Boltedfruit Archive

First to Burn

Chapter 16: part xii: burn

Published: 2020-11-07

Completed: 2023-03-20

Category: M/M

Rating: E

Chapters: 16/16

Words: 76,009

Fandom: Stranger Things

Ship: Billy Hargrove/Steve Harrington

Characters:

Steve Harrington, Billy Hargrove. Tommy Hagan, Nancy Wheeler, Jonathan Byers, Neil Hargrove. Maxine “Max” Mayfield, Robin Buckley, Susan Hargrove, Jim “Chief” Hopper

Tags:Slow Burn, Childhood Friends, Friends to Enemies to Lovers, Prompt Fill, First Kiss, First Love, Panic Attacks, Emotional Hurt/Comfort, Billy Hargrove Being an Asshole and a mess, Canon-Typical Violence, Mutual Pining, Alternate Universe – No Upside Down, Oral Sex, Internalized Homophobia, Angst with a Happy Ending, Hurt/Comfort, Mutual Masturbation,Protective Robin Buckley, Mental Health Issues

Summary:

Billy moves in next door on Steve’s tenth birthday. They grow up thick as thieves, sharing everything. When they become old enough to date…they turn to one another for practice.

 

“Since it’s us. Since I’m not Tina, and you’re not—you’re just you. It doesn’t count if we—if we practice.” Billy turns to face him, even though Steve can’t really make out his face yet in the dark. “Right?

 

Steve’s heart rate picks up. “Right. Yeah, that’s right.”

Author's Note

I hope you enjoy! And consider leaving a comment at the end of the fic to let me know what you thought.

Steve orders food and that afternoon, over far too many cartons of Chinese takeout on the kitchen island, he lays out five ground rules.

 

One, Billy doesn’t go back to Neil’s house. Easy. The stipulation is that Steve be allowed to go and get the rest of Billy’s stuff at some point. Not so easy, but Billy is in no place to argue.

 

Two, he keeps Steve in the know about Max to keep her safe. That one’s easy too. The only bad thing about leaving Neil’s house is that his worst fears might come true. Max might be next on his father’s radar.

 

Three, Billy keeps taking his meds, but Steve wants to dole them out. Wants to keep them in the kitchen where he can monitor them or some shit. Fine. As if it wasn’t already embarrassing enough not succeeding in dying. He’s already decided he’s not going to try it again. With his luck, Wheeler would just find him again and they’d both have to do the same song and dance; fingers down throat, et cetera.

 

Life goes forward, or whatever.

 

Four, Steve wants to see the damage Billy’s wearing when they’re done eating. Not so easy. But inevitable, nevertheless. If Steve wants to play caretaker after the shit Billy’s put him through, then he’ll allow it. He owes Steve that and a hundred more simple, annoying, endlessly frustrating things. He’ll be owing Steve the rest of his goddamn life.

 

And five, and the most ridiculous request in Billy’s opinion, he has to practice positivity. Something about Steve’s mom doing it when she went in and out of her little retreats across the world when tagging after her husband and keeping an eye peeled when his extramarital flings got to be a tad too much.

 

Billy has to look in a fucking mirror and tell himself he’s worth it. That life is worth it.

 

Yeah, sure.

 

“I mean it, Billy.” Steve chews and chews beneath a steady, unwavering stare. Unnerving, when he wants to be; that’s Steve’s specialty. Billy’s seen him happy, giddy, on top of the world. He’s seen him furious. He’s seen him sobbing, beat blood-red. He’s seen him hurt. He’s seen him come. Nothing quite unsettles him so much as the way he looks now. Yeah, he fucking means it. “This year has been awful. Just god-awful. I’m sick of it. Sick of the fighting and arguing. The never knowing where I stand with you. When Nancy called this morning I thought it was another nightmare. I have them all the time. You remember, how…Well.”

 

He does. How can he ever forget? The countless nights he scaled the side of Steve’s house to sneak through his window, crawl under the plaid covers and pretend the shared warmth didn’t melt him to the marrow? The easy way Steve settled once he woke up shaking and saw Billy beside him.

 

It had been safe.

 

He always thought that once, he’d meant the same for Steve.

 

“They’ve been worse than ever. And I think given what happened the last time we were both in this kitchen, you can appreciate my honesty when I say I know it’s your fault. The dreams, I mean.”

 

Billy deserves it. Doesn’t mean it still doesn’t sting.

 

He takes the words for what they are. A punch hidden beneath an ocean-smooth voice, hardly a waver save for one. And he’s not really sure what Steve means there.

 

Steve doesn’t know where he stands? Steve is everything, and even with all the things that he is, Billy dares to want for more. He’s a selfish fool.

 

“You were like my brother, man,” Billy mutters, because those are the impossible words he’s chosen to describe years of the most important person in his life.

 

He winces, looks away. Looks back up again, into that impermeable stare. 

 

Steve chews and chews. “Brothers don’t do the shit we’ve done.”

 

And there it is. Out in the open, like it’s so simple.

 

Billy swallows on a clump of noodles only half-chewed. It pinches on the way down. He can still feel the ghost of manicured nails scraping the back of his throat. The lurch of Steve’s weight leaning toward him on the couch.

 

“What do you want me to say?”

 

“I want the truth. Everything. After last night–after what you did.” He shakes his head and drops his fork back in a carton. “I’m tired, Billy. I’m so fucking tired, all the time. Aren’t you tired?”

 

“I–I don’t know–”

 

“You don’t know if you’re tired?” Steve lets out a harsh laugh. A harp string snapped. “Christ, Billy. You almost die, and you can’t even–”

 

“I don’t know how to tell you what I– How I feel,” he cuts in, because what he can’t handle right now is Steve’s anger. He’s earned maybe that much. Just for a little bit. “I don’t even know the first thing.”

 

It’s a mistake keeping such a tight watch on him, because Billy sees the moment the anger drains away, leaving behind a sad little crumple in its wake.

 

“But it’s me. Billy, it’s just me. We…we used to tell each other everything.”

 

He has to laugh at that, miserable and sodden as it is. “Not everything, Steve.” He taps his own fork on the counter, letting it drop too. “You couldn’t handle everything.”

 

“When Nance asked me if she could bring you here, I didn’t hesitate. I said yes. After everything you’ve done to me, all the shit we’ve traded between us? You think I can’t handle tough? Try me.”

 

“This is a little more than tough.”

 

“And? Is it worse than having to piece together my best friend getting beat by his own dad over years spent waiting for him to just tell me what was going on? Only for you to pour out in a bloody puddle at my feet? Is it worse than disappearing for months and coming back a total fucking asshole? Than being beat up again and again for no good reason? Is it worse than–than having to find out he almost died from someone else? That I wasn’t even there to–”

 

Steve’s voice goes thick, chokes off. He sniffs but doesn’t move those shining eyes from Billy’s face.

 

“You’re a fucking asshole and the only person who actually knows me enough to break my goddamn heart so bad that it makes the idea of not waking up in the morning sound pretty good. So yeah, Hargrove, I can fucking do tough.”

 

Billy feels that awful pinch again and it’s not from the food this time. Feels the heat of tears on his jaw before he can catch them in time to keep them from falling. If he’s made Steve feel one fraction of how he felt last night then he’s more rotten and unforgivable than he thought.

 

“You really know how to hurt a guy, Harrington,” Billy says weakly.

 

“Likewise.”

 

He can only snort at that.

 

Steve wipes at his left eye, roughly sweeping the back of his hand across his cheek.

 

“Tell me.”

 

“Fuck you,” Billy tells him, the words like hot lead at the pit of his stomach.

 

“Fuck you. Tell me.”

 

“Steve.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“Ste–”

 

“Fuck,” Steve says, never moving, never raising his voice, “you.”

 

Billy shakes his head. “You’re something.”

 

“And you’re fucked.”

 

“Great.”

 

Steve rolls his eyes. Picks at the noodles until he finds a decent one and flings it at Billy across the island. “Fine. I’ll go first since you’re being shy.”

 

Billy huffs again. He doesn’t even get what Steve’s doing, is the thing. He could sit back and accept Billy’s agreement to follow his rules like anyone else would have. Whatever he’s pushing for, Billy doesn’t understand.

 

“Tommy started a neat little rumor about me. Half the school thinks I’m gay since Nancy and I broke up.”

 

“Huh?” It’s a total flip. “What? When?”

 

“When you skipped. We got into it. Again,” he adds and has the grace to look a little guilty about it. Billy thinks that’s bullshit, that Tommy gets what’s coming to him any day of the week. “Started in on me about moping over you. Said it was. Well. He said a lot of stupid shit.”

 

“No, tell me. What’d the prick say?”

 

Steve’s still watching him, eyes redder than when they started this conversation. But there’s something else there too. Waiting to see what Billy does maybe. Likely to see if he flips out again. Gives Steve a reason to kick him out.

 

Billy almost flinches at the idea. He knows Steve wouldn’t…not after how he hugged him back. No. No, that was real.

 

Steve crosses his arms and asks, “Does it matter?”

 

“Why wouldn’t it? You don’t let dumb shit like that go. Word like that kills in a hick town like Hawkins.”

 

“Because we’ve used it on others, right? We know the damage it can do.”

 

He does flinch then. “Fuck that. That was stupid shit-talk. Bullshit you say whenever about whatever.”

 

Something odd and a little forlorn passes over Steve’s face. “It was more me than you.”

 

He doesn’t have a reply to that. Steve’s not wrong.

 

“Tommy’s got a big fucking mouth. Somebody needs to stuff a sock in it or something.”

 

Steve’s fingers tap at his bicep, anxiety making itself known. “But what if he’s not…totally wrong?”

 

Another trill of laughter bubbles out of him. The idea is a nonstarter. “Steve, you’re not gay.”

 

Like that hasn’t been a recurring thought for years for Billy. The number one reminder that no matter how much practice they do, for whatever bored and baseless reason Steve agrees to do it, it doesn’t mean he’s into guys. Into Billy.

 

They aren’t the same.

 

“No. No, I.” More erratic tapping, shifting eyes. Finally, like he can breathe again, those eyes are off him. “Girls and. I do like girls, a lot and–ugh. I think I maybe also want to– ugh, jesus. This is coming out all wrong.”

 

He can see the struggle happen in real time. Steve’s resolve has shaken apart into so many pieces. He’s barely meeting Billy’s eyes now, and it strikes him as anything but dishonest, untrue, not real.

 

This is real, Billy realizes. Hits him all at once. Steve’s not fucking with him.

 

“I like both,” Steve finally settles on. Punctuates his statement with a tiny shrug.

 

No biggie.

 

“You like both,” Billy echoes.

 

The words ring in his ears. Both. Steve likes…both.

 

“Yeah. Girls and guys. Both. It’s a, uh…recent revelation. Kind of freaked me out if I’m being honest.”

 

“No shit.” Billy feels hollowed out, the sharp edge of a shovel sticking in between his ribs. “Maybe I just finally hit you one too many times.”

 

Steve huffs this time. “Yeah, trust me. I thought about that. Didn’t even know that was a thing people could do, you know? Like both? Wild.”

 

He looks far away just then, lost in a memory or maybe just enjoying the fact Billy hasn’t jumped him for the confession.

 

“How’d you figure it out?”

 

“A friend.”

 

Billy waits for more of an explanation. When Steve doesn’t elaborate, he pries. “Which friend?”

 

“You keeping tabs?”

 

“Maybe I’m curious. Was it somebody we ever…you know. Bullshitted.”

 

Steve gives him a look that says maybe they did, and Billy feels more shit piled on all the rest.

 

“Someone I owe an apology to,” Steve mutters. He sighs heavily. “But yeah. I like both. Go me, I guess.”

 

Billy feels sick. Shaky. Unraveled from just three words.

 

“I–I need some air.” He stands on wobbling knees. He hopes Steve can’t tell.

 

It feels like years before he makes it out to Steve’s backyard. Serene, chilly, encroached on by trees that desperately need a trim before the next big storm. Branches will snap and fall with a thunder that will shake the house, keep Steve up all night for days. It’s happened before.

 

Cigarette smoke reaches his nose before long. He doesn’t move when he hears Steve flick a lighter shut, as his sneakers sketch against the pavement, when his knees pop as he sits beside Billy in front of the pool. Only he’s chosen to sit on the cement where Billy’s chosen the less freezing option of the pool lounger.

 

Steve scoots forward, breathes out smoke before turning and looking up at Billy with something less heavy in his eyes.

 

Billy almost thanks him for it, settles for just wordlessly accepting the cigarette like someone normal and not someone halfway decimated by the boy beside him.

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve blurts. “You literally just got back from the hospital and so much has happened. That was probably way too much–”

 

“I’m gay,” Billy whispers, and hates that it comes out one. He wants to shout it, throw a fist behind it because he knows that’s what’s on the other end for him once the words are out.

 

But all that happens is Billy takes another puff, remembers what Steve just told him. Lets Steve’s trust drown out his anxious thoughts.

 

A wrinkle appears between Steve’s eyebrows before it smooths over. He smiles, soft and small and so sweet.

 

Will it be enough? It’s not everything, not even close. Billy doesn’t have the strength for that. Not today.

 

But maybe one day.

 

Steve holds his hand out, index and middle fingers poised like he’s in some commercial while he waits for Billy to hand him back the smoke. Billy carefully places it in the crux and watches, transfixed, as Steve inhales and exhales all without turning away.

 

“Want to go rent a movie?”

 

And Billy shakes, and maybe lets another tear or two slide free. Says, “Sure.”

 

“Cool. But before we go, let me take a look at you. Maybe get some Icy Hot when we’re out.”

 

He keeps talking as he and Billy trade the cigarette back and forth. The fuzzy warmth of the nicotine and the soothing sound of Steve’s voice settle his nerves, nearly melt him down entirely.

 

 

Steve hasn’t said anything for several long, tense minutes.

 

Billy exhales, feels the sharp jab as his ribs expand. Steve’s frown tightens at the corners as he takes it in.

 

He knows what he looks like. He’s seen it a hundred times before. Maybe it hurts so bad this time because Wheeler had to watch him get picked over by the vultures in the ER. Maybe it’s because he promised himself–after dragging his ass into his car to leave Neil’s house as ordered–that it would be the last time. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t really believe his own convictions.

 

Maybe it just hurts because the pain Billy feels is reflected so clearly back at him as Steve can’t seem to decide where to settle his flickering gaze.

 

Neil uses his fists, his feet, his belt, his hatred. He uses furniture and lighters when he’s feeling particularly creative. This isn’t the worst it’s ever been. But it’s bad, and Billy doesn’t want Steve looking at him anymore. Doesn’t know why he agreed to do this after a meal, because all he feels like doing now is throwing it all back up.

