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Damned If I Do You

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  foolish 80s boys commission for my dearest @daughtersofthanos for Jasâ�� fic damned if i do you

Cover by Anna (@flurgburgler on tumblr)

 

The first time Billy’s dad called him a faggot, Billy didn’t really know what he meant. He was ten, and he’d decided to grow his hair out. But he was poor; his playgrounds were made of scrap metal junkyards and dirt roads and glass-infested beaches. One day Dad’s girlfriend— not Billy’s mom, no matter how many times she insisted he call her so—found Billy with a knot the size of a clam shell, and a wad of pink gum, in his growing hair. She shaved it. He cried.

“Faggot,” Neil Hargrove sneered.

Mom-not-mom giggled. Snip. Billy choked on snot. When he felt the sting of the scissors pressing into his skin, the blades gripped tight in his father’s fist, Billy stopped making noise.

The next day, Billy pushed a kid off a tall rock. Stifling summer air and its host of mosquitoes were the only other witnesses when Jack’s arm twisted further than Billy had ever seen an arm twist. Jack howled.

“Faggot!” Billy yelled. The older boys skateboarding past on the street cheered, so he said it again. He didn’t really know what it meant, but now it was loaded in his arsenal for future attacks. It did enough damage that he treasured its ferocity in his mouth.

Billy was thirteen the first time someone besides his father hurled that word at him. He was thirteen; wearing clothes that he’d outgrown months ago, proud of the curls that he tucked behind his ears, and bumming cigarettes from boys in leather jackets outside the mall.

Mall was a generous name for the place. While Dad’s current girlfriend shopped, Billy pushed buttons on arcade games he didn’t have money for, stared longingly at burgers in the food court, and kicked trash on the curb outside when he got bored of everything inside. Surfers lingered at the tables on the mall’s grassy area. Staring, Billy felt heat rush through his face, his stomach. A little lower.

“Hey, faggot,” some blond guy said. He was grinning. “Need something?”

Billy looked around for his usual punk crowd. Finding them absent, he answered, smiling, “Yeah. You smoke?” Surfers, they were bad news. Too tan. Too beautiful. That was the last time Billy talked to one.

Jocks were safer. Billy didn’t fit in with them, not really—too many sharp edges, too much fondness for bands that screamed—but his body did. The silver stud in his ear confused them. At fourteen he was a troublemaking high school freshman who knew the best ways to sneak beer out of Mr. Hargrove’s fridge, though, so he was a welcome addition to the in-crowd. He ran, he lifted. Basketball came easy. The bruises his father’s hands left on his face and chest could be blamed on dropped dumbbells or working too hard. The first cigarette burn was a little more difficult to hide until he discovered what Dad’s fifth girlfriend’s makeup could do. He got caught stealing that. Before Dad could use that word, Billy said the shit was a present for his own girlfriend. Number Five took pity and let him have it. Billy kissed Susie Elliot in the school parking lot the next day just to sell the story.

She was pretty enough, all big brown eyes and brown Farrah Fawcett hair. Billy didn’t look at her when they kissed, though. It was easier that way. Billy and Susie held hands for a month after that. In the locker room, Billy learned more about sex than his dad had ever explained. When Billy broke up with Susie, he told the guys it was because she didn’t put out. The whole thing actually sounded great, masturbating especially.

So when he showered, Billy tried what the guys bragged over. His hand was sticky before he realized the person lingering in his mind was a long, lean surfer instead of a Playboy bunny. “Fucking faggot,” he growled. He pretended his tears came from the faucet instead.

Somewhere along the way, Billy had learned the meaning of that word. It became more than the best insult to throw at scrawny kids down the block; it was a special occasion word for his dad, but less specific than what he used to describe black people, or a word shouted out of bus windows at boys wearing too many colors. In high school, Billy learned how to use faggot the right way. And that way was to keep it away from him.

Billy never actually met queers until his first high school party.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” two boys begged Billy as they scrambled for their clothes.

“What’s in it for me?” Billy leaned against the closed door, a little drunk. Sophomore year and he was already winning keg games.

“Christ, Billy.” He was so, so pale. “Two dollars enough?”

Billy took the money. He bought weights for himself at home, and condoms. Then he told the whole school.

As he pounded a kid’s face in behind the dumpster, egged on by the football team, he felt all the tension leave his shoulders through his fists. Every time he took someone apart, he put some of himself back together. Bruised knuckles and sore arms were his favorite things to feel. His curls grew longer and he combed them back just enough to be pleasing but not enough to let people know he cared. All that working out gave him abs and an ass he couldn’t help but notice in the mirror; he pretended not to care when girls eyed him in the halls.

He pretended to care too much when boys eyed him in the streets.

It happened first outside the mall. There was nothing he didn’t like about it: the way those eyes followed the broad line of his shoulders, the skin exposed by his open shirt collar. So he took the pleasure and turned it into fury. One punch, and that was all it took to knock the guy on the ground. He left it at that. A warning. And he spat that word at him with as much hatred as he could muster. His knuckles stung for days after, and he loved it. Pain became his best friend.

No one fucked with Billy Hargrove.

He dated girls like his dad dated girls—a different flavor every month. The more public the breakup, the more he made her cry, the more a new chick wanted him the next day. Billy got mean, and Billy got tough. There were no more tears when his dad struck him. He’d incite a good beating by mouthing off whenever he fantasized about kissing the quarterback. Dad had no way of knowing most of the bruises were planned and that Billy preferred them to the dreams that crept in at night.

Billy’s first fuck was at age sixteen beneath the bleachers during a homecoming game. She was a senior who’d fallen for his brash charm, and didn’t laugh when she realized he was a virgin. She didn’t tell anyone, either, even when Billy called her a slut in the middle of the cafeteria. Billy figured there were some good people left in the world--he just wasn’t one of them.

And then he let the school queer blow him in the locker room hours after school ended. Before that, Billy thought sex had felt good. This was on an entirely different level, his hands pulling through short hair, fire in his stomach, a boy who knew how to use his teeth, surrounded by the heady scent of male sweat. Billy bit his tongue to keep from crying out when he came.

Then the idiot had to go in for a kiss, Billy’s cum on his lips, and Billy felt so sick he almost forgot to call the kid a faggot as he was pulling up his jeans and sprinting up the stairs. Neither of them talked to anyone about what had happened in that locker room, even when it happened again, and again after that. Billy made it clear the guy would die if he spoke. Plus, after a little practice with the girls, he got good at giving. And Billy was certainly one to brag, so he was pretty fucking spectacular at it if he could say so himself. Which he did, often. Though, as he aged, he let his hips do the talking and became the mean, silent type with an apathetic attitude and violent tendencies that gave him a popularity most guys only dreamed of. He was invincible.

When he got a car, girls practically lined up to take a ride. He parked on the beach, blasting rock and roll, and made them scream his name. He tried to convince himself that the softness of their bodies and the scent between their legs was so much better than hard lines and six-pack abs. Drinking and smoking helped. Working out helped more, and Neil Hargrove hitting him helped even more. So Billy had his coping mechanisms, and the boys he fucked on the beach—never kissed, and that was a rule—had their good lay and were lucky if Billy didn’t push them out of the car at the end.

And then Dad’s girlfriend-of-the-month suddenly stuck around a lot longer, and Billy’s whole world fell apart. Because Susan came with little Maxine, picture perfect daughter. She could do no wrong for Mr. Hargrove, who doted upon her even as he shouted Billy into spending the night sleeping outside the mall.

Billy was seventeen when they moved to the shithole that was Hawkins, Indiana. His entire room fit into three oversized boxes that he stuffed into his own car. He punched through the wall of their old house before they left, and then they drove; Billy followed his father and stepmother’s car in his beast of a Camaro. Watching the surfers dodge waves, oblivious to Billy as he rode past, had him sweating, swearing, and shouting the words to his favorite song until his voice gave out.

Hawkins High was in desperate need of a King. Billy Hargrove was more than happy to provide. Falling in easily with the bullies, Billy chugged his way through parties and immediately had the popular crowd wrapped around his finger. He fucked two girls in his first week. He was so good at basketball that he thought the coach might cream his pants if Billy agreed to be on the team.

A couple weeks in and he realized he hadn’t filled an absence—he had pushed someone out. Steve Harrington’s hold on the status had been flimsy, closer to renting than owning as he was later told, but Billy nonetheless had staged the simplest usurping in the history of Hawkins High. Carol and Tommy told Billy he wouldn’t be challenged for the throne, that Steve had forfeited it because he was whipped by some chick named Nancy. Still, Billy felt threatened. Steve should know who ruled this school now.

The first problem was that when Billy saw Steve, his heart stopped. All the breath whooshed out of him and he felt like the dumb woman in one of Susan’s romantic comedies. With his whole body tense, his heart pounding, and his stomach tight, Billy tried not to panic. Instead, he did what he did best: Billy knocked Steve to the ground during a skirmish and threatened him. Steve, with all his infuriating benevolence, never fought back.

In the showers, real fear gnawed at Billy when Steve stepped under the showerhead next to him. His hungry eyes traced Steve’s lean frame before he could stop himself, but he supposed there was enough hatred in his look to keep him safe. Tommy mocked Steve about Nancy’s absence.

“Plenty of bitches in the sea,” Billy said, right after he stupidly called Steve pretty.

Steve walked away to towel off. That night, Billy dreamed about his hands yanking that goddamn beautiful hair, about his fingers opening Steve slowly, about his cock filling him up until they both forgot how to breathe. He woke with wet sheets at 2 AM and made sure his dad hit him before he left for school later that morning.

Harrington disappeared for a while after that; Billy guessed it was to win Nancy back from whoever Jonathan Byers was. Not that he cared. He really, really didn’t. It was just that Steve Harrington was the first guy who he was kissing, not only screwing, in his dreams. And that scared the shit out of him.

One Friday afternoon, Billy was speeding in his Camaro when he saw Steve walking down the road. Carelessly, he drove closer, close enough that he could see Steve go on red alert. His hands came out of his pockets and twitched like they were used to holding a weapon in dangerous situations. Billy grinned. He turned the steering wheel further, and Steve jumped.

“Cut it out!” Steve yelled over the engine.

“Make me, Harrington.” Billy leaned over the passenger seat to wave. The Camaro veered sideways, burning up grass.

“Cut it out,” Steve repeated. His voice was lower this time, a little fear mixed in with the anger.

Heat rushed straight from Billy’s chest to between his legs. “Shit,” he said. He braked and cut the engine. Steve’s arms were crossed when Billy climbed out. He lit a cigarette while eyeing Steve up and down. Inhaling his first hit of nicotine for the day was the closest he got to calm.

“What’s the big idea?” Steve asked.

“Let’s go for a ride.”

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. He laughed at the absurdity of Billy’s demand. “What, so you can murder me and leave me in a ditch? No thanks.”

Billy slammed his fist on the Camaro’s roof. He loved the car, but, desperate times… He smiled, the toothy, feral smile he reserved for flirting. “Get in the car, Harrington.”

“No. Fuck you.”

God, Billy’s pants felt a little tighter. Steve would probably object to being fucked on the hood of another man’s car, but that image bombarded Billy even as he slid back in the driver’s seat, defeated for now. He sighed. As the engine roared back to life, he purred over it, “Last chance. You really wanna walk home?”

“Uh, yeah, if the other option is you.”

Billy drove off at 60 MPH, his middle finger saluting the only real crush he’d ever had. This was going to be fun.

Billy spent all of Saturday working out and using his precious allowance money to buy new jeans and cologne. Susan and Neil insisted he bring Max along to the stores. He dumped her at the arcade with the ultimatum she be ready in an hour. She was, but she was also talking to Lucas, as she so offhandedly mentioned, which pissed Billy off so much that he twisted her arm when they got home. “Stay away from people like that,” he told her. She had the sense to not ask what he meant.

“What’s with Harrington walking home?” Billy asked Tommy on Monday.

“Idiot’s car broke down. Plus, he’s been hanging out with some middle-schooler.”

“Gross,” Carol interjected. “Why do you care?”

“It’s not easy being king,” he answered with a smirk. Carol wasn’t immune to his charm; she swooned and Tommy glared but didn’t have the guts to call Billy on it. Billy chuckled. “Catch you two later.”

Steve Harrington was walking alone again. Billy had his foot ready to slam down the gas pedal before he switched tactics and rolled to a smooth stop beside Steve. “Get in.”

“Oh my God.” Steve whirled, frustration coloring his voice as he stomped up to the open window. “I’m not interested in this contest or whatever, okay? Stay away from me.”

“Or ‘whatever’? Man, you really know how to make friends.”

Steve scoffed. “Friends? Are you kidding me? You hit people for fun. I don’t want to be your friend.”

Could be more than that. Billy rolled his eyes. “Grow up, Harrington, and get in the fucking car. I’ll drive you home.”

“What’s in it for you?”

Billy jerked back, the déjà vu a little too uncanny. He recovered quickly, though, cocking his head and lifting one shoulder indifferently. “Wouldn’t you love to know.”

“Oh my God,” Steve groaned. Yet his hand was on the door handle in a matter of seconds. He pointed straight down the road. “No games. Drive.”

“Yes, sir,” Billy mocked, and he thought Steve may have left then if he hadn’t gunned it.

“Shit!” Steve yelled. His white-knuckle grip on the dash was so lame that Billy’s cheeks hurt from laughing at him as they sped down the empty pavement.

Billy looked over at him and whooped. They were flying. This was freedom. Eventually they made it to the junkyard, which reminded Billy more of home than anything else in this godforsaken town, and he parked next to a decrepit old schoolbus. “Home sweet home,” he jeered, spreading his arms wide. He twisted to look at Steve. His hair was still perfect, which was annoying. Otherwise, he seemed incredibly windswept and freaked out.

“Are you implying I’m garbage with this little stunt? Ha ha, I get it, you’re very clever, not just a dumb rock like I thought, now please take me home.”

“God, you are wound so goddamn tight, you know that? Relax.” Billy reached over and shoved Steve right in the center of his chest.

Steve looked disgruntled, mumbled, “Hey,” but never lifted his hands in his own defense. They sat in silence until Steve broke it. “What do you want from me, man?”

Billy, in lieu of answering, got out of the car. Steve gave a resigned sigh and followed. Billy had lit up and was lying on the Camaro’s hood like he was stargazing. Steve stood at his feet. He raised his eyebrows and poked Billy’s foot. A little thrill ran through him; that was the first time Steve had touched him.

“Truce,” Billy said. The word dragged itself out. It was the first time in his life he’d uttered it.

“What?”

Billy sat up, hoping Steve had watched the way his abs tightened when he moved. “Truce. You and me. This place, it’s kind of neutral, y’know, so I thought it was a good spot. You don’t want to rule the school anymore, so as long as you stay out of  my way, we’re good.”

“I already told you I didn’t want it.”

“I had to be sure, and now I am. So?” He extended his hand. Every fiber of him prayed Steve would accept it, if only to feel Steve’s palm slide against his bare skin.

It was as perfect as he thought it would be.

Billy blasted music on their way back and pretended he didn’t notice Steve staring at him, dumbfounded, until they arrived at the Harrington house. There, he turned to him and said, “I like you, Harrington. Don’t screw it up.”

Steve scrambled out of Billy’s Camaro. “It’s Steve,” he said. He smiled, and Billy didn’t, because he was too overcome to do much of anything. “See you around.”

“Yeah.”

‘Around’ ended up being the following Thursday night at a party. Billy’s ears were filled with people chanting his name as he chugged. Beer dripped down his chin and onto his chest. He knew who he’d like to lick it up, if the idiot would just crawl out of the corner he was so sullenly hiding in. Steve looked miserable, nursing the same drink he’d been sipping from when Billy had looked over ten minutes ago. Not that he was checking on him; Steve happened to be a permanent fixture in his sightline. A distraction, really, that Billy was drunk enough to point out.

Stumbling over to Steve, Billy slurred, “You’re staring at me.”

Steve laughed, the first happy face he’d made all night. “No, Billy, you’re staring at me.

Billy was usually an angry drunk--being angry was the main reason he drank--but he felt, oddly enough, giddy right then. “Come outside.” He jerked his head toward the door in case the words weren’t clear.

“Okay.”

Later, Billy would try to recall how they found themselves sprawled out on their host’s trampoline, and it would be a blank spot in his memory. He would, however, distinctly recall the way Steve’s leg lined up so nicely with his, and how their words had all been whispered. He would leave that party lighter than he’d been in years, and collapse into a deep, undisturbed sleep.

The phone’s shrill ring hurt more than an open-palmed slap. Susan shouting, “Billy, darling, it’s for you!” possibly hurt worse. Billy’s eyes opened languorously. He woke to a deep pit of self-loathing in his stomach, damp boxers, and a headache pounding hard enough to rival a goddamn elephant stampede.

“Billy!”

Billy fell out of bed. He did a push up to stand before finding his way to the phone in the hall. Susan eyed him worriedly. “‘S’fine,” he told her. The receiver transferred hands. “Hello?”

“I have a free period. Basketball in the park?”

“What fucking park?”

Steve chuckled and told him the address. Billy was out of the house in fifteen minutes, a personal best for his hungover self. The Camaro was a death machine on the road that morning, swerving, speeding. It wasn’t going nearly as fast as his heart.

Arms crossed, wearing big sunglasses, bouncing a basketball on the sidewalk, Steve Harrington was a sight to behold. Billy wiped the grin off his face before he got out of the car and waved. Only after he checked to assure that they were alone did he run over.

“You made it!” Billy winced. Steve poked his forehead. “How bad is it?”

“I’ll cut your finger off if you do that again.”

“That bad, huh?” Steve struck the ground with the ball so that the sound echoed.

“Harrington--” Billy warned.

“It’s Steve!” he yelled. When he sprinted off, Billy chased him, a little more lumbering than he preferred. Still, he won their game easily. Steve was alright at basketball, but Billy had made it an escape.

They collapsed on the grass, breathing labored breaths, and Billy stripped as he went down until he was only wearing shorts. Steve’s t-shirt was sweat-soaked and yet he kept it on. Billy masked his disappointment well. “You know,” Steve began, and then caught himself. Billy shoved him so that he face-planted. Steve groaned and rolled back up. “Yeah, no, not telling now.”

“Fuck you. Come on.”

Steve hung his head for a few beats to catch his breath. His voice was quiet when he finished, “I like you, too.”

It was an echo of the day they made their truce, and it hit Billy right in his core. He swallowed and looked away, not wanting Steve to see. A few weeks ago he would have called Steve a liar and lashed out, but now he felt helpless as he searched for a response. “I don’t believe you,” he finally settled on.

“I can’t really prove it to you. It’s a feeling.”

The way he turned inward to say that brought his mouth so close to Billy’s that Billy almost gasped. Everything about this was so wrong. Tears threatened, so he scowled and rested his forehead on his knees. Neither boy said anything for a long time after that. Too stubborn to be the first to break, Billy waited until Steve stood to talk. “Hey, w--”

“No, Billy, you know what? No. I have class.”

Billy jumped up, stomped forward, and seized Steve’s arm in a grip tight enough to bruise. “Hey asshole, you don’t get to walk away from me.” He dragged Steve over to the basketball net and pushed him against the pole, crowding into his space, rough and controlling.

“You’re hurting me,” Steve protested. “Billy, Jesus.” He struggled to free himself.

You’re hurting me, Billy wanted to say, You’re tearing me apart. He looked down at Steve before dropping his face into his shoulder. His lips ghosted over Steve’s collarbone and neck, then his cheek, then finally his lips, with nothing but air between them. “Wanna know how to prove it?” he murmured. He cupped Steve’s face in one hand, so gentle compared to only seconds before that Steve froze. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Billy snarled, and dropped him. “You tell anyone and you’re dead.”

Billy slammed his car door. He didn’t look back.

In school, Billy skipped the classes he had with Steve. He avoided him in the halls, walking outside to get to the gym. On the court, he pushed Harrington to the ground so many times that even his number one fan, also known as the coach, was forced to bench him for the period. He skipped the showers. And the dreams he had of Steve, of kissing Steve, woke him up with tears now. The only time Billy saw Steve was in those dreams.

