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Talk of Milkshakes

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Steve can’t even remember the last time he really, truly enjoyed his own birthday. It must have been some time when he was a kid, but if pressed, he can’t name a year. Tenth birthday, maybe? Ninth? Something like that.

His parents were never guaranteed to be around for holidays like Christmas or New Years or Thanksgiving when he was a kid, but they always made sure to be home for his birthday. Today is not an exception. And like every year, they meet up in a bigger city, and dress up and go to a fancy restaurant and spend a few hours making stilted, too-polite conversation. This year, it’s Indianapolis, since Steve’s started working for the local branch of his dad’s company, and has been living in an apartment in town for the last three months.

Steve absolutely hates it.

But it’s tradition, and his parents actually go out of their way to make it happen every year, so he can’t really say ‘thanks but no thanks’ without sounding ungrateful.

So. Here he is. In an upscale restaurant in the nicer parts of town, being shown to the best table by the host. Since it’s a special occasion, Steve’s wearing a suit and tie, and tries to ignore how the crisp new shirt makes his skin itch.

When they’re seated – it’s a round table, so he can face both of his parents at once – the host tells them that their server will be with them shortly, and leaves them.

“So, Steven”, his father says, and Steve plasters on a smile and prepares to listen to the annual ‘you’re maturing, and with age comes responsibilities’-speech. His mother is already turning in her seat, no doubt trying to locate the bar, or someone with access to it. Steve sighs, silently. This will be a long evening.

He senses, more than sees, a presence next to him, and uses the respite of his father turning his attention to the newcomer to take a sip of water.

Which is why, when he hears a very familiar voice say “Good evening, my name is William and I’ll be your server tonight”, he chokes on the water and almost drops the glass he’s holding.

His father frowns, his mother leans forward and puts a hand over her mouth, and Billy – because that was Billy fucking Hargrove, what the fuck? – leans into his field of vision and asks, “Sir, are you alright?” like they don’t know each other, like Billy didn’t beat him up a year ago, like Billy somehow belongs in this place.

Steve is not alright. In fact, he feels somewhat like he’s ended up in an alternate dimension, because Billy Hargrove – whom he hasn’t seen since the day he roared out of Hawkins on their graduation day five months ago – is standing next to him, his hand hovering respectfully over Steve’s shoulder without touching, an eerily believable concerned expression on his face.

“Yeah”, Steve manages. “Yeah, I just ...” He glances at his parents to see if they see what he’s seeing, but they seem to be more worried about him making a scene, so he clears his throat, takes a deep breath and collects himself. “Yes. Thank you. I’m sorry.”

“Very well, sir”, comes Billy’s reply, as he straightens up and proceeds to tell them about tonight’s menu.

Steve isn’t listening. He’s too busy staring, and trying to make sense of what he’s seeing.

He has never seen Billy in anything resembling formal wear, so seeing him like this is a lot. Billy’s wearing a crisp dark shirt – buttoned all the way! – and black pants, and there is a long black waiter’s apron tied around his waist. His face is clean-shaven and his hair is properly tied back.

Damn it, but Billy looks good.

There’s no visible jewelry, and he acts polite and attentive as he listens to whatever it is Steve’s parents are currently saying. Glancing at his parents again, Steve realizes that they see nothing wrong with their young server. In their eyes, this is a normal situation.

They see Billy, and he doesn’t stand out to them.

Steve sips at his water again to keep his hands busy, and looks at Billy again from the corner of his eye. He hates to admit it, but Billy does kind of look like he belongs in this fancy place. If Steve didn’t know him, Billy wouldn’t have stood out to him, either. It’s in the way he holds himself, the way he’s dialed down on everything that made him seem dangerous and volatile back in school. And somehow, he’s making Steve feel like the odd one out.

Steve tells himself it’s not jealousy he’s feeling.

He realizes too late that he’s zoned out, when he hears the tail end of a question and finds that everyone around the table is looking at him. Billy is currently turned toward him with his eyebrows slightly raised, and Steve is staring straight into his eyes and has lost the ability to speak.

Luckily, or unluckily, his father comes to his rescue.

“He’ll have the Filet Mignon. And for a starter, a Seafood Cocktail.”

