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the love you build your house around

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The knock at Steve’s door was not surprising. Dustin had called an hour earlier and had said, you never see me anymore, this is a tragedy. This is horrible, Steve. And Steve had seen him literally on Monday, and it was only Friday, so. Dustin was being real fucking dramatic. But Steve suspected it maybe had to do with his mama giving him an Atari 5200 as a sorry for leaving you for a month to visit your aunt Cynthia who literally lives in Indainapolis, two hours away gift.

Whatever. Point being, Steve had been expecting a knock. What he hadn’t been expecting was how fucking frantic it was.

“Will you stop that?” His mama called from the living room, like interrupting her soap operas was an actual, punishable crime.

So, when Steve opened the front door, something sarcastic on his tongue, he was definitely not expecting Dustin’s wide-blown eyes.

“This is a baby,” Dustin said, hoisting the car seat in the air.

Steve gaped. “Who the fuck trusted you with a baby?”

“They didn’t, Steven. Who the fuck would trust me with a baby? It was just here!”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve said, snatching the seat from Dustin’s grubby fingers. “Don’t fucking shake it, you’ll hurt it.”

The baby wailed.

“It’s not an it, Steve. It’s a baby. A human baby. On your doorstep. A boy human baby, if the blanket means anything. He’s a he. A baby he.”

Jesus fucking Christ.

“I got it, I got it. But why?”

Dustin rolled his eyes like maybe Steve was the stupidest person he ever met, which Dustin probably did think, but. Steve was real tempted to shove Dustin out of his doorway, baby and all.

“It’s obviously a wishbaby,” Dustin said. Which was, in fact, not obvious.

“Dude, literally no one has wishbabies. They’re like, a joke they tell in health class.”

“Okay, well, that joke, which is actually a real, scientific phenomenon, that like, actual scientists and historians have studied over many, many decades, is on your fucking doorstep.”

“That’s not possible.” Steve squinted at the baby, tried not to panic as the kid screamed, goopy tears and snot covering his face as he wiggled his arms. “I don’t want a baby. I have never wanted a baby. I don’t even want to knock anyone up. I’m in high school, fuck.”

“What is that noise?” Steve’s mama asked, pushing her way to the door. She frowned at the carrier in Steve’s hand, looked between the baby and Dustin. “Do his parents know you’ve brought him here? I would lose my mind if I knew my babysitter was doing that.”

“You think someone would trust him to babysit?” Steve said, at the same time Dustin said, “It was just on the porch!”

“Gosh,” Mama said, prying the kid from the carrier and cradling him in her arms. “You could at least keep him from crying. One at a time.” She pointed a finger at Dustin, held it up in the air to silence him until the baby’s cries subsided. It didn’t take long, the loud wails dying down to snuffling whines as she rocked him, slow, like she’d had lots of practice rocking her colicky son.

“He was just here,” Dustin gestured at the cement step.

Mama frowned more, eyes now going between the empty car seat and her son. “He’s yours,” She said, not like a question.

“He’s not,” Steve insisted. “What would I want with a baby? He must be yours. Or dad’s. Someone’s.”

“Steven, if we wanted another child, we would have had him sixteen years ago. My tubes are tied, and your father’s had a vasectomy.”

That was not what Steve wanted to know about his parents genitals. Dustin nearly looked green at the very idea, parent sex still not something he wanted to think about at fourteen. Parents didn’t do that. They were old.

“Are you sure you haven’t been having thoughts? Come here, hold him. He’ll settle better with his father.”

And Steve was definitely not the father, was almost positive of it as the baby was deposited in his arms. He was pretty sure he was holding it wrong. Was its head supposed to tilt like that? His. His head.

“There, is that better?” His mother asked. “Parents of wishbabies feel a natural bond to their child after touch. I’m sure yours is just forming slowly.”

“How would you know?” Dustin asked.

Mama sighed. “My book club reads too many books about them. I think Karen thinks they’re romantic. Or erotic.”

Again, Dustin looked like he was going to be sick.

“Okay, but. There’s no way this is mine.”

“He’s a boy, Steve,” Dustin said.

Someone needed to shove an icepick in Steve’s head.

“There’s no other explanation,” Steve’s mother said. “You must have been thinking about it, subconsciously. Don’t worry. I’ll hold off my trip to Prague until you finish school. I’ll show you what to do and babysit him during the day.”

And Steve knew he should have protested that the baby didn’t even look like him, with shocking blonde hair and murky gray eyes, but he knew sometimes babies just looked like that, that they grew into their features. He’d been born with brown hair, but his cousin Louisa had been born blonde, had dark curls by the time she was six.

The baby also looked a little too much like his own squished, pudgy baby face for him to really complain. But maybe all babies kind of looked like that.

“That’s only three weeks,” Steve said.

“And your father will only be there for a month and a half. We’ll both be back before you know.”

And Steve didn’t know that, not for sure. But it didn’t really look like he was getting a choice.

“Dad is going to hate this.”

His mama pursed her lips, nodded once before patting his cheek. She said, “I’ll talk to your father. It’s going to work out, sweetheart.”

He stared at the baby fussing in his arms and closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He didn’t feel anything for the kid, not a single spark of belonging. But the baby was here, so.

“I think he looks like an Andrew,” his mother said, taking the baby from him. “I’d always liked the idea of a grandson named Andrew. Andrew Harrington just sounds so regal, doesn’t it? It would look very cute embroidered on his things.”

“I guess?” Steve said.

“Not that I’m naming him for you. He’s your son.”

Steve looked between Dustin and his mama, wanted to rub his face. “No, Andrew works.”

“So,” Dustin cleared his throat, “Can I still use the Atari?”

 

Growing up, Steve had always longed for a brother. It got lonely, playing in his big house, even with his mother chasing him around. He wished he had someone his own age to poke at, someone to show the ropes. Running in the backyard with Tommy and Carol, giggling over the bad words that they knew, wasn’t the same as teaching a younger kid to swear.

It also sucked that he got blamed for literally everything. It was always his fault, but it would have been nice to have a scapegoat.

As Steve sat on the couch, Andy propped in his lap and suckling on a bottle of formula, he knew this wasn’t the answer to his prayers. He hadn’t thought about siblings since he was thirteen, and the kid bundled on his lap wasn’t meant to be his lackey. Steve was meant to raise him, keep him safe.

It was kind of bullshit.

The day Andy showed up, Steve’s mama had given him a long list of things he would need and one of her credit cards. Steve had felt completely helpless as he pushed a cart around the store, was fucking lucky when Joyce Byers spotted him and waved him down.

“A baby?” she asked, looking over the few things he’d struggled to find. “Is your mom going to a baby shower?”

Steve had winced, said, “Not quite. Uh. Wishbaby.”

He hadn’t known how to explain his situation, still didn’t, but Joyce had only pursed her lips and said, “Can’t any of you avoid trouble for one minute?” Like it was Steve’s fault that Hawkins had been torn up by monsters two years in a row, and a magical baby popping up was just another anomaly in the string of bizarre in his life.

It wasn’t magic, Steve had reminded himself, the grating voice in his head a little too close to Dustin’s. It was science. It was all fucking science.

“What’s the baby’s name?” Joyce had asked, taking the cart from him.

“Andrew. Andy.”

She nodded. “That’s a good name. Bet he’s a cute baby, if he’s got your genes.”

“He’s alright?”

She had tutted, grabbed diapers off the wall and put them in the cart. “He’ll grow on you. Let me know if you ever need a babysitter. I’m busy with work, but I wouldn’t mind on my nights off, in a pinch.”

People kept saying that. That Andy would grow on him. That somehow fatherhood would just creep into his blood if he reminded himself that he was meant to like the kid enough times.

Joyce had filled his cart with onesies and blankets, dinosaurs and rocket ships, and itty bitty corduroy pants. Steve picked out the least obvious diaper bag he could find, feeling a little nauseous as his pile grew. Every item made things more real. His mother was hiring painters to turn the second guest room into a nursery.

So, as he sat in the living room with Andy feeding in his lap, The Price is Right clapping and cheering on TV, Steve couldn’t help how his head spun a little, the world fuzzy and full of static.

 

School almost felt like a blessing on Monday morning. It had only been two days since Andy had shown up on his doorstep, but every second he spent with the baby felt too long, too surreal, stretched thin as Andy slept in his crib while Steve did homework at his desk.

Mama was helping with everything she could, always cooing and kissing Andy’s cheeks, but she wanted him to do most of the work while he was home, something about getting to know his son, and something else about having to know have to look after him, during all the time she wouldn’t be around. Even a grandchild couldn’t pin Steve’s parents in place for long, although he was grateful for the time she was offering, and all her future trips she promised she’d cut short.

With her at home, watching Andy, Steve could finally feel fucking normal again. Or as normal as he could, knowing what he did about the monsters lurking in the universe, possibly waiting to rip the rug out from under Hawkins again. He hoped it was unlikely. But his luck was never that good.

He met Nancy at her locker, leaned against it like he always did, like he was still a Casanova, even without his lady. He was cool, alright? Classic.

“Morning,” Nancy said, exchanging her books. “Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, you know, it was chill. Got all that work done for Mrs. Brigg’s class.”

“Really?” Nancy squinted at him, but it was smiling. “What have you done with Steve Harrington?”

“Hey,” he put up his hands. “I can be a good student. I haven’t failed yet.”

“Just a lot of close calls?” Jonathan asked, coming up behind Nancy.

“Why are you my friends?”

“Would it be mean if I said you were running low on options?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

Nancy grinned and bit her lip, still laughed. Steve still couldn’t say no to her smile, thought maybe he’d never be able to, might spend his whole life tricking himself into thinking he wouldn’t always love her. He didn’t want her like that anymore, but all the things that made him weak for her were still there, itching around his heart.

“Oh, how’s Andy?” Jonathan asked.

Steve stiffened, tried to play it casual as he cleared his throat. “Uh, he’s really good? I’m guessing your mom told you?”

“She thought you’d already told me. She’s awful at keeping secrets.”

“It’s—he’s—I wouldn’t say a secret, exactly?”

“Who is Andy?” Nancy asked, frowning as she clutched her books.

Jonathan rubbed his jaw, which was completely unfair, because that was Steve’s nervous gesture, and he really didn’t appreciate his trademarks being stolen along with his dignity.

“A baby,” Steve said, then realized that wasn’t enough of an answer. He looked at the ceiling. “A wishbaby? Dustin, uh. Found it on my doorstep. So.”

“What?” Nancy asked, eyes going wide. “Steve. What? With who—”

“I don’t know, Nance. I didn’t want him, alright? I didn’t do this? Mama says sometimes the baby goes to the other person, if it’s wished hard enough by someone in a relationship, but—”

“Dry spell?” Jonathan asked. It wasn’t actually a dick move. Steve maybe complained about things Nancy didn’t want to hear about far too often.

“Yeah, I mean. I don’t even really like anyone? Like, I’ve been thinking about asking Tammy Thompson to prom, but mostly because I think she wants to go with me, so it would be easy—”

The look Nancy gave him told him all he needed to know about how she felt about that answer. Well. He didn’t actually ask her, so.

“I don’t know. Andy was just there. And Mama is sure he’s not hers, so by process of elimination—” he waved his hand in his general direction, hated that he was even having the conversation. “Mrs. Byers helped me find the stuff Mama told me to get. I don’t know. I’m not fucking thrilled with it.”

Nancy seemed to mull that over a minute, before asking, “Can we meet him? You could have told us. We could have had a baby shower or something.”

“This wasn’t exactly planned, Nance. And Mama paid for all his stuff. I think she’s excited to have him around? I don’t know.”

“Well.” Nancy pursed her lips. “I still want to meet him.”

“I’ll ask Mama if you can come by for dinner? I’ve got to call her at lunch to check in on them, anyway.”

“Yeah, let us know,” Nancy grinned. “Is he cute? Some babies are just. Very unfortunate looking.”

