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In Your Heart, I Find My Home

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“C’mon Hargrove, you need something in your system. Just coffee ain’t gonna cut.”

Billy stares down at the oatmeal in front of him, fights crinkling his nose. He doesn’t want oatmeal. He wants his coffee black and maybe some buttermilk pancakes, some crispy bacon and scrambled eggs, but no. 

Today they’re doing coffee and oatmeal.

At least he can finally handle some solid foods.

And the coffee Harrington made him this morning was mostly cream so it shouldn’t upset his stomach but yesterday buttered toast and a half cup of black coffee had him hunched over the toilet bowl twenty minutes after eating, so they’re giving this even planer combo a try. It’s all been very hit or miss day to day.

He shakes his head stiffly. Makes his jaw tick.

Moving hurts. Sometimes talking hurts. Coming into winter now, eating and drinking and breathing hurts. The fading stitches running up his chest still tug every time he steals a breath. He looks like he got put through a wood chipper or stuffed down the garbage disposal. A vain attempt of taping and gluing shattered glass back together.

Harrington sighs, runs a hand through his hair, then leans on the table. There’s a hint of a fading scar under his chin. Max told him Harrington and the chick he works with were nabbed and drugged by fucking Russians . Beat the shit out of him. 

Again, Billy had thought with a snort, afterwards.

Somehow getting kidnapped by fucking Soviet military agents sounds weirder than what happened to him . And he was being used as a meat puppet for some telepathic twenty foot tall spider from another dimension made out of human puree.

“Do you want me to call Max?” 

Bill seizes up with a hot flash of panic. It’s not an actual threat, calling Max around, but Billy still shakes his head with vigor. Max’s too overprotective of him now that he’s back, is practically a helicopter parent. A better parent than Neil or Susan, even Mom — before she left.

If Max finds out he’s not eating there’s a chance she’ll yell at him over the phone and then skate over and try to spoon feed him and as much as he doesn’t care about anything besides trying to stay in one piece right now, it’d still be a striking blow to his ego to have his fourteen year old sister shoveling plain oatmeal into his mouth like he’s ninety and fucking senile.

Maybe it’d be a little funny if the context was different — like a broken leg or appendicitis instead of the second coming of Christ, where instead of a divine idol rising from the tomb, it was Billy all bloodied and sweaty and shaking, tied up to tubes and monitors on a table in a secret government O.R. twenty feet underground.

He’s Frankenstein’s monster. Shocked back to life with magic more than science.

It’s got him living out of a spare bedroom in Steve Harrington’s mansion off Loch Nora, pretending he’s still dead or missing or skipped town or whatever people really want to think about what happened to him, and living on a diet primarily made up of powdery horse pills and herbal tea and adult equivalents of bottled baby food. 

He’s only staying in Harrington’s mansion as a last ditch effort to be, well, babysat, because he’s got nowhere else to go. Has no one to take him in - and it’s not like he could back home even if he wanted to - so Harrington had begrudgingly offered. 

The Harrington residence isn’t located in a secluded spot like the Chief’s cabin, but being that far out in the woods would make him restless, even with company. Plus it’s wrecked — he went out there with Harrington and Max to assess the damage and the ceiling’s caved in, the furniture tattered, broken shit littered all over the floor. 

He used to hunger for that kind of seclusion. Now it makes his blood freeze over, go icy in his veins. It makes him think of the other world, stark silent and hazy, dark, like his world but not. All creeping vines and falling ash and black clouded skies. A cracked reflection of the familiar. 

Harrington nudges the bowl a little. “Look, man, I know this all sucks and eating’s hard most of the time but all those pills they’ve got you on will only make you feel worse if you don’t have something in your system, so,” and he scoops a little sticky glob of oatmeal on the spoon, half smiling. 

Billy sighs and rolls his eyes but takes the offending spoon anyway. The first scoop is set with a sticky string that connects his silverware to the remaining warm goop slowly cementing itself to the bowl’s porcelain bottom. He drops the spoonful with a quiet splat. Makes him think of the rat cluster bursting under the monster’s control like a toddler squashing grapes between their chubby fingers.

He manages a bite though, for Harrington, just so he won’t tell Max. It’d be better with brown sugar and maybe some cinnamon, a handful of blueberries instead of just milk, but he doesn’t get a choice yet. Most of the meds are experimental, no FDA warning to be found, no prescription either. All nondescript, white tablets. They make him nauseous so he has to take them with food and so far the planer, the better. 

There are supposedly still remnants of the shadow in him - Mind Flayer he’s been told - and the meds kill the stragglers, wash them out. Burn him up from the inside like a brush fire, new growth to come when the smoke subsides. They make him real sick first, though. And he’s got scars - well, more scars - too, circular teeth marks carving warped mandalas into both sides of his rib cage and in the middle of his back, the pincher stabbing a gnarled knot in the center of his sternum. Flecks of white up run his arms and there’s a little chunk missing under his right eye. 

It’s been over a month he’s been living with Harrington, three since he’s been back and four since he died. Every day has been cyclical. The tests and appointments have lessened but everything else is mostly the same — sleep, pills, eat, sleep, maybe do something else if he’s got the energy. He’s so tired but he’s too afraid to comfortably sleep. The body aches keep him up, feeling scrubbed raw, and then there’s the constant creeping fear that it’s not really over so he’ll close his eyes and it’ll be July Fourth all over again. 

Harrington starts reading the Funnies waiting for him to eating properly and eventually he does. It’s cold by the time he’s done choking it down, the moisture sucked out of it. Too chewy. Harrington still looks pleased when he finishes the bowl and shoves it towards him.

“There, happy now?”

“Yeah, I am, actually.”

Owens and his medical team have recently told Billy he’s allowed to leave the house if he wants, just to get out and get his system back to a more regularly functioning capacity, but he has to stay out of populated areas, needs a chaperone everywhere he goes, and has to stay in Hawkins. 

It’s not quite a relief, being leashed up, but he was getting stir crazy watching shitty daytime TV and sifting through Harrington’s old ‘Sports Illustrated’.

The farthest he’s found himself allowed to venture since the introduction of these new rules is the woods behind Harrington’s house. Sure, he doesn’t have a chaperone, but no one in the cul-de-sac ventures into them anymore and the foliage is so dense he can’t easily be seen from anyone’s backyard or bedroom window, even in the daylight. They’re not particularly hilly or steep, either, so there’s nowhere he can really get stuck.

It’s nice not being caged in by stuccoed walls all the time now, but it’s still not particularly ideal — being out in the woods has just become another kind of solace he’s grown used to.

The only comfort he finds in them is that there’s somewhere to return to. 

Today Harrington’s at work for another hour. Billy’s out in the forest having a cigarette - something he’s not supposed to be doing but Harrington hasn’t said anything, even though Billy knows he can smell the sweet ash and tobacco - trying to stave off the restlessness that’s now permanently settled in his bones while being too afraid to face the consequences of trying for real freedom. He’s considered running, just fucking, going, hitching a ride out of town and seeing where it takes him, but he’s never been brave enough to do it.

He wasn’t brave enough before.

It’s just been locked doors and looping hallways for three months. He needs something else. Even with his bedroom window nailed shut and his keys locked away in his father’s bedside drawer, Billy could find ways to get some breathing room. Now he’s got a legal obligation to stay hidden, a to-do list of medical impairments keeping him off his feet close to fourteen hours a day, and an insistent babysitter that whines at him every time he tries to push himself - and the boundaries inlaid by a secret government faction - too hard.

Billy really looks like he’s running from something now, too, so he can’t quite slip under the radar even if he tried. Always looks hungover and ready to unsuccessfully rob a convenience store in one of Harrington’s old swim meet hoodies and matching sweats and these cheap sandals from the community pool. There’s no charm to exude with his hood pulled up and his eyes sullen and downcast, hair cropped close to his head in a style that’s uncomfortably militant. He’s willowy and withdrawn and fucking tired.

Billy shakes a rock out of one shoe and stares down at a sun bleached stripe across the top of it. Hawkins Pool, the cheap material reads. Being a lifeguard was something from a completely different life, not something he was up to mere months ago, still blissfully unaware of telepathic fourteen year old girls and underground government facilities and murderous inter-dimensional monsters that linger in every shadow and plant themselves in your memories like overgrown weeds.

Before he was dragged down into the bowels of the abandoned mill, on his way to seedy motel to crawl between Karen Wheeler’s legs - something he’d signed himself up for for the sake of appearances alone, not out of actual interest or desire - he would spend long sunbaked afternoons ruling from his shaded tower, berating sticky-fingered, running children and chicken-fighting teenagers while being predated on by every underfucked mother within the gate’s vicinity, thinking about how many more bills he’d stuff into the loose floorboard under his bed before he could drive back to California and rent some shitty one bedroom on the Venice strip. 

It seems stupid, now, to have been so vividly dreaming.

He takes a long drag and leans back against a crumbling tree trunk. The scratch of the peeling bark tickles the back of his neck through the thick cotton. He just pulls the hood tighter over his head. Too damn cold outside for the snow to not be sticking. It’s half melted in icy patches where the winter sun can’t find it. 

It was just over a year ago now that Billy was begrudgingly drop kicked into town with Max and his dad and Susan.

Back then he was catching physical threats and hissed proclamations of faggot from his father faster than a common cold and the only paternal compassion he’d been shown was the occasional fiver tucked in his jacket pocket and no mention of how he’d left the screen from his bedroom half popped out again. The only break he received from either of those were the tight-lipped smiles Susan offered — thank god it’s you and not me. Max straight up didn’t talk to him unless she had to.

And now Dad pretends he’s dead or skipped town or gone missing; whatever Neil actually believes - as if he’d trust the news - as long as Billy’s gone in the scenario, he’s breathing a sigh of relief that he’s finally free of the lifelong fuckup of Billy’s existence. Susan is probably guiltily thankful the source of her husband’s fury is finally out of their life, but only if she hasn’t taken Billy’s place in that regard. 

Max has, in turn, become the only family he has left.

Billy stubs out his cigarette against the trunk. The woods comboed with Harrington’s shifts at Family Video have provided the only solitude he’s known since being assigned a nail bat wielding twink of a bodyguard, but he kind of wishes Harrington was here with him right now. Or Max. She’s noisy but entertaining company. Mostly Harrington, though. He’d think rooming with the guy would make him long for more of these private moments, but instead it’s had the opposite effect. 

Harrington leaves for work four to five days out of the week and Billy continually finds himself trying to fill the space he’s left until the Beamer pulls up in the driveway again. He’s a little puppy dog waiting for its master to come home, eagerly awaiting for purpose to return to its life when the front door unlocks again.

The reality is, Billy has been harboring something deep and sweet for Harrington since he rolled into the Hawkins High parking lot, denim on denim with the Scorpions blasting. Ready to maintain an image built around the stereotyped California scene. 

But Harrington knocked him sideways, at one point literally, with his big doe eyes and soft hair and caring yet careless aura. He had everything, king of the castle, and dropped it for some girl who’d left him for some artsy weirdo clinging to the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

And when he’d supposedly gotten over it, he just didn’t seem to care. People still liked him enough, still invited him to kickbacks and would slap him appreciatively on the shoulders after a win on the court or field or diamond, but his priorities existed outside the realm of Billy’s kingdom, and he just couldn’t crack why; it just made him like Harrington more.

Like they’ve moved from hostile to civil to being fucking roommates and the newfound closeness and additional attention has been raising his hopes higher higher, the catastrophic crash already inevitable. 

Catching Harrington’s gaze still has his heartbeat jack rabbiting, his palms ever sweaty as he anticipates what kind of intimate exchanges they’ll be sharing that day. It was pathetic when it took place in linoleum lined hallways and mildewy locker rooms and still is now, at the shared kitchen island and on the same living room sofa. At least his daily fill isn’t limited to the promise of after school basketball practice anymore.

Now their bedrooms are across the hall from one another and Billy’s even more careful of biting down on his knuckles when he snakes a hand into his sleep pants once the hallway light goes off. Harrington slides him his pills twelve hours apart on the clock and knocks on their shared bathroom door to make sure he hasn’t drowned himself in the tub and Billy’s body temperature skyrockets, mercury bursting through the top of a thermometer. 

His ears still go pink when Harrington watches him too long, even on bad days when his bones ache and creak like the frame of an old house and his stomach is a bubbling pit of anxiety and nothing seems to matter. 

Dying apparently didn’t de-homo him one bit. He doesn’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse; because how fucking ironic is it that the only person that would take him in after his spontaneous resurrection would be the one person he could never have? Even if Billy hadn’t blown his shot so early on, it was a snowball’s chance in hell that Harrington would be any degree of queer, and he’s digging his own grave, nails in the dirt, every time he allows himself to get swept up by their everyday exchanges.

Staying dead would’ve been better for his health.

He walks a little farther into the woods. Tries to clear his head. Harrington’s covered pool and flipped lawn chairs grow smaller behind him. The underbrush grows thicker, wilder. There are growing patches of unmelted ice and slush amongst bristly bushes and mud patches. He wishes he could be barefoot, toes digging into hot sand instead of decaying plant matter and dirty slush; the rustling leaves and occasional bird are as close as he’ll get to crashing waves now. This is good as it’s going to get.

Eventually he has to climb over a fallen log. Billy has to physically haul himself over it, can’t just jump or hop on and over. It’s a whole process; he must look like he’s eighty years old. Or a toddler. Either way, he certainly feels it. 

He keeps thinking about Harrington as he continues his walk — the softness of his voice when he comes in to wake Billy up for his meds in the morning when he sleeps in; the softness of his hair on Thursdays, free from sprays and creams, because he gets Thursdays off; the way he goes tense when he hears a branch crack outside or something flies across a window; the chirp of his laugh when Billy sticks a joke that actually lands.

The funny thing is that he doesn’t try to think about Harrington like that. Especially not that they’re in the same house. Fate doesn’t do him kindly like that; bringing the temptation to him was locking an alcoholic in a full bar overnight. He was just never meant to come out of this successfully. Is the undefeated champion in a loser’s game.