Billy gives Steve’s dad a smile and a nod in acknowledgement, and turns to Steve again.

“And how would you like it, sir?” And there it is, finally – a tiny twinkle in his eye, which hints of the Billy Hargrove that Steve knows.

“How would I like what?”

“Your Filet Mignon. Sir.” The pause between the words feels like a challenge. A challenge that Steve doesn’t know how to react to.

“Medium”, he blurts out, and by the way Billy’s smile widens just a bit, he feels like Billy just scored a point, somehow.

“Very well. I’ll be right back out with your drinks.” And he stands up straight, gives another nod at Steve’s dad, and walks away.

Steve watches him go. When he turns back around, he sees that he’s not the only one to watch him leave – his mother, also, has her eyes glued to Billy’s retreating form, and she tilts her head the way she does when she sees something she wants through a storefront window. It makes Steve’s skin crawl.

His father clears his throat and gives Steve a stern glare. “Honestly, Steven, you can’t even pay attention to make your own order?” There’s disappointment in his voice.

Steve resists the urge to groan. This is going to be an excruciatingly long fucking dinner.

***

It is an excruciatingly long fucking dinner.

He makes polite conversation with his parents, nods at his father’s lectures, ignores how his mother is more interested in the wine than what’s on her plate, and refuses to even look in Billy’s direction when he shows up to the table with their food. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Steve’s mother, who openly ogles their server every time he walks away. It is not helped by the fact that her husband leaves to use the phone several times.

By the time dessert is served, Steve’s father has excused himself three times to go make a work-related call, and every time his mother drains her wine glass and pours a new one. Her comments have started to veer into passive aggressive territory, and she purses her lips and sighs every time her husband returns to the table. Every time Billy approaches them, though, she turns a blinding smile to him and leans forward in a way that makes Steve cringe.

So yeah, Steve kind of wants to die. He’s thinking that he could probably sneak off to the men’s room and hang himself with his tie, or maybe drown himself in the ice-cream, if he just lets it melt a bit.

But no. That’s just wishful thinking. Steve was raised well, so he plasters on a smile that is so fake that it hurts, and eats his ice-cream in record time in the hopes that it’ll shorten his suffering and maybe this whole evening will finally end.

After coffee, during which none of them say a word to each other, Steve’s father has Billy bring the bill, and reaches for his wallet. Steve’s mother drapes herself over her husband’s arm and slurs, while maintaining steady eye contact with Billy:

“Now honey, don’t forget to leave a big tip. William has been nothing but polite and professional all evening.”

“Unlike some”, Billy’s father says, under his breath but still audible to all of them.

Steve closes his eyes, briefly, and wishes that Billy would repeat his stunt with the plate from the Byers’ place, a year ago. If there was ever a time when Steve would had been grateful to be knocked unconscious, it’s now.

Steve’s mother glares at her husband and sits up, sways a bit, and then puts her smile back on for Billy, thanking him again for his wonderful service. To Billy’s credit, he only inclines his head and says, “Of course, ma’am. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

Miraculously, it ends. Steve finally gets to stand up and grab his jacket, and he hurriedly offers his arm to his mother – both so that she’ll avoid faceplanting to the floor and so that he won’t have to look Billy in the eye. When they walk out, Steve’s father claps a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“I need to finish some things at the office”, he says. “Happy birthday, son.”

Steve suspects that the ‘things’ his father needs to finish includes a co-worker of the female variety, and judging by the dark look on his mother’s face, she suspects the same. But she says nothing. She’s said nothing for years.

“I have a headache”, she sighs, when her husband has jumped into a cab and disappeared. “I’m going to go back to the hotel.”

Considering how much wine she drank, Steve is not surprised, and he helps her into her own cab and makes sure the driver knows where she’s going.

As he’s standing in the chilly November air and watching the tail lights of the taxi drive around the corner, he closes his eyes and exhales, feeling the tension in his body evaporate as he can finally, finally, relax.

“Bad night, pretty boy?”

And just like that, the tension is back. He lets out a groan of frustration before opening his eyes and turning toward the voice.

Billy is standing at the corner of the building, with an unlit cigarette between his fingers and an eyebrow raised.