Then Max had to go missing. Billy didn’t give two shits about the little bitch, but he couldn’t stand the fear welling in his heart when his father slammed him against that wall, so he left. Mrs. Wheeler was beautiful and simple enough that he had no trouble digging details and information from her willing lips. He felt hollow inside as he flirted with her, his mind occupied with how much easier his life in Hawkins would be if he wasn’t in love with Steve Harrington.

The Byers’ home was nothing remarkable, but something about stepping on the property creeped him out. It was colder out here than it was in the rest of the town; windier, too. Looking up, he caught a familiar silhouette in the doorway. He could have choked on his sadness.

“Am I dreaming, or is that you, Harrington?”

Steve’s reply was flippant, bordering on cruel. “Yeah, it’s me. Don’t cream your pants.”

Billy considered it a miraculous display of self control that he didn’t swing as soon as Steve walked over. If Steve wanted to use what he knew against him, Billy would at least use that hatred to his advantage. He stuck his tongue out and swung it in the air, destroyed the space between them, and flung his jacket to the ground. He blew smoke into Steve’s face and stroked his cigarette with deliberate, teasing slowness. He shoved him. “I told you to plant your feet,” Billy said, leaving him to recover. Steve couldn’t beat him inside the house.

Billy never thought he wouldn’t win. He pushed Steve’s buttons because there was no doubt in his mind he could lose. Lucas being there was too easy; he could focus all his rage on that scrawny kid and scare Maxine into submission in one go. Only when Steve’s fingers trailed down his chest, too intimate to scare him the way he intended, did he realize he’d already lost.

So he panicked. He’d known his father to be so angry he blacked out, and eventually he’d know it happened to him, too, because in that moment, his fists were disconnected with every rational and caring part of him. No matter how small those parts were, they always kept him from going too far. No part of him would ever have wanted to kill Steve Harrington the way his hands did that night.

They all left Billy drugged, bloodied, and bruised on the livingroom floor. He opened his mouth to tell Steve he wished he could take it back, kiss away all the pain, but all that came out was a strangled, incoherent noise, and then sleep hit him with the force of a freight train.

Billy’s final thought was that he deserved so, so much worse than this.

 

Chapter Text

Max was shrieking. Billy, in his drug-induced haze, heard the words go by in slow motion. There were gaps where the sound just cut out completely. “It’s not fair! We had to… California… Hawkins… not fair!

In his head, Billy was yelling right back, “You don’t know shit about why we left Cali!” In reality, his mouth was pressed into a dry puddle of drool and he was only groaning. When he rolled over, every muscle screamed in protest, pain pulsing under his skin and his eyes. He couldn’t remember how he’d made it home. Searching for the memories was like dragging his thoughts through the undercurrent.

Eventually Billy managed a low, drawn out, “Fuuuck.” He scrubbed his hands over his eyes. His tongue was made of cotton and his skin was ice, but he was sweating. Everything ached. His feet tingled, weighed down by the boots he had slept in.

Dark curtains were drawn over the windows, so he had no idea what time it was. A jolt of absolute terror hit his stomach so hard he doubled over on his side, gritting his teeth. He had to get back out tonight and make Steve forgive him. No one ever hated Billy forever as long as he led with a smile. He’d start with bandaging up Steve’s face, icing the bruises, licking his wounds, some shit like the movies. His desire was sickening.

The door slammed open. Neil Hargrove stood in the new opening, seething. And then Billy was ten years old again, scrambling as far back as he could across the covers and clutching at the headboard while a woman frantically tried to placate his father. It was always useless; Neil’s fists connected with a solid whump on Billy’s abdomen, and he gasped. Max stood in the corner, eyes wide. Billy looked at her, knowing blood covered his teeth, and smiled. She bolted.

Billy was done shedding tears for this man. He laughed instead, almost gurgling. Horrified, Susan covered her mouth and walked away, leaving Billy and his father to glare at each other. “Something wrong, sir ?” Billy spat. Scarlet rivulets trickled down his chin and dripped onto the sheets.

“Explain to me why exactly some faggot drove you home.”

He spit on the floor. “Which one?” he growled. Neil backhanded him and he rolled away, cackling. These were only warning shots. If his father meant to hurt him, he would tell him like he’d done that night in California.

“Boy, you will show me some respect, or I will teach it to you.” A hand wrapped around Billy’s neck, pressing.

Billy sobered immediately after that, after some of the dull aches turned sharp and his mind began to focus again. Memories flashed vividly across his vision, but he closed his eyes and shook them away. He only needed one answer. “Was it Steve?”

His dad dropped him. “Poofy hair, messed up face. Did you do that, too?”

Sucking on his bottom lip, Billy swallowed the blood he tasted before replying. “Don’t worry, father dearest, kid’s not a faggot like your precious son.” He bounced off his bed and marched around his dad, but Mr. Hargrove was whirling him around again to point his finger menacingly right between his eyes before he could leave.

“I won’t let you humiliate this family again, Billy.”

Billy’s eyes went cold, and then blank. “Yes, sir,” he said, loud and clear. When his father finally released him, he sprinted to the bathroom to vomit away the last of the haze. His breath stank of nicotine, cheap beer, and dried blood.

He sat back, stunned. Steve had driven him home. Stupid fucking Steve Harrington, who had almost died by his hands. Billy stared at the bruises and scrapes on his knuckles and hoped he’d feel the pain of it soon. It wouldn't hurt like it should; it wouldn't punish him the way he deserved.

He needed a shower.

Heaving himself off the tile, Billy went to the sink to wash out his mouth before stripping. His red shirt stood out like a bloodstain where it lay in a crumpled heap with his jeans. Only his necklace, rings, and earring remained as he stepped into the hot water. He rolled his shoulders into it, reveling in the way it stung his skin.

When he left the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist and his clothes balled under his arm, Max was waiting in his room. “Fuck off,” he told her instantly. He felt a sick sense of joy when any step near her caused her to take three steps back.

There were tears brimming in her eyes. But Max, like Billy, had learned long ago not to cry in the Hargrove household. Through gritted teeth she hissed, “You ruin everything.

“Yeah, well, he wouldn’t have had to drive me home with my dad here if you hadn’t stuck a needle in my neck, bitch.” Billy pulled clothes from his closet with deliberate slowness, his back to his stepsister. “You could have killed me. You don’t think we’d be moving if you’d murdered me?”

“We’re not moving,” she corrected him, bewildered.

Billy lost a bit of tension in his shoulders. “Then what the hell are you so upset about, crybaby?”

“You got me grounded,” she answered, as if it was a death sentence. Billy supposed, for someone who had real friends, it might feel that way.

“Oh yeah? So you’re what, gonna sneak out to visit your nerd squad?” he sneered. Looking over his shoulder at her, he asked, “Need a ride?”

“You remember what I said, don’t you?” she asked. Her voice was bold, unflinching.

“Sure do.” His voice was low and scornful. He wanted to remember the ride here, not the embarrassing moment of a thirteen year old girl almost crushing his balls with a baseball bat.

“Good.” Abruptly, she left. Billy had to follow her to close his door.

Left alone with his thoughts, Billy pressed his palms flat against his face and released one long, furious scream that brought him to his knees. That raw sound rang in his ears long after he slapped his hand over his mouth to silence it. No one came running. Standing, he reached across his dresser to take the lamp and throw it across the room. Its base shattered satisfyingly when it hit the opposite wall. Still, no one in the house moved or breathed, save for Billy, who gripped the loose edges of his bikini-clad girl’s poster, ripped it down, and slammed it into the trashcan.

Billy didn’t know what normal was, but after that night life fell back into that routine that seemed normal in Hawkins without him. He went back to school, but he wasn’t really there; he drifted through the halls looking for Steve before slowly becoming aware that Steve was avoiding him. Not that he deserved anything else. Tommy and Carol congratulated Billy on the mess he made of Steve’s face. News spread that he’d jumped Harrington, and that maximized his popularity. He strutted around, sleazy, smirking, and drove three hours out of town to pick up guys at clubs that looked like someone he wanted to pretend he was forgetting.

Twelve packs of cigarettes, two black eyes, and one drunken bender later, a month had already passed. Billy spent that time at parties and in his Camaro. He got high under the bleachers. He didn’t hang around Steve Harrington’s locker anymore. When they had class together, Billy sat in the back and stared at his head until he had the shape memorized, but they never talked, never made eye contact. Billy knew he’d blown it.

Maxine being grounded did not interfere with the Snow Ball. Billy laughed so much he thought he might puke when she came home from school with the flyer and permission slip for that stupid middle-school dance. Susan was so excited to pretty her little girl up and Neil was more than happy to praise the pair of morons. Billy steered clear, blasting Metallica in his room so he didn’t have to hear them chat about what shoes Max should wear.

Then, one day, as he passed them in the kitchen, he was unwillingly pulled into it. “Do you want your brother to drive you?” Susan asked her daughter.

Billy stopped dead. Max went wide-eyed, sputtering out excuses even as Billy tried to do the same. Susan was blissfully unaware--often Billy thought willfully ignorant--of her children’s feud.

He rolled his eyes. No one lived near this dump. Max, politely, listed off her group and their transportation. Billy had tuned out, was about to walk away, when he heard “...and Steve’s driving Dustin…”

“I’ll take her,” Billy interrupted.

He wasn’t even finished the offer before Max shouted, “No!”

“It would be such a help, Billy,” Susan appealed. Max looked betrayed. She flipped Billy off as Susan turned to her stepson. Hesitantly, she added, “As long as you go get her when the dance ends.”

“Sure.” That was as close to a promise as Susan was going to get, and she accepted it.

Billy spent almost an hour getting ready that night. He combed and styled his hair, slid into his tightest jeans, and wore a collared blue button-down open to his naval. He used his best cologne. He stole some of Susan’s jewelry polish and rubbed at his pendant and stud until they shone. When he passed Max undergoing whatever procedure it took to tame her frizzy red hair, she glared. Billy couldn’t ignore the regret clawing up his chest.

Though, salvaging his relationship with Max wasn’t his priority tonight. Tonight was the night he’d win Steve back.

Steve hadn’t ever been his, but it was a nice thought, and certainly a pleasant distraction, as he drove Max to Hawkins Middle. He played her KISS--she enjoyed it, even though she tried to hide it. When he drummed along with it, singing off-key at the top of his lungs, she actually laughed. He didn’t exactly hate it.

As she climbed out of the passenger seat, Max asked nervously “You’ll pick me up, right?”

“Don’t be late,” he answered brusquely. “And don’t bring Lucas.” She shut the Camaro’s door so forcefully that the whole car shook.

Billy parked. Then, he waited. He was halfway through The Four Horsemen when Steve’s Beemer appeared in the drop-off zone. Billy squinted to see. Seeing Dustin’s hair all done up made him chuckle to himself. When the kid finally left and Steve drove off, Billy followed slowly. He left a couple cars between them so he wouldn’t be too obvious, and went the speed limit. It made him antsy.

Steve pulled off the main road to go to the quarry. Billy had been there a few times to smoke weed and just fuck around when he didn’t feel like going home. He knew he’d been caught now, though; there was no way Steve hadn’t seen his monster car in his rearview.

Sure enough, Steve cut the engine and headlights as soon as he was parked, storming out of his Beemer to stand in front of the Camaro, arms crossed over his chest. And shit, Billy felt nervous. He scowled. “Move, Harrington, or I’ll run you over.”

Steve saw right through his empty threats. “Why are you following me?”

Billy revved the engine so Steve had to repeat himself. He liked how Steve looked when he was pissed off. “Quarry’s public space.” It was pretty amazing Steve was even talking to him, even more amazing that he was suddenly coming around to the driver’s window and slapping his hand over the glass. Smiling, Billy rolled it down. “Yes, pretty boy?”

“Don’t be a tool.”

Billy leaned closer, his eyes glinting when Steve didn’t flinch away. He licked his lips. “I just couldn’t stay away,” he jeered, all wide-eyed as he imitated some lovestruck girl. “Oh, baby, I want you, I need you.” Switching back to his normal voice, he shouted those last words and shoved open the Camaro door, sending Steve to the ground.

Steve groaned. “You’re an asshole.”

Said asshole stood over him, one hand on his belt, the other itching for a cigarette. In a few seconds the adrenaline wore off, and Billy was left with nausea and nerves. He grabbed the pack on his dash and drew one out with shaking fingers. Once the cigarette was lit, he inhaled it greedily, already calmer. He dropped to his knees, straddling Steve like he was about to hit him. “Am I?” he asked.

Balanced on his elbows, Steve snapped, “Yes.” But he didn’t try to get up.

Billy rolled his shoulders as he considered Steve. “I dunno, not like I used your secrets against you.”

“No, just your fists,” Steve countered dryly.

He sighed, stubbed his cigarette in the grass. “Look, I’ve got beer in the trunk. You wanna kill a few cans and forget I tried to…” Billy trailed off, not really ready to admit aloud exactly what he’d tried yet. Because trying to kiss the only guy in this small town who could stand him was on the top of a very long list of dumb shit Billy Hargrove had done.

To his surprise, Steve accepted. It was a small, “Sure,” an awkward struggle to slide out from underneath Billy, and a head tipped toward the car. They sat against the Camaro’s front wheels and toasted, laughing, to the Snow Ball. Steve’s movements were jerky. There was just enough space between their bodies that any attempt to touch Steve on Billy’s part would be embarrassingly obvious. Even when he offered Steve a joint, he jerked his fingers back before they could linger for long.

Ten minutes crawled into an hour. Billy thought he was going to suffocate if Steve didn’t say something--anything--soon. He hung his head and counted grass blades.

“I’m not mad at you for trying to kiss me.”

Billy’s head snapped up. Heart hammering, he watched Steve’s cheeks hollow around their second joint.

“I freaked out, with the kids. I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t have said a lot of the stuff I did.” He took a swig from a beer can and grimaced. “I am mad at you for trying to kill me,” Steve added, almost nonchalant in the way he said it, as if commenting on the weather.

Billy wondered how many times Steve Harrington’s face had been smashed in. He turned his face out to the quarry so Steve couldn’t see his eyes. “Well shit, here I am anyway, saying sorry for both.” He banged his elbow against his car. “Shit.”

“Hey.” Steve knocked their knees together. He put the joint out. “Thanks for giving me some space.”

“That was all you. I was at your locker when that bell rang every fucking day.”

Steve’s hand touched his chin, bringing him back to face him. “I know,” he admitted softly. He laughed, a short bark of a sound that made Billy jump. “I kept my books in Nancy’s locker.”

“No shit.” Billy chuckled. “The princesses had to share their space? Sounds like a war waiting to happen.”

“Asshole.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Steve scoffed to hide his amusement. He squinted up at the stars. “I should probably go get Dustin.”

Disappointed, Billy curled his lip, flicked his lighter, and said nothing. He wanted Steve to stay--he wanted Steve to do a lot of things--but he sure as shit wasn’t going to ask him to stick around. There was a fleeting moment where he considered sticking Steve in the passenger seat and just driving out of Hawkins, and then he laughed cruelly at himself. A question popped into Steve’s eyes.

“Hey, man, I get it, just don’t hang with me for an hour next time and get my hopes up.”

Steve stood and offered Billy his hand. Billy brushed it away to stand on his own. Rolling his eyes, Steve fiddled with the Beemer’s keys. “I promised a kid a ride home, I’m not ditching you. Didn’t you bring Max?”

He’d forgotten about her. “Yup,” he answered apathetically. A question that had been nagging at him spilled out. “Hey, did... you drive me home that night?”

“Yup.” Steve didn’t offer to explain why. He never even offered to explain what he’d been doing at the Byers house, either. The conversation lulled until Steve spoke again. “So… I have a request.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Apologize to Lucas, tonight, with Max there, and we can hang.” Steve repeated it quietly to himself to make sure he’d said everything on his list. Then he looked expectantly at Billy.

Billy kicked at the ground. He hated that kid, hated his guts. It was his pride, and years of his dad in his head, telling him why he should, that made him grit his teeth and shake his head.

Steve shuffled in place. “You wanna try that answer again? Last chance.”

Not someone used to second chances, Billy took that one. And when he was leaning against the Camaro in the school parking lot and Max saw him, her nostrils flared. “I’m not late,” she insisted, hand already reaching past him to the door handle.

“Now hol--wait a minute, would you?” He didn’t touch his step-sister.  She flinched away anyway. Shoving down the swell of frustration that caused him, he looked at her and pressed his mouth in a firm line. “Go get Lucas.”

What?” She was terrified. “No. No, no, no no.”

Billy was about to yell when the kid appeared outside. “Sinclair!” he called.

Lucas looked like he wanted to bolt until he saw Max. He lifted his shoulders, took a deep breath, marched over. “Hargrove,” he answered coolly, like they were somehow equal, like this was some cowboy western showdown. He was shaking.

“I…” Billy shifted his weight from foot to foot, a little lost. Finally he said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry ?” Lucas and Max squeaked in unison.

He shrugged. “Sure, I’m sorry. For every goddamn thing I did that night, okay? I’m so fucking sorry.” Clearing his throat, he looked over to the empty football field as if there was something else to draw his attention. Hargrove, playing it cool. There was a lump in his throat the size of an ice cube.

“Uh, apology accepted...? But also, stay away from me.”

Billy sneered, but he could deal with that. They shook hands. And then he drove Max home, playing her more KISS, laughing when she sang along even though her voice was decent. He fell asleep smiling for the first time in a month.

As he closed his locker on Monday morning, he was shocked to see Nancy Wheeler glaring at him. “Your highness,” he mocked. He moved to walk past her, his English book shoved under his arm, when her small hand jabbed his chest. He looked down at it, trying to reconcile what he saw and what he knew couldn’t be happening. “Don’t touch me,” he cautioned.

“Just so you’re aware--I know how to use a gun.” Her voice was strong, steady. Billy could definitely see what Steve saw in her. He grinned. “Don’t smile at me,” she said, her nose crinkling with disgust, “pay attention. I can and will shoot you.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate it,” he purred, “but this is happening because?”

Nancy groaned as if Billy was being deliberately dense. When she stalked off, he frowned after her, shrugged, and then walked in the opposite direction for English. The interaction didn’t cross his mind again until he saw Steve in the halls between periods, relocating lockers back to the original. Billy wouldn’t have even moved as fast in a basketball game as he did to be at that locker by the time the bell rang at the day’s end.

Steve was greeted by a smirk, spread over the lips of a boy whose heart was beating a little too fast to let him be effortlessly charming. Billy said, Am I forgiven?, but it came out, “Hey.”

“Hey. How was class?”

Billy’s stomach was in knots. He’d never really had friends; he’d collected followers, spineless sheep, or whatever team of douchebags he played basketball with for his school, but friendship was new to him. He wasn’t sure what to say besides, “Sucked. Yours?”

“Same.” Steve smiled. “We’re gonna be late for practice.”

“We might be.”

“Might?”

Steve had barely finished the question before Billy, swinging his bag onto his shoulder as he went, pushed him into the locker and bolted down the hall toward the gym. Cackling, he craned his neck to see Steve already following. He slowed so he could catch up, and then they were racing, trying to trip each other, breathless with the sheer joy of it. Billy wanted to smash Steve against the locker room wall and kiss him until they were dizzy.

Instead, they calmed themselves and changed on opposite sides of the room. Billy dealt with Tommy while Steve dealt with being alone. Billy sure as hell wouldn’t have handled losing his crown with as much grace as Steve, but then again, Billy didn’t know the whole story. He figured Steve’s heroism probably got him knocked down. White knights weren’t allowed to rule Hawkins High.

In the gym, Billy stripped off his shirt right after warmup. There was a collective gasp from the cheerleaders in the stands, so he strutted into position.

“Really?” Steve asked. He brushed his fingers through his hair before crouching.

“You want some of this, Harrington? I’ll waste you!” he bellowed across the court. Tommy chortled and high-fived him, while Steve snorted and waited for the coach’s whistle.

Billy’s skin was on fire every time he touched Steve. He followed him relentlessly, getting behind him and pressing his chest against Steve’s warm back. Blaming his red face on his exertion, he ran until his heart was in his throat, and then ran some more. He pushed Steve for old time’s sake, and stuck his tongue out at him where he lay glaring on the ground.

“Asshole.”

He grinned wickedly. “Yeah, yeah.” God, Billy was considering mauling him right there on the gym floor. So he flipped Steve off and kept him at arm’s length for the rest of practice. If he didn’t cool it, he’d get hard, and that certainly wasn’t easy to explain.