 

He starts reaching for his shirt, but Steve shakes his head.

 

“There’s nothing to do for it.” Billy drops his shirt in the clump it was in on the edge of the sink. The cartons of takeout still need to be thrown away, they’re starting to stink up the kitchen. “It’s just a couple broken ribs. Looks worse than it is. I’ll be fine.”

 

Steve shakes his head again. Slow. Absent. Hooded eyes drag along the purple mottling on his side, the red blooms of broken capillaries, the way the violent patchwork disappears down his hip where Billy knows it covers an ass cheek where it met Neil’s boot.

 

“Steve, come on.” He goes for his shirt again and, thankfully, Steve lets him. Billy pulls it on with a grimace, but the hard look on Steve’s face is still there when he’s done. “Steve–”

 

Steve goes to his freezer and pulls out a bag of peas and two beers. He holds it out dutifully until Billy takes it, pressing it to the worst of the hurt and nearly whimpers from relief. Steve pops the beer’s cap off on the edge of the counter and Billy nearly groans from something else. Something darker, secret and unspent.

 

Steve takes a quick swig. Holds out the unopened bottle. Billy nods and he pops the second cap off, effortless and pissed off. But Billy knows it’s not directed at him.

 

They drink in silence until Steve shakes his head and says, “I fucking hate him.”

 

Billy huffs and holds his beer up. “Cheers to that.”

 

Steve taps their bottles together.

 

 

There’s an unsaid sixth rule, one that’s been clinging under Billy’s skin before he ever even considered his mom sending him back to California was a possibility. It’s been weighing on him, rolling down a hill quickly growing in size the longer he stays in one of Steve’s guest rooms.

 

He has to make a decision what to do about his dad.

 

He can’t go back. He can’t for a multitude of reasons, but his latest fault takes the cake. He confessed his deepest secret in a moment of chaotic vulnerability, of immense weakness, of feeling in the moment there was nothing left to lose.

 

But there is. Now that Steve counts his pills and tells him good boy with a stupid, joking smile. Now that he can’t think about leaping over the edge of the quarry without picturing Max’s heart laid out splat beside him.

 

Neil is an inevitability. Billy can’t just move in with Steve and forget his problems. He’s not eighteen.

 

Neil will come to collect, one way or another. Whether that’s in keeping tabs on Billy or dragging him back kicking and screaming. It’s too much of a risk to leave it where it ended, with Neil threatening to add him to his ‘Nam bodycount if he didn’t leave.

 

He can handle himself. He’s been dealing with his father for as long as he’s been alive. But now there’s the added risk of Steve.

 

Readded, really. He was always the biggest risk Billy could take.

 

If Neil finds out his queer only son is living with a guy…

 

He can’t risk Steve.

 

He won’t.

 

 

Hopper is an option. To Steve, who brings the chief up once and only once, then left it to stew and die like the idea deserved. To Max, who pleads with him to tell the cops when he still picks her up and drops her off where she needs to go. He scans her for bruises, for worse. There’s none he can see, but her undiminished spirit is the biggest sign Neil hasn’t laid his hands on her. Yet.

 

The inevitability hovers along his skin like electricity, a live wire flopping mad in a rainstorm. It’ll happen, it always does. It’s just a matter of when.

 

But he can’t. He just can’t. The chief is a good guy, sure. Isn’t like the pigs rolling around in their own shit back in California. Hopper still thinks his badge means something, and that makes him dangerous. Maybe even more so than Neil.

 

His mom doesn’t want him. Neil is Neil. Hopper is a cop who will do the right thing, act by the book just like he’d done before.

 

It’ll happen like he knows it will. He tells Hopper who will go back to the county who will probably go to the state and then where does that leave him? In a whitebread American household with its little picket fence that will look all too good on paper. They’ll take Billy in. They’ll play pretend a while. If they are who they seem to be, then yeah, they’ll be better than Neil. But they’ll get sick of him. Everyone always does. And perfect cookie-cutter families don’t frame family photos with kids like Billy in them. He’ll get bounced around. If they’re just leeching the system for benefits…then Billy’s off worse than before, and he’ll run. And either turnout could have him as close as down the street from Max or across the goddamn state.

 

So. No cops.

 

And Steve won’t wait forever.

 

 

He gives Max a knife. They play hooky for two hours at the old junkyard. He teaches her how to swing it open and closed, how to throw, how to stab, slash, slice. How to lose it and get it back. Makes her knick a finger to know what it feels like to fuck up. She loves it, he can tell.

 

She doesn’t argue with him when he tells her why he’s given it to her. Her eyes just go wet and he has to look away when she wipes at them with her raggedy sleeve.

 

“And don’t use it on your nerd friends. Don’t show it off. Only use it if you have to.”

 

She flips him off, kicks at his shin.

 

He takes her for ice cream. Flirts with the cashier to get a discount because money will be tight until he figures something out.

 

 

He has an appointment with Dr. Toll in a few days. He’s not entirely sure he’ll go. What is he supposed to do, tell her the truth? He’d be admitted and strapped in white in minutes.

 

“You good?” Steve asks quietly from his corner of the couch.

 

He’s got mismatched socks on, legs tucked to the side of him, chin cupped in a palm as he leans on the armrest. Billy is sitting ramrod straight at the other end, distracted. They’d been doing homework but got tired, both from the endless problems and the looming end of the school year.

 

It’ll be summer soon. Summer spent living under Steve’s roof, pretending he doesn’t want him so bad he feels like he’s constantly walking over coals.

 

Steve doused those embers when he told Billy to get out. And Billy accepted it then like he accepts it now. He won’t hurt Steve again. He refuses. But he can’t trust himself, no matter how badly he doesn’t want to be like that at Steve ever again.

 

It’s bad enough to know that Steve could go for a guy the same he could for a girl. For Billy? It would just confuse things worse than Billy’s already confused them.

 

“Do I seem anything but?”

 

Steve blinks slow, juts his chin a little toward him. “You’ve been tapping for like twenty minutes.”

 

“Oh.” Billy stops bouncing his knee and realizes yeah, he has been. He’s jittery with nerves. “Guess I’m just thinking.”

 

“About?”

 

He sighs. “I don’t want to do this right now, Harrington.”

 

Steve just rolls his eyes, good natured about it.

 

It’s been a while since he came out to Steve. Since Steve came out to him. Technically. He supposes it counts. Right? He doesn’t like the term. Coming out. Of what? The closet? The bathroom? The fucking glory hole he’s heard rumors about in the end stall at The Hideaway?

 

So far, it’s been fine. Might even go so far to say it’s been good. They’ve not plucked each other’s eyes out yet, but there’s a buzzing under his skin like there usually tends to be. And it’s been building.

 

His fuse has always been short when it comes to Steve. Especially since coming back and seeing little Nancy Wheeler all over him.

 

Steve’s eyes are soft and unguarded. Normal. Like before, maybe. The eyes he looked to when he snuck in through Steve’s window, Steve smiling and welcoming him in because it was normal. All so blissfully, typically normal.

 

We used to tell each other everything, he thinks, hearing Steve’s voice overlapping the words.

 

Steve was safe. His safety.

 

Steve’s letting him in. And that’s all he’s asking for in return.

 

But why is it still so hard? Like chewing glass.

 

He bleeds, holding Steve’s gaze, and wishes he were someone better.

 

“I have a thing. A uh, a diagnosis. I mean. For how I…can be.”

 

Steve just nods, patient. “You mean the therapist you mentioned seeing?”

 

Billy closes his eyes briefly before looking back at the TV to watch without really focusing on anything. It’s some daytime nothing. White noise.

 

“She said it’s called intermittent explosive disorder. Means sometimes I can just…pop. Like a balloon with too much air.”

 

“Mm.”

 

“Says it’s from like…extended neglect or some shit. From violence during childhood.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Means I can just fucking snap,” he says, snapping lamely to punctuate it, paint the whole picture because he can’t stomach turning to see the disgust Steve must have on his face. “And at the smallest shit, too. Not just the big stuff, the things someone should actually be angry about.”

 

Another little hum sounds off and Billy feels the buzz brighten.

 

“I feel like…like it’s all the time and none of the time. Because it’s always there. I’m not–I’m not normal. I’m not safe–”

 

It’s startling, how fast the word sticks on the way out. He can’t keep his anger under control, and he can’t put a stopper on the tears. Ever. What the fuck is wrong with him? If he’s not shouting or punching, he’s laughing or sobbing.

 

“I feel like a goddamn rain stick,” he grits out. He sniffs, digging the heels of both palms in his eyes.

 

There’s a snort, loud and short. Then a laugh. Then more.

 

He grinds his palms in and looks up finally, blearily, to see Steve laughing.

 

Before Billy can even open his mouth, Steve is shaking his head. “No, no, sorry. Shit, I’m not laughing at you. I just. A rain stick? The things that go all,” he says, miming flipping an invisible tube end over end while he makes a sound akin to a whale.

 

Billy can’t believe him. “Because I–I can’t fucking control it. I’m a blubbering mess one minute and the next I’m.” He stops, and chews the inside of his cheek as Steve winds down. “I almost killed you, Steve.”

 

“Hey, hey.” Steve reaches for him, the laughter gone in a blink. Billy leans away. Steve drops his hand. “Sorry. Well I mean, if you haven’t noticed over the last several years, I think I have you beat.”

 

“What? I’m fucking trying to be serious here. Trying to, I don’t know. Be honest or whatever the fuck you asked.”

 

Steve smiles sidelong at him.

 

“I don’t know. I can’t ever sleep. Like, ever. Nightmares come and go more often than Tommy takes to choose who to suck up to next. I have panic attacks at least once a week, and I’m an ugly crier.”

 

“You–you’re not an ugly crier,” Billy says, like that’s the most important thing out of any of it. Steve’s smile fills out, before mellowing into something soft.

 

“Shucks, Hargrove.”

 

“Fuck off.”

 

The edges of Steve’s smile stick around. “Those are what the meds are for though, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Do you feel like they help?”

 

And what a weird question to ask. Do they feel like they work and not do they work.

 

“Yeah. I mean, I think they have been.”

 

The smile returns, a sunbeam on the icy misery of Billy’s existence.

 

“That’s good! I mean, my mom? She’s tried everything under the sun. I know you haven’t seen it recently but her medicine cabinet is insane. Literally overflowing. I was thinking I need to start selling the surplus. Make it my new summer job.”

 

“But she’s never around,” Billy says, because she isn’t.

 

“You should see what she flies with.”

 

And Steve’s parents, similar to Neil, haven’t ever been a huge topic for them. Billy hasn’t picked his brain over them, their relationship. Why they treat Steve like a backup air mattress you only bring out for guests.

 

Billy’s never liked it. He thinks they’re fine people, his dad not as mean as Steve seems to think he is, but then Steve’s said Neil seemed fine back in the day too.

 

But then Steve’s parents are never around long enough for Billy to get the whole Harrington parental unit experience.

 

He’s simply always appreciated the freedom it allows, not having your folks around. Appreciated having Steve all to himself.

 

“Have any of them helped her?”

 

Steve shrugs. “Still batty. Still depressed. I…sometimes I think I’m turning out like her. Can’t sleep, and when I do it’s so hard sometimes I’m confused when I wake up. Like I don’t recognize where I am? And I get sad. Like, you get angry? Like, angry. I get sad. So fucking sad. It’s kind of pathetic actually.”

 

Billy just breathes. In, out. In, out, out.

 

“I don’t think you’re pathetic.”

 

Steve’s throat bobs. “I’m just saying. Medicine is good, great, if it helps. If you want it to help. And to me, it seems like you do. So I think that’s good, Billy. Really good. I’m uh. I’m proud of you. If that’s not a weird thing to say?”

 

Honestly it’s weird as hell and Billy wants to fucking cry. Or cry more.

 

“And you didn’t kill me, so that’s a plus,” Steve adds like an afterthought.

 

Billy wonders if it’s a joke. The breadth of time before the punchline.

 

But Steve is just smiling now. Making a joke of the situation, not of Billy.

 

I’m not laughing at you.

 

Hell, maybe Steve does want to be friends again. Have things go back to how they were.

 

“I’m sorry,” Billy whispers. He can only ever seem to whisper those two words. “I’m not blaming the anger disorder or anything, I’m not gonna be chickenshit about it. But I’m sorry. I just…we get under each other’s skin so bad. I don’t know how to fix that. Fix my fucked up brain. I’m not safe to be around.”

 

Warmth covers his hand and it’s Steve’s fingers over his knuckles. He moves down the couch, still more than a foot of distance between them, but he pulls Billy’s hand away from his face at the same time.

 

Steve fiddles with him awkwardly for all of ten seconds and then they’re holding hands.

 

Billy’s chest thumps. He swallows.

 

Steve looks like he’s gearing up for more. For more earth-tilting, heavy things. He looks like he did when he stood in front of Billy on swaying feet, cheeks wet after Wheeler dumped him.

 

“I’m sorry too. Nancy says I need to work on my apologies, but I just know I am. Sorry. I know you, Billy. I tried to tell myself I didn’t, not anymore. But you’re still you and I’m still me. You can be dangerous, sure. But so can I. I hit back too, remember? You know how often I’ve fought with Tommy over the years.”

 

“Not like that. Not like what I did, what I could do–”

 

“Billy. I want my best friend back. I’ve really missed you.”

 

Billy sniffs again, hating his sinuses for not catching the memo.

 

He can’t stop staring at their hands. Steve’s is so warm, big. Holds Billy’s like he’s happy to do it.

 

Like he wants to.

 

This is real. It’s happening.

 

Positive self talk, right?

 

“So. Friends, huh?”

 

“If you want. I mean–”

 

“Yeah,” Billy cuts him off. If Steve believes it, then maybe it’s just one more thing Billy can owe him. Can give him. “Yeah. Sounds good. Sounds perfect. I want that too.”

 

Steve shines the full force of the sun on him, inescapable. He squeezes Billy’s fingers.

 

It’s only when Steve hops up, their hands sliding apart, that Billy finds that bright buzz has gone. It’s never fast until it is, and with one touch Steve’s rendered it dead in its tracks.

 

 

There’s a week and a half left of school.

 

They spend the days not unlike they used to. Before he left. He likes to get an early start and always wakes before Steve to go pick Max up. He parks across the street so he doesn’t have to see Neil and Neil doesn’t have to see him. Susan always waves, and it makes Billy’s chest go tight, his stomach squirmy.They meet up and usually share a smoke before class starts, Steve still half asleep but with his hair perfectly coiffed as usual, dressed to impress. Billy distracts him from the way Wheeler holds hands with Jonathan Byers now, and Steve always, without fail, changes the subject before Billy can even ask.