“No”, Steve says and takes a step back. “No, Hargrove, I’m not doing this with you. Not tonight.”

Billy shrugs and leans his back against the brick wall.

“Suit yourself. I was gonna offer you a smoke, but.”

And, damn it, Steve is actually itching for a smoke right now. But naturally he didn’t bring a pack, because his mother hates it and he didn’t want to risk turning tonight into a shit-show.

Well. Too late for that, he guesses.

“Fine”, he says and stalks over to Billy, snatching the cigarette right out of his hand.

“Hey!” Billy protests half-heartedly, but surprisingly doesn’t move to take it back. Instead, he reaches into the pocket of his jacket and retrieves another cigarette, putting it between his lips while he lights it. After that, he offers the flame to Steve.

And Steve shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t stand here with Billy Hargrove of all people – but he wants a cigarette, and maybe, just maybe, he’s a little curious.

A part of him knows he should be cautious, but the bigger part of him is aware that he’s standing by the side of a fancy restaurant – a fancy restaurant where Billy works – and he’s wearing an expensive suit while Billy’s just thrown a ratty jean jacket over his dark shirt. He’s still wearing the apron, for fuck’s sake. Steve thinks that Billy probably won’t beat him up in an alley outside his place of work, especially when his father left such a big tip. He’s not entirely sure, though, which is why he backs up and leans against the opposite wall in the alley, looking at Billy warily.

For a couple of seconds, that’s all they do. Stand there, unmoving, watching each other. Then Billy looks down, and kicks a pebble with his shoe while taking a drag.

“Must say, Harrington, I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Same”, Steve says, and it’s only because he feels he has the upper hand that he is brave enough to ask, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Billy’s eyes flash, and he gives Steve a look like he’s an idiot when he motions to his clothes. “Working.” The ‘duh’ is implied.

And it’s only because Billy’s wearing an apron and Steve is wearing a suit – because Steve suddenly feels better than Billy, and it’s not really a feeling he’s proud of – that Steve responds with sarcasm. “Oh really? I hadn’t noticed.” He takes a drag on his cigarette. “I mean, I haven’t seen you since graduation. How did you end up in Indianapolis? How’d you end up in this place?” He motions to the entrance of the restaurant, and Billy –

– Billy laughs. It even sounds real.

“You mean, why did an upscale establishment such as this hire trash like me?”

That had been the gist of it, but put like that it sounds a little mean, and he suddenly feels bad.

“No, I mean ...” The look Billy gives him says that he knows exactly what Steve meant. “I thought you were going to go back to California, for sure, first chance you got.”

Billy smiles, and it looks like a grimace in the low light.

“I was. I am. That’s still the plan. Just not ... right now. I’m not in a hurry.” He sounds dismissive, and so unconcerned that it can’t be anything but a lie.

Steve wants to ask, but at the same time he knows he can’t. They’re not friends.

Billy wets his lip. There’s a curl that’s come loose from his tied-back hair, and Steve can’t help staring at it. That, and the way Billy’s tongue just darted out, takes Steve back. It’s been five months since he last saw Billy Hargrove, and the guy that he knew back in school was so different from the one that’s standing in front of him now. It’s not just the clothes, or the hair. He seems ... calmer, somehow. Less unpredictable. Less likely to pounce at the slightest provocation.

Steve suddenly has an urge to push. Just to see what’ll happen. To see if he can lure the old Billy out.

“So you’re waiting tables? What, you couldn’t find a better job?”

And he knows he sounds like a douchebag, okay? Standing there in his well-fitting suit and expensive fucking autumn jacket and shiny fucking shoes, looking down his nose at an old classmate who just spent a couple of hours waiting on him and his family. If anything, a comment like that is asking to be punched in the face.

But, surprisingly, all it does is elicit another laugh from Billy. At Steve’s incredulous look, Billy grins.

“This is the better job, Harrington.”

He looks smug, like he’s waiting for Steve to ask … and, damn it, Steve can’t help himself. “What do you mean?”

