Billy stares down at the empty mug of cocoa on the table. Beside him, Max taps her foot anxiously, clearly wanting him to get out of the way but not wanting to ask. She’s hesitant around him these days. Unsure. He hates it.
He breathes in slowly, letting the air run out in a slow trickle, like he was taught to take the edge off of panic. If he doesn’t think about it too hard, it’s almost like smoking. Like nothing ever changed.
That thought snags on his brain, making him frown, fists clenched in an instinctive response that makes him feel worse—not safer, like it should. It’s too bright in their kitchen, too filled with orange and yellow. He can’t think straight.
“This looks like shit,” he says finally, sliding his eyes sideways to her in aggressive judgement, like he used to.
Max takes the bait.
Bristling, she puffs up like a cat and immediately tries to defend her disgusting pile of sludgy cocoa. Billy almost smiles.
“I’m making it exactly how Mom does!”
Yeah, well, that’s your first problem, kid.
He doesn’t say that.
“Your mom’s taste buds have faded. Happens to everyone. Let me make you a real cocoa.”
Max scoffs. “Yeah, says the damn smoker. Do you even have any taste buds left? You—Wait.” She freezes, eyes wide. “What did you say?”
Billy rolls his eyes and tries not to groan at the immediate headache it gives him. These lingering drugs have some side effects. He can’t wait to be off them.
“I said,” he says through gritted teeth, “let me make you a damn cocoa. Or don’t. What do I care?”
He kind of does though. Care. He shouldn’t, because it’s futile and he never did before, but he cares what Max thinks of him. He cares about whether she’s too afraid to accept a damn cocoa.
“Well…” She trails off. “I was about to make another one. I guess you could… Make it… For me.”
Christ. The kid has such a frown on her face, Billy almost takes back the offer, but it’s personal now. It’s a challenge.
“Si’down then,” he says roughly. “I’ll bring it in.”
Max disappears, still with that look on her face, and the familiar anger flickers in Billy’s chest but—
He’s just so tired. And he wonders now if he was always tired, if that’s what was behind the anger. Just… exhaustion. Like there was only so much more he could take, and why could no one see what was happening, and there was nothing left for him to give the world except muted rage, and…
Billy winces. His head hurts. Whatever was behind the anger, it’s all that’s left now, and despite it all, despite everything that happened, Billy is glad. He’s glad he has the chance to be tired now, because he never wants to be angry again. He never wants to hurt anyone again, and now he doesn’t have to.
He’s tired, and Neil is gone—booked it when that cop showed up with a cigarette and a mean look in his eye—and tired people get to rest.
He pulls down the ingredients one by one, searching the cupboard for the vanilla essence and cinnamon before laying everything out on the counter. Maybe he’ll make one for himself, too. It’s been a long time. Maybe he’ll join Max on the couch and they can watch whatever’s on the TV, and she’ll relax around him, just a little.
The doorbell rings.
Frowning, Billy turns around, the box of cocoa in his hand as Max sprints past the kitchen doorway yelling “I’ll get it!”
The silence of the house shatters. Familiar voices float down the hallway, bubbly and excited in a way no one is allowed to be in this house. Billy winces for a different reason this time, but then Susan’s voice joins them, merry and soft, and he forces himself to relax.
He takes down five more mugs, checks the ingredients and adds more milk to the pot warming on the stove. When Max bounds in, already speaking, the words die halfway out. She stares at the mugs lined up on the counter, and a new expression crosses her face. One Billy has never seen on her before.
Their eyes meet, and she’s hesitant in a different way this time. A way that doesn’t make Billy clench his teeth and taste bile in the back of his throat.
She smiles, and then with a whirl of red hair, she disappears. Billy’s heart is racing, and he doesn’t even know why.
Turning back to the counter, he quickly fills each mug with his own blend of hot cocoa mixture, finishing with three drops of vanilla essence in the milk, and freezes.
Someone is watching him.
Someone who knows how to be stealthy and quiet in a way those kids couldn’t even imagine.
Billy takes a breath; lets it out in a slow trickle, staring down at the wooden spoon in his hand and the pot of milk waiting to heat up. “Harrington.”
The reply is quiet but steady—confident in a way Billy doesn’t understand. It’s that quiet sort of confidence that’s all real, nothing showy about it. It doesn’t need to be. And damn, but Billy has always found that quiet strength attractive, especially in Harrington.
He turns around.
The doorway is shadowed, lit only by the hallway light and the lamp over the stove. Billy hadn’t realized he’d turned the lights out, but he’s glad he did. That way, Harrington can’t see him swallow. Can’t see the split second of panic that tightens Billy’s jaw as he watches him.
He’s always watching Harrington, these days. Of course, he was before, too, but it’s different since Starcourt. Now that there’s no more Neil to catch him out, Billy lets himself watch a little closer. Dream a little louder.