 

They study like they used to. They dick around town like they used to. They watch movies and get takeout and eat Steve’s attempts at cooking like they used to, a skill he’s been nursing for years without his parents around to feed him.

 

It’s so normal, Billy’s addicted to it. It’s almost perfect enough he can forget the lingering shadow of something between them. That buzz that ebbs and flows more gently the longer he’s living with Steve.

 

He’s doing better. He even rescheduled with Dr. Toll.

 

Billy’s on autopilot, thinking about the next class, when Steve finds him in the hall. He looks good in khakis and a plain black sweater, teeth peeking white between his bitten down smile.

 

“So you know Samantha, the senior TA who grades chem?” he asks, practically bouncing.

 

“Obviously, Harrington.”

 

Steve falls into step with him, careful about crowding him too close. His ribs were still sore as hell most of the time, but they’d mostly healed. But Steve still worries about bumping into him, hurting him unnecessarily.

 

People part like the sea for them as they walk to Billy’s next class. He thinks it’s mostly because Steve and his presence, the effortless cool guy energy he gives off in spades.

 

Billy’s class is the opposite direction of Steve’s, but he still hurried to catch up to him anyway. Just because he wanted to share the news.

 

Billy breathes in, out, tries to curb the flush he feels burning the tips of his ears.

 

“I just bumped into her and she told me I did really well on that last project you helped me with, and–” he spins, moving around a startled group of girls who ogle him.

 

“And?”

 

“I got a B, Billy! B for Billy!” Billy rolls his eyes at that. “Who would have thought, huh?”

 

Steve nearly brains a kid with a fist bump. Billy guides his arm out of the kid’s way.

 

“Ah, so that’s why you wanted to play nice and make up with me. So you’d pass chem and get to be King Steve, ruling over the senior class?”

 

Steve smacks his elbow, rolling his eyes as they come up to Billy’s class. They park out front, Steve leaning a hip against the open door while Billy takes the threshold, creating an arch for everyone else wanting to grab their seat. He ignores the stares, the curiosity and whispers as they go by. He and Steve were on again off again as frequently as Tommy and Carol, and much more volatile about it. He honestly doesn’t blame them for wondering if they were friends again or about to throw a punch.

 

It helps that Steve’s been a lot better. A lot nicer.

 

And though he didn’t witness it firsthand, apparently Steve even apologized to Byers for breaking his camera.

 

Obviously, Hargrove. I was thinking we could get burgers out at Benny’s later. If you want? My treat.”

 

“Your treat? Shouldn’t I be paying if we’re celebrating you?”

 

“Well, I know money’s kind of tight. So I’m happy to. Plus, it’s your–”

 

Billy waves him off. It is tight. He hasn’t decided what to do about it just yet, but that isn’t Steve’s business. He thinks of how much he can part with.

 

“But it’s your birthday,” Steve says, raising an eyebrow.

 

“What? It’s not my birthday until…” He shakes himself. He’s been so distracted. By his dad. By Steve. By Max and school and plans and, fuck.

 

Steve must read him like a book because his tone turns lighthearted. “Probably forgot since you rushed out of the house this morning. I had a whole thing planned.”

 

He pouts until the smirk works its way back, and Billy punches him in the arm. “Screw you. You didn’t plan anything.”

 

“Maybe I did.”

 

“Seriously, you…don’t worry about that.” He lowers his voice. “You’re letting me crash at your place for a while, you don’t have to get me anything else, man.”

 

“But I–”

 

“Nope. You got a B and you’re gonna be a senior like the rest of us, so I’m taking you out. I’ll see you in chem, pretty boy.”

 

“Not lunch?” he asks, confusion crossing his face.

 

“I gotta run an errand, but I’ll be in class. Speaking of.” The bell rings and Steve swears under his breath, giving Billy a pointed look before running back down the hall.

 

He tries to curb his smile the entire hour of class. He fails.

 

 

When he pulls up to the house, he can tell something is off.

 

Maxine is quick to catch on, leaning forward in her seat and glaring at the pillow on the front lawn like it’ll help it make sense. All the blinds are drawn.

 

Neil’s truck is parked in the driveway. Home early.

 

Billy parks across the street, a shiver crawling slow and cold down his neck.

 

“I’ll walk you up,” he decides, to Max’s loud protests. “No butts.”

 

Her angry unbuckling substitutes whatever she wants to say as he taps the wheel before getting out himself.

 

It’s just a house, he tells himself. Neil won’t do shit to him on the front lawn, not in the afternoon. Not where a neighbor might see.

 

Moments before he’s about to knock, the door opens in one smooth movement. Susan’s wide eyes and nervous smile greet them, only wearing more thin when she takes Billy in.

 

Inside, it’s dark. Too quiet.

 

Then, a loud bang and slurred yelling.

 

Susan flinches hard and closes the door most of the way again.

 

“Hey sweetheart,” she aims at Max with only a modicum more warmth than her expression offers. Then, she says to Billy, “Your dad’s had a few beers. Would it be too much to watch her until tonight, when he’s gone to bed? It shouldn’t be too long.”

 

Neil doesn’t start yelling after only a few beers. Something must have happened.

 

“But mom–”

 

“Maxine,” she says quietly. “Please.”

 

Max goes tight-lipped before stomping off back to the Camaro.

 

Her mother sighs as Billy scans her face.

 

“Has he…Has he done anything to you?” he croaks out.

 

“No, honey,” Susan murmurs, looking so concerned for him in that moment he has to look down at her shoes. “No, he’s just been having some issues at work, is all.”

 

Is all. Like it’s all it ever is.

 

There’s more yelling from inside, words Billy has a hard time making out. Susan opens the screen door and squeezes herself out with a look over her shoulder.

 

“I’m making a plan,” she says in a hush. “I’ve been looking at Forest Hills. I have a good friend who has a trailer there, and says it’s affordable. I’m waiting to tell Max but I wanted you to know.”

 

It’s a lot to take in. Mousey little Susan, quiet and obedient, making a plan to leave his dad. If Neil finds out–

 

He thinks of the day Neil found out Billy’s mother was divorcing him.

 

“He can’t know,” he tells her, heart pounding too fast. “He can’t find out–”

 

Susan gives him a fast, firm hug. He can’t remember a time she ever just went for it, holding him as tightly as she must hold Max. But it’s only until Neil starts calling for her from somewhere in the back of the house.

 

Susan lets him go, touches his face. Then she’s slinking back around the screen and inside before he even has a chance to process it. She reappears after a moment, a white envelope in hand.

 

“Happy birthday, Billy,” she says, smiling before she’s gone again, the lock clicking in place.

 

He hurries back to the Camaro in a sort of daze, thoughts fuzzy, stuck circling around Forest Hills, the shitty trailer park just outside of town. That she’s actually going to leave his dad. Susan made it a point to let him know Max didn’t know her plans, which was just as well since the kid had a bad habit of blabbing.

 

He comes to when his buckle clicks in place. When it’s Max beside him, demanding, “Why’d my mom hug you?”

 

He doesn’t know. She’s never tried to stop Neil, not with any kind of real effort. But she set him up with Toll, a pharmacy Neil doesn’t know about. She hugged him like a woman hasn’t hugged him since his mom did when he was little.

 

He blinks away the dread of that and refocuses on the dash, the leather gear under his palm. He pulls out onto the road, mapping out the turns to Benny’s.

 

“Neil’s on a bender and I’m supposed to meet Steve to grab a bite. Your mom wants you out of the house until he’s passed out. You mind tagging along?”

 

He catches his own mistake before Max even says, “Why are you asking me? And what’s that?”

 

She grabs the envelope and he doesn’t even mind. Can hardly wrap his head around the fact Susan got him a card. She does, sometimes. But his birthday gifts have typically been a here son, we all chipped in kind of bullshit before Neil shoved a ten dollar bill his way and a card that was rarely signed. Susan usually just tried to make a decent dinner. And then he’d go hang with Steve, where he mattered.

 

“It’s my birthday,” he mutters, turning off Cherry.

 

He can’t read Max’s silence. She smooths her hands over the card but doesn’t open it.

 

“Oh. I thought it was–”

 

“Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Billy, I’m sorry–”

 

“We’re not doing this, shitbird. Just try not to gab Steve’s ear off. He already has to put up with me.”

 

“Fine,” she scoffs. “Don’t worry.”

 

He huffs at that. “Even I forgot. We’ve both been distracted I guess.”

 

She tucks the envelope, crispy and pristine, behind the cupholder.

 

“So is Steve taking you out on a date for your birthday?”

 

He nearly runs a red light.

 

“Nope. Not doing that either.”

 

“What! I’m just asking–”

 

“No, you’re not. You’re being a nosy little busy body and sniffing around in business that doesn’t concern you.”

 

“But when you and your dad fought, you said–”

 

“Maxine!” he can’t help but shout, because he’s cornered, he’s always been cornered, and this isn’t something he ever wants to be cornered about. Neil is bad enough, but having to talk about it with someone who wasn’t Dr. Toll–who he barely talks about it to begin with–no fucking way.

 

Talking with Max has always been one of the hardest things he’s had to do, over and over and over. Nothing ever seems to come out of his mouth like he means it to, and she always either ends up hurt or pissed off, and vice versa.

 

He’s done it again now. He can feel her stewing in her own anger.

 

“Not that,” he relents. “Anything but that.”

 

“You know I don’t care about that stuff, right?”

 

God, he’s exhausted.

 

“Max–”

 

“I’m just saying don’t worry!” She swears under her breath, kicking a foot up on his seat like she knows he can’t stand. “You’re my big brother. I missed you when you were gone, you know. Liking boys doesn’t even matter.”

 

The buzz has grown, louder, deeper, evolved from honey bees to hornets, stinging and stinging and stinging.

 

 

He pulls up beside Steve’s shining BMW. Maxine opens the door but turns back at the last second and hugs him awkwardly from the side.

 

She says, “Happy birthday, dickhole.”

 

And then she’s gone, backpack forgotten in her seat.

 

He’s had too many hugs today. He’s still buzzy, tense and trying not to be because Steve and his new hyper focused fixation on Billy’s wellbeing will notice. Max disappears inside the diner and Billy tries to breathe.

 

He grabs the envelope and rips it open, finding a sparkling yellow card with a cartoon turtle crossing a finish line on the front.

 

Inside, it’s the expected Hallmark drivel that doesn’t mean anything, but below it Susan’s written, Don’t grow up too fast. You have everything ahead of you. Happy birthday, Billy.

 

She included a twenty dollar bill.

 

He shuts his brain down. Blinks hard as he sticks the card in his book bag where Max won’t go snooping.

 

At least now he can cover Max’s meal.

 

 

The diner isn’t packed when he walks inside. He offers the blonde hostess up front a charming smile he knows glitters and watches the blush spread over her cheeks. It calms the lava welling in his veins.

 

Until he catches sight of Steve waving at him from the back. Maxine’s red head is down as she attacks a plastic bowl of fries.

 

The hostess hands him a menu and he makes his way back, already knowing the cheapest thing at Benny’s is a plain burger, no extras. With the twenty Susan gave him he might spring for cheese and pickles. Maybe treat himself with a shake.

 

Steve smiles at him as Billy slides into the space beside Max, snaking a hand in the bowl to steal two fries. They’re covered in cheese and garlic.

 

He flips the menu open and looks just for show.

 

“Oh, I already ordered,” Steve tells him brightly and his stomach twists.

 

“‘Cuz you were in the car a while,” Max explains.

 

He takes the menu from Billy and holds it out just as the waitress passes by. “Hope you don’t mind? I got everybody the double decker burgers and another round of fries. You still like chocolate shakes, I hope?”

 

Billy nods, the tips of his fingers numb. There goes that twenty. Add the tip and…Billy counts numbers in his head and tries not to worry too much about how he’ll afford gas.

 

Something taps against his shoe under the table. He blinks and Steve is sending him a nod of understanding, waves a hand like he’s telling Billy not to worry about it.

 

Billy wants to worry. He needs to. It’s his thing.

 

“You pick desert,” Steve says, a peace offering without Billy having to say a word.

 

Steve’s knee bumps his and stays there. Billy expects him to move away, to say something about the booth being too damn small, because it is with the way Max’s elbow keeps digging into his arm. But Steve stays put. Billy throws his arm over the back of the seat behind Max’s head.

 

“It’s his birthday,” Max states, business-like. “Did you get him something, Steve?”

 

“Who do you think I am, kid? Of course I did. What did you get him?”

 

“I got him something!” she squeaks out, and Billy watches a vein pop in her forehead.

 

He reaches down and flicks her. “She forgot.”

 

“Oh hey, so did Billy. You’re two peas in a pod.” He laughs as he takes a fist full of fries, stuffing them in his mouth like an ape. Billy only tolerates it because he gets to watch Steve lick his fingers after.

 

“Gross.”

 

“She hugged me, far as I’m concerned that’s more than enough. Don’t think I can stomach an actual gift.”

 

Her face is red as a tomato. “Then consider that hug your only present!”

 

“Trust me, I will.” He drags the bowl of fries away from Steve and eats one at a time. “Enough about me. This is supposed to be Harrington’s big party.”

 

“For what?”

 

“I passed chemistry,” he says, the pride rolling off him like radiation.

 

It sends a ripple through Billy. “Yep, the King gets to graduate with all the rest of us paupers after all.”

 

“It’s not graduation yet.”

 

“Okay, then the King isn’t getting held back. How about that?”

 

“Better,” Steve says, leaning forward to steal a fry from Billy’s fingers. He pops it between his teeth. “Last thing I wanted was to be stuck with Munson as the only senior not really a senior, you know?”

 

“Who’s Munson?”

 

“This guy who has to repeat his senior year next year. The school can’t shut up about it,” Billy explains.

 

“But you’ll be a senior for the first time I thought?”

 

“Potato, potato,” Steve says with a shrug. “It’s just embarrassing, is the point. I wouldn’t have passed if it wasn’t for your brother, so it’s really all his fault.”

 

“Guilty as charged,” he drawls, stealing a fry from Steve.

 

Max watches them swat at each other. “I’m glad you guys are friends again.”

 

Steve falters so Billy takes the opportunity to snatch his fry away and stick both in his mouth. He drags the bowl back for Max so she can eat and keep her trap shut.

 

“Yeah,” Steve says, looking at Billy, something held there in his eyes. It’s so heady he can almost put a name to it. “I am too.”

 

Billy bumps his knee with Steve’s and ignores the way his pulse flutters. “Yeah, yeah, enough with the warm and fuzzies.”

 

Their food arrives, burgers piled high with everything and more. Billy’s is almost too-hot, right off the stove with the cheese melted just right. Tastes so good it’s worth burning his tongue.

 

Steve watches him eat, knee a constant pressure beneath the table.

 

 

“Jesus, I’m stuffed.”

