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bend all the rules

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The gentle tapping of sleet against his window wakes Billy up before his alarm. There’s no sunrise to greet him today, just the hazy grey skies of Hawkins winter. It feels like it’s been days since he’s seen the sun. It’s just rain and sleet and snow, stuck on a loop, the only reprieve being the occasional dry, grey day.

He looks outside anyway, eyes blinking sleep away as he stares at the wintry sky. The tree outside his window looks dead. Everything looks dead here, though: the grass, the trees, the bushes -- and if Billy were to venture down to Main Street, the people that he’d find there would look dead, too.

It’s the brutality of Indiana winter, he thinks. Without anything to live for, without the warmth of the sun, everyone’s slowly shriveling up on the inside. Withering away, rotting -- trying to find little moments of heat, of vitality, to get them through until the first touch of spring. Maybe just a little rush, a little passion, will tide them over before it's too late.

Billy can’t blame them, can’t even judge; he’s in the same goddamn boat, just trying to make it through winter break without losing all of himself to icy, desolate grasp of midwestern winter.

--

“C’mon, baby, please.

The Camaro’s engine makes a sad, pathetic sound as Billy tries starting her up again. She sputters, trying -- but then: nada. Zilch.

“Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

She’s too cold. It’s too cold. Indiana is too fucking cold.

Billy’s too cold, too, but you don’t see him refusing to get out of bed in the morning, do you? No -- he’s been to the gym every goddamn morning since getting home. Part of it is to get out of the house, to escape from under Neil’s roof, but the other part is decidedly more self serving. The YMCA just happens to be right across the street from what Billy has to assume is the last video store in the whole ass United States, which is, like, the most hilarious thing ever.

The only thing funnier than a honest-to-god video store in the age of streaming and pirating is who’s still working there: none other than Steve Harrington, Billy’s old high school rival. It’s been a year and a half since they graduated -- so while Billy’s been working his way toward a college education, King Steve of Hawkins, Indiana has been shelving DVD’s that are probably so scratched that there’s only fifteen playable minutes on each one.

It’s bleak as hell on the inside. Built in the 80’s and clearly untouched since. The place is decked out with emerald walls and a beige carpet that’s probably only ever vacuumed when some greasy kid spills their candy or loses their lunch. The employees are supposed to wear uniforms that look like cheap foot-locker knock-offs, but Billy’s never actually seen anyone wear them, other than that one guy Billy can only assume is the manager.

Not that it matters. Who knows if anyone actually rents anything from the place anymore. Billy just goes in to buy twizzlers after his morning workouts to get a glimpse of what life in Hawkins would’ve been like had he stayed.

It’s incredibly rewarding, honestly. Who needs meditation or mindfulness when you can practice self-affirmation by watching your high school rival, the guy who beat you out for prom king by five votes, stacking untouched boxes of discount horror movies with an expression that says his soul died months ago?

Maybe it’s a little mean-spirited, but Billy’s never claimed to be a nice guy. Besides, it makes Billy feel more energized than what a workout and a cup of coffee can give him and it’s probably the most engaged he ever sees Harrington. He’s doing the guy a favor, really. He’d probably be dead if it wasn’t for Billy’s selfless enrichment.

The last time Billy came in -- yesterday -- he gave Steve shit for looking tired. Busy schedule, pretty boy? I imagine it gets rough, trying to juggle all these demanding shifts while trying to keep up with your loyal subjects. Oh, no, wait -- you’re not exactly King anymore, are you? Billy had said. And this isn’t exactly Wall Street, is it?

Steve hadn’t exactly looked like he wanted to punch Billy -- which was the desired outcome, really -- but there was a spark of something in his eye, a fire that hadn’t been there before Billy had walked through the door and had started needling him. It was good to see -- just a hint of who King Steve had been once before, back when they had been shouldering each other on the basketball court, when they had been vying for the title of top dog at Hawkins High.

Steve had, eventually, rolled his eyes (after a few more jabs), and sold Billy his twizzlers like a good retail zombie.

Fuck off, Steve had told him, boredly.

I think cursing is against company policy. This is a family establishment, isn’t it? Billy had said, tone a feign of shock and appall.

Bye, Hargrove, was all Billy got, volley un-returned.

Harrington never really gives Billy the time of day while he’s working. Not in the way that Billy really wants, anyway. Not in the way that he needs.

At parties, though? That’s a whole other story.

--

There’s a thin layer of snow on the ground by the time Billy makes it to Tommy H’s house. The walk over hadn’t been too bad, but Billy’s ears were burning by the end of it. They’re still smarting, even warmed by the heat from the dozens of bodies packed into Hernandez’s living room. Billy un-bundles himself the second he walks through the door, throwing his coat into a pile in the corner, too cool to wear it for longer than necessary.

He would’ve driven, but his baby’s still acting up because of the cold. And Tommy only lives a few blocks away, stuck with Billy on the shitty side of town. The walk’s flat, because Hawkins is flat, which makes it easy. It also makes it boring. The only thing that made the whole trek even remotely bearable were the Christmas lights brightening up every house along the way. They’re nothing like the light displays on the other side of town, in Loch Nora -- but there’s something quaint, something nice, about a house with a single strand of rainbow lights over the door, or some big bulbs lighting up the bush by a crumbling mailbox.

Christmas lights, Billy thinks, are basically the only good thing the winter here has to offer. Besides all the parties, anyway. And that’s just because all the college kids are back in town. Hawkins must be bleak as fuck once winter break is over.

Billy knows the lights’ll still be on for his walk back. No one ever bothers to turn them off until the morning, anyway. He always looks forward to his walks back to his house. He’ll be warm by then, alcohol and maybe some drugs heating up his system, numbing him to the cold. Hawkins’ll be quiet, and all Billy will have are the snow-muffled sound of his footsteps and the blurry, twinkling Christmas lights guiding his way. He’ll linger, dawdling, just taking it all in with his hands in his pockets, postponing the time until he slips back under Neil’s roof. There’s a subtle kind of beauty to it, at least in comparison to the rest of it all.

His toes are a little cold and wet from his walk over, but they’ll dry off soon.

“You skip the gym today?” Steve asks him, when Billy slips into the kitchen to fix himself a drink with vodka so bottom-shelf that Tommy must’ve been paid to take it off the liquor store’s hands.

Steve’s always in the kitchen at these kinds of things.

“Aw, you miss me, Harrington?” Billy says. He splashes some vodka into a cup with some orange juice, and then splashes some more into his mouth.

Steve rolls his eyes. They’re pretty and brown, and they’re lit up tonight with the fire of the few drinks already under Steve’s belt. They’re a lot brighter this way -- more alive. So different than the way Steve looks at Family Video under the harsh fluorescent flare of lights reflecting off emerald walls.

“Fat chance,” Steve says, taking the bottle from Billy before Billy can even decide if he wanted to be nice and offer it over. “It’s hard not to notice when my one guaranteed sale of the day doesn’t show.”

The vodka is real bad. Billy doesn’t cough, but Steve does, so Billy laughs at him. Steve shoves at him in retaliation, just one hand on Billy’s shoulder, but it’s enough touch to tell that Steve’s hands are warm.

“Camaro doesn’t like the cold,” Billy says. “And it’s a long way to walk.”

There’s no public transit in Hawkins. Nothing except a bus station that’ll take you to Bloomington, where you can then catch a train into Indianapolis.

“Maybe if you stopped eating so much candy all the time, you wouldn’t need to go to the gym,” Steve says.

But then Billy wouldn’t be able to start his day with the strawberry licorice flavor of getting to gander at washed-up Steve Harrington in all his glory. There are only so many small joys in all of Hawkins, and there’s no way Billy would deprive himself like that. Besides, he’s never been one for moderation.

“You’d miss me,” Billy says.

“I wouldn’t,” Steve says. He sounds so sure of it. Billy tries not to feel stung.

“Yeah, you would. I’m the prettiest thing you get to see all day.” Billy winks.

“I think we have a cardboard cutout of Phoebe Cates in a bikini in the back room, somewhere. She’s definitely hotter than you.”

You have never seen me in a speedo,” Billy says.

Steve fakes a gag. Billy takes a long sip of his drink and shoves him.

“Don’t hurt yourself trying to imagine it,” Billy says. “I could give you a free show, any time.” He raises his eyebrows and runs his tongue over his lips, all the tease and bravado of his high school self coming out to play.

Billy knows how this goes. Steve is small town conservative Indiana born-and-bred; the no homo is basically coded into his genes, at this point. Billy, however, grew up in Cali, and has known he was gay since before he could even remember knowing what it meant. The second Neil dragged them to Hawkins after Billy’s transgressions, though, he knew he had to keep that under wraps, had to put that part of himself on the back burner. It wasn’t hard: Hawkins hadn’t offered up many available options for him, and Billy had been more focused on school and basketball, and then scholarships as a way out. His dedication had landed him with a free ride at U of C, and while Chicago isn’t California, it’s free and only four years, and then Billy is out. And he only has to come home for the holidays where they close the dorms for good. So, for Thanksgiving and Spring break, Billy doesn’t have to even think about Hawkins. He figures if he made it through eighteen years under Neil’s roof, he can scrape by during winters and sometimes summers, too. It’s not that Neil is necessarily better now than he used to be, either -- but Billy is older. And wiser. And mostly, they pass each other like ships in the night.

