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cause i've been aiming for heaven above (but an angel ain't what i need)

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t know how he found the place.

The faded sign outside says Benny’s Burgers but they clearly haven’t been in operation for a while, if the empty interior and desolate surroundings are any indication.

In the cold, harsh January sunlight, the peeling walls appear even older than they probably are, all washed-out mint green. If he peers inside, blinking past the glint of the reflection on the windows, he can still see furniture that the owners didn’t bother bringing with them. Chairs scattered about, stools knocked over, diner booths still intact. Like they were leaving in a hurry.

The thought is a little unsettling.

He vaguely remembers the reports in the papers: Hawkins’ first suicide since ’61. It’d been the talk of the town for months. And as expected of a small town full of gossiping wives, the superstition surrounding Benny’s had permeated the consciousness of everyone in town. The owners fled, and no one dared to buy the property after.

But ‘unsettling’ hasn’t stopped him, not in a long while. Not since he’d seen his girlfriend, hand bandaged but bleeding and whispering urgently at him Steve? You need to leave.

He goes around the back; doesn’t quite know what he’s searching for until he sees it.

‘It’ is a small bathroom, disconnected from the rest of the diner. The door is hanging loose on its hinges and sunlight streams through the cracks, allowing him a glimpse inside. He enters, hearing his sneakers squeak and echo on the tile. The bat drags behind him, screeching occasionally whenever the nails catch onto the tile.

He eyes the cracked mirrors, splattered with some unidentifiable white stains and the grimy walls. Most of the stalls are missing door bolts, or already hanging off their hinges but there’s one that’s fully intact.

Steve steps into it. Slides the bolt shut. Rests the back of his head against the cool wall of the stall. He breathes in deep, feeling the stale air fill his chest, and slides down to the cold tiled floor.

Once he’s down, he sets the bat down carefully beside him. Far enough that he won’t brain himself on it if he passes out or something, but within reach. Always within reach. He pulls the sloppily-rolled joint out of his pocket and puts it to his lips.

So, yeah. He doesn’t know how he got here. But he remembers that time— Dan Rogers’ party, sophomore year, when Tommy had bought some dodgy weed and spent three hours puking, shivering and half-passed out over the master bedroom’s toilet bowl. Bad trip, he’d laughed the whole thing off a week later but Steve was there, rubbing his back and he knows he doesn’t want to go through all that in his big, empty house.

But he really, really needs to get out of his own head right now. Because if he doesn’t, he doesn’t— doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

The bathroom is cold, grimy and decrepit. But it’s also small, with one entrance— easily defendable— and he knows no one will find him here.

Relief kicks in around five minutes later. He lets that floating feeling take him, soaks it all up, like a cat eagerly lapping up the cream. Aimlessly, he lets his eyes wander over random points in the stall; the broken tile at the upper left corner, expanding into a web of thin, capillary-like cracks; the pattern of the creeping ivy crawling down the wall from the open window near the ceiling. The stale air transforms, and he is suddenly aware of the faint smell of bleach, of lavender tinging the air around him.

He keeps looking around, never closing his eyes. He’s distantly aware of the fear that he might see something if doesn’t fill his vision with everything, anything else. Flowers blooming, blooming into rows and rows of teeth, blooming until the flowers aren’t flowers anymore and they scream—

He doesn’t know how much time has passed when the high wears off but the sunlight coming in through the window has weakened and it’s a lot colder now so Steve groggily gets to his feet. It takes a few moments to get his bearings, swaying slightly like he’s just arisen from a deep sleep.

Finally when he feels steadier, he unbolts the door and steps out into the crisp twilight air. He looks around. The surroundings are as bare as before, nothing but road for miles. He’d parked his car a seven-minute walk away, at a convenience store. Just to be safe— the Beemer is way too noticeable for him to park it in front of an abandoned diner without drawing suspicion to his name.

It’s getting colder by the minute but he thinks a walk might do him good anyway. Might steady the rattle in his chest that’s returning as the high wears off. The air is cold, bracing but not freezing so Steve lets it hit his face and run through his hair.

The sky is a shade away from dusk when Steve sets off down the long road, walking away from the abandoned diner, yet inexplicably knowing that he will be back.

 

***

 

He’s been coming to the diner for two weeks when something finally happens.

He doesn’t always come to get high, or cry about all the ways his life has taken a turn since the Upside Down and babysitting children that raise terrifying monsters in their turtle aquariums. Steve’s not even much of a crier, if he’s being honest.

Mostly, he comes to just stare at the ceiling for a while. Or close his eyes, rest his head against the wall and listen to the birds outside, letting the mundane sounds lull him into a peaceful state. Lets himself just— just exist for a while.

He doesn’t know how he did it before—all the performing and peacocking and being King Steve, twenty-four hours of every single day. Now even when he’s not expected to be the carefree, charming King of Hawkins High anymore, he has to be damn good babysitter Steve or I’m-Fine-Don’t-Worry Steve. He cares about all of them, the kids, Nancy, JonathantheChiefandMrsByers, he really does but still—

It’s exhausting.

That’s why no matter what he comes here for, there’s one constant:

He is always alone.

Except now he’s not.

Because there’s someone in that stall.

And now Steve is stuck because whoever is in the stall definitely heard him come in; the squeak of his sneakers and the scratching of the nail-bat against the tile reverberated loudly off the walls. And Steve didn’t bother being quiet when coming in, alright, because who the hell sees a dirty public bathroom next to an abandoned, supposedly cursed, diner and thinks: cool, I’ll head in?

(Except people like Steve, of course, who saved the world last month and deserve to be cut some slack with regard to their decision-making processes, okay?)

And as if things couldn’t get any more fucking awkward, Steve distinctly knows he heard a sniffle right before his foot made contact with the tile and the shadow under the door had stiffened, like a rabbit spotting a fox approaching.

Holy shit, are they crying?

No. Nope. He’s out, Steve is so not equipped for this confrontation. Just because he now babysits a pack of eight-graders and occasionally has to fumble his way through comforting them through their emotional crises—read: Max and Lucas’ fifth break-up of the month or alternatively: Will’s desperate attempts to get his friends to play D&D with him again— does not mean he is equipped to help any other persons with feelings. Holy shit.

Another sudden fear strikes him; honestly, it’s what should have occured to him in the first place because he is carrying a fucking bat full of nails which he has no way of explaining without coming off as some kind of lunatic.

“Hey, hey, hey. Um.” He doesn’t know what possesses him to speak, maybe the fear, the desperation to take control of the situation somehow and distract the person inside the stall from opening the door and seeing him but he blurts out the words like he was choking on them. “You don’t. Have to come out, or anything. I was just— um. I’ll just leave. Sorry.”

There’s a distinct pause.

Steve hears the slow, deep inhalation of breath like whoever it is is still trying to disguise the fact that they were crying. When the voice comes, it’s unexpectedly deep and wow. Steve did not expect that at all; not that he thinks guys can’t cry or anything but after hearing that little sniffle, he honestly thought it’d been a girl

“Yeah, you fucking better.

The voice is deeper and way more masculine that Steve expected but it’s also rough in the way that can only mean whoever’s in there has been crying for a while, enough to make their throat all hoarse and scratchy.

Well shit. That does evoke some sympathy from him but most of it evaporates by the time he processes the words because wow, fucking rude. Steve was just trying to give the guy some room and in his bathroom sanctuary, thank you very much.

He doesn’t want to anger the guy, not willing to run the risk of him making good on that threat and actually coming out to fight Steve or something but he can’t help but throw in a muttered “Okay, asshole” as he leaves the bathroom.

And if he does an embarrassing half-run, half-jog back to his car, no one’s around to see it anyway, especially not the guy in the bathroom.

 

***


He doesn’t think about the encounter at all, at least not for the next few days, mostly because he didn’t think it’d be anything more than a one-off encounter.

But when he comes back again on Tuesday, after studying with Nancy and Jonathan— he knows they mean well, he does, but he can’t help the way his heart clenches sometimes when they share those casual little touches and lingering gazes the exact same way he and Nance did before

Well. He has more urgent problems to deal with, anyway.

Because the stall next to his is occupied. Again.

There’s no way to tell for sure if it’s the same person from before but somehow, he just knows. When he stepped into the bathroom, the shadow under the door doesn’t freeze up the way it did before. Like he’s been expecting him.

Like he’s been waiting.

Which is a completely ridiculous thought, totally egotistical, and Steve knows he’s been known to have bouts of egomania (read: his entire stint as King Steve and keg king and whatever other titles he allowed to be bestowed on himself) so he dismisses it soon as it comes.

But Steve really needs this today so he throws whatever remaining fucks he has to give out the window and slides into his usual stall, bolting the door shut behind him, determined to ignore the person next to him.

At least if the guy sees him, he didn’t bring the nail-bat this time.

But just as he’s settling onto the floor, prepared to stubbornly ignore the presence of the other person, the guy speaks up. And he sounds amused.

“What, no s-s-stuttering apology this time for getting in on my space?” 

Now that he’s not crying, his voice sounds… different. Less rough and broken and more smooth and deep, like the kind of baritone his mother used to say was perfect for reading poetry. Steve finds himself annoyed that he actually finds it pleasant. The words aside.

Steve frowns. “That’s rude, man. I was just surprised someone else was here. Didn’t expect it.” After a thought, he adds: “And you got it backwards— you’re in my space.”

The guy actually laughs at that. “What, you claiming ownership of this place now?” There’s a pause, then he clicks his fingers like ‘got it!’. “You royalty around these parts or something?”

Steve sulks a little at that, feels a pinprick of soreness in his chest at the jab that hits a little too close to home. “Or something. We’re in the middle of fucking Indiana, man. There’s no royalty out here.”

“Geez, you’re touchy. A real princess, aren’t you?” The guy says, clearly amusing himself at Steve’s expense.

“Look,” Steve starts, then stops short, unable to find the words to express why he’s here or why he feels so strongly possessive over this space. He knows it’s kind of pathetic that the only place he feels safe anymore is a derelict bathroom at an abandoned diner but he thinks he’s given his fair share of fucks his entire life— spent the entire first seventeen years of being alive caring about what everyone else thought— so he shouldn’t be expected to give any more, okay?

Instead, he just sighs.

“I was here first. This is my place for, I don’t know, crying all alone and pathetic so could you, like, fuck off, please?”

It comes off a little too desperate and sad to be a joke. He’d meant for it to sound defiant, a little dramatic so it would come off funny and maybe charming but it seems he’s just… not too good at being that anymore these days.

Steve doesn’t even know why he’s fighting for this. He’s come to see it as his safe haven but in the end, it’s just a stupid bathroom. It’s cold and wet and dingy and he should really be planning for his future instead of spending his time here.

And yet—

He really doesn’t want to give it up. Part of him knows, with stone-cold certainty, that if he leaves, it’ll mean countless nights without sleep, even more nights spent at the farm where the tunnels used to be, waiting and watching for everything to go wrong again.

Then the voice responds, brash but a little vulnerable too.

“I don’t know, don’t see your name written on it anywhere, so how about you fuck off, huh princess?”

Steve doesn’t know what it is about the way he said it but the way the voice dipped and lingered on the word princess makes heat coil in his belly. It lingers there, a pooling warmth against the cold January air, stark and impossible to ignore.