Steve scrunched his nose. “I don’t fucking know. They’re all wrinkly and gross.”

 

By gym class, last period, Steve’s new fatherhood had spread through the school like wildfire, Daniel Peters overhearing Dustin telling Mike, who had in turn told his brother, Ben Peters, who had in turn told fucking Tommy H., because the world was just a cruel fucking joke. On top of it, Carol had heard Steve telling Nancy, so she had confirmed everything, and then had told at least fifteen people.

Andy wasn’t a secret. It was pretty fucking hard to hide a baby that they’d all see him pushing around at the supermarket. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t wanted to keep it under wraps until he’d figured out what the fuck was going on.

Nearly every person had their own theory on who Steve’s baby mama was. Some people insisted he’d gotten some girl pregnant last year, and she’d caved under the stress of it. The main candidate was a girl from out of town that he’d met at a party before he started dating Nancy. The next option was Amy Tipin, who had moved away in September. Maybe she left because she was pregnant. She had bragged about fucking Steve.

Steve didn’t have the energy to share that the doctors guessed that Andy was only a few days old. May 27th was his birthday, they guessed, the day he showed up, which made sense, but. There was no way a girl had had a baby and dropped it on his porch. The only chick he’d slept with during that time period was Nancy, and she definitely hadn’t been concealing a baby bump in her 105lb frame.

So. Wishbaby. Which was what most people had heard and believed. So, whose was it? A lot of people guessed Nancy, which had her rolling her eyes. A number of girls had decided it was them, simply to fluff their own egos. Steve didn’t know if he should be flattered or extremely annoyed.

As he changed for gym, he was leaning towards the latter.

“Hey, baby daddy,” Tommy crooned. “How goes the brat? It true, that you don’t know who the mom is? What a filthy mind you’ve got there, Harrington.”

“Yeah, like you’re one to talk. Has Carol seen that gang bang shit you keep under your mattress, yet? I’m sure she’d be real interested in that.”

Tommy’s lip curled, mean, unimpressed. “At least I’ve got her to fuck. Here we were thinking someone got your balls back from Wheeler, after she cut them off.”

Steve pulled his shirt over his head, tried to remind himself that punching Tommy was a bad fucking idea, with how many lost fights he had under his belt. He could only imagine the shit his mama would give him, coming home battered. She’d probably say he was scaring the baby. Christ.

“You know what, Tommy?” Steve asked, licking his lips. “No one actually fucking asked for your opinion? What I do with my dick is my own business?”

Behind Tommy, Steve could see Billy’s eyes following the exchange, shirt held in his hands as he watched Tommy sneer. Hairs raised on the back of Steve’s neck, stomach growing nauseous when he met Billy’s eyes. “Can I help you?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, shut the fuck up,” Billy said. “Are we gonna go run laps, or just bitch about how you’ve got a pussy now?”

Steve slammed his locker shut. He hadn’t been expecting anything better, but it would have been nice to get a simple no for once. Hawkins was full of motormouths.

“That’s a good one,” Tommy said, clapping Billy on the shoulder.

Billy didn’t smile back. He shrugged Tommy off so he could pull his shirt on, before moving to check his hair in the mirror. Like they weren’t about to play dodgeball or some shit.

“So, what’s the baby’s name?” Tommy asked. “Stephanie, like his mama?”

“Dude, would you lay off? It’s none of your fucking business, alright? If you wanted to be godfather, you should have asked about that before you became a giant douche.”

“Godfather?” Tommy laughed. “Who the fuck would want to look after your kid if you died? It’s probably fucking ugly, if it came from you. And stupid.”

Tommy’s head thudded into the lockers with a hollow thwump, wind knocked out of him as he groaned. Billy held Tommy’s shirt tight, his fist to tommy’s his chest, knuckles pushing him into the metal hard enough to bruise. “I said the conversation was over, Hagan. Are we gonna go to class, or do you need to jerk yourself off a little longer?”

“Fuck,” Tommy said, grabbing Billy’s fist with both hands. “I was just joking, man. Why’s everyone around here got to take everything so seriously?”

It was—Steve didn’t know what it was. He could only watch, lips pressed together, as Billy sneered in Tommy’s face. Which, really, Steve should have been sneering in Tommy’s face, but he hadn’t had the fucking time, between Tommy running his mouth and Billy pushing him around. It was weird. And not exactly good weird. Kind of medium-grade weird, where Steve wasn’t sure if he should be thanking Billy, or putting up his fists, or maybe asking coach for a hall pass? So.

Steve cleared his throat. “Yeah, Tommy, just leave it. Coach is waiting.”

After a second, Billy dropped Tommy’s shirt and stepped back. He looked around the room and met Steve’s eyes again, scrunching up his nose. “What, you want to be next?”

And Steve was pretty sure he was already going to be Billy’s primary dodgeball target, so of course he had to open his mouth and say, “You’d hit a man with a baby?”

 

If Steve were a lesser man, he’d have been going home with a lot more dodgeball-burn.

 

Nancy and Jonathan showed up at six, right around when Steve’s mama was pulling a roast out of the oven, and when Andy decided that puking all down Steve’s clean sweater was a great fucking idea. The kid already had a sense of humour. Maybe he was Steve’s, after all.

His mom seemed to think so.

Which made sense, but.

After dinner, Nancy sat on the couch, Andy on her lap as she squinted between him and the pictures on the wall.

“This is fucking weird,” she said.

“Don’t swear in front of the baby,” Jonathan said.

“Uh, it’s a fucking baby?” Steve said. “He. He’s a fucking baby. He doesn’t care. He’s like three days old.”

“He looks exactly like you,” Nancy said.

And Steve’s mom had been saying it a lot, but. Andy was a baby. All babies looked like babies.

But as Nancy looked between Andy and Steve’s own pudgy babyface staring out from over the fireplace, he thought maybe there might be more to it than that.

 

“Steve,” Ms. Scellena said, patience worn thin. “I appreciate your dedication to sleeping in my class, but the bell rang five minutes ago, so if you could please leave?”

Or whatever, Steve wasn’t paying all that much attention, too busy prying his face from where his bottom lip had stuck to his notebook with drool. The thing was, he didn’t remember falling asleep, but he also didn’t remember making it to biology class, so.

“Sorry about him, ma’am,” Someone said, before a thick hand slipped under his armpit to hoist him up. “I think Stevie here hasn’t been getting his beauty sleep. I’ll make sure he gets home safe and sound.”

Steve wasn’t running all thrusters yet, but he was pretty sure that Billy Hargrove had never used the words safe or sound in conjunction with anyone else but himself in his entire fucking life.

“I’m fine,” Steve said, yanking his arm back. “I just gotta get my stuff, sorry.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot,” Ms. Scellena said. “Baby keeping you up all night?”

Hawkins was always too small, too cut off from the rest of the world, but never had it felt more like one giant high school than it did with all the adults in on the gossip too. His mother had suggested he tell the teachers, but it seemed pointless when the only graded things he’d still have to submit were final projects, followed by a few days of exams.

Everyone knew everything anyway.

Steve just wanted to sleep.

“No, I just had a big assignment due,” he said, collecting his things.

It wasn’t until Billy spoke again that Steve realized he was still there, standing way too close, the arms of his denim jacket straining as he crossed his arms over his chest. He was like, “I’ll give you a ride, you go my way.”

Which was fucking weird, and also he didn’t, and also, “I have a car? I’m fine.”

“You’re sleeping on your desk.”

“It was boring,” he said, before immediately snapping his jaw shut. “I mean—”

“It’s fine, Steve,” Ms. Scelena said. She did not sound like it was fine. “Go get some rest.”

Billy had clearly decided that it was his god given right as a douchebag to hustle Steve out of the school, because he was already grabbing the shit off Steve’s desk and walking off.

“What the fuck, man,” Steve said, following him into the hall.

Billy shrugged like that even fucking meant anything. When he stopped at Steve’s locker, he just nodded at it with his chin.

“Yeah, no, not fucking happening,” Steve said. “Give me my books and fuck off.”

“So you can go get in a car accident?”

“Why the fuck do you even care?” And Steve recognized he was whining a little, but come on.

“I don’t,” Billy said, like it wasn’t a lie. “Can’t someone give you a break?”

“No.” Steve snatched his stuff. “The only break you’ve ever given me was my nose, if you remember? So fuck off.”

He turned to twist in his locker combo, didn’t get that far with Billy grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around. He pushed Steve into the locker with his index finger, leaned in close. “Don’t you fucking talk to me like that.”

“Why?” Steve said, knew it came off more as a snap. “Are you going to punch me again? Just. Dude, let me go home. By myself. I don’t know why everyone around here suddenly thinks I need some fucking charity, but I don’t, alright? Least of all from you.”

For a second, it seemed like that wasn’t going to be enough, Billy not moving an inch. Then he licked his lips, slow, sighed through his nose. “Fine, but when you wrap yourself around a tree, don’t fucking cry to me.”

Like, right, okay, whatever that meant? Billy gave Steve another sharp jab in the chest before walking off.

Steve didn’t need someone to drive him, and he didn’t get wrapped around a tree, but when he walked in the front door and Andy started crying, he felt like he’d been hit by a train.

 

Steve’s dad was an asshole. Which Steve already knew, but. That was before he looked at his son, who was a single father, and looked at that son’s report card, and decided that, no, he didn’t need a fucking full-time office job with possible pay increases, and stable work hours, and benefits.

God, Steve would fucking kill to have benefits. He wasn’t going to be going to college. He wasn’t eligible for his dad’s package anymore. Which meant Andy wasn’t eligible, which was just.

Steve had a lot of big fucking feelings about all of it. And his mom had been mad, but in more of a disappointed, I-see-where-your-father-is-coming-from kind of way, and Steve didn’t think she was going to listen to his completely reasonable argument that Andy was three goddamn weeks old and needed to go to a doctor like, every ten minutes.

So far, his mom had been footing all those bills. And she’d have to keep paying them, because Steve’s graduation was in literally two days, and then he was supposed to have a month off to look after his son, and instead, he was going to spend the weekend going to the mall job-fair and shoving his resume at every employer on the planet to look his way.

He would also have to start working like, literally right away, because if he ever wanted a hope in hell of getting a job that wasn’t like, A&W, he was going to have to have job experience. And literally everything about a fucking kid was expensive, so.

Graciously, as she packed her bags for Prague, his mother had said, “I’ll pay for a nanny while you work. I’ll find someone good, don’t worry.” Like that was helpful?

It kind of was, but. Steve wasn’t exactly feeling peachy-keen, so.

Three weeks had never been shorter, the usual molasses-slow last days of school flashing by as Steve learned how to hold Andy, how to change his diapers, how to stuff his adorably infuriating feet into a onesie. Steve was tired from getting up at all hours to baby cries, worn out from trying to keep up with his grades, and his peers, and his own sanity. And every day that ticked by hand been another day closer to his mom leaving.

And in three days, she would be gone. And then it would just be Steve, and Andy, and Mrs. Byers’ phone number for when his inevitable melt-down rolled around.

Not that he hadn’t already had like, thirty melt-downs.

Fatherhood wasn’t suiting him well, but it maybe didn’t help that even after nearly a month, he didn’t feel any more connected than he did the day on the porch. Like, the kid was growing on him, a bit, but. He was promised a connection.

Nothing. Zilch. Like, Andy was cute, and it was kind of hard not to like him when he was soft and warm, and liked to sleep on Steve’s chest when Steve got home from school. There was just nothing binding. Nothing about his baby that felt like his or home.

The more days that passed, the more he knew he couldn’t talk about it, either. It wasn’t right.

 

Scoops Ahoy was actual shit. The uniform was a joke. A cruel joke. Who wanted to stand in a freezer for eight hours a day in shorts? He was freezing and humiliated. And he had to wear a sailor hat.

Steve had never had a job before, so he knew his options would be slim, but he was hoping he could at least land a job at like, the Gap. Nope.

