Steve doesn’t mean to sound like he gives a shit.
And it’s not like he does - it’s Billy Hargrove - but it’s also basketball season, and the coach put a real strict rule on fighting in place around the same time Billy showed up, and Steve knows in his gut that Billy’s gonna get benched and drilled, or drilled and benched, about what kind of trouble he got into over break - some kind of stupid fucked-up juvenile delinquent How I Spent My Christmas Vacation.
And Steve’s the captain of the team (has been for the last two years, first junior to ever be named basketball team captain at Hawkins High, thank you very much) so he’d at least like a heads up on whatever the coach is going to be bitching about for the next forever, because there’s a good chance they’ll have to bench Billy for the next game and he’s a good player - their best player - even if he is a screwup with a bad attitude.
So when Billy walks into the gym on their first day back from break, Steve says, “What the hell happened to you?” Only it comes out of his mouth a little different than he meant for it to, not as shitty or condescending or - or whatever he meant. “You get jumped in a biker bar or something?” he adds, like it’ll make up for the first part, but it’s half-hearted.
Billy doesn’t seem to notice. Or maybe he does and just doesn’t care. He doesn’t rise to Steve’s weak bait, regardless. “What’s it look like, Harrington,” he says, “I got in a fuckin’ fight.”
And that is what it looks like. One eye’s practically swollen shut, deep purple-red around the edges but still almost black around his eyelid. There’s a bruise spread across one side of his face from his temple to his cheekbone and a nasty split in his lip, half-healed.
Billy doesn’t look at him while he says it, though. Steve wouldn’t look him over like this if Billy was looking at him.
“Never seen you lose a fight before,” Steve says, before he can think about it. It’s only halfway true - he’s seen Billy get the shit kicked out of him, but it was two on one and Billy gave about as good as he got. Steve’s not sure he’d call it losing. But Billy does look at him then, at least, and grins lopsided like the split side still hurts.
“Shit,” he says, draws it out. He’s looking Steve up and down, now, top to bottom, slow, and Steve shifts his weight from one foot to the other, wills himself not to blush. He’s always been an easy blusher. Goddamn it. “You oughta see the other guy.”
There’s a momentary silence, like they’re both remembering: Steve was the other guy not even a month ago. Some of the bruising still hasn’t faded. The one across the bridge of his nose is still bile-green and his mom still fusses over it, when she’s around.
(Everybody knows what Billy did. Everybody figures it was just the building tension finally building over, and it was a shame that it just happened outside of school so they didn’t have a herd of gawking onlookers cheering them on. Word gets around Hawkins fast.)
Neither one of them say anything, and Billy breaks the tension by just leaving, heading downstairs to the locker rooms without so much as another word, leaves Steve standing in the gym to let that bounce around his head until he can follow him down.
They don’t fuck with each other anymore, is the thing.
Billy talks shit in practice, because that’s who Billy is, and he still fucks with other people, nerds and underclassmen, but he gives Steve a wide berth in the hallway, doesn’t wink at Nancy, ignores Jonathan completely. He sits in his stupid car and chainsmokes when he’s got to pick up Max from the arcade every Sunday night, and Steve only knows that because he parks on the other side of the lot to wait for the rest of the gremlins to pile into the Beemer and try to cajole him into letting them drive.
He doesn’t so much as look at Steve for two weeks, and then he’s opening his car door and walking across the parking lot towards him, cigarette in hand. Steve’s smoking, too. It’ll be at least ten minutes before they’re done inside - little assholes run about twenty minutes late to everything, like they know he doesn’t have shit going on.
“Is Wheeler any good at chemistry?” Billy doesn’t even bother saying hello. Steve’s taken aback for a second, then immediately tries to figure out if Billy’s making some kind of gross sex joke. Like he can read his mind, Billy sighs. “The class, Harrington.”
“Nancy?” Steve asks. He doesn’t mean to. He knows Billy means Nancy. His mouth moves faster than his brain, sometimes.
“No,” Billy says, sounding inordinately put-upon, “her weird little brother - yeah, Nancy.”
Steve’s never heard Billy say her name before. It had always been lookin’ good today, Wheeler, love that sweater or you know, Wheeler, I saw your mom the other night, I see where you get it from now. But that was before everything, and he hasn’t heard Billy say a goddamn word to her since.
“Yeah,” he says, once those thoughts are done chasing themselves around. “Yeah, she’s pretty much good at everything.”
Billy lets that sit for a moment. He’s looking at the arcade. His cigarette's got a cherry hanging off of it a half-inch long, like he's not paying attention to flick it. His lip's split again, same place as before. "Think she'd tutor me?" he says finally, and only then does he look at Steve. There's no sneer on his face like Steve expects, like this really was just a joke about fucking her after all. "I bombed the last test. I got no idea what the fuck Benson's talking about half the time."
Steve's immediate instinct is to say no, and it's probably a correct one. Nancy would probably rather chop her hand off than use it to make Billy Hargrove flash cards.
"I can talk to her tomorrow," he says instead, and shrugs. Billy's still looking at him. Steve notices, for the first time, that Billy looks fucking bone-tired. Maybe it’s just the light - streetlights make everybody look like shit, probably - and his black eye is mostly healed, just a little yellow-green, but he’s still got bruise-purple shadows under his eyes.
"Yeah," Billy says. "Thanks." His cigarette's about burned down to his fingers, and he tosses it to the pavement, grinds it out with the toe of his boot. He pauses, then, like maybe he's about to say something else, but then he's heading back across the parking lot to lean against his own car instead of Steve's, digging another cigarette out of his pack. Steve knows he can't see his busted lip from here, but he still catches himself staring.
Nancy's as horrified as Steve expects, and Jonathan even moreso, but she tells them both at the end of the day that she talked to Benson and it turns out that Billy does, in fact, really need a tutor.
"I'm going with you," Jonathan announces. Sometimes Steve doesn’t recognize him, can’t quite tell he’s the same pretentious, awkward weirdo from a year ago. He’s still pretentious and awkward, but he’s a hell of a lot braver. Or at least more willing to be brave in front of him. "If you're - are you going to his house? Is he going to your house?"
"We're staying here," Nancy says, scandalized, like the very concept of having Billy Hargrove in her home is a horror. Steve has a hard time imagining it, Billy in his stupid half-open shirt in front of Ted Wheeler, saying he’ll be upstairs studying. "We’ll be in the library. Mrs. Pestek stays until six.”
“Oh,” Jonathan says, and seems to actually physically relax a little.
“I can’t believe he cares about his grades,” Nancy says, pulling a few more books out of her locker as if for good measure.
Steve shrugs, glances down the hallway. The last thing he wants is Billy coming up behind him while they’re talking about him, Christ. “He might be looking at college ball,” he says. “They still care about grades on athletic scholarships.” Ask me how I know, he pointedly does not say. His English grade has been hanging off his back for the last six months.
“You think he’s going to college?” Jonathan’s eyebrows are raised so high they almost disappear under the bangs that hang half over his forehead. Nancy reaches up to fix his hair. He doesn’t flinch.
“I mean.” Steve shrugs again. “Even total dipshits have ambition, man.”
He doesn’t tell them that they’re both at least a little bit wrong about Billy. He’s got more classes with him than they do, so he gets it, kind of - they only see him being an asshole to other kids, only hear his stupid fucking car in the parking lot.
Billy’s smart. Steve had been surprised, too, but - he always knows the answer when he gets called on, even though Steve’s never once seen him raise his hand. Maybe schools are just different in California, and Billy already knows all the shit they’re talking about out here in the sticks, but he doesn’t think that’s it.
“Sure,” Jonathan’s saying, once Steve reroutes his train of thought and gets himself to pay attention again. “I didn’t mean it like that, man.”
Steve’s reminded, suddenly, that Jonathan probably knows all about his stupid fucking college angst, about his awful essays and aborted attempts at scholarships. Jonathan looks apologetic when Steve looks at his face, and Steve’s seized with a sudden awful combination of anger and shame, feels it twist his stomach into a knot until he can work his mouth into a grin, easy and open.
“I know, big guy,” he says. “I didn’t think you did. Nancy worked wonders on me, though, huh? Passing English and everything. Maybe she’ll turn Hargrove into less of a douchebag.”
“Yeah, I doubt it,” Nancy huffs. “You were redeemable, Steve Harrington.”
The bell rings, then, and saves Steve from whatever stupid thing was about to come out of his mouth in response to that. “Shit,” he says, “gotta go - see you later,” and hurries away down the hallway, thinking about Nancy Wheeler’s idea of redemption.
Billy doesn’t show up for their scrimmage that next Sunday.
It’s fine - fuck him, they don’t need him anyway - but it pisses the coach off, and it pisses Steve off, too, a little. Billy’s been playing better and acting better - his games aren’t quite as physical, his shit talk isn’t quite as personal, even if he’s still an asshole and still gets in Tommy’s face just to throw him off - so it stands to reason that he’d turn around and bail on a Sunday practice.
Probably fucking hungover, Steve thinks. He’s rolled into weekend practices plenty of times feeling like shit and playing just like he felt, but at least he showed up.
Steve’s early to pick up the kids that night by ten or fifteen minutes, parks underneath a street light - he’s about two chapters behind in the book he’s supposed to be reading for English and there’s just enough light to read by. He only notices the other car pulling up when its headlights sweep over the page he’s on.
It’s Billy, of course. Nobody else is dumb enough to be out here at ten o’clock at night in the last week of January. He parks on the other side of the lot, away from the streetlights. Steve can just barely see the cigarette smoke snaking out of his cracked window in thin tendrils.
Steve contemplates getting out of the car, for a moment, getting out and going over to him, asking him what the fuck his problem is, if he likes setting them up to fail. If he likes proving Steve wrong right when he starts thinking he might be a halfway decent guy. But he doesn’t, of course, he keeps his ass planted in his seat and watches the gremlins pour out of the arcade in a little nerdy tidal wave. Max is leading the pack, hugs Lucas tight before she heads over to Billy’s car by herself.
They’re all jabbering at each other when they pile into the Beemer - Lucas calls shotgun and there’s a loud, brief scuffle before Steve reminds them, loudly, that Will called it last week, and Will gratefully sinks into the front seat to warm his hands right up against the vents.
Steve’s usually pretty good at tuning them out, but Lucas has the full attention of the other three. Even Will twists around in his seat to watch while he listens, once his hands are warm enough. Steve turns up the heat a little higher. Will gets cold easy, these days. “ - so his dad’s like, either you get a haircut or I’ll cut it for you, and I guess he cut it himself in his room.”
Steve glances in the rearview mirror. Lucas is grinning. Steve’s not. “What are you talking about, dweeb?”
“Billy,” Dustin says. “Max said his dad totally freaked out about his hair being long and him taking so much time on it and stuff, so he cut it all off.”
“Billy did or his dad did?” Steve can’t stop the way his brow is knitting. Billy’s a bully and a prick and an irresponsible asshole but - Steve gets it. The hair thing. His dad’s never liked his hair, but he hasn’t told Steve what to do with it since he was about twelve years old. Billy’s more into his hair than Steve’s ever been into his, and Steve spends more on hair product than most girls.
“Billy did,” Mike says. “Like, walked out of his room with no hair. I bet he looks so stupid.”
“Huh,” Steve says. They’re all back to talking over each other, debating which of them would look stupidest bald. Lucas seems convinced that he’d look great. “Yeah.”
He doesn’t look stupid.
It’s a hot topic of conversation in first period (Billy Hargrove cut all his hair off and did you see Billy?), but Steve doesn’t see him until second, when they have English together.
It looks darker, like maybe all the blonde was in the middle and ends. It doesn’t look bad - it’s not that short, shorter than Steve’s for sure but it’s not buzzed, definitely not shaved like the kids had thought. It looks good. The thought springs unbidden to the front of Steve’s mind - Billy had looked good with his long hair but he looks good with short, too, especially when it’s kind of messy like it is now. It doesn’t look like there’s any product in it at all.
“Got tired of it,” he hears Billy say to Kelly West in fourth period. “Long hair’s fucking lame, you know?”
That’s a quick turnaround, Steve thinks, from the way Billy carefully arranged his hair in the locker room mirror after every practice, the way he always had the right shampoo and conditioner in his locker to use in the showers, the careful thorough way he washed it. Not that Steve watched him fucking shower, or anything, but.
Practice is - weird. A couple of the guys are wearing sweatshirts, the high school gym is always fucking freezing, that’s why their games are at the middle school, but Steve’s never known Billy to miss the opportunity to play skins and he’s got on a sweatshirt Steve’s never seen before, It says La Jolla Wildcats on the front. He plays like shit, too, even though he’s so keyed-up that Steve expects him to be at his aggressive best, expects a shoulder check to send him sprawling for the first few minutes of the scrimmage until he realizes Billy’s trying to avoid him. All the cockiness from earlier is gone from his face.
He’s the first one down to the locker rooms, ignores the coach calling a meeting with everybody else. Steve follows him. He’s going to talk to him about yesterday, he tells himself. He’s gonna ask what the fuck his deal is, if he even takes this seriously, because there are JV players that would kill to be in his spot, that would actually appreciate the team.
“Billy,” he calls, before he’s even all the way down the stairs. “What the fuck, man, they’re - “
“What the fuck, Harrington,” Billy snarls, interrupts him right in the middle of his sentence. He’s scrambling to pull his t-shirt back on. The lighting in the locker room isn’t good - there’s a bulb burned out right about where Billy is standing - and Steve thinks they’re just shadows, at first, but there wouldn’t be shadows on his stomach like that, or on his ribs, deep blue and purple and ugly.
“There’s - coach is having a meeting,” Steve says, and it sounds weak even to his ears. “Upstairs. You left.”
“Yeah,” Billy says. He’s fumbling with the sweatshirt. There are bruises on his arms. Steve can’t stop looking at them. They’re ugly, too, wide blue-black stripes on his forearms. He pulls the sweatshirt over his head, messy and fast, keeps his hands knotted in the sleeves when he does. “Fuck coach and fuck his meeting. And fuck you.”
Steve’s staring. He knows he’s staring. There aren’t any bruises on Billy’s face, just the half-healed split in his lip. He keeps staring when Billy shoves past him, heads back up the stairs, and he stares after him once he’s gone, head spinning.
Billy doesn’t so much as look at him all week - he doesn’t come to school at all on Tuesday, and gets benched until Friday’s practice. He’s supposed to run laps, but he runs about half of what he’s supposed to both days and collapses on the bench after, hood pulled down over his eyes.
The coach doesn’t say anything, just looks at him and shakes his head. Steve doesn’t either. He’s not sure what he’d say even if he did want to talk to him, and he -
Fuck. It’s not that Steve doesn’t want to talk to him - well, he does - he wants to ignore what happened in the locker room, but he can’t. He knows Billy wants him to forget about it. Fuck the coach, and fuck his meeting, and fuck you, he had said. Steve’s not the smartest fucking guy in the room but he understands a mind your own business when it comes his way.
Steve swallows past his dry throat and chances a look at the bench. Billy’s still sitting there, slumped against the wall, hands in his sleeves. He might be asleep. Steve can’t imagine sleeping in practice, between the yelling and the whistle and the way their shoes squeak against the hardwood.
But the coach blows his whistle hard at the end of practice, and Billy doesn’t budge. A couple of the guys laugh a little - some of them laugh like it’s cool, some of them laugh like Billy’s a dumb asshole. Steve’s the last to head downstairs, and Steve doesn’t laugh.
His hand lands solidly on Billy’s shoulder, shakes him a little - “Hargrove, you gotta wake up, asshole, practice is over,” only Billy wakes up swinging, lands a solid punch to Steve’s ribs right around up. Steve skitters backwards and Billy does, too, as best he can with a wall behind him.