Once the coach called, “Hit the showers,” the panic settled in. Billy was lightheaded as he followed Tommy back to the lockers, desperate to avoid seeing Steve in the shower. Already having stripped down to his gym shorts, Billy was the first to step under the hot spray. Although he usually took the time to breathe in the steam, to feel each droplet on his skin, that day he barely washed himself before wrapping a thick towel around his waist and darting back to the lockers to dress.

“Hey, Hargrove, kegger tonight!” Tommy called after him. “What’s the big rush?”

“Gotta get Max,” he yelled back, annoyed enough to be convincing. “But I’ll be there.”

Billy was just starting to feel a buzz when Steve drew him away from the keg games at the party. When they were far away from the crowd, standing on the host’s previously-undiscovered balcony, Billy grinned. “Just couldn’t stay away, could you?”

“You left this at practice.” He’d been holding something against his chest, and unfolded it to reveal Billy’s leather jacket. Billy snatched it back, pulse pounding, and checked to see no one was watching them. “Relax,” Steve said. “You can always say I stole it.”

“Thanks,” was all Billy could manage.

Steve sighed. He pushed his hair up. “Look, Dustin told me Lucas told him that you apologized. And I liked being around you today, before practice.” He shrugged and looked off, flushed. “Maybe a little during.”

Billy grabbed his belt and stood with his hips jutting forward. He didn’t miss how Steve’s eyes lingered. “What are you trying to say, pretty boy?” He licked his lips

“I’m saying if you can manage not to be an asshole until Friday, we can ditch last period and go to the mall together.”

“Did you just ask me on a date?” Billy was no longer mocking; genuine shock ran through him, heat in his face and ice in his stomach, followed swiftly by fear.

Steve stepped into his space. “I’ll see you Friday.”

He left, and Billy fumbled for a cigarette as he leaned against the closed balcony doors. His lighter was in his jacket. His jacket, which smelled like hairspray and sweat and cologne that did not belong to him. Billy lifted it to his face and inhaled once. Then, he put it on and rejoined the party. Steve was nowhere to be found.

Friday arrived slowly, blowing into the week like an afterthought for everyone suffering in Hawkins’ snow-streaked winter. Billy still sauntered around in tight jeans and an open shirt like he couldn’t feel it. He could. He fucking hated this town, everything in stark contrast to California sunshine, but he needed to keep ruling it, so he sucked it up and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Besides, it wasn’t like the Hargroves had money for a winter coat for their fuck-up son.

Friday was the start of winter break. That meant freedom to Billy in more ways than one. When he told Tommy he wouldn’t be at the Friday night party, Tommy gaped, and Billy just brushed past him to meet Steve in the parking lot. “We doing this?” Billy asked him.

Steve drove his BMW and Billy followed in his Camaro. If he’d known how to get to the mall, he’d have passed the idiot; Steve drove the speed limit, which was another item on his admittedly short list of faults. Billy drove recklessly and like he owned the road, another item on his mile-long list of faults.

Billy cut his engine the moment he pulled into a free spot at the Roane County Mall and then found the Beemer. Drumming on the roof, he spoke around an unlit cigarette. “Let’s go,” he demanded. His brain was working a mile a minute, piling on reasons he shouldn’t be there, why he shouldn’t be with Steve. Hissing that hated word through every thought.

“Chill out,” Steve retorted, but he was smiling, smiling and wearing those big sunglasses that, combined with his hair, made him look like a wannabe movie star.

Billy was screwed.

They mostly walked around. Billy was too poor to buy anything, and Steve had more fun making fun of the outfits on the mannequins than actually going into stores. “You’d look great in that,” Steve said on a laugh, pointing at a jazzercise leotard. Billy socked him in the shoulder.

He refused to let Steve pay when they got dinner. His face was blank when he had to hand over crumpled bills for his own meal but Steve only handed the cashier a shiny credit card for his. They ate in a tense silence until Steve’s foot poked at Billy’s beneath the table.

“Hey,” Steve murmured.

Billy glared. “What.”

“Finish your food. I have an idea.”

“Fine.” Steve’s giddiness was contagious as he dragged Billy near the arcade. Billy was about to protest--he had no intention of spending his Friday playing video games--when Steve pulled him into a photobooth. “What are you, a teenage girl?” he scoffed.

“Shut up.” He adjusted his shirt and collar and looked at the camera, then at Billy. “This is serious business, man, act accordingly.”

His eyes were bright enough that Billy shrugged and complied. As the camera flashed, he smiled into it, but then he started watching Steve more than paying attention to what he was doing. Steve must have felt his sudden stillness, because he turned to ask about it, and their faces were so close in that moment that Billy didn’t know how to speak.

So Steve spoke enough for them both. “Are you going to kiss me, Billy?”

Billy’s stomach lurched like he’d jumped off the quarry cliffs and was free falling. Before he could talk himself out of it, or convince himself that it was wrong, he pressed his lips to Steve’s. He was shy until he wasn’t, tangling their tongues, biting Steve’s mouth. Billy gasped. Steve tasted like coke and KFC. Billy could have devoured him, and did his best to, until Steve broke away.

“We should grab those pictures. They print outside--”

Horrified, Billy scrambled over Steve to rip aside the curtain and find the photos. No one glanced his way as he yanked them from the slot. Steve had joined him by the time he was breathing normally again and was surreptitiously sliding his hand into Billy’s back pocket. He started to say something suggestive in Billy’s ear but stopped when he saw their pictures.

Billy’s hands shook as he held them. The first few made them both appear younger; they were just dumb kids pushing each other around. Then they’d locked gazes, and Steve had whispered that question. When they’d kissed, Billy’s eyebrows were drawn tight, and there was a heart-wrenching desperation in the way he held onto Steve.

“You look--”

“You call me beautiful and I’ll kick your ass.” Blood rushed in his ears. He could still taste Steve on his tongue. And this--this was living proof that he’d kissed him. Him, another guy. The pictures trembled in his fingers. “Take them,” Billy murmured. “I can’t bring these home. I can’t…” He shook his head.

Steve’s mouth quirked up at the corners. “What if we both go back to my place and find a place for them?” He touched Billy’s arm like no one was watching.

Feeling as if his chest was about to burst, Billy asked, “Do you think you can handle this, princess?” His heart was racing, perspiration beading on his neck and chest, but his voice was steady. It was all show. Steve probably saw right through him as always.

“Yup.” Steve chuckled, bit his lip. “Asshole.”

Billy felt his lips curl up in a smile. “Yeah, yeah.”

Chapter Text

Billy was full of nervous energy as he followed Steve’s BMW back to his house. His fingers drummed an inconsistent beat against the steering wheel, ignoring the Def Leppard song blasting through his car radio. With his body thrumming and his stomach tight, Billy counted down every mile marker and tried to ignore the steady increase in size of the houses around him. They made him feel small, these mini mansions and massive properties, all with long driveways and immaculate lawns. He felt stupid. He thought about turning around.

Then Steve clicked on his turn signal and it was too late to back out. Billy muttered “Shit, shit, shit,” as the Harrington house came into view. His heartbeat frantically beat out a warning: You don’t belong here. But he parked and swallowed his panic when he opened the Camaro door. Billy Hargrove wasn’t a fucking coward.

The Beemer beeping startled him. Steve laughed, though not unkindly. “C’mon, I’ll show you around.” He jangled his house keys invitingly. Billy followed him to the front door, hands shoved in his pockets, shifting his weight between feet. As the locks clicked, Steve said, “Relax.”

Billy glared. They went inside, and his mouth fell open; Steve’s house was giant, all open space and designer furniture and fucking stairs. Steve deposited his keys and the photobooth strips on the dining table, and Billy made a weak noise of protest. “Your parents?” he clarified.

“They’re in Europe while I’m on break.” He grinned, spread his arms wide. “The house is mine for two weeks.”

Billy didn’t think Steve knew how lucky he was, or he at least didn’t like flaunting his privilege. That was good. He walked over to Steve, grabbed his shoulders, and kissed him messily. Steve leaned into it, and then they were making out against the fridge, Billy’s hands in Steve’s hair and his lips on his throat. Billy grabbed at Steve’s ass, grinding their bodies together. Something outside caught his eye, though, surprising him enough that he reluctantly pulled back. “What the fuck is that?” he asked.

Steve tensed and looked to where Billy’s eyes had strayed. His body was braced for a fight as if he expected enemies to leap out of the dark. Billy marked that down to ask about later as Steve answered, “Right, yeah. Yeah, we have a pool.”

We have a pool ,” Billy sneered. He imitated all the rich kids in Cali who used to make those flippant comments like they were just listing the different cereals they had in their houses.

Luckily, Steve chuckled at himself. “I’m supposed to cover it tonight.” Opening the fridge, he offered, “I’ve got beer if you wanna head to the deck.”

"Sure."

The whole day felt surreal, starting from their kiss at the mall and winding down here next to an in-ground pool and an empty house. Left alone with his thoughts, Billy had to pace, but he stopped when he heard the deck doors slide so he could watch Steve. He pulled two pool chairs together, sat their beers on the ground, and went to fiddle with some control box on the wall. Soon, steam rose from the water, and Billy realized the pool was heated.

“You really are a princess,” he purred. His eyes widened mockingly. “Should I be afraid of any magical curses?”

“Do you ever shut up?” Steve asked happily.

“You could always make me,” Billy suggested, which resulted in a few more minutes of kissing that Billy thought might cause his heart to beat right out of his chest. When they eventually broke apart--more for needing air than wanting to separate--Steve spread out on a pool chair and Billy remained standing. He chugged half his beer in one go while Steve sipped.

The silence was fine, for a bit. It gave Billy room to think, and he wondered if Steve knew that he needed that. He probably did. He looked completely relaxed where he was, stretched out on his back, legs just far enough apart that every time Billy looked his mouth went dry. Once he finished his beer, he turned his attention away from Steve and to the water. “Want to go for a swim?”

“Yeah.”

Steve took of his shirt before Billy said, “Close your eyes."

Steve’s nipples were hard in the cold. He sighed. “Why?”

Billy took his time to leer. Then, “Don’t you trust me?” His voice was low and hungry.

Steve snorted. “Hell, no.”

Billy shivered. He lifted his chin and licked his lips. “Do it anyway.”

Meeting Billy’s gaze with his own challenge, Steve said, “Make me.”

In an instant Billy sauntered over and arched over Steve, curling his fingers around the pool chair’s flimsy arms, pushing Steve’s knees apart with his own as Steve’s body yielded to his. He leaned in, watching Steve’s eyes watch his exposed skin. “Close. Your. Eyes,” Billy ordered. With each word his lips moved closer to Steve’s ear. He moved one hand to caress Steve’s bare chest, smiling when Steve gasped.

“Ooh--kay. Okay.”

Billy smirked. Then, suddenly and smoothly, he lifted Steve from his chair and threw him sideways into the pool. Steve was shouting even before he hit the water. Billy’s laughter could have woken the whole goddamned town.

There was a lot of swearing and splashing before Steve finally sputtered, “Asshole!”

Kicking off his boots, Billy didn’t answer. There was a certain vulnerability to Steve when his hair wasn’t all poofed up that thrilled him.

Steve nodded at the discarded boots, then jerked his head back to the water. “You coming?”

“Not yet.” Billy unbuttoned his shirt slowly, then let it fall beside him. Since he knew he was worth ogling, he took his time unbuckling his belt, unzipping his skin-tight jeans. They fell around his feet with his briefs and he stepped out of them. Wearing nothing but white gym socks, Billy crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance and let Steve stare. He was completely still, barely moving his lips to say, “Hey, don’t drown in there.”

“...Right.”

Billy laughed, and his whole body moved with the sound. As soon as Steve seemed sufficiently flustered, Billy blew him a kiss that ended with his middle finger pointed upwards, turned, and walked inside the house. He was halfway up the stairs before he heard the tell-tale splashing that meant Steve had recovered enough to follow.

Finding Steve’s room was easy; it was one of the only rooms with the door open. It was pristine except for the laundry sitting on a chair and the homework open on his desk. Billy ignored the twist in his belly the sheer comfort and homeliness of the room caused and instead laid himself out on the bed. Turning his face into the pillows, he inhaled and rolled his head back, eyes closed. His back arched as his hand slipped down his abs and lower.

Feet pounded on the staircase and down the hall. Billy smirked but didn’t open his eyes. “Took you long enough,” he teased when he knew Steve was in the doorway.

Steve crawled on top of Billy and reached down to stay his hand for awhile. Billy’s breaths were quick and shallow as they kissed. Steve was still sticky with chlorine, with his hair damp but his skin warm. Billy slid his fingers beneath Steve’s waistband. Steve froze.

Billy groaned as he opened his eyes. “Dude.”

Steve pressed their foreheads together, already unzipping his own jeans. “No, yeah, I just, ah, I’m not ready for, like…” He cleared his throat.

“Dude,” Billy repeated. Twining their fingers together, he assured him, “I know, okay? I get it.” The words were soft. It was the kindest he’d ever been to a guy in bed.

“Not that we couldn’t try… eventually…” Steve blushed and hung his head between them.

Billy’s heart leapt. He didn’t have boyfriends. He had flings and fucks, never anything steady, and he hadn’t wanted something like that until now. And Steve, Steve was completely willing to start that with him. His face was starting to hurt from smiling so much. “You want my dick, Harrington?” he yelled, loud enough that Steve giggled and tried to put his hand over Billy’s mouth. Billy sucked on one of his fingers. Then he rolled them over so he was straddling Steve and could finish sliding off those soaking wet jeans.

Steve moaned as Billy licked down his body, stopping at the inside of his thigh. There he bit him, hard enough to leave a mark, hard enough to be answered with a whimper. Steve grabbed Billy’s hair and pulled and Billy lost his damn mind. He’d sucked cock before when he was desperate enough for the feel and taste of it, when he’d forgotten how to hate himself for a couple hours, so he knew what Steve’s hands were telling him to do. He wasted no time in indulging that demand.

Steve jacked him off after, slow and sensual, a fucking tease if anyone ever asked Billy. Not that he’d ever admit what happened in that bed that night to anyone. He could already feel the sick self-loathing screaming inside his head. When he looked at Steve, though, it faded into background noise, a steady static that he could tune out until the sun came up.

He fell asleep in Steve Harrington’s arms.

Around 3 AM Billy woke in a cold sweat. He wrapped a blanket around himself, careful not to disturb Steve, and headed outside for a smoke. His fingers fumbled with the lighter and shook while he lit the cigarette, but he didn't think it was from the chill. He cursed.

Steve was awake when he got back. “Hey,” Billy whispered, sliding back beneath the covers.

“Hey.” They kissed, so tender Billy wanted to scream. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Billy lied. He smirked over his shoulder. “Up for round two?” They didn’t speak much again after that.

Five hours later, after some great sex but some lousy sleep, Billy hit fight-or-flight. Since he sure as hell had no intention of hurting Steve again, he left. The Camaro came alive in the cool blue winter morning, and Billy sped away before he could change his mind.

He wasn’t sure how he was going to face his father. He wasn’t sure he could.

Unfortunately, the decision was out of Billy’s hands. Neil Hargrove stormed out of the house the minute the engine cut, his face red and eyes bulging. Susan’s car wasn’t there, which meant Dad had no reason to put on his calm and collected show. Billy stayed in the car as long as he could, palms braced against against the steering column, trying to breathe. Then Neil’s fist connected with the window and Billy had to react.

Neil stepped back while Billy got out. Billy drew his shoulders tight, expecting the inevitable but also hoping to avoid his father’s wrath. “What are you, a fucking coward?” Neil hissed. “You stand and face me, son.” Billy did. “Where were you last night?”

“You told me Max didn’t need to be watched last night.”

Smack. He hit the car, not his son. “Answer. The question.”

Billy sniffed and blinked. He was holding onto Steve’s image like a lifeline. He just had to get through this interrogation, and then he was free for the day if he didn’t act up again. Free to see Steve again. “I had a date. Her parents weren’t home.” Billy knew he still smelled like sex.

“Her?” he pressed, sneering.

“Yes, sir.”

The man straightened and took a step backwards. “You have chores and you need to drive your sister to the arcade. That is your Saturday. Do you understand?”

Billy nodded. He was allowed inside after that. Cleaning his room first helped him avoid his father, who was picked up by Susan an hour later so they could spend their Saturday doing whatever the hell they enjoyed doing together. Billy figured they were both boring enough that it worked, and he’d learned long ago not to ask too many questions.

Max banged loudly around the kitchen when she got up to eat her breakfast and to remind Billy that she was awake and bored. Billy groaned, set down the weights he’d been absentmindedly pumping, and opened his door to glare at her. “You done?”

“The Palace opens soon,” she said through a mouthful of off-brand cheerios.

“Fine. I’m gonna shower first.” Billy took his time, remembering the shape of Steve’s body, letting his hands recreate the previous night. Even when he shut off the water with shaky breaths and stared into the mirror, he couldn’t feel the regret that usually coupled his hookups. He flirted with the idea of a smile, but settled on a scowl when Max knocked. “What?” he snapped, all of his previous pleasure fleeing at the sound of her voice.

"Can we go now?"

“What, d’you have a date?” Billy taunted.

She hesitated long enough that Billy wrapped a towel around his waist and whipped open the door, fuming. “A little honesty goes a long way, Maxine.

Standing her ground, Max crossed her arms and retorted, “It’s not a date. And where were you last night, William?”

“You little bitch,” he snarled. Then he closed his eyes, inhaled, exhaled, and opened his eyes. “You know what? I don’t care. Be ready when I’m dressed.” It pleased him when she looked taken aback, and he pushed past her, heading straight to his closet for jeans, a denim jacket, and a black t-shirt.

He shoved his lighter and keys in his pocket. Max was waiting outside his door with her backpack slung over her shoulder. Quarters jingled inside of it whenever she moved. Eventually it annoyed Billy enough that he told her to keep still, which she said she could do if he drove a little slower, and they devolved into petty bickering the rest of the way. Billy had a headache by the time he screeched into The Palace’s crowded parking lot.

Max’s buddies were loitering by the bike rack, pretending to chain up their rides but really glancing over at the Camaro and craning their necks to see Max. Lucas was the most obvious; his voice was high when he talked to the other boys and he kept dropping his bike. Billy wanted to call his step-sister on her shit, maybe chew the loser squad out for this sneaky meet-up. As he turned to her, he saw she was already braced for his attack.

“We were going to stay here--”

“Don’t fucking lie to me, Max.”

She paused, considering him. “Please don’t tell mom and dad.”

Billy revved the engine. “Give me a good reason not to take you home right now.” But she didn’t need to. A couple seconds after Billy’s ultimatum settled in around them, Steve and Dustin walked out of the arcade laden with snacks and sodas. Steve was either the coolest babysitter in the world or the biggest loser in Hawkins. Billy was inclined to think the latter when Steve tried to high-five the Wheeler kid and ended up dropping a soda can.

The can rolled across the lot in slow motion until it hit the Camaro’s front wheel. Billy felt sick. Max looked a little pale, too. She used Billy’s hesitation to fling her door open and jump outside like she was playing tag and the pavement was the safe zone. Billy honked, she dashed away, and then Steve, in his high-waisted jeans and ironically ugly Christmas sweater, rapped his knuckles on the window. Without an invitation, he slid into the passenger seat.

“Your kids are having a fit. What are you, mom of the year? At least tell me their parents pay you.”

“Missed you, too,” Steve said, because he always saw right through Billy’s bullshit. “Why’d you run off?” He leaned over, put his hand on Billy’s knee.

Billy flinched. Steve looked less offended than Billy had expected, though the way his shoulders slumped and face fell made Billy’s chest tight. Determined not to show it, he stared out the window instead. “Last night was a mistake.”

“Bullshit.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said bullshit. You know, the tough guy thing was a hot for a while, but it gets old, okay? You’re scared shitless. So what? You think I’m all zen over here? Baby, I’ve got news for you: I am freaking. The hell. Out.” His voice softened and he touched Billy’s leg again. “I think it’s better if we freak out together.”

After a minute, Billy was able to turn Steve’s hand over and curl their fingers together and squeeze tight. “Me, too,” he murmured.

He’d remember the goofy smile Steve gave him for days after. “Come over tonight.”