Eventually Billy finds himself upon a clearing at the bottom of a little hill. If he wasn’t all fresh scars and pain killers he’d surf down it like he would’ve used to. He’s still missing pieces and mismatched parts — not quite whole. It takes ages longer but he slowly climbs down, side stepping and holding onto trees, swearing as his unreliable footwear keeps slipping off.

The clearing itself isn’t particularly sprawling, maybe the size of the community pool. There’s evidence of grass once overgrown that now lays a soggy, brown mat underfoot. Leaves that hide between wilted stalks are crisp and brown. The ground sinks under him, flooding snowmelt across the bottoms of his feet, but the air is fresher and crisper than it was in the actual wood and he breathes it in like he’s drowning. 

Everything just goes quiet. The incessant rambling in his head, the constant creeping fear of his shadow growing extra limbs, the perpetual panic about Harrington finding him out — it’s all gone, as he stares skyward and just breathes.

Billy doesn’t know how long he’s out there, standing in the center of the clearing, head tilted toward the cloudless sky as his mind temporarily wipes itself clean, when he hears the murmur of his name off in the direction he’d come from. More time has passed than he’d originally realized — the lighting has shifted and the sky is burning orange at the edges.

Another muffled ‘Hargrove!’ echoes out through the trees, suddenly followed by a much closer and clearer ‘Billy!’ and Billy finally sighs and calls back, “I’m out here!”

He turns over his shoulder to see Harrington effortlessly slide down the side of the hill, free from his scratchy work vest in a color blocked parka and marbled knit scarf, and clear the remaining distance between them in a few long strides. Harrington pants a little, cheeks a little pink, as he holds up a single finger and tries to catch his breath.

“Man,” he huffs, “I thought you’d booked it; what’re you doing out all the way out here?”

Billy shrugs. “Got bored.”

“I know that no one can like, see you out here, but you can’t just go wandering off in the woods.”

Billy moves to step past him, facing away from the field. “I’m not gonna get lost, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I don’t need you to come rescue me.”

Harrington makes this irritated little noise in return that has Billy pressing back a little grin. It’s still fun to rile him up when he does manage it; it’s not easy like it used to be. Either all the apocalyptic shit has made it harder to get Harrington to budge or coming back made Billy softer around the edges. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

“Just,” Harrington pauses, “be careful out here, okay? You can barely walk sometimes. I don’t want Owens chewing my ass out because you got hurt and I wasn’t there to help you.”

It’s useless to argue with him because he is right. If Billy comes to an appointment with as much of a scratch from shaving, it’s Harrington’s fault. What a fucking one-eighty from the bruises on his legs and back and scrapes from his father’s ring catching his lip or brow. He’s even got a scar from the latter.

Now people only care because of what killed him, and the fact they brought him back. If Neil had been the one to get to him? He’d just be another unlucky deadbeat found half decayed in a cornfield ditch.

“Mm. I’ll keep that in mind.”

The walk back to the house is mostly silent. Harrington pauses behind him at the base of the hill, which makes Billy really conscious of how he looks from behind, scrambling back up like a drunk toddler. Once they’re back on more level ground, Harrington stops when he gets too far ahead no matter how many times Billy grunts that he’ll catch up, just gimme a second, these shoes suck ass

When they get back to the house there’s pizza boxes from Marco’s on the counter. The pies are still warm. Billy’s stomach grumbles with long-lost hunger.

They eat with the TV on, Harrington throwing in ‘Mad Max’ - Billy has to snort - because Keith sent him home to watch it as part of his ‘training’, which was code for ‘film re-education course’. On the few occasions the Scoops chick had come over after she got off work with Harrington, she had made it abundantly clear that there was a lot of re-educating in that department to be had.

“You’re not allowed to recommend any movies to people until you’ve seen more than mediocre box office hits and ‘National Lampoon’,” she’d said the first time she’d come by, as she thrust a stack of VHS tapes into his hands, then turned to Billy and added, “and because you’ve got nothing better to do for the time being, you’re going to make sure he watches them.”

Billy hadn’t agreed to that but here he was, night after night, watching another movie with Harrington. 

Johnny’s lighting a match and is about to set Goose’s destroyed ute on fire when Harrington distractedly says, “I just realized you probably shouldn’t be eating pizza.”

Billy peers down to his half consumed second slice of combo and grimaces. Get your head out of the fucking clouds and pay attention, Billy. It’s the first real food he’s eaten in solid form in awhile, by way of an actual meal. He hasn’t been all that hungry since he came back and it was nice to feel a human ache again that wasn’t internal bleeding or nausea. Nice to actually want to eat. He hasn’t felt sick yet either, but he also has yet to take his second pill and he really doesn’t want to toss the best thing he’s had to eat in literal months.

Fuck.”

“If you get sick later, that’s on me, I wasn’t thinking,” Harrington says quietly, ashamed, like he’s ready to get berated. “Sorry.”

“I wasn’t paying attention either; it’s not your fault,” Billy quickly tries assures him, attempting to come off as casual.

On the opposite end of the sofa, Harrington looks like he wants to argue, but he keeps his lip smartly buttoned. Just gives him a short little nod. They’ve done their fair share of arguing since Billy’s come to stay here, over everything from doctor appointments and housework to who gets to shower first and who gets the remote when. All subjects ranging from deathly important to childishly trivial. Their whole relationship has been built on some kind of banter since day one so it’s never been out of the norm for them.

That doesn’t mean all, or really any of it, has been productive.

Like the first night he’d moved in, Billy shoved Harrington into the table in the entryway and made a huffy, dramatic exit while loudly insisting he’d rather be back underground, handcuffed to a hospital bed than stuck with a pussy who couldn’t hold his own in a fight, but he’d only made it to the edge of the neighborhood before the consuming darkness and the cold crawled into his veins and had him collapsed in a shaky heap on the sidewalk. 

Harrington had to half-carry him back to the house while he shook through manic ramblings about the smoke and the cold and how dark it was.

Now they just fight when it’s absolutely necessary. Or, really, when one of them’s being an intolerable bitch. And if ‘absolutely necessary’ in regards to fighting is a thing — Billy’s known more arguments than actual conversations. 

Either way, Billy’s trying to be better. There’s no real reason to fight with Harrington other than for the sake of his own pride. Sometimes the watchful eyes and feather light touches are too sharp a blow to his ego and his go-to instinct is to snap and snarl. Show Harrington there’s still some fight left in him, still has his teeth.

Looking over, Billy sees Harrington’s still pouting a little and lets out a defeated sigh.

“I can feel your guilty conscience from over here, knock it off.”

Harrington straightens up abruptly, a little pink, goes, “I’m not doing anything.”

“Yes you are, you’re being all mopey because, god fucking forbid, you let me eat something other than plain toast or oatmeal for the first time since they fuckin’ Frankensteined me back to life. I don’t think they’re gonna guillotine you for it, either, so get your panties out of a twist.”

“Well,” Harrington mutters, still looking a little too much like a kicked puppy, “then don’t be a bitch and tell on me if you get sick either, then.”

Tell on you? What’re we, six?” Billy snorts.

“Y’know, you’re kinda making me wish I hadn’t come out to find you in the woods earlier.”

Billy burns a little at that. Harrington could, if he really wanted to, technically give him back to the lab, tell them Billy’s too much to handle and that he’s not suited to be introduced back into society. Free himself of his self-imposed responsibilities and make Billy a live-in lab experiment.

But Harrington’s too good and he wouldn’t do that.

Billy doesn’t respond and inhales another mouthful of stringy mozzarella and fried veggies and spicy pepperoni. All salty and savory, more flavorful than he’s remembered any fucking pizza being in his whole life. And they make some good shit back in Cali.

He stays until the end of the movie and wordlessly takes their dishes to the kitchen. Takes his pills before Harrington’s watch beeps a reminder. Washes the plates and leaves them to dry in the rack. If Harrington cleans up, he’ll leave things in the sink until it’s full or he’s looking for a very specific piece of cutlery to use, and leaving a mess unmanned was justifiable cause for punishment growing up for Billy, so, he’s made the dishes his task.

Harrington used to try and bully him out of doing any cleaning, but seeing as Billy was used to being a sort-of live in maid and cleanliness  - at least in communal spaces - was something that was expected, Harrington stopped fighting him on it.

When Billy comes back to wipe the coffee table down and throw away any leftover garbage, Harrington’s rewinding the tape.

The downstairs is mostly dark now, save the stovetop light casting a faint, hazy, orange glow over the back of the sofa, and the flashes of color on the television screen. The pool light has been flipped off the last few nights and the tarp pulled over it has extinguished  the faint blue glow Billy had gotten used to when he’d moved his few things in. 

Harrington’s ignoring the remote again - Billy doesn’t know why they bothered getting a brand new entertainment center and television set up if Harrington doesn’t use the fucking remote - and is up, leaning against the cabinet door. Standing so close to the TV has him washed out in bursts of white. Some of his moles disappear when the light goes too bright and Billy’s almost afraid they won’t come back.

He doesn’t realize he’s been staring until Harrington looks over his shoulder and raises his brows. 

“What?”

Fuck.

“I’m uh, gonna shower.”

Harrington gives him a high-browed, wordless thumbs up and goes back to watching the screen, finger still jammed on the rewind button. It feels like something’s left unsaid between them but instead of investigating, Billy figures it’s best to ignore it and move on. He’s slightly instinctually impaired — taken a few too many knocks to the head to trust himself outside of a bad feeling. 

He’s halfway up the stairs, joints creaky and sore from his walk earlier, when Harrington actually speaks again.

“If you throw up in the tub, I’m not cleaning it,” he calls from the living room.

Billy chews on his lip to fight a smirk.

The upstairs guest bathroom is Billy’s singular place of solace inside the house, while the woods act as his only external hideaway. 

There’s no lock on the door to the guest room, aka Billy’s room, and even if there was, Harrington would find a way to let himself in every morning to be annoying and wake him up anyway. Harrington is using his parents’ bathroom right now, too, so the only time he’s in Billy’s space in that regard is when he’s moving shuffling shampoo bottles or aftershave between cabinets and counter spaces.

Normally he’d lock the bathroom door given that he’s allowed in Harrington’s presence, but he slipped and fell in the shower the first week he was there and Harrington had to bust the lock - after failing to kick the door down - to get in and get him on his feet.

And while the lock got replaced with some help from Harrington’s annoying sidekick and Sinclair, Billy’s dignity has yet to recover. On top of the metaphorical ass wiping and spoon feeding, now Harrington’s also had to help him out of the shower because his muscles were so weak when he left the lab he couldn’t stand back up on his own.

So — bathroom door stays unlocked when he’s in the shower. Just so he doesn’t crack his head open and bleed out on the porcelain from slipping on dropped soap. Even if that means Harrington sees his dick outside of a context he’s hoped for.

Billy shrugs out of his clothes with pained grunts and groans, stiff from his walk outside. He hates the cold. He steps away from the mirror when his briefs hit the floor. Undressed, he doesn’t look at himself for all that long. The rippled flecks running up his arms, striped across his cheekbone, the dips in his ribcage — those he can live with. Most of them he can see without the aid of his reflection. He’s had battle scars his whole life, everything from cigarette burns and scabbed knees to shoddily stitched head wounds and bloodied knuckles. 

It’s the white gnarled knot carved into the center of his chest that he can’t look at for too long. Nothing less than a bleak reminder. 

And he’s not particularly wirey, but he’s lost definitive muscle mass, too. Looks carved out, hollow. Gaunt, even. Everyone wanted a piece of him, whether they wanted to smother him with touch and praise or be him. 

He doesn’t look like himself, anymore. That’s the hard part.

When he turns the shower knob, he sets it as hot as it’ll go. He hates the cold. With November quickly fading into December, there’s nowhere to truly escape the creeping chill. The snow’s going to start sticking later this week and he doesn’t think he’ll be able to go outside until spring replenishes the bare trees and blossoms and paints the grass green again.

Everything down there was just so cold

Billy hauls himself into the stall and leans with his back against the cool tile. The water is close to scalding over his left side but it’s still not warm enough, even as it reddens his skin. God his knees fucking hurt. Everything feels stiff and he knows it’s not from sitting on the sofa for two hours.

With a sigh he slowly lowers himself to the tub bottom. The water hits everywhere at once that way, boiling and angry as it beats down on him in a heavy pour.

Billy takes his time sitting on the floor, letting the water wash over him until his fingers start to prune up. Harrington’s parents have an exorbitant amount of money but Billy figures he shouldn’t be taking advantage of that when he’s just a guest in their home  - he wouldn’t be the one getting an earful over that water bill, anyway - so he reaches for the all the necessary bottles, and —

He realizes he forgot everything up in the caddy, which, alright , of fucking course, he’s not surprised, hasn’t always paid the most attention to things, but when he tries to stand up to grab everything, pushing himself up from the side of the tub and the soap shelf, something hot bursts from his spine down his right sight, and he falls back.

“Fuck!” 

He collapses onto the slick porcelain. The sting is constant, not dull and pounding, but needle sharp, like a resounding slap. Billy bites into lip to silence a pained hiss, a practiced move on his part, and grips the side of the tub again to give it a second attempt, but the pain blooms brighter and it hurts to breathe.

He can’t get up. He’s stuck

Fuck,” Billy swears again, clenching his fists. 

He has no other option than to call for help, which Max is definitely going to be hearing about and he’s never going to live down - again, he thinks somberly - but it’s either more humiliation to crush an already broken ego or he dies in Harrington’s bathroom, starved and soggy, because his back is all locked up and it feels like his ribs are digging into his lungs, so. 

“Harrington,” he says loudly, exhaustedly, then he repeats, louder, after a beat of silence, “Harrington!”

Nothing. No muffled thump of footsteps bounding up the stairs or panicked ‘what?’ or irritated ‘Jesus, gimme a second’ from across the hall.

Time to approach this from a different angle. Billy smacks his palm on his knee when his ears start to join in on burning with humiliation. He sits up as straight as he can, takes a big gulp of air and pinches his eyes shut like that’ll tune out some of the embarrassment —

Steve!”

Then there’s a series of muffled pounding, some fumbling and something dully hitting the floor runner, then the loud, dull thud of something colliding into the wall outside the bathroom.