For just a second, there’s something unreadable on his face, wide-open and unguarded, and then it’s just that old familiar mask of anger, of sneering derision.
“Good,” he says, picks himself up off the bench with a little bit less of his usual - Steve doesn’t know, confidence, something. “So can I get the fuck out of here or does Coach wanna keep me in more time-out?”
Steve means to say he’s in his office, ask him or you’re probably good or what the fuck is with you, Hargrove, but what comes out of his stupid, traitorous mouth instead is “Are you okay?”
Billy blinks at him and the mask flickers - and then it’s back, tongue running along his bottom lip like that’s going to seal it in place. He looks Steve up and down, head to toe, and Steve forces himself not to squirm in place.
“I’m just fine, Harrington,” Billy says, draws it out, looks into Steve’s eyes dead-on. They’re so goddamn blue. Steve’s never seen eyes like that on anybody real. “How about you worry about yourself.”
“I’m not - “ Steve starts, feels like he chokes on it. “Yeah,” he says instead, finally, “alright.”
He’s not what? He doesn’t even know what’s going on. Billy’s been showing up with bruises since he started school in Hawkins, and Steve’s seen him in enough fights to know that he loses, once in a while, even if it seems like he’s halfway throwing it when he does. There’s nothing here for Steve to latch onto.
Fuck. When did he start trying?
Nancy talks about Billy, sometimes. Never in front of Jonathan, because Jonathan is quick to remind them both that Billy’s a violent psycho, but.
“He’s different when it’s just me,” she tells him thoughtfully, when he asks her on Wednesday how their study sessions are going. They’re been walking to history together, Nancy’s books held to her chest with folded arms. It’s kind of funny - Steve’s seen her aim a rifle through an open window and swing a bat like she’s planning on knocking somebody’s head off with it, but she still holds her books like somebody’s gonna knock them out of her hands at school. “Did you know he’s actually kind of smart?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and then, before he can think better of it, “he’s not that bad, Nance.” He’s not sure what makes him say it - Billy waiting in the cold for his not-sister, the way he’d looked up at Steve when he’d startled him awake in the gym The way he looks away when Steve tries to meet his eyes.
“He beat your face in a month ago,” Nancy says, looking at him sidelong, and pulls him out of his own thoughts. When he looks at her, she looks away, but he still catches the expression on her face, some weird mix of pity and - he doesn’t know. Concern, maybe. Like she thinks he’s forgotten or something. “Do you still have a concussion?”
He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. It’s kind of funny he everybody but him still thinks about that.
Billy’s already there when Steve pulls into the arcade parking lot at the end of the week. He’s standing outside of his car, and Steve doesn’t realize why until he pulls up next to him - stupid, stupid, what the fuck is wrong with him, there’s an entire parking lot he could park in, Jesus Christ - he’s smoking a joint, not a cigarette.
Steve gets out of his car, too, just to smoke-smoke, because it makes Mike sneeze if he smokes in the car too much right before he picks them up. Goddamn kids changing his routine.
Billy offers him the joint, wordlessly. Steve shakes his head while he’s lighting his cigarette, hand cupped tight around the flame.
“You ever got stoned before, Harrington?” Billy says, and when Steve looks at him he looks curious, not mocking. It’s jarring.
“No,” Steve says, and means entirely to lie right up until it’s out of his mouth. “I drove Tommy and Carol around when they were, though.”
“Fuck,” Billy says. He makes some kind of movement - like he’s going to push his hair back, Steve thinks - and it ends up aborted, awkwardly fixing the collar of his jacket instead. “I can’t imagine those morons high. They’re bad enough now.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and coughs a little. “Turned me off of it, I guess.”
Billy huffs out a laugh, takes a long, languid drag. There’s only about a quarter of the joint left, if Steve’s estimation of a usual joint length is right, which it might not be. He wonders how stoned Billy is. Billy offers it to him, still holding the smoke in, nods -
And Steve shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t, he’s got a whole fucking car full of kids to take home.
But he reaches for it anyway, watches Billy exhale his smoke slowly in a thin stream that curls up towards the stars, mixes with his breath in the cold air. “Pinch it,” he says, “like I did. You smoke cigarettes, you get it.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I get it.” He’s about to put his mouth somewhere that Billy Hargrove’s had just been. He feels like he should be grossed out by that. He’s definitely not. He puts his mouth where Billy’s had just been and sucks in, slow, watches the cherry at the end glow red-hot.
He exhales probably too fast, and Billy laughs, but it’s not his shitty fucking sneering laugh like when Steve misses a three-pointer or somebody trips in the hallway. It’s quiet, and when Steve looks at him, he looks away.
“You don’t know how to smoke pot, Harrington,” he says, and doesn’t sound pissed. “Gimme my joint back.”
Steve hands it over wordlessly. Their fingers brush a few times, Steve fumbling, trying not to hand it to him cherry-first. Billy’s so close Steve can feel the heat radiating off of him. What the fuck is he doing?
“Hey,” Steve says after a few moments, looking at Billy. He’s looking at the arcade. Steve can’t see any of the gremlins from here. Billy glances at him, then turns to look at him properly,
“Swear to God, Harrington,” Billy says. “If you’re gonna ride my ass about Sunday - “
Steve about chokes. He knows what it means to ride somebody’s ass, he’s not a grandma, he understands the turn of expression, but it coming out of Billy’s mouth like that throws him so far off-balance he might as well be overboard.
“I’m not,” he says, and then, because he’s a moron, “your hair. It looks good. That’s all.”
Something closes in Billy’s face. He’s digging in his jacket pocket for his cigarettes, shoves one between his teeth gracelessly. “Fuck off, Harrington.”
“Yeah, me too.” Billy lights it, or tries to, shakes his lighter a couple of times. Steve hands his over wordlessly, battles the sudden, insane urge to light it for him. “You’re not funny.”
“Fuck off,” Steve says, a little defensively. “I’m not trying to be funny. It looks good. I like it.”
“It looks like shit,” Billy mumbles, but doesn’t seem quite as angry. He runs his hand over the back of it, It does look a little choppy in some spots, now that Steve’s really paying attention, like maybe he really did cut it himself in his room.
“Nah,” Steve says eloquently. He flicks his cigarette, realizes a little late that he’s about let it burn down to the filter.
The kids are late, like usual, but unlike usual Billy flags Max over as soon as he sees her. He’s wearing his jacket over a flannel, Steve notices. He wonders if Billy ever wears a fucking real coat, not leather. It doesn’t even look like it’s lined.
“Max,” he calls. Steve’s eyes trail up to his arm. He wonders what they look like now, wonders if he’ll still be in long sleeves next week. “C’mon, we’re gonna be late, we gotta go.”
Steve’s never heard him say we before. He’s heard him yell at Max to hurry the fuck up, heard him threaten her with skating home if she’s late one more time - ever since that night at the Byers’, Billy’s been a lot nicer about everything. Maybe a spiked baseball bat two inches away from your dick will change anybody’s tune, Steve thinks.
Lucas glances at Billy once, twice, sees Steve next to him, leans in to peck Max’s cheek. Billy sighs next to him but doesn’t say anything, just “Maxine, let’s go.”
“Okay, okay, Jesus,” Max grumbles, detaches herself from the rest of them. “You can’t wait ten minutes?”
“Dad wants us home at nine sharp,” Billy says, opens his drivers’ door to get in. Steve’s got to move. He didn’t realize he was leaning on it until he’s got to stop. He surreptitiously glances at his watch; it’s ten after, and Billy’s got a ten minute drive home.
Us, Billy had said. It’s weird to think that Billy’s constrained by his dad’s rules when he’s - well. He’s the way he is.
Max rolls her eyes. She’s really good at it. “Bye, guys,” she says, kind of glumly, and walks around to climb into the passenger seat.
“Come on, dorks,” Steve says, redirects the attention of the rest of them. They’re all looking at Billy, unsubtly staring. They haven’t seen him since Max told them about his hair. Get a haircut or I’ll cut it for you, Lucas says in his head. “Guys,” he says, a little louder, and they all sort of snap to attention. Billy’s backing out of the parking lot. Steve is determinedly not watching. “Let’s go.”
Word gets around that Stacy Greenfield is having a party on Saturday night, since her parents are out of town.
(It still kind of blows Steve’s mind that other peoples’ parents leave rarely enough that it’s a party-worthy event, but he realized a couple of years ago that most of his classmates aren’t pretty much raising themselves, and the ones that are aren’t on the same ocean as him, let alone in the same boat.)
He doesn't actually plan on going, but it's not like he's really got anything else going on, and a couple of the guys on the team - Jerry Moreland and Rex Ritter, really decent guys, they say they're going, and Steve figures he probably should start making friends with people that aren't Tommy and Tommy-adjacent.
Steve smokes a cigarette on the way over, trying to calm his sudden, ridiculous nerves. He used to do this shit all the time - there used to be parties what felt like every weekend, or at least ones that he got invited to. He knows how this works. He'll go inside, have a couple of beers, mingle a little, flirt with Stacy or Tammy or Sandi, and then he'll go back to his big empty house by himself, rapidly losing his buzz.
He's late, half because you're supposed to be late to a party and half because he didn't want to come. He doesn't even get out of his car until it's almost eleven, finishing his cigarette and then lighting another off the cherry. Jesus, when did he turn into Jonathan Byers, brooding and chain-smoking outside of a pretty girl's party?
There's too many people here, and too many of them shout hey, Harrington and clap him on the back or shake him by the shoulder, shove bottles of beer at him from every direction. He takes one at random, downs half of it in one swallow and then holds it for the next fifteen minutes while he listens to Jerry bitch about the JV team.
The last thing he wants to do is talk about basketball. Somehow, basketball has gotten itself tangled up with Billy Hargrove in his stupid brain, and he doesn't want to think about Billy tonight. He's done too much thinking about him all goddamn week. He still catches himself casing the crowd every so often, thinking maybe he’ll see a denim jacket and a half-unbuttoned shirt.
He disentangles himself from Jerry - it’s not too hard, Jerry’s about half drunk and perfectly happy to turn around and join the conversation behind him - and goes wandering, trying to find something different to focus on, but - it feels like everywhere he turns there’s something that pulls his traitorous brain back to Billy fucking Hargrove, and he honestly thinks he’s imagining it at first, but -
“He’s a mess,” Sandi Taylor says to the girl next to her, an underclassman that Steve vaguely recognizes but doesn’t know nearly well enough to name. “He tried to fight Tommy - “
“He’s always a mess,” the underclassman says sagely, like she knows what the fuck she’s talking about. Steve feels something twist in his gut. A lot of people want to fight Tommy - fuck, sometimes he wants to fight Tommy - but he can only think of one person stupid enough to try it at Tommy’s cousin’s party.
Steve plasters on his best charming grin. “Sandi, hey,” he says, leans against the wall right in front of her and her friend. The friend turns every ounce of her attention onto him. “Who’s fighting who, now?”
Sandi rolls her eyes. “Who do you think,” she says, and pops her gum. “Who even invites Billy to parties anymore? He always pulls this shit.”
God damn it. Steve’s grin doesn’t flicker. It takes more effort than he expects. “Yeah? Is he still here?”
“He’s in the backyard somewhere,” the underclassman says. “I can show you, come on.”
“He can find the backyard,” Sandi says, and rolls her eyes again. “Be careful, Harrington, he might fight you, too.”
Steve heads off to the backyard - Sandi’s right, it’s not like it’s hard to find - and wonders, for just a moment, what exactly it was that stopped Tommy and Billy fighting. Maybe Tommy’s got some sense after all, knows what Billy fights like when he’s got a couple beers in him - when he’s sober, Billy fights halfway fair, but he’s a mean fucking drunk and he fights like a cornered animal, just as willing to bite as punch.
Billy’s not hard to find, either. He’s by the pool, flat on his back with one hand dangling in the water. Steve’s stomach lurches. He hasn’t been back in his own pool since Barbara, and the scent of chlorine still makes him a little nauseous.
Billy looks a little dead in the moonlight, in the blue light reflecting off the water and onto his skin. Even though it’s the first week of February and cold as shit, his flannel is unbuttoned all the way down, puddling around his torso on the concrete like blood. Steve makes eye contact with his torso - he can still see the bruises if he looks for them, but they’re not as bad as they had been, at least not in the dark - and immediately tries to look anywhere else, swallowing past his dry mouth. Motherfuck.
At first, Steve thinks he’s unconscious, but when he gets closer Billy’s eyes drift to him, half-focused. Jesus Christ, Steve thinks, he’s fucking sauced. He’s seen Billy drunk about fifty times but usually he keeps it together a little better than this.
“Harrington,” Billy slurs, and makes no effort to get up. “Thought you didn’t party anymore, pretty boy.”
“I don’t,” Steve says, unnecessarily honest. “What the fuck are you doing, Billy? It’s freezing out here.”
Billy seems to think for a moment. “Laying,” he decides finally. “What the fuck are you doing?” There’s nothing particular in his voice, other than maybe some actual curiosity. He’s still just laying there, and Steve is still trying not to look at his abs, at the way the muscles at his hips make that stupid v-shape. There’s a name for them, but Steve’s never been good at biology. He’s not sure he could remember right now if he had to.
“Coming to get you,” Steve says. It’s probably not what he should say, but he’s not much of a liar. And what is he doing here, anyway? Half of the reason he even came to this fucking thing was that maybe Billy would show up. “Heard you’re out here starting fights, man.”
Billy laughs. “I’m not starting shit, Harrington.”
“Yeah, well.” Steve crouches down next to him, looks at his face. Billy’s following every move he makes with his eyes, and there’s something watchful and careful in his face even past what appears to be a pretty goddamn good buzz. “Think your party might be over, man. You been out here for a while?”
Billy shrugs as best he can. He’s still made absolutely no indication that he plans on getting up any time soon. “Tommy got mouthy,” he says. “Figured I could hang out out here.”
“Alright,” Steve says. “Why don’t I drive you home? Or - or to Veronica’s, or something.”
Billy looks at him, seems to actually focus for a minute. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever gone this long without Billy looking pissed about something. He looks ludicrously young. “Nah,” he says. “I got nowhere I wanna be, Harrington. Right here’s just fine.”
There are goosebumps all over Billy’s torso when Steve lets his eyes drift down. He’s got to be freezing. “It’s cold out, Billy,” he says. He feels like he’s said Billy’s name a hundred times in the last five minutes, like he’s talking to a dog that only sort of knows him. “You wanna go inside, at least?”
“Nope,” Billy says, sounds like he’d pop the ‘p’ if he weren’t sloshed. “What’serfuck told me not to come back. Dropped a bottle. Tommy swung on me, man.”
Steve sits back on his heels. Well, fuck. “Alright,” he says, thinks for a second, thinks, fuck it. “Can I take you home?”
“You think I can show up like this?” Billy laughs again, but this time it’s humorless. “Fuckin’ - offend Susan and her delicate fuckin’ sensibilities? Shit.”
“Stay at my place,” Steve says, doesn’t give himself time to think about it, to talk himself out of it. Does he want Billy Hargrove in his fucking house?, something that sounds like Nancy Wheeler asks in his head, and something that sounds a lot more like himself answers a resounding yes.
Billy peers up at him. “You trying to get me in bed, Harrington?”
Steve can feel himself blushing, face burning hot in the cold air. “I have guest bedrooms,” he says defensively, and stands up straight.