On the outside, Scoops Ahoy was kind of cute, for an ice cream shop. The company owners had put a lot of thought and time into the theme, and the ice cream flavours, and the interior design.

Then they’d decided their employees should pretend every day was a bad costume party.

Steve was fucking tired after his first week—exhausted—and for once it wasn’t because Andy had kept him up all night.

Andy was actually being pretty good. The nanny his mom hired, this strong-jawed lady with big glasses who would only let him call her Mrs. Marshal, said that Andy was an angel during the day. She also said it was easy for a four-week-old to be angel when all he did was poop and sleep, and when he was yet to recognize faces or develop a personality, but.

Okay, Steve only mostly liked Mrs. Marshal, but his mom said her qualifications were good, and she was flexible with Steve’s chaotic work schedule, so.

During his job interview, Steve had mentioned he would need more stable hours, being upfront about his little-one at home, and his boss had kind of got it. Only kind of, because his boss was under the impression that his girlfriend would be watching their baby, and there was no amount of explaining Steve could do to convince the man that there was no mother, just him and his ever-whitening hair.

Steve’s schedule did look a little less sporadic than the other employees, but it still wasn’t great, and Mrs. Marshal let him know it when he got home each day.

Like, whatever. He was doing fine? Andy was starting to sleep through the night better, even if Andy’s night looked more like two three and a half hour bursts broken by feedings. Steve felt like he was easing into the swing of things.

“Harrington.”

Someone snapped their fingers in his face, made him blink and jump.

It was Sunday evening. Scoops had been empty all day, a vicious rainstorm scaring away all the usual teens. Starcourt was pretty out of the way without a car, which was possibly why Billy Hargrove was standing in front of him with his arms crossed over his chest, Max and El huddled behind him.

Which. Steve frowned at El. “Hey, aren’t you like, not allowed to be here?”

“What’s it matter to you?” Billy asked.

“Yeah, what’s it matter?” El echoed, and like. He wasn’t going to be the one to tell the chief that his science experiment daughter was running around in highly populated areas against his wishes. They didn’t pay Steve enough

“Can I get something for you guys?” he asked.

“Yeah, I said vanilla, like, three times,” Billy said.

He definitely didn’t, but Steve started scooping anyway.

“I want chocolate,” Max added.

El said, “Maple.”

Everyone was going to pretend she didn’t. At least, Steve was. Like, he’d give it to her, but. She had horrible taste.

“How’s Andy doing?” Max asked.

“Andy?” Billy asked.

Steve rubbed his mouth with the back of his wrist. “He’s my kid. And he’s fine. Less fussy after Mrs. Byers suggested changing his fabric softener.”

“That can be an issue?” Billy asked.

Steve was tired. “Yeah,” he said. “Apparently. I don’t know. We’re doing okay. Thanks for asking.”

Max took her cone and passed El’s to her, both girls going to a booth, but Billy didn’t budge, just leaned again the counter with his hip a little, spoon sticking straight up in his ice cream cup.

“Did I forget your sprinkles?” Steve asked.

Billy slid a ten on the counter and shrugged. “Nah, just. You really doing okay?”

There were already enough illogical things happening in Steve’s life. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, let it out slow before he said, “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it’s none of your business, alright, man? Like, yeah, I’m fine, and the kid is fine, but. I don’t need you giving me shit right now. My shift is done in twenty minutes and I just want a pizza, and a beer, and to get home before the nanny tells me off again. So just—”

He took the money from the counter and made a vague gesture before popping open the till.

“I wasn’t going to give you shit.” Billy frowned, said, “I’m being friendly? Can I not be friendly?”

“Not really?” Steve said, ignored how often his voice was starting to pitch into whines. “No?”

“Right.” Billy took a bite of his ice cream before stabbing the spoon in a few times, mushing it around. “Keep the change. Max, weirdo, we’re going!”

“Her name is El!”

“Yeah, mouthbreather!”

Billy tugged on Max’s ponytail as he walked passed, graced her screams with a middle finger as she hustled out of her booth with El behind her, both girls slinging insults at Billy’s back.

Maybe Steve was in the Upside Down. He knew that wasn’t how it worked, but something had to explain how fucking weird Hawkins had gotten.

Plus, he wasn’t great at math, but he was pretty sure Billy had just left him holding five-fifty in change.

Chapter Text

“You still have no clue who the mother is?” Nancy asked. Jonathan sat on her side of the booth, shared Sundae melting between them as Nancy frowned around her spoon.

Steve’s hat was squished on the table next to his own ice cream, ten minutes into his twenty minute lunch break. He ran a hand through his hair. “No, Nance. You know if I knew, I would say something?”

“It’s just strange. None of the books I’ve been reading have said anything about babies just appearing with only one parent. There’s always some kind of partnership when something like this happens. It takes really strong emotions for a wishbaby to come to fruition.”

Bless Nancy, who had started doing research the day she met Andy. Nothing she’d found had been super helpful, so far, but it was nice that Steve’s friends were trying.

Jonathan was considerably less resourceful, but he offered encouraging nods to go with Nancy’s findings, so Steve supposed that was better than nothing. He was supportive, at any rate.

“I don’t know? It literally makes no sense. Maybe I’m just, like, the one case that doesn’t belong.”

“Or maybe there is a girl out there who really, really wanted it to work between you two,” Nancy says. “You keep saying you’re not interested in anyone, but it doesn’t have to be on your end. You really can’t think of anyone that would want to have a baby with you?”

“Dingus can’t even remember what days he’s working, you might be asking for a lot,” Robin said, tossing some napkins on their table as she went by. Of Steve’s coworkers, she was his favourite, although he couldn’t figure out why.

“Thanks for the ringing endorsement,” he called after her.

Robin flipped him off with one hand and started cleaning the glass of the ice cream case with the other. She was a real gem.

“That doesn’t matter,” Nancy said. “It doesn’t have to be someone you would want, you know? It could just be a girl you went on like, one date with. Could it be Tammy Thompson?”

Something clattered behind the counter, followed by Robin hissing fuck and disappearing.

Steve craned his neck a little to see if she was okay. “Yeah, I mean. She liked me? But we didn’t fuck or anything. I just took her to prom and took her home. Like, she did spend at least forty minutes talking about babies? But very specifically about how she wanted to birth a baby, because her cousin is having one, and she thinks it looks glamourous? She’s fucking nuts. She told me that she’d like Andy ‘anyway’? Like, instead of what?”

“I still don’t understand why you went with her.”

“I’m not sure he knows,” Jonathan offered.

Yeah, he needed new friends. Steve rolled his eyes, said, “She wanted me to go with her, alright? I was being nice. And I was nice. I didn’t tell her to shut up or anything. I just took her home and said I’d call her again and then didn’t.”

“Yeah, real nice,” Robin said, fishing a new scooper from one of the drawers.

“Like you’d know,” Steve called back.

“Are you sure it’s a girl?” Jonathan asked.

Something clattered behind the counter again. Robin grabbed a different scooper and slammed the drawer shut.

“You mean, what else, like, an alien?”

Even Nancy was giving Jonathan a confused look, and it took a lot to throw her off.

“No, like,” Jonathan stuck his spoon into the ice cream, severing a banana chunk. “What if it’s a guy? Maybe that’s why the baby went to you, if they wanted you to have it? Like, guys get girls pregnant?”

“Okay,” Steve said, slow. Didn’t like how heat flushed up his chest and neck, achy and prickling. “But I’m not a girl? So I can’t fucking get pregnant? And I’m not a fag.”

“Language, Dingus,” Robin said, but when he turned to look at her, she was gone, the backroom door swinging in her wake.

Whatever.

Nancy took a scoop of her ice cream and seemed to be weighing her words. “It would make sense. And a guy probably wouldn’t want to step forward and admit it.”

“No one would step forward to admit it. No one wants a fucking baby at eighteen.”

“Well, clearly someone did,” Jonathan said. “I’m not saying that’s what happened, alright? But it’s a possibility.”

“Right, yeah,” Steve said, thinking about Andy at home, probably tucked in his crib by Steve’s bed, soft and asleep. “When you’ve got better theories, let me know, alright? I want to know, but. I’m kind of too busy to find out. And what would I do if I did, right? I can’t force someone to marry me, or take responsibility for the kid. And if they haven’t come forward yet, they can’t want it that badly.”

It went against all the books Steve’s mom had read and all the research Nancy had done, but clearly the person who had wished for Andy wasn’t all that invested. The alternative was that Steve was really out of touch with his own emotions, and while he was a dumbass sometimes, he didn’t think he was that fucking confused.

“Whatever.” Steve sighed and rubbed his face. “Thank you? I just—I have to think about it. Are you guys still coming over for the game on Friday?”

“Yeah, of course,” Jonathan said, having admitted to hating baseball, “Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Robin, you coming?” Steve called.

It took a moment. When Robin pulled the shutters behind the counter opened, her smile was pained. Or maybe it was the lighting. “Why would I want to spend my evening with you?” she asked.

He was pretty sure that was a yes.

 

Steve yawned as he pushed the shopping cart down the aisle, Andy wiggling and gurgling in his car seat. At six weeks, he was growing more fussy, more aware of the world around him, and when he wasn’t tucked up in Steve’s arms at home, he made his displeasure at every new sound known.

They needed groceries, though, and as much as Steve had been hoping the food his mother left would extend a little longer, they’d both be drinking formula if he didn’t buy anything. Even then, their formula situation was growing low.

Not that Steve was looking forward to wheeling that purchase up to the check-out. Formula wasn’t the natural way to feed a baby, or so he’d been informed the last time he purchased it. It wasn’t like he had a choice?

Like, sorry, he’d skipped that stage of puberty?

It was almost nine, he was starting to get a bit crabby.

The shopping cart seemed to bump over every uneven crack in the linoleum as Steve walked around the store. He piled boxes of macaroni and strawberries around Andy, careful that nothing would be able to fall into the seat. Under the greasy fluorescent lights, Steve looked every inch the frazzled mother he felt, worn a little too thin after working long hours, only to have to run out to get groceries.

He’d wanted Mrs. Marshal to stay an hour later so he could go out on his own, but she wasn’t having it. Something about already being late for her bridge tournament. Steve didn’t know.

He pushed the cart into the freezer aisle and consulted his list. They needed green beans. Eggos were on sale. It would probably be a good idea to get a frozen pizza?

He tried not to grimace at the ice cream next to the Eggos as he pulled the freezer door open.

“What do you think, Andy?” he asked. “Should we eat Eggos for dinner, like Uncle Dustin’s friend?”

Every time he spoke to Andy, he felt increasingly stupid. He couldn’t help but glance up and down the aisle, just in case, before setting the box in the cart and heading to the frozen veggies.

“I know,” he said to Andy. “Uncle Dustin’s mama hasn’t sent us leftovers in a while. Think Mrs. Henderson would like it if we visited?”

He reached into the next fridge for the vegetables, wasn’t really thinking when he let it slam shut.

The thud echoed in Steve’s ears, realization blooming in his throat.

Andy snuffled once, a snotty little fist pushing into his open, toothless mouth, before he wailed.

“Hey, hey,” Steve said, juggling the box in his hand to scoop up Andy, nearly dropping both in the process. “It’s okay, buddy,” he said.

People hated screaming babies, Steve had found, but what they hated more were parents.

“Jesus Christ,” someone said, before pushing around Steve with one hand. Of course Billy would be getting groceries at the same time. Of course he was going to be there the exact moment Steve didn’t want him to be.

Steve never wanted Billy around, but that wasn’t the point.

“You almost dropped him,” Billy said, prying Andy from his arms.

And Steve wanted to stop him, but how was he supposed to do that? Yank on Andy’s feet, grab his shoulders? His little head would come off like a Barbie doll.

“Hey, you can’t just take him—”

“Well, you clearly can’t hold him and push that cart. How do you make him stop crying?”