Harrington hisses out a ‘shit!’ and then he’s right at the door, pounding with his knuckles going, “What happened? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

And it’s so humiliating but that’s just his life now, a lineup of shitty jokes. “I fuckin’,” he pauses and pulls the shower curtain back, “I’m stuck.”

“What do you mean ‘stuck’? Like did you fall in the toilet? I mean you’re the only one using this bathroom right now so if you left the seat up, that’s on you, not me.”

Like anyone was allowed to leave the seat up in Neil Hargrove’s house after Susan and Max’s boxes were dumped in the living room. It wasn’t polite in a woman’s company to leave the seat up. Because Max did fall in the toilet at two in the morning the first week she and her mom moved into their dingy little two bedroom in Santa Monica because Billy left the seat up, now he doesn’t, because Neil knocked his head into the doorframe so hard his ears his rung, just for being so careless around his sister.

“I’m in the shower, you moron, but my back’s all torqued and my ribs hurt like a bitch so I can’t get up.”

After Harrington helps him up, Billy’s thinking he might hit him. Or spray him in the face with the shower head, whatever feels right at the moment.

The door slowly swings open and Harrington peers around the edge of it, eyes downcast. He’s still wearing his clothes from earlier but he looks rumpled and disheveled, like he got caught doing something he shouldn’t have. When he slips inside, Billy can momentarily see a laundry basket spilling out in the hallway. The door closes with a click.

“Were you down there to start or did you fall again?” Harrington asks, now staring into the fogged up mirror, actively avoiding everywhere but at Billy.

Billy ignores the thinly veiled no homo that lingers between them - they used to shower together with a room full of guys - and shoots him a tired look. “I didn’t fall.

Harrington shrugs like he doesn’t believe him and closes the space between them in a few strides. Billy hastily crosses his legs when Harrington gets to the edge of the tub and towers over him. Is probably getting a real good bird’s eye view anyway. Harrington sighs and purses his lips, thinking, before he’s abruptly tugging his polo over his head and dropping it next to Billy’s borrowed sweats. He’s still so pale and freckled, all careful, lean muscle, but the bare expanse of his chest has been replaced with a thatch of dark hair that crawls out from his sternum.

Billy hasn’t seen him shirtless as many times since the gym showers so there’s something more intimate, gut twisting, about seeing him like this. Like when Harrington’s jogging down the stairs bare chested with a piece of toast in his mouth when he’s got a morning shift. 

Like it’s not meant for prying eyes, public consumption.

Harrington toes his socks off next, then shimmies out of his jeans. When he turns, his briefs slide down the slightest bit and Billy catches sight of the dimples sitting low on his back. Standing there in his briefs, now facing the situation at hand, Harrington’s cheeks are all pink. The bathroom is a corridor of steam — must feel like a sauna.

Harrington gets one foot in the tub behind Billy and his toes are fucking cold where they brush against his back. “Alright I’m, I’m gonna get in there and pull you up, okay?”

Harrington clambers into the shower the rest of the way and squats - Billy hears the audible crack of his knees - and then he’s holding onto Billy under his pits, fingers cool on his scalding skin. Billy grabs hold of his wrists, just to be safe. They both grunt a little when all Harrington achieves with his first attempt at lifting is pulling on Billy’s arms. 

Ow, that hurt.”

“What’m I gonna do with you, Hargrove?” Harrington groans.

The second attempt is more fruitful, complete with a one-two-three countdown, but then they both slip backwards a little bit from the force of it - Billy swearing from another burst of sharp pain and Harrington letting out a little yelp in surprise - and the only reason why they don’t end up on the floor is because Harrington slams one palm out onto a dry spot of shower tile while the other knots itself in the flimsy blue curtain. The curtain rod creaks in protest as he pulls them back up onto their feet.

Harrington seemingly satisfied, huffs, “There we go.” 

“Next time I’ll crack my head open myself, thanks,” Billy snarks.

Harrington flicks him gently on the side of the neck. “You’re welcome, asshole. You good now?”

Billy’s up and standing again, sure, but when he nods, hoping Harrington will just leave so he can collect himself, he lifts his arm a little to nab the shampoo, the pain shoots, lightning fast, from his fingertips down the length of his back. He digs his teeth into his lip so he doesn’t make a noise but it doesn’t get passed Harrington

“Jesus man, this is why you shouldn’t go out in the woods alone.”

And Billy knows Harrington doesn’t try to nitpick or nag but anything that comes close to caring or watching his back always comes off as pretentious to him. Patronizing. A blatant assumption that he can’t watch out for himself now that’s fucking, crippled or whatever.

“You want me to stay holed up in this fuckin’ house all day going crazy instead? I don’t need you coddling my ass, Harrington,” he snaps.

Harrington takes an audible step back. “Maybe if you didn’t try and do shit that you shouldn’t be doing, you wouldn’t keep getting hurt . You need to think , Hargrove,” he replies, tone close to scolding.

You never use your head, Billy, and it’s just going to keep getting you in hot water. Are you ever going to learn? 

It’s another argument that’s going to keep running them in circles so Billy, again, ends it before it becomes a thing. Because in part, Harrington’s fucking right, again, but Billy’s also fucking right and you can’t win or lose on level ground. Billy’s spent his whole life arguing and he’s tired of it, even if he’s facing off with someone who will at least hear him out instead of using a personal vendetta to constantly shut him down.

Harrington’s still a looming presence behind him in the shower. They’re not touching but Billy can still feel him a finger’s width away, hesitating. Something lingers, hiding in plain sight between them but Billy doesn’t want to be the one to break the tension lest he read things wrong.

But

“Can you,” he asks lowly, and half peers over his shoulder to make a vague gesture with his hands, “my hair? I can’t, I can’t reach right.”

A beat of silence falls between them; it might be too much to ask. “I,” Harrington starts, stops. Billy can almost hear the gears grinding in his head, the tipping of the scale teetering between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. But then Harrington softly rasps, “Yeah, I can do that,” and he reaches up over Billy’s shoulder for the shampoo.

It’s a bright yellow bottle. When Billy had first seen the label - Fabergé Organics  -  as well as the stash of jars and canisters in the medicine cabinet - the Farrah Fawcett spray wasn’t that much of a surprise - he couldn’t help but tease Harrington mercilessly about all his primping and priming. As if he hadn’t once had his own collection of curling creams and treatment sprays and a fancy tropical shampoo and conditioner set. When his hair grows back out, he’ll be back in the same boat.

When Harrington pours some of the liquid into his palm, the thick, humid air blooms girly and sweet. It grows stronger when Harrington starts working it in, even if his touch is shy at first. Just giving the minimum effort. Billy gets it — the softcore level of intimacy probably makes him uncomfortable. 

He doesn’t - didn’t - like anyone touching his hair, either, but there’s nothing much to style anymore, nothing to muss. He’ll temporarily convince himself that’s why he’s allowed himself to ask for help. Intricate rituals and all be damned.

But Harrington quickly gets a little more confident in his ministrations. His thumbs are long and careful when they expertly press into the hard, aching spots behind Billy’s ears, into the knotted muscles in his neck. His nails are dull and short but when they scratch over the crown of Billy’s head, Billy manages to let a contented hum slip. Purrs like a house cat.

When Harrington abruptly retreats after that though, Billy feels caught. Knows he should his guard up during particularly vulnerable moments like this. Can’t let any hints drop. Harrington could carve him up, gut him hollow, for getting too carried away.

“Sorry,” Billy says sheepishly.

Harrington’s hand suddenly cups the back of his neck. “It’s- you’re good.”

He goes a little longer, maybe longer than necessary given how short Billy’s hair is now, but he’s probably used to being thorough seeing what he’s working with on a daily basis. When he’s assumedly finished, he starts combing his fingers through the suds, wiping any drips running down Billy’s forehead away. 

Billy sags into the touch. He even tilts his head back and closes his eyes when Harrington nudges him back under the spray and starts properly rinsing the remaining bubbles away. 

All Billy smells is sugar and cream and Harrington.

When Harrington stops touching his hair, the spell breaks and Billy’s eyes are open, wide and alert, and he’s moving away from Harrington, trying to shrink back from his touch, muttering how it’s alright, I’m good. Not allowing himself to have anymore than what’s already been given. He’s going to get ideas that he’s not supposed to and he’ll ruin this whole thing, which is, somehow, the best thing he’s had in a really long time —

So while he’s expecting Harrington to awkwardly agree and excuse himself, pretend this never happened while he leaves Billy to an oncoming meltdown, Billy grabs a washcloth and moves to the farthest end of the cramped shower, which only gives him a foot of space to recollect himself. But Harrington doesn’t leave. He’s still standing there, bangs wet and water running down his chest, blossoming red, his briefs soaked and his fingers wrinkled.

Billy wants to give him a nudge, bowl him over like he used to because it’s easier to be hated than accepted in Billy’s line or work, but Harrington’s planted himself there, looking at Billy like he’s got something to say.

“What?” Billy asks, too loud, too scared.

“Jesus, just,” Harrington almost laughs, “gimme the damn thing.” 

Billy wants to ask but then, oh, he gets it, and wordlessly passes the washcloth to him, cheeks burning in a way he can’t pass off as the burning water. It’s not as hot as it was. Is already treating the angry blooms sprouting from his back. 

Turning once more, Billy glares down at the drain. He can hear Harrington sudsing up the cloth with the bar soap and closes his eyes, bracing for impact as one cool hand tentatively grasps his left shoulder, and when he feels the first press of Harrington’s hand with the cloth on his back, a scolding brand, he actually jolts.

Harrington immediately retracts his hand. “Sorry, sorry.”

“S’alright.”

He concentrates on not tensing up again - or possibly getting hard, like it was one thing to have Harrington wash his hair for him, but this, there’s room for improvisation here - when Harrington’s touch returns. It’s just as soft and shy as before, if not impossibly more careful. He washes Billy’s back in slow, careful circles. Goes down the front and backs of his arms, the webbing between his fingers. Is especially tender when he gets to the snagged skin on his ribs — dabs over the swirled scars like they’re fresh and open.

It’s a torturous eternity. The lowest he goes is the last knob of Billy’s spine, just short of his ass, after he passes over the contour of Billy’s hips. It’s almost like he hasn’t realized how low he’s gone until he grazes the soft skin high on one cheek. Pulls back like he’s been burnt when he does. The touch was so delicate and almost practiced, more soothing than arousing. 

“Shit, sorry,” Harrington stutters, “I didn’t -“

Harrington sounds like he’s afraid he’s about to get decked and Billy wants to snap at him that I’m not gonna hit you, asshole, because he’s drawn so tight, but that wouldn’t help, so he shakes his head rapidly. “Nah, it’s fine, I’ll,” he reaches back, palm up, suddenly feeling defeated, “I can take it from here.”

A beat passes before the washcloth is pressed back into his hand. Harrington’s fingers grace the sensitive line of Billy’s wrist when he does so, up a particularly blue vein. Billy almost gasps in surprise and Harrington must feel him tense because he’s clambering out of the shower and tugging the curtain back into place behind him. It’s a sudden and sharp movement and Billy’s heart plummets to his stomach.

“Thanks,” he says, too loud. 

“Yeah, man.”

When the door clicks shut once more, despite the shake in his limbs from a swirling mix of disbelief and disappointment, he can still feel the tickle of Harrington’s fingers painted across his skin. 

It’s not like they can make a trip to DC or wherever the hell the rest of Owens’ faction is set up, so they usually go to the hospital deathly early in the morning when the overnight staff is being traded out by the morning team, and they get a room with one of Owens’ specialists to run tests.

When Billy just needs his refills, they’re dropped off in a small, nondescript box on the doorstep sometime while he and Harrington are asleep.

Sadly he has a check-up today and they’re at the hospital. 

A few of the nurses, always posted near the front desk when they come in, watch Billy carefully, as if they’re not already acquainted with the presence of ghosts. Harrington shifts into their line of sight so they can’t see him. Billy’s too tired to really care. He doesn’t even know what time it is; all he knows is the sun isn’t up and it’s not late enough yet for it to be fading into the teal wash of sunrise yet. 

Still leaning forward, Harrington’s dozing with a styrofoam cup of coffee tilted in hand, a cream packet and half a sugar sachet dumped into it. It smells sour over the smell of antiseptic and soap.

When he’s finally called on, Billy is led down the same short hallway next to the pediatrics department, the one with the buzzing overhead light that gives off a sickly blue-white light. The room technically isn’t in use, is being rebuilt, but they have special permission.

Today’s doctor is a woman in her early forties with blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. She’s pale like most everyone else in Hawkins’ winter, but he figures that’s from never seeing daylight due to lab work instead of grey skies and snow. All she’s told him since they’ve come into the small examination room is that they need to draw blood today, to establish a checkpoint in regards to his progress. 

Taking blood — Billy’s favorite

Harrington’s out in the waiting area and Billy sort of wishes he was here when he sees how thick the needle she’s holding is. Even if it’s just to hiss about how fuckin’ big that shit is . He’s not afraid of needles - it’d be a childish fear to have after staring down the fleshy, eyeless face of pure hatred and evil - but he knows it’s going to hurt when it slips in, when it stays tucked under his skin pulling out the blood, now running a healthy red again, and again when she extracts it. 

If he’s going to be stuck with something, he’d rather it be for a reason. Like getting his ear pierced or carving the smoking skull into his arm.

She makes him take one arm out of his jacket - this one is actually his, reading Santa Cruz in bold yellow font on the breast - to clean the crease on his arm. She strikes his vein in one go, sharp and on target like an arrow piercing the neck of a deer, and Billy stares at the entrance point with a hard look. Almost like he’s trying to prove that he’s not afraid of it.

He sits there for awhile, staring at the paneled ceiling, out through the slits in the blinds. At the charts tacked to the wall and the 3D diagrams sitting on the counter. Thinks about Harrington’s fingers pressing into his shoulder blades in the shower two nights ago. About how he crawled into bed early that night, feigning exhaustion from his midday exploration, and recalled Harrington’s nails dragging over his scalp, hand on his waist to steady him, while he snuck a hand into his sweatpants. 