Anyway, here in Small Town US of A, he learned fast that it was real easy to knock guys like Steve off balance, or even down a peg, by teasing them a little with something that came off as a performance of homosexuality more than anything else. It’s a typical jock thing to do -- Billy’s not the only one who does it, but he’s pretty damn sure he’s the only one who speaks from experience, the only one who’s not actually performing anything. Not that anyone here in Hawkins has to know that part of the act.

Steve’s always been an easy target, too. He always flinches, always stumbles, whenever Billy even remotely suggests something gay in his direction.

It’s taken years, but Billy’s learned to brush off the hurt and exploit it for what it is: a weakness. Something to fuel an old rivalry.

Because, when it comes down to it, Billy’s not unaware as to why he likes riling Steve up so much, or why he refuses to let this high school antagonism between them die. It’s not like Billy forgot that Steve was the prettiest goddamn thing he’d ever laid eyes on back at Hawkins High, on that first day Billy had pushed his way through those doors. Steve’s not the same kind of pretty anymore, with his baby face and his strawberry pink lips, but he’s filled out and grown up in all the right ways, and is definitely up there with handsome. He’s just as gorgeous now as Billy found him before.

He’s also unattainable, which Billy knows holds a certain kind of charm. It’s not an unknown story -- closet-case falls for popular, very straight jock. Usually the closet cases aren’t hot jocks, too, in those stories -- but Billy’s all for trampling expectations, even if the story ends the same way every time. Steve Harrington will always be Billy’s fantasy maybe. His what if. He’ll always be, at least a little bit, Billy’s if only.

Steve rolls his eyes again at Billy’s attempt to rile him up, but he’s clearly flustered like always. A little red in the face, a little embarrassed by the insinuation.

Like anyone would actually think Steve Harrington was gay. Jesus, Billy thinks. He almost wants to tell Steve to stop sweating it, that the fishbowl of high school is over and no one actually cares anymore. But he doesn’t. That would ruin the fun.

“Offer always stands.” Billy winks. “See ya around, Harrington,” Billy says.

He’s always the one to cut their time together short. There’s a power in it, in knowing that Steve never has the upper hand in that way. Because sure, Billy might be a little into Steve’s pretty face, but he’s just eye candy in the end.

Just another something to keep Billy entertained during the dismal Hawkins winters.

--

“Twizzlers actually suck, you know,” Steve says, plopping down next to Billy on the back stoop of Carla Hunter’s house a couple nights later.

It’s cold as balls out, but for once it’s not snowing. Steve’s wearing a horrendous knit hat with ear flaps and a big pom on top. Billy debates stealing it and putting it on his own head, but Steve looks cute in it, with his hair all smushed to his forehead. Billy remembers the hat from high school. He thinks Nancy Wheeler might’ve given it to him. Maybe even made it for him.

“We’ve already gone over that you have bad taste,” Billy says. He’s not drunk, yet. Not quite in the mood to fight, so his tone is easy, less combative than normal. Almost, almost welcoming -- which is probably why Steve even poses his next question.

“Can I bum one?” Steve asks, gesturing at the cigarette Billy’s savoring as an excuse to not go back inside.

The party hasn’t really started yet, and Carla lives in Loch Nora near Steve, which means her house is basically a soulless mansion with too-white walls and shiny, material wealth shoved into every corner. Without anyone in it, Billy feels trapped, out of place. Outside, smoking, he feels a lot more at peace. A lot more comfortable. Besides, the Hunter’s have really decked out their backyard in lights, which somehow make the cold night way more bearable.

Billy exhales his last drag into Harrington’s face. He grins when Steve coughs, when Steve throws a scowl at him. Only then does Billy offer over his pack and a lighter.

“I thought you vaped,” Billy says.

“Not since high school,” Steve says. “That shit does weird things to your lungs.”

“Prefer your cancer the old fashioned way?” Billy asks, taking another drag. He certainly does. His old man smokes, and his father before him. Billy knows he should probably quit, but it’s a habit he only really leans on when he’s back home, under the Hargrove roof.

“Whatever,” Steve says. He coughs once, twice, after his first inhale, but easily settles into silence next to Billy afterward.

Billy lets his eyes fall out of focus a bit, the Christmas light display blurring and scattering in his field of vision. It’s nearly bright as day outside, he thinks. Or at least twilight. Or dawn. They’re the kind of LED’s that are meant to have the warm, flickering glow of incandescents. When Billy turns to glance at Steve, Billy thinks that maybe Steve should always be lit up like this: in the yellow warmth of flickering holiday spirit. He looks touchable, soft. Alive. Billy watches as Steve tilts his head up, chin proudly jutting out, and blows smoke up toward the stars.

“Why are you still here?” Billy asks.

“Jesus, I’ll leave you alone in a second,” Steve says, but he’s making no moves to leave. He just sounds bored, like almost always.

It’s an easy dismissal, a route Billy could take if he wanted to. But it’s not what he meant, and he’s not quite ready to lose the company. It’s cold, and even though Harrington is at least a foot away, Billy feels warmer for his presence. He always does.

He’s not even drunk, can’t even blame it on alcohol, but he finds himself clarifying all the same: “Here, in Hawkins. Why’re you still bumming around this shit hole?”

Steve turns to look at Billy, big brown eyes actually surprised, like he’s shocked Billy could actually want to know, like Billy isn’t dying to know anything Steve’ll tell him. Like he hasn’t always been a little obsessed. Then again, for all Steve knows, Billy still hates him for winning out for prom king, for making Billy have to share the title of team captain during their senior year.

“Uh,” Steve says, his pretty little mouth screwing up into a frown. “Where else is there to go?”

“Literally anywhere else,” Billy says. He tosses his cigarette butt to the ground and stomps on it with the heel of his boot.

Steve shrugs. “Pretty sure there’s thousands of towns just like this.”

Why leave, when it’ll be more of the same? Billy hears. It’s not an unfamiliar thought. But Billy keeps himself alive with dreams of the coast, of the waves and the ocean breeze. Steve could have that too. Billy, suddenly, aches to share that with him. To show him that there’s more than what Hawkins has to offer.

Instead, Billy reaches over and steals Steve’s cigarette. It’s Billy’s, anyway; he’s entitled. Steve makes an indignant noise, but doesn’t actually stop Billy, so he considers it a win.

“If you don’t want to change shit, then don’t. But you don’t exactly seem happy, here.” No one seems happy here. Billy blows the smoke into Steve’s face again. This time, Steve doesn’t cough. “Sounds like you’re avoiding your problems instead of dealing with them. The only one who can change your shitty situation is you, pretty boy.”

Steve stares at him for a second, then just laughs. He sounds a little delirious, like maybe he’s already a little drunk. He looks a little thrown off the loop, like he wasn’t expecting this whole conversation. “Wow. Billy Hargrove: secret advice columnist. Okay. How much do I owe you for that word of wisdom, huh?”

Billy looks up, like maybe he’s considering. “Depends on what you’re willing to pay,” he says, finally. “Are sexual favors off the table?”

He says it half to rile Steve up and lighten up the mood, and half because he’s totally and completely serious and it gives Billy a kick being honest.

Steve shoves him in the shoulder, then steals the cigarette back.

“You’re really something else, Hargrove. Jesus, I bet the girls must love you in Chicago.”

Billy barks out a laugh. “You’ve got no idea.”

--

Billy’s trips to the gym get stalled out by two feet of snow. The Camaro can handle a couple inches and even some ice, because Billy’s a good driver and he’s got winter tires on her, but more than that and he’s shit out of luck.

Tommy throws parties basically every day, it seems like, so Billy doesn’t get to sulk about it too much.

On his way over tonight, Billy finds Tommy, Carol, and Steve making snow angels in Tommy’s front yard. They’re all clearly smashed, so the angels are more like blobs, and Tommy’s is totally ruined because by the time Billy gets there, Carol’s straddling him.

And Steve’s not even wearing a hat.

“Jesus, you’re all fucking idiots,” Billy says, trudging through the snow toward them, instead of rounding toward the back of the house, to the door that leads to Tommy’s basement, where presumably the party is raging.

Ooh, Billy Hargrove,” Steve slurs. “Finally gracing us with your presence.”

“That’s right, who else is gonna get this party started?” Billy says, knee-deep in snow before he bends down to offer Steve his hand. It doesn’t look like Steve’d be getting up without it, any time soon. “You look like a drowned rat, Harrington.”

“He always looks like a drowned rat,” Tommy says from his place on the ground, his fallen-angel shaped blob.