Holy shit.

He leans back, pretending his flush is because of the cold. “Well, you don’t have to be such a dick about it. Maybe we can just… share? I’ll just do my thing and you do yours. I won’t even act like you’re here—“ What the hell is he saying? He does not want to share and he expects the guy to voice the same protest but all he hears is quiet and then—

“Okay.”

Quiet, so quiet Steve almost didn’t catch it but it’s there. Okay? Of all the things he expected the brash, sarcastic voice next to him to say, it wasn’t okay. But well, he’s stuck with it now.

“Okay then,” Steve says dumbly, still shocked.

And as he sits for an indiscernible amount of time, watching their shadows grow long under the stall doors in the relative quiet, he thinks maybe, just maybe he doesn’t regret it after all.

Not yet anyway.

 

***

 

The second and third time he comes by with who he’s increasingly referring to as Bathroom Guy in his head in the stall next to his, they spend their days like that, in near-quiet until it gets dark. The silence is only broken by the sound of their steady breathing, or the whisper of shifting denim as one of them moves.

It’s actually… peaceful.

He didn’t even know peace could exist with people around, much less a random stranger. Except this stranger, oddly enough despite their lack of talking, seems to understand a little why he needs this. Why he comes by so often. Maybe, and Steve really hopes this isn’t wishful thinking on his part, because he needs it too.

So on the fourth time, when the guy next door breaks the silence, it’s so unexpected that Steve nearly clocks himself on the door bolt as he jolts to attention. He hadn’t been sleeping, just slumping against the door, sort of… drifting.

“You alright there, amigo?” He says, sounding amused again. Probably at the way Steve jumped like a startled cat, knocking himself against the door, causing it to slam against the hinges with a rattling thunk.

Steve tries to keep the embarrassment out of his voice as he scowls. “Jesus. I was trying to sleep, dickhead. What’d you say? Didn’t catch it.”

“I said, can I bum a smoke? Forgot to bring my pack.” The guy says.

“I don’t smoke.” Steve says automatically.

The guy barks out a laugh. “What, you trying to quit? Or you never tried?” He says the last line like a taunt, bait for dumb fish.

Steve sees the taunt for what it is but he still lets himself bite, latches onto it all hook, line and sinker. “I’ve smoked, jackass. I have a pack in my car. But yeah, I’m trying to quit. My girl— I mean, my ex. She didn’t like it.”

“Well, why are you letting you ex tell you what to do? Get the pack.”

Steve doesn’t want to do what he says. Doesn’t want to tell him his car is parked a good ten minutes away and it’s too cold for a walk just to get cigarettes. The act of walking out to get his pack just to let this guy bum one off him feels too much like submission, like pushover. But then he realises what he said wasn’t true at all.

He wasn’t trying to quit anymore.

The realisation stuns him a little. His heart stings at the reminder of just how much power Nancy had over him, still has, really. She came into his life, something real and substantial, eyes always twinkling as she smiled that bashful-playful smile up at him and she made him want to be better. It was always a stupid fantasy of his— he’d never admit to anyone else he’d ever thought something that disgustingly sappy— but he’d always imagined himself quitting smoking, quitting drinking, all so he could better for Nancy and their 2.5 kids living in a nice house ten years from now.

And he’s only just realising that even though that’s not an option anymore, he still hasn’t touched a cigarette since March, senior year.

With that realisation, the sweeping urge to kick something overcomes him. The frustration is familiar, but the itch in his fingers has become foreign in its months of absence. He recognises it though.

He wants a cigarette.

Grumbling, he hauls himself to his feet and practically kicks open the door. He treks to his car and back, returning only twenty minutes later.

He’s almost surprised to see the guy is still there, his shadow hovering under the stall door.

“Wow.” The guy claps, once, twice, real slow. “I’m actually impressed. Didn’t expect to have royalty at my beck and call today.”

“Shut up.” Steve growls back. “This isn’t about you, alright? You just made me realise I wanted a cigarette too. Got a lighter?”

The guy snickers and there’s a shuffling sound where he’s probably reaching into his jeans. Then, a blue lighter comes sailing over the door. A Zippo.

Steve scrambles to catch it, scowling. “What the— what’d you do that for? If I hadn’t caught it, it would’ve broken and then we both wouldn’t get a smoke, dipshit.”

“Didn’t want it sliding on that nasty-ass floor.” The guy says simply. “And you caught it, didn’t you? Seems like you got pretty good reflexes. You play a sport?”

Steve cocks his head, thrown off by the sudden amicability. “You here to play twenty questions and braid each other’s hair now? I’m not telling you, fuck off.”

“Hey, no need to be so hostile. I’m just asking. Didn’t want to bum one off a complete stranger, I have some class after all.” The guy says.

“So, what? You knowing what sport I play automatically makes me not-a-stranger?” Steve snorts. “Not how it works, man.” He lights up, then tosses the whole pack over.

Yet, it seems that now that I know you play a sport, I’ve earned a whole pack.” Steve can practically hear the wolfish grin on the other guy’s face. He hears a whistle. “Marlboros. Damn, you know what? I think I like you, stranger."

Steve steadies his hands on his cigarette, steadfastly ignoring the weird swoop his belly did at those words. “Don’t get used to it, shithead. I’m going back to ignoring you after this.”

“Sure, sure.” The guy chuckles. There’s a click of a lighter. The guy inhales, deep and lets out this low hum of satisfaction that sends Steve’s belly churning again. He lets his eyes rove over the smoke drifting out of the stall next to his.

Weirdly, it feels reassuring. Takes the surreality out of the whole situation; his gaze clings to it, almost like proof that there is a real, tangible person next to him right now. That he’s not gone crazy from hanging around here alone for too long and is talking to nobody.

After ten minutes go by, the guy— like the asshole he is— breaks their unspoken code again. He asks about him, what type of music he likes, what he does for fun. Only this time, Steve finds himself unable to stick to his promise of ignoring him either. Because there’s a curiosity now, to know this person who was all broken crying last week and is now all brash confidence and I-think-I-like-you-stranger today.

Steve has always liked talking to people. He thought that part of him had kind of died off, after falling off the social totem pole and everything, but it’s just occurring to him that maybe he just hadn’t been talking to the right people.

“You know, I’ve been wondering. Is there anything I can call you?” Steve asks, before realising he might’ve crossed a line and quickly tacks on: “You don’t have to tell me your name or anything but I don’t really want to call you Bathroom Guy in my head anymore like I’ve been doing the past week.”

“Aw, you thinking about me a lot, princess?” Bathroom Guy teases in a high-pitched tone, voice dripping with sugary-sweet adoration. He drops back to his normal register. “You can call me William. Not my real name, by the way, so don’t even think about looking it up, shitbird.”

William. Steve knows it’s stupid, the way it warms him from the inside just thinking it, even knowing that’s not his real name but there’s something about the way the name unspools on his tongue…

He thinks about saying something about that. Something along the lines of Thanks and I really like having something to call you by, before realising how weird that would be, thanking someone for giving you their fake name. Hurriedly, he course-corrects: “Hey, I haven’t thought of what you can call me yet.”

“Don’t need to,” The guy— William says. “Calling you Princess suits me just fine.”

“Fuck you,” Steve replies automatically. “You gave yourself a normal name, I should get one too. How’s, uh, David?”

David. David?” William sounds way more incredulous than Steve thinks is strictly warranted. “You trying to play the character of a single dad who works in an office and has three kids, or what? Fuck no.”

Momentarily defeated, Steve slumps. “I’ll think of a better one next time.”

“You better.”

Steve smiles a little to himself at that. He thought it might be a little too much to assume there’d be a next time but the way William doesn’t even seem to question there might not be makes him slightly giddy.

“I gotta ditch.” William abruptly says, killing the mood Steve’s found himself in. He hears him get to his feet, dusting off whatever dirt had gotten onto his jeans. “Got a test to study for.”

“Oh?” Steve finds himself saying. Then, as casual as he can force himself to be: “You in high school too?”

He shouldn’t have said it. He knows. He’s breaking another unspoken rule, arguably the most important one. They can swap vague stories and chat a little about their interests but they never, never go into personal identities. Talk spreads fast in small towns, and no one wants to be caught with gossip swirling around them about how they hang around abandoned diner bathrooms.

He doesn’t know why he’s dancing on the line like this, dangerously toeing past their established boundaries. He didn’t think before saying it and that’s his problem most of the time, really. Deep down, he thinks he just really wanted to know that William wasn’t some middle-schooler with a really deep voice because Steve seems incapable of making friends above the age of thirteen lately.

There’s a long, drawn-out pause in which Steve holds his breath. He’s tense enough to shatter. But then there’s a huff, a quiet fuck it and William says:

“Yeah.”

And he leaves, just like that, taking the tension out of the room with him.

Steve lets out the breath. Hawkins High. William didn’t say it, but he didn’t need to. There’s only one high school in Hawkins.

Which means Steve now knows that he and William go to the same school.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Here’s the thing—

Billy Hargrove is a crier.

He hates it. He hates that fact about himself, but knows it in the deepest recesses of his soul, where he’s violently shoved all the shameful parts about himself and kept them locked down, away from prying eyes.

He cried when his mom left. He cried when they didn’t have enough money to send him to surfing classes. He cried when they’d been forced to pack up and leave California for shithole Hawkins. He didn’t cry the first time Neil hit him— he remembers that with vivid clarity, no tears, just a stunned, wide-eyed silence— but he learned to, the second, third, fourth time. Until the fifth time, when his father yelled that he was a fag and he hadn’t raised a fucking pussy of a son— then he learned not to cry in front of Neil. Just let his eyes sting until they fucking burned then let it all out into a pillow in the dark corners of his room later when Neil was asleep.

So. Billy is a crier.

Which doesn’t explain how he ended up at this shitty abandoned diner at the outskirts of town. But it does explain why he left the house, Neil shouting after him as he roared off in the Camaro, helplessly fighting back white-hot tears of frustration.

Neil had thrown his favourite Metallica album out, sniping at him for being late for family dinner too many times and Billy had just— just seen red. He doesn’t know what he said but it must have been bad because Neil left his ring on during the beating even though he knows every cut will be visible and Billy will have to miss school for a few days to avoid dangerous questions.

(He remembers buying that album— scrimping and saving every last cent, hot summer days spent breaking his back doing odd jobs everywhere just to fork over just enough cash to get his hands on it. He hadn’t stopped listening to it for days, months even after that. Blasted it in his room after Neil beat him and made him feel like nothing— just to feel powerful again because the sound of the wild guitars and crashing drums was loud enough to drown out his pathetic cries. And Neil had thrown all that out like it was nothing—)

Billy does this sometimes; drives right to the edge of the town limits, near enough to see the “Leaving Hawkins: Have a safe trip!” sign. On the drive, he hoots and yells and blasts AC/DC and the Scorpions loud enough to feel the bass thrumming in his bones. He drives and drives, wasting gas, pretending he’s leaving this shitty dumpster of a town behind and on his way back to Cali. He entertains the thought, planning the route home: first to Illinois, then Missouri, Oklahoma after… By now, he knows the drive to California by heart but always stops right at the edge of the town.

Because where would he go?