He’d come hot and sudden across his knuckles with a dry finger dipped between his cheeks, not quite breeching, thinking about what could have been if he’d just been a little braver. 

Or a little stupider; it’s a matter of perspective.

By the time they’ve collected all the vials, all red without the visible swirls of something sticky and black, the inside of his arm feels stiff and tender. Kind of like how he feels all over now that it’s getting colder and colder. She’d pulled the needle out kind of roughly but he wasn’t expecting the care of a pediatrician or even a regular like, adult doctor. 

She’d been nice enough through the process, though. She’d taken his temperature and weighed him instead of having a nurse do it for her and was patient with the pauses between his answers and held polite conversation he actually felt obliged to participate in.

But Billy can still tell she’s used to working on synthetic or passive - see: dead - biology as opposed to like, living specimens. It was all a courtesy type thing.

They have to process everything at the lab so they’re not going to hear back for a few days at the earliest, so he gets to leave. The doctor said he at least looks like he’s doing better, with being able to down every meal from the last thirty-six hours and having put on a little bit of weight, but they should still wait for a call for proper feedback and confirmation on anything. 

There’s some visible progress, at least — it’s not as consoling as she probably thinks it is. If anything it just means that not all hope is lost.

By the time he finds his way back to the waiting area, the pain in his arm has numbed out. Already another built-in ache. There’s a woman with curly dark hair quietly talking to a doctor a few feet away, a coat pulled around what Billy can obviously tell is a nightgown. She’s bouncing a baby in her arms - is it a baby if it looks old enough to walk? Anything that can’t talk right still falls under the ‘baby’ classification in Billy’s book - and it’s staring at Harrington with its chubby fingers jammed into its mouth, drooling down its little knit sweater sleeve.

Billy doesn’t say anything at first because he’s too thrown by the way Harrington is playing a half assed game of peek-a-boo with the baby over the top of a dog-eared home and garden magazine. He makes a wide-eyed, surprised expression whenever he quickly pulls the magazine back, mouthing, ‘surprise!’ each time, and the baby’s absolutely enamored by it.

In a way Billy can definitely relate. Why he’s projected his deeply misplaced feelings onto this guy of all people - who wears Scooby Doo boxer briefs around the house and genuinely likes the ewoks from ‘Return of the Jedi’ and owns Wham’s ‘Make It Big’ on vinyl and tape and now plays peek-a-boo at the crack of dawn with random babies at the only hospital in Hawkins - he’ll never know.

Harrington seemingly notices him and deposits the magazine on the adjacent seat. “Good to go?” he yawns, slowly peeling himself off the provided polyester furniture, stretching out.

Billy nods. He finds it best to not mention the baby making grabby fingers at them as they walk out, or how Harrington actually turns to wave before they exit the lobby. There was always the implication that Harrington wasn’t a fan of like, really little kids, especially with the amount of brats and entitled parents he had to deal with at Scoops, but Billy’s not sure he assumed correctly now. 

It’s just another mark in the good box.

Outside it’s a harsh kind cold, even if the air is unmoving, wind absent. The sun is slowly rising but it’s still tucked behind the horizon line. The sidewalks are icy and unsalted and the temperature has dropped low enough that the snow is actually sticking to bare tree branches and embankments in the road and in crunchy, crisp layers on the dirt and rock and grass. 

The Beamer’s windshield is foggy but luckily not frozen over, although it’s about as warm in the cab as it is outside. Harrington immediately sets the heat to blast and rubs his hands together fast enough to start a fire while Billy wraps his arms around himself and tugs his hood back up.

Something flies at him then, hitting him square in the face, and Billy’s about to give Harrington an earful for it when he says, “Dude, it’s freezing outside, put my other jacket on.”

“I- what?”

Harrington blinks. “When it’s cold as balls out, I keep another jacket in the car? And you’re definitely not wearing enough, and I don’t want you getting pneumonia because you’re too stubborn to wear a real jacket.”

Billy looks down at the snorkel parka haphazardly draped across his lap. It’s a deep grey-blue and thick, long, complete with a furry hood. He’s seen Harrington wear it when it’s really blowing outside, when that blizzard hit between classes in January. Harrington always looks like a five year old toddling around all mummy wrapped when he wears it, but now feeling how warm it is, Billy can’t be bothered with how stupid he’s going to look in it.

He shrugs it on. Looks at Harrington expectantly - “There, happy?” - and is met with a smug little grin. Billy looks away and tugs the collar up higher, wishing they’d get out of here already. When he yanks the hood over his jacket’s own, he can smell Harrington’s cologne, all citrus and herbs, fresh wood, then the undercurrent of old cigarette smoke. It’s comforting in a way it doesn’t have the right to be.

Eventually Harrington deems the car warm enough and pulls out of the space, out of the mostly empty lot, and back out onto the main road to Loch Nora. He takes a turn that Billy’s only made while lost and starts tapping on the steering wheel, on tempo with music that’s not playing.

“You want pancakes?” he asks suddenly. “I’d die for some pancakes right now. I mean I don’t know if you’re allowed to have them, but the pizza didn’t actually do anything the other day, so. You game?”

It’s not like Billy’s exactly been cleared to go into public, either; he’s just been permitted to walk around in the woods behind Harrington’s house. The objective is he’s not supposed to be seen by the general public — people will recognize him and go into cardiac arrest from a real life zombie sighting or think the whole Starcourt thing was just a really well executed hoax and not take it by way of a joke.

Billy stares at him blankly from the passenger seat, knowing he should tell Harrington that they can’t, that it’s too dangerous, that they’re both going to be put on lockdown if anyone reports seeing the once-dead Billy Hargrove throwing back a breakfast platter at a diner at six a.m. on a weekday. But then his stomach gurgles, suddenly very empty, and —

“Yeah, I’m game.”

Harrington definitely likes that answer, cheeks dimpling with the force of his smile. “Fuck yeah, I know just the spot.”

He drives them to this greasy spoon on Randolph. Pulling up, it permeates the smell of canola oil and butter. It supposedly used to be a pretty decent burger joint. When he moved to town, Billy heard the guy who used to own it killed himself on the property, but has been properly educated since - by Henderson of all people, and the truth was even more harrowing - so it feels a little wrong to be pulling into the parking lot for a fully funded post-doctor’s visit feast at the same location.

Apparently most of the old owner’s small staff stayed on and a friend came in and took the place over, so Harrington says it mostly looks the same inside and the menu’s not that different at all, and it would seem enough other people have gotten over the whole publicly-proclaimed-suicide-but-actual-murder-thing because it’s got a fair amount of patrons already occupying the booths. Not quite as empty as Billy had hoped.

He used tightrope walk the thin line of his father’s patience. Not even intentionally, most of the time. The ever constant battle between wanting to save himself from his father’s wrath by being the model son he was expected to be and trying to see how far he could push him until he finally fucking snapped and put Billy out of his lifelong misery was a pointless fight. There was no victory to be found either way, not with the history of bruises and blood and nights spent consoling his tears with burning liquor and bar fights already under his belt.

Still — he’s developed a Spidey sense for things that will, undoubtedly, get him in trouble; another learned defense mechanism to keep the life in him just a little longer.

A field mouse has the sense to hide when it hears the flap of a hawk’s wings. Creaking floorboards and the slam of a truck door, now suspicious looks across a half empty diner at dawn — they all spell out bad endings.

Luckily for them, though, it’s mostly older people filling out the tables and bar stools, minding their own business. And while there’s also a young couple that Billy vaguely recognizes from the outside recesses of his social circle at the high school, sitting in a far booth, they’re shut off from the world, talking low and serious over two cups of coffee, and Ms. Myers, the high school’s hippie biology teacher, perched at the counter, is too absorbed flipping through a dime novel with a half finished omelet on her plate to spare them a glance.

Harrington waves at the hostess, currently busying herself fiddling with an angrily beeping coffee pot, and directs Billy to a booth running along the far wall. They’re not surrounded on either side, thankfully, but Billy still keeps his thin jacket hood up when he shrugs the borrowed parka. 

Bare minimum for covering his tracks. Like hiding pilfered liquor bottles in the neighbor’s trash.

When the hostess comes over asking what they want to drink, Harrington orders himself a coffee and a glass of orange juice, and before Billy can ask for anything, Harrington smiles and asks for a hot chocolate as well, please

Billy hasn’t had a hot chocolate since he was like, eight. Mom would heat the milk on the stove with vanilla and stir in the drink mix when it was hot. She’d add an extra spoonful of plain cocoa powder because Billy liked it strong and would always top it off with so many marshmallows they’d come spilling out over the top of the mug.

That was before Dad told him hot cocoa was for fairies, and you’re not one of them, are you, Billy?

But like, Harrington didn’t even ask, and yes Billy’s supposed to be keeping a low profile, not even allowed out, but he’s not helpless

Harrington -”

“That’s all for now,” Harrington smiles sticky sweet, blatantly ignoring him, “thank you.”

The waitress spares Billy a wayward glance but she doesn’t confirm or deny the order with him; she just puts her notepad back into her apron pocket and disappears through the double doors leading into the kitchen. At least she won’t be a witness in the end of Harrington’s life.

“Might as well give everything a try,” Harrington shrugs, like he can tell Billy’s about to give it to him. He unfurls his silverware and sets the paper napkin in his lap, unbothered, then pushes Billy’s own set towards him with a single finger. “And we’re celebrating, right? We’re already doing something we’re not supposed to. Live a little.”

“I don’t- I don’t care, I wanna know why you think that, of all people, I would want a hot chocolate like a fucking kid,” Billy grits out lowly, “and you? You’re gonna burn a fucking hole in your stomach drinking that much acid together, Jesus Christ.”

Harrington actually kicks him under the table. “Hey, you can take whichever one you want, Hargrove, I’m just getting options. I’ll take the cocoa if the stick up your ass is bothering you too much.”

Billy wasn’t expecting that level of snark. He’s kind of taken aback by it despite his own bitch streak. He forgot Harrington can be a real smart mouth too, can match him. Billy puts his hands up in surrender and leans against the diner window, feet up on the seat. Whatever, as if he’s not impressed. 

Harrington poorly hides a smile behind his menu.

Billy’s too tired to offer much conversation wise after that, his daily tolerance of small talk already depleted by the forcibly polite doctor. When the waitress comes back with their drinks, he also lets Harrington order for the two of them, giving up on protesting and trusting Harrington to provide efficiently. It’s his money.

They get two classic breakfast platters, both stacked with thick buttermilk pancakes, one complemented with bacon and scrambled eggs while the other arrives with hash browns and sausage. Two glasses of water as well as two empty plates come next. He’s not quite sure what Harrington’s plan is here, but when the waitress leaves them to enjoy their breakfast with a smile, Harrington moves the platters to the middle of the table.

“Dig in,” he beams, heaping a bit of all the sides onto his own plate as well as a full stack of pancakes. He liberally butters each pancake, the butter melting upon contact, and then drowns each layer in syrup. It’s very practiced. When Billy just sits there watching, unsure of what to do, Harrington gestures between the platters with a fork. “So we can share,” he explains around a mouthful of hash brown.

Billy feels himself involuntarily make a face, almost like he doesn’t understand. And he gets it, but he also doesn’t. “What?” he asks dumbly.

Harrington’s knife and fork scrape hastily over his plate, soaking individually cut pieces of pancake in the puddle of syrup threatening to spill over onto the sides. He doesn’t answer for a second, too busy stuffing his face. He swallows thickly and places a strip of bacon, a few forkfuls of egg and hash brown, and a piece of sausage on his plate.

“We’re sharing,” Harrington clarifies. “You said you wanted pancakes, too, right? Just take what you want of the rest. I kinda like everything, so,” he shrugs, “when I bring Dustin here, we do the same kinda thing, but he usually gets a burger combo and I get the breakfast special. Figure everyone wins that way.”

Billy’s heart sinks a little at that. It was stupid of him to even temporarily believe this was something special, something just for him. Of course Harrington’s taken his brats here, done the same thing; rinse and repeat. The gesture’s no less kind but it’s lost something. Feels regifted.

Snagging a pancake, Billy nods like he gets it. For good measure, to contest Harrington - and his dad, maybe, god he’d blow a fucking gasket - he also takes the hot chocolate. Half of the whipped cream has half melted already but it’s still hot. Harrington’s going to be the last person to call him a fag for claiming it. For wanting it.

It tastes better than he remembers, even if it’s likely just some Swiss Miss spooned into warmed milk, topped with Reddi Whip.

Silence befalls them once more as both make steady work of the meal placed in front of them. Something bluesy plays quietly on the jukebox and unintelligible conversation is exchanged between the other patrons. Bells ring, people come in and orders go out. 

It all feels so normal. Billy savors every ounce of it — the perfect balance of sweet and salty, crisp and soft dressed on his plate, the homely smell of warm coffee and bacon grease, the general ambience of someplace lived in. 

Eventually Harrington burps - he surprises himself and Billy snorts - then clears his throat. He doesn’t say anything but he keeps pointedly looking over his shoulder. Billy quirks a brow at him, mouths, ‘what?’ around some bacon. It’s left a smear of grease on his upper lip that he wipes away with the back of his hand.

Harrington ducks down in the booth a little, eyes shifting. “Y’know that couple, the one talking all quiet when we came?” he whispers. Billy offers a short nod, eyebrow still quirked. “That’s Matt Briggs and Allison Parker. Matt was on the baseball team with me.” He picks at a piece of bacon, points in their direction with it. “I’ve been listening in on them like an asshole and I think she’s pregnant.”

“No shit,” Billy manages; he doesn’t really know either of them, so like, alright? “I didn’t take you for a gossip hound, Harrington.” 

“I can’t help it that I can hear them,” Harrington insists, flicking his bangs out of his face. “‘sides, I know you think everyone out here has nothing better to do than drink and fuck, and if you’re not fighting monsters or getting out of here, then yes, definitely, but there’s not a lot of really young parents out here? It’s kind of a thing when it happens.” Before Billy can ask for clarification, Harrington adds, “Like people pretend they don’t know anything about it, they see this baby and are all ‘oh my god, I had no idea!’ when that’s totally not true or they’re real nice about it to the kids’ faces, but it’s definitely not genuine most of the time, especially when some old person does it.”