“I have guest bedrooms,” Billy repeats, mocking, but takes the hand that Steve offers to help him up. His hand is freezing, and as soon as he’s on his feet he’s trying to button up his shirt, numb fingers fumbling uselessly. Steve, for just a second, thinks about giving him his sweater - it’s warm, Billy’s cold, they’re only walking to the car - but shakes it off, doesn’t, just lets Billy follow behind him.
Nobody except them is stupid enough to be outside for long, and they don’t draw any attention when they leave - Steve leads him around the side of the house, slows so that Billy is walking next to him instead of trailing behind him when they get to the driveway and then the road.
Steve puts his hand on the middle of Billy’s back when they get to the slope of the hill Steve had parked at the bottom of. Billy mumbles something that sounds like act like I never been drunk before, but he doesn’t move out from under Steve’s hand, and Steve doesn’t lift it. To stabilize him, Steve rationalizes, and he’s validated a little when Billy stumbles over his own feet for a second.
“Jesus, Hargrove,” he says, and doesn’t mean to, really - he doesn’t mean to break whatever weird, fragile peace they’ve got going tonight - but Billy huffs out a laugh, waits there with Steve’s hand on his back while he unlocks the car.
It’s a fifteen minute drive back to Steve’s - Stacy lives clear on the other side of town, and Steve lives a mile outside of city limits. “You drive like a fuckin’ grandma,” Billy tells him about thirty seconds into the ride, and Steve looks at him, finds Billy watching him with a little less fuzziness than by the pool.
“I drive like I’ve got a shitfaced teenager in my car,” Steve says, even though Billy seems to be sobering up pretty quickly. “And you drive like an asshole.”
“Well, I’m an asshole, so.” Billy shifts in his seat and Steve glances at him again, away from the road. Billy’s got his head tipped back against the headrest. Steve tries very hard not to watch the long line of his throat when he swallows. “You gonna shit if I smoke?”
“No,” Steve says, turns his attention back to the road. Billy’s lighting his cigarette when Steve says, abruptly, “You aren’t an asshole, man.”
Billy laughs on his exhale. “You forget the part where I smashed your face, princess?”
“See,” Steve says, a little flustered, just barely making a stop sign, “see, that kind of shit is why people think you’re an asshole.”
When he glances at Billy, Billy is watching him again. “What, and you don’t?”
Steve should say yeah, of course I do. There’s a whole lot of shit he should say, like alright, you’re sober enough, get out of my car or this was a bad idea or you might actually be the worst person I know. And instead of any of it, he tells the truth. “No,” he says. “I think you’re fucking weird. Like - you want everybody to think you’re this crazy asshole, but you aren’t.”
Billy’s quiet for a few moments. There’s just the sound of the air rushing past the crack in the window, of Steve’s turn signal when he gets to his driveway. There’s nobody behind him, he’s not sure why he turns it on. Maybe he does drive kind of like a grandma. “You don’t know shit about me, Harrington,” Billy says finally, but only when the car’s parked.
“Yeah, well,” Steve says, opens the driver’s side door. “Help me figure it out, Hargrove.” He doesn’t know what possesses him to say it - Jesus, is he insane - but Billy makes a little hm sound that might be a laugh or might be a question, tosses his cigarette to the pavement and grinds it out. He’s leading the way up to the door like he’s been here a hundred times. Steve’s got to nudge him out of the way to unlock the front door, and Billy’s close behind when he finally gets it open - he’s fumbling a little, from the cold, probably.
The light at the stairs is on - Steve doesn’t leave all the lights off, not ever - but that’s it, and downstairs is in almost complete darkness once he shuts the door behind them and closes off the streetlight. “The bedrooms are all upstairs,” he says, “but there’s a couch down here - “
“Harrington,” Billy says. There’s something weird and quiet in his voice, and Steve only manages to get halfway turned towards him when he feels Billy’s hands on his biceps, feels the heat of him pressed up close and the softness of Billy’s mouth on his, feels his back hitting the entryway wall.
Fuck, Steve thinks, and oh, no, and kisses him back, hard, finds himself threading one hand through the short hair at the back of Billy’s head like he’s trying to keep him in place - like Billy’s going to go anywhere, pressed against him so close it feels like he’s trying to climb inside of him. He’s not sure what to do with his other hand - Jesus, Billy is a good kisser, slow and thorough and dirty; the noise Steve makes when Billy’s tongue sweeps over his bottom lip is fucking embarrassing - and ends up wrapping it around Billy’s hip, realizing as he does that Billy never did bother to button up his shirt.
“Jesus,” Steve mumbles against his mouth, pulls away just enough to say it, and it’s like that gives Billy permission to start trailing kisses down to his neck, working at the soft skin right under his jaw. It’s good - Steve’s half hard in his jeans already, Billy’s hands roaming across his ribs and stomach, teasingly close to his belt buckle - but he still mumbles hey, pulls Billy up by the hair to look at him. He can just barely see his face in the dim light from the stairs. Billy’s breathing hard, watching him intently. His pupils are fucking huge.
Steve doesn’t think, backs him up against the opposite wall, feels Billy’s shoulders hit it hard, feels his hands tighten where they’d been resting on his sides, and for just a second he realizes he fucked up -
Then Billy kisses him again, practically melts against him for a second, lets Steve work a knee between his thighs. Both of Steve’s hands are on his bare skin, thumbs digging into that stupid V between his hips, pinning him back against the wall - he knows on some level that this is a stupid, dangerous game, all of it, but Billy moans into his mouth when Steve bites his lip and maybe they can pretend it’s not for tonight.
He’s not sure when his hands drift down - they’ve been kissing for what might be thirty seconds or ten minutes or a week and Billy makes a gutshot noise when Steve starts tugging at his belt buckle, cants his hips up like he’s trying to help him out. It’s graceless - Steve gets his belt undone, then his jeans, then gets his hand down the front of Billy’s pants and wraps his fingers around his cock without any hesitation at all, grins against Billy’s neck at the noise he makes and the way his head thumps back against the wall.
“Goddamn, Harrington,” he says, “c’mere, fuck,” and Steve lifts his head to kiss him, quick and dirty. He’s never actually done this - maybe Billy can tell, he doesn’t know - but he’s jerked off plenty and doesn’t have the space in his brain to be embarrassed when he brings his hand up to spit in his palm. Fuck, Billy says again, tilts his hips up into Steve’s hand like he’s searching for more friction. Steve can’t make himself take his mouth off of Billy’s neck - part of it is that he likes the way Billy’s pulse feels under his lips, the noises Billy makes when he bites down underneath his jaw - a bigger part is that he wants to hear him, all of his surprisingly quiet sounds. Billy’s got one hand up under the back of Steve’s shirt, bitten-down nails digging into his back.
It doesn’t take long. Billy pulls him up to kiss him from where Steve’s steadily working on leaving a hickey where his neck meets his shoulder - Jesus, Steve wants to touch him everywhere - panting against his mouth, mumbles something that sounds like fuck, Steve and bites his bottom lip when he comes hot and sudden over Steve’s hand.
They’re still for a second, Billy trying to catch his breath and Steve trying to breathe at all, and then Billy’s saying move, Harrington, shoving a little at his shoulders, and Steve, bewildered, takes a step back - is he fucking leaving? -
And then Billy drops to his knees, wordless, and Steve fucking chokes.
“Billy,” he says helplessly, wipes his hand on the side of his jeans right before Billy tugs them down around his thighs - his belt’s been undone for God knows how long - Steve braces both hands on the wall in front of them when Billy wraps his mouth around the head of his cock and just sinks down, hollowing his cheeks as he does. “Oh my God,” he mumbles, hears more than feels his breath stuttering in his chest, and it’s - it’s not like he’s never gotten his dick sucked before, but he’s never felt a little bit like his knees were going to give out from it.
Billy is offensively good at sucking dick, way better than Steve is at handjobs, pops off after a couple of minutes - Steve is fully aware that he should be embarrassed by the noises he’s making and absolutely isn’t - to trail his lips down the length of it, feather-light.
“Well, fuckin’ congratulations, Harrington,” he says, wraps a hand around the base experimentally. Steve’s not sure why that’s what he blushes over, but it is, mumbles you’re not so bad yourself because he’s the biggest idiot in Indiana. Billy grins up at him and bites his bottom lip, keeps that eye contact when he sinks back down on Steve’s dick again. His eyes close when he gets far enough down that he’s got to move his hand.
Steve’s not sure when he moved one hand from the wall to the top of Billy’s head - not pushing down or pulling his hair until he is, fingers twisted where it’s a little longer on the top, and Billy moans around his dick, and Steve’s pretty sure he dies and goes to heaven for a few seconds. He does it again, pulls harder, and Billy shifts a little closer on his knees. He’s choking, a little. Steve’s pretty sure he’s going to jerk off thinking about that for the rest of his life.
He doesn’t come embarrassingly fast, but it’s still fast enough that it takes him by surprise. He’s got enough warning to jerk at Billy’s hair again, to mumble Billy, fuck, I’m gonna come and hear the little humming noise Billy makes in return, and he means to say I’m serious - but he’s coming before he can with a punched-out moan, both hands dropping to Billy’s head, his fingers tangled in his hair.
Billy kisses him, once he stands up, and seems a little surprised that Steve kisses back as hard and immediately as he does. “C’mon,” Steve mumbles, pulls his jeans up and buttons them but doesn’t even try to bother with the belt. They’re still kissing, slow and deep and dirty. “I’m - bed?”
“I’m not walking up your fucking stairs after that, Harrington,” Billy says, and grins against his mouth.
“Okay,” Steve says. They’re still so goddamn close. “Couch?”
“Couch,” Billy confirms. They half-stumble their way into the living room, all the way down the hallway, and by the time they actually get to the couch it’s all Steve can do to pull Billy down with him, half on top of him. Billy kisses him again, there in the dark, and it doesn’t feel like there’s really any intention behind it this time but Steve doesn’t let it break for a long time.
He’s not sure what time they get to the couch, or what time they fall asleep. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s alone.
Billy isn’t at the arcade on Sunday night. A thin redhead with a pinched face is waiting for Max in a car that might be the most diametrically opposite possible from the Camaro, and Steve hides in the Beemer and chain-smokes like the coward he is, like he knows that if he gets out she’ll see him and know why she’s here instead of Billy.
Which is ridiculous. He’s wearing a turtleneck to hide the hickies that he’d stared at in the mirror off and on throughout his entirely sleepless night. Nobody knows except them, and that’s how it has to be, how he wants it, how Billy surely wants it, too -
And yet Steve still finds himself next to Nancy the next morning, running a shaky hand through his hair. “Hey,” he says, “can we talk?”
“Good morning to you, too,” she says. She’s not looking up from her locker, intent on organizing it or finding something or - fuck knows what. “About what?”
“I - “ He glances around the hallway. Nobody is nearby, but - “In private?”
“Steve,” Nancy says, sounding inordinately put-upon, and shuts her locker. “We’ve got about two minutes to get to class, can it wait until - “
“Nance, Billy Hargrove blew me on Saturday night,” Steve says, and feels like a cartoon character with the way he claps his hand over his mouth. “Oh, Jesus, you cannot tell anyone that - “
Nancy gets a little pitchy when she’s surprised or upset or whatever, but Steve’ s still not expecting the thing her voice does when she says what?. He’s pretty sure the Corwin’s dogs heard it from a couple streets over. Like she’s forgetting all about the classes they’ve got to get to, Nancy gets one little hand in his sleeve and tugs him to the supply closet down the hall, glancing furtively around before she half-shoves him inside and scuttles in behind him.
As soon as the door’s shut, she’s rounding on him. “You did what Saturday night? Are you insane? Are you okay?”
“I - yes, I’m fine - I brought him home from Stacy’s party, he couldn’t go home, and he like - he kissed me in the hallway, and we made out for like half an hour and it just - I didn’t even know he liked me! I didn’t know I liked him! What the fuck is going on!” Steve doesn’t mean to sound so panicky but as soon as he starts he finds it impossible to stop. He runs his hand through his hair again, resists the overwhelming urge to pace - he wouldn’t really be able to, anyway, but he feels like he’s vibrating with nervous energy.
Nancy gapes at him a little. “I don’t know! I didn’t - why couldn’t he - Steve, we can’t talk about this in a supply closet!” She’s full of righteous indignation, like it wasn’t her idea to pull him into it in the first place.
“Then where do we have it!” He’s not proud of the way his voice pitches up.
“I don’t know - my car - your car - come on,” Nancy says, and then she’s grabbing him by the sleeve again, pulling him down the hallway and out the nearest side door. Steve stumbles over his own feet following her - she’s little and she’s got short legs but she’s fast - but she successfully leads them to the Beemer, unceremoniously opens the passenger door and nudges him inside. It’s a little undignified, given that it’s his car.
“Okay,” Nancy says, once they’re both inside. “Start from the beginning.”
Steve wants a cigarette, but he’s pretty sure cracking the window would defeat the purpose of hiding in his car. He settles on running his hand through his hair again - he’s sure he looks fully insane at this point, between his doubtlessly ruined hair and what he assumes has to be an obvious expression of panic, given the way Nancy is looking at him.
“I went to Stacy’s party,” he says. “And - and I found Billy drunk in the backyard, and I was gonna just take him home but he was like uh, no, I can’t go home drunk, so then I was gonna take him inside but he said Stacy kicked him out of the party, so I just - I took him home with me? He was gonna stay in one of the spare bedrooms. Or on the couch.”
Nancy is staring at him. “....Okay,” she says eventually.
“Okay! So! We got inside and he kissed me, like, a lot, - I mean, I kissed him back a lot, too, and - and I kind of jerked him off, it’s not like he randomly decided to blow me or something!” Steve can feel his face burning, thinks for a second about well, fuckin’ congratulations, Harrington and feels his blush suddenly deepening.
When he finally chances a look in Nancy’s direction, she’s still looking at him like - like that. Her eyebrows look like they’re trying to disappear into her hairline. “Where did that come from?”
Steve throws his hands into the air. The dramatic effect is a little stunted by the car ceiling. “Which part!”
“The kissing, Steve!” Nancy blows a sigh into her bangs, like she’s the frustrated one here. “I don’t get - was he flirting with you?”
“I don’t know!”
“Were you flirting with him?”
That stalls Steve out for a second. “...Maybe? Kind of? I told him he wasn’t an asshole. Oh, like - I told him I liked his hair a couple weeks ago right after he cut it?”
Nancy’s making a face that Steve can’t really define. It kind of looks like a what the fuck face. Which, like - if he had the space in his brain right now, he would totally get it, but he doesn’t. “Okay, well.” She pauses, there, and looks at him. “...Are you okay?”
“I’m freaking the fuck out, Nancy!” He really doesn’t mean to kind of yell, but Nancy blessedly takes it in stride.
“Yes! Obviously!” Nancy heaves a sigh. “I get that part, Steve, I just - he didn’t hurt you? Or anything?”
Steve stares at her. He’s not sure how this got twisted around to Billy hurting him. “Nance, no, like - I’m pretty sure I hurt him, he completely bailed after we fell asleep on Saturday and he wasn’t at the arcade last night and I’m pretty sure he’s not here today!”
“And you want to see him?” Nancy looks a little bit like she regrets it right after she says it, bites her bottom lip, watches his face. She’s sounded a little like she thinks he’s insane this whole time, but that’s the first time she’s really seemed doubtful.
Steve’s quiet for a long moment. “Yeah,” he says. “I do.”
It’s Nancy’s turn to be quiet after that. “Oh, Steve,” she says finally, and reaches across the center console to put her little hand on top of his. He turns his hand over, palm-up, and she squeezes immediately, quick and gentle. Neither of them say anything for a few long moments. Steve’s watching the school like he’s trying to get Billy to appear through the sheer force of his will. When he looks back at Nancy, she’s watching him.