Billy released a breath that made him sound like he was deflating. “Don’t kill my step-sister and I’ll consider it.”

Steve looked over his shoulder to the gathering of misfits. All their faces were stuck somewhere between disbelief and fascination. Only the Byers kid’s face was unreadable; it was calm and almost knowing, which gave Billy the creeps. He flipped them all off. Steve grunted and knocked his hand down.

“Don’t be an asshole.”

His eyes glinted. “Yeah, yeah. Have her back here by five.” He grinned, lascivious and wicked. “Are you one of those hot babysitters that fucks the brother while the kiddos are asleep?” Their hands ended up much higher than Billy’s knee.

Steve blushed. “I’m getting out of your car now.”

He barely had time to shut the door before Billy sped away, tires leaving scorch marks on the asphalt, already daydreaming of another night spent at the Harrington house.

Max was returned promptly and safely by an obnoxiously smiley Steve, and she was spewing nonsense about a board game that made Billy want to shove needles in his ears. The louder he played Metallica, the louder she talked over it to explain the intricacies of whatever a mage was, so he tuned her out for most of the drive. Until, that is, she dropped the inevitable question.

“What’s going on with you and Steve?” She wasn’t a stupid kid. A bitch, yes, and a pain in Billy’s ass twenty-four-seven, but not stupid. She would have been easier to handle that way. “Well?” she prompted impatiently. “First you try to kill him, and now you’re friends, and I don’t get it, unless--”

Billy held up his finger between them to interrupt her. The car swerved. “Don’t.”

They arrived home surrounded by heavy silence. Max, always the first to leave the car, remained even as Billy pressed one foot impatiently on the gas pedal. He cleared his throat.

“You know how you look at him, right?” She didn’t give him time to answer. Her eyes were hard as she met his gaze, daring him to contradict her.  “Like how Lucas looks at me.”

Stunned, Billy let her go instead of arguing. The steering wheel took a few hits before he drove off into the night toward the only place that didn’t make him want to burn Hawkins, Indiana to ashes.

Steve answered the door wearing nothing but boxers.

Billy raised his eyebrows. “I’m definitely dreaming.” He stubbed the cigarette he’d been using to calm his nerves and grabbed Steve’s arms to push him inside the house, barely remembering to shut the front door. Steve ended up on the opposite wall with Billy’s hands already under his waistband. Billy was just happy to get a taste of that fire in Steve again.

Their kisses were all tongue and teeth. It was breathless, messy. Billy dug his nails into Steve’s hips when they stuttered forward, and Steve gasped. “You’re wearing too many clothes,” he complained hoarsely. He grasped uselessly at Billy’s jacket. When Billy stepped backwards he made the most pitiful noise Billy had ever heard him make.

Laughing around his words, Billy pointed upstairs and said, “Let’s go.” It didn’t take much else for Steve to follow this time around.

In Steve’s bedroom, Billy told Steve to sit while he went right to Steve’s radio. “Is this Madonna?”  he asked incredulously as he flipped through Steve’s collection.

“Maybe,” Steve answered with a sheepish grin. He ran a hand through his hair and pulled his knees up to his chest.

“Right on.” Billy turned the volume all the way up, and then he was dancing. He rolled his shoulders back and let his head hang. His hips moved to the rhythm, dirty and fast; he felt so much anger break away from him with every movement. He mouthed the lyrics to Steve, his mouth a little dry, his jeans uncomfortably tight. Steve kept looking between Billy’s legs, then blushing and forcing himself to find Billy’s eyes instead. Billy laughed at him. Then he stripped on beat, jacket first, and Steve had to lay back on the bed with his tented boxers and ragged breaths. “You’re so easy,” Billy crooned as he straddled him.

“And you’re… mmm…” Billy shut him up with a languorous kiss, cradling his face in his hands even as he rutted against him. Steve’s boxers hit the floor. Billy was so hard it hurt.

Their bodies crashed down on each other like west coast waves, lifting and pulling with dizzying force. Billy could have drowned in him, would have done so willingly, forfeiting everything he had. Afterwards, when they lay in a pile of sweaty, tangled limbs, he wanted to tell Steve as much, but the words died in his throat.

Steve whispered, “Don’t leave me again.”

Billy didn’t. He spent the entire next day at Steve’s house, ignoring the looming threat of his father’s wrath and any responsibilities he may have been given. The St. Christopher pendant on his neck felt a little heavier as the hours of church came and went, but that too he ignored. They drank beer and swam and made out and argued and fooled around and cooked and ate their way through Sunday. Not once did anger threaten to consume him. He felt free. He felt like he belonged there.

Their exhaustion caught up to them around 11 PM, so they settled on the couch to flip through TV channels and drink Steve’s dad’s expensive beer. Billy laid on the couch and Steve laid on him, absentmindedly tracing Billy’s obliques as they tried to pick a show, bantering over the merits of Knight Rider. He gave up on the TV eventually to spend more time staring at Steve. It was a much more rewarding pastime.

“What do you want for Christmas?” Steve asked. Billy blinked at Steve, caught off guard. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been asked that. Steve laughed and buried his face in Billy’s bare chest, his hair tickling Billy’s skin and his breath warm against him. He pressed a kiss to Billy’s ribs before continuing, “Seriously.”

Billy maintained it was a combination of the afterglow and his annoyingly mushy crush on Steve Harrington that made him answer the way he did. He said the first thing that came to mind, the one and only wish he’d had for years. “To never go home again.”

Steve’s brow furrowed. “I thought you and Max were cool? Cool-ish?”

Shaking his head, Billy dislodged Steve so he could sit up and find the mark on the back of his shoulder. “You see that?” Steve nodded, confused but attentive. “That’s what a cigarette does if you press the lit end on somebody’s skin.”

For being Mr. Perfect, Steve was pretty slow on the uptake. Billy figured the worst thing Steve could think of parents doing was being as absent as the Harringtons were; he would never imagine this. He was privileged enough to be far away from this shit. Billy was the asshole who’d dragged those problems into Hawkins’ daylight.

He grabbed Steve’s hand--far too rough; he was getting bad again--and pressed their fingers together over the scar. “My dad did that to me after I got caught with a guy in Cali.”

Steve gasped. “Christ, Billy--”

The memory came flooding back, and with it, tears pricked. Billy tried to gulp them down, the pain of that effort making his head pound.  “There was this kid Jack, okay? I’d known him forever. Shit.” He gritted his teeth. “Let him fuck me in the backseat and we were parked on the beach. Fucking cop comes by, gives us shit, makes me drive home and he follows with Jack in his car, locked in the back like some criminal.” He paused as he pulled his knees to his chest, remembering how small he’d felt in that moment.

“Cop drags me to the door and tells my dad what happened, whole time with this huge grin on his face; God, they both fucking hated me. What I’d done. Whatever. No need to get technical when you call someone a fag.” Billy was shaking. “Max and Susan weren’t home. Dad… he almost killed me. Eyes so swollen I couldn’t see, broken rib, that burn. Next day, he gives Susan some bullshit about we should start life fresh away from all their exes, and I’m lying through my teeth about some made-up guy I almost beat to death the night before--like, like I woulda looked that bad if I’d won that fight, ha--so Dad can say we should leave that behind, too. So... hello to hellhole-Hawkins.”

There was nothing comfortable about the silence that descended on them after Billy finished. Billy couldn’t decide if he wanted to be held or to be as far away from Steve as possible. Apparently Steve didn’t know either; every time he reached out his hand to touch Billy, he dropped it midair. When he finally did touch him, however, it was to lunge forward and wrap Billy in his arms. He kissed Billy’s cheeks where a few tears had fallen. He kissed him, tasting like salt and alcohol.

“I… I didn’t realize…” He sounded heartbroken, horrified.

“No one does,” Billy hissed. “No one gives a fuck. You all love pretending you’re normal.”

“We’re not.”

“No shit, Steve. And you can take your pity and shove it up your ass.” Billy regretted telling him already. It was one of his best-kept secrets, yet Steve had him spilling his guts like they were just so easy to shovel back inside that gaping wound. He made himself sick.

“Don’t do that. Hey, don’t push me away.” Steve held tighter as Billy tried to stand. Billy was stronger, could have shoved him easily and been done with it. But then Steve was kissing his scar and his neck and his lips, and every terrible thought Billy harbored about ditching Steve vanished with a shift of his hips and a soft, “C’mere, Billy.”

Billy still didn’t think he deserved something as good as Steve, wasn’t sure if he could forgive himself for letting it happen, but he was damned either way. He’d at least get a few more kisses out of it.

Chapter Text

Six days later, Billy was lying in Steve Harrington’s bed, counting down the seconds until the new year with every kiss he planted on Steve’s chest. Five and four: each hip bone. Three and two: the sides of his collarbone. One: his throat. And finally, a strident “Happy New Year,” and a kiss that stole all of his remaining breath away.

“It’s gonna be different for you this year,” Steve said, running his hands through Billy’s wild hair while he spoke. “Better.”

Billy didn’t really believe him, although he wanted to. His chest filled with pressure until he thought he might burst, or collapse, so he settled on clenching his jaw and nodding. Then he looked away to fumble for a cigarette in his discarded jeans. Lighting it burned away some of the panic, softened some of his edges so Steve could touch him again without damage.

Steve put a hand on his shoulder, then replaced it with his chin. He smiled sadly. “You don’t believe me.”

It wasn’t an accusation. Billy took another drag, relishing the warmth of the small fire almost as much as Steve’s skin on his, and used his free hand to trace Steve’s knuckles. He wondered how long the bruises had taken to heal after their fight.

Lurching off the bed, Billy rushed to the bathroom. He stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray that Steve had left for him. He splashed water down his face and neck in Steve’s sink, dried himself with Steve’s towels, slammed Steve’s door shut. What he hated most was how good it was, to be surrounded by all this shit that wasn’t his and finally know what home was meant to feel like.

There was white noise buzzing in his ears as he thought about returning to his father’s house. Steve had told Billy to stay as long as he wanted and needed, but the longer he stayed, the more consequences he tempted if he showed his face to Neil Hargrove.

Billy dropped his head into his hands as waves of nausea rolled in. Harrington’s bathroom was relatively large, with white tiles and floral wallpaper, but it shrunk and spun while Billy stood inside of it. Frozen and frightened, he stared at his pale reflection until a gentle knock sounded to his right.

“I’m going to sleep,” Steve said. “There’s space for you when you want it.”

Billy leaned his forehead against the hardwood and breathed deeply. He listened to retreating footsteps, the creak of the bed as weight was added, and the quiet that permeated the space afterwards. After another cigarette, he followed.

He found Steve in the middle of the bed, eyes still open, a huge grin on his stupidly beautiful face. Billy groaned at him as he was pulled down by his elbow. They kissed until Billy was dizzy again. Then, Steve wrapped his arms around Billy and hugged him tight, and they slept like that, chest-to-chest, hearts beating in steady unison.'

That was Saturday. On Sunday he returned to his father’s house smelling like Steve’s hairspray and the copious amounts of nicotine and cheap beer he’d consumed to mask it. Fortunately, Neil was asleep when Billy’s Camaro roared into the driveway; he knew because the lights in his and Susan’s room were off and the blinds still drawn.

Billy had disappeared during breaks before. In California, he would only get in trouble if he skipped school. Spending his days off on benders or at a friend’s beach house were acceptable by Dad’s standards, especially considering the amount of bikini-clad girls present.

Still, his hands shook as he cut the engine. There wasn’t shit to do in Hawkins. And small towns had big mouths; what if someone had seen his car parked at Steve’s place for the past week and a half? He looked at the passenger seat, where his bag lay, lumpy because it had been packed so hastily. Somewhere in it were the pictures from the photo booth that Steve persuaded him to keep. Those were actually just as frightening as his other keepsake: a pair of Steve’s briefs, nothing Billy himself would ever wear.

Billy had felt like the bravest man alive, mixing those trophies with his favorite denim jacket and the same beat-up clothes he’d worn through every year of high school. Sitting in that driveway, though, he was choking on shame and fear. It took a couple minutes until he could tell those feelings to fuck off, but he did, and threw his bag over his shoulder with pride.

Max met him at the door. Her arms were crossed, though the illusion of any power she had over her stepbrother was shattered by the PacMan pajamas and the toothbrush hanging out of the corner of her mouth. All the yellow clashed with her bright red hair. Billy laughed.

“Where have you been?” she asked, following him down the hall.

“Why would I tell you?” Once he opened his bedroom door, he threw his bag on the bed and then turned back into the hall. Her hands were on her hips now. If it wasn’t irritating, it could have been endearing. Billy sucked his teeth. “Why do you care?”

“I don’t,” she stammered. I just. Uh.”

“Does this have anything to do with your loser friends?” he asked. He vaguely recalled a long phone conversation Steve had during break with the curly one about not being able to go to the theater together. Billy had chewed him out for awhile about going on movie dates with children, though he’d been promptly silenced by some very un-childlike activities.

Max sighed. “Steve takes us places. Without him, I had to learn that stupid board game.” She shuddered dramatically.

Billy advanced upon her, tempted to cover her mouth with his palm or even lock her outside. She had no idea how loud she was talking, and next to their parents’ room at that. At the last second he settled on jabbing his finger in the air in front of her chest. “And what. The fuck. Makes you think I was taking up Steve Harrington’s time?”

“You’re an idiot,” she answered, staring at his finger with disgust. She stomped away.

His time back at that unwelcoming house started with the unpacking and hiding of all of his belongings. First he checked that Neil hadn’t found his porn stash in the search he’d probably done while Billy was away; he hadn’t, so the photos and underwear were safe there, in a tattered old shoe box shoved deep in the closet. They’d all come back out in the evening.

He spent the rest of  his day lifting weights and considering the homework the Hawkins High students were assigned over break. In the end, he did the reading and burned the math papers in the trash can. Susan passed his room and asked him if there was a fire. He said yes and offered no further explanation, so she left him alone. Neil didn’t bother him that day, either, which was a great mercy.

After having practically moved in with Steve, Billy felt his absence like the loss of a limb. He added weight to his barbells and wanted to flex at Steve, he played music that he wanted to share with Steve, he saw his bed and wanted Steve to fuck him.

“Christ,” he muttered to himself. He locked the door and got the shoebox.

On Monday morning, Billy woke an hour before his alarm and couldn't go back to sleep, which meant his best option was to get ready early and shuttle Max out of the door at a similar breakneck velocity. She complained the entire time, and insisted the skateboard be brought along for after school, and Billy ate her shit with the broadest smile he could muster in front of Neil and Susan. Neil looked suspicious, and Susan mistook Billy carrying Max’s backpack as a kindness.

“Heeeyyy, Billy, missed you at the kegger!” Tommy H. shouted as soon as the Camaro was parked.

Billy had a cigarette in his mouth and very little patience left in his body. Max was over with her middle school class, but even if she hadn’t been, he felt comfortable yelling back, “Too busy with your mom, man!”

Tommy blushed, the guys sniggered, the girls sing-songed shocked laughter, and from beside him Steve Harrington whispered, “We do look a little alike, I guess.”

Jumping away, Billy nearly choked on his smoke. He stomped it into the ground angrily and glared. “I should kick your ass,” he growled.

“Relax,” Steve said, “shove me into the car door, and you can beg for forgiveness later.”

Billy did better than that. He threw Steve onto the Camaro hood, standing between his outstretched legs and twisting his collar in a white-knuckled grip. “I hate you,” he snarled, barely eliminating the amusement and arousal from the empty threats he chased those three words with.

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve answered. His tongue was stuck between his teeth, his hair tousled beyond reason, and Billy was in love.

The realization sent him staggering backwards. Steve reached out automatically, but stopped when he saw whatever Billy’s face looked like. Billy supposed it was some cross between panic and jubilation, only one of which belonged on his face after loudly promising to beat someone up.

If Billy didn’t shake it off, there’d be questions. Tommy was already walking over to get the story. Steve waved a little and then slid off the hood and went in the school. And Billy, Billy just stood still for a long time until he could hear anything beyond his heart pounding.

Later, when he and Steve stayed late in the locker room, Steve asked, and Billy told him that he wasn’t ready for that. Steve kissed his knuckles like a Disney prince and replied, “Okay.”

The next four months passed in a blur of senior projects, basketball tournaments, job applications, weekends with Steve, parties, fights with his father, a terrible-yet-memorable dinner with Steve and his wards, and college applications for Steve--and then suddenly it was May. Billy stepped into his last week of senior year--his final week of school ever, potentially--without a single bruise on his face and with Steve Harrington’s class ring on his middle finger. Most people thought he’d either bought it himself or stolen one from the display case. He liked almost every version of the two different stories, so he let them stick around.

He spun the silver band around and around, admiring the green gem. Months ago he would have hated the reminder that he couldn’t buy his own goddamn ring. Months ago he wouldn’t have called Steve his boyfriend, though. Things balanced out.

“Late again, Mr. Hargrove. Have a seat.”

Billy chuckled into his smile, sticking his tongue between his teeth. He sniffed and the charm was gone, replaced by something menacing, something that caused the teacher’s hand to tremble as she pointed out the last empty seat in the lab.

Billy strutted over, one hand in a belt loop, winking at a girl that had her nose upturned at him. She scoffed and turned to her friend to complain. Billy simpered.

“Goggles,” Steve whispered.

Face heating, Billy bit his tongue while he slid into his seat, feigning annoyance at his arranged seat. He skimmed the lab assignment sheet without reading it. He tapped a pencil and then rolled it around like a cigarette, aching for a fire somewhere other than on his skin.

Steve smiled, just with the corner of his mouth, before rubbing his face over his shoulder like he was looking behind them. “Goggles,” he repeated from the corner of his mouth. “You have to put some on for safety, bad boy.”

“Nope.” Billy drummed on the desk. “I’m surprised you did since they fucked up your hair so bad.” It would have been unkind had it not been for the eyebrow wiggle that preceded the insult.

“They did not,” Steve protested weakly. His fingers snuck up to check his perfect strands. He thought he was sneaky. Billy could have laughed out loud; every move Steve made was clocked and recorded and saved in Billy’s brain, ready to assault him any minute, causing the same fluttering in his chest that had made him miss the last minute of their biology teacher’s instructions.

There was a flurry of textbooks and test-tubes as the students moved to begin. It was the last day of school, which meant it was also the last day to finish this lab project, so they all wanted a good final grade. Steve was measuring multicolored liquids, his face scrunched up as he concentrated. It was the same face he made when he went down on Billy last week.

Billy exhaled shakily and looked out the window.

The few manicured trees on the school property rustled in the late spring breeze. Some guys loitered in the parking lot, smoking and kicking cans. Cars gleamed, the horizon shimmered. Sun shone over Hawkins High and the adjacent middle school, high in the sky, turning the boring brick into something akin to the color on Steve’s cheeks whenever Billy kissed him.

Burying his face in his hands, Billy slouched until his chin rested on the cool desk. His hands then stretched past the edges while he flexed his arms. If there was learning happening in that classroom, Billy Hargrove wanted no part in it. Harrington, on the other hand, seemed perfectly content to ignore his lab partner.

Billy couldn’t stand it. He dropped his knee to the side so his thigh rested against Steve’s. As he pulled his hands back from the desk edges, he let his left hand linger in the middle, next to Steve’s, pinky finger inching closer with each burst of courage. His heart was as loud as the Camaro’s engine.

And Steve met him halfway; their knuckles touched in the smallest manner, yet it felt like a leap from one side of the quarry to the other. Under the table, their legs were pressed tight. Billy’s head was under the goddamn water, everything blurred, sounds funneling and echoing and droning.

Miraculously, or because Steve was genuinely competent at following basic chemistry, they finished on time to sit and wait with the rest of the class for the five minutes before the bell. Around them people chattered about vacation, visits. Enough people were distracted, either staring at the clock or at each other, that Billy turned to Steve and smiled.

“What?”

“I thought I’d drive back to Cali this summer. If I can save enough.” He’d recently applied and been accepted as a lifeguard at the local pool. It reminded him of the beach enough that he didn’t think he would hate it.

“And?” Steve prompted.

Billy rolled his eyes and then dropped his head onto his desk, laughter bubbling from deep within his chest, laughter that transformed itself into a long, high-pitched groan. “You’re gonna make me say it?”