Harrington looks good. He always does, but especially now, in a dorky Christmas sweater with red baubles on it that no one on Earth should ever wear. It makes him look accessible, touchable, when he’s anything but. Billy knows that more than anyone, because he touches him anyway. He takes the shoves and the glares, the acid words and the quiet, quiet strength that tells Billy he lost before he ever began.
Well; he took them. Billy doesn’t know what he does now. Makes hot cocoa apparently.
Harrington’s eyes drop to his throat, as if he can see Billy swallow, and then up to his clenched jaw, which should be hidden in the shadow. His own ticks, tense as well, Billy notices, and then he steps into the kitchen.
“Need a hand?”
“Nah,” Billy rasps. “Almost done.”
The milk he’s been obsessively stirring is just off ready. A second too long and it will burn. He stares at it, knowing he needs to turn off the burner but he can’t move, he can’t—
A hand reaches over and flicks off the burner, then gently takes the wooden spoon from him and begins to stir. Billy looks up into Harrington’s deep, dark eyes, and he realizes he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. Like, at all. With anything. His entire life has been a mess of ingrained patterns until this very moment, and he doesn’t know who he is without them.
“Takes a second sometimes,” Harrington says, inexplicably. Then, when Billy doesn’t answer and the silence has stretched too long, “I burned oatmeal two days ago. Been making it every morning for weeks, and I just… zoned out. Don’t know what the hell happened.”
Startled at the confession, Billy snorts with laughter. Harrington looks pleased. With a deft twist of his wrist, he pours the milk into each of the six mugs. Billy follows behind and stirs each one until they’re frothing a rich, chocolatey brown. The light from the stove catches on the orange kitchen chairs, now that Billy isn’t standing in front of the lamp, and it makes the room brighter in a strange, surreal sort of way.
Billy thinks Harrington’s sweater might, sort of, match his chairs.
Max’s voice comes from the hall. “Hey bonehead, help me get the hot chocolates.”
“Ooh, chocolate!” one of them answers. Billy imagines curly hair.
“Who’s making them?” a different voice asks.
A chorus of protests starts up. Billy catches the word poison more than once. Agitation begins to flare, and he doesn’t know where to look, because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone anymore, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing and—
“Mmmm, these are good,” Harrington says loudly. “Where’d you learn to make them like this, Hargrove?”
Billy freezes, staring at him. Harrington just watches him, calm and certain of himself. He’s obviously just licked cocoa from one finger, collecting the drips from where they ran down the side of one of the mugs—stirred a little too vigorously by Billy. He lifts one eyebrow in challenge, studying Billy as his mouth goes dry and his thoughts race. Billy can’t for the life of him work out what the challenge is for.
Harrington collects another drop on a different finger and sucks it free. Billy swallows.
One by one, the kids tumble into the room, eyes wide, as if they just have to see this for themselves. Max pounces on the nearest mug.
“Thanks, Billy!” she says, no longer hesitant in the slightest, and disappears. Billy’s breath catches.
The others grab their mugs and escape so fast several drops fall to the linoleum floor. But there’s no Neil around to care, and Billy certainly doesn’t give a shit. From the distant living room, he can already hear the enthusiastic slurping and incredulous approval.
“Want one?” he asks when the sounds fade, lifting his gaze to find Harrington already watching him.
Harrington shrugs, that same smile appearing on his face again. “Depends.”
Billy leans back against the counter, arms folded, a strange sense of familiarity hitting him. He can do this. This doesn’t have to change, even if everything else has.
“On if you’re inviting me to stay.” Harrington’s eyes flash.
Slowly, Billy’s mouth curves up into a grin. “Are you flirting with me, baby?”
He means it as a joke, the kind of defense he’d always put up without thinking twice: be so obvious about it no one thinks you’re serious. He realizes his mistake immediately. Billy is always serious these days, and Harrington knows it.
Harrington takes a step closer, leaning his arms on the counter on either side of Billy and caging him in. Billy swallows.
“I’ve seen you watching me, Hargrove,” he says, voice quiet. Confident. “Nothing’s changed, has it?”
There’s something under the words, something Harrington is trying to tell him, and it makes Billy relax. Of course it’s changed. Everything’s changed.
But he hasn’t lost anything that mattered.
“Oh yeah it has,” he says, voice a low rumble as he grins and threads his fingers through Harrington’s hair. “I’m not just watching now.”
The light catches in Steve’s eyes, making them twinkle with both heat and… curiosity. It’s not something Billy has experienced before—an unusual, almost opposing blend of comfort and fire—but he likes it. He wants more of it. Wants more things to change, because it turns out change can be good.
When he finally kisses him, the taste of hot cocoa lingers on his lips, and Billy feels, for the first time in weeks, like he might not be so tired anymore after all.