Steve stumbles when Billy helps him up, leaning heavy into Billy’s side. He’s not wearing gloves, either, and his fingers are icy and cold in Billy’s.

“Don’t be mean, Tommy,” Carol says. “Sometimes he looks like a cockatoo.”

“Oh, right, right!” Tommy cackles. The sound is muffled by all the snow around them.

“Wanna leave ‘em outside?” Billy asks, leaning in so his voice’s at Steve’s ear.

“More than anything,” Steve says, and then, under his breath, goes: “I hope Tommy gets frostbite on his dick.”

Billy barks out a laugh, throws an arm over Steve’s shoulders, and ushers him through the snow and then inside.

Steve is wobbly, stumbling like a baby deer, and doesn’t think twice about leaning against Billy for support, for stability. It’s an interesting change -- a good one -- from the usual routine of only ever touching one another if it’s a shove, a jab. Billy knows it’s the alcohol thats numbing Steve to his usual concern of being perceived as something he’s not, but Billy’ll take it. He’ll take Steve’s hand finding the hard plane of Billy’s chest, lingering there for a moment before he fists his fingers in Billy’s shirt, like he’s holding on for dear life.

“I think I need another drink,” Steve says.

People are pressing in from all sides and it’s loud. Steve has to lean in real close for Billy to be able to hear him.

“I think you need, like, hot cocoa,” Billy says.

Steve’s eyes light up underneath the fairy lights Tommy’s strung to the ceiling of the half-finished basement. They’re there year-round, Billy knows, but right now they look particularly festive. “Oh damnnn. I do,” Steve says, delighted.

It’s impossible to resist those bambi eyes, Billy thinks. It’s the only reason he finds himself in the dimly-lit kitchen of Hernandez house, stone cold sober, making hot cocoa for Steve while a party rages on underneath their feet.

Tommy’s parents must still work nights, Billy thinks. Because the house is dark, unoccupied. Everyone’s usually pretty good about sticking to the basement and not pouring out into the rest of the house and wrecking the place. It’s a kind consolation, for getting to party here so often. It’s a nice place, Tommy’s home. Small, but a little bigger than Billy’s house. Better decorated, too. It’s always struck Billy as a homey place, somewhere that’s comfortable to be -- not like the houses in Loch Nora. Not like, presumably, Steve’s house, given how much time Steve’s spent here over the years, as Billy’s heard. The guy practically grew up here. He used to only ever be home when he threw parties at his house, but Steve doesn’t do that anymore. Hasn’t, really, since before Billy came to town.

Steve’s sitting on the counter, legs kicking back at yellow painted cabinets, while Billy heats up water on the stove in the smallest pot he could find. He’d tried to just use mugs and the microwave, but Steve had complained, had said that that’s cheating, that it tasted better made on the stove.

“I don’t see why it matters, it’s the shitty packet stuff,” Billy says, pouring three packets of cocoa powder into enough water for two mugs. The tiny marshmallows float around at the top. Billy pushes them under with a wooden spoon and watches them bob.

“This way the marshmallows melt. Makes it even creamier,” Steve says, from right over Billy’s shoulder.

Steve’s suddenly so close. A warm and solid line against Billy’s back. At some point, Steve must’ve gotten down from the counter without Billy noticing.

Billy swallows. He doesn’t startle, but it’s a near thing.

“Then you don’t get marshmallows,” Billy says, eyes on the tiny, melting marshmallows disappearing into the sludge.

Steve drapes an arm over Billy’s shoulder and peers down at the pot of bubbling chocolate with him. “Who knew you had such a sweet tooth,” Steve says, breath at Billy’s ear.

It’s not really that Billy has a sweet tooth. He’s just a sucker for over-indulgence. Sure he eats Twizzlers practically every day, but that’s just an excuse to indulge in something else. He’s making himself a mug of hot chocolate not because he really wants it, but so he can sit and drink it with Steve in the quiet darkness, away from the rest of the party. A moment alone with King Steve, stolen just for himself.

“Think Tommy’s hiding any Baileys around here?” Billy asks, through what feels like a giant lump in his throat.

Steve hums and pushes himself away. Billy’s simultaneously relieved and not, missing the contact instantly.

Steve is still damp from the snow when they sit down on the couch with the cocoa. Mrs. Hernandez had some peppermint Baileys stashed in the back of a cabinet, which Steve had found in about two seconds, flat. Billy makes a mental note to buy her some more, just for the experience -- and also because of Steve’s more than generous pours. And also, maybe, because Billy tips the bottle up to his mouth to take an overly sweet gulp, just to try and catch up to Steve.

It’s easy, hanging out with Steve. It shouldn’t be, because they’ve spent the last few years picking fights with each other, but it is. Maybe Billy just picks fights because it’s what he knows. Maybe he doesn’t know exactly how to interact with Steve if he’s not pulling at Steve’s pigtails with a practiced sneer. Or maybe, Billy thinks, they just fight because it’s effortless, because it’s more straightforward and less complicated than the easy way they actually get along.

They don’t talk about anything in particular, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the way that Steve licks chocolate sugar from his lips, tiny pink tongue darting out to catch the errant granules.

“Hey,” Steve says after a while, eyes on his mug. “How long has it been since you’ve kissed someone?”

The question takes Billy off-guard.

“A month or so,” Billy says. “Give or take.” He certainly hasn’t kissed anyone in Hawkins, that’s for sure.

“Ugh, it’s been so fucking long for me,” Steve says. Billy doesn’t know why; there’s plenty of lonely, bored chicks here. It’s the winter, too -- it’s not like there’s anything else to do, unless you’re real fond of ice skating, maybe.

Billy snorts a sympathetic sound. “Sucks, man.”

“Yeah,” Steve says.

Billy watches as Steve chews on the corner of his cheek, like he’s thinking.

“I mean, Tommy and I used to -- like, we’re not gay, you know? It’s just --” Steve says, apropos of absolutely nothing.

“I get it,” Billy says, because he does. He understands bored small town kids, and he understands trying stuff out with a friend, even if he’s not sure why Steve’s telling him this.

“You do?”

Billy shrugs. Steve’s looking at him with wide eyes, like maybe he expected Billy to punch him, or something. It’s not out of the realm: they’ve definitely traded punches before, back in the day. But never about that. Billy, even with all of his posturing and all of his teasing, has never given anyone shit about being gay. Obviously, the logic behind it is sound, but Steve doesn’t know it, and so maybe he’s never noticed before. Billy’s a dick about everything, so Steve probably assumed Billy would be a dick about that, too.

Billy doesn’t even get a chance to think about why Steve said what he said, other than it was marginally related to the topic at hand -- because suddenly there’s lips on his, and Billy is lost in a minty, sugary kiss.

Steve’s lips are warm, and he’s got a fist in the cotton of Billy’s shirt, pulling it taut.

“I’m not gay,” Steve says, pulling back to look Billy in the eyes. His words are a little slurred as they ghost over Billy’s lips and his eyes are a little foggy with alcohol, and Billy should care, but he can’t bring himself to, because Steve just kissed him, and Billy feels drunk on it, too.

“Okay,” Billy breathes out, eyes on Steve’s lips.

“Okay,” Steve says, and kisses him again.

Steve doesn’t exactly end up in Billy’s lap, but it’s a near thing. He’s twisted, thigh on top of Billy’s, facing the back of the couch, caging Billy in. He’s a good kisser, even if he’s drunk, even if it’s messy and hard and too frantic to be considered perfect. Billy’s never been much of a fan of perfection, anyway, especially not when Steve gets his hands into Billy’s hair. They’re warm, now, and his nails scratch over the back of Billy’s scalp in a way that sends shivers cascading down Billy’s spine. And it’s a good thing Steve’s not on Billy’s lap right now, because Billy doesn’t exactly think Steve’d like the reaction the rest of Billy’s body is having, pants tight and straining at the crotch.

Billy shouldn’t be letting this happen, he knows. But he’s only human. He wants to forget about the cold dead winter, just like everyone else in this town. It’s not so bad, letting himself have something warm, even if it’s not perfect. Even if it’s two people using each other as a means to an end.

It goes on longer than it should, until Steve is making desperate little sounds into Billy’s mouth, until Billy is too warm, and too close to trying to shove a hand up Steve’s shirt to touch the ladder of his ribcage.

The basement door creaks open on squeaky hinges a room away. By the time the sounds of Carol and Tommy’s giggling reach them, Steve is already on the other side of the small couch, the mug of cocoa back in his hands. He sips at it slowly, red-faced even in the dim light.

Billy’s lips still taste like Steve. He doesn’t want to sour that with sugar that’s long since gone cold.

He pulls his feet up onto the couch, knees to his chest. It’s about as subtle as he can be without pulling a throw pillow out from behind his back to place over his lap.

Shit,” Tommy breathes, strolling into the living room with Carol in tow. “We were wondering where you guys went.”

“You missed beer pong,” Carol says. “Well, I mean, it’s still going, but we’re going to Tommy’s room, so…”

“Sucks,” Billy says.