Steve did a full turn in his chair, head upturned toward the ceiling. His hair was so long, and Billy reached out to tug it before dropping his hand midair. Steve didn’t seem to notice. He piped in, “Sure am,” and did another turn.

Biting his lip, Billy looked at the clock. Less than a minute remained until the end of his time as a high school student. He was almost 18 years old, and he was almost free. He stopped Steve’s third attempt at a turn with his foot on Steve’s calf. Steve looked in his eyes expectantly.

“Come with me,” Billy said. And he waited.

The bell rang. All of the other students leapt out of their seats, screaming and throwing papers until the ground was paved in white lab reports. Steve Harrington, however, stayed seated, touched Billy’s face, and breathed back, “Yes.”

It happened so fast that no one could have noticed, but it still freaked Billy out. He jumped up, too, though his feet could barely move. It took all of his strength to walk away, but Steve was right behind him. As the senior class streamed into the hallway, a cacophony of loud clothing and louder voices, Steve and Billy were pressed closer and closer together until it felt only natural to make space by grabbing each other’s hands.

Billy whooped at the top of his lungs. Couples kissed at the lockers, and some crazy part of Billy wanted to try it, but running through the school halls holding another boy’s hand was his limit for the day.

The wave of students hit the doors and continued into the parking lot in a tsunami of giddy energy and nervous anticipation. Billy was dodging binders and pencil cases and their contents, cackling when Steve got clocked in the head with a lacy pink bra.

Nancy Wheeler found them with Steve holding the lingerie--desperately attempting to return it to its rightful owner and getting called a creep in the process--and Billy sipping from a beer can he’d found rolling along the pavement. It was warm but unopened, a slight win.

Trailing behind her was the infamous Jonathan Byers. Steve hugged the pair of them. Billy kind of ignored the two until Nancy put her hand out.

“Should I kiss it, princess?”

She rolled her eyes and looked to Steve. He shrugged, but eventually lifted one shoulder at Billy like you should probably do it. So Billy Hargrove shook Nancy Wheeler’s hand, and Steve smiled, and it wasn’t the end of the world.

It was the start of a summer they would never forget.

Chapter Text

Billy rested his elbows on the Camaro. He looked across the car at Steve, whose sunglasses were almost as big as his hair, and who looked far too goofy for his own good. Billy said, “I have an idea.”

“Okay.” All smiles and softness, Steve matched Billy’s posture across the car. They were alone in that part of the parking lot besides a few stragglers near the middle school; kids held their yearbooks out and passed markers around while their parents looked on, bored but feigning interest in the childish tradition.

“Meet me here at eleven.”

Steve nodded and repeated the time to himself, the Beemer’s keys already out and jangling in his hand. It wasn’t until Billy was in his driver’s seat that Steve asked, “Wait, what? Why?”

Billy laughed. “Too scared to break curfew, Princess?” He revved the engine over Steve’s blushing protests. Shifting into reverse, he let his foot off the brake and just drifted backwards, knowing Steve would hop out of his way. He leaned an elbow on the open window, popped on his sunglasses, and added, “Oh, yeah. Bring tools.”

“What!” Steve repeated.

But Billy was already cruising away and breaking every safety standard set by the school district. When he arrived at 4819 Cherry Lane, he went straight to the shed--shack was a better descriptor--to grab Neil Hargrove’s tools. The man was useless except to steal from. Billy took flashlights, wire cutters, bolt cutters, and two bandannas.

It was a final fuck-you to Hawkins High, breaking into the gymnasium that night, and he’d be damned if he wasn’t prepared. He shoved everything inside a duffle bag and put that in the backseat. While he waited for 10:30 to come around, he found stress relief in lifting weights, reading, and blasting music loud enough that Max came to yell at him.

“I thought you’d be celebrating with your gang,” Billy told her when she marched into his room. After she clicked the radio’s ‘off’ button, she turned to him, crestfallen.

“They didn’t invite me anywhere,” Max admitted.

Billy wiped sweat from his forehead and underarms with a towel that he promptly threw at her. She dodged it, shrieking, though there was a significant amount of giggling involved as well. “C’mon, get your stuff,” he said. “I’ll drive you over.”

“You don’t even know where they are!” she protested.

Typical Max, fighting a favor. For once, Billy didn’t have ulterior motives, but he knew he usually did, so he let the tacit accusation slide. He stood, exchanging his shirt for a fresher one, and then gestured to her pajamas. “You should change, too. No way you impress Lucas with PacMan.”

“He likes PacMan,” she grumbled, but returned to her room anyway. Two minutes passed. Billy was hopping into tight jeans, and suddenly she was in his face again.

“Knock!” he yelled.

“Sorry!” Max didn’t look one bit sorry. “I’m ready.” She wore high-waisted, pastel yellow shorts and a pink and white striped tee.

“You look like a pack of Skittles.” He made barfing noises while he walked them both out to the doorway.

“And the leather bum look you’ve got is soooo much better,” she retorted. “Are those grease stains on that shirt?” Max gave him two thumbs up. “Classy.”

 Billy cocked his head at her, grinning. “Are you making fun of me?” His leather jacket was actually already in the Camaro, ready for the return trip to Hawkins High.

“Maybe.”

The drive was filled with music, lapses of uncomfortable quiet, and snatches of insults or directions. The directions were always followed with Billy speeding up and Max demanding he slow down. When they arrived at the Wheeler house, she was fuming, which was fine with him. It felt a lot more normal than whatever weird sibling bonding he’d just experienced. He shook off the warm and fuzzy like it was dirt, and she slammed the Camaro door, and his unease ebbed a little.

As Billy drove, he saw the senior bonfire in the woods. He saw his classmates running down main street with reckless abandon and the cops watching with sullen, begrudging stares and large cups of coffee. Before Steve Harrington, Billy would have joined the revelries only to maintain his status, maybe sleep with a random chick, and black out afterwards. That night as he continued to the school parking lot, however, he felt only detachment and disgust in regard to his peers.

His radio read 10:53, but the BMW was already parked under a tree on the side of Hawkins High. Of course Harrington was early. Steve was standing by the car, his back to Billy, and he didn’t even turn while Billy killed the engine and strutted over.

“Boo,” Billy whispered. Immediately and instinctively, he ducked, only narrowly avoiding death by spiked baseball bat. “What the fuck is that?” he roared. His heart was a stampede. The bolt cutters clattered to the ground in a terrifying metallic symphony.

“Ohmygodareyouokay?” Steve rushed to Billy’s side, only remembering to drop the bat when Billy hurtled out of reach.

The second clang on the pavement caused Billy to swear, followed by pacing, more swearing, and tightening his hands into fists. “Why do you have that?” He surprised himself by how steady the question sounded.

“You said bring tools.”

“That,” Billy hissed, jabbing in the bat’s direction, “is not a tool, it’s a weapon.”

“It has… nails,” Steve defended lamely.

And Billy couldn’t help it; he buckled over in hysterics, the adrenaline and the affection all pouring out into raucous jubilation. “There’s something wrong with you,” he said, though the statement held no real malice.

Steve laughed and then kissed him. In the darkness, Billy allowed it, certain there was no one to see. He deepened their kiss, wrapping his arms around Steve and nearly lifting him off the ground. Steve pulled back to nuzzle into Billy’s neck and nip at his exposed skin. “You smell like you’ve been working out,” Steve murmured. He licked a path from Billy’s collarbone to his jaw, ending with another kiss.

“I was. And I need a shower.” He stretched down to grab the bolt cutters, all the while making heavy eye contact with the gymnasium doors, which boasted an impressive square lock and chains. “Care to join me?”

“Oh, Billy, I don’t know.”

“C’mon, Steve, do the wrong thing for once in your life! Call me a bad influence if you want, just do this first, okay? For me?”

Steve opened and closed his mouth like he was about to point out all the times he’d done something bad. Eventually he settled on simply sighing and nodding toward the school. The thrill of the act was like being struck by lightning. Billy laced their fingers together and led them toward what was shaping up to be a great night.

Their only detour was to throw the broken chain into the school dumpster. Then they were racing down the empty halls, footsteps and breaths magnified. Billy was overwhelmed by the sounds of Steve Harrington echoing all around him. Since he wasn’t going to Heaven, he figured it was as close as he was going to get.

First stop: the equipment room, or, more accurately, the coach’s office, which was never locked because the coach was a trusting idiot. Billy took the best quality basketball he could find, acutely aware of Steve’s eyes on him the entire time. They went to the court and that hungry gaze remained, twisting Billy’s stomach into fiery knots. Dribbling and trying to hide his overly-responsive dick, Billy asked, “You like what you see, Harrington?”

“Jesus,” Steve replied, sparks of mischief dancing across his face. “Do you ever stop talking, man? Come on.” He crouched, taut as a bowstring, and he planted his goddamn feet.

“Fuck you.” Billy dragged his teeth over his lips on the first consonant and let the vowels turn into air. Then, he lunged at Steve, putting all his weight in the move even as his feet danced lightly across the squeaky floor.

Steve blocked the first shot as well as the second. He was already sweating and panting with the effort it took to match Billy’s ferocity during the game. More importantly, of course, was that he was grinning from ear to ear, sunshine in a human body.

When Billy tripped on Steve’s ankle and skidded to a painful stop on the court, he absolutely started throwing blame around. Steve responded by throwing himself on top of Billy. He straddled him, nudging his shirt up around his belt, scratching at denim with blunt fingernails. Arriving at Billy’s pocket, he stopped to retrieve what was inside.

Billy looked at the condom package, then at Steve. Steve’s pupils were blown and his hair was a mess, yet the disarray suited him. He was also blushing, which sent heat plummeting straight from Billy’s chest to his crotch. There was a fluttering of nerves left where the heat had fled, though, as he realized he wasn’t sure what to say.

Steve raised an eyebrow as the quiet stretched into infinity. They were both breathing hard and the way their bodies touched was sending Billy into overdrive. He snatched Steve by the back of his head and brought their mouths together in a clash of teeth and tongues. When he finally mustered the courage, he turned his face away so that Steve would kiss his neck, and between moans Billy confessed, “I lied earlier.”

“Mm?”

“I should have said fuck me.” His pulse raced under Steve’s mouth.

“N-now?” Steve stuttered. He pulled back to make the kind of direct eye contact that Billy really wanted to avoid in that instant.

Billy gritted his teeth, then bared them. “Showers, when I mentioned needing a shower, I meant...” he gritted out. “I’ve wanted you to… for a long time.” Steve was playing with Billy’s earring, making happy, encouraging noises. Billy sucked in oxygen like he was dying. “Do you want to?” he added. He cringed when the question reached his own ears; he sounded horrifically desperate.

Steve had a knack for deciphering Billy’s ramblings; Billy had experienced it plenty of times. But he wanted to be clear for Steve’s sake, not just expect perfect understandings from the start. He closed his eyes and willed his mind to relax before he blew it. Carefully, he sat up and held Steve’s chin between his fingers. “Will you. Please. Fuck me?” he asked. “Downstairs. In however many minutes it takes for me to get you hard and get this--” He nodded at the condom, “--on.”

“Yeah.” Steve answered right after Billy stopped asking. He crawled off of Billy and helped him up, touching him everywhere he could reach. “You sure you don’t want to?” he asked, separating the parts of his sentence with kisses.

Billy had never fucked Steve, either, although they’d tried and stopped a couple times when Steve’s nerves got the better of him. He never faulted him for that. They had fun without it, and, if Billy was being honest with himself, he’d usually prefer to be on the receiving end anyway.

Simply imagining it was sending him over the edge. Billy’s jeans were uncomfortably tight. Although he wanted to smirk, or shout, all his body was aware of was the pressure between his legs. “Let’s go,” he urged.

Steve led him to the showers with their hands entangled. For perhaps the first time in his life, Billy had nothing crude or suggestive or even remotely cool to say, because his brain was firing in a thousand different directions as Steve Harrington looked dead into his eyes and stripped.

Dropping his jacket first, Billy scrambled out of his remaining clothes in about five seconds flat. He reached out to touch Steve slowly, aching for a gentle connection under water that reminded him of the ocean’s spray.

Their kisses were languid, and Steve’s hands matched that careful rhythm. Together they stepped beneath the showerhead, wrapped in steam and one another’s arms, hot water sluicing down sore muscles and starving mouths. Billy took Steve’s face in his hands and looked at him, really looked at him.

“I don’t deserve you.” The words tumbled out before Billy could beat them down.

“Don’t do that,” Steve argued, shaking Billy off. He pushed his fingers into Billy’s abdomen until Billy’s back rested against the wall. “Let yourself have this, ‘cause baby, you’ve already got me.” His fingers curled in Billy’s skin, harder but barely, and he kissed him, and then he murmured, “I’m ready. We’re not doing this unless you are, too.”

Billy hung his head. He inhaled courage, exhaled consummate desire. He rolled his shoulders and neck, eventually halting the movement so he could tug at Steve’s ear with his teeth. “Yes,” he practically snarled, “I’m ready for you to fuck me, pretty boy.”

Steve blushed bright red. Billy could feel the heat radiating off both of them, off the walls, the water, their cocks. He turned around, his legs spreading in a couple wide steps. Reaching back to tangle his fist in Steve’s hair, he breathed out, “Please.” He could feel his father’s hatred like an ice block in his chest. Steve broke it away inch by inch, his hands on Billy’s ribs, pressing.

He gasped at the initial burn. The last time Billy had let a guy fuck him was California. Steve’s reserved, moderate pace made him think that Steve probably knew that, too. Problem was, Billy kind of needed Steve to break him in half. Smirking, he arched his back and repeated that wish aloud.

Afterwards, they sat on the tiles, Billy’s back to Steve’s chest while Steve washed his hair. The water was cold by then, but neither boy cared. Once they were clean, Billy grabbed two towels, as well as a joint, and handed all three to Steve. He settled next to him, their shoulders and thighs touching.

“What is it, my birthday?” Steve put the joint in his mouth and waited for Billy to light it. When he’d taken few drags, he went to pass it, but stopped.

“Dude,” Billy quipped. He waved his hand in front of his boyfriend’s dilated eyes. “Share.”

Steve chuckled. “Nah. C’mere.”

Billy turned his head to glare. Maybe to bicker. Steve, however; Steve had a much better idea. He inhaled, held his breath, and then leaned forward to breathe the smoke into Billy’s lungs.

It was the best high of Billy’s life.

They drove home separately. Billy was so giddy that he almost forgot to stop by the store and pick up more cigarettes. He bought the newest Penthouse, too, sure that his father would be searching his room more now that it was summer and Billy would be at the pool most days. The rest of the drive was a little bittersweet, especially as the weed’s influence faded.

In the morning, Billy was wandering around in basketball shorts, Steve’s class ring, and nothing else, his hair tied up and hands occupied with a bowl of Lucky Charms. There’d been a sale, and Max had begged, which meant it was the only cereal in the house besides Neil’s cardboard flakes. Billy pretended to hate the sugary marshmallows in front of his sister. At 7 A.M. on a Saturday, he enjoyed them openly.

The phone rang. Billy sprinted to it before it could wake the rest of the house open. “What?” he spat into the receiver.

“Missed you, too,” Steve greeted cheerfully.

Billy leaned sideways in the doorframe with the phone tucked between his shoulder and ear. “I hate when you call here,” he reminded him. “Someone else could pick up.” The only risk was his dad, but it was a big enough risk that Billy really didn’t want Steve calling.

Steve sighed. “I know. I just.” Billy pictured him pinching the bridge of his nose, twirling the phone cord. “I didn’t get in.”

Billy was glad no one was around to see how pissed he was. “I can talk to admissions,” he said, hoping it was crystal clear that he meant ‘talk’ in the dirty cop sense of the word. That got a laugh. Billy held off from admitting how serious he was about it. Instead he added, far more tender, “Want me to come over?”

“I mean, I do, ‘cause it would be a hell of a lot better than what I actually have to do, which is tell my parents.” Steve sighed again. From his end of the call, Billy heard him bang on the wall a couple times. “My dad’s gonna kill me.”

A muscle in Billy’s jaw jumped. He replied, a little tersely, “Mmm, probably not.” Catching a glimpse of his scar in the mirror, he moved again, stretching the cord to its limit.

“Shit, Billy, I’m sorry. Ugh, I’m a moron.”

“No, you’re good.” Billy accepted the apology with grace and sincerity. He was working on it, just like Steve was working on comments like that. Billy was a grown ass adult; he’d cut Steve some slack. He slurped some milk from his cereal bowl and forcibly removed that gnawing pang of anger from beneath his ribs. “Hey, you wanna play baseball today? I found my old glove in the garage. You can pitch.” He smiled at his own cleverness.

Sounding thoroughly relieved, Steve answered, “Let’s do it.” There was a long pause while everything registered. “Ah, when you say ‘baseball,’ are we doing another ‘talk’ to the admissions bit?”

Billy scratched his obliques. “Why don’t you meet me at the fieldhouse around seven and find out?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Uh-huh.” He pressed his tongue into his cheek, then hung up.

The glove, made for an eight year old, was useless, and besides that, Billy hated recalling when he last wore it, when his dad called him a pussy in the dugout and a faggot once they sat down for dinner. He conveniently left it at home.

Steve didn't mind.

Later, Steve recounted how he’d shown his parents his final report card and the rejection letter. “They told me it was a miracle I even graduated.”

“Ouch.”

They were stargazing on the hood of the Camaro, and Steve was using Billy’s thigh as a pillow. Steve pressed his face into Billy’s leg with his brow furrowed. He groaned. “I also have to get a summer job.”

Billy snorted. When Steve didn’t reply, he continued, “For real?”

“Yup.”

A wide grin spread over Billy’s lips. He jostled Steve enough that Steve batted him away, then rolled onto his chest and grabbed both of Billy’s knees, staring up at him through long lashes and rumpled hair.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Because,” Billy explained. “You could be a lifeguard. We could be together all summer.” It was perfect. He’d see Steve shirtless all the time, they’d have access to the pool after hours, and they could hang out without parental suspicion. The issue was the way Steve was staring at him like he’d just kicked his puppy. Billy’s smile faltered. He was so stupid. “Too much?” he guessed.

There were a few more moments of excruciating silence before Steve blurted, “Why didn’t I think of that!” A few miles away, a dog barked. Steve shouted again, some wordless, incoherent sound of complete frustration.

“You already have a job?” Billy peered at him, incredulous. But if anyone could get a job the day he needed one, it was the rich, pretty, popular guy. Billy tried to feel happy for him.

“My dad knows some guys who are in charge of like, what’s it called, when they pick the stores for a place? Anyway. There’s an ice cream shop opening in the new mall, and Dad called in a favor, or bribed them, I’m not sure. Point is, I’m stuck.”

Billy didn’t know what to say. He felt so selfish, thinking how this messed up his plans to return to California during the summer, or how it kept Steve on the other side of town. Their parents were keeping strict tabs on them, and Steve being an absolute dumbass wasn’t helping, either.

Steve crept up Billy’s body until they sat with their legs thrown over each other’s, one giant, denim monster. Billy would have mocked Steve’s clingy tendencies if he wasn’t wallowing in those early June disappointments.

“What’s up?” Steve spoke almost inaudibly, his forehead resting on Billy’s.

“‘Things are gonna be different for you this year,’” he quoted sadly. “‘Better.’”

“I meant it!” Steve pulled him up so that they were standing on the car. A few choice swears from Billy and worrisome creaking on the car’s part had them jumping down. Billy thought they’d stop there, but no luck; Steve tackled him into the grass, staining his white tank. Billy wrestled him right back and then pinned him. He kissed the few inches of Steve’s stomach that the tussle had exposed.

Steve kicked at him playfully. “Summer 1985, baby. Year of free ice cream and lap swims.”

“Swear you’ll give me all the free samples I want?”

“S’long as you swear you won’t blow your whistle at me.”

“I’ll blow something, Harrington.”

Steve cackled, and then Steve shut up. After another hour under the stars, Billy was glad to accept that life might actually show him something good that year like Steve said. He dropped Steve--who’d walked to their rendezvous that night--at home, grinning with an odd but not wholly disagreeable sense of optimism.

Leaning into the driver’s side window, Steve said, “My first shift is the grand opening next Monday. You should come.”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Billy wished he could kiss him goodnight. He was vaguely aware of how cheesy that was, as well as how disgustingly Breakfast Club of him it was to keep a piece of his princess’ jewelry. But the ring shone silver on his hand as he gripped the steering wheel and sped back to his place.