But Andy was already settling on his own a little, wails turning into wet sobs despite his father’s screaming. Billy clumsily adjusted him until his head was supported correctly, the rest of his body nestled into Billy’s chest, and it was. Well, it was fucking weird, but.

Billy was looking at Andy like he’d never seen something so tiny and disgusting in his whole life. He said, “This kid doesn’t even look like you.”

Steve snorted. “Said no one other than you. What do you want? Can I have my kid back?”

The store would be closing in the next half hour, nearly everyone else having already finished checking out. Hawkins was a town that slept early, too many cookie-cutter, commuting parents with respectable jobs for there to be any real nightlife.

“Don’t worry, I got him,” Billy said. Like that was an option? But Andy had stopped crying altogether, had one goobery hand fisted in Billy’s shirt, and Steve didn’t have the energy to fight when he wanted to go home and sleep for a thousand years.

Besides, there was something about the way Billy was holding Andy that made Steve want to keep watching. He didn’t know what, but it was a little crackle in his blood, a sort of intuition. Maybe his paternal instincts were finally kicking in, and what he was feeling was a reasonable amount of fear for his baby, who was in the arms of a psychopath.

“Can you add all-purpose flour to the cart?” Billy asked. Right. Groceries.

“You can’t get your own?”

“Uh, I didn’t get that far? Someone’s baby was crying?”

Although no one would have guessed it now. “Yeah, fine, fuck,” Steve said. “What were you even doing here?”

“Groceries?”

Right.

Steve took a deep breath, said, “Thanks.” He mostly meant it.

Billy’s reply was little more than a grunt, attention too focused on the bundle in his arms as Steve pushed the cart into the next aisle.

Steve gathered flour and brown sugar, diapers and baby formula. Kept expecting Billy to put Andy back in the cart and collect his things. Instead, the pile in the cart grew and grew, until Steve couldn’t remember who had asked for the cream cheese.

At the check-out, Steve sorted through the products with swimming eyes, only half-sure he got it right.

“Can you grab my wallet?” Billy asked. “Back pocket.”

“Can’t you get it yourself?”

Amber from Steve’s math class blinked between them, clearly too tired to deal with this situation when her shift would be ending in ten minutes. Steve could relate.

Billy nodded his chin down at Andy, eyebrows raised.

Amber kept looking between Andy and Billy like she knew something, and.

Great, Steve didn’t even want to know what kind of gossip she was going to cook up from this.

Or maybe she was thinking about her baby in Billy’s arms, and Billy fucking her to make that baby, and how fucking horny shit like that got some women, and.

Steve didn’t really want to think about that either.

“Just give him back to me,” Steve said, before rubbing his eyes. “Christ dude, just.” He held out his arms.

Maybe it was because someone was watching, or because Andy was starting to wiggle and grow blotchy with tears, but Billy did as asked. With one last look at Andy, he awkwardly fumbled him into Steve’s arms, before pulling out his wallet.

Steve popped a soother into Andy’s mouth and rocked him until his gurgling stopped. It wasn’t going to last long, but it was enough to get Andy back into his seat and get them to the car.

Steve got the groceries into the trunk before extracting Andy’s seat, ducking his head into the back to strap him in.

“Hey, so.”

Steve hit his head on the roof.

“What the fuck, man?” he asked, hand in his hair as he turned around.

Billy leaned his elbows on Steve’s empty shopping cart, his own grocery bags swinging from his hand and bumping against the metal. He said, “If you like, need a baby sitter or something some time, you can ask?”

Steve closed the door and frowned.  “Do you even know how to look after a baby?”

“It can’t be that hard, right? They just sleep, and like. Shit or whatever. People let pre-teens watch their kids.”

“Yeah, they shit and whatever,” Steve said. As if it was that simple, that easy. As if Steve could have trusted Billy with a single fucking thing in his life. “Sure thing. Right. Yeah. I’ll keep you in mind. Later, man.”

 

Andy always slept in the car, something about the engine purring and the earth rolling under the wheels. Motion rocked Andy like Steve never could. It almost made Steve a little jealous, only because he wanted that ease. It would have been nice, to be good at one part of parenting. To be able to teach Andy about comfort and momentum.

So, Steve took the long way home, even though he was tired; even though Andy would likely need a feeding soon, and a diaper change.

He drove with Madonna crooning softly below his murmured words, her lyrics thoughtless prayers. He too would like to sleep in the car, listening to someone’s radio at a low volume, leather seat under his cheek as the weight of the world belonged to someone else.

He too would like to be sleepy and at ease. Already missed being seventeen and ruddy-cheeked, laughing on Nancy’s back porch as they devoured the stars.

Andy would want to know their names, would want to know each constellation, and Steve wouldn’t be able to teach him those things, either.

 

It was eight twenty-six, one week later, when the phone rang.

Steve was still in his Scoops uniform, only just ushering Mrs. Marshal out, saying, thank you, and I’m glad Andy was well behaved today, and yes, I’ll remember the lotion for his bum. So, he had half a mind to let the phone ring through, figure out who it was if their call was important enough for them to call a second time.

The thing was, his mom hadn’t called in three days, and supposedly she was coming back tomorrow, but supposedly his father’s business trip wasn’t going as planned. And Steve had grown up on a string of supposedly’s, so he wasn’t about to miss a call from Mama, on the off chance that supposedly it was her apologizing for extending their trip by two weeks, perhaps offering him a wire transfer since his father had cut off his credit card.

He told himself that it was about the money, and not about the peach pit stuck between the soft folds of his gut, as he leaned against the kitchen counter and put the phone to his ear.

“Harrington residence,” he said.

Over the line, he could hear pops and crackles, something shaking and a rush that sounded like a passing car. Someone breathed into the receiver for three beats, four. Two more passing cars.

“Hello?” Steve asked. Another pause. “Great, thanks for calling, we should do this again some time.”

“Shit, wait,” the person on the other end said, “Have you had dinner?”

“Why?”

Steve winced, realized he should have thought of who first, but there wasn’t much time, with the man continuing – “I was in the neighbourhood, you know, and was thinking I could grab you a burger, if you wanted? Save you some hassle? You like french-fries or onion rings?”

“Uh,” Steve said. “Onion rings?” Then, “Wait, what do you mean, in the neighbourhood?”

Because Loch Nora didn’t exactly have a McDonald’s anywhere nearby.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be there in what, fifteen?”

And Steve suddenly knew that voice. “Billy?”

“Who else?”

“How did you even get this number?”

There was some shuffling, like maybe the receiver being bounced from shoulder to shoulder, then a clink-clink. “Hawkins phonebooks are fucking shit. You know the latest one they put out was in ’81? These are supposed to be updated every year, how do you people even talk to anyone—"

“You looked me up in a phone book?”

“That’s what I just said. Do you have a hearing issue? Is this some kind of like, hearing dyslexia?”

Steve was pretty sure that even if he did, it wouldn’t be called that, but that wasn’t the point, and, “Shut up.”

“Jesus Christ, I’m trying to, I’m running out of quarters. I’ll be there soon, alright?”

And it was not alright, but the dial tone was already beeping in Steve’s ear, so supposedly he didn’t have a choice.

 

“Why should I let you in?” Steve asked.

“Uh.” Billy shook two brown paper bags in front of Steve’s face, a tray of sodas balanced in his other hand.

Steve squinted and crossed his arms over his chest, blocking the front doorway. Under the yellow porch light, Billy looked artificial and otherworldly, hair curling too well behind his ears as he stood in blue jeans, white shirt unbuttoned to his navel. Like he’d had time to look clean and presentable, while Steve rocked hat-hair and the only baby-spew free shirt he could find.

“I didn’t ask you to buy me dinner.”

“Okay, but I told you I was? And I did? Dude, you don’t have to be a dick. I didn’t poison it, or some shit.”

That actually sounded like a perfectly possible scenario, considering the other things Billy had done to get under his skin. Although perhaps poisoning was a pretty shitty way to go about a second attempt at murder, when the first had been so dramatic.

Steve recognized that he was over-tired, and probably overreacting, but that didn’t make him wrong.

Billy looked into the house and licked over his teeth, before smiling tight. “If your parents are here, and you don’t want me to meet your parents—”

“They’re not,” Steve said, “But that doesn’t mean—”

Billy yanked the door open wider with his foot and shoved around Steve, not taking his shoes off as he plowed towards the kitchen.

“What the fuck, you can’t just do that,” Steve said, but Billy was already unpacking the food onto the centre island.

“You got plates?” he asked, holding up the onion rings. “I’m not putting my half of these on my lap.”

The clock read eight fifty-three. What was even the point? Steve ran his hands over his eyes. “They’re in the cupboard above the sink.”

“Where’s the brat?”

“Sleeping upstairs.”

“Is that fine? Like, can you hear him if he starts crying?”

“Yeah? I got a baby monitor in the living room. The nanny put him down at seven thirty, he’ll probably be up again by ten.”

Billy slapped the food on two plates before sliding one to Steve. Everything smelled too good, the beef and cheese and grease making Steve’s stomach gurgle and his mouth dry. “What did you get for the drinks?” he asked.

“Just Cokes,” Billy pushed one Steve’s way. “I didn’t get too fancy. Just popped into Benny’s.”

Benny’s was on the other side of town, but Steve guessed traffic was probably light at this time of night.

“Shit,” he said, grabbing an onion ring. “Haven’t eaten there since he died. Everyone was pretty surprised his wife kept it open, actually.”

“Wait, Benny was a real person?” Billy asked. “I thought it was like Bradley’s Big Buy, you know? No actual guy named Bradley?”

“Nah, Benny was a great guy. He was one of the people who died last year, from that chemical spill from Hawkins Lab. You hear about that?”

“Yeah, here and there. Heard about that girl who died in your pool, mostly. That’s pretty shit, you know? Still kind of can’t believe my dad thought this would be a great place for our family, when that was the first story people told me when I got here.”

There was never a good time to think about Barb, but Steve supposed he brought it up, felt the slippery, well-worn guilt coat his insides. Still thought the chemical spill cover-up was a piss poor excuse for a monster ripping its way out of hell, and a shitty way to claim their own government didn’t do it. The way El told it, no beast took Benny down.

“Yeah, Hawkins has had some shit over the last few years. My family nearly moved, after that, but my dad put his foot down when my mom was looking for places in Indianapolis. Some money thing. I think he just hates having to see my aunt.”

Billy wiped some ketchup from his mouth with the back of his hand, shrugged. “Pretty sure my dad just wanted to go as far into the middle of fucking nowhere he could go to make us all miserable. Even my stepmom fucking hates it, but she’s too polite to say shit about it.”

He said polite like he said shit, like maybe he thought it was an equally intangible way of saying fake-vile-untrustworthy.

This was the first time they’d ever spoken in a way that was meant to be polite, and Steve didn’t know what that meant, to Billy. Didn’t know what he was playing at.

This wasn’t a chance meeting, like at the store. It was arranged. And now Andy was sleeping upstairs, soft baby breaths hardly caught by the monitor, and Steve was standing at his kitchen island with an onion ring stuck around his pinkie like a promise, catching up with Billy like they’d shared old times, like Billy just missed a few signposts along the way.

He took a bite from his burger, paused to chew. Said with a shrug, “Weird shit just happens here sometimes. Like, bad-weird. It’s all boring trees and cows, and high school dances, and then all the crops die one year, or someone gets murdered. No one ever gets blessings, you know?”

And maybe it was because he was already talking, or maybe it was because he’d never cared much for Billy’s opinion anyway, but it all tumbled out in one go, “Like, I deal with all that shit last year, and then all that shit in November, and then two months ago this fucking almost impossible baby lands on my porch. Like, this much stuff all at once can’t be happening in other places. I don’t know why everyone is acting like this is all fucking normal.”

Across the island, Billy shifted to lean against the sink, back to the kitchen window. He crossed one arm over his chest as he popped an onion ring in his mouth, chewed with his eyebrows turned down, like maybe it tasted bad. “You hate the kid that much?” he asked.