Tommy’s eyes catch on the bottle of Baileys on the coffee table. He cackles. “See you remembered where my mom keeps her stash, Harrington.”

“Ooh, did you make cocoa?” Carol asks, eyes lighting up. “Is there any left?”

Babe,” Tommy says, pulling at her hand and glancing at the back hall that leads to his bedroom. Like they don’t screw enough already. Carol just smacks him and he whines.

“There’s not,” Steve says, and his voice is a little raw, a little rough. But he powers through it. “We drank it all. Sorry, Carol.”

“That’s okay, I’ll make Tommy make me some, later.” Billy knows she will, and he knows Tommy’ll do it, too.

“Will we see you guys when we come back?” Tommy asks, ever hopeful.

Tommy’s a clingy friend, always craving the validation of the people around him, but he’s pretty ride-or-die, too, so Billy doesn’t mind. Even after the huge spat Steve and Tommy had, back in junior year, they’re still tight as can be. He’s a good guy to keep in your back pocket: utterly dependable. Billy’s slept on Tommy’s floor more times than he can count after some run-ins with Neil. Tommy never asks any questions, just opens up his door for Billy, and occasionally hands him a bag of frozen peas if he’s sporting a particularly bad black eye. Billy’s always suspected Tommy might even actually know Billy’s ‘secret’ (or, more accurately, his secret from Hawkins), but he’s never breathed a word, never thrown anything at Billy other than solid support.

And yeah, Billy could stay, but he’s barely even drunk and he figures the nicest thing he can do for Steve right now is bow out before Steve tries to contort himself into some kind of excuse. Because Billy knows there’s no way both of them are staying until the party winds down, not with the way Steve’s face currently looks -- a little guilty, a little scared, and a little lost. Like maybe he’s trying to think of a way to bow out that isn’t going to hurt Billy’s feelings, which is honestly kind of sweet.

It makes it even easier to fall on that grenade.

“Nah, I gotta head out, actually. My old man gets home from work early tonight,” Billy lies. It’s so easy to do, after all these years. Untruths fall so effortlessly from his tongue by now.

“Aw,” Tommy says. Then, he turns to look at Steve, hopeful. “See you in like half an hour?”

“More like five minutes,” Carol murmurs under her breath.

Carol!” Tommy hisses.

Carol laughs. “Shut up, Tommy,” Carol says. “Don’t worry, I’m gonna make you eat me out for at least thirty minutes, first.”

“Have fun,” Steve tells them, as Tommy’s already dragging her toward his room.

The Hernandez living room is dead quiet, then. It’s just the two of them, breathing quietly into the dim light. Billy doesn’t know when he should move, if he should get up first or wait until Steve does. There’s an etiquette here, but Billy doesn’t know it. He’s honestly never hooked up with someone straight before. Doesn’t know how to mitigate feelings, which isn’t exactly his strong suit, anyway.

The sound of Steve setting down his mug on the table is as loud as a gunshot. It echoes in Billy’s ears.

“Billy, I’m not --”

“I know you’re not, pretty boy,” Billy says, all easy. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I just --”

“It’s okay, Harrington,” Billy promises. The words taste a little bitter on his tongue, but they also taste like truth, too. Because this isn’t anything important, even if it’s something Billy’s thought about for years. He’s not going to get lost in some desperate fantasy; he’s too realistic for that. It is what it is, and what it is is okay. “Seeya tomorrow, maybe,” he says.

“Tomorrow?” Steve looks lost.

“If I can make it to the gym,” Billy reminds him.

“Oh, yeah, tomorrow.”

Billy’s the first to leave. He tongues over his lips the entire way home. They still taste like peppermint. They still taste like Steve.

--

Back in his room, tucked up under the warmth of a duvet, Billy realizes that Steve’s probably operating under the assumption that they’re the same, that Billy’s not gay either. That they’re just two friends, blowing off some steam, or whatever.

He wonders if it’s better, or worse, to tell Steve the truth, to let him in on the dirty little secret Billy’s been keeping from Hawkins, Indiana.

--

Billy doesn’t expect it to happen again.

It does happen again, only a couple days later, at that.

He’s thrown for a loop when Steve pulls him into the laundry room at Tina’s house. They’re both drunk, this time, and Steve tastes like Red Bull and cheap voda. The air smells like fabric softener, and Billy worries he’s going to choke on the cloying aftertaste of it all, but he doesn’t.

Steve’s hands mess up his hair, and Billy’s mess up his in return.

Billy’s lips are kiss-bitten and tingling when Steve pulls back, bambi-eyes all dark and worried, and tells Billy, “I’m not gay.”

“Loud and clear,” Billy says. His voice is rough. He licks a sloppy stripe over Steve’s bottom lip and smiles.

It’s nice, kissing Steve. Easy, the way the two of them fit together. It’s warm and syrupy, and when Billy’s licking into Steve’s mouth, he almost forgets how cold it is outside, how desolate. With Steve’s fingers fisting into the front of Billy’s henley, Billy almost forgets how he has to go home at the end of the night. When Billy makes the kiss a little meaner, a little more passionate, just for the hell of it, that feels perfect, too.

“I’m not,” Steve says. His voice is a little breathy. He’s wobbly on his feet, swaying toward Billy, then away. Like he can’t decide if he wants to pull back, or if he wants more.

“I got you,” Billy tells him, and catches him in another kiss before Steve can lean away again.

--

It’s not the most thrilling, or the most gratifying, but it passes the time.

This thing he’s got going with Steve definitely adds a layer of excitement to the break. Billy knows it’s going nowhere, knows that making out with a straight guy who he’s wanted to kiss since junior year is probably a bad call -- but there’s no real compelling reason not to. It’s not like Billy’s yearning for Steve, and it’s not like Steve’s got anything else going on. It’s stupid and its dumb and really, why not?

Billy even finds himself making out with Steve on a quieter evening at Tommy’s, after Tommy and Carol dashed upstairs for a quickie, leaving Steve and Billy in the basement alone together.

The comfort of the worn leather couch in Tommy’s basement is where Steve first straddles him, first presses Billy down against old hide and pushes his hands up and under Billy’s shirt. They’ve been drinking and smoking for hours, so Steve’s fingers are warm against Billy’s ribs, no lingering bite of cold from the freezing air outside.

They’ve been watching horror movies. Behind Steve’s back, some family is being haunted while Billy gets to taste the way Steve sounds when he’s biting back the little noises gathering in his throat. Steve’s quiet about it, keeps choking them back, but gets louder when Billy gets his calloused hands on the smooth skin of Steve’s back.

“Fuck, I’m not --” Steve says. His face is a little red, his eyes dark under the fairy lights strung up above.

“Not gay,” Billy says. “I know.”

“I like girls,” Steve reiterates.

Billy wants to point out that he’s on Billy’s lap. It’s very easy to tell that Steve’s not exactly disinterested in this. But Billy’s not stupid; he’s hormone-filled guy, too. He knows what it’s like, being frustrated. What it’s like to not have that many options. He’s hooked up with people he’s not been interested in, before. He knows that even a casual interest, or a willingness to close one’s eyes and just focus on the sensations, doesn’t exactly mean anything.

“Okay,” Billy says.

“Like, you get it, right?”

Billy rolls his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. His palms are still pressed to Steve’s back, fingers spread over the cage of his ribs. “I get it, don’t worry.”

“Okay, I just --” Steve says, worrying at his lower lip. Billy wants to kiss the frown off his face, but he doesn’t. It’s not like that. It’s just something that feels good, between two friends. Or -- between two people who Billy thought were rivals, but clearly something fucked up along the way.

“Seriously, man, don’t worry so much. They’ll be back soon, if you wanna call it quits,” Billy says.

“How soon, do you think?”

Billy shrugs. “Donno. Five, ten minutes?”

He’s expecting Steve to roll off of him and settle into the other corner of the couch. He’s not, exactly, expecting Steve to reach down and palm himself through his sweats.

Billy doesn’t doesn’t even allow himself to look down. Doesn’t wanna sour the moment for Steve, or do anything that might spook him. He just keeps his breath even, catches Steve in another kiss, and shoves his hand underneath the waistband of his own sweats, and starts jacking himself off. Steve follows in kind, and Billy tries not to come too fast at the idea that they’re doing this together, in tandem. Steve’s breathy little sounds are sweet as sugar, and Billy eats them up, licking them into his own mouth as his wrist brushes against Steve’s, electric at that one point of clumsy contact.

By the time Tommy and Carol come back downstairs, ten minutes later, Billy and Steve are sitting next to each other on the couch again, a foot of space between them. Billy’s shoveling Cool Ranch Doritos into his face, and Steve’s eyes are on the television. They took separate trips to the bathroom, after, to wash their hands.

“Jesus, did you lazy assholes even move while we were gone?” Tommy says.

“No,” Steve says.