It’s fucking hopeless. He’s seventeen, hasn’t graduated high school and his only known relatives besides Neil have already made it clear they don’t want him.

(He hasn’t heard from his mother since he was eight.)

He bites back the blinding anger— and the stupid fucking tears that won’t stop rising— and forces himself to turn the wheel. Facing down the road back to Hawkins feels like a death sentence but he grinds his teeth and puts his foot down on the accelerator anyway.

Only this time, the tears don’t stop coming.

He feels them rising to the surface despite swiping them away on the back of his hand every few seconds, the other hand gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles turn white.

This is bad. He’s getting closer to town now, still on the outskirts but close enough that shops have begun cropping up. He’s driven past one dingy little convenience store already.

In this hick town where nothing ever happens, if anyone ever caught him close to crying, it would probably be the talk of the town for months.

At the next stop, what looks to be an old diner from afar, he swallows down his pride and pulls aside, parking his car a distance away. He trudges towards the diner, trying not to look as pathetic as he feels, surreptitiously rubbing his right eye that for some reason, won’t stop stinging.

He wonders, feeling vicious and ugly, if all that knocking around Neil did had actually knocked something loose in him. Broke him somehow, something that made his tear ducts dysfunctional— if he’d always feel that familiar sting in his eyes and know they betrayed him, bared all the feelings he tried to hide behind hard muscle and leather jackets, aggression and violence. 

Fag.

The word rises unbidden, ugly and raw.

He practically runs into the bathroom out back, slamming the door shut and leans against it, trying to still his quickening pulse and heaving chest. Each breath leaves his chest with a rattle and every inhale feels shaky.

He hates it. He feels so weak—

He can’t help it. It’s like a dam breaking— and he—

He fucking sniffles.

Shame rises in him, the flames of it licking at his chest. Then, as if his mortification couldn’t get worse, someone enters the fucking bathroom.

He hears the way the footsteps halt, freeze entirely in uncertainty and he knows.

They heard him.

There’s a long pause, the silence so deafeningly loud he can hear it ringing in his ears. His mind is racing, desperately grasping for all the different ways he could get out of this mess— Billy doesn’t know many ways of solving his problems that don’t involve his fists but he can’t get out of the stall, can’t let whoever’s outside see him like this

Then the guys speaks.

Billy barely catches half of it, only hears the Um— You don’t have to come out, or anything— I was just— I’ll just leave. Sorry. but he hears every bit of the awkwardness, embarrassment and even tentative kindness. Whoever’s outside shuffles their feet a little, like they don’t know what to do with themselves.

Billy’s feeling a lot of things at the moment. Shame, fear, mostly, but as always, there’s the anger. He doesn’t know why he’s angry, maybe the fact that he got caught in this situation at all, or maybe some residual fury at Neil but it’s familiar, that red-hot current of rage.

So he leans into it.

He scrubs furiously at the tears blurring his vision and sweeps away the vestiges of shame, fear and everything else. Bares his teeth in the way that feels so familiar it’s natural at this point and growls:

“Yeah, you fucking better.”

He hears the stunned silence on the other end. He almost thinks the guy outside might just rip his door right open— the door bolt is only hanging on by a few screws— but then there’s the scratch of something against the tile outside (some kind of metal?) and squeaking sneakers and the guy’s leaving.

But not before he hears the quiet, angry murmur of “Okay asshole”.

Which. Okay. He deserved.

Finally alone, Billy rests his head against the cool tile of the wall. For some reason, he feels drained and empty. Even the tears have stopped coming— he’s spent. He doesn’t want to head home though, not to that shithole, so he leans against the wall and stares at the ceiling instead.

He lets a lazy hand draw careless circles in the dust. He wonders, just briefly, why everything he touches seems to break. Little Maxine, no longer looking up at him with half-concealed admiration, instead slamming a nailed baseball bat into the floor, screaming furiously— no, desperately— on the verge of tears for him to leave her friends alone. His mother, who’d left him, even though he knew he’d loved her with everything he had.

Whoever that stranger was. Billy knew he was extending him kindness by offering to leave him alone. But it was so much easier to respond with anger.

It was obvious at this point. He was the problem. No matter how much he resented Neil, it seemed the universe was playing a massive cosmic joke on him because the one thing he wanted so desperately for Neil to be wrong about was exactly the thing he got right.

Broken. Pussy. Fag.

Billy sits. And he doesn’t leave for a long time.

 

***

 

He doesn’t know why he came back.

Sure, he had to miss school anyway because the cuts and bruises on his face are way too visible not to arouse suspicion, but he knows he could’ve spent his days off drinking at the quarry, or at the diner downtown picking up the waitresses for fun.

Yet he’s here.

He doesn’t spend all day there or anything— can’t, not with Neil breathing down his neck about making sure Poor Little Maxine gets to every place she wants on time. But in his downtime, between sending Max to school and picking her up from her stupid nerd club or whatever, he finds himself back here.

It’s quiet. Billy doesn’t often like quiet. Quiet can mean dangerous, especially with Neil in the house. Billy prefers the comfort of blaring AC/DC in his car, or even the loud, steady bass of whatever shitty Top 100 songs Hawkins teenagers play at their parties.

But the quiet here feels more like… peace. Or like anonymity, a place where no one would ever think to find him.

And when that guy from before comes back, he’s feeling pretty alright. In a good mood, even. It’s a warm spring day for Hawkins— which to say, means it’s still butt-naked freezing by Californian standards but at least the sun’s coming in and he’s got a pretty good buzz going after several swigs from his flask.

So when the guy not only comes back but sits down in the stall next to his, he tries his luck. If he’s lucky, the guy will be halfway entertaining— if not, the pussy will fuck off and run from him again. And there’s curiosity in it too— Billy can’t help but wonder why anyone beside himself would hang around in an abandoned place like this.

Why anyone in this boring hick town would have a reason to hide.

So when he taunts the guy a little and to his surprise and utter delight, the guy actually responds in kind, he can’t help it—

He’s intrigued.

The guy matches every taunt blow for blow, all quick wit and easy banter. Though, Billy amends, he’s kind of a brat. You can’t stake claim on public fucking property, Princess, he thinks, amused despite himself.

Banter is one thing that’s hard to come by in this town that Billy never expected to miss so much. Back in Cali, he’d had friends— okay, more like groups of people he hung around regularly— and banter had always flowed naturally between them. Billy recalls roaring with laughter by a bonfire on warm summer nights by the sea, sparks rising and dissolving in the salty air.

But he was quick to realise that all the slow-witted cows in Hawkins couldn’t keep up— they were all “your mother” jokes that Billy thought only sixth-graders still laughed at and locker room talk. Tommy could swing at him for a couple rounds, but he died out quick— always laughed nervously and deferred to Billy in the end, killing whatever fun Billy was having. He’d laughed it up at all their lame “Death to the old king!” jokes but inside, he knew he was always craving more. Someone who could match his blows.

To think he’d found that in some stranger he’d met in a bathroom

Well, Billy likes to think he’s seen stranger things.

Regardless, Billy’s self-aware enough to admit that this guy is someone he can actually stand, a rare commodity in Hawkins. Everyone in this backwater, inbred town is so boring Billy can physically feel his soul withering away with every conversation. If they weren’t kissing up to him like Tommy H., they were looking at him from afar with jealous, hungry eyes as Billy effortlessly stole the girls they’d been pining for since eight grade. It was so easy. And Steve Harrington, their supposed king, worst of all— bland like fancy fondant, the way he’d given up his crown so easily leaving a sour taste in Billy’s tongue.

The one time he’d seen anything remotely interesting from the guy was that night in the Byers’ house— Looks like you’ve got some fire in you after all, Harrington— the way he’d ducked deftly under Billy’s swing and came back with a fierce right hook, eyes suddenly burning like maybe, maybe he’d needed this too—

(But even then, he’d still ended up on the floor.)

Anyway, besides the banter, despite the guy’s efforts to hide any details about himself, he’s let a few real things slip through.

This is my place for, I don’t know, crying all alone and pathetic—

I’m trying to quit. My girl— I mean, my ex. She didn’t like it.

This isn’t about you, alright? You just made me realise I wanted a cigarette too.

The brief tinge of emotion behind those words, of something raw and aching, hits something in Billy he didn’t realise he had. He recognises it, that emotion, even though he can’t put a name to it.

It makes him want to know more.

He’s painting a vague, amorphous picture of the guy in the stall over in his mind— funny, if a little awkward at times. Bit of a brat. Quick on his feet. Has definitely seen some shit. Generous, maybe well-off?

And Billy isn’t really one for holding back so—

I think I like you, stranger.

The words sound almost foreign in his mouth. He hopes they come out smooth, in that patented charming Billy Hargrove way, and not clunky, the way he’d felt them in his mouth. Hopes the guy can’t detect the sincerity in it, because that would be infinitely worse.

But when he hears the guy’s response, tone carefully flattened to match his words Don’t get used to it, shithead but undoubtedly pleased, he grins. Takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette, humming with satisfaction as the calm warmth spreads throughout his body.

It’d be better for him not to, he knows.

But he thinks he could get used to this.

 

***

 

It’s a shitty Wednesday afternoon when he sees Harrington in the parking lot of the arcade after school. It’s afternoon, which should mean that the day should’ve warmed up by now but because everything in Hawkins exists to taunt him, it’s still cold as balls.

He hasn’t seen Harrington since their big fight in November. Not really.

He’s seen him around, kind of a given since they go to the same school and again, Hawkins is a small fucking town. He’s seen him in the cafeteria, at parties— even caught him drunk off his ass, with his tongue down some random blonde chick’s throat once. But they haven’t spoken. Have barely made eye contact, outside of practice and even then, Billy can’t remember the last time Harrington actually focused on him during a game.

It feels almost surreal to see the shiny Beemer sitting in the parking lot. He only mulls it over for a moment, before swinging his car into the lot next to his. To his delight, Harrington’s in his car, head down, seemingly focused on the notebook in his hands. He hasn’t even noticed the Camaro pulled him beside him.

Billy raps on the window twice, a sharp staccato.

Harrington actually jumps at that, a full-bodied jerk, before he turns to face the window and recognition flares in his eyes. They quickly dull into a deadpan stare and Harrington flips him the bird before pointedly looking back at his notes.

Billy knocks again. And again, just to be an asshole.

He can see the tick in Harrington’s jaw. Another beat passes between them before he rolls down the window, gaze still locked on the notebook, still refusing to face Billy.

“What do you want, asshole?”

Billy feels his grin turn wolfish. “Fancy seeing you here, Harrington. I thought you were in hiding? You know, after I put you down like a good bitch. Is that what’s got you so jumpy? You ‘fraid of me, pretty boy?”

Steve scowls. Billy drinks in the sight, eyeing the way his dark eyebrows pinch together in annoyance. “Are you seriously not off that? Does your whole life revolve around trying to make mine miserable, or something? Fuck off man, I’m busy.”

“Busy? With what?” Billy scoffs. “Please enlighten me, King Steve, about your bustling social calendar. Because right now it seems a lot like you’re spending your afternoon waiting on a bunch of little kids.”

Steve slants an eyebrow at him. “And you’re doing what here, exactly…?”