Honestly, Steve hadn’t thought about it that way. Felt suddenly sick. “No, Jesus. I couldn’t – who fucking hates their kid?”

When Billy didn’t answer, just put another ring in his mouth, eyes steady on Steve as he chewed slow, Steve went on, “It’s just, I already knew my life after I graduated was going to be sort of fucked. None of what I planned on in September looked like it was going to pan out. And then suddenly I got this kid, and I didn’t even knock someone up. I didn’t ask for this?”

“You didn’t want him at all?”

“No.” Steve pushed down the wrapper on his burger, eyes on the lettuce and meat. “Hadn’t even thought about kids. Kinda feels like the universe made a mistake.”

“Maybe it did,” Billy said. Timbre low, measured.

Steve looked up, but Billy was looking at the clock on the wall, like maybe he’d grown bored, never really meant to stay.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”

“Guess I kinda asked. Never really seen this stuff. Thought it was meant to be some shared desire thing.”

“It is.” Steve paused, turned his Coke around on the island without taking a drink. “All of the reading we can find doesn’t explain it. And I do love him, now. He’s my little man, you know? But it’s not. Clean, or nice and easy. And I can’t stop thinking about how it makes no sense. How there’s gotta be someone out there who knows something I don’t.”

“You don’t think they’d have said something?”

“I know they haven’t. And it’s been two months, why would they come forward now?”

Billy shrugged and stood back up to take his plate. “Fuck if I know, man. You catch the game yesterday? Think they’re airing it again in a few minutes.”

Chapter Text

The church organ rumbled to life as Steve fixed Andy’s blankets, praying to the universe more than God that Andy would sleep through the sermon. He’d convinced his parents to sit in the back pew, just in case, but every loud noise was a possible tantrum on the rise, and Father Luke liked to preach like he was rousing the dead.

Steve’s parents were devout once-a-month Catholics, as many of Hawkins residents were. His parents woke early on the last Sunday of every month to put on their best, shine their shoes and finish potluck dishes, before ushering Steve to the church for the monthly social.

Steve was right to assume that his parents had extended their trip, but only by one week, possibly so his father wouldn’t miss two socials in a row. This wasn’t a factual assumption, but Steve had spent enough time schmoozing parishioners on behalf of his parents to see the parallels between moderate church attendance and frequent country club lunches.

“Baby, he’s going to be cold if you do it like that,” Steve’s mother said, leaning around him to adjust Andy’s blankets herself.

“Mama, he’s fine.”

“His foot was sticking out.”

“He’s got socks on.”

“Yes, and the air conditioning in this building is merciless. Steven, don’t you think I would know how to look after babies by now?”

“Yes, but Mama—”

“I’m just trying to teach you, so you know how to do it as well. It’s extremely dangerous for babies to get sick. Babies can die of all kinds of things.”

In the aisle, Max was offering him a little wave as her stepdad paraded their family towards the front pew, one of his hands on her shoulder as they walked. Billy stood on her other side, jaw set and eyes forward, dangling earing swapped with a stud and shirt buttoned up like it only was for church.

“I know, Mama,” Steve said absently, waving back at Max.

In the last week, Billy had come over once more, just to chat and watch TV. That second night, he’d sat with Andy on his lap for over an hour, saying he didn’t want to wake him by playing hot potato every time Steve got up to check on the food in the oven. And yet.

“That’s Dustin’s friend, right?” Mama asked. “Susan’s girl, Max? She’s so pretty, do you think he has a chance with her?”

“She has a boyfriend.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m not surprised. I’m glad she’s settled in here well, it’s hard, coming to a small town like this. Especially when her brother is the way he is.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, eyes settling on the back of Billy’s head.

“If you’d like, suing him for assault is still an option, sweetie. I just know they wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

 

After church, there was always a gap between the closing hymn and people arriving in the attached gym for the social, that time filled with shuffling feet and passing hellos, small talk and well wishes. Normally, Steve would be following along behind his father, smiling tight and shaking hands in some misguided attempt to make business connections.

Maybe it was because his father had decided Steve was a lost cause, or maybe it was because babies weren’t good for business deals, but his father had wandered off after the sermon without a passing nod to his son, leaving Steve alone with his mama.

Andy was growing a little fussy again, his blissful nap during the proceedings broken as his seat was clipped back into the stroller. He kept dropping his soother from his mouth, his wiggling, mittened-hands rubbing against his cheeks in its place. He’d started scratching his face more often recently, which Mrs. Marshal had assured Steve was normal. Steve had thought all the matching mitts included with Andy’s onesies were for fashionably cold days. He’d been set straight rather quickly.

“Steve, you remember Mrs. Fielton, right?” Mama asked, gesturing to the town’s most notable florist as if Steve hadn’t seen her every fourth Sunday for his entire life.

“Yes, of course,” he said, reaching a hand around the stroller to offer hers a shake. “You’re looking lovely today, ma’am.”

Mrs. Fielton held his hand a beat too long, too firm, before smoothing down her skirt. “Well, it is a Sunday. It’s important to dress your best for the Lord.” She gestured to the stroller. “I see your son feels the same. Those are the cutest little overalls.”

Andy had wiggled out of his blankets enough that they gaped at the front, little fists working in the air. As if in reply, he let out an ear-splitting wail.

“Shit, sorry,” Steve said, ducking to fuss with him.

Mrs. Fielton took a sharp breath as his mama said, “Language!”

Like Steve had the fucking time to deal with that right now. People were already looking his way, conversations growing more meandering and murmuring. There goes that Harrington kid, with a baby out of fucking wedlock, just loaded with inappropriate thoughts and hormones.

Jesus fucking Christ, Steve hated church.

“I’m just going to,” he gestured over his shoulder towards the rest rooms, hoping his mama would get the hint. She was already trying to guide Mrs. Fielton into conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Darlington, and Steve didn’t know if that was an insult or a blessing.

 

It had never really occurred to Steve than the men’s washroom didn’t have a changing table. In fact, he was sure it hadn’t occurred to many people, because women changed babies, it was only right and fair.

Nancy was going to say that parenthood was making him into a feminist.

Honestly, parenthood was just making him fucking tired.

Steve found himself in the small room tucked at the end of the hall, the one intended for breastfeeding mothers. Alongside three cramped armchairs, there were two nursery-style change tables shoved inside. Steve didn’t bother with the lights, wanted to draw as little attention to himself as possible. The far wall of the room was all stained-glass windows, like the chapel, washing Andy in blue and green as Steve set up the table and laid Andy on his blanket.

Andy was still crying, but the movement of the stroller had quelled his screams into sad gurgles, snot collecting on his upper lip. His hair was still as blonde as when he had been born, but his eyes had started to shift, gray becoming blue. The doctor had said it could take up to a year for a baby’s eyes to take their true shade, that they could still become a rich chocolate brown, but something in Steve’s gut knew better.

Andy’s eyes were shifting towards a clear blue, like the stained-glass reflected on his wispy hair. One piece of evidence about his DNA.

Steve peppered Andy’s face in kisses once he was clean and fresh, grinned when Andy grinned and hit his little fist into Steve’s cheek. Andy had the shape of his eyes, the shape of his cheekbones, his ears. One birthmark by his dimple. But he was also someone else’s kid.

“We ready?” he asked. “I think grandma will want to give you your bottle. Should we go get some lunch?”

There was something a little vindictive about calling his mom grandma, when she was like, forty. Something that made Steve feel like he should be darting out of the way to avoid being swatted.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” A man asked.

Steve stood up straight, but no one had come in. From the grate in the wall, another voice said, “What did I do?”

The room next door was for Sunday School classes, but Sunday School got pushed until after the social, and neither of those men sounded like children.

Steve quickly scooped up Andy, who started to wiggle and cry when Steve tried to put him back in the stroller. Which was perfect, really.

“You know not to talk to your mother like that.”

“I didn’t say shit to Susan.”

What did you just say?”

Fuck it. Steve grabbed the diaper bag and threw it over his shoulder, before scooping up Andy again and tucking him against his chest. He could come back for the stroller later.

“I didn’t mean her any disrespect. Sir.”

Steve jiggled the door open and stepped out into the hall, one hand soothing over Andy’s back as Andy wiggled. The voices were even louder from the hallway.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not. She asked if Max had asked me to look at her skateboard last night. She hadn’t, because she wasn’t even home last night. I came back from the pool at like, eight.”

“So, you say, sorry, Mom, she didn’t.”

“I said sorry, I was fucking respectful, I don’t know what you want.”

The door was open half a foot, wide enough to make out Billy’s face around the bulk of his father, how Billy clenched his teeth. Dread pooled in Steve’s belly, the feeling of intrusion mingling with realization and familiarity.

Billy’s father slapped his son so fast that Steve didn’t see the wind up, just registered the sharp smack.

Steve gasped around the lump in his throat as Billy stumbled back.

“Don’t you dare fucking talk to me like that. That’s exactly what I mean.” Billy’s father stepped forward to grab the front of Billy’s shirt, yanking him in close. He spoke low, mean. “You may talk to all the other shit-stains in this town that way, but you respect me. You respect your mother. You respect God in his house.”

Billy took a deep breath, eyes darting away. The second they locked to Steve’s, something broke in Steve’s chest.

Billy’s father gave him a shake. “You look at me when I speak to you.”

But Billy had gone stiff, even as he glanced back to his dad.

Andy gave a feeble cry.

Fuck.

In an instant, Billy’s dad was wheeling on his heel, nostrils flared as he stepped towards the door. “Mind your manners,” he said, sneered. Looked Steve up and down in a way that made Steve feel like spiders were crawling through his insides. “Raise your accident better than this one.”

Then he slammed the door shut.

 

It was another five days before Steve saw Billy, another five days of mulling over the metallic bile gurgling up his throat. He’d drink the same cup of coffee until it was cold each day, then he’d do it the next, the same wax on, wax off, brain ache, bellyache.

There was something he was missing.

When Billy came to see him, it was early evening. Steve’d been home from work an hour, just long enough to shower and learn that his parents had plans. Sunset golf and dinner at the country club. Romantic, or something.

Steve had just finished changing Andy into a new onesie when there was a knock on the front door, a pause, and another knock.

“I’m coming, one second!” He said, making sure Andy was comfortable on his play mat in the living room before heading to the door.

“If you’re looking for my parents—” Steve stopped, door half open.

Billy stood on the porch in shorts and a t-shirt, necklace glinting against the cotton under the hot glow of the setting sun. He held a pizza box in one hand and a crumpled paper bag in the other. “You eat yet?” he asked.

That feeling from the weekend bloomed in Steve’s chest again, accompanied by all the warmth of summer, the bitterness on his tongue. He said, “No, I, uh. Come in?”

Because what did you say, after that?

Billy pushed around him in the doorway like nothing had changed, showed himself to the kitchen to set down the food and grab plates. He looked good, Steve realized. Not that Billy usually didn’t, but there was something different in the way Steve registered Billy’s thighs, what working at the pool had done to his complexation. He had a bruise on his cheekbone, or maybe it was dirt. From his ear, he wore a crucifix.

Steve swallowed, watched Billy’s shirt strain as he moved his shoulders. Maybe it had to do with thinking of Billy as wounded for a week. Or maybe it had to do with how Billy was gesturing a slice of pizza in his direction, like, “Are you eating, or what? I also got wings, and sodas. Where’s the kid?”

“He’s in the living room. Uh, having tummy time, or whatever.”

“Tummy time?” Billy scrunched up his nose.

“Yeah, it’s when you like, lie them on their stomachs, so they can work on their neck muscles? Apparently making them sleep like that is like, bad or something, but as an exercise—”

“Babies are fucking weird.” Billy opened his Coke, bottle hissing.

Steve took that as an opportunity to stick an unreasonably large section of pizza into his mouth.

“Is he supposed to do that on his own?”

“Well, I was going to sit and play with him? So, not technically.”