He was just opening the door when the sun was rising. Thankfully there was no surprise sister waiting for him, just a slightly-comfortable bed and a pleasant soreness that made that not matter one single bit.

Billy woke up around noon, worked out, drank some orange juice right out of the carton, and relaxed by flipping through a few magazines Susan had left lying around. The sewing and cooking ones were totally useless, but the celebrity gossip one held his attention with all the accusations of Satanic worship and sacrifices happening in the rock music scene.

Inspired, Billy did something slightly impulsive, but also something he’d been considering for a long time: he drove miles out of town, took his savings with him, and got a tattoo. He paid in cash for the artist’s personal take on the popular skull-and-cigarette design, sans the dorky top hat. “I want it laughing,” was the single condition Billy provided. He was thrilled with the result.

The initial buzz dwindled the nearer the road took him to Hawkins. The town was one of the worst things that ever happened to him, while meeting Steve Harrington was one of the best. Billy wasn’t sure how to cope with those ideas in the long run. Short term was easy; he hit 90 miles-per-hour on the highway and cruised without any cops.

So Billy had his band-aids. Maybe California was the fix, or Steve was part of the more permanent solution. He hoped he was.

Billy wore long sleeves even in the rising heat. He stopped walking around and working out shirtless, and let the tattoo heal with the help of whatever lotion he could find in Susan’s vanity. Stealing her shit reminded him of taking makeup all those years ago, and he shuddered, nearly dropping the bottle. Miraculously, Neil and Susan never knew.

Discounting one close call related to completing his chores, Billy was able to avoid Neil Hargrove’s wrath the entirety of the ten days leading to the widely anticipated Starcourt Mall opening. He sat down to eat their family meal with unkempt hair and lounging clothes, careful not to seem too eager to attend even if the anticipation was consuming him. Steve’s summer job mandate had included being grounded, which neither of them had handled well.

“Your mother and I need time to finish packing.” Neil had planned a weekend vacation, camping, a splurge more for Neil’s pleasure than Susan’s. His father tapped an advertisement for the Starcourt Mall. “You’ll take your sister.” The order came to Billy on the morning of the ceremony. Susan handed her stepson a ten dollar bill with a note paper-clipped to it: For a summer treat.

“No!” Max yelled, exactly as Billy pocketed the money and answered, “Sure.”

The siblings glared at one another. Max was staring at Billy like she wanted to drown him in the maple syrup that was currently soaking into Susan’s homemade pancakes. It’d be a pretty unpleasant death, he had to admit, but Max was testing the king. He smiled, stabbing his food hard enough to scratch the plate. He didn’t break eye contact with her through the entire performance.

Neil slapped the table. The girls jumped while Billy sat rigidly, staring at the counter and not making any noise, wishing he could disappear.

“You don’t want to go, Maxine?” Billy’s father directed a forcefully sweet smile at her. It didn’t reach his eyes, not by a long shot. “It’s all you’ve asked about since Mayor Kline announced the date.”

Max slumped in her seat. “He’ll just find some girl and leave me,” she disputed miserably. “And spend all our money on her.”

“He will not,” Neil said. “Right, son?”

Billy didn’t miss Neil’s grip tightening on his empty plate. He answered, “Yes, sir.” It left a sour taste in his mouth.

Everyone relaxed after that, but Billy and Max both still tread carefully through the conversation, dodging every sensitive subject with practiced finesse. Susan cleared the table. When she took Billy’s dishes, Billy caught a glimpse of black and blue on her wrist.

Unnerved, she left him hastily, pulling down her shirt, and Billy finally noticed that he wasn’t the only person wearing love sleeves in a house without air conditioning.

“Go get dressed, kids,” his stepmother suggested. Her back was turned to them as she hunched over the sink, scrubbing plates and silverware. Billy spied a knife she’d left behind, close enough to his hand that he could take it with a simple flick of his wrist, and then he would wait for a distraction...

The moment passed when Max grabbed the forgotten knife, bringing it to her mother with offers of assistance in exchange for one of those braids with a ridiculous name. Billy sucked on his teeth, cracked his knuckles, then went to his room for a smoke and an outfit.

Clicking the radio on, he dialed through random stations, static, and news before he found something worthwhile to listen to while he dressed. Huey Lewis and The News sang over a fantastic drumline, which Billy followed with his hands on the dresser as he dragged different jean shorts to the surface.

Some days won't end ever and some days pass on by

I'll be working here forever, at least until I die

Damned if you do, damned if you don't…

More clothing wound up on his floor than his body. Billy settled on jean shorts and a white button-down that he kept wide open. After drenching himself in cologne, he slid on his sandals despite the fact that they were from last year and the soles were peeling off. Some things he couldn’t control.

“No one wants to see that,” Max complained as she tossed herself and a borrowed purse into the passenger seat.

He blinked at her with wide, innocent eyes.

“Your ugly pecs, douchebag. Bleck”

Billy shut his door slowly. Then, with as much patience as he could muster, he grinned and countered, “You’re right. They’d rather see me naked .”

Max gaped, scandalized, while Billy, cackling, reversed out of the driveway. Susan standing in the doorway and waving goodbye sobered him a great deal. Still, he was glad he’d shocked Max into silence. The traffic was unbearable, which meant the drive was long, and her loudmouth would have killed him by the end.

As soon as he found a parking spot--an almost impossible task--Max leapt out, intending to vanish into the crowd, maybe find her idiot troop. Billy planted his feet and took hold of both her arms in what absolutely looked like a big hug to every passerby.

“Let go,” she demanded, kicking.

Billy released her. “Just…” He sniffed, then exhaled boorishly. His mouth worked around unfamiliar words as he strayed into the older brother territory he’d always avoided. “Stay, alright? At least until we find you some new summer clothes, ‘cause you’ve outgrown all your tomboy shit. I’m not going to steal your half of Susan’s cash.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Shrugging, he locked the Camaro. “Run off and you’ll never know.”

To his surprise, she stayed. It was a bratty groan, a high-pitched “Fine,” and stomping feet, but it was also progress.

Nearby, a newswoman set up her microphone while her crew panned around the parking lot. “Thousands of citizens are expected to gather on this sunny June day at the Starcourt Mall…” Billy lost her voice among those citizens as they shouted and honked and blasted music from boomboxes. The cacophony was ceaseless and multiplied tenfold the closer Billy and Max got to the tall, shining building.

Suddenly, Billy recalled his last visit to a mall: Roane County, with Steve. The photo booth pictures were still in his room, but he yearned every day to cut his favorite out and place it inside his wallet. He was so lost in the memory that Max had to nudge him in the ribs and tell him how easily a stranger could kidnap her in that massive crowd.

“Wish they would,” Billy shot back.

“You don’t,” Max retaliated as they stepped onto the escalator.

Billy had never seen so much neon in his life. Store lights beamed in bright reds, pinks, and yellows, searing their signs and advertisements behind closed eyelids. The two stories stretched even farther because of the massive ceiling, all windows and natural light to keep the decorative plants flourishing. The light fixtures affixed to the columns were probably more impressive at night. Still, Billy liked the electric hum they carried over the crowd.

He stepped off the escalator next to Max and asked,“Why is that?” She was getting confident. There was a warm feeling very close to pride growing in his heart.

“Without me, you wouldn’t have met Steve.”

The little flames of affection were doused with ice water. “Stop that.” His tone was dark, acidic. It could have eaten through bone.

Max flipped her hair over her shoulder. Striding toward a store that seemed to have vomited violent fuschia all over itself, she quipped, “Nope.” Then she turned back to him, incredibly serious for a moment. “I don’t, that’s not.” She squinted and squirmed, apparently having spoken before she strung all the correct thoughts together. “That’s not why I think you’re gross,” she settled on.

Goddamn it, Billy was blushing. He gritted his teeth against a smile. Squatting down closer to her height, he said, “You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?” When he stood again, Nancy Wheeler was walking toward them, faithful Jonathan holding her hand.

Couples caused Billy a certain amount of anger and upset these days, owing to the fact that he couldn't hold his boyfriend’s hand in public if he wanted to live much longer than eighteen years. He gave his fellow graduates a curt and cursory greeting.

Nancy smiled regardless of his lackluster manners. “Happy opening!” she exclaimed. She took Max by the shoulders. “Billy, Max doesn’t want to shop with you.”

“Oh, thanks.” Billy tried to find some support in Jonathan, but the older Byers was nodding along to Nancy’s explanation about girls’ tastes and hanging around peers instead of a deadbeat older brother. This was all offered with the kindest, delightful, and engaging way Billy had ever heard someone spin that many insults.

He circled his gaze around the mall. Standing inside a comic-book store and not reading any comics were Lucas, Mike, and Will. Billy sighed. He handed Nancy the ten dollars, said goodbye to Max, and watched her freckled face light up.

“Go,” he urged, “before I change my mind.” He didn’t need to tell her twice.

It took hours for Billy to work himself up to visiting Scoops Ahoy. In the meantime, he tried on clothes he couldn’t afford, stared at the earrings in jewelry counter until the attendants kicked him out, and ate a decent burger in the food court. There were multiple smoke breaks in between.

The sun set and mall security warned shoppers that only an hour and a half remained until closing. Billy ran to Scoops , then. He stood outside it with his hands shoved deep into his pockets for about three minutes before he allowed himself the final steps inward.

“Oh wow, Rob Lowe!” The girl at the counter greeted him with a sardonic grin and a hand on her hip. She had short, streaked hair, big blue eyes, and obviously recognized him from the way those blue eyes cast daggers at his chest.

Briefly, Billy entertained the incredibly awful possibility that he’d missed Steve’s shift. But Steve had griped about his long hours enough that it had stuck with Billy. If Billy had more time to kill, he had to do it wisely.

Billy needed to flirt with a babe or two if his reputation was to keep intact over vacation. Practically the whole of Hawkins had turned out to the mall that day, and he imagined all that scrutiny on him, expecting him to pounce the way he’d done in school. Leering, he strutted the rest of the way to the counter and leaned on it as he spoke. “Hey sweetheart,” he purred. “Can’t call me that. The name’s Billy, and I’ll take a sample of the vanilla.”

“I’d stick to Rob Lowe,” she teased, yet there was only a slight chill to it. “Much cooler.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” He felt his eyes might be too disingenuous, his posture too fake, for this girl to fall for it. She was too discerning for Billy’s tastes.

She served him but looked at him a little longer than necessary, the corners of her mouth creasing into dimples. She asked him, “Wanna see something funny?”

There was no one in line behind him. The parlor was alive with happy kids and other people getting brain freezes and crunching on ship-shaped sundaes. Intrigued, Billy nodded. Then he stood back to his full height, arms crossed over his chest, and waited.

Scoops girl walked to the back window and whispered, “Showtime, Dingus” through it.

In a few seconds, Steve burst through the back door, his little sailor hat askew, practically shouting. “Ahoy, ladies!” he began. “I’ll be your Cap--”

Billy howled while his new best friend shook her head. And he didn’t even care that all the patrons were wondering how the guy with the earring had lost his mind; Steve’s face was priceless, vacillating between dead fish and deer in headlights. His outfit was also priceless and hilariously, inconceivably sexy. Billy coughed and crossed his legs.

“Chick magnet,” Scoops girl said, jerking her thumb at the bright red statue that used to be Steve Harrington.

“Definitely,” Billy agreed, dragging out his vowels until Steve pouted at him.

Steve’s adoring brown eyes were all wrong for their contentious public relationship, though. Billy glowered at him for the overt affection, so Steve schooled his features into irritation while he scooted into the admittedly small space between his coworker and the ice cream case. There were a lot of dramatic sighs and taunts tossed between the two. Billy felt like a spectator in his own life.

“By the way, nice freckles.” Billy flashed one of his rare, genuine smiles to aide the compliment. He licked the sample spoon and then stuck his tongue out of his mouth.

“Thanks,” she replied with a little laugh. She pointed at the newly emptied  spoon, then the freezer and its multicolored flavors. “You want another one?”

Billy stuck the spoon in the side of his mouth and spoke around the red plastic. “I’m good, Freckles.”

“Okay, you can’t call me that.” Tapping her nametag, she amended for him, “It’s Robin.”  Beside her, Steve made a sound like a deflating balloon.

Billy had to move aside so they could serve more excited children. Their parents paid readily, easily. Envy plunged its talons into Billy’s heart and didn’t release him, no matter how hard he focused on Steve in his stylized navy costume. Consequently, Billy resorted to dragging Steve’s attention to him through increasingly sophomoric antics.

“He’s just mad he doesn’t have any game.” Billy nudged the jars of candy toppings around. He stacked and reordered them, opened and ate from them. It was pitiful, really, just how many little annoyances he could come up with to keep Steve marching over and asking him to quit it.

Seizing the M&Ms from Billy, Steve retorted, “I have game!”

Robin grunted. After she finished with her customer--an elderly gentleman who didn’t appreciate the teens’ antics and didn’t tip--Robin skipped over to the boys. “Prove it,” she dared Steve, tapping once on his collarbone. Billy beat down the further jealousy it caused. They were friends, they were having fun. He wouldn’t ruin it like he would have a year ago.

There was a massively stupid look on Steve’s face as he replied, “Huh?”

Robin rolled her eyes. “Ask the next girl who comes in to go on a date with you.” Met with more blank staring from Steve, she sprinted to the back room and re-emerged with a white board, which she was erasing and then writing on furiously. When she turned it around, it showed two columns, both with titles in block capitals: YOU RULE / YOU SUCK.

Billy could scarcely believe he was actually the cause of some wild scheme for Steve to prove his sexual prowess. What a cruel, cosmic joke. He felt queasy, the sickness hardly mitigated by the ringing in his ears, and went to sit down while Steve and Robin debated the pros and cons of her clever scoreboard.

It could have been minutes or hours by the time Steve slid into the booth next to Billy, carrying a bowl of vanilla ice cream in one hand and his hat in the other. It was as good a plea for forgiveness as any. Billy took the metal spoon he was offered. “You taste better,” he commented after his first bite. Steve shushed him animatedly, flailing and laughing and ultimately drawing more attention to them than before. Billy didn’t love him for his intellect, though.

Robin rang a bell and yelled, “Last call!” A few teens wandered in and ordered cones to go before the parlor cleared.

Billy was alternating between flirting with and ridiculing his boyfriend--the two activities being almost interchangeable--when Robin swooped in and stole his bowl.

He brandished his spoon at her. “I’m not done.”

“Were you dropped as an infant? We’re closed.” She threw Steve’s hat from the table to his face, and followed the assault with a wet cloth.

“Aw, what!” Steve yelled, his shirtfront effectively soaked.

“Wipe the tables, Mr. Hair, or the tip jar is all mine.”

“You wouldn’t.”

Robin whistled some Queen as she danced away, the swing of her hips the only answer Steve was going to get. Scratching the back of his neck, Billy chuckled and slid the spoon into Steve’s shorts pocket. “Oh, waiter,” he crooned.

Steve pulled on his hat with two hands and hissed, “Asshole,” far too affectionately.

Remarkably, Robin allowed Billy to stay even once they’d shut the gate. Billy didn’t argue because Nancy would definitely drive Max home, it was much cooler in the mall than in the Indiana summer, and he wouldn’t have missed Steve bending over in that uniform for anything. Billy paced around the shop, just watching them work. When the Hawkins Community Pool opened, he would be stuck instead watching a bunch of half-naked people who weren’t Steve Harrington, so he needed to memorize this look.

He stole a piece of gum from behind the counter, then sat on one of the clean tables. Steve said, “Dude,” and Robin tossed a sponge at him. He caught it deftly.

“Try harder, Freckles.”

“Bite me.” Robin approached him, dauntless. She swatted Billy’s earring like a cat, then watched Billy’s resulting outrage with inquisitive interest. She muttered, “I feel like I know you.”

Well, she was strange. Billy regarded her thoughtfully. Although almost positive that he hadn’t, he speculated, “Did I fuck you?”

“Gross, no.” Sticking out her tongue and gagging was a little harsh, and Billy appreciated that immensely.

“I’m sorry about him,” Steve told Robin. He mouthed ‘what the hell’ to Billy over her shoulder.

“No, no,” she replied, waving away his apology. “I’ve always wanted to meet someone controlled entirely by baser instincts.” She laced her fingers together and leaned her chin on her makeshift perch. “You’re just… familiar.”

Billy’s eyebrows shot into his hairline. “You’re just weird.”

Steve fished the BMW’s keys from his pocket, jangled them high above his head, and went for the back door, replacing his cleaning equipment in the kitchen as he moved through. “Ignore her,” he called, “she’s in drama club.”

“Explains a lot.” He jumped down from the counter, following Steve toward the exit.

“You know what? You’re both assholes, and you deserve each other.”

Billy knew it was a joke, but he couldn’t shake the creeping, sinister sensation slicing into his heart. The other mall stores’ employees loitering in the parking lot after hours didn’t help; every person they passed, the more convinced Billy was that they knew. 

They reached the Beemer first since Steve had the benefit of employee parking. Steve slumped against the car door and regarded Billy with a crooked smile. “You’re kinda quiet,” he said. His gaze traveled to the skin exposed by Billy’s shirt, causing Billy’s chest to rise and fall rapidly.

“I’m thinking.” His shoulders were so tense. He shook them loose, his curls flying around his face. Steve didn’t ask him to continue, he just waited for Billy to decide on his own. And Billy was so in love that it hurt. “What if.” He stopped, trembled, and exhaled. “What if we both go back to my place?” He touched Steve’s arm like no one was watching.

Steve agreed in a sharp inhale and a breathy, “Yeah.”

Billy was full of nervous energy that ricocheted through his organs whenever he caught sight of Steve’s car in the Camaro’s rear view mirror. He practiced his admission in as many ways as there were words in the dictionary, each one making him wince worse than the last. Of course, he never expected confessing love to a guy would be easy.

Neil and Susan were gone, and Max’s room was dark and quiet. Billy still held a finger to his lips as he unlocked the house. When Steve stepped across the threshold, Billy’s nerves immediately switched to livewires, sparking and propelling them to his room with urgency.

“Can I see the whole place sometime?” Steve asked as he flopped onto Billy’s bed, arms supporting his head. He kicked his shoes off by the heels.

Billy picked up all the clothes he’d left on his floor that morning. With Steve in there, he was very aware of the mess and the modesty of it all. “Not much worth looking at,” he mumbled.

“Hey,” Steve called gently.

Billy continued cleaning. “Mm?”

Steve repeated himself, then bounced off the bed and over to Billy. He slid his hand down Billy’s arm, to his wrist, and tugged until they were both sitting on the mattress. “If it’s part of your life, it’s part of mine.” He brushed his lips over Billy’s.

Suffocating, Billy inched away a little, concealing the butterflies with a smirk as he stripped off his shirt. He dragged Steve under his lap so he was kneeling over his hips, then arched over him, balancing on his elbows.

They kissed, and kissed some more, before Steve broke away to point at Billy’s shoulder. “What is that?”

He’d forgotten just how new the tattoo was. “Do you love it or what?” Billy flexed his arm so that it stretched over solid, impressive muscle. The black ink was beautiful against his golden tan.

“I love it,” Steve agreed. He brushed his knuckles over the skull, the smoke. “And I love you.”

Billy Hargrove had always been on a collision course with Steve Harrington. Sometimes he felt like everything after their fight was a dream, too good to be true, too much happiness to comprehend. This was one of those times. Expecting Steve to take it back any second, he gaped as those three words drifted between them. All his brain gave him in the end was a jumbled, “Holy shit.”

Steve scrambled to a crouched position. The bedsprings squeaked with the movement. “There is no obligation to say it back. I get it, a lot to handle. Uh.” His hands ran through his hair. He kept them there, too, allowing their physical distance to create the barrier that was Billy’s get-out-of-jail-free card.

Escape was a tempting option. But Billy was tired of running, of lies and secrets, and, above all, hiding. He felt like he was facing down a 50 foot wave.

He dove in headfirst.

“I love you, too,” Billy said, not on a breath, and not shakily; with calm conviction and confidence. He grinned. “I am so fucking in love with you, Steve Harrington.”