“Not by choice.” Billy narrows his eyes, tone abruptly going flat at the reminder of Neil’s shitty attempts at coercing him into becoming the perfect step-son for Susan. “You, on the other hand, I discovered alone with these kids in some creepy house off Maplewood.”

Steve actually sighs at that. “Could you stop with that, dude? It wasn’t anything weird. One of the kids’ moms asked me to watch the little shits because one of their friends got— sick or something, and she didn’t want the rest of them swarming him. Now if you could kindly fuck off somewhere where I don’t have to see your goddamn mullet, I’m working on something here?” He phrases the last bit like a question but Billy knows it’s anything but.

He stays anyway.

“What you got there, then, that’s so important? Composing a love poem to Wheeler, hoping she’ll take you back?” Billy sneers, then snatches the notebook right out of Steve’s hands. A noise of protest escapes him, fingers clutching empty air, too slow to intercept.

Billy scans it briefly, catches words like basketball game-Vietnam War and ‘broadening my educational horizons’ and pulls the notebook away from his face as if physically repelled, wrinkling his nose. His voice, when he finds it, is genuinely incredulous. “Is this for college admissions? Weren’t admissions, like, months ago?”

Steve’s scowl only deepens, this time tinged with an embarrassed flush on his cheeks. The pink makes him look younger, Billy notes absently. “Those were for early admissions, dickhead. They’re for people going to like, Harvard or Yale, or something, which I’m obviously not applying to.”

“Why not?” Billy feels a shit-eating grin expand on his face. “You could go broaden your educational horizons.” He mimics Steve’s voice, complete with brushing a hand through his hair in the way he’s seen Steve do about a million times. The guy seriously has a ridiculously full head of hair. Billy distantly wonders what kind of product he uses to keep it all up.

Steve flushes again, makes a move to take his notebook back, only to have Billy pull it further out of reach, making an ah-ah-ah motion with his fingers.

“You gonna improve this before you send it in man?” Billy says, not even untruthfully. “Because right now, it’s a total clusterfuck. Sort that shit out man, maybe just pick one topic instead of going all over the epic highs and lows of your basketball games, then jumping to the horrors of war. Because it’s not working.”

He sees his words work themselves through Steve’s head, his jaw working as he processes them. Harrington has an extremely readable face when he’s not paying attention, Billy realises. Someone should warn him— it could really be used against him.

But Billy’s not going to be the one who tells him. Because it’s extremely amusing to see the moment where what he’s said clicks into place for Harrington, and the reluctant, terse nod he gives Billy in return for his advice. It looked physically painful.

“Good.” Billy grins. “Because you’re not even that good at basketball.” He tosses the book back to Steve, who catches it easily, still frowning. Billy’s about to add in another taunt— What, Wheeler not around to trade sex for essay help anymore? when there’s a burst of noise and a gaggle of kids come streaming out of the arcade doors.

Seeing Max among them, Billy gives Steve a quick pat on the shoulder, all friendly-like. “You’re welcome for the help, amigo. Another word of advice? Stop hanging around kids and come to a party once in a while. Lay off the sad-sack bullshit, everyone’s tired of it.”

Not giving Steve the chance to reply, Billy swings back around and heads back into his car. His windows are down— they always are, to let out the cigarette smoke— and he hears snatches of the conversation going on beside him.

“Were you just talking to Billy Hargrove?” The curly-haired one with the weird lack of teeth screeches, sounding incredulous. Billy can’t hear Steve’s reply but whatever it is, the curly-haired boy doesn’t seem reassured. He keeps rambling on and on, hands waving wildly while the other two— Sinclair and the sulky one nod vehemently in the back.

Billy snorts. He talked to the guy for five minutes and his little kiddie squad are already gearing up to protect him like Harrington’s some blushing damsel in distress hiding from the wolves.

“What’re you so happy about?” Max says, already looking sulky as she slides into his car, casting her friends one last forlorn look.

Billy smiles at her, all teeth, in a mockery of the ‘happiness’ she was talking about. “None of your damn business, shitbird. Now buckle up, we gotta get you home for Susan’s delightful pot roast.”

Max actually snorts at that. “If it was any drier, it’d be the main dish of the Sahara.”

He’s got to give her points for that one— one for accuracy and another for creativity.

Things have been weird between him and Max, since the whole incident with her jabbing him with a needle full of drugs and threatening to forcibly remove his ability to have children. He still thinks she’s a bitch and she probably still sees him as the biggest asshole scum to walk the planet but they’ve reached a sort of… understanding. Things have been weirdly okay. Probably due to their ‘agreement’, which he remembers only half-hazily.

He even lets her pick a station for the rest of the drive, if only because her music taste is slightly better than the average thirteen-year-old’s.

Billy likes to think he can claim some credit for that. He’d educated her properly back in California, after all.

He doesn’t think about the reluctant acceptance on Steve Harrington’s face as he took in his advice, or the sad, lost sort of look he’d cast the sheet of paper like it was supposed to be the answer to all the mysteries of life, and he was nowhere near solving it.

He doesn’t think about it at all.


***

Billy’s not sure what he’s supposed to do with the information that he and Princess go to the same school. Yeah, he’d kind of inferred they were around the same age but actually having confirmation that he might be one of the faces he passes by every day without a second glance— well. It doesn’t sit right with him.

It’s not like they were trading bosom secrets or shit like that, but it’s with an uncomfortable self-awareness that Billy realises that within a few meetings, the guy already knows more about him than probably anyone else at Hawkins High.

He knows that Billy doesn’t really get along well with his family, that he has a step-sister, that he likes Marlboros, his favourite colour is red (“Why the fuck would you even ask me that? This isn’t a first date, dickhead.” “Geez, sorry I tried to be friendly for one second, I’ll avoid doing that in future, wouldn’t want to upset you—“) and that he hates Hawkins, in general.

And being known— it’s a strange sort of feeling.

Billy can’t decide how he feels about it, besides the occasional itchy feeling he gets when someone— who isn’t a thirsty girl trying to have eye-sex with him— looks at him a little too long in the hallways.

Once, he’d almost cracked and yelled the fuck you looking at to a junior from baseball who’d stared at him for like five fucking seconds, until he came up to him and nervously asked if he’d like to vote for King and Queen for the Spring Fling.

Goddamnit.

He feels weirdly open and exposed, casting a glance around surreptitiously every time he does something revealing like choose a red jello dessert over the green one. Or take a smoke from the pack of Marlboros the guy gave him, even though look the exact same as any other pack of smokes.

He might be losing his fucking mind. He doesn’t even know why he’s thinking so much about this random guy, who probably doesn’t think about him at all outside of their shared time in the bathroom. That bathroom was like a space outside of his normal life— but of course, that idiot had to ruin it by asking about high school and now their little interactions in that shared space are bleeding into his normal, everyday thoughts.

Billy crushes a can, lobs it aggressively into a trash can. It goes in of course, because Billy is good at basketball, no matter how irrationally angry he is. Most of the time, the anger makes him better, even.

He’s thinking like a fag, that’s what this is. Billy knows, he’s not stupid, there’s a huge difference between acting like a fag (ie. letting some guy from a bar out of town go down on your dick) and thinking like a fag, a much more severe crime— thinking about some guy who you’ve only talked to, acting like a bitch with a schoolgirl crush.

This isn’t a crush, he knows. It’s just weird because he’s never really talked to anyone like that before. Not even in California. It’s the anonymity, and the smokes and the drinking from his flask, that leaves his tongue loose and just a little more open than usual. The feeling of a conversation in a place removed from time.

But Billy’s not a proper queer. So he resolutely puts all those thoughts in shutdown mode and heads off to practice. The running, jumping and focusing only on the ball will help flush this out of his system, he thinks.

And he might even get to rile up Harrington, see if he can play a decent game today, which would be a major bonus because literally no one on the team can face up to Billy when he’s in a mood like this.

Billy grins, flexing his fingers. Harrington better plant his fucking feet today, or Billy will knock him right onto his ass.

 

***

 

“Joseph?” He says hesitantly.

Billy groans. “Hard pass. That’s the name of the guy from the street over who keeps trying to evangelise me and my step-sister. Keeps trying to ‘save me from a lifetime of sin’, that fucking moron. He thinks I’m summoning Satan every time I listen to Judas Priest.”

Princess laughs, genuine delight colouring his tone. “Holy shit! Is that Joseph Walker? He’s tried it on me too, when I was babysitting some kids. We were— I mean, they were playing D&D and he’s legitimately convinced it’s ‘The Dark Lord’s way of corrupting the innocent’.”

Billy smirks. “You play Dungeons and Dragons?”

Embarrassment floods the guy’s voice and when he replies, Billy can sense him glowering at the wall between them. “The kids roped me into it, alright? They’re weirdly persuasive. I’m not a nerd, I barely understand anything going on in the game.”

Billy drums his fingers on the ground. “Not scoring any points in the intelligence department if you’re trying to impress me, Princess.”

“Shut up. You’re the one who’s letting Satan walk the Earth through you.” He replies snidely, in a near pitch-perfect impression of Joseph Walker’s harried, nasally voice.

Shocked at the accuracy, Billy laughs. Princess stops talking, breaks into laughter too. Their breathless laughter swells, echoing against the thin walls until the bathroom seems filled with it.

Chapter Text

Harrington!”

Steve groans. He exchanges a resigned, long-suffering look with Cooper, who shoots him a sympathetic glance in return but shrugs and jogs off to play defence with Martinez and Lee.

Traitor. Steve thinks glumly.

Can’t really blame him though— Billy’s in a mood today. He’d entered the locker room, loud and abrasive— which is par for the course for Billy Hargrove— but his eyes glittered and he gnashed his teeth in a manner that suggested he had a lot of pent-up energy to release.

And once they’d hit the gym, he’d somehow gotten even worse.

He’d gone straight for a ball, running loops around the court and dribbling like a maniac. He whooped, shouted, practically howled when he’d dunked a three-pointer. He missed his second shot, which resulted in his face darkening as he dribbled back to mid-court, appraising the hoop like he was point five seconds away from attacking it and tearing it down.

Billy is a ticking time bomb. Everyone on the court knows it, and no one wants to be in range when he explodes.

So that leaves Steve. Because Billy’s approaching him from the far corner, eyes bright and tongue hanging out, stalking towards him like he’s a particularly juicy bit of prey. As he gets closer, Steve notes the glossy sheen of sweat covering his entire chest, which flexes as he swings his arms. Against his tan, it reflects the light coming in from the windows overhead, making Billy look like a weirdly glittery golden statue. It’s only been ten minutes but Billy already looks like he’s played a whole quarter of a game by himself.

“Harrington!” He calls again. “Let’s go. One-on-one. I’ll take defence.”

That brings Steve up short. He blinks, mouth opening a little in astonishment, wariness forgotten. “You? You want to play defence?” He says, unable to keep the incredulity from his tone. Defence and Billy, just like shirts and Billy, generally don’t mix. Billy’s an offensive person by nature, he thinks; it applies both to his play style and his generally shitty personality.

Billy rolls his eyes. “Yes, Your Highness. Why? Haven’t had enough of me kicking your ass whenever you play defence against me?” Smirks, like he’s said something particularly clever.