Billy loaded up his plate and licked his thumb before wandering into the other room. Steve did the same, grabbing a roll of paper towels on the way. His mother would kill them if they got wing sauce on the floor. She was already mad at Andy for puking on her carpets, and he couldn’t even sit upright yet, so.

When Steve entered the room, he was expecting to find Billy sprawled on the couch, legs spread wide like he always sat, plate resting on his thigh as he watched Andy wiggle from afar. Instead, Billy was sitting cross legged on the floor, lightly rubbing Andy’s back, munching on a slice of pizza at the same time. Which was – it was a lot of things.

Steve plopped down on Andy’s other side before picking up a wing. “You better not get sauce on my kid.”

“What, is his rich little onesie dry-clean-only?”

Steve snorted. “Who the fuck would buy something like that for a baby?”

“I don’t know? You’ve seen those fucking weird little baptism dresses they buy babies, right? Those definitely can’t go in the wash.”

“Which is probably why they never get washed? You really think they’d wear them twice?”

“I don’t know, man.” Billy picked up a stuffed bee with crinkly wings and wiggled it in Andy’s face. “Are you getting him baptized?”

“Uh,” Steve said. Andy cooed. “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it? Probably not. I’m not really the church type, you know?”

Billy smiled tight, took a sip from his coke. “Yeah, same.”

And that thing sat between them again, that stained-glass feeling from when their eyes met, palm-print stinging Billy’s cheek.

“I didn’t mean to—”

“What?” Billy asked. “See that? Doesn’t fucking matter.”

It did, but.

The cross hanging from Billy’s ear swung when he tilted his head, and Steve didn’t know what that was about, either, if Billy wasn’t about church, wasn’t about God.

For a while, they sat like that, Andy squealing between them as he watched the dancing bee, pizza and wings disappearing as they sipped their drinks and licked their fingers.

“Your parents are really cool with this, huh?”

Steve shrugged, threw his napkin on his plate. Shifted so his knees were tucked to his chest. “I wouldn’t say they’re thrilled? Mama is happy to have a baby around, but dad thinks I’ve fucked up my whole life. He just kind of tolerates Andy, you know? Like. He’ll help feed him and stuff, if he has to, but I think it’s just so my mom doesn’t give him shit.”

“I noticed her all over Andy at church.”

He’d been looking?

Steve said, “She keeps telling me I’m doing shit wrong. Even when I’m doing it the way she showed me. I think maybe it’s just a mom thing.”

“What about those brats you hang out with? Max hasn’t been talking about you much.”

“I’m less interesting now that I have to work all the time. Which is fucking bullshit, because I totally give them free ice cream and help them sneak into movies for free. I’m cool.”

Billy smiled like maybe he was trying not to laugh, and Steve didn’t know if it was a you suck laugh, or a they suck laugh, or maybe a you all suck laugh, but like. Fuck Billy, anyway.

“Dustin is still over all the time because he likes that I have videogames more than he dislikes Andy’s crying. Which he wouldn’t say, obviously, but you should have seen the face he made when Andy spat up on him.”

Which. Okay, yeah, any time Andy threw up was super fucking gross, but it was a particular kind of gross when it happened to Dustin. And maybe Steve was a little unfairly bitter still about Dustin being a stand-in for a magical stork dropping a baby on his porch. (It’s science, Steve. And there are no storks involved. They didn’t teach you that in health class?)

Whatever.

He shifted again and scooped Andy up, cradling him in his lap. “Speaking of which, it’s about time for your dinner. You need some food, little man? You going to throw up on me?”

Andy waved his little fist in the air.

A car rumbled outside.

“Maybe I should get going, then.” Billy stood with a grunt before bending over to pick up all their dishes.

Steve watched how his muscles shifted, his arms flexed. Cleared his throat. Said, “You just got here.” Like a moron.

“I told Susan I would help her with something,” Billy said, but his eyes were on the font window, watching the driveway, maybe waiting for something. Like he hadn’t brought food over without being asked, hadn’t pushed his way in.

An engine died. Doors opened and closed.

Oh.

“Can you believe Eugenia? Only that women could get that drunk so early in the day. Who pukes in the dining room?”

Steve stood and followed Billy into the kitchen, Andy held to Steve’s chest as Billy set the plates into the sink. Ceramic clinked against metal as the front door opened. Weight coiled in Steve’s chest.

“Steve?”

“In the kitchen, Mama!” He called over his shoulder.

“Is someone here? Whose car is on the road?”

“You don’t have to go just because they’re here,” Steve said to Billy, quick, words nearly under his breath as Billy frowned towards the front door, mouth partly open.

Billy licked his lips, said “Nah, I just gotta split.”

But Steve remembered how Billy had been the first time he came over, how he’d asked about parents. Thought about how Mama sighed in church.

Suing him for assault is still an option, sweetie.

Raise your accident better than this one.

Steve followed him to the front hall, watched him make small talk, slide on his shoes.

Watched Dad scowl and Mama smile, strained.

“I didn’t know you were friends with him,” Mama said, once the Camaro was roaring down the road.

“It’s kind of a new thing? Why are you home so early?”

Mama rolled her eyes. “Baby, have I got a story to tell you.”

 

Billy came over two days later, and two days after that. He seemed to always show up with some kind of food and some kind of smile. It was always after work, too, always when Steve’s father’s black Audi was missing from the driveway.

Steve felt old anger slipping away, the more times Billy came by to just shoot the shit, to be helpful. And it was suspicious, really. Caused an itch at the back of Steve’s brain that he couldn’t quite scratch, couldn’t get his arm to bend at the right angle to get at it. Because Billy had never been helpful before, hadn’t really been kind, but the more Steve thought about it, mulled over all their early interactions, he realized that Billy hadn’t really been mean, either.

Like, obviously he was a massive dick, but.

Until that night at the Byers’, what had sat between them was more like fizzling competition. Or it would have been, if Steve had been on his A-game, hadn’t been heartbroken and bloodied by Nancy’s bullshit. Before Nancy, Steve probably would have risen to Billy’s bait, batted him back, eventually sniped at him until they were on more even ground.

That’s not what happened, obviously, but until the Byers’, Billy had been jostling, but not violent. More live-wire nerves and shiny teeth. Potential to snap, but no real trigger.

The more Steve watched Billy lounge on his couch, or watched him hold Andy, the more Steve thought that maybe Billy’d never thought he would snap. Not that badly. Not so big. Not at Steve.

As Billy came over two days later, and two days later, and a day later, and three days after that, history blurred with time, blurred Billy’s edges. By late September, Steve had stopped counting how many times Billy had shown up on his porch, because it seemed like a useless practice. A tally ever-ticking upward.

Then Billy didn’t come for two weeks, without a word.

Steve told himself he didn’t miss him.

 

The porch light cast the driveway in yellowed shadows, fallen leaves skittering in and around Steve’s car, spinning in tiny tornadoes. He burped Andy against his shoulder, not sure what he was looking for in the gloom. It looked like it would likely rain. Mama had promised him she’d bring back bagels from New York, but Andy didn’t understand the concept of bagels, and telling him for the fifteenth time seemed like a waste of breath.

He wanted to call Billy.

And it was stupid, really, because there were so many other people he could call. But all the kids had flooded in to bug him at work, and he’d told them they were fucking annoying, so he had to pretend to ignore them on principle for at least another two days. And Nancy and Jonathan were probably making out, or some shit, which Steve liked to pretend they didn’t do.

And Mama? Well, calling Mama would just be sad, so.

His final choices were Billy and Robin. Steve knew which of them was the safer bet, the better option. The one that didn’t make his brain itch.

But Steve wanted to call Billy.

He had the number, even, scrawled next to Max’s name in the phonebook by the fridge. He wouldn’t have to call around. Wouldn’t have to suffer the fucking stupid indignities of telephone tag, like, Hey Tommy, it’s been a while, call me when you get the chance? and Hey man, it’s Steve, do you have Hargrove’s number? and Hi, is this the Hargrove residence? I’m looking to speak with Billy?

It would be easy. Punch a few buttons. Lean against the kitchen sink while the phone rang, and rang, and rang.

Steve realized he’d never needed to call Billy before, because Billy had always called first. He’d show up before Steve thought to go looking for him. Maybe there was a reason for that? Maybe Steve was bad at staying in touch. Or maybe Steve was just thinking about it too deeply, mind all tangled up like telephone cord as Andy belched.

 

Exactly thirty-two minutes later, Steve caved.

He watched Andy from the living room doorway, telephone cord stretched to its limit as he listened to the phone ring. Andy had fallen fast and hard for the baby gym Mama had come home with one day, and was happy to babble with the dangling animals and shake them in his little fists, so long as Steve was within view.

Sometimes it seemed easy, being small.

The phone rang and rang. Steve pressed his shoulder into the doorway.

Just when he thought it would skip to voicemail, there was a crackle, and, “Hello?”

“Hey, Max,” Steve said, aiming for casual. Of the possible outcomes, her picking up the phone was good, but not great. “Is Billy around?”

She paused a moment, and Steve could imagine her expression, eyebrows downturned, something sour on her tongue. “Why?”

“I want to talk to him?”

“No shit, genius, but why?”

Steve rubbed his eyes, said, “I’m looking for financial advice on investment properties. Duh. Why does it matter why I want to talk to him? Is he there, or what?”

“Screw you,” she said, before shouting, “Billy! It’s for you!” so loud Steve had to pull the phone from his ear. She probably still had the mouthpiece up to her lips, the fucking brat.

There was some conversation he couldn’t make out, some stomping, all muffled like maybe she’d finally pressed the phone to her shoulder, like a normal fucking human being. Then Billy was breathing down the line, like, “You shouldn’t call me here.”

“Uh, hi, good evening to you too, glad you’re doing well.”

“Shut up, did you want something?”

It was like being plunged into cold water, that sinking-shocked feeling, throat-choked familiar confusion. It had crossed his mind a few times that he might have fucked up, somehow. That he might have said something shitty or stupid to make Billy hate him, but.

“Yeah, I just – I rented some movies on my way home from work, and was wondering if maybe you’d want to watch one?”

Which wasn’t the plan, but Steve’s mouth was running on its own. Everything felt fucking necessary, suddenly. Eager, important.

He needed to get a fucking grip.

“Uh. Yeah, shit, I guess? Let me find my keys. I’ll be there in twenty.”

Billy didn’t sound happy, but the pressure in Steve’s throat released as the line went dead.

 

Steve cleaned up the front hallway and made popcorn, because he wasn’t sure what else to do with his hands. Andy didn’t like the sound of the microwave or the dancing kernels, but he also didn’t start crying, so whatever, small miracles.

By the time Billy was knocking on the front door, Steve had two open beers on the coffee table and the VCR ready to go. “Hey,” he said as he swung the door open.

Billy held his shoulders stiff inside his jean jacket, keys still clenched in his fist. “Hey,” he replied, short.

Steve frowned as he stepped out of the way to let him in. “Look, if I was being a dick, you could have just told me –”

“What?” Billy kicked off a boot. “I never fucking said you were. Where the fuck did you get that?”

“Uh, literally everything today?” Steve wanted to include everything from the last two weeks, but there was something more profound about complaining about silence, and Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to go there, yet.

“I showed up, didn’t I? I just don’t want you calling my fucking house.”

The why was left unsaid, maybe sitting beside that stained-glass feeling they still didn’t talk about. Billy took a deep breath and slowly unclenched his fists, moved to undo his other boot. “What movie are we watching?” he asked, like it was that simple, could be that easy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“Christ, you have bad taste.”

“I also have beer?”

Steve and Andy both liked Indiana Jones, thank you very much, but Billy was fighting the smallest of smiles, and fighting him didn’t seem worth it.

 

They sat near the middle of the couch, popcorn between them and Andy in Steve’s lap as images moved across the screen. When Billy was finished with his beer, he set it on the coffee table and twisted the bottleneck between his fingers. Mama was going to lose her shit, they should have used coasters.