 

Billy laughs at how Steve holds his stomach. They’re out front, Max in the car already reading one of her comics. Billy offered to share a cigarette but Steve had waved it away, whining about being too full.

 

“You ate less than me.”

 

“I can never do a double patty,” he says with a pout. “Seriously, I feel like I gained five pounds.”

 

“Now you sound like Carol.”

 

Steve frowns. “Carol wishes she looked this good bloated.”

 

“Carol wishes she looked as good as you, period.”

 

His brain catches up with his mouth and he goes still. Then he’s dropping his chin and staring out at the street, busy with after-school traffic, decidedly not looking anywhere near Steve.

 

Steve leans his weight against him. “So. You never said why you brought Max along. I didn’t mind! I just figured she wanted to be at the arcade or something with the boys.”

 

He ashes his cigarette. “Neil’s drunk. Susan asked me to keep her busy until he hits the sack later.” He shrugs. “I didn’t even think of the arcade. I just…I didn’t want to see him.”

 

“Couldn’t think.”

 

“Yeah.” He turns back when a hand bumps his for the smoke. Steve takes it and inhales, coughing a little with it. “Something about work troubles or some shit.”

 

“Any idea what about?”

 

“Maybe he’s about to get canned. Who knows.”

 

“Damn. That’s not good.” Steve exhales a cloud of smoke. He reaches into his jacket pocket and brings out a little wrapped rectangle, no bow. “Happy birthday, by the way.”

 

Billy accepts it, feeling the cool paper slide under his fingers. Billy has a good idea what he’s holding, but he pretends to really consider it, feel the weight of it because Steve just looks so pleased with himself. Nervous too.

 

Billy rips the corner and tears the blue paper off all in one.

 

He reads the scrawl on the front. “You made me a mixtape?”

 

“Just give it a try?”

 

He flips it over and reads the tracklist, half of which is illegible. “You put Bonnie Tyler on here.”

 

“She’s got a top hit out right now!”

 

“And The Police? Steve.”

 

“You can have your metalhead shit, let me have this.”

 

“It’s my gift though,” he says on a smile.

 

“Just be happy I spared you any Madonna.”

 

Billy waves the tape at him. He looks it back over, reading over Steve’s smudged and tiny scribbling.

 

“Thanks. I like it.”

 

“Really?”

 

Yes, really.”

 

Steve looks away, shy and pleased before he clears his throat. “Hey, uh. Can I say something? I’ve been thinking about it for a little bit.”

 

Billy shifts his weight, feeling uneasy. Maybe this is it and Steve’s finally going to tell him to beat it. A mixtape and a kick out the door. “Depends.”

 

“It’s nothing bad, promise. I was just thinking…if Max and her mom ever need a place to like, get away. From your dad, I mean. If they ever need somewhere to stay for a while, or just a few hours, or however long really. They can, you know. Stay. At my place. With you, I mean. Or without, too.”

 

He’s fidgeting again, all bird bones and hair ruffling. He’s looking at Billy like he’s afraid he’ll reject the idea. And honestly, Billy’s first thought is to flat out refuse. Say it’s too much. Say it’ll never be that bad, because he won’t let it be.

 

But how can he promise that now?

 

He breathes, in and out. Remembers how Steve had hugged him back, how it made everything else in Billy’s fucked up life fade away.

 

He grips the mixtape until it creaks.

 

“I know it’s a lot, and you always say you hate charity or whatever. But this isn’t that, okay? It’s really not,” Steve goes on, a chatterbox with no off button.

 

Billy plucks the cigarette back and finishes it off.

 

Steve just keeps going. Billy misses a lot of it, too caught up in the way the overcast light catches the blond strands in his hair. The way his favorite pair of moles dance along Steve’s cheekbone. The way the tendons in his neck flex and relax as he tilts his head and gestures wide with his hands. The way he’s so clearly out of his depth so often, and still manages to come across charming and sincere, and like he knows more about himself and all the secret things Billy could ever hope for without ever having to ask.

 

But he comes back to the conversation when Steve says, “My home is your home. You know that, right?”

 

He didn’t. He doesn’t. Because how can he know that, know such a precious, unheard of thing.

 

Billy feels like someone else is nodding his head for him. He can only stare at Steve, wondering why now.

 

Steve gives him a tentative smile.

 

“Is it okay if I tell Max?”

 

“Knock yourself out,” someone else says for him, through him. He’s a ghost in a bag full of bones, weightless. Adrift.

 

Steve rounds the car and makes a goofy face at the window until Max rolls it down, then Billy turns away, hears him ask how she’s doing, what she’s reading. Ask for suggestions for the boys so he can get some street cred, or whatever the equivalent is in nerd-speak.

 

Billy waits with held breath, the cigarette down to nothing in his fingers. He can pinpoint the moment the conversation turns serious, soft, more of that same nervous energy sprouting fresh.

 

My home is your home, he’d said, like he says it now. Billy wonders if Max will start laughing in his face. But he doesn’t hear her say anything.

 

“I hope that’s obvious,” Steve is saying. “Like, even if Billy and me weren’t friends for whatever reason–which is not gonna happen again–you, all three of you. My house is yours if you ever need it. Today, tomorrow, twenty years from next Tuesday. Okay?”

 

Billy wants to hop the bumper and kiss him.

 

He watches cars roll by and listens to Maxine sniffle.

 

 

Steve suggests Max walkie the kids and then Billy follows him to Dustin’s house to pick him up. The others pile in at the Wheeler house, which Steve doesn’t linger too long at thanks to the station wagon in the drive.

 

Billy remembers the way Wheeler slapped him, asked him to stay awake, how she parked like a bat out of hell just because she’d seen him flipping his shit. He owes her too.

 

“I’m so glad he’s not dating Nancy anymore. She was always mad about nothing,” Max comments, and Billy has to laugh.

 

“You and me both, pipsqueak.”

 

She doesn’t need to know Wheeler saved his life. That it needed saving in the first place.

 

He gives her a fist bump. It feels like a white flag.

 

The ride to the arcade is short, and spent with Max complaining about how little Mike is an asshole, and how Dustin and Lucas have an ongoing feud about nothing Billy can make sense of.

 

It’s almost pleasant.

 

 

They have a couple more hours to kill before Billy knows his dad will be in bed, or at least getting ready for it. Billy gives Max a five for quarters while the other kids pester Steve for the same and more. It takes fifteen minutes for Steve to wrestle himself away so they can escape next door to Family Video.

 

Steve returns the tapes he and Billy worked through the last week and they pick out a few more. They’re on a sci-fi kick. Steve mentions a French movie called Entre Nous his friend suggested, and Billy can already tell they’ll be bored out of their minds.

 

Steve buys a box of M&Ms and they set up on a curb in front of the arcade while they wait, trading the candies back and forth.

 

Billy feels the buzzing pinch and sting, unsure, unsteady. He doesn’t know if it’s a good idea, not like he thought when he first decided on it during lunch at the mall when he couldn’t find anything he could afford.

 

If Steve hates it, then oh well. He’ll just brush it off, make some excuse.

 

He should have just made a mixtape.

 

Billy digs in his jacket pocket and grabs the thing, holding it out between them so that Steve can’t mistake it’s meant for him.

 

He considers the small lump of tissue paper for a moment.

 

“You got me a gift? Why?”

 

Because I can’t repay you no matter how many lifetimes I manage to swindle away for myself, he thinks.

 

“Your uh, your birthday,” Billy explains. “I missed it.”

 

He sits there and chews on chocolate as Steve carefully peels away the tissue. Billy had swiped it from a display, so what. It was white and looked classy and he couldn’t figure out how to get away with taking one of those little boxes too.

 

“…Oh.” Steve holds up the gold necklace, letting the chain dangle while cupping the pendant in a palm. “I can’t take this.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Steve puffs his cheeks out. “You know why.”

 

“It was my mother’s,” he explains. “You don’t like it?”

 

“It’s your mom’s, Billy. It’s too important. I can’t take this from you.”

 

Billy folds it back into Steve’s hand when he tries to hand it back. “It’s a birthday gift, no returns.”

 

“Billy–”

 

“It’s really the only good memory I have of her. She gave it to me when I was really little. We were at the beach. Said it was of a saint, for protection.” He watches Steve stare down at it, at the small figure etched in gold. “Don’t know which saint. And it’s not exactly like it works or anything…” he shrugs when Steve sends him a sharp look. “But it stuck around when she didn’t, so I think it counts for something.”

 

Billy holds up the box of M&Ms when Steve tries to hand it back again. He ends up letting out a huff of frustration before slipping the necklace over his head. He looks down, his chin doubling as he runs a thumb over the pendant.

 

“This is way too much, man,” he mutters, still studying the thing. “Definitely no Bonnie Tyler.”

 

“I want you to have it. I know you get nervous and feel like you’re alone sometimes…but this is a reminder that even when everyone else leaves, you’ve still got something to keep going for, right?”

 

That same sharp look zeroes in on him again and Billy weathers it. Steve searches his face.

 

“You’re not planning something stupid, are you?” he deadpans, and Billy shoves their shoulders together.

 

“Don’t be so dramatic, pretty boy. It’s just a necklace.”

 

Billy hands him an M&M.

 

Steve takes it.

 

 

One by one, they drop the kids off, and Steve’s car because, “I want to make sure he’s not gonna give you trouble.” Then Billy drives to his old house.

 

Max is tired, he can tell from the way she’s getting off her game. Her rude interjections into their conversation are getting slower and less mean.

 

By the time they pull up across the street again, she’s yawning.

 

The house is dark. The pillow is missing from the front yard.

 

Susan is out front drinking out of a mug. She waves at them, and Billy feels the tension leave his chest.

 

Max sighs as she grabs her bag and skateboard. “Thanks, Steve. Happy birthday, Billy.”

 

“Let me walk you up,” Steve suggests, but Billy holds a hand in front of him to keep him in his seat.

 

“Let me.” He gets out and carries Max’s bag for her.

 

In the small stretch of distance between his car and Max’s mother, the dark doesn’t feel so oppressive. Feels light. Like maybe he’ll be able to escape Hawkins one day soon and leave the ugly fact of his father behind for good.

 

“You gave him your necklace,” Max whispers.

 

“I did.”

 

“You really like him?”

 

He knows Susan can’t hear them. And Max still has that sleepy sheen to her voice, quiet and not like she’s trying to get a rise out of him.

 

“I do.”

 

She yawns again. “I do too.”

 

Susan holds her arms open as Max meets her for a hug.

 

“Have a good time?”

 

“Yeah, real good. It was nice,” she says and Billy feels the tightness return, like he can’t hold everything that’s inside him. He rubs at his chest. “I ate too much.”

 

Susan laughs softly as Max goes inside, careful to not make a sound.

 

Billy hands her bag over to Susan, who sips at her coffee. He can smell the bitter heat a foot away.

 

“Everything good?”

 

She nods, her eyes drifting to where Steve sits in Billy’s car, probably watching them interact like a hawk.

 

“How soon?” he asks, because it’s been burning him all afternoon.

 

“By the end of summer, I hope. Is he nice?”

 

“Who?” he asks, even though he’s not stupid. She sips at her mug. “Yeah. He is.”

 

She nods again.

 

“I should have tried harder for you, Billy,” she says. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”

 

He can’t think of anything nice to say to that. She should be, is one. Another is don’t worry about it. Another is he’s never trusted anyone who wasn’t himself.

 

But he can’t make his mouth work. Can’t find his voice.

 

Susan steps into his space, wraps the arm holding the coffee around his shoulders carefully, and presses her lips to his cheek in a brief kiss.

 

“Drive safe, alright?”

 

He can only nod, then he’s turning briskly away and hurrying back to the car so he can get the hell out of Cherry.

 

He never wants to come back.

 

 

The ride back is quiet, but not uncomfortable. There’s just nothing to say.

 

He calls dibs on the shower when they get inside even though he doesn’t need to, Steve has his own after all. Steve says goodnight, thanks him again for his gift. Billy can’t even remember if he replied.

 

The water is too hot, burning his scalp, his shoulders, scalding his back. He wants to burn away, into nothing. Wants to be reborn again. Wake up like the last forever never happened so he can just be some guy named Billy Hargrove with nothing negative attached to him. He wants to start over, so everything doesn’t hurt so much.

 

He lowers the temp and accidentally shampoos his hair twice. He just can’t stop thinking of how almost in awe Steve was of Billy’s present. It was just a necklace. And it was so much more.

 

But does Steve even realize how much?

 

Billy has a rough idea of what to do over the summer. Much of it involves saving up, which requires a job. If he gets two, then maybe he’ll have enough to scrape by.

 

He just has to make it another year. Then he’ll be safe. Then Neil can’t touch him ever again, can’t use Steve against him if he does find out. Billy will be able to move on with his life and maybe live it, like everybody seems to keep telling him is a choice as much as it’s an inevitability.

 

He steps out, dries off, gets ready for bed. He’s beat, the emotional whiplash of the day taking more of a toll on him than he thought it would. The buzzing is a mumble now, but still there, and he just hopes he’ll be able to sleep through the whole night.

 

The hall light is on when he comes out. Steve’s door is cracked and the light is off, which means he’s in bed already. But if the other lights are on, then he must be feeling off too.

 

Billy talks himself down from checking on him. Steve doesn’t need him to do that. Out of their new normal, that’s one of the largest, most selfish things he never does anymore. Steve’s bed is his own. Billy and him may be friends again, but not like that. Not anymore.

 

He tosses his clothes in the hamper Steve gave him, then crawls under the covers of his own borrowed bed. Billy’s often thought the rest of the Harrington house feels like a hotel apart from the kitchen, living room, and Steve’s room. The guest rooms are untouched, the beds made with crisp white sheets. Steve never steps foot into them, but he does now when he wants to listen to Billy’s music or study together from Billy’s textbooks instead of his own.

 

He still doesn’t have all his things. Steve says he’s just waiting for Billy to give him the go-ahead to go and get them when Neil’s at work.

 

He tosses and turns, the buzzing growing louder.

 

He tries to think about nothing, and instead thinks about everything. Replays every moment from the day over in his head. Feels everything secondhand, slightly faded in parts and sharp as a knife in others.

 

Did he say goodnight back? Or had he been too wrapped up in his own head?

 

He sighs and flips back over, frowning when he sees it’s only been eight minutes since he laid down.

 

Did he say it back?

 

Did Steve really like his gift? Or did he just accept it because he kind of had to?

 

“Fuck.”

 

Billy tosses the covers off and lays there, in his briefs and scowling at the ceiling.

 

He won’t. He can’t. It’s pathetic and embarrassing and worse of all, clingy.

 

He threads his fingers together over his stomach. Counts his breaths.