“Well yeah, most old people are like that.”

“God, I know,” Harrington rolls his eyes, “they’d rather be like, two faced than not say anything at all. But they’re always going on about y’know, ‘if you have nothing to say, don’t say anything at all’; it’s -”

“Bullshit.”

Billy knows the type; he’s had a good amount of firsthand experience. He can have a real split personality too, but at least he doesn’t pretend he’s all sugar and spice.

Harrington actually laughs, bubbly and light. “Yeah, man, it’s such bullshit.”

Their fingers knock together and Billy rubs his nose with his sleeve so Harrington can’t see that his cheeks might be red. If they are and Harrington notices, he doesn’t say anything. Figures he should worry more about how often he’s been caught schoolgirl blushing around the guy or try to stop going all pink in the first place. 

There’s no point — he’s not going to accomplish either thing.

Then something happens that Billy wasn’t anticipating.

Harrington starts talking. Like, actually talking, like they’re friends and they’re shooting the shit and this is just something they do. Tells him about how Carol pretended she was pregnant one time when they were sophomores, because she suspected Tommy cheated on her with Sophie Yang while she was visiting her cousins in Philly. Harrington’s wiping his eyes, cackling, recalling the whole mess of how she went about getting a positive pregnancy test and faked morning sickness for a week just to make Tommy nervous. 

“And, and, the best part is, he tried to break up with her, over it,” Harrington giggles, “all subtle, like well maybe we should weigh all our options? and Carol got so pissed she told him the truth -”

By the end Billy’s losing it, too, bent over the table laughing, belly aching, a perfect mental image of Tommy’s terrified face, gaunt and freckled, stupidly slack. It’s the hardest he’s genuinely laughed in goddamn years.

“Holy shit, Harrington,” Billy wheezes, and Harrington looks so pleased. “You gotta hear this then, man, the freaks I used to kick it with -”

And he has to tell Harrington about this really fucky group he used to party with back in Cali that would throw these banging ragers. They were beach rats, the lot of them, more hours spent in the sand and surf than school or even their own houses, and it showed. All that sunlight definitely killed some of their more critical brain cells.

Harrington’s shaking and hiccuping his way through a laughing fit as Billy explains why Lex once pushed Kenny’s older sister off the pier during a bonfire while tripping on acid. She was a witch, man, and witches fuckin melt in the water, what the fuck was I supposed to do? He has to dab his eyes with his sweater collar and the smile on his face is the most genuine one Billy’s ever got to experience firsthand. 

Not to say Harrington’s never smiled in his vicinity before. He’s seen Harrington look at Nancy Wheeler like she hung the stars in the sky - before reality hit him - witness him bent over in hysterics with Henderson and the kids or beam, ever so pleased with himself, when he’s proven Buckley wrong about something, or she’s paid him a genuine compliment not end-capped with ‘dumbass’ —

But nothing Billy’s ever said or done or been privy to has gotten Harrington to crack like this. It feels like sunshine is warming him from the inside out. Hope flutters uselessly in his chest.

“Y’know, If El was here right now and found out I didn’t order any waffles, she’d probably start shaking me with her mind powers,” Harrington muses once he’s calmed down enough. 

Billy raises an eyebrow, almost afraid to ask, but he’s game. Anything to hold Harrington’s attention. “What, she really like waffles or something?”

“Mm, ‘like’ isn’t a strong enough word.” Harrington purses his lips like he’s thinking, “‘Obsessed with’ maybe works better? I mean, she wouldn’t eat anything if it didn’t come on, with, or was a waffle for ages. And only the toaster kind too, y’know, Eggos? S’crazy.”

Billy smirks fondly. Sounds on brand. He doesn’t know her well enough through firsthand account, other than from what she’d shown him while lost in his head, in the space between, but he’s heard a lot over phone calls and through the remaining kids. She’s still finding her own, he knows that much; most of her interests and opinions are influenced by whatever person she’s glued herself to at that moment in time, but Billy likes her enough. 

He owes her, really. Supposedly she doesn’t agree, but he’s not going to contest a teenager with telekinetic powers over who owes who a life.

“Should I keep Eggos on hand just in case I need to keep the peace then?” he jokes. 

‘Should we’ is what he means to say.

Harrington kicks at him again but this time he does it gently, almost fondly. Billy knocks the toe of one high top into Harrington’s ankle. Neither pulls back from it.

“You can never be too careful.”

Something’s changed, after that. It’s just something because Billy can’t put his finger on exactly what it is, like forgetting what you came into a room for, other than to do or grab something. There’s intention, but it’s lost.

Of the growing list individualized things that have changed, the biggest thing is that they talk, now. Conversation flows naturally between them. There are no pregnant pauses or forced attempts at trying to relate to each other or hold semi-civil conversation. The awkwardness of being forced together and not knowing how to act around or with one another has dissipated.

It’s easy.

People say sharing a meal is the best way to get to know someone. Food can be such a personal thing, something to be enjoyed in moments of joy or sadness. It’s its own brand of intimacy.

Billy never quite understood that before — meals were a high point of tension most of his life. Mom and Dad fought over each other at the kitchen table, banging at the wood until the peas and carrots and glasses of milk rolled off and spilled into the floor. Susan’s cooking skills were, are mediocre at best but Billy would still choose a dry meatloaf and undersalted mashed potatoes over not being allowed to eat, locked out of the house for coming home late or forgetting a piece of housework, maybe an errand that never had attention brought to it beforehand. 

And on the days he did get to eat with everyone, it wasn’t like he could enjoy the meal set before him even if Susan had triumphed over the stove for once — not with the continual nitpicking and sideways glares coming from the head of the table. 

He’s shared many a meal with Harrington since he more or less moved in but it’s never gotten them anymore. It was all forced niceties, weak attempts at conversation over canned ravioli and grilled cheese sandwiches. A lot of Billy quitting before things got started because Harrington was always trying to pry him open, feel him out in a way he couldn’t after their big blowout at the Byers’, know him in a way he didn’t want to be known.

There hadn’t even been a charged talking point or some big blow out or a deep seated secret spilled out between to spark it, either. One pancake breakfast later and it would be bold but not false, to call Harrington ‘friend’.

In the distant past he had to vie for every ounce of Harrington’s attention — jab and jeer for some eye contact, bowl him over just so Harrington would notice he was there and was real and please fucking look at me, goddammit. In return he’d get irritated huffs and rolled eyes, general annoyance with his existence, because negative attention was better than no attention at all. 

And he deserved what Harrington threw back at him. Billy’s not perfect, definitely wasn’t back then, but he’s better, now. Maybe that’s why it’s easier. He’s been making an effort. It’s still a learning curve, letting himself be heard and understood, possibly picking up on healthier habits just from Harrington’s genuine good-naturedness starting to rub off on him. He’s maybe half as much of a dick as he used to be on a good day.

Billy wants to know what this something is but he’s also so, so afraid to define it and find it to be something other than what he really wants. 

Playful punches and pinches have replaced the knocked knees and forceful shoves, the only points of physical contact they once shared. Elbows and thighs and hands brush in close proximity on the sofa and there’s no reflex to make space, to make excuses. It just happens and it’s normal.

They attempt - keyword: attempt, with a handful of successes - meals together because Billy hasn’t been sick in a week and they can’t live solely on PB&J’s or takeout or ready made meals. They fling spaghetti at each other while it's still bubbling in a pot. Put ice cubes down the backs of each other’s pants. 

Billy forces some of his taste in film on Harrington to add some variety to his post-work movie education and he catches minimal flack. After dark, they go for drives through the parts of town that buzz with life during daylight hours to help curb the seclusion Billy feels, blasting Poison and Maiden and Crüe through the Beamer’s tinny speakers until Harrington’s drumming along, too.

(Supposedly no one’s said anything about seeing Billy Hargrove at the diner but it was still too bold a move to risk, so they’ve been finding more reasonable loopholes to jump through.)

Some of the physical aches and pains have started to fade, too, even with the cold closing in more and more every day, and Billy feels like he can start to breathe again. He’s less irritable, sleeps better. Loses himself on long walks wrapped in borrowed clothes that carry the homey scent of Harrington in their fibers.

It’s the first time in maybe his whole life he’s felt he can properly heal without the impending fear of a substitution injury or insult. The pull on his ribs isn’t going to be replaced with a bootprint. The nausea isn’t going to be traded in for a headache from getting knocked into a bookshelf. 

Harrington isn’t going to lock him in the spare room and nail the window shut because he didn’t do the laundry on command.

On one particularly stoned evening, they destroy the kitchen making monstrous sundaes for dinner — chocolate syrup and sprinkles and strawberry sauce atop mountains carved out of chocolate and vanilla.

It’s on a phone call with his parents that Harrington learns they won’t be home in time for Christmas. 

He maybe should have seen it coming. Harrington’s parents were only in town for Thanksgiving for two days - where Billy had been forced back into staying at a semi-local faction of Owens’ agency to lower a proposed ‘breach of security’ - and had left without leaving any trace evidence in the house.

At first, Billy is envious; Harrington is living his dream, having the house to himself most days out of the year on top of a forcibly family oriented holiday that always reminded Billy that he was the least favorite in the house, but the hard disappointment etched into his usually soft features after the unfortunate phone call quickly told Billy that Harrington believed otherwise. 

With as sappy an attempt as he’ll allow himself to indulge in, he tries to make it up to Harrington with the ice cream idea. They get baked and drive to the Bradley’s Big Buy right before closing, cackling and pushing each other on the back of the shopping cart that they fill with toppings and ice cream pints.

Once night falls, they watch ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ on VHS and then a rerun of ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ on ABC, their bowls melted, colorful puddles of cream and sprinkles on the coffee table by the time they sugar crash so hard they fall asleep on the sofa.

In the morning, Billy wakes up to a thick blanket of snow covering the world outside, and Harrington tucked next to him, snoring under said blanket. He would have never been so lucky in a previous life.

They completely overdue decorating the house, as well, just to be on the safe side of brightening Harrington’s spirits. The downstairs is a mess of tinsel and rainbow baubles and an innumerable amount of porcelain collectibles and snow globes that follow the same color scheme. They’ve got lights strung up on the tree and up over the exposed sectional of the upstairs hallway, bright enough that they don’t turn on any other lights after dark.

It’s not all peaches and cream, though.

Sometimes a joke goes too far and Harrington stops smiling and laughing along and rigidly tells him not to be such a prick. Or Harrington will try a little too forcefully to get a glimpse at things, open the Pandora’s Box of Billy’s past and present and Billy, suddenly back on defense, snaps at him that it’s none of his goddamn business, even if the heat of shame is fast to catch up to him, and slams his bedroom hard enough to make the whole roof shake.

Until he calms down enough and begrudgingly, without a real apology, slinks back downstairs, and tries to win himself back into Harrington’s good graces.

They’re clearly not perfect.

But it’s still the best of anything - home, food, companionship - Billy’s had, even when it still came with a sniff or whiskey accompaniment.

But because he’s kind of attached to Harrington at the hip, the two of them a package deal, he’s stuck seeing the brats more. Max he doesn’t mind so much; it’s Sinclair’s clinginess to Max, Wheeler’s attitude problem and Henderson’s loud mouth, that he minds.

They’ve only got two thirds of them to deal with now that the Byers and El live a few hours away, too, so he doesn’t have El as entertainment value or the long looks the perpetually pink-cheeked little Byers would try and hide from him from across the arcade parking lot.

And Billy doesn’t even know Mrs. Byers but when she calls to check up on Harrington, she always asks for Billy to be put on the line and asks him how he’s doing — “Is Steve feeding you enough, honey? Will says he’s seen him burn water.” It does something funny inside his chest, puts pressure on his throat.

He’s also seen more D&D in the last few weeks than he’s ever cared to in his life, draped over Harrington’s sofa or the living room floor for hours on end boredly watching Harrington get way too worked up over some magic elf, but because he’s been approved as being an honorary member - “What, is my membership pending approval?” he snarkily asks Harrington one night - he can’t really get out of it, either. At least no one’s forcing him to partake.

Besides the kids and by extension Mrs. Byers, he’s come to know Buckley more, too. He didn’t know her at school, didn’t cross over into any of his circles - neither did Harrington, outside of a handful of classes, he’s learned - but she’s sarcastic and snarky and is about as enthused as he is about getting dragged into four hour long Lord of the Rings roleplaying sessions. She can at least appreciate the character building — Billy’s only intrigue is watching Harrington.

It’s a week and a half before Christmas and they’re all spread out on the floor in Harrington’s living room, scavenged remains of Chinese takeout laid out across the coffee table. The campaign is done for the evening and they’ve got El and the little Byers excitedly chattering about holiday plans through a rewired police radio. They’re supposedly staying at the Wheelers’ place, are driving up next weekend.

Billy’s leaning against the sofa nursing half a beer, the rest having been poured out into a glass for Harrington because Billy shouldn’t be drinking. Ironic because Harrington has yet to fully confiscate his smokes and they’ve rolled a few joints together, so he doesn’t get the hangup over booze. Harrington’s such a mother hen. It’s been growing on him.

On this particular evening, Billy’s feeling a little off-kilter but in a generally good mood. There’s an undercurrent of tension he can’t quite read but it’s there, hanging in the air, electric.

He maybe got a little heated when Wheeler pulled some bullshit that got Harrington’s character poisoned and said something to him about it, and that’s why. And maybe Harrington had dramatically thrown himself over Billy’s lap like a distressed damsel and crooned out a shrill ‘oh, my hero!’ when Wheeler, pissy and flustered, undid the damage, then went in to land a sloppy kiss on Billy’s stubbled cheek, and Billy lost it a little bit.

Immediately he sought refuge in the kitchen, put on a show of pretending to scrub his face with steel wool, only to preserve his dignity. Instead he’d pressed his forehead into the kitchen counter and willed the sudden full body sweat he was experiencing away through determination alone. The wet press of Harrington’s lips to his cheek was still glaring evidence on his skin.