Steve frowns, then quickly smooths out the expression so that Billy won’t see. He knows he can be kind of dense at times, but he knows Billy’s the type who thrives off getting a reaction, a rise out of people. If he’s bothered at the way Billy tore through his defences while he was still distracted over Nancy, knocking him over time and time again, bruising his pride more than his back, well.

“Nah, you want to play shirts while you’re at it?” Steve says.

He’s not going to let Billy know it.

But from the way Billy leers at him, Steve has an inkling he already does.

“And deprive the public of this body?” Billy grins, gesturing to himself. He runs a hand down the lines of his unfairly defined chest— seriously, was the dude held back for a year, or what? Several years? “I don’t think so, pretty boy. I’m a Samaritan, I would never.”

Whatever. Steve’s always been a better offensive player anyway.

He thinks he could’ve come up with an excuse to get out of Billy’s firing range— he’s supposed to be partnered with Cooper for this exercise anyway— but Cooper’s already ditched him and Steve is surprised to find himself itching for a rematch so with the tiniest nod in Billy’s direction, he accepts the challenge.

Billy’s face splits into a wide, hungry grin. Suddenly, he hurls a ball right at Steve’s chest, with way more force and aggression necessary for what should be a friendly toss to a fellow teammate. Steve automatically brings out both hands to receive— it hits his palms with a satisfying smack, but the force of impact sends little jolts up his arms.

He scowls. No warning whatsoever. What a dick.

For some reason, the venom that must show on his face makes Billy grin wider. “Just testing your reflexes, pretty boy.” He says easily. “Gotta make sure you can keep up.”

Subtly, Steve shakes out the feeling in his fingers and then drops into play, ball levelled below his chest. Billy takes the cue and drops into a widespread defensive position. He’s not speaking but his eyes are alight with something— a language all on their own.

Steve narrows his eyes. Then, without warning, he darts forward before cutting right. A pretty textbook move, which Billy blocks with ease. That’s fine though. Steve was expecting it. Billy’s got a lot more muscle than he’s used to dealing with from the other players on the team— Cooper excluded— so there won’t be any room for flashy or under-practiced plays here.

But bulk also means Steve is faster than him. And he’s got longer arms and legs, granting him wider reach. Steve makes use of that quickly, manoeuvring the ball around, pivoting in a fluid, controlled motion until his back is flush with Billy’s chest, blocking his access to the ball.

“So,” Billy huffs out, panting from behind him. “You’ve got some moves huh?”

Steve decidedly ignores him. Billy talks way too much to be in a sport. Maybe he should join Debate, or the Drama Club. The thought of Billy reading scripts amuses him so much he nearly forgets to switch hands for his next move.

He deftly lets his left take over and cuts back to the right. Billy, caught up in the complacency of his past defeats, processes a fraction of a second too late and Steve cuts through his defence like butter.

Breakaway! Steve chants gleefully to himself, the familiar joy and adrenaline of basketball coursing through his veins. He manages to dribble close enough to the hoop that he’s comfortable he can make a shot but by the time he lines it up, Billy’s caught up and raising his arms in a menacing defence. Their eyes meet for an electrifying second. His eyes are intense, burning blue, screaming predator.

Undeterred, Steve pinches his eyebrows together in concentration as he focuses on the hoop. He’s got height on Hargrove, he’ll make it, he decides. Hook shot. But if he misses, there’s no chance in hell Billy will let him get the rebound.

So it has to be this shot. Steve inhales, feeling his grip on the ball and shoots as he exhales. The ball makes it past Billy’s defence easily, although Billy tries to jump for it— can’t do much about the height difference and Billy’s not accustomed enough to defence to have any finesse in his moves.

The ball lands on the rim, circling, circling and finally, drops in.

Steve feels the tension rush out of him in a woosh. When he turns to face Billy, he finds himself grinning. He knows what he looks like, the smug rich asshole look that he wore all the time before Nancy and the Upside Down and his effort to be a good person.

Well, he can’t be a good person all the time. So he lets himself have this one, extremely petty moment.

“Keep up, Hargrove.” Steve grins, jogging away from him.

Billy stares like he’s just been sucker punched in the gut. Then he breaks out into a grin too, less manic and more genuinely excited.

That’s what I’m talking about, Harrington!” Billy yells. “Where’s that guy been the whole semester? Jesus.”

Steve is suddenly aware of all the eyes on him and Billy. The team is staring, Coach too. Some of the team are hiding little satisfied smiles. A few of the bolder ones whoop. He catches Cooper’s eye. He’s grinning, shooting him little thumbs-up. Steve gets it. He may not be their king or whatever anymore, and he’s lost a lot of the respect he used to command, but small-town boys are never not going to be smug when one of their own beats some California kid.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Coach mutters. “If you’d spent the last term playing like that instead of ducking out of practice to talk to your girlfriend, you coulda applied for scholarships.”

Steve flushes. Kind of sucks for Coach to air that in front of the whole team, but he concedes that maybe if he’d paid more attention during the scholarship application period, he’d be sailing to college on a full ride now instead of sloughing over his shitty application essay that he has yet to find inspiration for.

Shaking his head clear of those thoughts, he turns to Billy. “Up for round two?” He quirks an eyebrow.

Billy gives him a grin that’s more teeth than anything. “Always, pretty boy.”

 

 

Steve wins two more times, but loses another two. He got close with that last one, he thinks, a little resentful. He’d dribbled to mid-court before he got sloppy with his footwork when Billy caught up to him, much faster than he’d anticipated and stole the ball right under him. After which he’d shot the ball from half-court and it went in. Christ, NBA players would be jealous of that shot. Must’ve been pure luck though, because Billy had looked almost as surprised as he had.

Luck or not, it’s still unfair, Steve gripes as he towels his hair forcefully. It’s not like basketball is the most important thing in his life anymore— the discovery of inter-dimensional monsters being a thing tends to put stuff in perspective for you— but it’s still a sport he loves and is generally considered good at. So it kind of sucks when there’s a guy with those kinds of muscles and natural game sense like Billy Hargrove making half-court shots in a practice game.

He sighs.

“Hey,” A voice way too near his ear startles him out of his reverie. Steve turns, just slightly and is met with Billy’s intense gaze. Billy, in true Billy fashion, must have absolutely no sense of personal boundaries because instead of moving away, he leans closer.

“Keep playing like that, pretty boy, and we might actually get somewhere this season.” Hot breath tickles the side of Steve’s neck and it takes everything in his willpower not to shiver.

What the fuck is Billy doing?

And why the fuck does it feel so uncomfortable to swallow all of a sudden?

He stares a moment longer, unable to find words because he thinks Billy just complimented him and really, Steve has no available response to that because it didn’t seem in the realm of possibility.

Then, like nothing happened, Billy steps back and claps him on the back, a brief friendly touch between sportsmen. “Good game, Harrington.”

Steve nods, unsure. “Same to you, Hargrove.” The words come out clunky, like a rusty train trying to get going. They’ve been a lot of things since Billy pulled up in the parking lot last October— rivals, enemies, beating the shit out of each other— but friendly has never been one of them. The guise of it drapes over them like an ill-fitting suit, makes Steve feel itchy.

Billy nods, once and leaves. Steve watches as he slings an arm around Tommy, messing up his hair and complaining loudly about something, before he tears his gaze away.

Well, that was fucking weird.

 

***

 

“What’s got your panties in a twist today?” William’s voice shakes him from his thoughts. “Mommy didn’t pour enough caviar on your eggs?”

“Huh?” Steve lifts his head from where it had been resting on his knees. “What do you mean, ‘got my panties in a twist’?”

William sighs impatiently. “You’ve been quiet. It’s weird.”

Steve snorts. “It’s not like we haven’t hung out in silence before. Have you ever considered, maybe I occasionally don’t want to have to hear the shit that comes out of your mouth, like, all the time?”

“Yeah, right. You love it when I talk, I’m a fucking delight.” William says. After a pause, his voice drops to a low, serious tone. “No, seriously. You’ve been anxious and twitchy and it’s weird.”

Steve stares at the wall between them. It’s not like he can see William’s face but he’s hoping that the strength of the incredulous look he’s shooting in that direction will penetrate the wall and hit him. “Wait, are you seriously asking about my feelings, right now? You want to talk feelings?”

William makes an annoyed sound. Steve hears the tell-tale sound of shifting fabric as William legitimately squirms next to him, although he’s making an effort to hide it.

“It’s not like that, shithead. Your twitchiness is making me feel anxious as shit. So you either suck it up and tell me what’s going on with you, or you get out. I can’t get a good buzz going with you freaking out next to me.” William says, the scowl evident in his tone.

“It’s nothing, man—“ Steve replies automatically. “Wait. You brought drinks and you didn’t share?”

“Talk first, drinks later.” William says. “Seriously, spit it out, Princess. So we can all get along with our lives.”

Steve feels his eyebrows draw together in the beginnings of a frown. It’s not like he has a problem, exactly. At least, not right now. Sure, all that shit happened with the Upside Down but that was last October and it’s already January. Steve’s pretty sure his tried-and-true method of taking everything he doesn’t want to think about and stuffing it in his Repressed Feelings Box is working well enough for him, and he’s mostly over the whole thing. Mostly.

And even if he wanted to talk about it, it’s not like he could just tell William. The dude’s asking if he’s okay, not to have an entire government conspiracy sicced on him.

Other than that, what can he say? He’s feeling shitty because he hasn’t seen his parents in months and the only reliable check-in from them is the monthly flow of cash into his bank account? His social circle comprising only of middle-schoolers, his ex-girlfriend and Jonathan Byers? Steve almost laughs, humourlessly, because wouldn’t that be telling of his identity? He’s the only teenager in Hawkins, Indiana with that specific set of problems, he’s pretty sure.

Or maybe he could mention the college essay. The clusterfuck, as Billy Hargrove— fucking douchebag— had so kindly spelled out for him. Or how he can’t even see himself as that good at basketball anymore.

The problem is, Steve has no real problems.

None that are unique, or special, anyway. I mean— he instantly regrets thinking it, feels a wave of guilt outpouring the second the thought even enters his consciousness— if he’d been possessed by the Upside Down monster or whatever, like the little Byers had— it would at least make sense that he’s so shaken up by everything.

But Steve had only been on the fringes of the horror. So he doesn’t know, can’t explain to William, or himself, why he’s so fucked up over everything. He’s not special, so he should be fine.

And he is, really. It’s just— there are some shitty days. There are some good days. And he has no control over which turn his day is going to make. He sort of just arrives there like— oh. I’m probably not going to sleep tonight.

Steve realises he’s kept William waiting a long time. The silence between them has stretched for he doesn’t even know how long and yet. William hasn’t said a thing. Steve would’ve expected a sarcastic remark by now— hey, Princess, the lights still on upstairs?— but he’s been strangely quiet. The only sign that he’s still there is the sound of his steady breathing, softly echoing throughout the bathroom.

So, quietly, Steve clears his throat. He doesn’t know what to say, so he figures the least he can do is try for some honesty. “I— I just have. A lot of problems, man. I don’t know where to start.”

He half-expects William to jeer at him. He knows he’d deserve it. As soon as the words fall out of his mouth, he hears the stupidity of them, the shallowness. He’s never been that good with his words and strangely, in that moment, he finds himself hating that part of himself more than almost anything else, more than the lacking intellect, the pathetic loneliness and even his involvement with the Upside Down.