“You missed the house burning down,” Billy says, gesturing at the scene playing out on Tommy’s shitty TV with crumb-covered hands.

“Oh, that’s the best part,” Carol says.

“Want us to rewind?” Steve asks.

Carol lights up. “Ooh! Let’s watch from the beginning, and drink everytime he sees a ghost!”

“Sold,” Billy says.

He doesn’t touch Steve for the rest of the night, until they both pass out drunk on the worn leather couch, heads on opposite ends, legs against each other in the middle.

--

It doesn’t stop.

They find each other in bathrooms, in garages, in dark corners away from crowds.

Steve is always somewhat drunk. Billy, only sometimes, if he manages to get to the party, first. It’s hard to catch up when Steve’s so intent on pulling him away.

It escalates, a little.

Steve touches Billy first, because Billy’s too wary and too blind to cross the invisible lines Steve’s got in the sand. He wants to keep this going, wants to make it worse -- so he doesn’t do anything to jeopardize it. So, when Steve palms Billy through his jeans, Billy barely even acknowledges it, other than to reciprocate. Matching Steve’s actions in kind.

The first time he gets off to Steve rubbing Billy off through his pants, his orgasm hits like a punch to the gut. Sudden and desperate and thoroughly addictive.

All Billy knows is that he wants more, and for once in his life he’s patient enough to let Steve set those boundaries, to let Steve be the one to decide what level of touch he’s most comfortable with.

It escalates and escalates, until Steve’s fingers are warm around Billy’s cock and slick with spit. It escalates until Steve’s spilling himself into Billy’s fingers, biting off a choked moan that echoes off the pink tiles in Tommy’s guest bathroom.

--

“I’m not gay,” Steve breathes into his mouth.

God, Billy’s heard that phrase so many times that it echoes in his dreams.

“I am,” Billy says, with lips that still taste like Steve. “That gonna be a problem for you?”

Steve freezes. Billy probably could’ve timed that a little better. At least picked a time where his hand wasn’t on Steve’s dick.

Steve takes a long breath. His pupils are blown so wide that his eyes almost look black. His face is red, lips kiss-bitten and raw.

He shakes his head. “As long as you know that I’m not --” Steve starts.

Billy moves his hand just so Steve’ll shut up. “I know,” Billy tells him.

It doesn’t seem to be a problem, because only a couple minutes later, Steve’s licking into Billy’s mouth, making all sorts of pretty noises, and losing himself in an orgasm so hard that it sounds like it hurts.

Billy honestly doesn’t expect Steve to return the favor after tonight’s revelation, but he does -- with warm fingers coaxing Billy achingly slowly toward an orgasm that leaves Billy tongue-tied with shaky knees.

--

Billy’s sitting on the hood of the Camaro with Tommy when he decides to come out to him, spur of the moment. It’s not important, or Billy never thought it was, anyway, but the words are coming out of his mouth, anyway. Maybe it’s because he’s a little high. Or maybe its because it has slowly become important, without Billy ever realizing it.

“You know I’m, like, super gay, right?” Billy says.

Tommy giggles, a mouthful of smoke escaping into the crisp air. Billy watches it dissipate in front of Tommy’s face.

Above them, the sky is clear. It’s pitch black out here, dark as hell. The only lights for miles are the Camaro’s headlights, shining into the woods in front of them.

“Yeah, man, I know,” Tommy says.

Billy shoves him with his shoulder. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Tommy says.

After a little while longer of silence, the only sound the wind whistling through empty trees, Billy says, “Wait, how’d you know?”

Tommy just shrugs. “It was all so performative.”

“Oh, screw you.” Billy snatches the joint from Tommy’s fingers.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Tommy says, trying to steal it back. “No, man, I just noticed you were, like, the only one who didn’t stare at Mrs. Kaplan’s tits. Sure, you talked about them, but you never, like, stared. And they were real nice tits. After that, I kinda put two and two together.”

Billy huffs. He indulges himself in taking a long toke. But it’s his stash, so Tommy can’t complain.

“And you don’t care?” he asks, still holding the smoke in his lungs.

“Nah,” Tommy says. “Why would I?”

Billy breathes out a long line of smoke and watches as it obscures the stars for just a second. And then, he watches as the stars come back, bright and numerous, so far above them.

He debates for a long while, mulling over the taste of the words on his tongue before he offers up the truth.

“I figured you’d no-homo your way around it like Harrington,” Billy says.

Tommy laughs. Like a goddamn hyena. It is pretty funny, imagining Steve’s mental backflips. Mostly because Billy’s seen them, up close and personal, so he doesn’t even have to imagine all that hard.

“Harrington’s such a disaster,” Tommy agrees. And then, after a moment and another laugh, he goes, “Hey, you know we used to practice kissing each other, back when we were kids?”

And yeah, Billy did know that, but it’s not like he’s gonna say that.

“Shit, really?” Billy asks.

And so Tommy tells him all about it.

--

Billy’s starting to think this little thing with Harrington is a bad idea when he starts hunting Steve down at parties, when he starts not being able to enjoy himself unless King Steve is there. Even if they’re not doing anything, Billy catches himself missing Steve when he’s not around.

It’s, like, dependence, or something like it, Billy thinks. He’s trained his body and his brain into getting a nice shot of endorphins whenever Steve’s around -- so, when he’s not, Billy’s just at a loss. Reeling.

He probably should stop, he thinks, or maybe just chill out a bit, but impulse control and moderation have never been Billy’s strong suits. Everyone has talents -- Billy’s just happen to be overindulgence and all the shit he can do with his tongue.

So, when Steve misses two get-togethers in a row (because of family commitments, or something, according to Tommy), Billy knows he probably shouldn’t seek Steve out at the next one he’s at -- but he finds himself doing that anyway, unable to tear himself away from the habit. It’s like a car crash he can’t look away from, except he’s in the car and behind the wheel, very aware he’s driving himself straight into a ten car pileup. And he is, apparently, unwilling to stop and instead just leaning on the gas.

Neither of them are as drunk as usual, this time.

It’s not a closet nor a bathroom, but a bedroom with a locking door.

Like some sort of unspoken rule, neither of them goes near the bed.

Steve gets Billy up against the door. Presses him back against it, only an inch and a bit of wood keeping them apart from the rest of the gathering. It’s barely even a party tonight. Just a small get together. It’s an excuse, for Steve. For Billy, too.

It’s bad, but Billy can’t bring himself to care. He closes his eyes to the perspective of it, and lets himself get lost in the sensations, instead.

“I’m not --” Steve’s saying, voice muffled against Billy’s neck, phrase on repeat.

Whatever you have to tell yourself, Billy thinks.

But he doesn’t put too much weight into that thought, either. Because it’s dangerous, because telling himself Steve is in the closet and just repressed is a recipe for disaster. A recipe for Billy wanting and hoping for more than Steve is gonna give him.

“It’s okay,” Billy tells him, a hand in his hair.

“It’s okay,” Billy says, as he Steve tentatively sinks down to his knees and wraps his lips around Billy’s cock. His mouth is wet and warm. Billy’s never been so surprised in his goddamn life.

Billy pushes his fingers through Steve’s pretty hair, getting it away from his face. It’s soft between his fingertips, and Billy grabs a fistful of it, giving it a careful, exploratory tug. He does it again, when Steve groans around his dick. Steve’s not practiced. He chokes a couple times, doesn’t take Billy too deep. Mostly just jacks Billy off with his lips around the head of Billy’s cock. Billy still privately thinks it might be the best blowjob he’s ever had.

“It’s okay,” Billy says, when he drops to his own knees to join Steve on the ground. He pushes Steve back, belly-up and vulnerable, and then crowds in to get his lips around the monster between Steve’s legs.

His cock is big enough to fill Billy’s mouth up almost uncomfortably. Billy is sloppy and messy about it, drooling for the possibility of getting Steve down his throat. Billy wants to taste him, wants to be dizzy from choking Steve down.

Unsurprisingly, Steve’s shocked by it. Billy already knows that it’s definitely the best head that Steve’s ever gotten, because Billy’s a pro and he knows what he’s doing. But even if he didn’t have that level of confidence, Billy knows it because Steve tells him. Tells Billy how awesome his mouth feels, how great Billy’s doing. He tells Billy he’s perfect, tells him he’s so good.

When he comes down Billy’s throat, all Billy can think about is the way his name sounded on Steve’s lips, the way it got caught up in the spaces between his moans.

--

Billy wants.

All of a sudden and all at once. He wants and he wants and he wants.

He’s ravenous with it, bored and cold and trying to fill himself up with something warm. He just wants to feel alive, body and mind screaming out for more, just like everyone else in Hawkins.

The glow of the christmas lights fading into the flurries of a dismal evening can only offer so much warmth anymore, now that Billy knows better.

--

“I’m not gay,” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Billy murmurs, with a roll of his eyes and a healthy dose of sarcasm, his lips on the cut of Steve’s jawline. “And I’m sapiosexual.”

“Huh?”