It doesn’t mean anything  he’d told himself, eyes pinched shut, cool tiled grinding into his forehead, what you’ve got is as good as you’re gonna get, get a fucking grip.

When it’s all lighthearted and easy, he can let himself pretend it’s more to wet his desires, even when he knows deep down, it’s all for nothing. But when Harrington goes and does something intentional, even something stupid like that, Billy has to give in to the harsh slap of reality and drive it back into himself that he’s gotta stop being so pathetic and get over this.

Like Neil’s boot in his ribcage, serving another lesson to curb his stupidity.

When he’s as put together as he can manage, there’s the shift. Buckley, who’s been watching him carefully from the armchair with a beat-up paperback in hand, suddenly clambers out of her seat. With a suspicious amount of intention, she sidles up next to him on the living room rug. She sinks back against the sofa’s polished leather and sips her Coke, curls a strand of hair around one finger like she means no harm, purposely not looking at him.

Billy, also, intentionally pretends he didn’t see her come over and goes back to eavesdropping on Harrington arguing with Wheeler about some power his character has that Wheeler won’t let him use. 

“Y’know, you’re lucky he’s oblivious,” Buckley says suddenly, very quietly. Almost like it amuses her.

Billy turns to her. “What?”

C’mon,” she smirks with a dismissive flick of her hand. “Don’t play dumb with me, Hargrove, we both know you’re better than that.”

Panic bubbles up in him, baking soda and vinegar, but he disguises it by clearing his throat. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

She laughs quietly, shaking her head in seeming disbelief. Buckley looks right at him then, right through him, it feels like, and suddenly he’s much more afraid than he should be. She couldn’t know; she shouldn’t.  

“You know exactly what I’m talking about even if you say you don’t, but I’m not gonna say anything so you can stop looking at me like that.” Billy just keeps on glowering at her with murderous intent. Buckley stares back with an unimpressed look, sighs. “I’m, Jesus, follow me, dumbass.” Then she’s yanking Billy up with surprising strength, nearly pulling his arm out of the socket. “We’ll be right back,” she throws out before anyone can ask, hauls Billy off out the back door.

It’s fucking cold out. That’s not just the Californian in Billy talking. The sugar fine sprinkling of snow that dusted the streets after last snow melt has been replaced with a solid four inches of frost. The wind whips them in the face upon closing the sliding door and Billy swears, pulls Harrington’s stupid, ugly sweater tighter around himself. It’s horrendous in itself but even more so on him. Buckley doesn’t look like she’s faring too much better in a pastel windbreaker, but she holds strong, still grasping Billy’s wrist and refusing to quiver under the blow of the crisp air.

Billy shakes his arm loosely in her grip. “Can you get off me?” Buckley turns him loose with another unimpressed expression — her go-to. “Now I don’t know what the hell you think you know, Buckley, but I can fuckin’ -”

“I know you like Steve.”

It’s a slap to the face, a splash of cold water. Shock reverberates through his bones. No one heard her, right? The sudden fear tastes like blood and coats his tongue thickly. He might throw up.

Billy wants to defend himself, square up; he’d usually brush this kind of confrontation off as bullshit, nah, I’m not into that queer shit, the fuck’s wrong with you?, but that was his go-to when he was still under Neil’s thumb. Every accuser was grasping for straws and their lowest blow for trying to size him up was to shoot for the queer card. They were always easy to convince otherwise.

Now, it feels pointless to try and deny it, not when Buckley’s looking at him so sure. What’s throwing him off about it is that her gaze isn’t judgamental — her face is soft like she understands, maybe like she pities him, but the sadness is absent. He doesn’t know how to properly read her.

“I,” Billy tries, “I don’t -”

She turns away and peers back into the house through the parted blinds. Max is sitting next to Sinclair on Harrington’s sofa, holding the radio between them. Henderson is next to Sinclair, hand on his shoulder, and Wheeler is leaning down over the back of the sofa, boredly resting his chin on his arms. They’re looking between Harrington and the walkie, all mixed expressions, and Harrington’s rubbing his temples like he always does. They’re all going to make him go grey early.

“I know that look you give him, Hargrove,” Buckley tells him, softly, “hell, I probably know it better than anyone else out in this shithole. If you catch my drift.” 

Oh

Billy can say with the utmost confidence he wasn’t expecting that. Well, maybe not a hundred percent; there was a vibe he was catching there from the beginning but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. Now it makes sense. He’s never seen Buckley look at Harrington like Tracy Sanderson or Tammy Thompson or any of those other broads do, with that dreamy, enchanted gleam to their eye. 

He hasn’t seen her much out of the house but he always had a feeling she never looked at any guy like that.

But he doesn’t have anything clever or smart to say to that so he just snorts, goes, “Of course Harrington would find the only queers in this fucking piece of shit town,” which hits two birds with one stone. It sounds like a joke but neither of them is laughing. “I thought he liked you, for awhile.”

It’s Buckley’s turn to scoff. “I think for about two hours he convinced himself he did, but I made it pretty clear early on that this,” she points to herself and then Harrington, who’s now in the kitchen, putting leftovers away, “was never going to happen, and why it wouldn’t. Steve was the first person I’ve really told and he was, he was just so okay with it. And I was so scared he wouldn’t be. But… he didn’t ask me any invasive questions or wanna know why. Just told me ‘oh, okay’, and we moved on from there.” Buckley turns back to him and she’s wearing this small smile. “But Hargrove, honestly, with Steve, I think -”

Billy makes a sudden hurt sound. Looks at the snow dusted concrete. “Don’t,” he rasps. But he wants to beg, don’t get my fuckin’ hopes up

It may not even be the path she’s going down but he knows better than to indulge this far. He’s not supposed to hear this. If she says it out loud, he’s going to do something real stupid; he doesn’t need her to stoke the bonfire of his delusions. It’s bad enough how much he fucks with his own head, builds himself up for maybe’s and one day’s. He doesn’t think he’d survive the fallout of doing what she’s implying.

“Hargrove, Billy,” Buckley shakes her head a little, almost disappointed, “you know him. You can’t expect the worst of him like that, because he wouldn’t -”

“I fucking can’t. Okay? I just fucking can’t, so drop it. Please.”

Buckley looks taken aback by it at first but then she nods, brow creased but understanding. “Okay,” she sniffles and rubs at her nose, “alright. I get it. But just humor me for a second, don’t go storming off.” She looks directly at him, eyes a striking blue, and asks, “Why not?”

“He’s,” Billy never thought he’d be saying any of this out loud and he can’t believe he’s baring his soul to Harrington’s favorite lesbian in the middle of what could be a fucking blizzard. He clenches his fists together and digs his nails into his palms, feeling hot all over in the blasting cold. “If there’s a snowball’s chance in fucking hell Harrington’s even the tiniest bit gay, why in the fucking world would he pick someone like me, huh?”

“That’s, that’s it?” Buckley blinks. “Well you and every other gay kid in the fucking world has thought that, Hargrove, and everyone’s fucking scared of telling the person they like that they like them! Rejection’s a bitch but it happens and -”

Billy really wants to stop interrupting her but now he really can’t. 

“I was an asshole to him, like I was an asshole to everyone but especially Harrington and Max and shit’s as good as it’s ever been with her, right? Because she knows most of my shit. It can’t get any fucking worse there. But Harrington, he’s got no fucking clue,” Billy lets out a hysteric bark of a laugh. “I mean, I fucking died , and some lab guys bring me back, for what? All those fuckin’ people died because of me, and I’m the one that gets to come back? I get the second chance? My shit was fucked before, man, but there’s no goddamn way I’m risking,” Billy swallows thickly and bites into his lip, pushing everything down, and his eyes burn, “there’s no way I’m making him put up with the rest of my bullshit when he’s done too fucking much already. Done more for me than I’m ever gonna deserve.”

“Oh, Billy.” Buckley almost goes unheard, all cotton soft and possibly sad.

He doesn’t want to cry in front of Robin Buckley on Harrington’s back patio but he just might , even if Harrington and Max and the remaining brats can see him —

“That’s why, okay? I can’t fucking lose this. I can’t tell him I’m a queer, I can’t tell him how I fuckin’ feel. Because what if he did fucking like me? What if I did tell him, and everything worked out by the grace of fucking god, and he picked me, out of everyone that would be so much fucking better for him, and he gets pulled into all my shit? I’d fucking ruin it, I’d ruin him. And I can’t, I won’t do that to anyone else.”

“Billy, that -”

Suddenly the back door is sliding open and both of them go stone still. It’s Harrington, just leaning out of the space between the door and the door frame.“Hey, are you guys okay? You know you can talk inside, right?” he shivers. “You’ll get frostbite or something out here.”

Buckley turns to him quickly. “Uhh yeah, we were just talking about… the campaign, right, Hargrove?” Billy nods jerkily, heart stopped in his chest; his eyes still feel wet but he doesn’t think Harrington’s noticed, thank god. “Just trying to understand what’s so fun about… dragons and trolls and zombies.”

Harrington thankfully takes it as face value. “Robs, I get Hargrove not being into it, but I thought you of all people would’ve joined by now. I still think you guys should try it,” then he looks back into the house, “Dustin, put the damn hat back on, your mom made that for you,” and back to Billy and Buckley, face marked with irritation, “but anyway  the kids are all getting picked up soon so you can shit talk in the house instead of freezing to death outside. But hey, that’s up to you.”

Then he closes the door behind him and rejoins the kids in the living room, now all of them shrugging on their various coats and scarves and hats with what looks like some aggressive encouraging on Harrington’s end. 

Neither Buckley or Billy say anything for a moment. Billy quickly scrubs his face with his sweater sleeve, a marbled dark red that goes dark where the accidental tears catch. Max, passing by the back door while she winds her scarf around her neck, mouths a subtle ‘okay?’ right to him. Her face falls to concern and she looks to Buckley for help, who still looks a little thrown by Harrington’s sudden interruption, but before Max can open and add to the commotion he started, Billy’s mouthing a resolute ‘okay’ back. At first she doesn’t seem convinced but when he shoots her a more pointed look, she sighs dramatically in defeat and goes to help Sinclair button his coat up.

Billy doesn’t think he’s ready to go back into the madness. It feels like he forcibly melon scooped his soul out to Buckley, something he never intended do with anyone, and he’s uncomfortably raw, hollowed out. Feels empty in a way that doesn’t feel grounding or freeing — how you’re supposed to feel when you let things go.

Billy’s secrets have been bottled up for so long they’d grown apart of him, all his own for no one else. At first he feels worse not having them all to himself, anymore, and nearly decides he’s not doing that again, fuck, it’s sadistic, but then he thinks that maybe it’s just the mortal fear of being known that’s got him so shaken. 

He’s so wishy washy with what he allows himself to feel, to experience — let Harrington in, shove him back out; take everything he can, never ask for anything more; never apologize, feel sorry for everything he’s ever done. It’s exhausting. He can’t make a decision to save his life, always ruining things for himself and then making vain attempts at patching things back up. Wrong wrong wrong.

“Sorry,” Billy lowly rasps, all embarrassed and really, truly, fucked up, “fuck, I didn’t- I’m -”

“It’s okay,” Buckley reassures him, “Billy, seriously, it’s okay.”

He doesn’t know when he became Billy, not just to her but to her before Harrington - ironic because even in his constant internalized monologuing he’s just Harrington, because Steve would be the promise of something he couldn’t have - so when her hand tentatively moves to his shoulder, he initially fights the urge not to shirk away from her touch. Normally he wouldn’t allow it, like he shouldn’t allow Harrington to touch as much as he does, but he lets her, even leans into the cup of her palm when she squeezes gently.

He also does something else he never figured doing - it would seem today is a day of firsts he hasn’t prepared for - but when her hand drops, he briefly nudges her arm, goes, “I’m just, I’m real fucked up, Rob.”

Buckley’s laugh is a sad but understanding one. “Would it make you feel better if I told you you aren’t the only one?”

Billy knows that there’s an unspoken competitiveness about who’s the most fucked up, like who’s been through the ringer the most and won the most pity points in the game of life. It’s more cutthroat than the lifelong oneupmanship of success. Everyone’s got their own shit; his shit has just never been anyone’s business. It’s the part about the pity that’s mostly kept him quiet, because he’s never wanted pity, he’s just wanted it all to stop and an apology was never going to do that.

The fear of god - god being his father - instilled within him through kicking and screaming and mood swings hitting faster than whiplash also contributed to his vow of silence. The bruising and bad attitude came with a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

But now he’s gone and done it, spilled his guts onto the pavement, last night’s supper. And he didn’t even say anything about living under Neil’s roof and the consequences of it, even if the context clues were there, but it feels like he did. Gone and told a secret he shouldn’t have and he’s gonna lose a finger for it.

Billy’s got a lot to mull over, to think about how to move forward from this.

He goes around Buckley and stops before opening the back door. 

“Maybe,” he decides.

The sky overhead is thick with smoke. Thunder cracks impossibly close. Lighting sparks in violent, red flashes. Ash falls feather light, dusts the floor. Everything smells dead and wet, like rotted earth, decaying plant matter. It’s heavy and acrid in Billy’s nose and he’s choking on it, coughing. 

He knows where he is. Unlike the first time with the flipped version of the crumbling warehouse and the other Billy, smiling wickedly at him in a way that was neither familiar nor comforting, now he’s at Harrington’s house. 

But he’s also not. 

The pool is flowing with reaching, writhing vines instead of the bright aquamarine glow of floor lights and pool water. The patio furniture is overturned, strewn about, falling apart. The back door is ajar, too. Shattered glass and the smear of something dried and black on the kitchen tile makes his blood run cold.

Billy’s bare feet pad across the cracked concrete almost silently despite the lack of sound. He hates how this place is so loud and so quiet at the same time. His head is absent of the hissed threats, the devil on his shoulder enticing him to take break kill, but the static sound of nothingness is almost louder.

The familiar taste of something bitter, sludgelike, is on his tongue and when he spits, it’s sticky, reminiscent of tar. Lands wetly at his feet.