“I work three jobs, and this is by far the best. Sure, the pay isn’t great but ... if I play my cards right, I can bring home a pretty tip at the end of the night.” Billy dips his head, raising an eyebrow. “Tell daddy dearest thanks for that, by the way. That tip alone will feed me for two days.”

And now Steve feels like shit. Somehow, by not reacting to his baiting, Billy’s made him feel like the asshole he was trying to prove that Billy is, and he doesn’t like it one bit. He drops his cigarette on the asphalt and pushes off the wall, prepares to nod and leave and get back home and bury himself under his blankets and forget this whole evening happened, when Billy speaks again.

“How about you, Harrington? What are you up to, these days?”

And there’s sarcasm in his voice, for sure, but the thing is – it’s not only sarcasm. Steve glances at him only to see that Billy’s reaching out a hand, holding his pack of cigarettes, silently offering Steve another. And he looks … strangely neutral. Steve’s eyes narrows, and Billy shrugs, but doesn’t take the pack back.

Slowly, Steve takes another. Billy does, too, and he lights his own before throwing the lighter at Steve, who fumbles a little before catching it. Embarrassed, he busies himself lighting his cigarette so he doesn’t have to look Billy in the eye, but he can hear a low chuckle. There is no comment, though.

When he holds his hand out to hand the lighter back, Billy shakes his head.

“Keep it”, he says with a shrug. “Heard it was your birthday.” He nods at the plastic Bic lighter in Steve’s hand – it’s the cheap kind that you can buy in any gas station in the country. It is, without a doubt, the shittiest present he’s ever been given.

It is also the only physical gift he’s gotten, this year.

Steve huffs out a laugh. “You know, this is actually the only present I got this year?”

Nancy called earlier, and Dustin called and said that he’s got a present for Steve but that he’ll get it when they see each other, but that won’t be until Christmas. And his parents took him out for dinner and he knows there’s going to be a hefty sum of money in his account tomorrow, but he hasn’t gotten to know a lot of people in town yet so no one at work knows (or would care) that it’s his birthday, and it’s actually a little jarring to realize that this shitty lighter is the only actual gift he’s been given today.

And the second the thought enters his brain, he feels bad. What kind of a spoiled brat is he? His parents just spent more money on this dinner than Billy probably earns in a week, and yet here he is, complaining like a child about not getting presents. He opens his mouth to … take it back, or say something, but Billy beats him to it.

“Well shit, Harrington. If I’d known, I would have wrapped it up for you.”

It’s only a little sarcastic. It’s not followed by a glare. Billy’s leaning against the wall, smoking, and looking … a little like he’s teasing, and a little like he actually meant it.

It’s enough to make Steve exhale in relief.

“I work for my dad”, he says, without thinking. When Billy raises an eyebrow in question, he elaborates, “You asked what I’m doing nowadays. I work for my dad. Whom you’ve already had the pleasure of meeting.”

“Hm”, Billy says, neutrally. “You like it?”

“Fuck no!” Steve laughs, and throws his head back against the brick. “It’s … it’s so fucking boring, and I’m so out of my depth it’s crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I fuck up daily and no one dares to yell at me about it because I’m ‘Mr Harrington’s son’.” He shakes his head and laughs again, perhaps a bit hysterically. “He’s wanted me to join the company since I was a kid, and I’ve never wanted to but what else am I supposed to do, right? And they won’t tell him that I suck at it and God knows I won’t tell him that I suck at it so now I’m stuck there forever and I’ll never …”

He trails off, suddenly realizing that he’s unloading on Billy Hargrove of all people. He snaps his mouth shut, tenses up. Finishes, a little lamely, “It’s just so pointless, is all.”

Steve is fully prepared for whatever comes. For anger, condescension, disdain. He is not prepared for Billy to give a little nod and say, simply, “Yeah. It sucks.”

And, like. What do you say to that?

“It really fucking does.”

“You know a job’s not supposed to be fun, though, right?” Billy says and takes a drag. “It’s in the name. It’s a job. You don’t work because it’s fun, you work to get money.”

Steve feels himself blushing and is grateful that they’re standing in the dark. He looks out into the streets, because he doesn’t want to look down and see the suit that he didn’t pay for; or look at Billy, who’s apparently working three jobs and who, most likely, at least paid for his own ratty jacket. Who will have food on the table for two days because Steve’s father gave him a tip. He realizes, suddenly, that they’re living entirely different lives. It’s humbling.