“You should come out with us tonight,” she says softly. “We were just going to study at the diner, I’m sure Jonathan wouldn’t mind.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, only half listening. “Yeah, sure. I’m gonna - we should go back inside.”
“Okay,” Nancy says, and squeezes his hand one more time before she gets out of the car.
Steve makes it through school, but only barely. Practice is a clusterfuck; he’s only half there the whole time, lets himself get shoulder-checked hard by Tommy more than once and barely even notices. It’s dark out by the time he gets into the Beemer again, and he knows he should go home, knows he’s got homework and a quiz to study for, but.
He drives through downtown first, about five under the speed limit. Nobody’s behind him to complain, or in front of him, for that matter; a Monday night right at the start of February isn’t exactly a hopping time for Hawkins, but there are still a few cars in front of the diner, and the movie theater. When Steve slows down to look, none of them are the Camaro.
He feels restless and jittery in the car and pulls in to get groceries after about his third loop down the street. There’s nothing to fucking eat in the house, and his parents are going to be home on Wednesday before they leave again on Saturday, so he spends a while trying to pick out shit that will make them happy. He’s a halfway decent cook - he can fumble his way through most breakfast foods and, like, grilled cheese - but he’s pretty sure his mom will go through the kitchen to make sure he’s eating vegetables or whatever, so he ends up with four bags of canned green beans and boxes of dried pasta instead of his usual pizza bites and Eggos.
Of course, he still gets pizza bites. He’s a human.
He’s thinking about those pizza bites when he pulls up to the turn-off to Loch Nora, waits, and then takes the road opposite. He really should get home and get everything put away, or clean the house before his parents show up, but - there’s a boxing gym down on this end of town, by the community college, that Billy either works or works out at a couple nights a week. When he drives by, though, there’s only an old truck parked out front. No big, loud, douchey Camaro in sight.
“Jesus Christ,” he mumbles at the stop sign, props his elbow up on the steering wheel, drops his forehead into his hand. “Get it fucking together, Harrington.”
He still drives by Billy’s house, though, and at least he’s not such a fucking freak about it, drives at the speed limit and just glances at the driveway - there’s that same nondescript car, but it’s in the driveway alone. Steve tries to ignore the sinking feeling in his chest when he makes a u-turn at the end of the street and heads home.
He’s in the middle of cleaning the kitchen when it occurs to him.
Five minutes later, he’s listening to Mrs. Wheeler holler up the stairs, hand over the phone’s mouthpiece but only sort of muffling it: Nancy, Steve Harrington’s on the phone? She doesn’t even try to disguise the question in her voice.
Nancy picks up what feels like immediately, and there’s the telltale click of her mother hanging up her end. “Steve?” She sounds more worried than he’s heard her in a long time. It’s momentarily jarring to find it directed at himself.
“You didn’t turn me gay,” Steve says, because he’s an idiot, and because the idea has been ping-ponging around in his brain since the second he had it.
There’s a long moment of silence. “I didn’t think I did, Steve,” Nancy says finally.
“Okay,” Steve says. He’s a little wrongfooted. “Well. Good. Because you didn’t.”
There’s another silence, a little shorter. “Well, are you?”
Steve’s not sure why it’s a surprise, but it is, and he groans into the mouthpiece, hauls himself up onto the kitchen counter because he can’t reach a chair to pull over. “I don’t, like,” he starts, and stops, and groans again. “I liked having sex with you! I like girls! But I like Billy? I don’t know!”
“That’s a real lineup you’ve got,” Nancy says. Steve can hear the bed creak, like she’s either moving to sit or moving to lay down. “Me, Veronica, Stacy, Billy Hargrove.”
“Okay, first off, completely wrong order, I didn’t sleep with Veronica or Stacy after you.”
Nancy laughs. “I wasn’t putting anything in any order!” She’s quiet for a moment, then, more seriously, “Did he call? Or - or anything?”
“No,” Steve says, and feels weirdly like it’s an admission. “I drove by his house after practice, he wasn’t there.”
Nancy makes a wordless, sympathetic noise. “He’s probably just... out... throwing rocks at windows or something,” she says, in a tone that kind of sounds like she’s trying to be helpful. “Or whatever it is he does.”
Steve huffs out a laugh. “I don’t know. I drove by the gym, too.”
“Nothing,” he confirms.
Nancy doesn’t seem to have anything to say after that, and Steve lets the silence linger for a few moments longer than it needs to before he says, “I better get back to - “
“Steve,” she says, “you know this is - I just want you to be happy.”
Steve blinks into the stillness of his kitchen. “I know, Nance,” he says after a moment, gently.
“Okay.” Nancy clears her throat. “I should keep studying.”
“I should keep cleaning, and then study,” Steve says, grateful that he’s not the only one trying to get off the phone. “I’m. Thank you, Nance. I mean it.”
“Yeah,” Nancy says. “Keep me posted, okay?”
“Yeah. Of course. Okay.”
They exchange their quiet goodbyes, and Steve is alone again.
Steve doesn’t see Billy until Wednesday.
He looks - just like he always does, Steve thinks. Like there should be some kind of physical difference, a big scarlet Q on his shirt or something. He tries not to look at him in the hallway, keeps catching snatches of laughter that he knows is Billy’s from down the hallway, almost physically runs into him once between sixth and seventh period. They don’t look at each other - at least, Steve doesn’t look at him.
They come face to face in basketball practice. For the first time, Steve can see that Billy’s got a busted lip. He looks away first.
The Camaro is already in the parking lot when Steve pulls in on Sunday night. He was sort of expecting Billy to show up as late as possible, if he showed up at all. They’ve still got at least fifteen minutes before the kids are ready to go. Steve parks next to him, one parking spot away, both cars sharing the streetlight.
Billy’s standing outside, leaning against his car with a cigarette between his fingers. Even though it can’t be much above freezing, he’s not wearing a coat, just that same red flannel over a white t-shirt. Steve wonders, not for the first time, if he’s as impervious to the cold as he acts; when he gets out of his own car he immediately feels the biting breeze, even through his sweater.
God. His sweater. Of course he wore a sweater. Why couldn’t he have thought ahead and worn something cool? Does he even own anything that Billy would think was cool? Why does he care if Billy thinks he looks cool?
He only realizes that he’s just been standing there when he looks at Billy and finds him with his eyebrows raised. “Uh,” Steve says. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Billy says.
Steve, much more confidently than he actually feels, crosses the parking spot separating them and joins Billy, maybe a foot away. The Camaro is cold where he’s leaning against it. How long has Billy been here?
Billy offers him his cigarette. Steve, while a little surprised, takes it gratefully, tries not to then be ungrateful and smoke more than he should. His parents would lose their fucking minds if they found cigarettes in the house, or in the car that they paid for, and he still hasn’t gotten around to buying more.
Billy is watching him, takes the cigarette back carefully when Steve offers. Steve settles his back against the Camaro, laces his fingers behind his head. Glances at Billy. “Have you been avoiding me?”
He’s expecting - he doesn’t know. He’s sort of expecting a denial, or why would I do that, or something. What he gets is Billy joining him, back against the car. He keeps his hands where they are, one holding his cigarette and the other in his jeans pocket.
“No,” Billy says after a moment. Steve’s not going to rush him, but he wants to hear his answer. “I just needed to think.”
Billy looks at him. Steve knows that look. He’s never seen it on Billy, but he’s seen it from Nancy, and his parents, and his teachers. It’s that Steve, are you a moron look.
But Billy answers anyway. “So, what, Harrington, you gonna pretend nothing happened? Is that what we’re doing?” If Steve didn’t know better, he’d think he sounds angry. Instead, he just mostly sounds tired.
It’s Steve’s turn to be quiet. If he says yes - what? They go back to shit talking on the basketball court, and Steve pretends to be interested in the girls at the parties, and Billy keeps ducking punches? He can tell Nancy it was a one-off thing and to forget it, that Billy was drunk and they were both stupid. They go back to not talking about this shit, about not complicating goddamn everything.
“I think,” he says carefully, “that once you’ve had somebody’s dick in your mouth, you should probably start calling them by their first name.”
Billy lets out a little startled bark of laughter. “Fuck you.”
“Yeah, maybe next time.”
Billy’s carding his fingers through his hair, distracted. He doesn’t say anything to that.
There’s another stretch of silence, then: “Where’d you go Saturday?” It’s probably not the question he should ask, but fuck it. He’s in too deep to back out anyway.
Billy shifts from one foot to the other, restless, messes with the collar of his shirt. Steve feels like he’s seen more nervousness out of Billy in the last ten minutes than he’s ever seen in his life. “Back to Stacy’s,” he says after a moment. “To get my car.”
“Jesus Christ,” Steve says. “You walked?”
“No, Harrington, I fuckin’ flew.” Billy tips his head back and says it to the sky, blowing smoke towards the streetlight. His voice says he’s irritated but his face doesn’t match when he looks at him again - or in his direction, anyway. He’s looking at some point over Steve’s ear, like he’s trying not to look him in the face.
Steve doesn’t bother looking away, just stands there in front of him and drinks in the sight of him this close. The shadows are back under his eyes, and he looks like he needs to shave and to sleep for about twelve hours, and he’s the prettiest goddamn thing Steve’s ever seen, even all washed out like this. His lip looks better than it did on Wednesday, almost healed altogether. The split’s barely there.
“I would’ve taken you back,” he says, a little uselessly. “In the morning.”
“Yeah,” Billy says. “I know.”
And he would have. He means it. He doesn’t like the idea of Billy walking across town half-buzzed at three in the morning, back to some shitty party that he’d already gotten kicked out of once.
“Come over,” Steve says, doesn’t let himself think twice about it. He’s wanted to say it since he saw Billy on Wednesday - because they needed to talk, then, but now because Steve’s got the whole house to himself and what feels like nothing but time. “My parents are out of town again.”
Billy sighs, runs his hand through his hair again. It was probably a lot more effective, or at least more satisfying, when it was long. He’s looking away from Steve altogether now. “Jesus. I can’t - this can’t be a regular thing,” he says. “This can’t be a thing, Harrington.”
What the fuck, Steve wants to say, what the fuck, you just asked if we were going to pretend - but doesn’t, keeps his mouth shut, drops his gaze to his shoes. “Yeah,” he says. He can feel his cheeks burning. So fucking stupid, he thinks. “Sure. Alright.”
There’s a long, agonizing silence, and right as Billy says, quietly, hey, right as Steve looks up to find Billy watching him with a soft, unreadable expression on his face -
Max is whooping triumphantly about beating Dustin’s ass, crowing about forty thousand points, asshole, good luck beating that. Dustin is arguing back heatedly; Steve can’t make out exactly what he’s saying from this distance. Billy is - he’s Billy again, shifting away from Steve, tossing his cigarette to the pavement. That soft look is gone.
He doesn’t say anything to Steve as the kids pile into the Beemer, as Max slides into the passenger seat of the Camaro, doesn’t even make eye contact with him - but when Steve’s watching him leave, Billy still looks.
Steve really thinks he’s going to go to bed. He’d puttered around the house for a while, restlessly tidying up the living room and flipping through TV channels until he finally admitted defeat and went upstairs. He’s in sleep clothes and everything, flannel pajama bottoms and an old, soft Hawkins Tigers t-shirt, laying on his back in bed, staring at his ceiling.
He won’t sleep. He knows he won’t sleep.
He still kind of thinks he’s dreaming when he hears little pinging sounds against the side of the house. His side, mostly, but they’re not at his window. At first, he thinks it’s a really stupid bird or a bat or something, but it sounds too small.
“What the fuck,” he mumbles, and rubs at his tired eyes, and gets out of bed.
Somehow, he’s surprised to see Billy in his yard. It’s mostly because Billy is about two rooms down from where he needs to be with a handful of pebbles from the carefully-manicured flower beds that border the front of the house. It’s not just that, though. This can’t be a thing, Harrington.
Steve opens the window and, in the same movement, pops out his screen. He hasn’t had reason to do that in the last few years, but it’s a practiced movement.
“Hey,” he calls. Billy’s already looking at him, caught by the sound of the window opening. “You’re gonna chip the paint, Hargrove.”
“Motherfucker, do you ever turn your lights off?” Billy’s grinning a little, though. He looks weird in the light from the pool, strangely soft. It takes Steve a moment to realize what’s different from earlier; he’s wearing that same sweatshirt as a few weeks ago, the maroon one. La Jolla Wildcats. “I thought down there was your room.”
“That’s the bathroom,” Steve says, leans his elbows on the windowsill. He doesn’t comment on the light being on. He doesn’t turn off the lights, usually. Not up here, anyway. “What are you doing, Billy? It’s one in the goddamn morning.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Billy says casually, and tosses the rest of his rocks into the flower bed underneath Steve’s window. “Looks like you couldn’t, either.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and leaves it there.
Billy’s looking up at him. He’s quiet for a minute - Steve’s going to wait him out, he’s sure of it, but it doesn’t actually take long at all. “Can I come in?”
He should stall him out, think about it, think about the conversation they had earlier, but Steve doesn’t do any of that, of course. “Yeah,” he says, and then his traitorous mouth and traitorous brain work together to add “of course,” and he ducks away from the window to hide his blush for just a second. “Hold on, I’ll go downstairs - “
“Nah,” Billy says, “I got it,” and - it shouldn’t be kind of sexy, watching somebody basically break into his house, but Billy just starts scaling the trellis that Steve’s mom had just put up this summer - he’s lucky he’s fast and the trellis is strong - and Steve’s reaching down to help pull him up through his window inside a minute. Billy doesn’t let go of his hand until long past being steady on his feet.
For a second, neither of them say anything. “Hi,” Billy says, and then, “I’m sorry about earlier,” and Steve knows he should probably say something back but -
Fuck it. Billy Hargrove is in his room, Billy came to find him, Billy threw rocks at his window - at least, what he thought was his window - like something out of a Shakespeare book or something.
Steve kisses him, and he’s careful about it at first, gives Billy plenty of time to pull away, and Billy just - plants his feet. It’s slow and simple and almost sweet, and when it’s Billy’s turn to kiss him it’s almost the same - he’s a little more aggressive, because of course he is, sweeps his tongue over Steve’s bottom lip and gets his mouth open, brings a hand up to the back of Steve’s head to thread his fingers lightly in his hair.
It’s just supposed to be a kiss, something that tells Billy I’m not mad at you because even Steve knows not to try to verbalize that, but it turns into Steve backing Billy towards his bed.
“This isn’t why I came over,” Billy says between kisses. The backs of his knees hit the mattress first and he goes down, pulls Steve with him. “I’m serious.”
“Do you wanna stop?” Steve says, mostly against his mouth but a little against his jaw, too, where he’s kissing down to his neck. Billy shivers underneath him. He’s halfway sitting up, his elbow behind him braced against the mattress. Steve’s leaning over him, a knee on either side of his hips.
“Fuck no,” Billy says immediately, pulls him up by the hair to kiss his mouth - this time he kisses like he means it, bites Steve’s bottom lip when it breaks.
For a long time, Steve’s bedroom is quiet except for their sounds - Billy’s little stunted gasp when Steve bites him back, the almost-silent sound of their clothes against each other. Billy stops holding himself up after a while, gets both hands underneath Steve’s shirt instead, roams over Steve’s skin with his warm hands. Steve feels a little drunk, doesn’t think he could stop kissing Billy if he tried.