It’s honestly cute, the way Steve looks like a lost puppy when Billy pulls back just to get a read on his face. Doe eyes all big and confused. Mouth twisted up in a little frown. Billy wants to press a thumb to the pout off Steve’s lips, wants to kiss it right off his face.

God, Billy’s got it bad, maybe. Like an itch he can’t quite scratch.

“Don’t worry about it,” Billy says.

Anyway, he’s definitely not about to explain that he’s apparently attracted to absolute morons, when Steve’s drunk and still unable to grasp the idea that bisexuality might exist. That’s not Billy’s problem to bring up, and not his battle to fight. Besides, he’s still not about to touch that possibility, that hope, with a ten foot stick.

Distraction is definitely a better option. He’s real good at it, too.

--

Steve texts him at 2pm the next day. It’s weird. Unexpected. It’s not what they do.

But Billy’s a sucker, that much he knows, so he answers the text and finds himself standing on Steve’s snow-covered doorstep at 2:30 without quite understanding how he even got there.

The roads were clear, but filled with grey slush in the gutters. Everything’s tinged grey with chemical salt, dirty and opaque and just as cloudy as the sky. The Camaro needs a good wash. Billy feels like he does, too, just from stepping outside. From breathing it all in. Maybe not just a wash, but a long, warm shower. A soak in the tub.

It takes too long for Steve to answer the door. Billy tries not to think too much about it, shoving his hands in his pockets, turning to look at the dead wasteland of Harrington’s front hard as he waits. The grass is yellow and brown, still spotted with patches of white snow. Across the street, there are dilapidated snow men staring back at Billy, heads askew and branch-arms fallen. The house they belong to looks bright on the inside, warm. Steve’s house doesn’t even have any lights on inside. It looks dead, dying, bare as the trees outside.

Billy wonders, maybe, if he should call this quits before Harrington does.

When Steve finally opens the door, Billy’s almost bowled over by the wave of heat that greets him. He almost steps closer, involuntarily, but steadies himself, instead. Plants his feet on the welcome mat and waits for Steve to tell him that this is over.

Billy’s ready. He’s prepared.

He’s not ready for Steve to pull him inside, into the near-overwhelming heat of the Harrington house, pulling at Billy’s coat before Billy can even close the door behind him. He almost trips, it’s so unexpected.

Steve’s hands are fever hot against Billy’s cold skin. His lips are, too.

Neither of them are drunk, but Billy feels it. Overwhelmingly dizzy, off-balance and suddenly giddy with it.

Billy doesn’t even get a chance to blink before Steve’s pulling Billy toward his room. Guiding him in and shutting the door behind them. Billy watches in a daze as Steve strips, and then follows in kind. He barely even registers it when Steve’s tugging him, naked and bare, into his bed, ushering Billy to crowd in on top of him, knees on either side of Steve’s hips.

They’ve never been naked together like this before. It’s intimate enough to make Billy’s head spin, buzzing with the high of all that skin against skin, spread out for the taking.

Billy can’t help himself. He reaches out to touch Steve, first. Traces his fingers down Steve’s chest, thumbs at his nipples, maps out the topography of his ribs. Underneath Billy’s hands, Steve is so warm, so alive. So real. Billy tracks the muscles that lead down toward Steve’s happy trail, and then lets his fingers wrap around Steve’s cock, giving it a long, slow pull.

“Shit, Billy,” Steve breathes out, and Billy’s name sounds perfect that way. Easy and loose and spoken in absolute adoration.

Billy’s not expecting Steve to wrap his fingers around Billy’s cock at the same time. He’s not expecting Steve to match his rhythm, but he does. Slow and leisurely. Almost tender.

“Holy fuck,” Billy says, eyes downward, caught on the sight between the two of them. Entangled and jacking each other off in tandem.

It’s mesmerizing.

Billy keeps it slow. Wants it to go on forever. Steve is, apparently, content to let that happen. When Billy steals a look at Steve’s face, Steve’s eyes are on the two of them, hands on each other’s cocks, stroking each other off. Just as hypnotized and obsessed as Billy is.

It’s a little depraved, too. The head of Billy’s dick is slick with precome, wet, as Steve keeps thumbing over it. Billy stops only to spit in his own hand, letting it drip into his palm from his mouth, just so that he can get his hand back on Steve’s cock with wet fingers. Steve’s breath hitches and Billy watches his hips buck involuntarily as he tries to fuck into Billy’s hand. It’s so hot, the way Steve’s eyes close, the way his moans start getting caught up in his throat.

Billy wants to tell him how pretty he is, how good he feels, but the words stick to his tongue. All he can do is stare down, transfixed, at the way his hand moves next to Steve’s, both of their cocks hard and red and swollen in each other’s fists.

It’s no surprise when Billy comes first, but what is a surprise is the way Steve comes while jacking Billy through it with messy, wet fingers. The way he curses under his breath, taken by surprise at the force of his own orgasm. The way he slumps, afterwards, with his forehead against Billy’s shoulder, just breathing in the aftermath.

--

They’ve never, in a bed before.

It feels strange, lying with his legs tangled in Steve’s sheets in the aftermath of it.

The cold chill outside has been forgotten, even though Billy can see the flurries starting up again, from his view of Steve’s window. From here, he kind of loves them. The bleakness of Hawkins winter, just out of reach.

Steve’s sheets are dark blue and soft. They look even darker against Steve’s mole-dotted skin. Billy traces over the lines between the dots with his eyes, unwilling and unable to map the constellations with his fingertips like he itches to. That’s not who they are to each other, he reminds himself. That’s not who he is to Steve, anyway.

It should hurt more, knowing he’s Steve’s little secret, just a thing to be kept underneath the covers. But it’s not that bad, Billy tells himself. Especially in this quiet moment. Steve’s got his eyes closed, face tilted up at the ceiling, hair a mess on an ocean-blue pillow.

Like this, Billy can pretend, for just a moment, that this is something he can keep. It’s an awful, terrible thought, but he aches for it all the same. Unsure, entirely, how he even got here in the first place. How he allowed this to happen.

Billy closes his eyes before Steve opens his. Feigns sleep just to hold onto this for a moment longer.

Before Steve gets up to shower, he pauses on a breath -- then, he runs a hand down Billy’s spine, along each knot. Tracing so slowly, so carefully, just like Billy longed to do only a few moments ago. Billy doesn’t let himself flinch.

It feels fond. Indulgent. Maybe deceptively so.

Even still, Billy can’t help but feel the spark of hope in his chest, like kindling catching before a bonfire on the beach, the smoke of it curling up toward a clear and starry winter sky.

--

In the kitchen, Steve has his hands around a mug of coffee so warm it’s steaming up into his face. His fingers are long and sturdy. His palms, so wide.

“We probably shouldn’t do that again,” Steve says.

It’s a little out of the blue, but it’s also kind of their normal refrain. A tune so familiar it gets stuck in Billy’s head.

Deny, deny, deny, until Steve wants to indulge again.

At this point, Billy knows he’s stuck in it. Either unwilling or unable to dig himself out of this trench. The longer he stays, the deeper it goes. But he’s resigned to it, at this point. A sucker for the tiny, little moments in between, where he forgets that this isn’t actually real.

“Sure,” Billy says, with a roll of his shoulders. He pours himself a matching cup of coffee. Dumps a little sugar in to kick the bitter taste of the constant denial.

“No,” Steve says, “like really.”

“Okay,” Billy says. He doesn’t know how to make himself sound more sure when he knows Steve’s just going to text him again tomorrow, or pull Billy into a closet at the next party they’re both at. It’s hard to muster up the energy when Billy’s already aching for his next hit, when he can practically already smell it coming.

“Seriously, man,” Steve bites out, frustrated. “That’s it. I’m serious.”

Billy doesn’t know what it is in Steve’s tone that makes Billy actually look at him, but it’s something. Something wrong. Something definitive and hard. Like the concrete Steve’s been pouring into the foundation of this thing between them has finally started to cure into something immovable, something anchored deep.

It makes Billy’s gut sink. Makes it go all sour.

Steve’s looking at him with cold, dark eyes that say nothing other than ‘I’m through with this, through with you.’

He’s got his shoulders squared, too, like maybe Billy’s gonna fight him about it.

Billy knows when he’s getting dumped. It’s got a familiar taste, a recognizably itchy feel. Billy Hargrove shouldn’t be getting dumped in any universe, he shouldn’t know what it feels like -- and he really shouldn’t be getting dumped by his straight hookup.

And yet, here he is.

“This can’t happen again,” Steve says. Like he hasn’t already hammered his point home.

“Whatever, I’m out,” Billy says, teeth clenched to the stinging in his throat.

He chugs the rest of his coffee and ends up back at his house before the sun even has a chance to set past the horizon and turn the grey sky a peachy hue.

--

It’s snowing. It was a white Christmas the day before, and the day after promises to keep dumping about a foot of snow all of Hawkins, blanketing it in all white.