Steve’s hands untwisted from his hair. Thick strands stuck up at odd angles, and Billy had the urge to smooth them down, so he did. He loosened Neil Hargrove’s hooks from his heart one kiss at a time.

They spent the night in each other’s arms, staring and whispering until they couldn’t see or talk anymore. Most of what he remembered from the conversation came in a blur except for when he held Steve’s hand and asked him to stay. Sleep claimed them in the blissful hours of the early morning, and Billy had never been happier.

The alarm clock read 10 A.M. when Steve wiggled out of his embrace. Billy reached from where he lay on his stomach, one arm outstretched to Steve’s side of the bed. His hair was matted to his face, his face matted to the pillow. He opened one eye and groaned while Steve slid his jeans on.

“Wher’you goin’?” Billy mumbled.

Steve smiled down at him fondly. He kissed Billy’s cheek, then drew himself back up to his full height. “To piss,” he answered, chuckling. “Go back to sleep.”

Billy grunted yet closed his eyes all the same. He had barely drifted even into that fuzzy state between waking and unconsciousness when Steve returned, face blank and teeth worrying at his bottom lip. The mattress creaked where Steve sat on the edge of it. Crawling over to him, Billy rested on his knees and hugged Steve.

“What’s wrong?” Billy asked.

“Uh.” Steve pushed the back of his hand over his nose and nodded quickly, which was telling enough that Billy went on red alert. His grip tightened on Steve’s forearms. Steve replied, “Your sister’s up.”

Instantly, the panic diffused. He sighed into a relieved laugh, his grip on Steve’s arms relaxing into more of a caress. “Oh,” he said. “That’s okay.”

Steve twisted to meet his eyes. “Really? You’re cool?”

He thought about telling him how she’d basically figured them out already, or, more recklessly, how her knowing meant they could all leave this town together. He was going too fast, though, just like he did on the road. He settled on, “No, yeah, actually, it’s… it’s okay. It’s really okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Steve was bright then, brighter than the California sun. Billy grinned at him, scrunched his nose, and nipped at Steve’s chin. Then, carelessly and as chaotically as he could, he clambered over Steve to get to his bedroom door, which resulted in a lot of swearing, bruised knees, and a wrestling match that he did not lose, but rather let Steve win.

A minute later Max marched to the door and pounded her tiny fist against it, raging. “Hellloooo, I can hear you!”

They both stood and dressed before Billy swung the door open and looked down the hall. Max was in the kitchen, rummaging in cabinets and making a mess of the small space. Billy went over to her like there was nothing new in their world, whereas Steve lingered barefoot on the carpet, a faint blush on his cheeks.

“What are you doing?” Billy asked her. His aggravation was a reflex at best. He looked at the ingredients she’d laid out and sighed. “You don’t know how to make pancakes.”

She shrugged and waved a spatula at him. “How hard can it be?” Pointing the utensil at Steve, she continued, “I bet Steve even knows how.”

Steve, who had probably been intent on blending into the wall, jumped. He stammered a non-answer until Billy interrupted.

“Princesses don’t make their own breakfast,” Billy informed her, delighting in Steve’s little outraged gasp. He rolled up his sleeves. “Everybody sit down.”

Billy had been taking care of himself since his mom left, and before that, he’d taken care of her. Making pancakes for three was a complete breeze. And if some batter ended up in Max’s hair, well, he was just out of practice.

Steve left for his second Scoops Ahoy shift around noon. He took Max, too, promising a secret passageway to the movie theater so that Billy had nothing to worry about that day besides his first session of lifeguard training. Billy had his head so far in the clouds that he actually forgot to flirt with the female guards, but the lapse didn’t bother him as much as it would have last year.

And life went on. Susan and Neil came back, but they had their jobs and Billy had his, so they drifted around each other like separate planets. Max wasted her time with her candy-colored bicycle gang, though she occasionally asked Billy for skateboarding lessons.

“I know you surfed,” she clarified when he told her he didn’t ride. His heart twisted beneath his ribs. He taught her an ollie.

Billy daydreamed about west coast waves whenever the Hawkins Community Pool became crowded, the water lapping at the manmade edges a poor copy of natural coastlines. Although the loneliness and homesickness nagged at him, he healed them with every handful of spare change he deposited in a glass jar labeled ‘Cali.’ He’d dump it and count it on days he missed Steve the most.

The hardest part was how little free time of theirs crossed over. Not only did Steve work on the other side of town; his parents hired him a tutor for whenever he wasn’t slinging ice cream in an attempt to push college again next year, and since Neil was back home, Steve had also stopped calling.

Billy assumed to skip from love confessions to complete separation would grate on anyone. If not, he was as bad at relationships as he feared he was. He spent too much time wondering how and when Steve would dump his ass, and it showed in the dark circles under his eyes.

June ended in a heat wave beyond reason. As the humidity increased, so did the pool’s population, until Billy could hardly distinguish individuals from the swimsuit-clad swarm. All but some.

Easily the most conspicuous guests, the cougars had carved out an entire row for themselves for flirting. Karen Wheeler was among them in a pink and blue one-piece, matching lipstick and nails, and newly platinum blonde hair. Billy endured the ogling with outward delight and internal discomfort. If the women ever thought his squirming was caused by pleasure, they were sorely mistaken.

Heather Holloway had the shift before his. She simpered at him whenever they switched. Once she’d attempted to stop him midway and share her phone number; without an excuse to decline a pretty, popular girl’s attention, Billy pretended he saw a kid drowning and dove in to save him. She hadn’t brought it up again.

He hadn’t seen Steve in seventeen days. He got into work managing his misery, but Karen and Heather and the idiot child lumbering down the soaking wet sidewalk turned it intolerable. Billy climbed to his post feeling like he could snap at a moment’s notice.

Minutes crept into hours. It was only the chance to yell at people that kept Billy from falling asleep behind his dark sunglasses. He shifted in the chair, trying to stretch his muscles and sort of hoping someone would have a near-death experience to break up the monotony of the day, when he saw a familiar head of hair.

Steve thought he was slick, maybe, sauntering out of the men’s locker room in red trunks and what Billy expected were some really expensive flip-flops. He wanted to blow his whistle at him. Since he didn’t have a good reason to do it, he relaxed back into his chair and waited for Steve to come to him.

“Hey, Hargrove!” Steve yelled up to the lifeguard’s perch. He grabbed a towel off the rack and slung it around his neck.

Billy looked down on him, smirking around the gum he was chewing. “Yeah, pretty boy?”

“You gonna save me if I drown?”

“No way.” He chuckled. He doubted Steve would ever submerge his precious hair unless Billy threw him in again, which he couldn’t exactly accomplish at a public pool. He supposed he should be flattered Steve was choosing this germ-infested playground over his backyard paradise. Sticking his tongue out over his teeth, Billy added, “I’d push you in further.”

“Promise?” Steve purred.

Billy crossed his legs and glared. It was Steve’s turn to chuckle, then, and he did so in his own subtle, complacent way as he navigated his way to the shallow end. With the toddlers. Where his hair would be safe. God, Billy wanted to dunk the idiot.

Steve was a distraction, bordering on a nuisance. And he was a fucking tease. Instead of noticing the roughhousing in front of him, Billy watched Steve sunbathe. He missed a runner, and almost allowed a cannonball. It was embarrassing.

It was fun at first, having a shared secret, glancing at Steve to know that as soon as he looked away, Steve would glance at him. Soon, though, there was nothing exciting about sitting a few feet away from his boyfriend if he couldn’t talk to or touch him. Sucking his teeth, Billy pondered why Steve had come at all. He seethed.

He blew his whistle to let his fellow guard know he was going on break. Steve didn’t notice. Pressing down the subsequent rage was like walking on glass, and Billy stepped hard, especially when he saw Karen react to his presence on the ground.

Billy brought her a towel, because it was polite, and because he had the brutal urge to set a match under his life and watch it burn.

He was great at flirting. Subtle or overt, or a mix of both, Billy was the master. He flexed those skills on Karen until she dropped her towel, which was when Steve detected foul play and headed over. Billy wanted to stop. He should have made his excuses and walked away. Except, those seventeen days had tested him, and he couldn’t bear a whole summer’s worth of those days. He was too attached, too close to avoid the hurt from an ending that he was almost convinced was upon him.

“I offer more advanced lessons to select clientele,” he offered Karen, leaning closer. His eyes were flat, but his smile was wicked and white, and he knew she wasn’t looking at his face, anyway.

Steve passed the pair of them at the same moment Karen proposed they meet at her house later that night. He was within earshot, but in the shadows and far away enough that Karen didn’t see his lips shake or breath catch.

“I’ll be there at eight,” Billy said, purposefully meeting Steve’s eyes.

Steve tore out of the sun and into the locker rooms so fast that if anybody noticed, they didn’t have time to get the story. The door shut with a bang like thunder, knocking Karen back into reality. Blinking at him, she winked, whispered a surreptitious farewell, and strolled back to her girlfriends. Billy hoped she wasn’t stupid enough to brag.

He finished his shift contemplating quite seriously if the fall from his stand to the concrete would kill him. He was nauseous, battling chills, and gripping his whistle tightly enough that it left red marks on his palm. The pool’s showers weren’t hot enough to burn the shame, so he drove home cold and humiliated.

Instead of eating dinner, Billy chainsmoked the rest of his pack. He was shaking as he dressed. The radio blasted, his cologne filled the air, and he was reaching for his jacket when his elbow a box in his closet, sending all the contents spilling to the floor.

Billy shoved the magazines and Steve’s underwear in and slammed the lid shut. When he went to put it away, he saw the photobooth pictures lying facedown. He squatted, lifted them by the corners, and then folded them at each border. Carefully, he tore off his favorite and put it in his wallet.

Karen opened the door wearing a gorgeous cocktail dress and an anxious frown. Seeing her really solidified Billy’s decision for him. He waited until he was invited inside, then turned to her and clapped his hands together in a gesture of penitence. “I can’t do this,” he confessed.

She stared at him, and then she laughed. It was a full bodied champagne pop of happiness, and the relief was etched all over her heavily made-up face. “Thank goodness!” she began, the sound fuller as if she could finally breathe again. “I can’t, either,” she continued, although she gestured him farther into her home.

Billy expected them to go to the kitchen again, maybe grab some more Oreos, but he was ushered into a large living room instead. The carpets were pristine, a creamy white.

“What does your husband think you’re doing right now?”

“Book club,” Karen answered. “Wine night with the gals. He took Holly to dinner.” She cleared her throat, then pointed at the couch. “Do you want a drink?”

He sat and answered, “Absolutely.”

Pouring them both double whiskeys, Karen handed his over and then collapsed next to him. He drank his in one gulp and didn’t have to ask for a refill to receive it or the one after.

“You must think so little of me,” she said eventually. “Don’t argue.”

“No, ma’am, I actually came to apologize for pushing you…”

She wagged her finger at him, drained her glass, and hissed at the residual burn. “You didn’t ‘push’ me into anything, Billy, I said yes. But then Ted was so excited to have some daddy-daughter time, and I… Well, you don’t want to hear all this.”

Maybe it was the drinks, or the nerves, but he replied, “‘Cause you love him.”

“Hmm.” She swirled her ice around. “I guess I do.”

Steve always joked that Billy’s loose tongue would get him in trouble, and it often did. Those incidents would never near the night he told Karen Wheeler, “That’s what stopped me, too.”

“What, loving Ted?” She giggled at her joke, then stopped when he didn’t laugh along. Her curious eyes turned troubled when she saw him. Whisking their glasses to the table, Karen asked him another question, but the words were faded like he was underwater.

Billy dug his elbows into his thighs, curling over his body as his muscles shook. He cursed over and over until it was nonsensical. Sweat dripped down his temples. Tasting the salt on his lips, he licked it away, then gasped as his heart dropped into his stomach. When Karen touched his back, her palm flattened between his shoulder blades, he flinched. “I can’t,” he heaved.

“Shhhh,” she whispered. Her other hand grasped his upper arm and she pulled him to her chest. “What’s wrong?”

The comfort was strange but not unwelcome. Dad’s girlfriends had never stuck around long enough to get close enough to hold him. He’d been too old when Susan came around to seek it from her, and he’d shunned all maternal affection in his life for as long as he could remember after his mother’s flight. Not that he blamed her for leaving. It was just nice, more than nice, to experience a sliver of that kind of love again. He tried to chase the feeling.

Karen made more soothing noises, rocking him back and forth with each melodious intonation. She softly repeated herself.

Billy sobbed. “I…” He closed his burning eyes, his heart racing. “I’m.” Every part of his mouth tried to stop him: his jaw clenched, his teeth bit into his tongue, and his throat tightened. The word was lodged in his chest, a living, breathing, burning hot coal, bleeding him out and drowning him in smoke. If he released it, it would tear him apart.

“You can tell me, sweetheart.” Her voice was saccharin-sweet, but not sexy, like what milk and cookies was supposed to feel like. It was full of care and genuine concern, exactly how he remembered his mom.

“I can’t!” Billy raged at her. Lashing out, he knocked her arms back for a moment before Karen wrestled him into her embrace once more. She reacted to the snot on her bare skin and the twisted position in which they sat by hugging him tighter.

He hiccuped, coughed, and groaned. The word was sharpening its claws, ready to clamber out. But Billy wouldn’t let it go so easily.

But fighting it was exhausting. Billy’s entire body thrummed with energy lost and gained, a sinister game of poker with his organs as the chips. They were tossed around, bargained for, weighed, and measured.

The word ripped its way out of his lungs in an instant that also dragged into eternity. After five shallow breaths and two attempts, Billy eventually choked out, “I’m--I’m gay .”

It hung in the air above him. Yet where he expected it to ruin him, it instead lifted iron chains from his head. The nausea came in an undercurrent rather than a tidal wave, and the fire receded into a dull ache. Such relief only lasted a minute and was followed by a long, low, agonized moan. He began to cry as he realized the pain would probably never stop.

Karen said, “Oh, God.”

“Yeah.” His response hitched in the middle as the tears flowed. It was shocking that she understood him with the way his stuttering sentences slurred. “M-my boyfriend, I. I messed up so bad. I messed up. A-and. Fuck!” He needed to break something, anything. He reached for their glasses.

Karen held him down as if she had sensed what he planned, and Billy only struggled for half a second before he sighed, defeated. Billy looked at her for the first time in awhile. Even through his own tears, he could see she was also crying. “Baby. Oh.” She pressed her fingers over her eyes; they came away smeared with mascara and glittery shadow. “You’re going to be okay.”

Billy sneered at her. “You don’t know that I won’t be. Ever.” He exhaled raggedly, then stood. “Just don’t tell anyone, okay?” Lightheaded, he moved away from her. His blood was ice in his veins. He felt like an idiot, revealing the most secret part of himself to a random, dissatisfied housewife who maybe would have fucked an eighteen year old only an hour ago. “C’mon, swear to me. Swear to me you’ll never tell anyone that I’m… about what I’m.” His voice broke, and that was all his halting breaths could manage. He waited.

“I swear.” Karen raised her hand and put the other over her heart. Then she sniffed and wiped away more tears. After she gave them both another minute to collect themselves, she asked, “Does he know you’re here? Your… boyfriend?”

Billy looked at his feet. “Yeah.”

“Go to him,” Karen murmured. “Apologize.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Billy snapped.

Her smile was all tight lips and smeared lipstick, sadness incarnate painted on her mouth. “I’m not,” she assured him. She reached onto the coffee table and then returned his car keys. Pressing them into his palm restored her strength; her shoulders straightened, the tears dried, and her mouth became a firm, resolute line. Karen Wheeler’s eyes bore a hole straight through him, daring him to do the right thing.

Billy was never one to shy away from a dare.

At 1 A.M., wrapped in fog and a pitch black, moonless sky, the Camaro tore through the night. Billy drove without music, accompanied instead by his hammering heart and the growling engine. He pushed it to 80, 90, 95. Winding along back roads, avoided speed limits and potholes, passing one abandoned building after another until the scenery blurred.

An object--or a small animal--hit the windshield at terminal velocity, sending the car wildly off-course. Billy’s arms strained as he forced the steering wheel, but it was useless; the wheels spun and his beautiful Camaro slammed sideways into a huge tree. His head snapped forward, bounced off the dashboard, and came to a rest on the seat. Once the vehicle was still, twigs and leaves rained on the roof in a disastrous chorus. Smoke rose from the engine as it sizzled.

“Fuck!” He touched his head. Although he couldn’t feel any pain, his hand came away sticky, scarlet. If that deer or whatever wasn’t already dead, he was going to kill it for messing up his baby.

He was in the midst of his hunting fantasy when he saw her. The figure was unmistakably Heather, tall and gaunt, wavy hair in a sideways ponytail. There was something wrong about her, though.

Billy shook his head to clear it, only nothing changed. Heather was walking haltingly toward the warehouse as if pulled by an invisible rope. She struggled to free herself and failed each time, her dress covered in dirt and a shiny substance almost like mucus.

Finally, whatever it was that had her attention got impatient. Heather’s body lurched, and in slow motion rose into the air. If it had been a movie, Billy would have said she was put into fast forward next; her extremities jerked at odd angles and she screamed, a low, foghorn sound that climbed in pitch to a train whistle.

Then the descent began.

“Holy shit." Delirious with shock and pain, Billy didn't even shut the car off before he leapt out and raced across the lot, blood dripping down his temples and into his open mouth as he panted and yelled.

Heather was shrieking as whatever it was dragged her into the warehouse and down the steps. "Heather! Heather!" Billy bellowed at the top of his lungs. His throat was raw with the force of it.

After ten more excruciating seconds, an unnatural silence descended upon the area. It pressed on him from all angles, deafening once the ringing started in his ears, worse when he thought he could hear Heather screaming below.

The flesh on the back of his neck prickled and his torso convulsed. Billy knew, with a flash of fear that left his mouth dry, that he was being watched. He clasped both hands over his mouth. The fog thickened.

Billy would never know how long he stood at the top of those steps. He was shaking, sweating, and squeezing his eyes shut as he whispered, “Wake up, wake up, wake up” to himself. Because warehouse abductions only happened in movies, and in the movies, the hero ran after the girl and rescued her before she got hurt.

Legs heavier than lead, Billy walked back to the Camaro. The windshield was shattered, the front and sides dented. If it didn’t start again--or if the car was actually wrapped around the tree and his addled brain and the darkness were hiding that fact from him--he would help Heather.

The Camaro sputtered, hissed, and roared to life. With one last glance in the direction of the dingy factory, Billy floored it. The grey building receded in his rearview mirror slower than he preferred, but at the same time relief was spreading, warm and welcoming in his chest, as soon as the mill disappeared beyond the treeline.

He knew it made him the bad guy, that relief. It bottled up and booted out all the despair and guilt so that Billy could focus on a singular goal: save Billy. And he told himself it was to stay alive and find help, which didn’t exactly work after he threw himself onto his bed, covers drawn up and clothes still on. The blood could wait. Fuck it, his precious car could wait. All he wanted was to sleep, and that was exactly what he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I won’t pay to fix this, understand? What did you do, drive drunk?” Neil Hargrove stood with his hands on his hips in front of the damaged Camaro. He shook his head. “You disappoint me, son.”

Billy stood beside him, nursing a headache and biting his tongue. “I didn’t,” he replied quietly. Although he could smell stale whiskey on his breath, he would never tell his father that. He could barely remember the previous night, or even how he got home.

The morning sunshine was far too radiant. He squinted at the broken windshield, at the cracked pavement, the crooked mailbox, the dingy house. Wearing a swimsuit, Max watched from the open door. Billy was supposed to take her to the pool during his shift, but Susan had seen the car and expressed concern about her daughter’s safety.

Billy found it laughable that it had taken a minor accident and not the years of Max complaining about Billy’s speeding to cause that conversation.

He went back inside and brushed his teeth two times. After splashing water over his head and chest, he looked into the mirror and examined the new cut. The face that looked back at him was gaunt, with flat blue eyes and deep bags underneath. He reached up to touch the bruise blossoming on his forehead and watched Mirror-Billy do the same.

It was a doubled pain, like two hands pressing the purple-red blot; he cursed his reflection and it sneered back at him and pressed harder. Dropping his hand, Billy stared into the glass until he could reconcile echo and body. It took longer than he would have liked. His brain was pulsing, drum-like, behind his eyes.