“I’ve been really busy,” Billy said.

“Uh.”

“No, look, like. I’m not mad at you? Or whatever you think is up. I’ve just been trying to figure some shit out with my old man, because he’s still fucking pissed that I’m waiting a year before college, and I got a gig at the auto shop that’s eating my time.”

“Which one?”

“Lawson’s auto? The one over by the arcade.”

Steve shifted Andy’s blanket with one buttery hand and said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Like he thought he had the right to know. It wasn’t like Billy had signed a contract saying he’d stop by.

Billy shrugged, fingers still twisting the bottle. “I didn’t think you’d care? It always seems like I’m kind of in your way, coming over all the time.”

Steve thought about Billy tugging him up by his armpits after class, about Billy shoving Tommy into the gym lockers. He thought about the first time Billy had fought Andy from his arms, back when Steve didn’t want to admit that he needed help. It wasn’t the same, then. Hadn’t been the same in a long time.

“What? No, you’re not. Dude, if I wanted you gone, I’d tell you, alright? I did tell you, like, months ago, but now we’re friends because you didn’t listen to me, so.”

“That’s a lot of mixed signals.”

“Jesus, I invited you over.”

“Yeah, but,” Billy shrugged and licked his teeth. “It’s stupid, I guess. Doesn’t matter.”

They didn’t speak again until Steve’s beer was empty, movie most of the way through. “Why are you taking a year before you go to college? You got good grades, didn’t you?”

“I just wanna save some money, before I go, you know? Make sure I have enough to get gone and stay gone. I don’t want to have to rely on my dad.”

Steve wasn’t sure how he felt about that, wasn’t sure he really wanted to process it, a little lightheaded from the beer and the flickering screen. “Oh. Makes sense, I guess.”

It was heavy. Unwanted. He shouldn’t have asked.

“I should put Andy to bed,” Steve said.

“Okay, yeah, of course.”

He was expecting Billy to leave, maybe, or go out for a smoke. Instead, Billy paused the movie and followed Steve up the stairs, like he’d been asked to, and he hadn’t, but. Steve wasn’t about to push it. Wasn’t about to point out that Billy had never been upstairs. That it would have been weird for Billy to ask to see the nursery, because there was something private about where a person slept, the place they were most vulnerable.

Steve turned on the light as he reached the top of the stairs but left the light off in Andy’s room when he headed to the crib. He could feel Billy’s eyes on him as he tucked Andy in and kissed his forehead. When he turned, Billy was leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over his chest.

“You wanna keep watching that movie?” Steve asked. Almost wanted Billy to say no.

“I might, for a bit. I probably gotta go soon, though. If I break curfew, it’s better to stay out until morning. It’s not really worth it.”

He said it like he was used to sleeping in his car, maybe, or spread out like an alley cat on someone’s couch. He said it like it was a simple fact, and not one of the most fucked up things Steve had ever heard.

As Steve stepped out of the nursery and closed the door, Billy stepped back, but he kept his shoulder to the wall, arms crossed over his chest, like maybe he was waiting for something, searching for something. Billy seemed to do a lot of that. Searching, waiting.

Steve found himself leaning too, a cloying feeling spreading through his throat, from his stomach up. Over-warm and too tight. Searching, waiting, wanting.

He wanted Billy to go. He didn’t want Billy to leave.

“I think it’s only got about twenty minutes left,” Steve said, stupid. “You got twenty minutes?”

Billy checked his watch and grimaced. “Yeah, but it might be cutting it close.”

“Maybe next time, then? It’s a five-day rental.”

And Steve didn’t know why he was still talking. Why he kept saying stay, stay, stay¸ other than New York bagels and how shitty it felt to watch TV alone.

Billy’s jaw worked a second before he cleared his throat, like, “Yeah, okay. I could do tomorrow?”

“I think my parents will be home tomorrow night. Unless you don’t mind seeing them?”

Because Steve didn’t mind, but Billy seemed to mind, and Steve felt like he’d already twisted his ankle in enough potholes for one night. He didn’t need to fuck up another thing.

Billy took a moment to weigh that, too, said, “What about Thursday?”

“I think they’re doing something at the country club. They probably won’t be back until midnight?”

“Thursday, then.”

“Cool, okay.”

Billy had soft freckles along the bridge of his nose, skin fried from the summer sun. Maybe they ran in his family, or maybe he’d had too many sunburns as a child, California heat digging into his skin, lifelong scars of blue sky and waves.

Nancy’d be fucking proud of how fucking poetic Steve had been lately. See if she’d shit on his essays now.

Not that he was really thinking about that, watching Billy’s cheeks as Billy shifted his socked feet on the carpet. Billy cleared his throat, said, “I might have time to watch it now?”

“We’d have to pick something else for Thursday.”

They’d never made plans before.

Billy didn’t nod, just kind of grabbed Steve’s elbow, thumb pressing too-hard into the soft fleshy bit. He looked a little like a man headed to the gallows as he searched Steve’s eyes. Steve didn’t know when their voices had grown so soft, their bodies so magnetic. In a quick jerk, Billy cracked their teeth together, hardly a kiss. It was more hollowed-out, animal. He pulled back as quickly as he’d moved in.

For a moment, Steve just stared, lips moving too late, like the universe had lagged.

When he didn’t say anything, Billy stepped back with a jagged laugh and rubbed his mouth with the back of his wrist. “I can’t keep fucking doing this,” he said.

Steve couldn’t breathe, but wheels were turning in him, somewhere. A sort of thud as a shoe dropped.

Billy was talking too fast for Steve to keep up, still too busy processing what that even was. A kiss, obviously, but the why-what-hows of it were all tangled up. Billy wasn’t like that. Steve wasn’t like that. But the evidence was right in front of him, still stinging his teeth. Permanent. Undeniable.

There was something Steve was missing, a second shoe dangling above, waiting, waiting.

Billy said, “I’ve been fucking busy, which is why I wasn’t visiting, seriously, but also, it’s kind of fucked up that I’ve even been coming over in the first place, because it’s – you don’t – I’m just going to go, alright? And if you don’t tell anyone about this, I won’t come by again. Fuck, this is the stupidest shit I have ever done.”

And he was turning towards the stairs, back already to Steve, and all Steve could get out was, “Stay here tonight.” Like a goddamn moron.

It was Billy’s turn to stall out, looking over the bannister with his fists bunched up at his sides. “What? You feel bad, so you wanna fucking humour me? Rub it in a little?”

“No, not like – We can just finish the movie? And uh, then you won’t have to deal with your dad –”

“Do you have brain damage?”

Steve was starting to think he did. It would explain a lot.

“You’re going to get shitty sleep, because I’ll have to get up to feed Andy at least twice, but –”

Billy turned on his heel and stomped back to Steve, grabbing both his shoulders tight and giving them a shake. “Did you even listen to me?”

“It’s fine, Billy.”

And it wasn’t. Steve wasn’t really sure what it was. He was suddenly clammy, gut through the floor and heart vibrating, but he knew he didn’t want Billy to go. He knew that if he let him, whatever kind of friendship they’d been building would fracture and fall apart.

Billy’s nostrils flared as he gripped him tight, some sort of confusion-hurt-anger bleeding around his edges, dire optimism. His next kiss was still too sharp, nervous teeth-clicking and too much pressure, but this time Steve grappled his arms in return, pushed back against Billy’s lips until their mouths were softer in the middle, until Billy’s hands were loose around Steve’s biceps.

It wasn’t beautiful or logical or sound. They traded kisses like that a while, Billy caging Steve against the wall, Steve’s hands sliding up into Billy’s hair. Steve realized they’d left the lights and the TV on downstairs. He wondered if the front door was locked. He thought about what it meant to have Billy’s body on his own, how he felt about it, should have felt about it.

Steve wasn’t a fag, he’d said so himself, but Billy had firm hands on his hips, sunshine on his skin. Billy didn’t care that he had a kid. Billy had a crush on him, apparently.

Steve didn’t want to be greedy and do the wrong thing, but he was having trouble identifying what he should be guilty about, which parts were greedy. He thought Billy was hot and strong, had realized he was kind, but he wouldn’t have catalogued those thoughts as a crush, exactly. They were more like honourable mentions his brain would spit out when Billy was leaning against the kitchen counters, summer sun hitting his hair, laughing at whatever dumb shit Steve had said.

But Steve liked kissing Billy. He liked his stubble, even though it was strange. He liked how Billy smelled. And maybe that was what he should be guilty about, that him liking kissing wasn’t the same as him liking Billy, so for Billy, this wasn’t the same.

Not that he knew that Billy liked-liked him, but the kisses and melodramatic bullshit were pretty good indicators. Both of them were being pretty fucking melodramatic, actually.

“Fuck you,” Billy said, resting their foreheads together.

Steve laughed, said, “What did I do now?”

And it was as nonsensical as the rest of it, really.

“You’re just too hot, with your dumb hair, and those like, dick sucking lips.”

“My what?”

“You got good fucking lips, alright? It’s a compliment. I’m trying to tell you, like, I’m into you. Really into you.”

“Me too,” Steve said. He thought it was going to be a lie, but it didn’t feel like one. It felt as tangible as Billy’s hair between his fingers, a terrifying something that had been growing between his ribs, finally coming to bloom on his tongue.

“Cool, so, like,” Billy looked down the hall. “Which of these bedrooms is yours?”

 

Maybe they should have exercised some patience, all things considered. Steve’s brain was still reeling, but it was hard to think about that when Billy was hot between his thighs, Billy’s teeth grazing his jaw as they lay on Steve’s bed.

In Billy’s defense, Steve was the one who crawled on top of Billy the second they sat down. There was something eager in newness, and Steve hadn’t messed around with someone in a long fucking time. Kissing Tammy Thompson at prom didn’t count for shit. But kissing Billy? Kissing Billy felt solid, serious. Like there was gravity beyond what it meant about Steve as a person.

Billy had his hands under Steve’s shirt, thick fingers digging into his ribs, and Steve couldn’t help the way his dick kicked every time Billy murmured against his skin. He was so fucking turned on, fucking electric from how Billy touched him, and it was fucking weird, but it also felt right. Grounding. Glorious. Natural.

Steve rocked their hips together and gasped against Billy’s lips. Shoved his hand under Billy’s shirt and said, “You should take this off,” as Billy said, “Fuck, Steve, wait.”

“What?” Steve asked, almost laughed a little, because they were still kissing, and wait didn’t seem like it was happening anytime soon.

After a few more kisses, Billy pushed on Steve’s shoulders. “I’m serious,” he said. “Stop.”

Steve frowned and sat back on his heels. “What?” he asked.

Billy sat up as well, taking a moment to breathe deep, eyes on Steve’s chest as he wiped a hand over his mouth. “You’ve just gotta know something.”

Steve’s blood went cold. “Please don’t tell me you have AIDS.”

“What?” Billy’s eyes snapped up, corners of his mouth curling, mean. “No, I don’t fucking have AIDS, Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Well you could! I don’t know what you’ve—”

“Andy’s not your baby.”

The other shoe dropped, landed with tremendous thud between Steve’s ears and echoed all the way down to his stalled lungs. “What the fuck do you mean?” he said, frozen over Billy like some dumbstruck statue.

Billy was looking at Steve’s shoulder, fists clenching and unclenching between their bodies as his mouth motored. He said, “Well, he is your baby in all the ways that matter, like, he has your DNA, but—”

“But what, Billy? What ‘but’ could there possibly be?” And heat was rushing back into Steve, rage twisting his insides.

“He’s your baby, but he didn’t – I put him on your porch.”

Steve scrambled off the bed and hit the dresser. Bones rattling, he snapped, “You did what?”

All of the pieces from the last few months started to line up real fast, vomit fizzling and frothing in Steve’s stomach like vinegar mixed with baking soda. Why Billy had been so nice. Why Jonathan thought Andy’s mom could be a guy. Why Billy looked the way he did with Andy in his arms.