Unaware of Steve’s realization, Billy continues, “I mean, name one person who honestly loves their job.”

Steve is startled out of his reverie, and frowns at the question. He gives it some thought, and finds that he can’t actually think of one single person who seem to be genuinely enjoying what they do for a living. It should be depressing, but it somehow makes him feel a little lighter. He finds himself nodding, and Billy gives a short smile.

“It’s what you do on your free time that’s important.”

Bats with nails in them, and monsters with too many teeth flashes before Steve’s eyes, and to distract himself from it all, he asks Billy what he does in his free time.

And Billy smiles. Like, a real smile.

“I’m actually a basketball coach?” His voice goes up, like what he’s really saying is ‘Can you believe it?’, and it must make him embarrassed because he puts a hand on the back of his neck awkwardly and tugs a little at the hair there, before clearing his throat. “I mean, it’s one of those jobs I told you about.”

He looks cute, and that is not a thought Steve thought he’d ever have about Billy Hargrove.

“No shit?” Steve says. “That’s great, man!” And it’s strange, that he means it.

Billy smiles again, looking pleased and somehow softer (which, also not a word Steve would have ever associated with the guy in front of him, a couple of months ago).

“Yeah, it is. It really is.”

Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, conversation flows easy between them. Like they’ve known each other for years, like they’re suddenly friends or something.

Steve learns that Billy drove to their graduation ceremony with his things already packed, and that when he first came to Indianapolis, he lived out of his car for the first couple of weeks. In return, Steve tells Billy about how he managed to back into a lamp post on his second day in town, and still hasn’t told his dad about it.

He learns that Billy really like coaching a bunch of 8-year-olds, but since it’s not technically a paying gig he still rates the restaurant as his best job. Steve admits that he hates fancy places like this, and would rather just have a burger and a milkshake in a greasy joint with people he likes.

He learns that Billy’s third job is at a shipping company where he works most nights after finishing here, and that he lives in a shitty apartment that he shares with a shitty roommate in a shitty part of town, trying to save up enough to get his own place, or maybe, eventually …

Well, he doesn’t say ‘go back to California’, but the longing in his voice betrays him.

And Steve’s struggling to make sense of it all. From the sounds of it, Billy’s scraping to get by, and he’s not exactly living the high life. And yet he seems to be doing so much better than when he was in school. Steve’s having a hard time merging the two versions of Billy in his head.

One; an angry, violent kid who was wagging his tongue and pushing, pushing, always fucking pushing … and the other; a less intense version of the same, who shares his cigarettes with Steve and laughs at his jokes. Who apparently teaches kids to play basketball, and charms patrons at fancy-ass restaurants.

Which reminds him–

“I’m sorry”, he says, running a hand through his hair. “About my mom. The way she was behaving ... it wasn’t appropriate.” Because he knows that Billy noticed her looks, her comments.

He looks at his shoes. His shiny, shiny shoes, which he didn’t pay for. “You didn’t deserve that.”

A sigh makes him look up. Billy’s leaning against the wall, head thrown back and watching Steve with hooded eyes. There’s a serious expression on his face.

“You don’t get to apologize to me”, he says. “You didn’t do anything.”

Steve opens his mouth to argue, but Billy’s suddenly right in front of him, holding a hand up inches from his face.

“No”, he says, an intensity in his eyes that would have made Steve tense up twenty minutes ago, but which now just sends a thrill of something down his spine. “If anyone’s apologizing here, it’s me.”

Steve blinks. “What?”

“I’m sorry”, Billy bites out, and it’s a little awkward, because he’s not backing away; is still standing too close. “I’m sorry about that night. What I did was ... not appropriate.” A rueful smile, gone as fast as it came. “And you sure as hell didn’t deserve that. And I’m just, I’m sorry.”

Steve doesn’t know what compels him to do it, but the words are out of his mouth before he can stop them.

“Well, you can make it up to me.”