He does, eventually - Billy’s watching him as he sits up on his knees, face flushed and panting like something lifted straight out of Steve’s best dreams. Steve means to speak, to ask permission, but can’t make the words come out, gets his hands under Billy’s sweatshirt and lifts up.
Billy sits up, tugs it over his head. He’s wearing that same white t-shirt and Steve wants, he wants, stops for just a second and then slides his hands up underneath it, too, finally gets his hands on all that glorious golden skin. Billy laughs into their kiss and breaks it again to pull his shirt over his head and toss it away.
“Fuck,” Steve says intelligently, and feels a little bit like his brain is stalling out, “God, Billy,” and gets his mouth on his neck again, works his way lower.
Billy’s quieter than he’d expect - Steve thought there would be a lot more talking - but when Steve’s scooted himself down the bed and gets his mouth on his abs, he lets out a shockingly quiet sigh. “Steve,” he says, runs his fingers through Steve’s hair over and over again. “Fuck.”
Steve’s not sure what he’s planning on saying when he opens his mouth, but what comes out is can I blow you? He’s so hard he feels like he might die but the way Billy moans after he asks makes him pretty sure he could deal with it forever if he makes Billy make that noise again.
He doesn’t take his mouth off of Billy’s abs when he’s unbuckling his belt or opening his jeans and Billy keeps shifting underneath him, almost squirming - he’s demonstrably hard underneath him and Steve’s never seriously considered sucking dick before but -
It’s a little different when he’s got Billy’s dick in his hand in front of him, and when he looks up, Billy’s watching him.
Steve doesn’t keep eye contact - he’s already blushing, definitely already awkward, but. Yeah, okay, he’s gotten his dick sucked before, he knows how to wrap his lips around the head, and Billy gasps up above him like he’s been shocked, his fingers tightening around their handful of Steve’s hair.
He’s got to pop off because he’s going to laugh with Billy’s dick in his mouth otherwise. “I’m not as good at this as you,” he warns, and means it, thinking about the way Billy had just sunk straight down on his cock and barely even gagged. “Just so you know.”
Billy pets his hand over Steve’s hair and if Steve didn’t know better he’d think the look on his face is fond. “I don’t care.”
“You say that now,” Steve says, and swallows him down a little experimentally, has to figure out where to put his hands - he ends up settling them on Billy’s hips after a while because Billy can’t seem to hold still, keeps letting them roll forward in little jerks. Steve wasn’t lying, he’s not even half as good at this as Billy, but Billy’s still running his fingers through Steve’s hair over and over again, not watching anymore, driving his head back against Steve’s pillow.
And Billy’s quiet, but he’s not silent, keeps up a running murmur: God, Steve, you got any idea how long I been thinking about this? Steve feels a little light-headed with that, sinks himself down on his next movement until he chokes a little, does it again and again until Billy has both hands in his hair, tugging hard when he says fuck, you’re gonna make me come.
For just a second Steve isn’t sure what to do - then remembers Billy staying put when he’d said I’m serious, remembers Billy swallowing around him and swallowing him down, and just - stays, starts a little when he feels Billy’s cock twitch and the first hot rush at the back of his throat but doesn’t gag, doesn’t move.
“Fuck,” Billy says, “fuck, look at you, c’mere,” and it takes Steve a second to gather himself - he feels like he’s on a hair-trigger, like if he moves too fast he’s gonna embarrass the fuck out of himself - but he wants to kiss Billy worse than he’s worried about that. Billy kisses him long and deep and filthy, like Steve’s mouth wasn’t just - where it was - Steve’s a little embarrassed by the noise he makes into Billy’s mouth when that thought occurs to him. Billy’s got a hand slid down his stomach and down the front of his pants halfway through their kiss, fingers wrapped around Steve’s cock, thumb running over and over again over the head.
“Fuck,” Steve says, halfway whines it, right up against Billy’s lips. “Fuck, Billy, I want - I want - “
He knows what he wants, can’t say it, wants Billy driving his head into the pillow again and moaning his name, wants Billy on his back underneath him with Steve so deep inside him he’s seeing stars, wants to feel Billy come around him, he wants -
He comes, hard, over Billy’s fingers and his own belly, leaves himself shaking a little until he’s sure he’s done. Billy strokes him through it, dotting kisses up his jaw.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve says helplessly.
“I’m Billy,” Billy says, and kisses him on the mouth properly. “And you’re sticky.”
“Alright, well.” Steve climbs on top of him again, ignoring how gross they both are - or at least he is. “I have a proposition. A shower proposition.”
“You’re a dumbass,” Billy says, but says it fondly.
It’s not like they’ve never showered before together, but - Steve’s never been able to just look like this. Billy’s a fucking god, all warm skin and muscle under the shower spray. Steve knows he’s staring and can’t make himself stop. Billy catches him after a moment, grins slow and lazy right at him and leans up to kiss him right there in the water.
Billy’s hands are the ones roaming, now, over Steve’s stomach and chest and down his back, touching just to touch without an expectation of anything more. Steve joins him, after a minute, runs his fingertips over the separations between his abs, skitters his hands over the hard lines of his ribs, runs his thumbs over the swell of his biceps.
It feels careful, and quiet. Billy’s soaking wet, and Steve pushes his hair out of his eyes to look at them, kisses his mouth before either of them can say anything.
“Stay over,” he murmurs. “Please.”
“I shouldn’t,” Billy says, and actually sounds like he regrets it. “I can’t.”
“I’ll set my alarm early,” Steve says, strokes both thumbs over the ridges of Billy’s hip bones where his hands are curled around his hips. “So you’ll have time to pick her up.”
“I shouldn’t,” Billy says again, but kisses him after.
“Do you want to?” It takes a long time for Steve to ask. Billy can’t seem to stop kissing him. Well, Steve can’t stop kissing back, so.
“Yeah,” Billy murmurs, doesn’t even seem like he has to think. “Yeah, Fuck, yes, of course I do.”
Shouldn’t doesn’t seem to mean much half an hour later, when they’re shower-warm and toweled off and Billy’s wearing a pair of Steve’s pajama bottoms, pointedly ignoring that they’re too long for him. They’re both ignoring pretty much everything, though, while they can.
This can’t be a thing, Billy had told him, but it’s been a month since then and he’s come over about three times a week. He tells his parents he’s at Nancy’s, Steve’s pretty sure, because he actually does study sometimes - when Steve’s making dinner, or when he’s doing his own homework.
(Billy’s really fucking good at English, and Steve’s not sure why that surprises him. He wishes he were better at chemistry to even things out, but Billy kind of sucks at math, too, and Steve - well, he doesn’t do Billy’s homework, even though Billy tries it a couple of times, but they kind of trade off quizzing each other. Steve’s not sure if it makes either of them any better at what they’re trying to do, but it’s nice.)
He always seems a little better, the days after he’s been with Steve, and Steve doesn’t want to take credit, but it’s hard enough to ignore that people are talking a little at school - nothing serious, nothing concrete, just that he’s losing his edge, a little, he’s not picking as many fights or talking as much shit, actually comes to classes more often than not. They still don’t really talk in the hallways, or anything - in fact, they talk less now than they did before - but he’s not too proud to grin at Billy when they pass each other, and Billy ducks his head and grins back just about every time.
Steve wonders, privately, if it’s that things are better with his dad, too, between Billy being easier to get along with in general and also just not home as much. He’s dumb but he’s not stupid; Billy’s the type to pick fights with a grown man, and Steve’s sure Billy’s dad gets back just as good as he gives. He’s never met Mr. Hargrove, never even seen him, but he can imagine the kind of guy that raised somebody like Billy, or at least the Billy that everybody else gets.
He liked that Billy, kissed that Billy in his hallway, but the Billy he gets seems like a different person altogether sometimes. He cooks Steve dinner, for fuck’s sake - has some kind of issue with cereal for dinner, apparently, and ignores Steve laughing when he resolutely makes them what’s actually a pretty good dinner made mostly of shit Steve didn’t know he had in his kitchen, like frozen chicken and bags of frozen vegetables. It’s definitely more color than Steve’s had for a meal in a while, unless you count Froot Loops.
“You should just, like,” Steve says, sitting on the counter while Billy washes dishes. The idea is that he’ll dry them, but there’s really only a few anyway, and Billy does a weird wash-and-dry thing. “You should move in, and then you’d never have to worry about me getting scurvy.”
Billy shakes his head, but he’s grinning. “Yeah, alright.”
“I’m serious,” Steve says. “You know how many bedrooms this place has? My parents are never home for more than, like, a week, tops. You could just hide in bedroom number four and they’d never know you were here.”
“I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Harrington would love some random asshole living with the heir apparent,” Billy says, and finishes drying the last dish. “Come on, Prince Charming, I wanna finish that movie before i gotta go.”
Sometimes Steve gets the Billy he first met, and sometimes he gets the Billy that seems to only exist in the confines of the space they share together, but sometimes the Billy he gets isn’t one he recognizes at all.
“I wish we could always do this,” Billy murmurs, trails his fingers over Steve’s chest, down to the fine trail of dark hair that disappears into his boxers. It’s late, really late, but Billy doesn’t seem concerned about getting home and usually he’s right on top of it, knows how long he can push staying down to the minute. They don’t usually get to do this, stay in bed after, even when Billy’s fucked-out and sleepy - he’ll stay with Steve for a few minutes and then cajole him into taking a shower with him.
(Steve’s pretty sure he just likes getting his hair washed, but Steve had also fucked him against the shower wall three nights ago, so maybe there’s something to be said for the cajoling.)
“Hm?” Steve’s sleepy, keeps running his fingers through Billy’s hair like he’s petting a cat.
“Just.” Billy’s head is on his chest, breath coming slow and even over his skin. “This. Here.”
He’s not very descriptive, but Steve thinks he gets what he means anyway. “I mean,” he says, has the flash of a thought - this is a bad idea, shut your mouth, this isn’t what he means - and pushes on, “we could. You know?”
Billy raises his head to look at him. “What?”
Steve shrugs one shoulder. “This,” he says, like that explains it. “I’ll be eighteen in, like, three weeks. You just have to wait ‘til summer. Then neither of our parents can tell us what to do, you know? We can do what we want. Go where we want.” Go away from Hawkins, he doesn’t say, but knows Billy knows.
Billy’s quiet for a moment. “Fuck,” he says finally, and sets his head back down on Steve’s chest. “Listen to you, Harrington. You fall in love with everybody that sucks your dick?”
Steve knows the answer to that, knows exactly what Billy’s looking for, knows what kind of reaction he’s trying to get out of him with that tone of voice, that almost-mockery. “No,” he says, instead of any of it. “Not everybody, Hargrove.”
Billy huffs out a laugh that Steve feels more than hears. There’s not really anything funny, though. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not,” Steve says, more seriously than he means to. Billy doesn’t say anything else.
“Why don’t we go do something,” Steve says impulsively, almost exactly a week later. It’s a Tuesday, and neither of them have homework, and he’s restless and bored and feels like this stupid house is way too small. “Go to the movies or get dinner or something.”
It’s not like there’s much to do in Hawkins, especially compared to La Jolla. Billy’s told him about it, a little, how there was just - more everything, more things to do, different kinds of people, more places to go. His favorite place, he told Steve, was the beach. That’s what he missed the most.
Steve’s pretty sure there are no beaches in Hawkins, so he’s gotta find something different. Billy’s been less antsy and loud about how boring and shitty he thinks Hawkins is, lately, but he’s not wrong either way - it’s not really a town designed for people under the age of sixty, and there aren’t exactly any attractions, but.
“I can’t,” Billy says. He’s reading, tucked up in the corner of the couch. Steve’s head had been in his lap up until a minute ago.
“I’m supposed to be at Wheeler’s, remember?” Billy looks away from his page and up at him. He doesn’t look totally convinced that he can’t, and Steve shamelessly seizes onto that.
“It’s a Tuesday,” he says. “Nobody’s even gonna be out, it just snowed!”
“Another great reason to stay home,” Billy says, but closes his book. Steve can’t see the title from here, but whatever it is it’s probably boring. Billy likes history and shit. Steve doesn’t get it; the only books he’s ever been halfway interested in were about magic and dragons and shit, and those were when he was about twelve.
“You know,” Steve says, “they just got some movie in on Friday, it’s about some British metal band? It’s, like, a documentary but it’s a joke. Jerry watched it with the other theater people, or whatever.”
Billy eyes him. “How late’s the diner open on Tuesdays?”
“At least ten,” Steve says, and knows he’s won.
The movie is called This Is Spinal Tap, and Steve didn’t know that when Billy Hargrove laughs too hard, he’s prone to just kind of toppling over into whoever’s next to him. Steve gets the feeling that he’s missing a lot of the jokes, because Billy laughs at stuff he doesn’t get, but - he’s never actually heard Billy laugh like that, especially not more than once, so he’s okay with pretty much the whole movie going over his head.
They get to the diner a little later than is probably appreciated, but Billy’s all charm when he asks the waitress for two coffees, and she seems like she’s either softened or resigned when she brings them back. “You boys know what you want?”
Steve looks at the menu while Billy orders - “Can I get two pancakes and four orders of bacon?” - and settles on French toast and scrambled eggs while Billy dumps about half the sugar canister into his mug.
“You’re so gross,” Steve says fondly.
“Okay, well,” Billy says, “you drink black coffee like some kind of nutjob.”
“Because I like coffee!” They’ve had this conversation before. “If I wanted, like, hot sugary milk, I’d just make that.”
Billy drinks half his coffee in one go as if to prove his point; Steve, in return, sips his like a civilized human being. They bicker back and forth until their food comes, and Steve’s plan to steal half of Billy’s mountain of bacon is dashed when Billy immediately makes some kind of fucked-up pancake and bacon sandwich and proceeds to drown it in syrup.
“What,” Steve says, “the fuck.”
“It’s good,” Billy says. “Expand your fuckin’ - your palate, or whatever, man.”
“Okay, please notice me separating my sweet food and savory food like a normal person,” Steve says, and proceeds to salt and pepper the shit out of his eggs.
“Says the guy that regularly eats Froot Loops for dinner,” Billy says, between truly alarmingly large bites of pancake-bacon.
“I mean, not so much anymore,” Steve says, and - there’s nobody around, not even the waitress, they’re the only ones in here, he can be brave. “I don’t know if you heard, I’ve been having this really cute guy come over and cook dinner for me a couple times a week. Kinda think he likes me, you know?”
“Yeah, doubt it,” Billy says, but nudges his leg under the table with his foot, and if Steve didn’t know better he’d say Billy’s blushing down at his plate.
Steve paid for their movie tickets, so Billy insists on paying for their bill; Steve knows better than to argue, knows exactly how Billy can get about feeling pitied or whatever, so he lets Billy leave a couple of fives on the table before they leave. That leaves the waitress a pretty decent tip, too, which Steve has been led to believe is important by various girls that he’s taken out to nicer places than this.
It’s snowing again when they get outside, even though it’s officially March and Steve is pretty sure that it shouldn’t be allowed to snow past January. He has to fight the absurd urge to wrap his arm around Billy’s waist when they’re walking back to the Camaro.
“I wanna do that more,” he says, about halfway home, and knows he probably shouldn’t. “I mean - even if we have to wait til summer, or weekends, or whatever, and we go somewhere else.”
Billy glances sidelong at him, but not for too long; the Camaro doesn’t get around great in this kind of weather. “What?”
Steve shifts in his seat, towards him, a little. “I wanna take you out to do stuff,” he says. “Like. On a date. Because I think that was a date?”
Billy drums his fingers on the steering wheel and doesn’t say anything for a couple of long moments - and then Steve can see a little bit of the tension drain out of him. “Yeah,” he says, eyes on the road. “I think it was.”