 

He hops up and pads out of the room and down the hall. To hell with being embarrassing and pathetic. He needs to know he said goodnight.

 

He stops and listens at Steve’s door. He doesn’t hear anything, which is a pain. He raps his knuckles against the wood.

 

Finally, “…Billy? You okay?”

 

Billy pushes the door open gently, and closes it again so the light doesn’t let in. Steve is on his side, arm folded under his head. He’s watching Billy with an eyebrow raised.

 

“I’m good. Just wanted to say goodnight.”

 

“We did already.”

 

Great. “Oh, cool.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well.” He stands there, feeling awkward and out of place. “Night.”

 

“Want to stay?”

 

Billy stops dead. “What?”

 

Steve is tapping his fingers on his sheet, then switches to gripping the bend of his elbow. “It’s supposed to storm tonight. I don’t think I’m gonna sleep that great. Maybe…maybe you could stay? If you want.”

 

If he wants. It’s all he wants.

 

Maybe he already fell asleep and this is a dream.

 

“I could do that,” Billy murmurs and steps up to the bed.

 

Steve moves over, scooting back until there’s enough room. This is Steve’s side of the bed. When… before, he had his spot and Steve had his. He places his hand palm down on the sheet. It’s warm.

 

Something glints off Steve’s chest. He’s wearing Billy’s necklace still.

 

Billy forces his eyes up.

 

The room is a little humid from Steve’s shower. It smells faintly of his shampoo, and only more strongly of it when Billy slots himself under the covers. Steve’s pillow is slightly damp and smells like soap and him and Billy tries not to be too obvious about taking a deep breath in.

 

Steve is facing him still. Billy considers turning over, trying not to make this awkward. Nights spent exactly like this fill his mind, and all he can think about is how soft Steve’s lips always were.

 

He’s about to make good on his promise to himself not to confuse things and turn over when Steve reaches out and barely brushes two fingertips against his chin. They drop and land on his neck.

 

It’s only after Billy lets out a shaky breath that Steve’s warm hand moves, settles fully on the side of his neck, thumb on his jaw.

 

“Steve,” he says, his voice cracking. It sounds like a warning.

 

Steve holds his eyes. Drops his gaze to Billy’s mouth.

 

Billy leans in and kisses him.

 

Steve’s breath rushes out to meet him, pushing in as his fingers dig into Billy’s nape. Billy fists the sheets between them as Steve melds their mouths together. It must be a sweet dream indeed for it to feel so real.

 

Steve hums, the sound catching in his throat before he’s pulling back. His throat works as he holds Billy’s eyes. “Is this…is this practice?”

 

Nevermind that it’s Steve who touched him first. Steve who said stay. Steve, who’s looking like he’s ready to crack open like an egg.

 

“No,” Billy tells him, because how can it be, after everything? And then, because he owes Steve everything and more, and he’s trying to be honest, “I don’t want it to be.”

 

“Good.” Steve’s dark gaze drifts languid and all seeing over his face, back to his eyes. “Neither do I.”

 

It’s Steve who leans back in, meets him where Billy is too stunned to. Not unlike the first time Steve agreed to his idea to practice, he can’t help thinking it’s happening. It’s finally happening.

 

The thing about touching Steve is every touch feels like the first, feels like lightning barely capped in its own little electric bottle. Steve lights him up, burns him down to the root, to the heart, and manages to smooth away every small hurt all at once.

 

The sheets get pushed down the bed. It’s Steve who presses against Billy, who shifts until a thigh is sliding over his and their chests are pressed together. Steve is wearing a shirt over his own briefs, and Billy wants it off.

 

He grabs at the hem and tugs until Steve is forced to break apart from him. His lips are slick and swollen and hungry between the instant he has to lift away for Billy to throw his shirt to the side and the moment he crashes back down. The pendant swings, catches against Billy’s cheek. His hands slide up Billy’s neck, into his hair, tugging as he moans, driving their hips together. Billy whines, is shocked at himself.

 

He wraps his arms tight around Steve’s back, then remembers he can touch now. He’s allowed to.

 

He runs his hands down, back up, back down again. He cups Steve’s ass and squeezes and Steve breaks off, gasping loud above him.

 

“Oh my god. Oh my god, Billy.”

 

They move together for what feels like an eternity. It stirs an overwhelming heat in the pit of Billy’s stomach, feeling them both pressed together, hard and wanting more.

 

Steve keens again, removing his hands from Billy’s hair to fist at either side of his head. He lifts his hips and breathes, ragged and undone. He smiles as Billy slides his hands back up to rub circles at his sides.

 

“I’m close,” he whispers. Billy kisses the embarrassment from his tongue. “Sorry. God, it feels like I’ve never done this before.”

 

“I mean, we haven’t.” He realizes almost too late that he’s smiling just as wide back up at Steve. “You don’t even know how much I want to see you fall apart again.”

 

“Again, huh?”

 

Billy bites gently at his lower lip. “Do you think about it? That day on your couch.”

 

Steve’s hips stutter. He readjusts an arm, huffs into the next kiss.

 

“All the fucking time.” The words come out on a moan. Billy never thought Steve would be so loud. He wants to flip them over, press Steve down into the bedding. But he wants to give him the space he needs to gather himself too. “I dream about it.”

 

He grips Steve’s hips and Steve leans his torso on Billy, kisses at his cheek. He gets distracted by his ear, then skims down to his neck and bites. Billy thrusts into the air between them, wanting Steve’s full weight back where it should be.

 

But Steve is single minded as he kisses a stripe down his neck, to his chest. He smirks at whatever he sees and presses a sweet, lush kiss to Billy’s pec right before he bites his nipple, and sucks.

 

Billy sees stars. Tangles his hands in Steve’s thick hair and just holds him, doesn’t want to pull his scalp off from how good it feels. He bucks up and meets the plane of his stomach, and lets out a sigh of relief at finally having some friction to rut against.

 

Steve doesn’t take the bait. He keeps sucking, moves to the other nipple and treats it the same. Billy feels close now, way too close. He doesn’t even mind. Just wants Steve to keep doing whatever it is he’s doing.

 

Then that mouth is moving lower and lower, and Billy raises his head to ask what Steve thinks he’s doing.

 

Steve is looking up at him, and when they lock eyes, his smile is shy. Nervous. He taps along Billy’s pelvis before inching into the band of his underwear.

 

“Is this okay?”

 

Billy stutters out a word even he doesn’t understand. Then, “It’s way more than okay.”

 

Steve nods, looking seriously down at the bulge beneath his chin. “This I’ve definitely never done before.”

 

His heart is about to beat right out of his throat. “Me either.”

 

Steve is licking his lips. “Wait, really?”

 

“No?”

 

“You’ve never been…you mean you’ve never done this with a guy?”

 

Billy just shakes his head, no. He feels small.

 

“But you always seemed so…”

 

“So?”

 

“Like you knew what you were doing.”

 

Billy shrugs, too focused on the small points of pressure Steve’s fingertips make at his waist. The way he’s throbbing so consistently, he might come just from having Steve ask him questions.

 

“It was just…it was us.” He tries to wet his lips and only half succeeds. “It was you. It was always you, Steve.”

 

His head is foggy, too addled by the way Steve’s looking up at him, the way he’s been touching him, the way he smiles now, like he knows exactly what Billy means to say. He probably does.

 

And then Steve is flipping his underwear down and gripping the base of his dick, squeezing as he considers the wetness that beads at the tip.

 

Billy throws his head back and squeezes his eyes shut tight. He refuses to finish the first time Steve ever touches him. Embarrassing wouldn’t begin to cover it.

 

He isn’t expecting it when Steve wraps his lips around him. Billy shivers, fighting not to thrust into the heat of his mouth. His hands find Steve’s wrists and he wraps his fingers around them, just to hold. To know he’s there and holding Billy down. Keeping him from floating away.

 

Steve takes his time, is slow about it. Is moaning every now and again. Billy peeks at him, and watches Steve practically savoring it. He pulls off and licks at the tip and goes back down, taking him in deeper each time.

 

“Steve,” he croaks. “Steve, I’m not gonna–”

 

Steve hums and sucks hard, and Billy shatters. Grips at Steve’s wrists as his voice goes higher than he’s ever heard it.

 

He blinks and his head is flat on the pillow, he’s breathing hard. Blinks again and Steve’s face swims into view above him, grinning like mad.

 

Then he’s bending down and sharing the taste of Billy with himself. Billy sinks under the weight of him, circles his arms around his back and kisses Steve as deep as he’s always craved.

 

 

He wakes up only once in the night, and it’s to Steve wrapped in his arms from how they fell asleep together. The hair at his nape is sweaty, matted to his neck and he’s muttering something unintelligible, his limbs twitching. Billy can hear it raining outside, but nothing so bad as a storm. Still, Steve shakes.

 

Billy noses at his neck, lets his lips rest at the knob of his spine, and holds him.

 

 

Billy wakes with the sun first, his breath second. He needs to brush his teeth. Kind of wants to go down on Steve again just to refresh the taste. Return the favor twofold, threefold, more.

 

He knows he’s gross, but so is Steve, a little. So it doesn’t matter in the end.

 

Steve is sound asleep, motionless and splayed out. They’d turned over sometime in the night and now Steve’s on his back, an arm and leg tossed over Billy where he’s still half on his side. Billy’s arms are still around Steve’s middle.

 

Billy closes his eyes and nuzzles back into Steve’s shoulder, loving the way he smells, the way he feels, his warmth.

 

The stinging buzz is gone.

 

He decides this is it. This is all he’ll ever want or need for the rest of his life.

 

Then the doorbell rings.

 

It’s Saturday morning. Who the hell is ringing Steve’s doorbell on a Saturday morning.

 

His thoughts jump first to Max, but he tells himself that wouldn’t happen. She’d call first. It was too long of a ride on her skateboard.

 

“Steve,” he mutters, jostling him a little.

 

Steve hums.

 

“Steve,” Billy says a little louder, hating he has to actually get up. That he has to wake Steve up too. “Someone’s at the door.”

 

“I don’t wanna wear that shirt, mom,” Steve mumbles, sleep slurring the words into a mush. When Billy kisses his shoulder and tweaks a nipple, his head jerks up. One eye is open and peering at Billy. “Babe.”

 

The feeling the word sends through him has him overflowing, swollen on it. He hides his blubbery smile behind Steve’s shoulder.

 

“Doorbell, pretty boy.”

 

“Hmm. Call me that again,” he mumbles, smiling lopsided and dreamy.

 

“Pretty boy, time to get your pretty ass up.”

 

Steve turns over and kisses Billy the rest of the way awake.

 

The doorbell rings, again and again and again.

 

“Jesus.”

 

“Told you.”

 

“Don’t wanna.”

 

“You think it’s the kids?”

 

“No? I…” Steve blinks, thinking. “Oh shit.”

 

“Oh shit?”

 

“It’s Robin.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Steve leaps out of bed butt naked, bent in half as he grabs for whatever clothes he can reach. Billy hadn’t realized last night that Steve just stripped and threw his clothes wherever they landed.

 

His hair flops all over the place, wild and out of control and perfect even as he still squints one eye half closed.

 

“Your friend, Robin? Band girl Robin?”

 

“Uh-huh!” Steve pulls on a dirty shirt with a sauce stain on the front and grimaces before pulling it off again. He tugs jeans and a different shirt on and goes into his bathroom. “I forgot I made plans with her today.”

 

“Plans?” Billy sits up on his elbows, happy to watch Steve scramble as much as he’s relieved it’s not Max with an emergency.

 

There’s lots of combing and styling as Steve elaborates. “Remember I said I owed someone an apology for being a dick? That was Robin. I wanted to talk and she finally said yes.”

 

Steve starts in on the hairspray full force. Downstairs, Robin’s ringing the doorbell like she thinks Steve’s dead on the other side.

 

Billy remembers the weird French movie with the women on the cover. “She’s the one who suggested that movie yesterday?”

 

“Yep!” Still more hairspray.

 

“Not even I use that much, man. Don’t make yourself a fire hazard.”

 

Steve pops out and grins at him. He closes his eyes and sprays more to prove a point.

 

“I owe her one too,” Billy says and it gets the hairspray to stop.

 

“I think she’d appreciate that. I would too.” He flips the can of hairspray like it’s a nunchuk before catching it again, seamless. “Let’s try not to double team her though. She’s gonna be pissed enough as it is with me.”

 

“Don’t worry, she’s not really my type.”

 

Steve blinks then makes a face. He goes back into the bathroom and starts running the sink. Billy hears the uncapping of his toothpaste. “Don’t be gross!”

 

“You said it, not me.”

 

Steve leans around the doorway, brush in mouth. Foam drips onto the carpet and he sighs, heading back to the sink. Billy hears him spit and rinse and spit again and settles further back into the pillows, thinking about the night before.

 

He feels…happy.

 

Steve returns, hands on his hips as he takes Billy in.

 

“You’re real tall from this angle.”

 

“I’m always tall.”

 

Billy reaches for his waist and finds a belt loop. He tugs and Steve smiles again as he gives in to pull of their lips touching.

 

“Is she trying to do a song?” Steve suddenly asks.

 

“The Imperial March, I think.”

 

“Which one is that again?”

 

“Darth Vader’s tune.”

 

Steve shakes his head into another kiss and Billy sighs with it. “Just come back to bed. We can apologize later.”

 

Steve kisses him once, twice, then drags himself away. “Nope. I’m being a responsible person. You should too. Put some pants on.”

 

“But being naked in your bed is so fun. I might stay like this forever.”

 

He wiggles his hips. Steve’s cheeks go pink.

 

Then there’s the sound of the door opening and Steve’s entire demeanor changes. He tenses up, listening.

 

Then, “I’m letting myself in, dingus! You better be decent!”

 

“Shit. I forgot I showed her the spare.”

 

“Why?” Billy asks, jumping up and trying to grab something of Steve’s that might fit him.

 

“She’s my friend!”

 

Billy swears and rifles through one of Steve’s dresser drawers for a pair of old pants. He finds a pair of navy jeans and tugs them on, too aware of how they’re just a little too long.

 

He’s still hunting for a shirt when Steve pulls his attention away by turning his face back for a final kiss. It’s a peck really. But he’s smiling when he draws away and Billy’s caught like a fish on a hook.

 

“We’ll continue this later?”

 

Billy knocks their noses together, skims his lips across Steve’s cheek. “Yeah we will.”

 

Steve noses at him right back. Then, like he just made the decision, he flicks Billy’s nipple and runs out of the room.

 

Billy just stands there for a moment. Then he hears the two of them downstairs trading hellos and whatever else.

 

He pulls on the first shirt he sees, runs his hands through his curls, and braces himself.

 

 

“I had to see it for myself. So you two finally kissed and made up, huh?” 

