gaze away to check the clock behind him but he can hazard a guess. “Around nine, sir.”
“It’s seven past nine.” Neil corrects, like it matters. Billy’s fucked either way. And he’s proven right when in the next second, Neil pushes himself up from the table, the force of it sending the chair screeching backwards. The noise is an assault on Billy’s already frazzled nerves. Anticipating this moment makes it worse, somehow, makes him jump like he usually wouldn’t. Like a little bitch.
“Do you know what that means, Billy?” Neil steps right into his space. It takes everything he has to stand his ground, not recoil in the way he knows Neil hates even more than his ‘rebellious disrespect’.
“It means you’re late.” Neil hisses in his face. “So when I turn up to Fred’s house late, I’ll have to tell him I was held-up having to drive my daughter to the arcade because my good-for-nothing shitstain son couldn’t even bother to turn up on time after I let him have a night out with his friends.”
Billy swallows. The uncomfortable, prickling burn at the back of his eyes is back. Do not cry. Struggling to keep his voice from wavering, he says, “There’s still time. Max only wanted to get to the arcade at ten— I can still drive her—”
Neil explodes. The crack of a hard slap rings across Billy’s face, and while his entire head snaps to the side at the sheer force of it, his feet remain planted on the ground, trained by years of experience. Neil doesn’t like weakness, even when he’s the one actively causing it.
Slowly, he turns his face back to meet Neil’s gaze.
The laugh-track from Max’s cartoons in the living room floats through the air, shrill and grating juxtaposed against his overwhelming dread.
“Do you think it’s a question of whether Max gets to the arcade or not?” Neil says, getting red in the face, like his frustration at Billy’s inadequacy is burning him up from the inside. Maybe it is. “It’s a question of respect. Of accountability. While you’re in this household and you live under my roof, you respect me. You respect Maxine. You respect Susan. Is that so much to ask?”
Billy shakes his head mutely because no, of course it isn’t.
“Oh, so you agree now? All talk, and no action. That’s why you’re not a man.” Neil scoffs, eyes lighting up in dark amusement. He steps away from Billy at that and it should make him feel safer, but it doesn’t. Something’s wrong— the look on Neil’s face doesn’t say the danger’s passed at all. He’s on trial for a crime he doesn’t know he committed.
Because there’s disgust in that look now, mixed in with all the disappointment and anger and Billy— Billy hasn’t seen that look since California, since—
“Little fucking faggot.” Neil says. His eyes are blackholes. “You’re lucky I have plans today. Because this is a lesson I will apparently have to drill into your head again and again, before you can show even an ounce of decency. You’re grounded until I say so and you will drive Max to every appointment this week. Now get out of my face.”
Just like that, he feels Neil’s dismissal. Neil goes back to reading the papers like nothing’s happened and Billy doesn’t have anything else he can do other than continue standing in the doorway like an idiot. So he leaves.
His stomach churns. He’s so hungry, it might try to eat itself from the inside, but the thought of spending even another second in that cheerful little kitchen with his father makes him so sick, he foregoes the thought entirely.
He heads for his room.
His thoughts are a whirl. Is that it? That can’t be it. That look in Neil’s eyes was unmistakeable— he was livid— there’s no way he’d get off with just a grounding and Maxine Duty.
What did him in? He paces his room a little— knows the pacing only drives him into a worse mood, gets him all antsy— but he can’t help himself.
Was it his disheveled appearance? The stink of booze and his bird’s nest hair probably makes him look like he had a pretty wild night— Neil might’ve been pissed at him sleeping around like a whore, as he put it. But it’s never made him this angry before.
Was it the weed? Billy’s eyes are probably still bloodshot, so it wouldn’t be hard for Neil to guess what he’d been smoking.
Just then, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
And his blood freezes cold.
Hardly daring to believe it, he stares at himself, clad in the blue button-up and jeans he’d left the house in, still slightly sticky with the sweat and grime of the night. One earring dangling from his right ear.
And Steve Harrington’s jacket.
It’s ill-fitting on him. Steve’s taller but Billy’s much broader, with built arms and a broad chest where Steve is all lean muscle. The jacket is dark grey, clearly made of some expensive woolly material and nothing like anything Billy owns. It also obviously belongs to a guy.
It’s a dead giveaway.
Neil thinks he— he—
He came home looking like sex, weed and in another guy’s clothes.
Billy blanches hard once the realisation of what his punishment is snaps into sharp clarity. The grounding isn’t his punishment. The waiting is.
Neil knows that Billy will wait every day, anxious to the point of puking, waiting for the day he decides that it’s the right time to beat his son into a pulp. Billy knows that’s what he wants, but he can’t do anything to stop it anyway. He’d have an easier time trying to stop a tsunami from crashing into a shore.
He sits down, feeling dizzy and a little sick at the revelation. He and Steve— they didn’t, he’d never— but there’s no way to explain it to Neil. All his explanations would fall apart at his feet, dismissed as lies to get out of punishment.
He thinks, a little hopelessly, about what he would even say. This guy on my basketball team, see? We’re not close, just teammates but he was having a panic attack at the get-together and I helped him out so he gave me this jacket—
It sounds ridiculous even to his own ears.
Neil never believed in his own wife’s panic attacks— there’s no way he’d believe anyone else’s.
Billy puts his head in his hands, unable to fight off the burning tears any longer. They gush down his face, hot and stinging with shame. The despair washes over him like a wave, all the adrenaline and tentative happiness of the night wiped away by the pure, dizzying fear. There’s anger in it too, of course, like fucking always because when is he not angry these days?
The rage seeps into his veins again, like poison, he can feel it burning at the unfairness of his situation. The hopelessness too. He wants to fucking punch something so bad. But he can’t make any sound, can’t leave the house to go smash something up, can’t do anything without potentially making whatever punishment awaits him worse.
He doesn’t know when it’s coming, but it’s going to be bad. Neil’s face keeps swimming in his mind; his fury, his disdain, his disgust. The eyes like pure, black pits.
Billy sits there for a long time, feeling furious and sick.