Steve waits for a second. “Is that... okay?” He doesn’t mean to sound so tentative. This feels fragile, all the sudden, like if he pushes Billy too far too fast he’s going to either shatter or explode, and it’s a familiar feeling but not one he’s had for a while.
Billy’s fingers still. “Yeah,” he says again, and clears his throat. “Yeah, it is. I - it was nice.”
Nice seems like an understatement, because Steve can’t remember being happier in the last few years than when Billy toppled into him in the theater or stole food off his plate or opened the fucking Camaro door for him. But he’s not going to push it.
He puts his hand on top of Billy’s on the shifter, instead, runs his thumb over his knuckles. Neither of them say anything until Billy’s pulling into Steve’s driveway to drop him off.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Steve says. Billy leans over to kiss him, the hand that had been on the steering wheel coming up to the side of his face.
“Yeah,” Billy says. “See you tomorrow.”
There’s a moment, just a few seconds, where they’re looking at each other, where Billy’s so fucking close Steve can count his freckles and his stupid long eyelashes, where Steve really, really wants to say something he’s pretty sure he’ll regret, but -
He just kisses Billy again, quick and soft, and murmurs bye.
The next morning dawns cool and clear, and Steve’s in an unbelievably good mood when he pulls into the parking lot. He’d actually slept the night before - slept really well, for the first time in forever. He didn’t sleep through the night - he’s not sure if he’s capable of sleeping through the night anymore - but he got a good few hours in after he’d gotten out of the Camaro, had fallen asleep and stayed asleep in a bed that smelled like Billy.
The Camaro isn’t where Billy always parks it, which is - weird, if Steve’s being honest. Much to Billy’s chagrin, he’s usually early; the middle school starts almost half an hour earlier than the high school, and he almost always drops her off. And he always parks in the same spot. Steve’s realized, over the last few weeks, that Billy likes routine.
It’s weird. Weirder shit has happened. Maybe he’s just late, Steve thinks, but waits by the Beemer until the bell rings anyway.
By noon, he’s starting to freak out a little.
Not, like - not really freak out or anything, but he’s freaking out enough that he shows up at Nancy’s locker around noon, just - just to, like, check. It’s totally fine. Maybe he was in third or fourth hour, and just skipped the first couple, but as soon as Nancy sees him coming he knows the answer before he even asks his question.
“He’s probably just sick, Steve,” Nancy says, like it’s obvious, and it should be obvious but it isn’t, doesn’t feel right.
“He wasn’t sick last night,” he says stubbornly. “And I’m not sick. If he’s sick, I should be, too, right?”
“Okay, well, viruses can kick in when you’re sleeping.” Nancy glances at the mirror inside her locker and tidies her hair, smooths down the flyaways escaping her bun. “Or he’s skipping school, like he does literally all the time.”
Steve doesn’t have an answer to that, even though Billy’s skipped maybe two days since they started - whatever it is, whatever they’re doing. He’s trying to get Nancy’s help. “Yeah, maybe,” he says, and then can’t help himself, “he hasn’t skipped, like, almost at all since - you know - I’m just saying,” and that’s when Nancy actually looks at him, closes her locker door.
“Steve,” she says. “I promise he’s fine. Let’s go get lunch, okay? Jonathan’s waiting at the diner.”
The last thing Steve wants to do is eat, which he recognizes is fucking crazy, but he sighs and follows her outside anyway.
Steve lays awake for longer than he wants to admit that night, waiting to hear pebbles against his window.
“So,” Nancy says the next morning, after their first hour. She had probably been looking for him this morning, but Steve had waited outside by his car again like a sad stupid dog, even though he knew Billy wasn’t coming the second he pulled in and didn’t see his car.
“So,” Steve parrots, a little shittily.
“Carol said her sister saw Billy at Tom’s Tap last night,” Nancy says, and doesn’t look at him.
“Fuck Carol,” Steve says reflexively, but feels something sink in his gut. Tom’s is a shithole, but it’s where somebody would go for a drink if they’re vastly underage, and the cops don’t make too much noise about it as long as the kids that show up don’t have parents that will make noise for them. After a moment, a little reluctantly, he says, “Last night?”
“Around ten,” Nancy says. “He was really drunk, I guess.”
Steve thinks about laying on his back, counting to a hundred and waiting and listening.
“Did he go home with anybody?” He doesn’t want to ask.
Nancy turns to him. “She didn’t say,” she says, surprisingly soft. “But she was there all night, and I think Carol would love to talk about Billy going home with somebody at Tom’s, so I would guess not.”
A guess isn’t much, but Steve will take it. He walks with her when she starts heading to class, even though his is in the opposite direction. “I feel like something’s going on,” he says eventually. “This isn’t like him.”
Nancy stops in her tracks right there in the hallway, turns to look at him with an unreadable expression on her face. “This is exactly like him.”
“Not with me,” Steve says, and knows how unbelievable he sounds. “Not now.”
Nancy looks a little bit like she feels sorry for him and a little bit like he's a moron and a little bit like he’s insane. “Steve, I know you like him, or - or whatever this is, but people don’t change that fast. You get that, right?”
Steve’s caught helpless outside of her class, and she ducks inside before he can say anything else.
He falls asleep a little sooner that night, but he leaves his window open. Just in case.
Steve’s not expecting to see the Camaro on Friday morning, but he’s hoping, and he still feels disappointment sink like a rock down through his chest.
“Something’s wrong,” he says at lunch, smoking a cigarette while Nancy half eats her sandwich and half flips through her physics book.
“Your obsession with where Billy Hargrove is is what’s wrong,” she says, and she’s tired of this conversation, Steve knows that, but he’s fucking tired of thinking about it, so she can join the club.
Steve sits in silence for a moment. “He would call me if he were just skipping,” he says finally. “So I wouldn’t - like - freak out.”
“Do you actually think that?” That’s coming from Jonathan, which grates in a way Steve doesn’t love, because he’s trying to be a nicer fucking person and Jonathan Byers talking about Billy like he knows him at all is making that really difficult.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Yes. I do.”
Nancy’s quiet, turning her pages to find something in the back. “Maybe you should go to his actual house,” she says to her book. “He can’t live at the bar forever, right? He’s got to go home sometime. Maybe his mom can tell you where he’s been.”
Steve grinds his cigarette out on the bench, drums his fingers anxiously against his thigh now that they have nothing to do. “You think?”
“I mean, my mom usually knows where I am,” Nancy says. “Now that we’re not, like.”
“Saving the world,” Jonathan says, when she trails off. “And I’m pretty sure Hargrove isn’t saving the world, so.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and keeps drumming.
He’s never seen Billy’s dad before, and if he didn’t know otherwise he’d never guess. They don’t look anything alike. Mr. Hargrove is unassuming and serious-looking, and there’s a look on his face like Steve’s something a cat left in pieces on his front step, but he smooths it over with a mask of careful neutrality after a moment.
“Hi,” Steve says, tries to sound bright, the nice neighborhood kid that you don’t mind your kids hanging around. “Is Billy here?”
Mr. Hargrove looks at him for a moment. “No, he’s not.” Which - Steve knew that, the second Steve turned down Billy’s street he could see that the Camaro wasn’t in the driveway, but he still has to fucking ask.
Something itches at the back of Steve’s mind and he pushes it back out, doesn’t let the easy friendly expression on his face flicker for even a heartbeat. “Oh,” he says. “I just - we have a project together, and I’m pretty sure Billy has a bunch of our papers, so I was just gonna - ?”
“I’ll let him know you came by,” Mr. Hargrove says. “For your papers. What did you say your name was?”
“Steve,” he says. “Steve Harrington.”
“Thank you, Steve,” Mr. Hargrove says. Steve doesn’t like the way his name sounds in his mouth. “I’ll pass the message along.”
“Thanks,” Steve says, but the door is already closing.
His walkie goes off at about one in the morning that night.
He never uses it - it was a present from Dustin, and it’s good to have just in case, but he keeps it in his bedroom and he’s got a phone in his house, so the gremlins usually remember to just call if they need something - but it’s one in the fucking morning and maybe they think his parents are home.
“Steve?” the voice says. It’s a girl’s. At first, with a little jolt of panic, he thinks it might be El (something happened to Hopper, she had a vision, she saw something, she’s calling him because he’s the only grownup she knows) then realizes it’s Max. “Steve, are you up?”
“What the hell,” Dustin says groggily. He must sleep with his walkie next to his head or something - Steve only hears his because he’s already awake, staring at the ceiling. He’s not waiting for pebbles, not tonight, but he’s still not sleeping.
“I’m up,” he says. “What’s wrong, Max?”
There’s a long stretch of silence. “Max,” he says patiently.
When she finally says something, it all kind of comes out in a rush. “You and Billy are - are friends, right?”
A finger of cold panic skitters its way down his spine.
“Oh my God,” Dustin says, “are you seriously using - “ and maybe he’s going to say something else, but Max interrupts almost immediately: “Turn your fucking radio off, Dustin, this isn’t about you - “
“Max,” Steve says sharply. “Dustin, give us a second, alright?”
“Alright, Jesus,” Dustin says, aggrieved. Nobody else is saying anything. Steve wonders if they’re all silently listening. waiting for something important to happen. Then again, they’re not very good at being silent, so he doubts it.
“Yeah, Max,” he says. “We’re friends.”
There’s another silence, shorter than the first one. When Max speaks again, all the anger has drained out of her voice. If he didn’t know better, he’d say that she sounds like she might cry. “I think I need your help.”
this is where that graphic violence warning kicks in, so maybe skip this chapter if you're sensitive to things like that
His walkie goes off at about one, and his watch reads ten after when he pulls up in front of the Hargrove house as slow and quiet as possible. It’s raining, a little, a cold drizzle that fogs up his windshield and mirrors. There are no lights on anywhere. Max had said her mom and Billy’s dad were asleep, but Steve’s got enough memories of trying and failing to sneak out to doubt that this is really doable.
He thinks, for just a moment, about the bat in his trunk.
And then, through the living room curtains, he sees a flashlight - swinging and wavering, but it’s an indication that someone is awake that doesn’t want anyone else to know they are. Billy, he thinks. But when he gets to the front door and it opens, it’s just Max, sniffly but dry-eyed. “Come on,” she whispers, “he’s back here.”
Steve moves a lot slower than her - he’s never been in Billy’s house, has to step carefully for fear of knocking shit over, but it’s not like it’s a big place and it only takes a minute to get to the far end. Max slows down when she gets to the last two doorways, lifts her finger to her lips to shush him. Steve’s standing stock-still. One of them must be their parents’.
Carefully, Max turns the doorknob on the right. “Billy,” she whispers. There’s no answer. She ushers Steve inside and closes the door behind them, fumbles for the switch on the wall.
Shit, Steve thinks. It’s a fucking wreck, the whole room - there’s what used to be a lamp shattered in a hundred pieces on the floor, a dresser with a sagging, broken drawer, a big mirror with an enormous web of spiderweb cracks radiating from one big break in the middle.
Then he looks at the bed, and he doesn’t think shit, he says it, breathes it like a prayer. “Jesus Christ, Max, what the fuck happened?”
He’s not sure if Billy’s awake. Fuck, if he didn’t know better he woudln’t be sure Billy’s alive. He’s barely recognizable. There’s blood all over his face - some of it’s smeared like he tried to wipe it off but most of it looks like he didn’t even bother. He’s curled around himself, arms wrapped around his stomach. Steve can tell from eight feet away that his nose is broken, and badly. He’s sure it’ll be worse when he gets closer.
“I don’t know,” Max whispers. When Steve tears his eyes away to look at her, she’s white as a sheet, staring wide-eyed at Billy. “It’s never been that bad, I don’t know, he wouldn’t let me help, Steve, you gotta get him out of here, I don’t know what - “ Her voice cracks and she claps a hand over her mouth, like she’s horrified at herself. “I’ve never seen his dad like that,” she says, after she seems to have composed herself. Steve can’t blame her. He kind of wants to cry, too.
“Okay,” he says, and sounds shockingly calm even to himself, “okay,” and steps carefully over to the bed - there’s glass all over the fucking floor, Jesus - over to Billy.
Max is still watching. Max can hear everything. Steve finds, in that moment, that he doesn’t really care. “Hey,” he murmurs, touches Billy’s shoulder, as carefully as he can. Billy shifts away from him, makes a little noise in his throat like he’s hurt or scared or both. Steve swallows, hard, pretends there isn’t a fucking boulder in his throat. “Hey, sweetheart, it’s me.”
Billy opens his eyes. Billy opens one eye, because that’s maybe all he can do, and winces from the light, draws in a breath that sounds a lot more wet than it should. Steve’s trying not to examine him, but it’s impossible not to; his nose looks like it’s shattered, grotesquely pushed to one side, and he’s seen Billy with a split lip before but never like this. He looks like he bit through it.
“What’re you doing here,” he mumbles. Steve can barely understand him.
“I’m gonna take you home,” Steve says, quiet, strokes his thumb over what feels like the one uninjured part of Billy’s body, right where his neck meets his shoulder. “Can you walk?”
“Fuck off,” Billy says, a little more clearly, but just sounds tired instead of pissed.
“We have to hurry,” Max whispers from the door. Steve glances over his shoulder at her. She’s watching them, eyes huge, but keeps glancing at the door like she’s got a nervous tic.
“Okay,” Steve says, “okay, here,” and helps Billy sit up, and that goes okay, but when Billy’s got to stand he makes a noise that Steve’s never heard a human being make, something strangled from his throat that Steve suspects would probably be a scream under different circumstances.
“You’re okay,” Steve murmurs immediately, loosens the arm he’s got around Billy’s ribs, “you’re okay, hey, you’re fine,” even though he’s pretty sure he’s lying through his fucking teeth. Billy’s got an arm slung over his shoulder. His fingers are all fucked up, Steve notices absently, all swollen and discolored, all of them on that hand. A couple are noticeably crooked when he looks a little closer. He doesn’t look closer for long.
“Oh, goddamnit,” Billy says under his breath, lets his head loll onto Steve’s shoulder for a moment. He’s just barely steady on his feet. Steve’s pretty sure he could carry him, but they make it out into the hallway without much trouble - Billy’s slow, and Max is trying to hide her panic so clearly that it’s making Steve even more anxious, but she holds the front door open when they get there and then they’re on the front steps and Steve is gulping down breaths of cold air like he was drowning in that fucking house, in broken glass and Billy’s blood.
“Get him out of here,” Max whispers fiercely. Steve had paused, letting Billy breathe, too.
“Max,” Billy says weakly.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Max says, like a promise. “You gotta go, Billy, if he wakes up - “
“You call my house if you need anything,” Steve says, stares at her until she nods. “I mean it.”
“I will,” Max says, and ducks back into the house, shuts the door behind her. It’s a struggle to get Billy to the car - Steve’s the one glancing over his shoulder, now, keeps expecting to see a light on, his dad in the doorway - but they get there, and Billy leans heavily against him while Steve tries to open the passenger door. What had been a cool drizzle turned into a real rain while he was inside, and it’s washing a little of the blood off of Billy’s face.
Billy groans when Steve gets him into the seat, leans forward and curls an arm around his ribs. He’s shivering, Steve thinks, but isn’t sure if it’s the cold or everything else, Billy’s shaking like a fucking leaf. He turns the heat on as soon as the car starts, angles the vents toward the passenger seat.
“Billy,” Steve says after a moment. “We need to go to the hospital.” He’s trying to sound as calm as he can, but Billy looks at him so fast it has to hurt.