Cautiously he enters the house. It smells sweeter here, stomach churning. Dishes pour out of the kitchen cabinets in jagged puzzle pieces. Glass rains over the counter. The light fixtures are all broken and the furniture is in various states of destroyed disarray. Like the old abandoned houses on the east of town that Billy and his friends used to break into to smoke, drink, touch more than they were allowed in daylight. 

The same houses where bigger, older boys would tell him he had a pretty mouth and slide their hands into his jeans, stroke him with chapped palms while they shotgunned something sour. 

But there’s no solace, no safety to be found here.

“Harrington?” he calls out. Nothing.

He slowly wanders further into the house, up the stairs that groan and ache under him. The hall light flickers but the glow it gives off his dull, doesn’t offer much by way of washing away the dark corners. Billy trudges forward, dread heavy in his stomach like an iron weight, as he finds himself at Harrington’s bedroom door.

It’s slightly ajar. There’s another smear of something sticky and dark across the handle, smudged over the door in the shape of a long, clawed hand. Blood of a lamb to mark the believer. The mark is fresher, sticky and wet. Billy’s mouth tastes like copper and salt.

He nudges the door with his foot and it swings open slowly. Billy closes his eyes, screws them shut, before he comes inside.

Feathers from a ripped up pillow snowfall around the room. The lamp is broken and all the drawers have been pulled out and dumped onto the carpet. The covers on Harrington’s bed have been pulled from the mattress, a wrinkled pile on the floor. They’re draped over something. Billy tentatively approaches despite the gut feeling telling him he’s not going to like what he’ll find underneath.

The closer he gets, the darker the blankets appear. They’re not the usual dark blue he’s seen through Harrington’s open door various times throughout the day. Stained. He grabs the fabric, cold and wet, and tugs it away with a jerk. He stumbles, falling back flat on his ass. He can’t breathe.

It’s Harrington, Steve, crumpled and broken. Dead.

His eyes are glassy, no longer that familiar, warm hazel, and there’s dried blood around his nose, on grey, chapped lips. It’s sept through his shirt, which is torn and shredded. There are deep gashes running up his neck and across his torso, cutting him open, have him spilled out onto the floor.

Billy scrambles over and shakily grabs his hand and he’s cold, so cold, and hard and unmoving and everything about Harrington looks wrong, no — this is all wrong, it was supposed to get him, not Harrington.

He gathers Harrington up in his arms in a vain attempt to hold him together and there’s so much blood, and it’s all over his hands and Billy’s begging him to wake up, please, Steve, get up, get up god-fucking-dammit, please!, when something tall and spindly suddenly looms over them, bathing them in inky darkness before he can blink.

It’s a trap.

Welcome back, Billy .

“Billy, fuck, Billy, wake up!”

Billy shoots up and blindly swings and his fist collides with something warm and solid. Whatever it is falls away with a heavy thud and an audible ‘oof!’ followed by a cough. He can’t breathe himself, is taking in harsh, ragged breaths but there’s no incoming oxygen.

Suddenly the bedside lamp flicks on and the room is too bright, scalding. It’s not the Upside Down; it’s the guest room, it’s Billy’s room, without the vines or ash or fresh blood sprayed across the floor, and Harrington’s there, all in one piece.

He’s on the floor next to the bed, hair sticking up in all directions and Billy still can’t breathe. He’s awake and he’s safe and Harrington’s right there but it still feels like the walls are caving in around him, a vice grip on his lungs squeezing squeezing

This has happened before; he’s lost count of all the times the shakes and sweats and the all consuming panic has washed through him, dragged him out into open water with a riptide. It’s happened with Neil’s fingers curled around his throat, when he hears the utterance of ‘fag! ’ in any public setting, when a girl’s curious hand falls to his lap and finds he’s not hard, really a million other cases. 

It doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

“Hey, hey, breathe,” Harrington tells him, sounding so close and so scared, “just breathe through it; c’mon, you’ve got it.”

There’s a hand on his neck and Harrington’s thumb is stroking over his hot skin, not following any particular tempo, but Billy counts the back and forth motion, one two one two, trying to match his breathing to it.

He’s soaked through his shirt, through his sheets with sweat. It’s a sticky, salted sheen wrapped around his body. Harrington doesn’t seem to mind. He’s up on the bed now with his hand on Billy’s neck, keeping him tethered and present with soothing words and gentle touch. 

Billy doesn’t know how long it takes but he can finally breathe again. It’s shallow and harsh but he’s not hyperventilating anymore. The panic has subsided to an itching, niggling feeling, the tickle of tall grass on bare ankles.

“What happened?” Harrington asks quietly, as calmly as he can. 

Billy shakes his head. Can’t say it. It’s defeating. He’s backslid, is right back to where he was when they dumped him on Harrington’s doorstep with a beat up duffle bag full of old books and clothes that no longer fit him, angry and lost and restless.

He should have anticipated this. Should’ve known it was coming. God, he’s a fucking idiot, thinking that coming back would mean he’d get a redo, a second chance he didn’t, doesn’t deserve —

Harrington’s hand suddenly slips from his neck and Billy might cave in on himself, but then there’s a gentle tug on his wrist and Harrington’s getting off the bed. “C’mon,” he whispers, “c’mon Billy, let’s go to my room, alright?”

Billy can’t quite process what’s happening, still reeling from Harrington’s dead eyes and gashed throat and the creeping shadow. He stays planted on the bed in a cooling pool of his own sweat, dazed. Defeated. But then Harrington’s pulling at him a little more insistently until he’s standing. Then Harrington wraps a hand around his back and half carries him across the hall.

Even with the lamps flicked off, Harrington’s room is exponentially brighter than the blacked out guest room. The December moon shines brightly through his parted curtains, a violent stripe of white slicing the room in half. His sheets are rumpled from sleep. From springing out of bed to tend to Billy’s screaming and thrashing.

He leads Billy to the edge of the bed and Billy falls back into a seated position when the bare backs of his knees touch the mattress. Harrington hesitates for a second, just watching him carefully, before he disappears shortly. Billy watches the doorway fearfully until Harrington pops back through it with a washcloth in hand.

His hand is gentle but insistent, again, when it tugs on the bottom of Billy’s shirt. Pulling up, up. “Work with me,” he grunts, “c’mon, Billy.”

And how long has Harrington been calling him that? The only one that calls him that now is Max — wait, no, Buckley does it too.

“I,” Billy starts dryly, his mouth a desert. 

Harrington’s still holding the bottom hem of his t-shirt. He gives his wrist a little shake and Billy gives a weak attempt at lifting his arms. He’s half conscious, floating between liquid and solid state, lucid dreaming. Harrington manages to work the shirt off him, careful not to let it snag on the small hoop pushed through his ear.

“You’re really sweaty.”

The washcloth on his skin is cool and damp. At first he goes tense with it, but Harrington’s touch is kinder than the shadow’s — the Flayer’s. He just doesn’t move as slow as he did in the shower, just working to get the salt and stick off. Billy moves with him, lets Harrington touch him without the hopeful nagging in the back of his mind twisting it into something more, or the fear of being caught, known, making him tense.

After his back and his chest, Harrington dabs at his hairline, settles the warmed cloth on the back of his neck and presses it down with his palm. A trickle of water slips down Billy’s ribcage.

“What happened? Can you tell me?”

He can’t. We were in the Upside Down and you were dead and I didn’t know what to do because you know what I would do if you died? It would fucking kill me. Billy shakes his head.

Harrington doesn’t push it. He just keeps pressing the washcloth against the heated skin of Billy’s neck, talking quietly about shadows and how he hates the color of the pool lights when no one else is home, how pissed he is at his parents for their complete lack of trying unless it comes to telling him how he’s not trying hard enough — filling the space between them with something more than resounding silence. 

Billy should maybe pay more attention, possibly take notes.

Eventually Harrington’s removes the cloth and returns it to the bathroom. When he returns, Billy’s coming out of his post-panic daze a little more and then it hits him that he’d disassociated hard enough that he’d missed Harrington partially undressing him. With his senses still so dulled though, he finds it hard to get bent out of shape over it.

That is, until Harrington’s coaxing him between the covers of his bed. Temptation to lead the sinner.

And he’s just told Buckley how fucked he was; just wait ‘til she hears this. 

Billy wants to protest, tries to, saying that it’s fine and he just needs to get back to sleep but Harrington won’t hear it. Says that he doesn’t want to wake up to another ‘screaming fit’ in an hour. So Billy awkwardly moves between the blankets and settles in with his back towards Harrington because it’s really just, it’s a lot.

The bed dips after him and he can feel how close Harrington is. The bed itself isn’t tiny. When Billy dares to look over his shoulder and see just how little space he has to move, Harrington’s nearly laying in the gap between their pillows. Warmth radiates off him in waves, toasting the cold side of the bed.

“Why’re you so close?” Billy asks, voice raspy with disuse.

At first Harrington doesn’t answer. 

He tries again. “I can feel you breathing down my neck.” 

Play it smart, yeah, push him away, he’d never want you  —

Harrington shifts but he doesn’t widen the gap. “You scared me, man, sorry,” he reasons.

“So what, I get nightmares, I fuckin’ died, I think I’m allowed. I’m fine now.”

It’s quiet for a long time after that. Harrington doesn’t point out that Billy’s still laying in his bed. If he wasn’t so fucking scared, maybe he would have the balls go back to his own room. But he won’t. He’s going to be sharp and snappy when Harrington talks to him all soft and worried like that but he’s not going to surrender a chance to be so intentionally close like this.

“I get nightmares, too.” Harrington suddenly says. It sounds like a secret. “Not so much now, but I used to, all the time. I used to scream, Nancy told me, but now I don’t think I do.”

Billy is stupid and he turns to look at him. “I haven’t heard you.”

Harrington’s hair looks soft where it falls into his face. While Billy’s room is pitch, there’s just enough light outside of that leaking through the space in the curtains that he could easily trace the contours of Harrington’s nose, the almost ovalular curve of his jaw, the ridge of his brows. He can just make out the pinpricks of moles dappling his cheeks, traveling down his neck.

“I think I stopped screaming when you got here. I don’t know if it’s because there’s someone else here and I’m not so fucking scared of being alone in this big fucking house or because it’s you.”

Billy’s heart jumps into his throat. He has nothing to say to that, no material prepared. Should really leave, now, but he finds himself cemented to the silken sheets, weighing a ton of bricks. 

“Oh,” he stupidly manages.

Harrington’s mouth quirks up on one side. He shifts so he’s that much closer. “I bet you’d be pretty damn good at monster hunting. You’re strong but you’d still need a weapon. But I think even if you didn’t have one, demodogs and ‘gorgons or whatever the hell else there is in the Upside Down, they’d still be stupid to try and go after you.”

“You flatter me. I think you forget some giant flesh spider possessed me.” Billy can feel himself blushing but he doesn’t think it’s visible in the low light. He crosses his fingers it’s undetectable, at least.

“Well he’s the worse one, I don’t think anyone could defeat him alone!” Harrington reasons, drawing on the bedsheets with his finger. “But then it’s the ‘gorgons, then the ‘dogs. You’d knock ‘em out no problem.”

It’s a lot for Billy right now. It’s stupidly unfair. He needs to get off the subject of himself. He’ll never sleep again if they don’t.

“Tell me what happens in these nightmares of yours, Harrington.”

It seems to catch him off guard because he doesn’t say anything for a beat. In the no man’s land between them, their fingertips almost brush. Billy moves his hand away but Harrington doesn’t. He just pinches the pillow between his fingers instead.

“Everyone dies. They get eaten or taken or I find them and they’re just, they’re gone . Sometimes the demodogs get to me in the junkyard and they just tear me apart and then they go after the kids, and,” he swallows around a hard lump in his throat, “I can’t help them. It scares the shit out of me. But sometimes? Sometimes I’m at Starcourt and you’re there.”

Billy follows the soft slope of Harrington’s nose up with his eyes in the vague semblance of distraction. “Am I dead ?” Does he even want to know? Dreams reveal our deepest subconscious desires; Harrington should have wanted him dead at some point.

Harrington’s pinky grazes his knuckle and Billy miraculously doesn’t snap his hand back. He’s heading straight down the road of cardiac arrest. Does Harrington touch everyone he knows this fucking much?

“Sometimes,” Harrington confesses. “Sometimes you die because I can’t get down the stairs or escalator fast enough. Sometimes you’re okay, I don’t know how, and you’re holding it off of El with like, your bare fucking hands and she kills it. And sometimes you’re fighting the Mind Flayer with us and we kill it before it gets to anyone. But I don’t think those all count as nightmares; the ones where you don’t come back, though, those definitely count, I think.”

Billy swallows thickly. He can feel his heartbeat pounding against his ribcage. Can Harrington hear it too? Can he feel it, in the six inches between them?

“You think it ever stops?” Billy asks quietly then, childlike, trying to distract himself.

Harrington shakes his head against the pillow and shifts closer. Billy can smell the sleep on him mixed with clean sheets and fading toothpaste. “I think it gets better but I don’t think it ever goes away, not all the way.” His knee knocks Billy’s under the blankets. “I don’t think it’s all bad, though. Sometimes I feel the most fucking alive when I’m scared as hell.”

“I didn’t take you for an adrenaline junky,” Billy lightly jokes. It falls flat but Harrington still snorts appreciatively. He tries to one-eighty it into something more philosophical, serious. “But when you’re always fuckin’ afraid, what do you feel alive all the time? Or is it the opposite?”

Harrington shrugs. “I dunno, man.”

“I think, I think it’s the opposite. When you always think something’s gonna happen, you’re always wired. You always gotta watch your back.” He imagines looking around doorways and hallway corners for hints of Neil’s lean, tall frame; it’s not something he can fondly look  back on. “Because if you don’t, even when you think you can breathe again, something’s gonna get you. And you’re just fucking exhausted, always turned up to a hundred and ten percent so nothing goes in for the kill.”

Gaze thoughtful, Harrington tongues at his bottom lip. Like he’s pondering it. He was raised to have his eyes on the prize; Billy was always raised to keep his head down but also never look back — She left us, Billy, your whore of a mother is fucking gone and she’s never coming back, so get it out of your thick little head that she’s coming back because she never will.