Steve was going to throw up. He was going to punch Billy in the face, then he was going to throw up. “Why? What the fuck, Billy. You ruined my fucking life,” he said.

Billy winced like he’d been struck, had the same wide-eyed expression he’d worn when his father had held him by his lapels, shaking him in church. “I couldn’t keep him,” he said. It was more of a croak, really, but rushed, like the metal of a broken tap giving way before the water started shooting out.

“You saw what my dad is like. What he does. What do you think he would do to my kid? I couldn’t fucking let him do that. And it’s not like I could leave home, either. I don’t have anything.” He took a deep breath around his clogged throat, every word he spoke sounding angrier and angrier, growing louder and louder, faster and faster. He wasn’t crying, not yet. He said, “I knew he was yours the second I found him on my porch. Shit, Steve, he just – I just knew. And I knew you were the only person I could trust with him.”

“How?” Steve shouted back. “That doesn’t make any sense, Billy. Even if you wanted a baby with me—”

“I didn’t!” Billy threw his hands up. “You think there’s any way I would think this was a good idea? I can’t even figure out how he could have happened if you don’t fucking love me.”

And that was the crux of it, really. That Billy was in love with him, had been in love with him the whole time.

Steve crossed his arms in front of his chest, caving in on himself as he stared across the room. “Tell me what you think happened, then,” he said, words measured, impatient.

Billy scrubbed over his eyes, said, “I don’t fucking know, alright? Just. It was so fucking bad when I got here. My dad was being worse than ever. I had to break up with my kind-of girlfriend and couldn’t call any of my friends in Cali. And then this town is shit, and you – I knew I was screwed from the moment I saw you. I’d thought some guys were hot in LA, but not the same way. And I was a huge dick about it.”

His words were running together, thoughts all disconnected. A broken tap spraying and spraying.

“And then there was all that weird shit that happened where I wrecked your face and my sister fucking drugged me. And then she started threatening me too, like I wasn’t already getting that at home. So all I could do was get lost or hide in my fucking house like some bitch.

“And I was just so fucking messed up – about everything, and my family, and you. So, all I can guess is that the universe thought it was being fucking funny. Like, look at this jackass.” He laughed, wet and a little snotty, tears bleeding down his cheeks. “He’s so fucking lonely that we gotta invent a person for him. Who cares if it fits into his life, right?

“And I thought maybe, you know, since this baby shit is supposed to be a joint thing, maybe you’d been thinking of me too, so it wasn’t just me losing my mind, it was part of something? But you had no fucking clue who the other parent could be, so I couldn’t just say something like, hey, I know you might beat the shit out of me for this, but that’s my kid. I know what happens to queers in towns like this, and if you didn’t want me, and you didn’t understand, it could have gone so fucking bad.

“I didn’t mean to push my way into your life so much. I just wanted to help out a bit and see him sometimes. And see you. And I know all of this is fucked up and shitty.”

It was a lot.

Steve took some deep breaths, brows downturned and mouth partly open, trying to reconcile the Billy he knew with the man cracked open on his bed, the one with the goopy egg-yolk heart spilling over his sheets.

“It is shitty,” Steve said.

Billy looked at his hands.

“Why did you kiss me?”

Billy glanced up but didn’t meet his eyes, licked his lips, said, “It just felt like one of those moments. Like, you know, right before you kiss a girl, when you think she might want you to? And I’d already been trying to give you and Andy space, because I knew I couldn’t do this forever, so at least if you thought I was disgusting and kicked me out it would have been final. Would have given me a real reason to stay away.”

The room was heavy and bleak, Billy’s slumped shoulders the most pathetic thing Steve had ever seen. Outside, cars rumbled up and down the street, animals scurried in and out of bushes. Someone honked their horn, a baby cried.

Shit, Andy.

“I should go,” Billy said.

“You stay right fucking there,” Steve said. He jabbed a finger towards the bed as he walked out to the nursery.

Andy was bawling in his crib, tiny fists flailing and cheeks plum-red. He looked like his father, Steve thought, and it sliced right through his intestines.

“C’mere, little man,” he said, plucking Andy up. He smelled like he needed a change, and maybe a feeding, from the way he was wailing. It seemed Steve could never feed him enough, which doctors assured him was normal, but still made him feel like he was always a step behind.

Apparently, he was a lot of steps behind.

He changed Andy and took him downstairs to get a bottle, not brave enough to look at Billy in the bedroom as he passed. Part of him hoped this was all a fucked-up dream, just his subconscious mashing shit from his day together in ways he wouldn’t understand when he woke up. It felt logical like Dustin wearing a tiger costume to school was logical, just correct enough to be plausible without it being right.

He sat in the glow of the paused TV as he fed Andy, letting the wheels in his mind turn amid the blue and green.

Andy had his father’s eyes and his father’s smile. Steve’s eye shape, Billy’s eye colour. Steve’s birthmarks, Billy’s dimples. Now that Steve knew, there was so much Billy in Andy that it was overwhelming, even if he was seeing him in half-cast shadows.

Things still didn’t make sense, and nothing was okay, but as their son sat in Steve’s lap, in the only house their son had ever known, Steve knew it couldn’t have worked any other way. It sucked. It was fucking awful, and unplanned, and unfair. But no matter how Andy was born, he was in a home where he was safe, warm, and loved.

And Steve cried, angry and open, because he knew Billy’s home wasn’t any of those things.

 

Steve stepped back into the bedroom and clicked the door shut behind him. He’d dried his cheeks and put Andy back to bed, but that still left Billy.

While he’d been gone, Billy had apparently taken to lying on his side, not sleeping, just sort of staring towards the window like he could see stars through the closed blinds. Honestly, Steve was surprised Billy had even stayed, because he was pretty sure he’d heard Billy listen to exactly no one, ever, in far less awkward situations.

He cleared his throat and said, “So, I don’t love you.”

Like a dick.

Billy grimaced and sat up.

“Wait, I don’t mean—” Steve put both his hands out, “—fuck, that’s not what I meant. I mean, I don’t know what this shit is, okay? But I get it, I think. And I don’t love you, because I’m not – I hadn’t really thought about it until tonight, alright? When you kissed me. But I do like you. And I love Andy. And I’m still fucking mad at you, but.”

He wasn’t sure where that ‘but’ was going. The script he’d come up with when he was putting Andy to bed had fallen apart the second he’d opened his flappy, useless mouth.

Billy’s expression was crumpled up and unreadable, scared, maybe, and it was the least-Billy thing Steve had ever seen. Steve took another deep breath and squeezed his fists at his sides. “I want this to work,” he said, like it could be easy.

“I can go,” Billy said, getting up.

“No. Fuck.” Steve stayed firmly planted in the doorway, tugging on his hair. He didn’t know what they needed to do, or even where he wanted them to end up, but he knew where they could start. “Just. I’m going to change my pants. And I’m going to turn off the light. And you’re going to sleep on the left side of the bed, and when Andy cries around three, you’re going to get up and feed him.”

If Billy had complaints, he didn’t voice them, just gave a somewhat stilted nod and peeled off his jeans while Steve changed.

Once Steve settled into bed, facing Billy’s back, Billy finally whispered, “Sorry.”

“You’re an asshole,” Steve said.

The duvet was too warm on top of them, too thick for early October. Steve knew that if he shifted his legs, his knees would eventually fold into Billy’s, like Billy had folded into his life. Without Billy around, Steve had wanted to complain about silence.

Softer than before, Steve said, “I did want you to kiss me.”

So, in the dark, with their baby sleeping down the hall, Billy did.

 

“Please don’t let your friends go in the pool,” Mama said, airport sounds bustling around behind her.

Steve leaned against the counter and pressed the phone to his ear, trying not to roll his eyes. “It’s cold out, Mama,” he said. “No one is going to want to use the pool. Trust me.”

“Okay, and don’t let any of them near your father’s liquor cabinet—”

“Most of them don’t even drink. And no one is going to get drunk when Andy is around. Trust me, Mama, a baby is a giant party killer.”

She made some kind of noise. “You certainly don’t remember the 60s. Please be careful.”

“I will,” he promised. “I gotta go, I think people are here.”

“Okay,” she said. “I love you. Tell Andy I love him. Don’t ruin my house!”

“Bye, Mama!” Steve hung up.

Billy and Max were already kicking their shoes off in the front foyer, Billy in a deep green button-up and Max dressed as a skeleton. Max scowled, pointed a finger at Steve, and said, “What are you supposed to be?”

“Uh,” Steve looked down at his white t-shirt and jeans. “I’m a stay-at-home dad?”

She rolled her eyes. “Which is different from how you normally are how, exactly?”

“Normally I’m an over-tired, full-time working dad.”

“So you’re basically lame, either way,” Dustin said, shoving around Max through the half-open door, nearly knocking her over in the process. “You couldn’t even get a costume for your own party?”

“Hey, I got Andy a costume. Halloween is for children, remember? I invited you because you’re children.”

“And Nancy and Jonathan are what? Senior children?” Mike asked, opening the door more and pushing until Dustin’s muddy shoes were off the doormat and on the hardwood. Steve’s mama was going to lose it.

“Jesus Christ, next time I won’t rent you shits R rated films and buy you candy, then.”

It didn’t appear to be an effective threat, the foyer suddenly too full of people in costumes juggling backpacks as they tried to remove their shoes. At least ten muddy footprints were stamped on the floor instead of the doormat, and Steve was going to pretend he didn’t see El’s green witch makeup smeared on the wall.

“Where’s Andy, anyway?” Nancy asked. She was a Greek goddess, maybe, or an angel.

“He was taking a nap, but he’s probably up now, with all this.” Steve waved his hands at the group. “I’ll go grab him.”

Upstairs, everything was muffled in the cool dark, hall lights left off in favour of the setting sun. Maybe Andy was still sleeping, if he wasn’t crying. He usually woke with a demanding wail, and Steve could relate.

“A dinosaur, really?” Billy asked, stepping out of the nursery. Steve should have known, but it still caught him off guard, every time he found Billy with Andy in his arms, Andy clutching at Billy’s clothes, content.

“Okay, you have to admit, he’s a fucking cute dinosaur,” Steve said, stepping in to pop Andy’s soother back into his mouth. “And you can’t say shit. What are you supposed to be, anyway?”

“Uh, a vampire?”

“I didn’t know the criteria for being a vampire was wearing a green shirt.”

“If you want, I could dress up as a stay-at-home dad, but you’d have to take your shirt off for me,” Billy said, before giving him a kiss.

“You’re the worst.”

Billy kissed him again.

“Not in front of the baby.”

Billy laughed, loud, and headed down the stairs, where people were already shouting over movies. Steve needed a moment to collect his breath before he followed, already sure he had made a terrible, terrible mistake. He was going to need a beer, and candy, and to maybe hire a maid service in the morning.

“Steve!” Dustin said, the second Steve entered the kitchen. “Do you know that Billy has your baby?”

Christ.

Steve pulled open the fridge to grab a beer, glancing over to where Billy had Andy on his hip and a beer pressed to his lips. Right. He took his time opening his own bottle, took a sip, before shrugging.

“Billy, do you know you’re holding my baby?”

“Am I?” Billy asked. Glanced down at Andy like he’d never seen him before, squinted. “Weird.”

“Huh,” Steve said.

“And you’re okay with this?” Dustin asked, waving a hand.

“Dude, chill out,” Steve said. “What’s the worst he could do? Drop him?”

Dustin gasped. “Did he drop you?”

Steve shoved his beer into Dustin’s hands, slapped him on the back. He said, “It’s fine, Henderson.”

And it was, actually.

Then Dustin took a gulp from the bottle and spat it on Steve. “Holy fuck, why do you drink this?” he shrieked, wiping his tongue with his hand.

“What the fuck?” Steve said, as he yanked his wet shirt from his skin. “And you think it’s gross when Andy does that?”