Instead, William laughs. “Don’t we all, Princess.”

But it’s not mocking, it’s— if it wasn’t coming from a guy wields words like razorblades and uses sarcastic banter like a shield— Steve might even say it comes across soft.

That ease, that quiet moment of acceptance somehow gets Steve going. The words come out like a flood, now— “Yeah, I mean. I always knew I wasn’t the smartest but with college and everything coming up, it makes everything worse, you know? It doesn’t help that all my friends are smart and applying to, I dunno, NYU and shit, and I’m just—“ He shakes his head. “I don’t know what I want.”

“Well,” William muses, dragging out the word. “Do you want to go to college?”

“I don’t know,” Steve confesses. “It’s what my family, my friends and I guess, everyone expects me to do. It always felt like the natural path for my life to take, you know? But now that I’m here and I’m actually expected to decide… I don’t know. I don’t want to go to a place where I get to feel stupider— hah, more stupid than I feel even here.” He ends with a humourless laugh. “But I think… I also don’t want to be stuck here.”

To his surprise, William doesn’t laugh along with him. That would be the easy path, Steve thinks— laugh along and say Yeah, you’re not the brightest crayon in the box, Princess and dissolve the conversation into ribbing at each other like normal.

William, he’s starting to find, is nothing but unpredictable.

“Sometimes I’m worried that if I don’t go to college, I’ll be a failure and that’s all I’ll ever be.” Steve confesses. The words come out way too real, too raw but he doesn’t even have the time to put them through his regular filter because the words just keep pouring out, almost against his own will. “It sounds like some— Disney princess shit but it’s like, if I don’t go, what if the rest of my life never begins? And I’ll never know. Because I’ll be here in Hawkins, forever.”

What he doesn’t say, barely restrains himself from blurting: And I have Nancy, Jonathan and the kids now but Nance and Jonathan have already applied to places so far away and the kids, Jesus, they’re little geniuses, there’s no chance they’ll go to college in Hawkins— I won’t let them—

There’s a pause and William whistles once, softly. “Jesus Christ. That’s heavy. Well, I can’t tell you what to do because the first thing I want to say is don’t let everyone tell you what to do, okay? College is fucking expensive and I don’t care how rich you are, Princess, you shouldn’t go just because. Lots of people don’t go and they turn out fine.” There’s another pause. “My ma’ never went to college.” And Steve almost interrupts because William says the words casually but it’s weird because the way he mentioned his mother sounded almost too casual, like a footnote he’d wanted to skip over— but then he’s speaking again and Steve loses the chance— “What it sounds like is that you don’t actually want to go to college. You just want the chance to move away from Hawkins and see the world outside. Trust me, there’s nothing I relate to more. First chance I get, I’m getting out of his shithole.”

Steve smiles softly, familiar with William’s vehement hatred towards his hometown. He’s heard enough of his rants to know just how much William hates ‘this shitty fucking hillbilly town’. “Hey, don’t shit on Hawkins, man. We got the best cornfields in America. Won an award for it.”

“Did you really?” William sniffs, incredulous.

“Sure did. You can look it up,” Steve says confidently, grinning. Far too confidently for someone who is completely bullshitting this Best Cornfields in America award. William must pick that up because he snorts and punches the wall between them once with a ‘Shut the fuck up, hillbilly’.

“Anyway, my point is,” William says. “You don’t have to go to college to get out for a while. You could always just take a job outside in the city. Honestly, I think it’d do you some good. Something’s in the water here, I swear to god, Hawkins is so weird. The rest of the world is not like this.” Steve laughs loudly. He doesn’t even know half of it.

His tone lowers, a touch scandalised. “I don’t know if it’s true but I heard some girl in my grade had a sex dream about her horse in ninth grade! A horse! What the fuck.”

Steve snaps his fingers. “Madison G. Junior. Her horse’s name is Sweetcheeks.”

Sweetchee— oh Jesus Christ.” William cries, tone filled with pure despair. “I swear, you’ve gotta go to like, Cali or— or New York or something. Get out of this horse-loving, corn-eating town of inbred hicks. Things are… different there.” His tone even turns a little wistful at the end, like he’s thinking of some faraway memory.

Steve isn’t quite sure what he means— hasn’t lived anywhere besides Hawkins his whole life but he thinks he might be right. It would be… nice, to go somewhere, even if it’s only for a little while. He feels a wistful smile of his own play on his lips. Yeah.

(In a strange way, William sort of reminds him of Nancy. The way she’d talk about so many different things, about things she’d learned from books or about the news in other parts of the world. Her conversations were always so far removed from the world of shallow gossip that his usual lunch table resided in— it had made her feel real. He remembers her saying once that she and Barbara always dreamed of going to college in a faraway state— and he feels a stab of guilt.)

“Okay,” Steve says. “Appreciate the sentiment but also, I think you just offended everyone who lives in Indiana so on behalf of all the small, hillbilly towns— fuck you, I am not inbred. Corn-eating yes, inbred no.”

He hears a muffled laugh next to him.

“Yeah, maybe not you. But have you seen the shit the rest of this town gets up to? Jesus, don’t know if you know him but that dickhead, Tommy H.— some of the shit he says legitimately gives me hives.”

Steve lets out a choked laugh at that, has to forcibly restrain himself from jumping at the mention of Tommy. Shit, sometimes he forgets that he and William do go to the same school and have probably interacted with similar people.

Might have even talked to each other without realising.

Oh God.

“Yeah, yeah. Heard of him.” Steve says, waving a hand in an effort to look casual, before he remembers William can’t even see him. “Tommy H. talks big fucking game at parties for someone who can’t even do a keg stand for twenty seconds.”

William sniggers at that, taps his drink against the wall in solidarity. “Fucking amen to that. Hey, you go to the same parties as him? Must be pretty popular then. You go to Tina’s last weekend?” His voice takes on that teasing edge that means he’s about to give Steve shit for something.

“Nah, dude.” Steve says noncommittally. It’s true— he’s not a social pariah or anything, although he did have his fifteen minutes of infamy when Tommy and all his old crowd spent all their free time jeering at him and spreading rumours. It’s been months now though, and most of the school has moved on from their hushed speculations about King Steve’s fall from grace, onto the next fresher, juicier piece of gossip. But that doesn’t mean he wants to return to his old life of partying every weekend away with strangers to stave off the emptiness of his own home.

Besides, Tina’s throws good parties but he can’t be in that house without thinking of— well, that. So yeah, kind of a buzzkill.

“Hey.”

The voice yanks him from this thoughts about drunken stumbling through Tina’s house, slurred words filled with hissed venom and bullshit.

When he looks over in William’s direction, there’s a metal flask peeking out from under the stall. Steve finds himself staring, maybe a beat too long, at the thick and tan fingers wrapped around it. Distantly, he realises this is the first time he’s seen any part of William. There’s nothing identifying on his fingers, no weird birthmark or rings or anything but—

He recognises the careful, fragile trust he’s being offered here and smiles despite himself.

He takes it, his own fingers brushing against William’s. The brief moment of contact sends a thrilling jolt of electricity down his spine.

He’s here. He’s real.

“Thanks.” Steve says. He hopes that it carries the actual weight of his gratitude. For listening, and not laughing at Steve’s stupid problems and just. Being there.

(It’s not something he can say for most of the people he knows.)

“Made a deal, didn’t we?” William says, sort of brusquely. Steve smiles, lifting the flask to his lips. It’d been jarring at first, the way William could go from teasing, friendly and downright gentle at times, to closed-off, curt and sometimes even angry. But he’s gotten better at reading him, learned to listen to his verbal tics, the way he shifts when he’s uncomfortable— and he knows. This isn’t him being brusque; he’s just embarrassed.

For being a good friend.

What a weirdo, Steve thinks, amused.

When the flask meets his lips, the mouth of it is sort of warm. He startles. Stares a little. Eyes widening and eyebrows climbing up his forehead at the realisation that that warmth is the residual heat from William’s lips.

What the fuck, Harrington. You’re not a virgin eight-grader, get over yourself!

Face burning, he determinedly places the flask to his lips again and takes several gulps of the liquid inside, ignoring the way the whiskey burns on the way down, settling uncomfortably in his stomach.

“Whoa, don’t down the whole thing!” William kicks the wall. “Give that back. Didn’t know I was extending my generosity to a fucking alcoholic.”

Steve passes the flask back, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His face still feels hot and he doesn’t know why his body is reacting like he’s still an immature fourteen year old. “M’not an alcoholic. Just thirsty.”

“Bring your own drinks, next time.” William scoffs. “This is my good shit.”

Steve wants to make a comment about being able to sneak better whiskey from thirteen-year-olds— seriously, Eleven was getting scarily good at levitating shit out of Hopper’s alcohol stash for him before he woefully told her that stealing alcohol from her dad and also the Chief of Police was probably a bad idea and called the arrangement off— but thinks better of it. Instead, he says: “Alright. I’ll bring beer next time.”

Seemingly satisfied, William hums in agreement. “You gonna be here next Monday?”

“Can’t.” Steve says, actually feeling regretful. “Got babysitting duty. Tuesday?”

“Works for me. I can only be here after four though.”

Steve mentally calculates the time it’ll take him to get here after basketball practice. By the time he showers, fends off the usual Tommy bullshit in the locker room and drives over, it’ll probably be just after four.

He agrees, and they spend the next twenty minutes sitting in peaceful silence.

Or at least, Steve can only imagine it’s peaceful for William because for some reason, his brain keeps bringing up the memory of Tommy and Carol in eight grade, singing gleefully to him because:

Steve kissed Trisha! Steve kissed Trisha!

What— no I didn’t!

Yes, you did! Indirect kisses still count, Stevie! You drank from her juice box, it counts!

Maybe, he thinks, he should’ve drunk more of that whiskey. If he crashed his car into a tree on the way home, it would still be better than this.

Whatever this is, because Steve honestly doesn’t know.

Chapter Text

His dreams are full of sap; sickly-sweet and sticky. A series of images flits past his mind’s eye, blurry and too-bright, leaving a pounding in his head that is sure to emerge as a migraine when he wakes. He sees things, completely inane but his mind keeps looping back to them as if he’s supposed to derive some profound meaning from them: a stairwell, grimy and scuffed like the one from his old school in California. The sound of a song playing on a record far away, the track repeating over and over and over.

He feels like he’s running. Running from? No, running towards something.

A chase.

But his dreams are full of sap and he moves slow, painfully so, like he’s fighting his way through gummed, viscous liquid.

He feels his fingers twitch in the dream. Or maybe in real life? He’s not sure. He feels restless, anxious, for no reason he can discern, legs twitching like a dog dreaming of chasing rabbits.

On the verge of falling, screaming, crying out, he wakes.

God, he presses his knuckles into his closed eyelids until they burn. His fingers feel numb, ice-cold, even though the rest of his body is covered in a light sheen of sweat. It’s going to be bad today.

It comes like this, sometimes. The anger.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it; he just wakes and everything immediately feels like too much, he’s both numb and wired at the same time, the electric buzz that normally hums under his skin suddenly feeling like its been dialled up twelve notches. No longer a hum, but a sharp spiky threat barely settling under his skin, overly-sensitive, leaving his restless and twitchy, ready to fuck or fight.