 

She doesn’t know, but she doesn’t catch on to their nervousness about it, even with the awkward laughter. They haven’t discussed it. Haven’t discussed anything.

 

Billy can read it on him. Steve’s anxious, but not in any way that Billy’s worried what he’ll say later. Steve agreed it wasn’t practice. It wasn’t a game.

 

It was real.

 

He doesn’t think he’d feel so settled like he does if it was anything but.

 

But Robin is perceptive. He’s never spent long in her company, hasn’t ever had a reason to. But she’s like him, and that makes her aware in a way others won’t be.

 

Plus, she has a good reason to be wary of him. He certainly left an impression.

 

They’re in the kitchen. Steve is making a huge batch of scrambled eggs and Billy’s sitting at the island, watching Robin watch them.

 

They’re not even really talking about anything when Billy just can’t keep it in anymore.

 

“I’m gay.”

 

Robin blinks at him. Steve throws a somewhat bug eyed look over his shoulder.

 

“I’m a piece of shit,” he says next. “I’ve been a piece of shit. I said something stupid and mean to you and I shouldn’t have. I was being a hypocrite.”

 

Steve’s looking at him like he’s grown a second head.

 

Robin keeps blinking, eyes flitting to Steve then back to Billy. “I am…also gay,” she states.

 

Now it’s her turn to get the look.

 

“He knew?”

 

“Yeah. He know about you?”

 

“Yep.”

 

Steve sighs and digs a spatula into the mess of eggs.

 

“And I like both, yippee.”

 

“I taught him that,” Robin says with pride, pulling a seat up beside Billy.

 

 

Billy excuses himself after breakfast so Steve and Robin can air it out and say what they need to say to each other. He used to be jealous of them, for about five minutes. Then he got over himself. Then he realized Robin really was into girls and it hadn’t just been a drunk bout of staring at another girl’s tits at a party.

 

He goes and picks up some groceries, a few more packs of cigarettes. He’s parked out front of Melvald’s and counts the cash he has on hand, adds up the rest he has in the bank.

 

He doesn’t like the number he ends up with.

 

There’s a hiring now sign in the window of Melvald’s. He knows Byers’ mom works there, she’s the one who rang him up. She’s a nice lady, tiny, smokes like a chimney.

 

He would apply, if Neil didn’t shop at Melvald’s every other day like clockwork.

 

 

Back at Steve’s house, he walks in on Robin arguing with Steve about a tragic love story. He puts what little groceries he bought away and tosses the extra pack of smokes to Steve on his way to the couch. He sits on Steve’s other side, and tries to catch the topic.

 

“It’s romance, Steve! It’s the most tragic love story of all time!”

 

“I already said I’m gonna watch it, I didn’t ask you to walk me through every scene.”

 

“It’s French!” she exclaims.

 

“It’s French,” Steve agrees, sinking back in the cushions.

 

“It’s women in love, how can you not be interested in that?”

 

Steve sighs, like it’s a point she’s already made several times. Billy perks up. “It’s about lesbians?”

 

“It’s a war movie and they’re friends apparently,” Steve provides, flapping a limp hand about it.

 

“It’s about finding love in a time of war,” Robin says, pointing at the VHS tape sitting innocuously on the coffee table. “They’re both living unfulfilling lives alone when their friendship saves them. They fall in love. It’s beautiful.”

 

Billy considers the cover, suddenly is very interested in giving it a try.

 

Steve covers his eyes. “But it’s French.”

 

“And it’s French!”

 

 

Steve says he’ll give Robin a ride back because her mom dropped her off earlier before work. He’s in the bathroom when Robin corners Billy on his way for a smoke.

 

She’s leaning against the wall casually, just looking at him. He refuses to squirm.

 

“Yes?”

 

Robin glances up the stairs, then looks back at him. “Don’t break his heart again, okay?”

 

Billy’s fingers twitch. He sticks his hand in a pocket.

 

He wants to lie. It’s the first instinct he has, to evade, to avoid, to cover up the dirty little lie. But it’s Robin, who likes other women, who knows he likes other men. Who told Steve liking both was an option.

 

“How can you tell?”

 

“Billy.” She steps up to him and flicks the lapel of his shirt. “You’re wearing Steve’s most hideous pink polo, and it’s inside out.”

 

He went outside like this.

 

He can only laugh at himself.

 

Steve appears at the top of the stairs, keys dangling from a finger. “Ready to go?”

 

Robin sends him a salute as he descends, then aims it in Billy’s direction before she heads out the door. “Don’t be a stranger,” she tells him and maybe she even means it.

 

When it’s just the two of them and Robin is outside, Steve steals a quick kiss.

 

“See you soon.”

 

Heat crawls across his face. Was this how Wheeler felt when Steve kissed her, all easy and suave, handsome as sin? Looking at Billy like he’s the only other person in the world?

 

Billy moves back in to steal another, adding a bite for good measure.

 

Steve levels him a dark look full of want and only manages to drag himself away when Robin starts calling his name.

 

 

Billy’s laying back on the couch with the stereo on when Steve gets back.

 

Steve comes into the living room and flops down on top of Billy, deflating in a mess of sighs and too much hairspray. Billy wraps his arms around his waist, feeling content probably more than he ever has.

 

The phone rings.

 

“Oh my god,” Steve groans, burrowing further down into Billy.

 

“You’re a popular guy, Harrington.”

 

He lifts his head, blowing up at his fringe. “What if we just stay like this forever?”

 

“I wouldn’t mind that.”

 

Steve’s lazy smile meets his, and Billy’s more than happy to stay like this forever if that’s what Steve wants too. It’s still hard to believe the night before wasn’t a dream.

 

That he gets to have this.

 

The answering machine clicks on and it’s Max’s small voice shaking, saying, “Billy? Billy, are you there?”

 

They jump apart. Steve’s the first up and across the room. He picks up the phone and holds it between them when Billy reaches the kitchen.

 

“Hey, Max, he’s here. We both are.”

 

“Max, what did he do?”

 

“He just called. He–Billy, he said he’s gonna throw your stuff out.”

 

The buzz is back, flaring brighter, bigger, more dangerous than it has in months.

 

“When?”

 

“Today. H-he’s at work. Mom’s running errands–”

 

Neil pissed at home with Max alone? With Max’s temper?

 

“I’m coming over.”

 

“We both are,” Steve adds, voice hard. “Want me to ask Ms. Byers or Ms. Henderson to pick you up so you don’t have to be there?”

 

“No, he won’t like that,” she says. Her voice cracks. “It’s not fair. He doesn’t get to pretend you don’t exist.”

 

Billy wants to punch a hole through the wall. Steve grips the phone tighter, pulling it back to speak directly into the receiver.

 

“We’ll be there in five, okay? Just sit tight, everything will be fine.”

 

He hangs up and Billy immediately starts for the stairs. He has his duffel and book bag. The rest he can just carry in his arms. Steve’s hot on his heels.

 

“You’re not coming, Steve.”

 

“Like hell I’m not. Your dad doesn’t get to do this–”

 

Billy turns around on the stairs, aims a glare down and finds one aimed back at him. He can handle this anger. They’re both pissed at the same person right now.

 

“He comes home and sees you, it’ll be a lot worse than some thrown out clothes.”

 

Steve just shakes his head. “I don’t care. I can handle him.”

 

Can you, Billy thinks, feeling raw and dug from the inside out. He can’t picture Steve in the same room as his father. Not after what he’d said the last time he was in a room with Neil.

 

Billy heads down the hall and grabs what he needs. He sees the journal he hasn’t written in in weeks on his nightstand. Guilt eats him, dark and unruly along with the anger.

 

Maybe he’s not better.

 

Maybe he needs to call Dr. Toll again.

 

Not now, he thinks. Not now.

 

Max needs him.

 

“You promised.” Steve stops him with a hand on his elbow. “You promised me I could do this for you.”

 

“You’ve done enough.”

 

It comes out sour, bent wrong.

 

“He doesn’t get to keep fucking with your life.” Steve jostles him. “There’s nothing he can do to hurt me besides hurt you. Or Max and her mom. Okay? So don’t tell me I’m not going with you.”

 

Billy curls and uncurls his fists. “Hurting you hurts me.”

 

Steve lets him pull away, the shame of the admission curdling under the weight of everything else imploding within him.

 

He hears grunting and sees Steve shaking pillows out of their cases. He balls them up and tucks them under an arm.

 

“I can always call Hopper.” Steve rolls his eyes when Billy sends him a furious look. Works better than words ever could.

 

He just turns for the hall and Billy hears more pillows being shucked.

 

It takes him until they’re both in the foyer, two sets of keys in hand, for Billy to spit out, “Fine. But no fucking cops.”

 

 

Max is in the front yard when they pull up, Billy screeching to a stop before the mailbox with the BMW right behind him.

 

It’s a little after two on a Saturday, and extra shifts tend to run short.

 

“We have an hour or less,” Billy calls back to Steve.

 

“I don’t know if he’ll show up early–”

 

Billy breezes past her into the house, ignoring the chill that crawls up his spine. The living room is unchanged, save for a few lingering bottles of beer sat beside Neil’s chair.

 

“Hey Max, my car’s unlocked. Why don’t you go sit inside while we get this done?”

 

“I’m not going anywhere!”

 

“Max…”

 

Billy can’t focus on Steve and his fruitless attempts at trying to convince his little sister to do what she doesn’t want to do. He’s been trying for years, and he’s only ever gained as much ground as the goddamn western front.

 

He’s in the bowels of the house now. He strides right into his old room and goes still.

 

It’s exactly as he left it the day he and Max rushed to grab the essentials. The things he couldn’t replace.

 

It’s not like he has a lot of things he needs here anymore, or even wants. But still, it’s his stuff. His dad doesn’t get to break things and toss them out like he did to his mom’s things.

 

He steps back, remembering the one thing he does want, but bumps into someone’s chest. He flinches badly, until it’s Steve saying something low and soft behind him.

 

“Just me,” he’s saying. “It’s just me.”

 

Billy nods, swallowing past a dry throat. “C-can you. Can you grab clothes and blankets? My music? I have to find something.”

 

“Sure. And Max is sitting in my car.” Steve clasps his shoulder as he passes into the mess of his room. Neil didn’t clean up after Billy rifled through it, and he likely didn’t allow Susan or Max to do it either.

 

The room is dusty. The air stale with the window shut.

 

It’s a fucking monument and Billy can’t be here anymore.

 

He backs out and goes to his father’s room.

 

He knows where it is, just not precisely. The photo album from Neil’s first marriage is hidden and Billy needs to dig it out. Wants the pictures of his mom he hasn’t been allowed to look at in years.

 

The room is dark and claustrophobic. It smells like his dad’s aftershave, a scent that makes the hair on his arms stand on end. He breathes through his mouth and starts looking.

 

The closet is mostly Neil’s clothes. Susan’s are all pushed to one side, her flowery patterns and pastels making way for slacks and dress shirts.

 

Neil’s favorite belt is hung on its own hanger and Billy’s skin crawls.

 

He touches the buckle, barely feeling the metal of it. The design is heavy-handed, the leather thick and well worn.

 

He feels sick.

 

He doesn’t find it in the closet. He doesn’t find it with Susan’s collection of books on her walnut shelf by the window. He doesn’t find it in either nightstand.

 

Could Neil have tossed it?

 

He drops to his knees and bends over, scanning under the bed. An old stack of frames and Susan’s laundry ladder paint dark shapes but there’s nothing he needs.

 

“Fuck.” He sits back up, on his calves. “Fuck.”

 

He punches the floor twice and forces himself up. He’ll check the garage.

 

He sees Steve stuffing pillow cases full as he walks by, and when their eyes meet, Steve just nods. A lifeline.

 

Billy breathes.

 

He doesn’t bother with the light when he reaches the garage. With both Neil and Susan out, there’s no need for it. It’s dark, but with enough light slipping through the double-wide doors to see what he came to do.

 

The steel shelves are still stacked with boxes Neil never bothered to unpack. They’re taped up from multiple moves, their tops wonky like maybe Neil sometimes went through them. Maybe it’s out here.

 

Billy grabs box after box, not wasting time replacing them when he’s done.

 

It’s the second to last box he grabs when his hand grasps a familiar brown leather binding. His heart flips, then sinks.

 

Outside, a door slams.

 

He snatches the album and runs back inside. He finds Steve frozen in the hall, lumpy pillow cases hanging heavy in both hands.

 

Billy’s been stupid.

 

He can’t move. Can’t think. Steve is standing in the middle of Billy’s living room, five pillow cases between two hands, full of the inane things that Billy’s spent his life amassing, and Neil is going to come in and see him and fucking kill him.

 

He’s stuttering, doesn’t even realize he’s doing it until Steve is across the room and in front of him, shushing him quietly.

 

“It’ll be fine. Take these around the back and I’ll handle your dad.”

 

Billy shakes his head.

 

He can hear Neil walking up the steps.

 

They have seconds.

 

Steve says his name, just once. Billy takes the pillow cases and doesn’t argue, doesn’t think, when Steve turns him and pushes him a little towards the backyard.

 

He hears the door open when he steps outside, slips a little on the slick grass under his boots. He hurries.

 

Out front, Maxine is standing in the middle of the street, caught on her way to the house.

 

Her eyes are huge, panic hunching her shoulders.

 

“He’s here.”

 

“Get back in that fucking car, Maxine,” he says, his voice shaking.

 

Thankfully, she does.

 

He drops his shit in the Camaro, sees Steve’s already dumped the others in the BMW.

 

His heart swells. He doesn’t deserve this. Doesn’t deserve Steve after all he’s done.

 

He runs back to the house, where the front door hangs open, the screen flapping.

 

Inside, Neil’s got Steve against the wall.

 

Steve’s nose is bleeding.

 

Everything goes away. His anger. His fear.

 

Billy slams into his dad and sends them both smashing into the floor.

 

Steve’s saying his name. There are hands grabbing at him.

 

All he can see is Neil underneath him. His lips are moving. His fists are landing. His legs are kicking. His eyes hate.

 

Red hair gets in his eyes, obscures the man beneath him. He’s distracted for one second. Only one.

 

He’s thrown off. Sees stars after his head meets the wall. Steve is in front of him now, getting between Neil and–and Max, who’s got her arm trapped in Neil’s fist. Whose got her fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife he’d given her. Neil throws her down, the knife goes flying somewhere behind them. Her head snaps back and she goes still for a beat, groaning. Time ceases. Everything, everyone stops.

 

She moves, head lolling to the side. Sounds out of it when she says, eyes landing on him, “Billy, he’s here.”

 

Steve starts in on Neil.

 

Billy doesn’t remember much after that.

 

 

He comes back to reality as he’s pacing, heart racing out of his chest, police cruisers parked on the curb.