“I think if you’ve gotta watch your back all the time, you’re gonna get burnt out real fast, man. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Billy?”

Billy bites his lip. Weighs the options. Harrington’s knee brushes his again when Billy shifts his position but instead of moving away from the point of contact, Harrington follows him so they’re fully pressed together, bone to bone. His pinky, long and careful, settles over Billy’s knuckle with intention. His skin is warm, save his hands and feet; Harrington’s circulation is shot, blood slowing in his veins like there are kinks in a water hose,  

He finds himself not needing to say anything at all. He holds his breath. Harrington already knows the answer.

They sleep in the same bed together every night after that. It’s not discussed out of the dark but it also feels like it doesn’t have to be talked about. That’ll ruin the magic of why it works. Talking it into existence will break the spell.

Billy sleeps the best he ever has outside of high dosage pain killers and bellies full of brown liquor. He can’t speak for Harrington but it would seem it’s having the same affect on him. And it’s not like they’re cuddling or one of them is playing big spoon to the other’s little spoon — Billy falls asleep facing Harrington and vise versa. He watches him in a way he can’t get away with under the winter sun and it feels like Harrington’s doing it back and they do that every night, coupled with metaphysical, theoretical conversations until sleep overcomes them.

Harrington’s different, after the first night. Maybe Billy is as well, more so than he originally noticed. He thought the earlier night terror knocked him down a few too many pegs and had him feeling defeated. Now he’s not so sure.

“Your ghosts are gonna follow you every day,” Harrington had told him, the night after, “and they’re gonna catch up with you at some point. When they do, you gotta deal with them.”

Billy finds himself surprised at every turn, every sharp, sudden turn, when they get to their beside chats. During the day, it’s the same cycle of him finding ways to pass the empty hours until Harrington gets back home from work. Nights are spent flipping through stockpiled recipe cutouts and dusty cookbooks in search for dinner before they settle down in the living room to work through an ever growing list of recommended films from Buckley and Keith.

The Byers are back in town, too, occupying space at the Wheelers’ house. Plans have been made that Harrington will host a big group dinner the twenty-fifth, complete with a potluck and a supposed holiday themed campaign for the kids - Harrington excluded and Billy figures it’s because Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers will also be attending the Christmas potluck - which means he’s been digging through cabinets and cupboards trying to locate all of his mother’s fancy china and has roped Billy into it, too.

It’s a lot of pressure placed on them but Harrington’s made it very clear that they’re not to complain about it, which Billy resents, but follows along with anyway. Billy just hasn’t been around such varied company and he’s not sure how to feel about it, especially with Harrington’s ex attending.

Billy finds a distraction from that in Robin Buckley, hilariously enough. 

There’s one rare day between things where Buckley has a different shift than Harrington and Billy works up the nerves and calls her. Not because he’s shy or fucking, embarrassed, but because he doesn’t know where their relationship stands and if that’s something he can do. Like he couldn’t tell anyone much about Buckley other than she’s gay and she likes weird foreign films - they get through those easier if they don’t try to take them seriously because Harrington can’t stay on top of subtitles to save his life - but he feels like he should talk to her without the pressure of Harrington there, able to listen in.

When he calls, he, albeit awkwardly, tells her how things have been. The easy flow of conversation, the seeming routine they’ve fallen into night after night, which movies Harrington has and hasn’t been paying attention to. She takes everything rather unsurprised but does get pissy when Billy reports some French movie she adores actually put Harrington to sleep.

Billy is careful to leave out the part about the bed sharing though, because she doesn’t need to know that, but he does clue her in on the night terrors bit, the aftermath; he only includes that bit about the bed for the sake of linear storytelling.

He still feels off center with the back to back hit of what some might call emotional catharsis and the defeatist feeling of suddenly reliving his fears of the Upside Down and the Mind Flayer sinking their claws back into him, but with all the drawn out, after dark conversations laying side by side with someone a little more experienced with the realm of monsters - not so much the ones that called you a ‘pussy’ for not wanting to play baseball and have a limp from an old war injury, like Billy’s more acquainted with, but more so by way of H.P. Lovecraft - he’s been able to ditch his defeatist attitude, at least a little bit.

And things are, they’re good, again, for the most part. Billy doesn’t know how to read a room anymore. 

It all comes to a head on Christmas Eve.

Harrington goes out to shovel the driveway of snow and Billy decides to start dinner before he comes back inside. It’s all very domestic, a little stomach curdling at how much it actually is, but when Harrington makes an immediate beeline for the kitchen still in his snow boots and gloves, and actually plasters himself up against Billy’s back to sneak a peek of what’s hiding between pots and pans, it’s maybe worth it.

The recipe is some vegetable pasta dish he found bookmarked in one of Harrington’s mom’s cookbooks, one of the many cookbooks stashed for decoration and accented with a fine layer of dust.

Dinner is full of relative silence save the near constant tink-tink of silverware on porcelain and film audio. Billy thinks its ‘Blade Runner’ which is definitely good, a brand of sci-fi that’s got enough action to keep him interested, and he’s getting engrossed when Harrington very abruptly says, “I didn’t get you a Christmas gift.”

Billy’s so put-off by the suddenness of it he doesn’t have anything to say at first.

“I- Harrington, what?”

And Harrington hangs his head all low, goes all puppy dog eyed, and scrubs a hand through his hair. “I didn’t get you a Christmas gift, okay? I’m sorry.”

Billy turns to him properly and takes in his defeated stance, the near pout he’s sporting. Why would he assume Billy wanted or needed gifts? And why would he feel guilty about not providing in that category when he’s done so much else?

“I don’t,” Billy almost wants to laugh, “I don’t need a gift, Harrington, I’m living here, free room and board, if anything I should’ve gotten you one, but I can’t like, exactly leave.”

Harrington nods and starts wringing his hands in his lap all nervously. “I mean. There’s something I want to give you? But I don’t, I don’t think it really counts.”

“You don’t need to spend more of your money on me, like I get that you’re -”

“I want to kiss you.”

Billy’s brain might have just short circuited. He’s got to be going deaf. Or his delusions of grandeur are actually taking physical forms and are becoming full-on delusions, he doesn’t know for sure, but —

“What?” 

“I wanna kiss you.” Harrington hastily clarifies, cheeks blooming red. “If that’s okay, I mean, because I’ve been thinking about it for awhile, but I don’t wanna just do it, y’know? I’ve fucked things up before because I just didn’t know and I don’t, I don’t want to fuck things up with you, too, so.”

And then Harrington’s staring at him so expectantly with his wide hazel eyes, alight with hope and wonder, body tensed with anticipation. Billy probably looks the same but worse. Really he would’ve expected to spontaneously combust before Steve Harrington, King Steve, planted one on him, outside of a joke.

It’s his longest held dream and biggest fear rolled into one — a perfect nightmare.

“Harrington, I swear,” Billy almost starts cackling when the realization smacks him ten ways to Tuesday, “just fuckin’ kiss me, already.”

Harrington nods erratically, suddenly beaming brighter than the sun, and Billy can feel it, something, burning him up from the inside out in real time. His heart is thundering in his chest and his palms are sweaty and every muscle in his body is clenching and unclenching  in rapid succession when Harrington moves closer across the cushion, cradles his jaw like porcelain in his hand —

What a wonderful way to die.

When they kiss, it’s too dry and uncoordinated. Harrington gets too excited and almost misses his mouth, mostly kisses his nose instead. Their teeth clink and it reverberates through Billy’s skull but he wouldn’t change that for the world. 

The second attempt is far more successful. Harrington’s lips are plush and soft and he tastes like tomato and herbs, like Billy’s dinner that he slaved over just for Harrington. Harrington tilts his head to the side and puts his other hand on the back of Billy’s neck to draw him in closer, drink him in deeper, and Billy doesn’t know what to do with his hands. His fingers curl and uncurl reflexively where they bite into his thighs. When Harrington nips his bottom lip, one of his hands finds Harrington’s knee. He grabs hold possessively.

“Harrington -”

“Fucking, don’t,” Harrington says breathlessly against his mouth. “It’s Steve, Billy, just -”

Steve,” he gasps and it feels like a victory. 

They maybe move too fast from there. It’s a rush of sensation that Billy’s never known before and all he can do is take what he’s given and beg for more. He’s been a man starved, roaming the desert chasing mirages for far too long. 

The couch very quickly does not become a viable option for wandering hands so Steve's tugging him by the hand up, off, and away. He’s laughing airily when he kisses Billy again at the foot of the stairs and Billy has to fight not to fall backwards and concuss himself as they ascend. He finds them doing a ballroom waltz on their way up, taking turns pinning each other to the railing or up against the commemorative wall of family portraits and school photos, to lick a little further into the others’ mouth.

The door bounces off the opposite wall with the force of Steve’s back falling against it and he’s laughing into the crook of Billy’s neck before pulling him the rest of the way in. They trip over some VHS cases on the floor, some laundry, but Steve’s on the bed, falling back gracefully and starfishing out across the duvet. Billy can only stare at him hungrily and try to collect himself before crawling over Harrington’s lithe form.

He settles on Steve's thighs and dips down to taste his mouth again. Pulls at his hair, keeps his hands preoccupied grabbing handfuls of anything and everything he can with their clothes still on. Billy’s lightheaded and overwhelmed when Harrington tentatively grabs hold on his waist over his shirt and squeezes his hips thoughtfully.

“Oh,” Steve says softly, surprised, when Billy gently bites the side of his neck. 

Steve’s skin is vulnerable between his teeth. He can feel his pulse drumming faster faster against his tongue. Billy might die right now, hell, he might already be dead, but he’s also never felt this alive before in his life. Everything’s happening too fast and too slow at the same time. He’s all hopped up on a cocktail of dopamine and adrenaline. When Billy moves to another spot, bites down again, Steve hisses. Billy soothes the mark with his tongue and searches for his free hand in the bunched sea of blankets around them.

Eventually the heavy petting isn’t far enough for them and Harrington slips a hand to his ass, over the denim, first, cupping the weight of his cheek in hand to try and drive Billy’s hips down a little dirty, which Billy can do easily. His thighs flex as he grinds his erection, hot and firm in his jeans, against Harrington’s stomach. 

When Harrington’s hand sneaks down the back of his pants to cop a proper feel of heated flesh, he groans into Billy’s collarbone and squeezes, digs his nails in. It’s a little possessive; Billy’s not complaining until Harrington wriggles out from under him.

Steve only moves to shimmy out of his shirt and jeans, tossing both gracelessly to the end of the bed. His eyes never leave Billy, hovering next to him, frozen, and it kind of makes him feel like he did back on the patio with Buckley, all carved out and hollow, but the sinking feeling is gone. He’s tingling all over, like his whole body’s been asleep and is just now finally waking up.

When Harrington kicks his briefs off, he hauls Billy back into his lab, grinds up against the thick denim of his pants. His cock is thick and long, already wet at the tip and smearing pre against Billy’s hip when he shifts just right.

They kiss messily through it. Steve makes active work of stripping Billy of his clothes. When his shirt gets pushed down off his shoulders, he hesitates at the sight of his own scars running down his chest and arms. Letting himself be seen like this is one thing, letting himself be touched is something completely different. Harrington must sense the way he tenses and soothes a hand over his side, tracing up the thinner parts of his torso before finding the healed puncture through his sternum, white and and raised and circular, overlapping phases of the moon. 

He thinks about it for a second, before he kisses the circumference of it, then the knotted center, eyes hooded and low and watching Billy’s face for any indicators to stop as he does so. It’s not seductive; it’s soft, caring, says I see you

And god, does Billy feel seen.

Once fully undressed, Billy closes his eyes and shyly grinds against Steve’s stomach, fingers clawing up his shoulders. Testing the waters. Moves his hips in slow, purposeful drags, too much and not enough at the same time, until Harrington gathers both of them up in his hands, spits between their bodies and jerks them off in an uncoordinated rhythm.

Eventually Billy knocks his hand out of the way and takes the reins. It’s been a long time but eventually falls into a rhythm — squeezing periodically, twisting his palm over the crowns, grinding forward, still. 

Billy comes first, embarrassingly fast in comparison to his usual stamina. He shudders as a warning and spurts over their knuckles, up Steve’s chest. Steve kisses him wetly through it, laughs when Billy’s eyes roll back into his head.

He makes it his mission to get Steve off quickly, too; would rather not be the two pump chump here. Billy settles back on Harrington’s lap, hands steadied on his thighs, and grinds down. Bounces like he’s riding his cock. When he twists his hips just right, Steve brushes up against him, slips between his cheeks and presses just so and he wants it, so bad that his bones ache, but they shouldn’t; not yet, at least. Apparently he can only handle Harrington like this in small doses. The first press of their lips had almost sent him into cardiac arrest, nearly stroked out. Needs to build his tolerance.

Steve holds him close when he comes, arms wrapped around Billy’s middle, pulling him in as he shudders out Billy’s name like a prayer. Gets the mess all over his thighs. Billy can only hold him through it like he isn’t still shaking apart himself.

It’s only afterwards that Harrington, nose pressed to Billy’s temple in the afterglow, says, “I really like you, Billy.”

Billy rolls his eyes fondly. Too doped up to go on a spiel he’d be too much of a hypocrite to actually make. “I would hope so, seeing as we just fucked each other’s brains out,” he rumbles, flicking Steve’s nipple. “But what took you so fucking long?”

He deserves the pinch Steve gives his ass cheek. Like he’s any less guilty. He knows later he’s going to have a crisis about this, stuck in his head going over all the ways he’s going to fuck this up, or have a meltdown on Steve about how the hell is this supposed to fucking work? 

But he can worry about that later when the disbelief and unequivocal joy has rubbed off a little bit. They can work out the fine print later. Now they’re going to sleep. Tomorrow they have to get the rest of the house in working order if they’re going to have company. Before that though, Billy wants to suck Steve off in his parents’ big fancy shower and have pancakes for breakfast, again. 

In the morning, when he wakes up next to Steve, naked and sticky with their limbs tangled together, his scars on full display and his pills on the bedside table, body sore in a welcome way, Billy might reconsider his stance on second chances.