He doesn’t mean to be this angry, all the time. Really. Billy recognises it’s— it’s some type of sickness. Normal people don’t feel this way for no reason. Normal people don’t have to sit in their bedrooms staring at a wall for ten minutes to make sure they won’t punch someone in the face the moment they step out of their rooms. But what can he do? The poison is already in his blood.

And he doesn’t want to give Neil the satisfaction of another way he isn’t normal to lord over his head.

Normally, he’d go over to the abandoned diner. Safer there than anywhere else, he figures. Alone with only one other person he could hurt.

The fear has always been lurking in the back of his mind. Going to meet someone, not just by chance, but intentionally when he’s all keyed up like this— it’s like playing with fire. Asking for someone to get burnt. And as much as he loathes to admit it, the thought of hurting him, Princess, always leaves Billy filled with a vague sort of panic and twitchy anxiety.

But it hasn’t happened. Yet. Somehow, the action of driving all the way out there, almost like leaving regular Hawkins behind and entering this strange, secret world where he could meet a— a friend— then settling into the stall, sliding the door bolt shut, as if locking himself in— it’s become a ritual, of sorts. He can sit there and listen to Princess ramble on, exchange easy banter and not have to look anyone in the eye or pretend like his every nerve isn’t on fire right now.

Billy lets out a long, shaky breath.

He can’t go today. He’s been assigned the task of sending Max over to one of her little dweeb friend’s houses and picking her up. In between, he and Neil are supposed to watch the game together. Baseball— the one thing they’ve always been able to connect over because they both enjoy shouting at the umps for making fucking stupid calls and talking shit about the other team.

But just like most other things they used to enjoy together, it’s been soured by years of slow-broiling resentment, paternal disappointment that he’s such a fuck-up and the stupid shit Neil tries to enforce like Mandatory Family Time.

Yeah, so, he has to watch the game with Neil anyway, because of the aforementioned Mandatory Family Time, even though he thinks he’d rather stab his eye out with a fork than pretend to enjoy three hours sitting on a couch with his father.

He gets up from the bed with effort, the creaking of the bed-springs accompanying his movements. Reaching under his shirt to scratch at his belly, he staggers toward the bathroom in hopes of cleaning himself up and maybe not feeling like a disgusting human cesspool of sweat and grime.

Whatever. If he plays his cards right today, Neil might let him go to Kelsi’s party tonight. Kelsi’s one of those rich chicks— rich enough to have parents who were shameless enough to name her Kelsi instead of Kelsey-with-a-‘y’- like middle-class common folk— who live somewhere in Loch Nora. He’s heard she’s even got a pool. Party like that is bound to have good booze and weed— and girls who will fall over themselves to slide into his lap— just what he needs today.

After he cleans himself up and makes himself look halfway presentable, his blonde hair in haphazard little ringlets instead of the carefully styled head of curls he usually prefers, he makes his way over to the dresser to grab a smoke.

Tapping on the pack of Marlboros Reds, he frowns when it comes up empty. Huh, he hadn’t realised he’d already made it through the whole thing.

Shrugging, he turns to the trash can near the door, intending to toss the pack in on his way out of the room. But for some reason, after raising his arm to throw the pack away, he…

He hesitates.

Stands there, fingers frozen clutching the pack of cigarettes, somehow unable to make that final gesture. Staring, at his own trash can, like an idiot.

Then— the spell breaks.

He growls, frustration and furious embarrassment slamming into him with the force of a truck. He hurls the pack into the trash, then grits his teeth when the pack lands on the mound of paper waste, still fully visible, as if taunting him. A bout of irrational fear and anger overtakes him— what if Neil sees and he knows?— and the next thing he realises, he’s kneeling on the ground, burying the pack under crumbled balls of paper.

He stands abruptly.

What the fuck is he doing?

He takes a step away from the trash can, shoving his hands into the pockets of his tight jeans. Laughs a little even, incredulously, at himself. It’s the weird dreams that got him in a mood like this, he thinks. It’s because Neil only likes Camels and he doesn’t usually get to smoke Marlboros, he thinks, just a little more frantically.

He steps out of his room, yells at Max that he’ll be waiting in the car and resolutely does not think of Princess at all. Not the way he said Thanks, with so much weight it was painfully sincere, or I’m trying to quit. My girl— I mean, my ex. She didn’t like it.

He’d never lay his hands on his baby. The Camaro is the one thing that truly belongs to him and no one else and it’s his precious baby. But for a moment, he thinks about slamming his hands on the wheel, just once.

Tonight, he reassures himself, settling for gripping the wheel tight to steady himself, I’ll get laid tonight and drink until I can’t fucking think and everything will be okay.

He just has to make it until tonight.

 

***

 

After a mind-numbing three hours of Billy barely able to follow what’s happening on screen— he’s so keyed up he’s practically vibrating out of his skin— the Cards win against the Mets by three games.

Bolstered by the good outcome, Billy carefully plumps the cushions and rearranges them back on the sofa, just the way Neil likes it as the man gets up to stretch.

“Dad,” Billy starts carefully. He doesn’t continue, knows not to request something without Neil’s express permission to keep speaking.

After a five second pause in which Neil finishes stretching, he finally nods.

“Yes?” Cold blue eyes turn on him and Billy forces himself to look right at them steadily, forcing his fists to remain lax and unclenched.

“A few friends of mine were planning a get-together tonight.” He says carefully, heart thudding in his ribcage. “They wanted to celebrate, you know, big test just passed this week so they thought it might be nice to… relax, a little. The house in in Loch Nora.” He adds meaningfully. “You might’ve heard of the family, actually, the Mannings?”

It’s sort of a trap, Billy knows, a kind of dirty trick he’d picked up over the years. Neil can’t say he knows them, it’d be too easy to prove untrue but he also can’t say he doesn’t know them without losing face. Same thing with calling it a get-together— Neil knows it’s a party, 1980s teenagers don’t just have get-togethers on the weekends but this way, Billy might get to go and Neil gets to pretend he’s the caring, responsible parent Susan wants him to be. Plausible deniability.

“I just thought, since I’ve finished all my work for the weekend and I picked Max up already, it might be nice to go over and… unwind.” Billy finishes, scanning Neil’s face for a reaction.

Neil looks away, frowning a little as if in contemplation.

“You think just because you’ve finished your errands for the day, you’re free to run off whenever?” Neil says suddenly.

Billy swallows. Neil was in a good mood, wasn’t he? Did he fuck up gauging his mood somehow?

“No, sir.”

Neil narrows his eyes to slits. “You realise that if you leave now, you’ll be missing the dinner that Susan has already begun cooking? It’s five. If she’s started, she’s already prepared enough ingredients for your portion.”

Billy weighs his options. He could tell the truth, that Susan hasn’t started cooking, he knows because he asked her but sometimes, the truth doesn’t get him out of anything. It might land him in even hotter water for back-talk.

He needs the release tonight too much.

“Susan hasn’t started cooking yet. I know she usually starts around five but she told me she has to deal with something from work today, so she’ll only prepare the meal around six.” Billy wills himself to continue looking straight into Neil’s eyes, spine straight as a rod. “Sir.”

Neil nods, slowly.

“You’ll bring Maxine to the arcade tomorrow, then? Ten a.m, sharp.” Neil says. Sundays are usually his free time, since Susan is Christian— Christian-ish anyway, Billy doesn’t really know, he’s never seen her go to church since she married Neil— and they usually respect Sunday as a day of rest.

Billy agrees in a heartbeat.

Neil studies him a moment longer. Then, he nods once and steps away from him, giving him the signal to go on, get out. “I want you back here in the morning, cleaned up and ready to take Maxine. If you come back any later than eight, we’ll see if you get to attend any more get-togethers after this.”

Billy nods, maybe three, four times, relieved and stupidly grateful. Says Thank you, sir like a robot that’s rehearsed it a million times. Some part of him knows it isn’t normal to have to jump through hoops like this just to go to a high school party, but the larger, louder part of him is screaming with the promise of freedom, even just for a few hours and that shoves the more reflective part of him to the back of his mind.

He gets in the car, flicks on his aviators and guns the engine, tearing out of the lot like he wants to set it on fire. The Scorpions are blaring on the radio and he grins as he feels the sweetness of the dusk air envelop him, wind rushing past his ears as he tears his way down the street to Loch Nora.

He doesn’t know if this is what freedom feels like to everyone else but for now, he has until eight tomorrow morning to do whatever the fuck he wants and he can’t imagine freedom tasting any sweeter.

 

***

 

Billy pulls up to the Manning house a quarter after ten because no matter what time Neil let him off, Billy Hargrove never turns up to a party early.

Any time before ten, the girls aren’t tipsy and pliable enough to disregard his sharper edges, his rough hands and the guys aren’t stupid-drunk enough to sling a sweaty arm around his shoulder like they’re all buddies, plying him with more booze and roping him into sloppy games of beer pong.

Speaking of stupid drunk—

“Hargrove!” Tommy, already sporting a reddish flush on his pale freckled cheeks, howls from the opposite side of the room. He squeezes his way through the throng of sweaty bodies and clamps a clammy hand on Billy’s shoulder. He just barely stops himself from recoiling.

He nods instead, sliding on a loose smirk, relaxing his posture. “Hagan. Where’s the good shit around here?”

Tommy grins. “Not yet, Billy boy. You’ve gotta earn it.” He whispers that bit like he’s telling Billy some fucking amazing secret, chuckling a little at himself. “The people are asking for their keg king.”

Billy considers his options. He doesn’t exactly feel like doing all that shit tonight, mostly just wants to fuck some nameless girl senseless and drink his weight’s worth in Kelsi’s expensive booze but.

That’s not how things work here in Hawkins, he knows.

For some reason, these people are obsessed with having a leader to follow, someone’s name to yell and cheer and holler. So he puts his hands up, lets the arrogance shine on his face the way he knows drives the people here wild and says, “Then lead the way, Tommy.”

As they’re walking over to the garden outside, Billy catches sight of Steve Harrington by the sliding doors. He’s got one arm propped against the wall and he’s leaning, all loose-limbed confidence, over some girl with disgustingly adorable blonde curls. The edge of his soft brown fringe flops into his face, casting shadows against his dark eyes as he nods a little to whatever the blonde chick is saying. Harrington, blending into the scene of the party like a goddamn chameleon, perfectly happy on the sidelines. For some reason, the sight of it chafes at him, leaves a sour note at the back of his throat.

Tommy leads Billy past him, and Harrington doesn’t even notice.

Billy taps out at a respectable forty-two seconds, which is already leagues ahead of their previous king anyway, so he soaks up all the drunken cheering and glory, thrusting his fist up in a gesture of victory.

He stumbles back into the house, catches a glimpse of himself in the living room mirror and thinks Oh, yeah. That’s it. Somehow in the course of the game, his shirt’s been unbuttoned practically to the naval, his curls have been tossed into a wild mess atop his head and his eyes are gleaming. He screams sex and he knows it.

Already, there are girls trying valiantly to catch his eye from various corners of the room, biting their lips and moving slowly towards him, artificially casual, as if they’re hoping to just ‘bump into him’ by the punch bowl. It’s painfully obvious, but Billy plays the game anyway.

“Hey,” he says when a tanned brunette slides into place beside him.