 

Max is in one of those space blankets, sitting on the ledge of an ambulance. An EMT picks over her and she glowers at the fussing.

 

Steve is talking to some cop and he’s loud, and he’s pissed.

 

Hopper is saying, “Come back to me, kid. You hear the question or no?”

 

“He threw her down. She got knocked out.”

 

“Billy–”

 

“Where is he?”

 

“He’s in custody. Right now I need you to answer my questions.”

 

“I know the fucking drill.”

 

He doesn’t see Neil anywhere, not on the lawn, not in the back of the cruisers.

 

Did they already take him away? Has he really been that out of it?

 

“He was in pretty bad shape,” Hopper continues. “How’d he end up like that?”

 

“All me,” Billy says easily. He honestly doesn’t remember if he went in on Neil after Steve had.

 

“Huh.” Hopper writes a note and closes his notepad. “Go see your sister. She’s worried about you.”

 

Billy just walks away. The EMT is checking her back when he reaches her.

 

“I already said I’m fine,” she’s whining. “Billy, tell him.”

 

The EMT prods at her sides and all the way up to her neck. She flinches away when he gets behind the side of her head that hit the floor first.

 

He draws back, no nonsense as he says to Billy, “No major injuries I can find, but I still feel better having her fully looked over at Hawkins General.”

 

“No!”

 

Billy holds up a finger to her. “Has anyone called Susan?”

 

“…No.”

 

“Take her,” he tells the EMT, and ignores Max’s shouting to head back in the house.

 

The phone rings twice before a woman answers, relaying a greeting he doesn’t fully hear.

 

“I need to talk to Susan Hargrove. It’s an emergency.”

 

“Regarding?”

 

He bites his tongue to keep from screaming at her. “It’s about her daughter, Maxine.”

 

 

He’s parked behind Steve, watching him ferry in pillow case after pillow case.

 

His hands tighten over the wheel when Steve finishes, heads to him. He’s right to look wary. Billy’s balloon is about to pop.

 

Steve wordlessly opens the backseat and carries those pillow cases in too.

 

The photo album sits like a brick in the passenger seat. When Steve is gone again, Billy glances its way. He reaches for it and flips it open in his lap.

 

He’d half suspected Neil to scribble some bullshit insults inside, sharpie over his mom’s face. Rob Billy of ever being able to see her again, since she made it so clear he wasn’t welcome anymore.

 

But it’s untouched. The album had sat forgotten and buried with a bunch of other things Neil had written off as unimportant. He doesn’t even know if there are others. He just remembers when he was very little how excited he was when she let him pick out a sticker to put on the front. He’d chosen a sunflower.

 

His mom didn’t hate Hawkins, but she missed California more, hated his father even more so. He remembers them fighting before he could really walk. How could she have lasted so long only to abandon him in the end?

 

The last words she’d spoken to him ring in his ears.

 

Had she seen Neil in him even as a child? That potential to hate so badly and burn everything he touched?

 

Billy startles when his door opens. Bites his tongue when he sees it’s just Steve.

 

He’s got Max’s knife folded and in his hand. He must have grabbed it before the cops came.

 

Steve Harrington, making sure the Hargrove-Mayfield bullshit didn’t get them into worse trouble.

 

Billy takes it, a strange sense of urgency settling over him.

 

“Can’t believe she had the balls to pull it on him,” he mutters, running a thumb over it before tossing it in the glove.

 

“Kid’s got a mean streak. Wonder where she could have possibly gotten that.” Steve crouches, nosing into his business as per usual. His big eyes drag over the pictures, their plastic yellowed and crinkled firm in spots. “She’s really beautiful.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Looks like you.”

 

Billy nods, trying not to notice the miserable underscore to every memory. Their filthy kitchen. The backyard Steve played with him in, before Neil could dedicate the next door neighbor boy to memory. Before he called Billy certain things that still stick in his throat when he thinks about Steve wanting him.

 

He worries it’ll never go away.

 

He turns another page. Neil, no moustache. Neil, eyes pale and brow low, beer in hand. His mother, her smiles growing smaller and smaller until her cheeks are just shadows, her eyes downcast. Midway through they’re rarely pictured looking at one another, Billy always in the middle.

 

“You know…the first time I saw you, I thought you were so cool. I wanted to be your best friend.”

 

The smile breaks before he can stop it. Steve flips another page.

 

“I thought you were a freak,” Billy laughs.

 

“What, why?”

 

“You were too pushy, too friendly. And you had this huge fucking mouth,” Billy tells him, covering Steve’s hand with his own. “You still do.”

 

When he looks up, Steve’s wagging his eyebrows. Billy squeezes his hand. Lets him go.

 

“I…I need to take a drive. Shit was.” He can’t think of anything worthwhile to say. “I’m sorry.”

 

Steve’s unscathed, save for a few busted blood vessels. He’ll probably bruise but his nose didn’t break when Neil went in on him.

 

“It’s your dad’s fault. He’s a real piece of work.”

 

“He is.”

 

“Max is gonna be alright, Billy.”

 

“I fucked up. I can’t stay.”

 

“You didn’t. It wasn’t your fault,” Steve insists. “But no, I get it. Get some air, take as long as you need. I’ll make something for dinner. Pasta sound good? Then we can go check in on Max.”

 

Billy’s hand shakes beneath the photo album.

 

“No, Steve.” He’s going to pop. Erupt until all that’s left is Steve at his feet, burnt to a crisp. “I can’t stay.”

 

Steve squints his eyes. “What do you mean? I said you can stay as long as you need–”

 

“In Hawkins.”

 

Finally, it lands. Steve’s hand goes from the album to the wheel. “Billy–”

 

“He’ll get out. He always does. He’ll sweet talk the pigs and then he’ll be out and he’ll come for you. I can promise you if he doesn’t already know who you are, he’s working on finding out. You’re in the goddamn phone book like everybody else, Harrington.”

 

His soft brown eyes turn hard, steely. Billy switches his gaze to the wheel. He takes Steve’s hand and pries it off.

 

“He hurt Max because I was too selfish to just let my shit go. He knows your face now. He’ll fucking–he’ll hurt you, again, because of me, and I–” God, why does his voice have to break now? “If I stick around and he finds us together–”

 

“Stop. Billy, stop it.”

 

He’s hitting the steering wheel. He can’t stop. Steve reaches for him, tries to do something, anything maybe, to get him to let go. But Billy blinks and he’s here, he blinks and he’s gone, and he blinks and he’s doing something he doesn’t even remember starting.

 

His throat hurts. He’s–he’s screaming. Roaring.

 

It cuts off all at once and Steve is just holding him.

 

He can’t.

 

He shoves Steve off him, but it’s weak. He slides through Steve’s arms like mud, sticking in his seeking fingers, his clasping palms, his shocked face. He’s blasting Steve apart, into a million pieces, because he has to.

 

He jerks the keys. The Camaro rumbles to life.

 

“It’s not forever. This isn’t–it’s not goodbye. Once I’m eighteen he can’t hurt me anymore. He won’t be able to hurt you.”

 

“But I–” Steve’s holding the door open, placing himself between Billy and his freedom. “You don’t get to make that decision for me.”

 

“I do. I do, because I love you,” Billy says, the words easing out of him like sharing the crisp end of a cigarette. “I do, because I promised you I’d never miss another birthday and I plan on keeping that promise. It’s not goodbye, but I have to go. I have to go to keep everyone safe.”

 

He doesn’t look at Steve to see if he understand that Billy means those three words. He doesn’t look when he places a hand on Steve’s chest and shoves him out, away. He doesn’t look at Steve as he shuts the door in his face. He doesn’t look when Steve is shouting, “It doesn’t work like that! If we don’t stand up to him, he’ll never stop!”

 

He doesn’t look when he backs out into the street, when Steve follows him out, when he starts slapping at the hood like an idiot who wants to get run over.

 

“Don’t do this!”

 

He doesn’t look in his rearview when Steve is shouting his name.

 

He doesn’t look until he stops driving, far enough away Steve won’t be able to find him right away. Far enough away he’ll be able to make a plan.

 

He pushes himself into sour air and realizes two things.

 

He’s been sobbing since he opened the album.

 

When he’d shoved Steve away, the album had slipped out onto the driveway.

 

He beats his fists bloody on gravel and dirt.

 






The Camaro disappears down the street, shrinking until it’s a blue smear turning the corner and out of his life.

 

Steve doesn’t think he’s ever been so goddamn angry at Billy Hargrove in his life.

 

Pushing down every nasty thing he wants to shout down the street, he instead bends and grabs Billy’s family photo album before booking it inside.

 

He won’t let Billy disappear again.

 

 

“Steve?” He sounds surprised and Steve can’t blame him. “Did you mean to call my house?”

 

Steve stares at the floor, free hand buried in his hair. He pulls, releases, pulls again.

 

Billy loves him. Billy left him.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I did mean to call you, Jonathan. I need to ask you something that’ll probably make you want to punch me again.”

 

“…Okay.”

 

He barrels on, because there’s no other option. This is his grand plan, his one scheme.

 

There’s plenty of families in Hawkins. Plenty his parents know, and all of them prime sources of gossip for the boredom of Loch Nora’s residents. Most are about his rich neighbors, people his dad works with sometimes, but some are about the poorer families. The kids from those families.

 

Growing up, Steve’s dad talked a lot about Lonnie Byers.

 

“It’s about your mom.”

 

There’s a sigh. A muffled muttering from the other end, like maybe he’s not alone. Maybe his mom was home. It’s late afternoon on a Saturday, and he knows Jonathan’s mom works at Melvald’s.

 

God, it would be so much easier if it was her.

 

Maybe it’s Nancy there, listening in.

 

“It’s about your dad,” he adds, holding his breath.

 

“Oh.” More muttering. “Hold on, Will’s drawing in the living room. Give me a minute.”

 

He waits, every second feeling like an hour as he listens to Jonathan shuffle his little brother around. It’s good too, this isn’t a conversation Steve would want any of the kids to get a hold of. It was just…too much.

 

Billy loves him. He loves him. He loves him.

 

Jonathan comes back and Steve regrips the phone. “I’m here.”

 

“How did your mom get him to leave?”

 

There’s a beat of silence, then, “What?”

 

“I know this is like, a hard thing to talk about. I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t need to know.”

 

“Steve,” Jonathan says his name in such a way it settles his anxious hair pulling. “What do you need?”

 

“Billy got into it with his dad and Max was there. She got hurt. She’s in the hospital, and she’s fine! She just got knocked out for a second, but–I mean. You know I can’t fight for shit. He almost broke my nose–”

 

“You got into it with her stepdad?”

 

“–Billy’s trying to skip town because he thinks Neil is going to come after me or something. But I know it’s not going to stop.”

 

“No, it doesn’t.” There’s a pause. “Mom divorced Lonnie. It was ugly. Is Hargrove a drunk?”

 

“I–I don’t know. He was drunk the other day–”

 

“Is he a big guy? My dad’s pretty slim, like me. When I fought back he mostly left us alone.”

 

Steve remembers the weight behind Neil’s fists and feels his face ache. Everything still tastes a little coppery.

 

“He’s short but he’s not little.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“Should I fight him again? Try and kick his ass?”

 

Jonathan huffs at that. “Don’t do that.”

 

“I can’t just let him go after Max or her mom or Billy again, if he even comes back–”

 

“Have you called Hopper?”

 

“Billy made me promise no cops.”

 

“Have you considered not listening to Billy?”

 

“The last time I called Hopper, he got shipped out to California. I–I can’t do that again, man.” Something tiny and broken cracks through, seeping into his voice. “I can’t go through that again.”

 

“You’re not going to lose him, Steve.”

 

Like he lost Nancy. He wonders if Jonathan’s thinking it. If he pities him.

 

But Jonathan has never mocked anyone in his life, not that Steve’s seen. He’s serious and steadfast, a little fucking weird. He’s sincere and rectifies his mistakes. Like the pictures. Made it less like a kick to the throat for Steve to suck it up and apologize after the fight.

 

They’re not friends. Nancy is with Jonathan. But Steve is with Billy now. And she–maybe she told him there was some truth to the rumor they all heard Tommy spreading.

 

But Nancy said it was okay. She’s okay with…that. With him.

 

He should talk to her soon. After everything else.

 

So maybe Jonathan knows. Maybe he doesn’t.

 

None of that matters.

 

“I can’t lose him again, Jon.”

 

“You know, the way I see it, there’s no harm in getting Hopper involved. Hopper always hated Lonnie, and he wasn’t shy about it. And you’ve seen him around my mom.”

 

It was the sophomore dance. They were supposed to be chaperoning, but instead had just talked to each other all night.

 

“He said no–”

 

“You’re afraid he’ll get sent away again, but he’s already done that to himself. Hop won’t involve the rest of the department.”

 

That takes Steve a little aback. “How do you know that?”

 

“I know it like I know he won’t just let Neil go. Let me call my mom.”

 

 

Steve is talking too much. He knows that, he does. But he needs Hopper to know. To understand every angle, to know how much Billy means to him without giving the whole thing away.

 

They met in the parking lot outside Benny’s Diner. Hopper arrived in his truck, still in uniform even though, according to him, he was supposed to be home an hour earlier. Joyce drove down from Melvald’s, Jonathan from his house, and Steve from his.

 

Hopper just sits on the lip of his truck bed and listens, moustache twitching every now and again like he wants so badly to cut in. But then Joyce will throw him a look from beside Jonathan, with his eerie stare, and then he’ll sigh and settle once more back on Steve and his rambling.

 

It’s already getting dark, the sky hazy with pastel purple. Steve doesn’t know how far Billy’s already gotten.

 

Billy loves him.

 

Steve gasps a breath, throat clenching between rushed words, when Hopper finally jumps in. He hushes the group when Joyce starts in to let Steve finish, everyone talking over each other.

 

“We’re doing this my way!” he says, raising his voice into more of a command than a shout. “Joyce, you drive through town, check every street, every business, bar, and hotel. Jonathan, you take the rest stops, the trailer park, the schools. Steve, you–”

 

“What’s the point of that? He’s not sticking around in Hawkins. He made it clear he’s skipping town, that he doesn’t want to be found.”

 

Hopper’s moustache splits on a grumble. “You’d be surprised by how many runaways are found just down the street. And that’s what we’re looking for; a runaway, not a body. You say he doesn’t have a job, barely any savings, and nothing of his own to make it too far. He’s still here.”

 

The pendant weighs on his chest, the chain feeling too heavy.

 

He can’t do this. He can’t. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t–

 

“Breathe,” Jonathan’s murmuring, hand on his shoulder. “We’ll find him.”

 

Hopper watches him have the beginning of a meltdown as Jonathan turns him around, walks him a little bit away. Joyce is saying something but Steve can’t hear through the rush of sound filling his ears.