“No,” he says, more clearly than anything else he’s said tonight. “No, fuck no, Steve, I can’t.”
“I can’t - you’re really fucked up, Billy, I can’t fix this by myself, and your dad needs to be in fucking jail - “
“I swear to God,” Billy says, and sounds so calm that Steve’s pretty sure he’s about to cry or scream or something. “I swear to God, if you go to the hospital I’m jumping out of your fucking car, Harrington, I - “
“Okay,” Steve interrupts, because Billy sounds like he’ll fucking do it. “Okay, okay.”
Neither of them say anything else on the drive back home. Billy’s still and silent, curled in on himself, but halfway to his house Steve can’t help himself, reaches over to put a hand on his back, gently, isn’t sure if he’s imagining that Billy relaxes infinitesimally.
The walk from Steve’s driveway to his house is harder. They stop more than once, standing there in the rain, so Billy can catch his breath; his ribs are all fucked up,, Steve can tell that much just by the way he’s breathing, but it’s not until he’s got Billy sat down at the little table in the kitchen, shirt off and head lolling against the wall, that he can see how bad it is for himself.
it’s worse than he thought, here in his clean, well-lit kitchen, away from the mess of Billy’s room and the spectre of his dad looming over them. It’s way worse. He knows how to handle a rolled ankle or a bad scrape, but this is way beyond anything he’s ever dealt with, at home by himself or after practice. He feels like he should call Nancy, because Nancy knows everything, but what the fuck does she know about this? Who does he know that knows anything about this?
He’d left the walkie on the entryway table. “Hold on,” he says suddenly, even though Billy doesn’t so much as stir, let alone reply, “I’ll be right back, hold on,” and damn near runs back to the door.
“Will,” he says, doesn’t even try to hide how frantic he sounds, “Will, wake up, man, I gotta talk to your mom.”
It’s a twenty minute drive from the Byers’ to Loch Nora, but Mrs. Byers makes it in about fifteen. Steve opens the door before she can even knock, and she looks at the blood on his hands before anything else.
“He’s in here,” Steve says, like that explains it, and if he thought she looked horrified by the blood on him it’s nothing to what her face does when she sees Billy. She pulls Steve back around the corner immediately. It’s better than it had been, too - he’d spent the last ten minutes trying to clean some of the blood off his face, at least from the split in his eyebrow. That had seemingly bled like a motherfucker. But he hadn’t been able to get close to his nose or his bottom lip without Billy trying to move away, and Steve had - fuck, Billy had been hurt enough tonight.
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Byers says, whispers it like she’ll wake him up. “Steve, we need to take him to a hospital now - ”
“He won’t go,” Steve says immediately, interrupts her and feels bad about it pretty much immediately, but he knows he sounds panicked and maybe that’s why she listens. “I tried, I was gonna take him there first, I seriously think he’ll jump out of the car if I take him or take him to the cops or anything and the hospital would call the cops, he’s - “
“Okay,” Mrs. Byers says, holds up one hand to stop him. “Okay. Do you have a first aid kit?”
Steve feels like his brain skips a gear for a second. She’s going to help. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, hold on, let me - “
It’s in the downstairs bathroom, and the house is so quiet that he can hear Mrs. Byers in the kitchen. He catches bits of her talking, saying Billy’s name, and then a hi, honey like she’s actually talking to him instead of at him. He’s rummaging for the kit long enough that when he gets back, Mrs. Byers is pressing the washcloth - dripping, like she got it hot again - against Billy’s bad eye, gently, saying “I know, I know,” even though Billy’s not saying anything or moving or - anything. “Steve, I need a bowl of cold water for his hand. Do you have ice?”
Steve sets the first aid kit on the table, close enough that she can reach everything in it, and goes rummaging again, ends up with a cereal bowl of cool water and the sad handful of ice cubes - goddamnit, his mom always bitches at him about refilling the tray - left from the freezer. As soon as it’s on the table, Mrs. Byers is lifting Billy’s arm as gently as she can and settling his hand in. Steve hovers uselessly, watches her gently clean his lip - Billy’s breathing hitches but he doesn’t react otherwise, lets her tip his head back so she can see better.
“Jesus,” Steve says. He doesn’t mean to say it out loud. It looks worse without all the blood. He had to have bitten through it; it doesn’t look anything like it has before, in the wrong spot altogether and way deeper than Steve’s ever seen a split lip. Steve can feel tears pinprick at the corners of his eyes, sudden and horrifying, and turns his head away.
“This needs stitches,” Mrs. Byers says quietly. She is, blessedly, determinedly not paying attention to him. “It’s gonna scar either way.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and sounds much steadier than he feels. He looks Billy’s face over, forces himself to, wonders if his eyebrow will need stitches, too, or if it’ll heal together on its own.
“Why don’t you get another dishcloth,” Mrs. Byers says after a moment, “and start cleaning up his side?
Steve’s no help on his own but he can, at least, follow directions, and kneels down to eye-level with Billy’s right side once he’s got a fresh dishcloth in his hands. There’s a stretch of nasty-looking carpet burn underneath what will be even nastier bruises this time tomorrow, but some of it is still bleeding sluggishly. There are a dozen other things that need to be taken care of first, but Steve knows busywork when he sees it, and it’s better than just standing behind her and watching.
When he’s done, Steve skims his fingertips down Billy’s ribs, as gentle as he can. Billy’s breathing so shallowly it seems like he’s not breathing at all sometimes.
Above him, Mrs. Byers is bandaging Billy’s face with their limited supplies - Steve’s glad his parents sprung for one of the ludicrously large first aid kits, but it’s still nothing like what a hospital would probably have - butterflying his eyebrow together first, then the gouge under his eye that Steve hadn’t even noticed until now.
Mrs. Byers clearly notices something before Steve does, because it takes Steve a second to realize why she says Steve, trashcan. She’s in the middle of saying it a second time when it registers and Steve leaps to his feet and fumbles for it, gets it in front of Billy just in time.
“Oh,” Steve says, watches him gag. “Oh, what the fuck, what’s - “
“He’s got a lot of blood in his stomach, sweetheart,” Mrs. Byers says quietly. “i’d say he’s been swallowing it all night.” Billy’s bent almost all the way over, arms crossed over his stomach tight enough that he looks like he’s trying to hold himself together, like he’ll fly to pieces if he doesn’t. He about knocked the bowl his hand had been in off the table. It doesn’t look like there’s much to throw up, but that’s definitely - fuck, Steve thinks hollowly.
Billy’s trembling when he’s done, and Steve can see his fingers shaking when he wipes at his mouth with his wrist. When he tips his head back against the wall again, mumbling sorry, Steve can see tears on his face. it’s the first time all night he’s seen anything like it. He lets Billy brush them away himself, doesn’t reach for him no matter how much he wants to.
“Well,” Mrs. Byers says, and tries so hard to sound cheerful that it hurts a little, “at least we know you’re awake, huh?”
“Yeah,” Billy says. He sounds raw enough that Steve’s throat aches in sympathy. “Fuck. Sorry.”
Steve runs the tap for a glass of water, brings it to him, then can’t help himself and puts a hand gently on Billy’s shoulder. Billy leans into it, breathing shallow and careful. Steve moves his thumb over his skin, slow and even so Billy can predict it.
“We need you to stay awake, Billy,” Mrs. Byers says. She’s guiding his hand back into the ice water, mostly melted. “Okay? If I had to guess, I’d say you probably have a pretty bad concussion.”
“S’okay,” Billy says, but kind of slurs it a little.
“It’s really not, sweetheart,” Mrs. Byers says gently. She watches him for a moment, then, “How do your ribs feel?”
Billy drags in a breath. For a second, Steve thinks he’s going to say fine. “Busted,” he says, and tries to grin. It looks fucking ghastly, between his mangled lip and the way the whole bad-eye side of his face is starting to swell. “They’ll be okay.”
“Does it hurt to breathe?”
Billy tries to laugh and it turns into a groan halfway through. “Like hell,” he says, like that wasn’t answer enough on its own.
“Okay,” Mrs. Byers says, then seems to steel herself. “Billy, you really need to go to a hospital. You need stitches, and if any of your ribs are broken bad enough they could puncture something. And - and I don’t know if your hand’s broken or just some fingers, but you can’t just let that go.”
“No offense,” Billy says, eyes closed, and instead of leaning against the wall he’s leaning on Steve, now, “but fuck all that. You got any duct tape?”
Mrs. Byers blinks. Steve, not for the first time, wants to apologize on Billy’s behalf. “Okay,” she says again. “If your concussion is as bad as I think it is, and you go to sleep, you might not wake up. Do you wanna die on Steve’s couch?”
“Could be worse places,” Billy mumbles. “Steve’ll keep me awake.”
Mrs. Byers glances at Steve. He can feel his face heating. “Goddamnit, Billy,” he says under his breath, like that’ll stop Mrs. Byers hearing him. Billy tips his face up towards him and grins again, with half his mouth, this time. Steve can’t help but smile back.
“Okay, well,” Mrs. Byers says, “if he’s not going to go anywhere, he needs to rest - are any of your bedrooms downstairs?” Steve shakes his head. “Then you need to get him on your couch and keep him there. At least for tonight. And don’t let him pass out again.”
“I won’t,” Steve says, and means it. He’s pretty sure he’ll be keyed up for the next week. There’s no chance he’s sleeping tonight.
Getting Billy on his feet again is an effort. He doesn’t make a sound, but he keeps swallowing hard enough that Steve can hear it, and his breathing is labored by the time they get him into the living room. “Careful,” Mrs. Byers says, watching Steve ease Billy down to the couch with her big, anxious eyes.
“‘m gonna get blood all over your fancy couch,” Billy says.
“Fuck my stupid couch,” Steve says immediately, actually a little mad, because - Jesus, Billy’s half-dead and that’s what he’s worried about. “You think anybody sits in here anyway?”
“Yeah, well.” Billy sounds so goddamn tired. “You got that tape?”
Steve looks at Mrs. Byers, who nods reluctantly. “Something hard, too. Popsicle sticks, or - you probably don’t have splints, do you?”
“I’ll find something,” Steve says, and ducks into the kitchen. He’s got to hunt around, ends up finding a handful of pens and a roll of electrical tape - it’s not what Billy asked for, but it’ll have to do. God, what the fuck is his life.
“Okay,” Mrs. Byers says, once he gets back. “Billy, this is gonna really hurt.”
“You think I never done this before?” Billy says it like he’s talking about the weather and Steve kind of wants to throw up, now, too. “‘s just the three. Isn’t my hand. I can do it.”
Mrs. Byers does it anyway, gentle and quick, and Steve can still hear how hard Billy swallows when she straightens out his first three fingers. He doesn’t trust that Billy’s hand isn’t broken altogether - the back of it is already blue-black in the middle and swollen all to shit, and it’s hard to miss how Billy’s avoiding moving it, but that’s something to try and talk about in the morning.
Billy’s breathing shallow and careful when she finishes taping his fingers up, watching her with his good eye. “Thanks,” he mumbles, just barely audible.
Steve looks at Mrs. Byers. She’s watching the both of them. “When can he sleep?”
She shakes out her hands. It’s the first real sign of nervousness he’s seen from her all night. “I’ll come back in the morning,” she says. “If he’s still - good, you know, alert and talking and everything, he should be okay to sleep.”
Steve wonders how she knows all of this, what to do with broken fingers and concussions, then thinks about how Jonathan’s dad has never really been around, how everybody just kind of decided unanimously that he was a piece of shit the second he left town.
“Okay,” he says, and walks her to the door. “Mrs. Byers... thank you. I’m sorry I dragged you out here this time of night, I just - I didn’t know what to do. Thank you.”
“I’m glad you called me,” she says, and then she’s hugging him, quick and gentle. “I think you can call me Joyce, now, okay?”
“Okay,” he says, and for the third time on this godforsaken night feels a little bit like he might cry. “Thank you, Joyce.”
She opens the door, then turns back to him, looks him over for a moment longer. “Call me if you need anything, okay? I mean it.”
Steve watches her tail lights until they’re down the road, presses his forehead against the cool glass, takes one deep breath, then another. She’ll be back in the morning. They just have to make it until then.
Steve wakes up alone.
The clock above the TV says it’s seven, and the sun is starting to come up, and he’s alone on his couch in the living room, and there’s blood on the floor, and everything sort of hits him at once.
“Billy,” he says out loud, scrambles to his feet. “Billy?”
He half-runs into the kitchen, scans the floor first because if Billy will be anywhere it’ll be there, then pauses for a second. He can hear the shower running.
“Shit,” he says, sprints down the hall. The bathroom door is half open. There’s a puddle of bloody clothes on the floor, and the air is thick and warm with steam, and he can see Billy leaned against the shower wall through the pebbled glass.
He opens the shower door a crack, looks at Steve in the doorway. He looks horrifying, even with a clean face. The bruising on his left eye - the whole left side of his face, it doesn’t stop until well past his cheekbone - has really settled in, blue-black and awful.
“Morning, princess,” he says, and sounds so much like - like Billy - that Steve has to swallow a couple of times before he can say anything in response.
“Son of a bitch,” he manages finally, a little weakly. “Billy, you could’ve fucking drowned, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I felt real fuckin’ gross,” Billy says, and shuts the door again. They can still hear each other fine. He’s either finished washing or hasn’t started yet, because from what Steve can see, he’s pretty much just standing there under the spray. “That lady came back, by the way. She brought food.”
“That’s,” Steve starts, and shakes his head, runs his hand through his hair. His life his so goddamn weird. Of course Billy has no idea who Joyce is, it’s not like he was here when she became a town celebrity. “That’s Jonathan’s mom. She’s - a friend.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and sits on the closed toilet. He’s not gonna intervene if Billy’s got this, but he’s gonna hang out in case he doesn’t. He’s not sure what he’ll do if Billy loses his footing and fucking cracks his head or something, and wouldn’t that just be their luck, but.
“Huh,” Billy says contemplatively. “She’s kinda hot. Her old man must’ve been real fucked up looking.”
“Be nice,” Steve says, and only kind of means it. “Glad you got your sense of humor back.”
“I’m real fuckin’ tired,” Billy says, a little garbled like he’s washing his face, or trying to. “Probably gonna be way less funny after I get some sleep.”
Steve’s brow furrows. “You think?”
Billy turns off the water, fumbles a little awkwardly for the towel slung over the top of the door. Steve opens the door for him, and Billy, even though he gives Steve kind of a dirty look, puts his uninjured hand on Steve’s arm to balance himself while he gets out. Billy dries himself off the best he can with one useful hand, and Steve has to bite his tongue to not offer help, mostly because he’s pretty sure he’d get told to fuck off.
“Did Joyce say anything to you?” he asks after a moment, when Billy’s got the towel securely around his waist and his hand on Steve’s arm again. Steve gets into a position where Billy can just sling his arm around his shoulders again, even though he can tell it’s not comfortable - Billy winces when he’s got to stretch his ribs but doesn’t make a sound.
“Said I can sleep,” Billy says. His breathing is labored. Steve wonders how long it took him to get himself to the bathroom and get undressed, but then his thoughts start wandering to what would have happened if Billy weren’t so fucking stubborn or tough or stupid and he’s got to stop himself.
“Okay,” he says. “We’re not gonna try stairs yet.”
“I can handle stairs,” Billy says, but seems like he’s mostly just saying it for the sake of arguing.
Steve deposits him on the couch and runs upstairs for clothes, boxers and sweatpants and a t-shirt, and Billy’s half asleep by the time he gets back. He does need help getting dressed, which Steve kind of expected, but he wasn’t expecting how Billy would look in the daylight.