She hands him a cup. He accepts it. “I’m Tessa.”

They spend the next fifteen minutes on Kelsi Manning’s expensive leather couch making out. It’s pretty hot and she’s good with her hands, rubbing them along the expanse of his chest, his jaw where a faint outline of stubble is growing and even venturing to touch some of his curls, which he allows, just this once. Her hands are soft and gentle, and her lips even softer. But he’s starting to feel that thrumming energy from this morning itching under his skin again, and he knows he needs something more. He wants it rough, wants her to scream his name instead of whispering it, wants her to grab fistfuls of his hair, not let him have it easy. Restlessness sends a tremor through his bones.

He’s about to pull away, whisper in her ear that they should take this upstairs when there’s a commotion from outside. Someone’s yelling and there’s a sharp smash of what might be glass against the floor. The party inside’s gone silent, people looking to each other in confusion. A beat later, there’s the slam of the sliding door and someone storms out into the crowd, the bite of cold air from outside following her. Billy can’t get a good look at who it is.

Against his better judgement, Billy stands, leaving Tessa to protest and grab at him with plying hands. He treads out into the garden, then stops short when he sees something the fucking bizarre sight of Tommy, Carol and Steve together at the pool loungers.

Well, not together, he realises as he steps closer.

Tommy and Carol are a little ways off from Harrington, both standing and grinning at him as if in on some big joke. Steve’s sitting on one of the loungers but his posture is anything but relaxed, the line of his shoulders tense and his jaw wired shut. He’s staring at Tommy and Carol with the mixed horror and revulsion of someone watching a car crash about to happen, his fists clenching his sides.

Harrington’s girl, the blonde chick from earlier, is nowhere to be seen.

“Come on, Harrington!” He hears Tommy crow. “Don’t tell me— you’re actually scared?”

I’m not.” Steve grits out. Billy suddenly notices he’s holding a can of beer in his hand. The metal on one side under his thumb is a little dented from him gripping it too hard. His hands, shit, they’re trembling. “I just don’t feel like fucking shotgunning a beer with you two, alright? We’re— we’re not even friends anymore, jesus.”

“We’re not even friends anymore.” Carol mocks, pitch rising in a grating whine. “Oh, like you have other friends to shotgun beers with? Or you just don’t wanna without… Nancy?”

Billy hears a gasp ripple through the slowly-growing crowd, a messy circle forming around the three of them. Steve hardly seems to notice the audience, his eyes solely trained on his two former friends.

His eyes are narrowed now to dark slits. “You know that’s not the reason.”

Ugh, Steve, why do you even act like you care? You weren’t friends with her. We all knew you just let her stick around so you could get with Nancy. She was so gross, like, the nerdier, more stuck-up version of Nancy.” Carol wrinkles her nose in disgust. “She hated you."

At that, Steve reels back, his jaw working but no sound coming out. His eyes are blown wide now, looking almost betrayed. Intrigued, Billy steps closer. The circle of people makes way for him. There’s a story here, he can feel it, from the electrified air and the hushed silence of the people watching around him. Something happened before he came to Hawkins. He feels it acutely, like the aftershocks of an earthquake that rocked this little Indiana town.

“How… how can you say that, Carol?” Steve finally bites out. “She died.”

Damn, whatever Billy was expecting, it wasn’t that. But then Tommy laughs, dispelling the gravity of Steve’s words with a careless wave of his hand.

“You actually believe that shit, Stevie boy? I got a cousin on the force— he says they found her car way out at a bus stop on the way out of town. She didn’t die here, idiot. She ran away.” Tommy rolls his eyes scornfully. “She ran, because she thought she wouldn’t get laughed at, if she was in some big city. As if anyone could like her, wherever she was.”

Steve stands. The scrape of the metal legs of the lounger shrieking against the tile sends everyone flinching. Tommy, like the fucking dick he is, grins and mouths oooh, scary mockingly. But Steve doesn’t say anything— just stands, eyes wide, chest rising in these tight, shallow breaths.

After a few moments tick by, it becomes apparent to Billy, with dawning horror, that maybe— maybe he can’t say anything. At some point, the tremor in his hands had spread to his whole body and now Harrington is shaking, ever so slightly, standing stock-still and heaving these little breaths.

But just as Billy’s about to step forward— he can’t stand seeing any more of this shit-show— Steve moves.

Just crosses the space between himself and Tommy like it’s nothing, mechanical, and swings his fist right at Tommy’s fucking face. It clocks him square in the jaw and while Billy thinks Harrington’s punches are nothing to sneeze at, Tommy isn’t Billy and he goes down like a sack of potatoes, moaning in pain like a complete bitch.

Carol screams, dropping to her knees to cradle Tommy’s face. Her head whips up and she casts a furious glare at Steve. “Hey, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

But Steve isn’t looking at them anymore. Bizarrely, when Billy traces his line of sight, he realises that Steve is staring straight at the pool, eyes blank and completely lost inside his own head.

It’s fucking freaky.

The crowd has gone wild, girls screaming at the sight of blood pouring out of Tommy’s nose, clutching at the arms of their boyfriends, while simultaneously pressing closer for a better look.

Billy hears the sound of sharp, shallow breaths and then he remembers. He turns back to Steve, who’s still staring at the pool but his eyes are now bright and red with unshed tears and he’s gasping a little, as if he can’t— can’t breathe

“Alright!” Billy yells, breaking free from the crowd entirely. He glares at everyone there, gaze wild and uncompromising, daring anyone to challenge him. “Show’s over. Get the fuck out.”

There’s discontented mumbling but slowly, the crowd begins to dissipate. Billy doesn’t wait around for them to clear out, instead grabbing Steve roughly by the arm and hauling him to his feet.

“I’m getting you somewhere quiet, Harrington. But you have to walk on your own, I’m not fucking princess carrying you upstairs.” Billy says, shaking Steve just enough to try and jolt him from whatever trance he’s in.

Steve squints at him, unfocused. His head lolls a little. “Princess,” he murmurs. His breath is still coming out in shallow gasps, and he says the words with effort. “Hah.”

“Do you understand?” Billy shakes him again, a little more urgently.

“M’kay,” Steve says. He must understand to some extent that there’s something wrong with him because he allows Billy to manoeuvre him into a quieter corner of the house, towards the staircase, which they sit under after Billy chases out the two sophomores that were making out underneath it with a glare.

“Harrington.” Billy says. “You need to calm down, okay? You’re not breathing right. Whatever you saw out there that made you panic like this, it’s not real, okay? You’re just having— a bad trip, or something.”

This gets Steve’s attention. His gaze is suddenly hyper-focused on Billy, making him feel uncomfortable at the unexpected attention. “S’not a bad trip.”

Billy sighs. “It’s fine, Harrington. We’ve all felt it before. It’s not your fault, sometimes the weed just hits differently.”

“It’s.” Steve tries, frustrated when the words don’t make it out. He waves his hands, insistent. “Not. I didn’t take any weed.”

“Whatever it was, you gotta calm down, okay? Breathe, Harrington. Focus on breathing.” Billy presses both hands down on Steve’s shoulders, the way he remembers doing when he was younger. Too late, he realises that it may not actually be that comforting for Steve to be held by the same hands that beat him into the ground last October.

It seems to work anyway, steadying him enough to take slightly deeper breaths.

“That’s right. Just follow my instructions, got it? In.” He holds his breath to emphasise, then lets it out in a woosh of air. “Out. In. Out.”

He keeps it up until Harrington’s taking deep, full breaths, and the tremors have left his body. Finally, he lets his words trail off as he considers the boy before him.

He looks like shit.

All the good ol’ King Steve small-town-boy charm he’d witnessed earlier in the evening while he was flirting with that girl, all that wallflower normalcy he’d found himself annoyed by has fled. Leaving a pale, tired-looking husk with deepening shadows under his eyes. He looks wrecked, and his face is shiny, covered in a sheen of cold sweat.

“Well, are you going to tell me what happened back there?” Billy sits back, putting some distance between him and Harrington. They’d been sitting unusually close earlier— out of necessity, Billy knows, it was important to look him in the eye and keep him grounded— but Harrington seems fine now, if a bit exhausted.

“I told you,” Steve says. “I wasn’t high. I was pretty much fucking sober the moment Tommy and Carol came up to me.”

“Well, if you weren’t tripping, then explain why you looked like you were about to cry looking at a fucking swimming pool.” Billy scoffs. “You literally have one in your house, Loch Nora.”

“Yeah?” Steve says, eyes going dark, sharp, challenging him all of a sudden. Over what, Billy has no fucking clue. “Yeah, well, that’s the whole problem, isn’t it?”

What problem? Billy wants to ask.

But Steve’s already leaning away, all the fight draining out of him in a single exhale. It’s too late to pry him for answers, Billy knows. He likes to taunt Harrington, made a hobby out of it, in fact— but when Harrington gets like this, he knows there’s no use. He just stares at Billy, unimpressed, eyes a little glazed over, as if he can just wait for the problem— him— to go away.

To his surprise, Harrington speaks.

“Billy.”

He jolts at that. He knows he’s staring at Harrington a little too blatantly, the surprise plain on his face. He and Harrington never call each other by their first names— it’s one of the rules of their little game. Hearing his name out of Harrington’s mouth makes his skin crawl in an unfamiliar way.

“Why…” Steve says slowly, carefully, as if testing the way the words sound in his mouth. “Why’d you help me?”

Billy stares at him again. A flood of thoughts flicker to the forefront of his mind at the question— his mother, comforting him through his own ‘panic attacks’, she called them; the frozen look of fear on Steve’s face as he stood there, shaking— but he quells all of them.

Instead, almost numbly, he asks: “Why’d you let me?”

A silence stretches between them at that.

Neither of them seem to know how to break it.

Finally, Steve nods and gets to his feet. Billy doesn’t look up to acknowledge his leaving, figures that’s the end of it. He’d never want to stick around someone who’d witnessed something that embarrassing and weak happen to him— he figures Harrington feels the same.

Until there’s a hand in his face.

He looks up the proffered hand, and finds Steve Harrington looking down at him, one eyebrow quirked as if asking come on, what are you waiting for?

Billy quirks an eyebrow right back at him. In all honesty, he doesn’t know how to react. Silence is the safest option.

“Kelsi keeps the good weed in her bathroom.” Steve says. “Her boyfriend knows someone from out of town. Want to steal some?”

This isn’t what he envisioned at the start of the day, when he’d been too keyed up, eager for a fight or a good fuck. He’d been looking to drink himself near-unconscious and fuck some girl until he was too exhausted to be angry anymore.

Steve Harrington was nowhere on that list.

And yet.

He looks at the hand, still right under his nose. Impatiently, Steve gives it a little wave, as if to remind him he’s waiting. What a brat, Billy thinks, almost smiling.

He grabs the hand, lets Steve pull him up with a surprising amount of strength. Billy’s pretty bulky— he hadn’t thought those lean, pretty boy arms would be able to take the weight but he guesses Harrington’s going to keep surprising him.

Once they're eye to eye, Billy jerks his head towards the staircase above them.

“Lead the way, pretty boy.”

Chapter Text

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.

“Wh—”

“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

Shit.

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.

It’s eight-thirty.

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.

Fuck.

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.