Billy spent Christmas day playing nice with his father, Susan, and Max. It’s hard, sometimes, seeing the way Neil treats Max, like she’s his perfect daughter who can do no wrong. He’s doting and almost loving. He’s the picture, at least, of the father Billy never got -- or at least, not after his mom left, anyway. Everything was soured, after that. But any Christmas is better than those first ones of just the two of them together, so all Billy had to do was grit his teeth until Boxing Day, reminding himself that so many families are dysfunctional, that it used to be so much worse. Reminding himself that he gets to leave, soon.

Besides -- playing nice all day, pretending to celebrate Christmas together? Really helped to keep his mind off of anything else.

This afternoon, Billy’s ceiling is as white and frosted as the sky outside. And just as boring.

There’s a party on at Tommy’s tonight, but he doesn’t feel like drinking, doesn’t feel like going out. It’s all too repetitive, too rote.

He wants to go back to school, wants the warmth of friends around him, wants the distraction of classes, wants to be in the comfort of his own dorm again. It feels more like home than this place does. Neil’s house. The whole town, too.

Most of all, Billy wants his thoughts to stop circling back to Steve. He wants to forget the taste of his lips and the way his skin felt under Billy’s fingertips. He wants not to feel the sour bite of regret with every echo of ‘I’m not’ that reverberates through his head.

Billy knew better than to let that whole disaster happen. He really, really did.

He’s still not sure he’d change it, though, if he could go back.

--

Billy wakes up cold.

It’s the middle of the night. He’s kicked his blankets off in his sleep, bare legs exposed to the dry, chilly air of the room.

Outside, the whole world sounds like snow. Everything muffled. Everything so far away.

On his bed next to him, his phone vibrates. Once, and then again.

When he checks it, thumbing it on with a tired grip, he’s got a slew of texts. A couple from Tommy. About fifteen from Steve.

Nothing interesting, really. Just questions about where Billy is, about when he’s gonna show up. It’s the day after Christmas, and everyone wants to share their holiday booze. And then, once it’s clear that Billy’s not showing, the texts get a little drunker. A little more nonsensical.

Billy doesn’t answer them. There’s no point in fueling that fire. Not for Steve, who is drunk and lonely, and not for Billy, either.

Because Billy? He doesn’t have the excuse of alcohol to blame his burning, aching loneliness. He doesn’t have anything to blame for the yearning in his chest he feels for Steve Harrington. No one but himself, anyway.

--

Billy knows he can’t keep crawling back to Steve. But he also isn’t going to avoid the rest of the parties leading up to New Years. He’s not going to let Steve ruin that for him. He’s not going to let Steve make Billy ache for the rest of his winter break. It’s just not going to happen.

So, he ends up at some gathering at some chick he doesn’t know’s house, trying, and failing, to avoid Steve Harrington.

“Where have you been?” Steve asks. His hand is warm around Billy’s wrist as he leads Billy toward what Billy can only assume is an honest-to-god wine cellar, because Loch Nora is the worst.

As Steve shuts the door behind them, Billy wonders what would happen if he were to drink every bottle in here. He kind of wants to find out.

Steve’s lips press against Billy’s neck. Billy’s knees threaten to buckle. It’s honey over a burn, a hit after he’s been shaking with a craving. It’s all Billy wants, and it’s nothing he knows he can have. It scalds, just how bad it is for him, like blisters on his skin.

“Steve,” Billy says.

He freezes. Steve doesn’t stop, doesn’t even flinch at the sound of his own name in Billy’s mouth.

“Hey,” Billy says, putting his palm flat on Steve’s chest, pressing him back. Putting a little space between them.

“What?” Steve asks. Even in the dim light of the room, Billy can tell Steve’s pouting. It’s in his tone, on his breath, in the way he reaches out to touch, fingers brushing over Billy’s pulse.

“I can’t,” Billy says. Each word is sour, full of spurs. So impossibly difficult to get out.

“Yeah you can,” Steve says, like it’s easy. Like he tells himself every time, maybe. Like he didn’t make a huge point of basically dumping Billy just a couple days ago.

But it’s different for the two of them. Steve can, when he’s drunk. He can look past it, can pretend that this thing between them is whatever he wants in the moment. He doesn’t have to get bogged down by the implications, as long as he writes it off at the end of the night.

But Billy? Billy can’t do that. He can’t seem to call his feelings null and void just because they’re inconvenient. And he definitely can’t keep feeding them with these little liaisons with Steve. Because that’s just going to end up in heartbreak, and Billy Hargrove doesn’t do that.

(Even if it hurts all the same.)

“I can’t,” Billy says.

Since Steve’s not stepping back, even with the gentle pressure Billy’s putting on his chest, Billy makes him. Shoves him. Steve’s not expecting it; he stumbles backward in the tiny space, his back hitting against one of the wine racks in the room. The bottles clatter and clink together, but don’t break. It’s not like Billy shoved him hard, or Steve could even possibly be hurt by it -- but he looks shocked all the same.

“What the fuck, man?” Steve says, righting himself as best as he can on wobbly feet. Like maybe he thought this song and dance would end the same way it always does, despite the fact that he tried to call it off, himself.

It stings, that Steve thinks he’s the only one with the power here. Even if Billy knows that it’s true; Steve has been the one with the power, with the control -- and Billy had just been along for the ride. Now, though -- Billy’s trying to wrench some of that back, before it starts eating up his self respect.

Billy fumes with it, with the idea that Steve thinks he’s so disposable.

“Aw,” Billy says. “Has no one ever turned you down before?” It’s not hard to turn on the patronizing tone, not hard to pick up the flare of malice that used to lace their previous encounters. It’s easier than actually letting anything else slip through the cracks. Because Billy hurts, and he wants and Steve’s too hot and too cold all at once.

And maybe Billy’s a little too harsh, because Steve shrinks back a little bit, eyes big and wide. Like he wasn’t expecting that at all, and instead for Billy to just fold.

“That’s real sad,” Billy continues, pressing thumbs into the bruises his words made. “You don’t always get everything you want, baby. That’s just the way life works.”

Jesus,” Steve breathes out. “How could I forget, you’re a real fucking philosopher.”

Billy laughs, loud and mean. He misses the way Steve’s hand felt around his wrist, the way his lips felt against Billy’s neck, but there’s no going back, now.

“Guess you already did pay me in sexual favors, didn’t you?” Billy says. “Oh, wait -- or do they not count because you’re not gay?

“You’re such a fucking dick,” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Billy says. “I am. But you know what I’m not? Your fucking experiment.”

“You weren’t my experiment,” Steve says.

“Oh?” Billy asks, eyebrows raised. “What was I, then?”

“You were just --” Steve starts. He stops, closing his mouth on words he probably doesn’t even know. “You --” He stumbles over them, mouth opening and closing. “You were --” But he can’t get anything out, can’t settle on a thought.

“A good time?” Billy prompts. “Convenient?” He laughs. “Just as desperate as you?”

“Oh fuck off,” Steve snaps.

“I’m trying,” Billy says, gesturing at the door. Trying to escape the hurt.

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Then use your words, King Steve. Tell me what you mean.”

Billy, c’mon, I --” Steve says. But then he closes his mouth. Bites at his lip. Doesn’t offer Billy anything more.

Steve just sighs, and that’s all Billy gets.

“I can’t, Steve,” Billy says, which feels like more truth than he’s particularly ready for, or even than he even wants to admit.

He swallows. His heart is pounding in his chest. His lungs are hot and tight.

“Seeya around, Harrington,” he says.

--

The winter days in Hawkins are short. The sun comes up too late and sets too early. Even then, it sometimes feels like the sun never quite comes up at all.

Billy still goes to the gym. He just skips the twizzlers, afterward. He doesn’t need to remind himself how Harrington is doing: he knows. Same old, same old.

It’s only a couple nights till New Years, and Billy can wait that out. He knows he’ll have to face Steve again -- it’s a small town, there’s just no way to avoid it, especially with Tommy as their mutual friend -- but he can give himself a couple days, again, to chill out. To take a breather. To give himself some time to heal, or whatever.

It sounds so stupid, so lovestruck. Because Billy’s not wounded, but he does still find himself wanting, still finds himself wondering what if.

But Billy knows he’s also worth more than that. Billy Hargrove is more than someone’s dirty little secret, more than their experiment. He’s not going to waste his time pining over someone who doesn’t want him back -- or at least, he can do his best to try and stop. He can at least do himself a favor by not prolonging the hurt.

It was good while it lasted, he tells himself. Just good, clean fun with no strings attached. It’s not Steve’s problem that Billy had maybe wanted to kiss Steve since basically the day they first met, and it’s not Steve’s fault that Billy might’ve dropped anchor before he even realized it, tying knots in strings that weren’t even supposed to exist, looping them around parts of himself he so easily ignored.

But the hurt is not irreparable. Like everything, the sting of it will fade, the bruises will heal.

And there’s something almost seasonal about it -- like the flat, barren landscape around him reflects the way he’s left himself. A reflection of outside, in.