He’s - it’s rough. Steve’s not going to say anything, tries to keep his face calm and neutral. His whole stomach’s black and purple, and the whole left side of him, from below his hip almost up to his armpit. Steve counts six spots that look worse, look like impact sites, before he has to stop.
“Billy,” he says quietly, finally. “You know I’m gonna ask you what the fuck happened last night, right?”
“Yeah,” Billy says, pulls the t-shirt on all janky and one-handed. Steve is reminded, suddenly and painfully, of watching Billy stand in the locker room and do the same thing, fumble with a t-shirt until he got it over his head and over the bruises on his ribs. “You gonna let me sleep first?”
“Are you gonna talk to me when you wake up?”
Billy looks at him for a moment, long and considering. “Yeah,” he says again, a little more quietly.
“Okay,” Steve says, and lets him sleep.
Billy sleeps until well past noon. Steve naps off and on in little bursts, keeps waking up to check on him - which is absurd, because they’re on the same fucking couch, but it’s what he does, wakes up and puts his hand feather-light on Billy’s chest to feel him breathing.
He’s in the kitchen when Billy seems to properly wake up. Billy follows him in, ungainly and awkward; he moves with a pronounced limp, favors his left side, and Steve wonders if that’s his ribs or something else. It’s hard to keep track of. He wonders how the fuck Billy’s moving at all.
“Coffee,” Billy says by way of greeting. Steve snorts.
“Yeah, hi,” he says. “Sit, I’ll make yours.” He moves over to help, lets Billy use him for balance before he lowers himself into the chair -
He’s not sure what possesses him to do it, other than being stupid and in love, but he presses a kiss against Billy’s forehead before he moves away. He hasn’t touched Billy like that since the last time they were together, and he feels a little ridiculous when he straightens up, but Billy’s face is soft and open when he watches him go back to the coffeemaker, so.
There’s almost a full pot of coffee made, and Steve doesn’t usually have groceries but he does always have milk (“whole, not that two percent bullshit,” Billy had said a month ago) in the fridge and sugar in its little shaker canister thing, and he’s pretty sure he could make Billy’s coffee with his eyes closed.
Billy holds the mug Steve hands him with his good hand. His right hand, Steve realizes. He’s left handed. Motherfuck.
He lets Billy get a couple of drinks down, then sits across from him, pulls out the chair with a squeak that makes them both wince a little. Steve’s suddenly self-conscious of having wrapped both hands around his mug.
“Why weren’t you at school?” It’s probably not the first question he should ask, but it’s easier than what the fuck happened last night.
Billy shifts uncomfortably in his chair, rolls his neck a little. “Me and my dad got into it,” he says after a moment. “I just - I was so fuckin’ tired of you seeing me like that. I just meant to skip Wednesday but all my school shit was at home, so.”
So you just didn’t go home, Steve thinks. “Where were you staying?”
Billy laughs, tips his head back against the wall. “My car,” he says, then, like it’s just occurring to him, “fuck, my car.”
Steve lets that hang for a moment, then, more gently than he means to - because Billy doesn’t want him to be gentle, not when they’re talking or fucking or staring each other down on the court, not ever - says, “What happened last night?”
There’s a moment of quiet. “Same shit as always,” Billy says finally.
“It’s not,” Steve says. “Max said it’s never been that bad before.”
“She’s never seen it that bad,” Billy says, like a correction. Steve closes his eyes for a little bit longer than a blink, swallows down what almost feels like nausea. Billy’s quiet for another long few seconds, then says, “Somebody Susan works with must live around here. Told my dad I was here all the time. Whoever it is must know your folks, because he knew we’re here alone.”
Steve’s whole body feels cold. “Oh,” he says, and then, as the realization washes over him, “oh, Jesus, Billy, I - “
“Not your fault,” Billy interrupts. “It’s not your fault.”
Steve stands up, can’t sit anymore, and when Billy flinches it feels like a blow. He refills his mug, resists the absurd urge to pace in his unpaceable kitchen. “I showed up at your house yesterday,” he says finally. “So your dad knew already, and I made it a million times worse. Fuck, Billy, I’m so sorry.”
“I hit him back,” Billy says, like he’s not listening to Steve at all, and holds up his left hand. Steve’s been trying not to look at it but finds his eyes drawn now, to the purple-red center and blue bruising around the edges. Like it got stomped on, Steve realizes. “That’s why it - I fuckin’ - I know better.” He seems to say the last few words to himself.
Steve lets out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, slow and careful. He’s still standing opposite Billy, back against the sink. “You can’t go back there,” he says. “You can’t.”
Billy laughs and it’s strained and humorless and terrible. “Yeah, that’s no shit,” he says. “No fuckin’ way would he let me come back after this.”
“No - Billy,” Steve says, “I’m not talking about your fucking dad, I - stay here with me,” and he means it more than anything but doesn’t mean to say it, not like that, not now, not while Billy’s watching him out of one good eye and barely able to fucking move, but it spills out anyway. “Please.”
Billy’s quiet for a minute. “Max is still there,” he says. “I can’t just leave her and her mom with him.”
Steve hadn’t - considered that, he guesses, and he knows it shows on his face. It’s hard enough to match the girl that helped him fortify a school bus ten minutes after meeting him with the girl that walked him back to Billy’s room not even twelve hours ago. “Has he ever...?”
“No,” Billy says. “Neither of them. But I’ve always been there.”
Steve drops into the chair across from him again, head spinning. “You can’t go back,” he says again, knows he sounds like he’s pleading, probably because he is. “We’ll figure something out. But you can’t go back.”
“I’ll stay tonight,” Billy says, like that’s enough. It’ll have to be.
He’s supposed to be at school - well, they both are, but Billy’s asleep on the couch, and Steve’s not about to leave him for that long.
He doesn’t like leaving him for even this long, but there must be something in his face when he tells the old lady at the counter that he has to talk to Hopper that makes her take him seriously, because he only waits for about five minutes before Hopper’s hollering for him to come in from down the hall.
“Shut the door,” Hopper says, and swings his feet down from where they’d been on top of his desk. “What happened?”
“Nothing with - that,” Steve says, realizing what he’s worried about. Some of the tension drains from Hopper’s face. He relaxes back in his chair a little, reaches for the cigarettes in his chest pocket.
“What’s going on, kid?” He waits until he’s lit his cigarette to ask.
“You know Max Mayfield,” Steve says, but it takes him a minute to figure out where to even fucking start. “El’s friend, the redhead?”
“Sure,” Hopper says.
“She called me Friday night,” Steve says, pushes a hand through his hair nervously. “On the little - the fuckin’ walkie talkies all the kids have, Dustin got me one, I never use it, but - she called me because her brother got the shit beat out of him by their dad - her stepdad, I mean - “
“Hold on,” Hopper interrupts. “And you didn’t call me because...?”
Steve shifts restlessly in his chair. He hadn’t been expecting that, somehow. “He didn’t want me to,” he says finally. “Her - Billy. Her brother.”
“Hold on.” Hopper’s leaning forward now, looking very serious and very grown. Steve suddenly feels a little stupid, sitting here in Hopper’s office and telling him everything Billy doesn’t wany anybody else to know. “Is this the same Billy - “
“That kicked my ass at Will Byers’ house, yeah, yes,” Steve says, “it’s the same guy, shit’s - really different now, everything is fine, we’re - we’re friends, I guess?” He knows he’s getting red. “The point is, his dad’s a fucking psycho, and he can’t go back, but Max is still there and so is her mom, and he’s really worried about them.”
“So I arrest his dad,” Hopper says, like that’s the answer. “All I need is a statement from him.”
“He won’t,” Steve says tiredly. “I tried all day yesterday to get him to come down here, he wouldn’t even go to the hospital on Friday because he thought they’d call you.”
Hopper’s brow furrows. “So you patched him up?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “me and - uh.” He stops himself short. “...Mrs. Byers? I called Mrs. Byers.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Hopper scrubs one big hand over his face. “Alright. So, what, the kid’s not living there anymore, but Max and her mom are?”
“I show up at the door,” Hopper says, “is that gonna make it worse?”
“Yeah,” Steve says after a moment. “I think so. Probably. I’m not - I didn’t come here wanting you to do something about his dad. I just want you to know.” He’s quiet for a moment, then adds, “Billy says his dad’s never hurt either of them.”
Hopper’s quiet, too, sits there and smokes and thinks. “You tell the kids,” he says finally, “to tell me if they think anything’s weird. She starts missing school, acting different, any of that shit.”
Steve’s flooded with relief so suddenly it makes his head spin. “Okay,” he says. He’d been bracing himself for Hopper to announce that he was going to pay Billy’s dad a visit. He doesn’t entirely believe that he’s not going to, but.
“And you tell your friend to come see me,” Hopper adds. “I wanna talk to him sometime this week.”
Absolutely fucking not, Steve thinks, but nods anyway.
They’re talking about California.
It’s Thursday, and Steve’s been going to school since Tuesday, but Billy’s still sleeping through most of his days. Steve had asked Joyce about it - is it okay if he sleeps this much? - and she’d nodded, told him that Billy’s trying to heal, and the best way it can do that is to rest. It’s driving Billy fucking crazy.
Steve tries to distract him as best he can. Billy’s got plenty of suggestions, but Steve’s adamant that nothing is happening until he’s in better shape; they do a lot of talking, instead, or Billy reads while Steve studies. There’s not a ton of books in the Harrington household, and Billy’s read through most of them already.
But they’re talking tonight. They’re talking about California, sitting on the couch next to each other with Billy pressed up warm against him, and Billy’s trying to explain to Steve, who has never so much as seen the ocean, how you know where to put your feet on a surfboard and how to stay stable. Billy’s voice is so fucking wistful that it hurts, and Steve can’t help himself, knows he shouldn’t ask but opens his stupid mouth anyway.
“Why’d you leave?”
Billy’s quiet. Billy’s quiet for a long time.
“Max told one of her teachers,” he says finally. “About me and my dad.”
Steve waits for a moment, not sure if he’s going to continue. When it’s been quiet for a little too long, he says, gently, “So you had to leave?”
“Yeah.” Billy’s staring at the wall like he’s trying to bore a hole in it. He’s quiet again for a moment. “My dad was a cop. Back home. He - they didn’t fire him, they just asked him to resign, but.” He shrugs. Steve’s pretty sure he hasn’t blinked yet. “It was bad. So we left.”
My dad was a cop, Billy says in his head, and Steve thinks for just a second about the way he’d reacted when Steve told him his dad needed to be in fucking jail. Fuck.
“Oh,” he says, instead of any of that. “Jesus, Bills.”
“It’s okay,” Billy says, and stretches as best he can. The bruising looks just as bad as it did Saturday morning, but it’s got to get worse before it gets better, Steve knows that much.
“It’s not okay,” Steve says, loops an arm careful and slow around Billy’s shoulders. To his surprise, Billy doesn’t move away - he doesn’t lean into it, but he doesn’t move away. Steve’s been careful about touching him. Despite Billy’s grins and raised eyebrows, Steve’s still caught him flinching when Steve moves too fast or too unexpectedly.
It’s not okay, he thinks, none of it is fucking okay, but Billy sits there next to him and slowly, slowly curls in to him, rests his temple against Steve’s chest, and - maybe they can make it okay from here.
“I look stupid.”
“You look nice,” Steve says reflexively.
Billy doesn’t look stupid, but he does look different. He’s standing in front of the big mirror in one of the guest bedrooms - his guest bedroom, theoretically, although he only sleeps there when Steve’s parents are home, and now that Steve’s eighteen that’s only happened once since Billy’s been here, one weekend in the middle of April.
Steve moves to stand behind him, rests his chin on top of Billy’s head, gently. He’s got to stand on his toes a little bit to do it, but it makes Billy wrinkle his nose at their reflection, so it’s worth it. Billy can move just about all of his face without any problem now.
(His smile is different, lopsided. The left side drags down a little, either because of the scarring or because he’d trained himself not to use that side when he’d still been hurt enough that smiling might tear it back open. Billy hates it. Steve kisses the scar a lot, when they’re trading pecks in the kitchen or passing on the stairs.)
“You look nice,” he says again, softer, and means it. Billy wasn’t able to get much out of his old bedroom - there wasn’t much to get; Steve gets the feeling that most of whatever had been there ended up in a dumpster somewhere - and the shirt he’d been wearing the night he came to Steve’s wasn’t salvageable, so he’s been alternating his handful of flannels and some of Steve’s t-shirts. It’s disconcerting, seeing him in something that doesn’t have a bunch of skulls and flames and shit on it around the name of a band he’s never heard of.
(Max had squirrelled some of Billy’s stuff away - a cassette carrier, a tiny photo album, a couple of books. She’d seemed surprised when Billy hugged her, but she’d hugged him back as tight as she seemed to dare, buried her face in his shoulder. Steve can get the photo album, but he’s not sure why the cassette carrier is so important that Max risked hiding it until Billy could come get it. He’s not about to ask. He’s learned, over the last month and a half, that Billy will tell him shit when he’s ready.)
“Are you sure we have to go to this?” Billy’s meeting his eyes in their reflection. Steve presses a kiss to his hair and steps away, tugs his own shirt over his head to change into something - not nicer, really, but at least not a several-years-old Hawkins Tigers baseball shirt.
“We don’t have to go to anything,” he says. “But I know Joyce wants us to come. I’ve only been to, like, three of these, you know? Plus, she’s a really good cook, and they’re grilling. I’m pretty sure she’s cooking ribs.”
“You know these people,” Billy grumbles, leans a little closer to fix his hair. It’s grown out a little since he cut it, but he’s trimmed it since; Steve doesn’t ever plan on bringing it up, but he’s wondered to himself if he ever plans on growing it out again, now that he can. “I know her. And only kinda.”
“You know Nancy,” Steve says. “And Jonathan.”
“Harrington, that doesn’t help.” Billy turns to look at him, and for the first time Steve realizes he’s actually nervous. The fingers on his good hand are drumming against his thigh, fast and repetitive. He looks like he’s itching for a cigarette, too, even though he’s adapted shockingly well to the Harrington no smoking inside rule.
“Hey,” Steve says, steps over to him. Billy won’t look at him; Steve tilts his head up towards him with a hand under his chin, careful. “It’s gonna be fine. Jonathan is gonna be fucking weird, because he’s weird literally all the time, but everybody else will be cool. And Max will be there,” he adds, like an afterthought.
Billy opens his mouth like he’s about to say something shitty, then closes it. “Are all those fuckin’ kids gonna be there?”
“Oh, definitely,” Steve says. “They’re probably all there already.”
“Christ,” Billy says, and leans his forehead against Steve’s shoulder. “You’re lucky I love you.”
“I am lucky, asshole,” Steve says, pets his hand over Billy’s hair. Billy’s breathing slow and even, even though Steve can feel his heart thrumming. He’s breathing better these days, not like he should be but not nearly as shallow as it had been before. “I know I’m lucky.”
“Don’t get sappy,” Billy says, pulls away so he can look Steve in the face. Steve’s never going to get over how pretty he is. He lifts a hand to the side of Billy’s face - slow, so Billy knows it’s coming - strokes his thumb over his cheekbone, where there’s a constellation of freckles starting to manifest with the almost-summer sun.
“I’m not,” Steve says, and kisses him, slow and gentle. “I love you too.”
“Fuck off,” Billy mumbles, but he’s smiling against Steve’s mouth and kisses him again as soon as it’s done. “Stay with me when we’re out there, okay?”
“Always,” Steve says, and feels a little silly as soon as it’s out of his mouth, but he means it.
“Okay,” Billy says, kisses him again, soft and short. “Let’s go.”