 

“This hasn’t happened in–in weeks.”

 

Steve closes his eyes, imagines Billy kissing him. Remembers with a shiver being pinned to the wall by Neil.

 

“What about Neil?” he gets out, whirling back around.

 

Hopper’s already closing up his truck, straightening his belt while he steps away from Joyce. “Don’t worry about him.”

 

“Is he–you can’t just let him go, right? He hurt Max–”

 

Hopper walks up, effortlessly inserts himself where Jonathan had been, placing a huge, warm arm around Steve’s shoulders. It weighs him down, ties him to the ground beneath his feet.

 

“Between the two of us, I’ve had about enough of that bastard,” Hopper tells him, easy and uncomplicated. “He’s in holding for a little more than the next thirty-six hours. He’s not going anywhere while we’re finding Billy.”

 

“But after. What about after? Billy swears his dad is gonna come back, come after Max and,” he stops, then forces himself to push on regardless of whatever idea it sends Hopper. “Me.”

 

Hopper shakes him a little. He feels like an orange being put through a juicer. “Don’t worry about him, Steve.”

 

“But–”

 

“Harrington,” Hopper says, and it has Steve looking up at him and shutting his mouth. Something in Hopper’s eyes is deadly. Maybe a touch amused. Hopper’s honestly kind of terrifying. “You don’t need to worry about him. None of you do.”

 

Steve swallows. Hopper slaps his shoulder a little too hard before he lets Steve go.

 

“I want you to take the hangout spots, everywhere you teenagers get into trouble. Lover’s Lake, Skull Rock, that special bench behind the High School–oh yeah, I know about that. Places like that. Okay?”

 

“Places like that. Yeah, yeah I can do that.”

 

Hopper slaps his back once more before rounding back to his truck. “Everybody got the plan?”

 

They’re going to find him. They have to. Steve hardly believes they’re actually here and ready to help him. Jumping to go above and beyond because, what? Steve is freaking out? He barely knows the Byers family, had only recently patched things over with Jonathan and Nancy. He only really knows Hop through his parents and the few times he’s been pulled over.

 

But they’re helping him.

 

And Billy, damn him, owes Steve more time.

 

 

Skull rock is empty, which he suspected would be this time of night. Every time he’s taken a girl here it’s been really late. Late enough a good excuse was that they could spend the night in his car with the back seat down and the hatch open, under the stars with a blanket and a couple of beers.

 

His gut churns icy as he drives from place to place. More than he’s visited with Billy at some point in his life. Everywhere there are memories. Everywhere, a piece touched by him in some way or another.

 

Their most frequent haunts are empty, void of the silhouette he’s searching for. If Billy hasn’t stopped driving since he left, then he might already be past Illinois, if his goal is to make it California. He could be heading for Michigan or Ohio, even Kentucky.

 

It’s not like he said he was gunning for California. And why would he go back? He’d said there was nothing there for him anymore.

 

Steve was stupid enough to hope that one day they’d be able to visit California together. Make new memories. Better, happier, perfect memories.

 

He blinks away the wet gathering on his lashes and keeps driving.

 

It’s late and he’s exhausted, overstimulated and strung out from his anxiety wreaking havoc on the could bes and might bes, when he sees a soft golden glow coming from the lip of the quarry.

 

He pulls into the entry, driving down the easy slope until he sees the Camaro. He slams the brakes. He rubs at his nose and wipes at his eyes.

 

He’s here.

 

He’s fucking here. He didn’t leave. He didn’t–

 

Billy loves him, he loves him, he didn’t leave him.

 

Yet.

 

Steve still has to get this right.

 

Hopper said to trust him. So that’s what he’s gonna do.

 

His hands shake as he steps out into the night. He’s stiff from sitting so many hours, neck craned for anyone who looked like Billy or the Camaro.

 

The Camaro is dark and shut up. He spies inside the driver’s seat and finds Billy on his side in the back, jacket serving as a blanket. His knuckles are busted where one hand is flopped over his eyes.

 

Steve takes a deep breath and raps his knuckles on the window as loud as he can.

 

Billy stirs, his face peeking behind his hand before he jerks up, eyes wide and mouth open when he sees who’s found him. Then Steve sees the surprise fade into something blank and closed off.

 

Then the anger shows up and Steve smiles because he’s missed Billy. It’s been half a day. Less than. He’s pathetic, but he can’t help it.

 

Steve backs up as Billy flies for the door, ends up kicking it open and practically stumbling out. Both of his hands are bloodied, like he got in a fight.

 

Steve reaches for him, takes a hand in his before Billy snatches it away.

 

He’s breathing hard, his eyes wild as he licks his lips. He bites them, chewing, then shoves hard at Steve’s chest with both hands. He windmills to keep from falling down, barely keeping upright.

 

“I told you I was leaving,” Billy roars at him. He paces back and forth, eyes hooked on Steve like he’s a lion and Steve’s the juicy steak. He’s just tossed himself into Billy’s den.

 

“Then why haven’t you!”

 

“You’re so fucking stupid, Steve, you know that? God, you couldn’t just leave me alone.”

 

Billy laughs once, manically at the sky, before he falls to a crouch and back on his ass. He hugs his knees and buries his face in his elbows and Steve is…lost.

 

He doesn’t know what this is.

 

“Jonathan and his mom and Hopper are all out trying to find you.”

 

Laughter, stretched and wirey, floats up to him.

 

“Just let me go, Steve.”

 

Steve crouches, hands hovering because he doesn’t know if Billy will punch him if he’s touched right now. Worse, Billy might book it for his car and drive him over. Or even worse–over the cliff.

 

“No. You’re stuck with me, remember? I’m not letting you run away.”

 

Blond hair moves as Billy shakes his head. “Give me a year. Just give me a fucking year. I’ll come back.”

 

“You told me you love me.”

 

Billy tightens in on himself, hunching smaller into a shape Steve doesn’t recognize.

 

“You can’t just skip out on me like that. What’s a girl to think?” Steve says, laughing. It comes out all watery. His heart is hammering. “Let me help you.”

 

“I don’t need help,” Billy says, finally lifting his head. “I’m supposed to be helping you.”

 

“Billy, no offense…but I didn’t ask for your help. I thought after–after what we did we’d be together. Or something, you know?”

 

“Or something.” Billy sneers ugly and mean. “You thought I was gonna be your boyfriend?”

 

His chest aches. He wants to be home, in bed, Billy warm in his arms while they talk about nothing at all. He doesn’t want to be feet from the edge of death.

 

But they’ve done this song and dance before, and he’s tired of it. He knows what it looks like know.

 

“That’s what I was hoping. Yeah.” Steve tips forward to his knees and reaches out, taps quick fingers over Billy’s arm. He’s freezing. “I think I’ve been wanting that for a long time, actually. Just didn’t realize it.”

 

Billy’s anger cracks, splits right down the middle. He laughs again, and Steve sees the shine of tears leak from his eyes.

 

“Neil’s definitely gonna kill us.”

 

He resists the urge to hope, to think what Billy’s saying is that he’ll stay.

 

“Hopper’s handling him.”

 

Billy’s eyebrows twist up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“I don’t really know, but he sounded like he was gonna take him out back and, you know.” He mimes a finger sliding across his throat.

 

It shocks another wet laugh from Billy. “Christ, he’s gonna ship me off again.”

 

“He won’t. He did this off the books. It was just me, him, and the Byers. Nobody else knows you’re technically missing.”

 

“…Max and Susan?”

 

“Not yet. I kind of ran straight to Jonathan.”

 

Billy seems less ready to strike and more like he wants to cry, so Steve eases into sitting beside him. He worms a hand between Billy’s knee and arm and finds a hand to hold.

 

And Billy just melts after that. Starts crying in a way Steve’s never really seen him do before. Small, raw, so sad.

 

They sit like that until Billy’s shivering. Steve’s drawn his arm down into his lap, is sliding Billy’s rings around and around.

 

Steve’s looking down at Billy’s split knuckles when he murmurs, “I love you too, you know.”

 

It only makes Billy cry harder. His head falls to Steve’s shoulder and Steve leans into him. He wishes there was a way to make him hurt less, to take it all away from him. Probably would have saved them both months worth of trouble.

 

“Please come back. We can handle this. We’ll figure it out, make it where he can’t do this shit to anyone ever again.”

 

Billy breathes in shaky and deep. His other hand covers Steve’s.

 

“I don’t know if I can.” His voice is so small, Steve hates it. “He makes me–I feel like I’m a fucking volcano about to blow and level the town. If he comes for you or Max…I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t. I’ll burn everything down.”

 

“You won’t.”

 

“You don’t know that, Steve.”

 

“You won’t.”

 

Steve pulls Billy up with him when he stands, as he leads Billy to the BMW. He needs Billy with him, where he can see him, make sure he won’t blink and be gone.

 

Billy moves slow, lets Steve guide him into the car, lets Steve buckle him in. Kiss his cheek. Nose at his temple. Tell him I love you, I love you and you’re gonna be okay.

 

He takes the cigarette Steve holds out, lets Steve light it for him. Obeys when Steve tells him to smoke.

 

On the way back into town, Billy evens out. When Steve chances a look, Billy’s already watching him.

 

It slots into place then, all the years spent loving Billy as his friend. Loved him so deeply and fully that he couldn’t even see it until he was gone. Until he came back all fury and worse. It’s not like Nancy, or anyone else he’s ever halfway had a crush on. This is everywhere, lighting him up and dragging him down, enveloping him and squeezing until he’s a seed needing some dirt and sunshine. Striving on when he’s all dried up.

 

Billy’s eyes have long dried, the cigarette is nearly gone. The night is dark and Steve has more friends than he thought. He’s wearing a piece of gold around his neck that makes his insides go syrupy when he thinks too hard about the nonchalant way Billy passed it over to him.

 

He promised never to miss another of Steve’s birthdays. And he hid out at the quarry in the same spot he found Steve at a year ago.

 

So when Billy asks him, “What if you’re wrong?” he doesn’t need to ask what Billy means.

 

Steve only tells him, “Then I’ll be the first to burn, Billy. Gladly.”

 

 

Max stays in the hospital overnight just to be safe. She’s got a headache and a nasty bruise, but she’s fine.

 

Steve sees half the terror drain from Billy when she runs into his arms when they go to pick her up. Susan hugs them both, thanks Steve profusely. Steve tells her what he told Billy and Max and she just hugs him a little tighter.

 

Days pass. There’s a lot of phone calls and drives to and from the station, the Hawkins county courthouse. Billy and Susan get restraining orders.

 

After a lot of sleepless nights and days spent not so helpfully watching Billy file various legal paperwork, Hopper shows up at the house to inform them that Neil is gone.

 

That he won’t be coming back.

 

After suffering Billy grilling him for ten minutes over how he managed to do that, Hopper just says, “Let’s just say he knows what I have in mind for him if he’s stupid enough to show his face in Indiana again.”

 

The state. Not just Hawkins.

 

Steve knows what’s coming when Billy starts sniffling. Ever since he came back, agreed to stick around and see what happens with his dad, the tears come almost instantly over everything and nothing.

 

Hopper looks immediately uncomfortable at the prospect of Billy crying. “Okay, none of that now. I get it.”

 

Billy just shakes his head, laughs up at Hopper. “You don’t know what this means. I can’t repay you.”

 

“I still have scars from my old man’s belt, so trust me when I say I do get it, kid.” He waves a hand like it’s old history, but it makes Steve hurt for him. For Billy. “Keep out of my hair and that’ll be payment enough.”

 

When Billy hugs him, Steve isn’t sure who out of the two of them is more uncomfortable.

 

He’s just happy it’s over.

 

 

Billy doesn’t have to leave, he can be in Max’s life, and finish school with Steve and build something for himself. He suddenly has a future that doesn’t look like the dark cloud it’s always been.

 

He’s got prospects now. He can get a job and not worry about Neil stealing his savings or demanding rent. He doesn’t have to get a job until after high school if he wants. He can do this and that and so many other things that Steve hears all about, all the time, because Billy never stops talking about it.

 

There’s a few weeks left of Summer and things are good. Billy beams like the sun despite the odd summer storm, and the still too-chilly nights to go out and raise too much hell together.

 

Steve gets to fall into bed with Billy at night and wake up with him snoring, drool pooling on the pillow. He gets to kiss Billy awake and say a hundred different things that make Billy blush like anyone else he’s ever dated. But when Billy blushes or shies away or squirms under his words, his mouth, his hands, Steve feels full and hungry all at once. He needs more, all the time, but is happy to wait too. He’s never felt so full, the happiness nearly welling over every time Billy says he loves him back because he means it when nobody else has.

 

They’re thrifting for a housewarming gift for Susan, to celebrate the new trailer she bought at Forest Hills. It’s their little slice of home, small but cozy, with just enough room for her and Max. And Billy too, because Susan said he had a home with her for the rest of his life if he wanted.

 

Steve knows it’s a sore spot, that his relationship with Susan is fragile. But he’s with Billy now, giving his input when Billy holds up something gaudy and ocean-themed as he tries to find something she’ll genuinely like.

 

Billy cares about people so much. Sometimes it floors him.

 

Billy lifts a brow as Steve just smiles at the little hand-shaped sculpture made of seashells he holds up for Steve’s inspection. “It’s not that great, Steve.”

 

It’s hideous actually, but it isn’t what Steve’s got in mind to say.

 

“You in there, or are you trying out for the space cadets?” Billy picks up a broken mermaid themed snow globe and starts shaking it like mad, grinning like a shark when the mermaid’s missing arm is unearthed and swims around her head. “Think Susan would dig this?”

 

“Come to California with me.”

 

Billy stops shaking the snowglobe. He blinks and quirks a smile, like he didn’t hear him quite right.

 

“What?”

 

“After graduation next year. Let’s get out of Hawkins for a while. You can show me where you grew up, the places you loved–”

 

“I was a kid, Steve.”

 

“You can teach me to surf.”

 

Billy leans an elbow on the shelf, fingers reaching out to briefly touch his chest. He does that sometimes, small touches in public. Like he wants to prove Steve’s here with him as much as Steve wants to prove the same. That it’s real. That they’re not going anywhere.

 

“You’re serious.”

 

“I want to do so many things with you,” Steve says, taking the snow globe to place it back on the shelf. He leans into Billy’s touch as much as he’s able, considering where they are. “I want to be there with you to rewrite the bad into something good.”

 

Billy eyes him, and Steve can tell he’s weighing the ask. It’s not small by any means. But he can’t think of anything else he wants more.

 

“We’ll make new memories,” Steve says, “Together.”

 

The fingers on his chest curl, gripping the fabric.

 

Billy grins.

 

Steve burns.