He means to follow up with a ‘buy me a burger and a milkshake and we’re even’, but he’s suddenly worried that Billy can’t actually afford it, so he snaps his mouth shut. Billy’s mouth falls open and he takes a step back, frowning. Steve regrets speaking at all. Of course it was the wrong thing to say. It made him sound so … entitled. Like Billy somehow owes him something.

Before he can start explaining himself, though, Billy gives him a look. “What, here?”

And what? The closest burger joint is like, four blocks away, so … “What?”

Billy’s still frowning, and Steve feels himself doing the same. This is a misunderstanding in the making, and Steve doesn’t want it to ruin the strange amiability of the last half hour. So he says, “I was thinking, maybe a milkshake?” And he adds, to soften the blow, “I’ll buy the burger and fries”, and it’s awkward because he’s trying not to rub Billy’s nose in their different financial situations but at the same time he’s trying to make it sound like the olive branch it is, and he’s probably failing at both.

And Billy … throws his head back and laughs. He licks his lips, and shakes his head in disbelief. Steve doesn’t understand why, but at least there’s a smile on Billy’s face, and when he speaks he doesn’t seem offended.

“Yeah sure, Harrington. A milkshake. That sounds good.” He looks heavenwards for a second, and Steve’s getting the feeling he’s missing something.

Then Billy glances at his watch and grimaces. “It’ll have to be another time, though.” He makes a face as if he’s actually regretting that fact. “I’m late for work.”

Steve looks over Billy’s shoulder to what must be the back door to the restaurant – it’s late, surely most patrons have left already? – but Billy shakes his head, gestures with his hand. “I mean, the next one. Three jobs, remember?”

“Right, right”, Steve says, only a little awkwardly.

“I usually get home in the morning and crash right away”, Billy says and reaches into a pocket for a tiny notebook and a pencil – and Steve can’t remember if he used those when he took their orders, a couple of hours ago, but he’s thinking he probably didn’t need them – before he continues, while scribbling something down, “but I have most afternoons off. So, like, if you have time and wanna hang out or something, give me a call.”

He holds out a piece of paper, and Steve realizes with a jolt that he’s being given Billy’s phone number. It feels unreal, and for a second, Steve just stares at it. Apparently, it’s a second too long, because Billy’s smile thins and he moves to take the paper back. Before second-guessing himself or really thinking it through, Steve’s hand shoots out and snatches the note from his fingers.

Billy stares at him, as Steve gives the paper a glance – only to confirm that it is, indeed, a phone number – and puts it in his pocket.

“Well, you do owe me that milkshake.”

Billy’s smile widens into a grin. “I do.” He licks his lips. “Milkshake. Got it.”

Then he takes a step back, and points with his thumbs over his shoulder, indicating that he should be going. Steve nods. “Yeah, yeah, go.”

Billy nods, and turns away with a little salute. But before he walks back into the building, he calls out, “Hey, Harrington?” and throws something at Steve. Steve catches it instinctively, and sees that it’s Billy’s pack of cigarettes, with one lonely cigarette left in the box. Looking up, he catches Billy’s grin from the door. “It’s even in a box! Happy birthday, pretty boy.”

Steve laughs and gives him the finger.

***

Steve goes back inside for long enough to ask the host to call him a cab, and then he spends the time waiting for it outside on the sidewalk, smoking Billy’s last cigarette. He doesn’t throw the empty pack away either, after, for some reason. Instead, he pockets it next to the lighter, and he smiles to himself when he runs his thumb over the plastic surface of his crappy birthday present.

It’s been a weird fucking night. It went from misery to humiliation to anger to something resembling comradery, and he made sort-of peace with his high school bully, all in a matter of hours. And now he’s got said bully’s phone number in his pocket, and has made half-assed plans of having milkshakes with him in the near future.

The thought makes him frown, as he climbs into the taxi. He thinks of how he told Billy he could make it up to him. He thinks of the look on Billy’s face when Steve said that. He thinks of Billy’s incredulous ‘What, here?’ and the laugh when Steve mentioned the milkshakes.

He thinks of the glint in Billy’s eyes, the smile on his face, the way he licked his lips.

Steve is halfway home before he realizes that while Steve was talking about milkshakes, Billy might have been talking about something else entirely.