The roads around Hawkins are empty,the gutters spotted with slush and mud. Billy drives the barren streets a little too fast, for a little too long, windows down to the cool air, and lets himself just be.

When he comes back inside from the cold, and spreads out on his old quilt with his eyes to the cloudy ceiling, he feels better. More centered. Less entangled in his own thoughts and stuck in a pit of longing for something that was never his to begin with.

--

New Year’s Eve, Billy buys twizzlers after his morning at the gym.

Steve hands them over, confused, while Jaws plays on a television in the corner. He’s quiet. Fumbles his keys on the register, like he never expected to run into Billy again.

“Break’s almost over,” Billy says. An olive branch. Something closer to kind than Billy ever has been before. “Guess you’re losing your only customer.”

Steve laughs, a nervous little sound. “Guess I am.”

He smiles. Billy nods.

Steve’s a good guy. Billy hopes he gets out of Hawkins, one day. Hopes he finds a bigger, better town, a place good enough for him.

--

That night, Billy finds himself at Tommy’s house, waiting for the ball to drop, ready to ring in the new year with the taste of tequila on his lips and a shout of victory in his lungs. Billy made it. It’s a fact worth celebrating.

The gathering isn’t huge compared to some of the ragers that have happened this break. There’s dozens of other competing parties around Hawkins, but Billy would rather be at this one, near people he knows, people he at least kind of tolerates. Hawkins, in the end, isn’t that bad. It’s just a boring, small town, full of people who aren’t necessarily either of those two things. They are just people like Billy, who just want warmth and excitement and connection in the midst of winter’s desolation. People like Steve, who are stuck, who want to get out, but don’t know how. And it’s full of people like Tommy and Carol, who aren’t stuck, who are making it work for them, who have built up something for themselves in this place.

In the end, it’s just that: a place. A pit stop on Billy’s journey through life, toward his end goal of California, of warmth. He’s had tastes of that, here, and forgetting that and writing it off would be doing himself a disservice.

Billy knows what he wants. And now he’s learned, at least a little bit, of how to get himself what he wants. What he’ll take and what he’ll sacrifice -- or not -- along the way.

Steve’s here, Billy knows. He heard Tommy shout his name about an hour back, but Billy hasn’t exactly seen him, other than glimpses of Steve’s hair in the crowd, behind people and then disappearing around corners.

“Five minutes!” Someone shouts.

Tommy’s shitty tv is flickering scenes of Time Square.

Billy finishes off his drink and wonders if he should grab another. He’s not hammered, just warm. Pleasantly tipsy.

Before he can decide, there are warm fingers slipping around his wrist. A gentle tug pulling Billy off to the side.

“Come upstairs with me?” Steve asks, suddenly at Billy’s ear.

It’s kind of sad, having to turn Steve down again. Maybe Steve can make a resolution for next year to find someone of the right gender to hook up with.

“Please?” Steve asks. “I just wanna talk.”

“The ball is literally about to drop,” Billy says, nodding at the television. Steve’s fingers are still around his wrist. Billy could pull away, but he doesn’t.

“Billy, please?” Steve’s eyes are pretty and doe-like, and Billy’s always been a sucker for them.

Whatever. It’s not like Billy’s really angling for a kiss on New Years anyway, with this crowd, anyway, so he just shrugs his shoulders with a reluctant ‘fine’ and lets Steve lead him upstairs. In the end, it’s just a tradition, and one he’s apparently willing to miss for a pretty boy who Billy can’t seem to say no to.

They end up on the couch in the Hernandez family room. No cocoa this time, just the two of them in an empty room, muffled sounds of the party thrumming away underneath their feet.

“Did you have something you wanted to say?” Billy prompts, when Steve remains quiet.

Steve doesn’t seem drunk, which is probably for the best. In fact, he seems completely clear-headed, eyes unclouded by the haze of alcohol, movements unencumbered and smooth.

“I uh,” Steve says, fiddling with the hem on one of his sleeves. “Shit, I suck at words.” He groans, drags his hands over his face and then through his hair. When he finishes, it’s sticking up at weird angles and looks perfect.

Billy huffs out a laugh. Steve’s not wrong.

“I’m listening,” Billy says. He’s not expecting much, but he’s honestly curious as to what was so important it couldn’t wait until after New Years, or couldn’t be said through a text.

“Uh, can I kiss you?” Steve asks.

It’s unexpected and not. Billy sighs. He steeled himself for this possibility, for the likelihood of having to turn Steve down again. “I thought I was pretty clear, Harrington.”

“No -- I mean, yeah, you were,” Steve says. “But I mean, like, actually kiss you. I’ve thought about it, a lot, and I really want -- I really want to kiss you.”

“You’re not gay,” Billy says.

“You’re right, I’m not,” Steve says. “But...I think I’m definitely bi.”

What?” Even after all of it, that’s unexpected.

Steve powers ahead like Billy’s not just sitting there, staring at him, feeling slack-jawed and dumb-struck.

“Bisexual. I think I’m bisexual. I mean I like girls, but I also -- shit, I really like you, Billy. I’m sorry I didn’t act like it, before. I was just -- scared. I was really, really scared.”

Billy’s ears are ringing.

“Well shit,” Billy says.

He’s kind of reeling. Of all the things he thought Steve might say to him, that wasn’t one of them. Maybe it should have been, but Billy had never wanted to get his hopes up. His what if’s had always been purely hypothetical, never veering close enough to real life that he thought he might actually have a chance.

“So, can I kiss you?” Steve asks. “Or did I, like, totally blow my chance with you? Because I know I was a huge dick.”

Billy can hear the shouting from downstairs.

Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven --

“I’m really sorry,” Steve’s saying. “I mean, I get it, if you don’t wanna.”

-- twenty-one, twenty! --

It’s funny, really. Steve thinks all the blame is on him, when, Billy knew better from the start.

Besides, he can’t even lie: in the beginning, Billy was just using Steve as a means to an end. A way to play out a high school fantasy while also getting some no-strings action. It was a distraction, a ploy for warmth -- and for a while, it was easy. Billy even kept it that way, hiding the fact that he was gay until he didn’t think it would be a problem, anymore.

Billy’s not blameless, he knows. He’s far from a saint in this little affair of theirs. And Steve shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the guilt. Especially not when there’s an easy fucking solution to it all.

-- fourteen, thirteen, twelve --

Billy’s lips are on Steve’s before the shouting even gets close to zero.

It’s different than every other time they’ve kissed. Deeper and warmer and full of more potential. It’s easy to lose himself in. The kiss feels right, like something that Billy has been waiting weeks for. Maybe even years.

Steve pulls back, panting. His eyes are wide and dark. Downstairs, people are cheering for the new year.

“You’re supposed to wait until zero,” Steve says, a little dumbstruck. His lips are red. Glistening with the shine of spit.

Billy kisses him again. A short, little thing. Sweet, like candy.

“Yeah, I don’t think I care.”

“God,” Steve says, “do you wanna get out of here?”

“More than ever.”

--

This time, Steve’s bed is welcoming. A familiar place that Billy never thought he’d see again.

The broad expanse of Steve’s skin is Billy’s to explore. This time, he lets himself. Gives himself time, just to kiss and touch every part of Steve that’s laid out for him. Billy lets himself indulge, because it’s the holidays, because it’s dark and cold outside and the warmth has been in here all along. Because he never thought he’d have this again.

And also because it’s the new year, and the only resolution Billy has is to keep this, to cherish every goddamn second of it.

After what feels like hours of indulgent, greedy touch, Steve spills himself down Billy’s throat, and Billy loses himself too soon after, Steve’s fingers around him and his voice in Billy’s ear.

--

“So, can I, like, come visit you?” Steve asks.

It would be cute, if Billy hadn’t been sound asleep just a second ago, only awake because Steve had jabbed a finger into his ribs.

“Mmf?”

“Like, while you’re at school. Can I come visit?”

Billy is twisted up in Steve’s ocean blue sheets. His room is warm, so unlike Billy’s. Or maybe Billy’s just warm because Steve is pulled up against him, so close. Radiating heat like a furnace, one of his legs wrapped around Billy’s, keeping him pinned. Steve is a cuddler. Who knew.

“You wanna come visit?” Billy asks. He’s not really awake enough for this. In fact, he might actually still be dreaming.

“The drive isn’t too bad, and I mean, I don’t really wanna have to wait till your breaks to see you,” Steve says. He presses a kiss to Billy’s neck. His lips are hot, but so gentle. “Would that be okay?”

Billy nods, still a little dumbstruck.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” he says.

Billy’s told Steve it’s okay countless times this winter break, and for the first time, it feels like truth.

“Just okay?” Steve asks. Billy can hear the smile in his voice, the smirk as Steve nips at Billy’s jaw.

What a dick. An adorable fucking dick.

“More than okay,” Billy says, and kisses that self-satisfied expression right off of Steve’s face.