“C’mon Max!” he called on his way out. Susan and Neil, frowning and scowling respectively, allowed them to leave with a warning.

Billy deflected all of Max’s questions by finding the rock station on the radio and turning the volume as high as possible. He drummed on the steering wheel. Max shouted over it for less than a minute before she coughed and turned her attention to the passing trees.

Ushering Max into the ladies’ locker room, Billy swallowed down a bout of nerves when he caught sight of Karen Wheeler. She detected him easily enough, and her face turned white upon noticing his fresh gash. Then she beckoned him over to the picnic tables; Billy bent his head toward the supply closet instead, and they went his way.

“What happened?” she asked as soon as the door was closed.

Billy gritted his teeth. He stared at the rows of chemicals, his eyes scanning the listed components with detached interest. Anything was better than letting someone fuss over him again, than wearing his heart on his sleeve, than allowing her to care. Billy hated himself for telling her. Gripping the metal racks with unsteady hands, he just didn’t answer.

Karen touched his shoulder. It was feather-light and gone in a flash, which almost made Billy think he’d imagined it. His mind had plenty of tricks on him the night before, after all. He closed his eyes.

“I know you’re scared,” she murmured. “Come talk to me. Anytime.”

He waited a few minutes after she left to walk out again. The locker room was nearly empty as he changed into his guard uniform and slipped his whistle onto his neck. Every move he made hurt so much he could barely focus. Stumbling into the pool area, he locked eyes with Max, saluted her mockingly, and took his post.

Then he saw Heather Holloway.

Billy nearly fell off his seat when Heather approached, chewing bubblegum and saying hello in her usual chipper voice. There was no blood or dirt or slime. Her skin was a little damp, maybe from a dip in the water to cool off during the sweltering afternoon shift, and she held an ice pack to the back of her neck. Otherwise, she was the same Heather as always: brown doe eyes, frizzy ponytail, and the flirtatious smile she used to greet Billy.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she teased, tapping her fingernails on his leg. “Oh!” she exclaimed, withdrawing when Billy flinched, nearly kicking her in the chest.

He mumbled, “Sorry,” despite the apathy settling inside him. If Heather was safe, then he could return to mostly ignoring her. The actual concern was why his drunken, injured brain had started hallucinating her alien abduction.

Three hours later--or, more accurately, one hour of happy Max and two hours of Max dragging her feet and griping about toddlers and time wasted--Billy was back in the locker room spritzing on his Estée Lauder cologne and feeling like a virgin on prom night. Admiring his arms and ass in the mirror, he hoped Steve might focus on those assets instead of turning Billy away. He didn’t know what he’d do if Steve rejected his apology, although downing the bleach he’d seen earlier was an entertaining option.

Max was excited yet suspicious about their surprise mall detour. Frequently during the drive she opened her mouth to ask why they were going, but she never did. She might have been scared Billy was going to crash them if she distracted him; his head pounded incessantly, and he kept closing his eyes and swerving when the pain reached its peak. Neil had told him they wouldn’t waste the hospital bill on the injury, though, so no stitches or scans for Billy, just the possibility of a concussion and the stubborn refusal to accept Susan’s home remedies.

Parked crookedly and patched with duct tape, the Camaro was a sorry sight next to the various clean and colorful vehicles in the mall lot. The only thing Billy had to boast about was the California plate, advertising in bright yellow and blue that he didn’t belong to this despondent town. That small comfort bolstered him enough to enter Starcourt.

He started shaking the closer he got to Scoops Ahoy. Beside him, Max silently took his hand, squeezed it, and released. Billy told himself the only reason he didn’t demand she fuck off was because his lungs had decided to deprive him of all oxygen once he saw Steve through the large plexiglass windows. She read the hint in his eyes, but hugged him before she left.

A miraculously unfired Steve had freed his hair from the company hat. It stuck up at staggering heights, which meant he’d been pulling at it throughout the day, no gloves. Robin was nowhere to be found. The Sinclair girl loitered in roller skates, five different sample spoons in her hand and more in her friends’. Dustin Henderson was there, too, but behind the counter and jabbering at Steve with wild gesticulations to match.

And Steve looked miserable, slinging ice cream with a blank expression, tired eyes, and little more than a muttered ‘welcome’ to his customers. He groaned whenever the counter bell dinged. Even his gaggles of teenage admirers were unimpressed.

Billy breathed, and Billy smiled like a caged animal on display. He kept his head down as he advanced. There was humility there, laced with the heavy, sickening knife that was his regret, stabbing repeatedly between his ribs until his sides cramped.

The line was long enough that Billy could hide within it, and short enough that he couldn’t shield himself with strangers forever. He focused on the words he’d practiced silently during his lifeguarding shift, and when that overwhelmed him, he listened to the sparkling piano melody on the loudspeakers. Because nothing said ice cream like a bastardized mashup of sailor songs and kids’ cartoon jams.

Robin’s unintelligible voice carried out through the red window panes. In all his high-pitched, straining glory, Dustin shouted back, “What!” He and Steve--mood apparently bolstered by that task--were opening the small window and listening to Robin when Billy reached the counter.

He wasn’t scared to get Steve’s attention, not at all. It just would have been rude to ring the bell or pull him away from the obviously important task with a child and coworker. The people in line behind him tapped their feet and cleared their throats pointedly, and still Billy didn’t budge.

The problem was that when Steve met Billy’s eyes, his heart stopped. His veins ran hot with kerosene, and Steve’s small smile was the spark. Billy said, “Hey,” because he didn’t know what else to do.

“Hey yourself.” Steve dragged Dustin by the shirt collar to the register and handed him his ice cream scooper in an impressive flip. “Take the money, scoop the stuff.”

Dustin protested animatedly, so Steve shut him up by throwing the uniform hat on his head and giving him a look that clearly meant, deal with it. Then he waved Billy to the back room, much to the chagrin and bafflement of the other customers, including the very vocal Sinclair sister. The boys paid her no mind. Her complaints were blocked by the kitchen doors, anyway.

Billy was relieved to find the recording of Steve’s failed exploits replaced by the alphabet and another collection of symbols that he didn’t recognize. Stopping in front of it, he almost spoke before he realized they weren't alone. Robin sat at a small table, her head down, palms pressed against the two sides of a giant headphone set. She squinted at a notepad between her elbows, and though she was physically present, Billy had no doubts her mind was miles away.

He stepped closer to Steve. “I’m an asshole,” he admitted.

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “You sure are.”

Billy huffed, continuing slowly so Steve could interrupt if he needed to. “Nothing happened, please believe that. Nothing. I freaked out and I used Karen to hurt you, and then I… couldn’t go through with it.” He smiled wryly. “But I guess you figured that out, huh?”

“What changed?” Steve shifted and closed the remaining distance between them as if their bodies were magnetized, attracted and attracting because it was their sole purpose. His eyes darted only once to Robin before he held Billy’s face in his hands.

“I did.” Billy’s chest swelled, so full of love for Steve and loathing for himself. Remembering the night he told Steve about California, when the words seemed to flow on their own, unhindered by all his regret and nerves, he pressed onward. “I’m a fucking coward, but I can change. I’m changing every day, and it’s because of you, Steve… I know it’s not fair for me to ask you to fix me, but you are, and I’m asking you to hold on a little longer, if you can.” Billy dug his nails into his palms. He knew he shouldn’t expect Steve to forgive him, but he wanted it. He would have killed for it.

Steve nodded simply and sincerely, and it was as if all of Billy’s bad deeds in the last 48 hours were wiped clean. Billy wondered how many passes he’d be allowed before Steve would tire of this constant state of near-implosion. Wishing the fear and fury away, he brushed his knuckles over his forehead, forgetting about the bruise until pain seared through his skull.

Steve stepped away only to return with an ice pack wrapped in a red, white, and blue towel. He handed it to Billy, who held it to his forehead gratefully while he studied Steve’s face, memorizing the shape of his lips and all the different expressions one eyebrow could make. After a minute he took one hand off the ice pack to frown and complain, “Feel how cold this is.”

“It’s ice, Billy--”

Billy plunged his freezing hand underneath Steve’s shirt and onto his hard, flat, warm stomach. Steve practically squealed as he wiggled, and cursed endlessly about the prank, but he also wrapped his fingers around Billy’s wrist and refused to remove his hand. Billy scraped his blunt fingernails down the skin he could reach. Steve hummed appreciatively.

By that point, Robin noticed them; she shoved the headphones around her neck and threw her hands up. A harsh foreign language looped distantly from the hollow of her throat.

“Dingus,” she said, “who’s at the counter?” Her eyes swept curiously over Billy and his wound while he hastily retreated from his boyfriend.

Cowed, Steve jerked his arm toward the open window toward Dustin. The toothless kid was arguing with Erica about milkshake sizes, and customers exited in droves. Billy half-expected Steve to quit then and there. Instead, he straightened his uniform and murmured, “I have to go back to work.”

“Damn.” Billy’s hands ached to rumple that collar again. “I just got off.”

“I hope not without me.”

Billy laughed and bit the inside of his cheek. Turning away to hide his blush, he replied, “Shut up.” He didn’t dare risk a kiss goodbye, so he held his hand up in a pitiful imitation of a wave and asked, “Doesn’t this hallway go to the movies?”

“Yeah, but--”

Laughing, Billy shoved the door open with his shoulders and whisked himself away to whatever was playing on the silver screen that day. He barely paid attention to it. Instead, he daydreamed about Steve; he imagined his goofy smile, hands itching to get under that sailor uniform, and hoped that Steve was thinking about him in the same way while they were once again apart.

An idea struck just as the credits rolled. Billy grabbed a half-finished, abandoned Slurpee from an empty seat, took off the lid, and drank it while he wove his way through the aisles and people. He had to get all the way across the mall to get back to his car, but the walk gave him time to think.

“Is this crazy?” Billy asked the Camaro. When the engine turned over, it purred, hardly reminiscent of the accident’s agony. Billy took it as a good sign. “Thanks,” he said, patting the dash.

At home, with his door closed and the radio blasting The Cars, he stood in front of the mirror and lifted his shirt above his hips, then held the material in his teeth so he could push down his waistband. Billy smoothed his thumb over his skin and thought the spot next to his hipbone looked too damn empty.

Billy had to borrow some money from his California fund, which sent his stomach rolling with guilt and despair, but all of that disappeared when he walked into the tattoo parlor. He sat on a plush couch, his leg bouncing, and spun Steve’s ring around his middle finger while waiting. The metal was warm, comforting.

“Back so soon?” the girl at the counter--Amy, if he remembered correctly--asked. She was covered head-to-toe in ink, with a black diamond on her cheek. Its parallel was a sapphire diamond piercing under her left eye. “What’ya want this time?”

“Initials.”

“Oooh, mommy? Girlfriend?”

Billy smiled wolfishly, running his tongue across his top teeth. “Close.”

“Alright, keep your secrets, mullet-man. Dan can take you in the back.”

It hurt more than the last, especially with the needle dragging close to his bone, but he was so accustomed to pain by that point in his life that he endured it with a quick inhale preceding total silence. Despite the irritated red around the letters, the dark black S.H. was stark and sharp. Billy stared at it until he had memorized the shape, then traced it gently overtop the bandage once it was wrapped.

Billy tipped his artist and took the tattoo care pamphlet. He arrived at Cherry Lane with a significantly lighter wallet and a similarly buoyant heart, one that he would not allow to be burdened again by Neil Hargrove, who demanded Billy’s whereabouts the minute his son walked in the door.

“Where have you been? I see you left your car a mess. What will people think of you? Of me?” He followed Billy to his room.

Billy stood in the middle of the floor, chin raised, eyes wild. “I don’t give a shit what people think of you.”

“You watch your mouth.”

“Or what?” Billy squared his posture, digging his heels into the carpet and cracking his knuckles. The tattoo burned like a source of power on his skin. “OR WHAT!” he screamed. From Max’s room he heard hasty feet and a creaking door.

Neil didn’t raise his fist or voice. Rather, with dead eyes and flat pitch he answered, “I’ve looked into some military academies for you. Change your act or I’ll send you to a place where they can fix it for you.”

Blood rushed Billy’s ears. He looked at his father, really looked: the greying hair, blue eyes they shared, calloused hands, the smug victory illustrated on the deep lines of his face that not even a scraggly beard and mustache could hide. Billy detected no empty threats; there was only the same severity in his expression that he’d worn the moment he held a lit cigarette against Billy’s shoulder and told him, “only faggots cry.”

He felt that his heart had been dragged over broken seashells and unweathered glass. But he would not tremble. Keeping his body still, he also kept his mouth shut because he was certain that was what Neil wanted. Submission, not defiance, was the key to survival in Billy’s household.

Neil did not close Billy’s door. He left it wide open, and in a minute, Max appeared in the opening. She had a teddy bear in her arms and a no-nonsense look on her freckled face. “It’s past ten,” she told him, with a yawn for emphasis. “Go to bed.”

“Get out,” he growled. She stood her ground. Billy stared at her, dumbfounded, before his brain connected all the pieces. “At least turn around while I change.”

Max did as asked, sending mild complaints over her shoulder about how long it was taking. Billy wanted to retort that he usually slept without any clothes on, and how this was a courtesy, but he held his tongue.

Once he was in sweatpants and a tank top, he hauled himself into his bed. Max heard it and marched straight over. Looking up at her was peculiar, as was getting manhandled by his little sister; Max arranged his limbs to make room for herself, then crawled into the bed beside him. Like a cat, she’d made her comfort the priority and expected Billy to deal with it.

She squeezed his midriff tight. And Billy, whose mind and heart had been racing, closed his eyes and slept. Max made him sleep late, too, only allowing smoke breaks when the sun filtered his room in a dreamy yellow.

Billy usually went to sleep with his arms curled around his shoulders and his knees drawn to his chest, and he usually woke splayed as wild as roadkill. With Max taking up half the bed, he wound up flat on his stomach with one tingling arm bent underneath him. He blinked against the brightness, eyelashes crusted with dried tears. Beside him, Max was sitting with her back to his headboard, reading Wonder Woman comics.

They got up with stomachs growling and argued over the last serving of Lucky Charms , which was settled by the discovery of another box in the pantry. Ravenous, Billy took out half the box in one go. Max taught him how to fight with spoons as if they were lightsabers. Billy helped her clean their dishes, then dressed for work.

His boss was skeptical about the long sleeves. “It’s 98 degrees, Hargrove.”

Billy thought that was pretty rich considering the guy was lounging indoors with a fan and no sun in sight. He had a tattoo to protect and forgot to do his laundry, but he wasn’t about to volunteer that information. So he stood with his arms crossed and waited to be dismissed.

Heather loomed over the pool manager’s shoulder, her hungry eyes undressing Billy where he stood. Her scrutiny was heavier than when the summer began, fiercer and much less guarded, bordering on animalistic. Billy possessed the distinct impression that she wanted to devour him. Her claws in their boss’ bicep weren’t helping alleviate that feeling, either.

“What are you, my mother?” Billy grabbed an extra towel so he could look away from Heather. “I’ll be sure to blow my whistle before I pass out.”

His manager sighed. “Just don’t forget you’re closing tonight.”

If there was more, Billy didn’t  hear it. Billy saluted both coworkers with his middle finger before he carried on his way toward the circus that was the community pool. He made his usual rounds scanning for reckless activity, greeting Karen and company, and settling into his guard chair. Laughter abounded, bubbling into the air along with the happy shrieks of playing children. Brightly colored suits stuck out against the pale blue of the water or the pale yellow of the sidewalk. Chlorine and sweat permeated the air in such a specific combined scent that they nearly overtook the wafts of sunscreen and hairspray. Billy discounted it initially, but there was also something rotten in the air that he couldn’t place, and it was getting closer.

Heather wrapped her hand around his ankle. Her palm was clammy and cold, and with her body that close to his he realized the sickly floral smell belonged to her, clinging to her neck like perfume. Her veins pulsed dark purple.

“H-hey,” Billy said. He cleared his throat. “I thought your shift was over.”

Her fingers were on his calf. “Why don’t you come by after you close?” Heather suggested. From her ponytail she plucked a marker, which she used to write her number on his knee. “Let me know what time.”

Billy wrenched her wrist from midair and held on tight. “Never,” he snarled. “Don’t come near me again, Heather.”

“You’re hurting me,” she whined. The voice was correct, hitched and thick as syrup, but her eyes were lifeless. Another whimpered plea accompanied a pleased grin. Her fever sizzled right through Billy’s fingers.

He released her, the corners of his mouth turned down as he muttered, “What the hell?” at her retreating, almost swaggering form. Shivering, he plucked at his sleeves absentmindedly, winding loose threads around his fingertips. He could hear her complacent laugh behind his eyes whenever he closed them.

The temperature climbed well past 98. Even sitting under the umbrella while wearing all white was excruciating; Billy wanted to dive in the pool and sink to the bottom, or strip and lay inside a freezer. Sweat curled his hair into ringlets, his lips tasted of salt whenever he licked them, and someone was taking a sledgehammer to his brain. He knew his shirt was soaked through because women--and a fair share of men--stared too long.

Billy left his perch to grab an ICEE from the snack bar, winking at the cashier so he could get it free of charge. She was lovely, with dark, voluminous hair that reminded him enough of a different face to make flirting a breeze. He also stole an unfortunately oversized cap from the lost and found bin. It was black but it kept his face in the shade.

Returning to the chair, he disbanded a few chickenfights and scolded the same runners until he had to ban one. The ensuing drama with the boy’s parents was entertaining and involved a lot of shouting, so Billy’s day was significantly improved by the time he blew the last whistle and told everyone to beat it. The people who liked him left promptly, the people who disliked him straggled petulantly, and the people who really liked him lingered in the hopes of Billy flashing a smile their way.

Billy played along. He twirled his whistle in his hands, bit his bottom lip, mussed his own curls. They got their show and he got an empty pool by closing time. Following the last family and their cart of inflatable animals, he told them to have a safe ride home and then locked the gate behind them.

He collected forgotten items, folded stray towels, and fixed the chair arrangements. He only paused in these duties to watch the sunset. It was not as extraordinary in the Midwest as on the coast, though he loved it anyway. Gold and orange burned in an arc, shimmering and blurring on the horizon. A wisp of crimson remained longer than the rest until it too was swallowed by the navy blue night. Billy breathed in and out. His body was completely still, his eyes blinking slowly, while his brain collaged together all the sunsets he’d witnessed with Steve Harrington.

Thinking of Steve was like eating ice cream; it was sweet while it lasted, and he regretted it after. After he finished cleaning some more of the pool area, he went to his locker and flipped open his wallet. Stroking his thumb over the picture of him and Steve brought a small smile to his otherwise dismal features

He showered in the stalls since it was cheaper than using up the water at home. Heather’s number smudged into an ugly black line until he scrubbed his knee raw to erase it completely. As the sweat sluiced off his skin, he rolled his shoulders and opened his mouth under the spray. He waited until after his body revisited his time with Steve in the Hawkins gym to clean himself completely.

Billy collected more towels and clothing while wearing flip-flops and a short towel around his waist. It confused him that people could leave things like shirts, glasses, and even jewelry behind. He held on to everything he owned with his teeth and would let something go with bite marks in it. He couldn’t afford not to.

Opening his locker again, Billy let the door slam against the others in the row. The loud metal bang echoed through the empty room. He barely bothered to dry off before he jumped into his jeans, staring at the items in his locker without seeing them. The thought of going home covered his tongue in an acrid taste which he grimaced against while he reached for his shirt, though yet another clanging sound drew his attention away from his closing routine.

“Pool’s closed,” he said, flat and firm. He must not have locked the place properly.

The door screeched shut. Billy’s patience snapped in an instant; the rage boiling underneath his skin burst out through his lungs and into the air as he shouted, “Hey!” and slammed the locker door into place.

When Billy reached the door, he slapped his palms against it only to find the lock intact and not even a sliver of a gap to slip through. His heart pounded. A siren wailed in his ears as he stalked back to the benches, sweat accumulating between his shoulder blades. Unwillingly, he flashed back to the night he saw Heather fight an invisible monster.

But that was just a nightmare. He knew that as certainly as he knew someone was in the pool now, cutting the lights and running rampant.

“Billy!” His name echoed in a child’s taunt.

Fury growled in the pit of Billy’s stomach as he realized it must be some kids’ prank. Well, they had no idea who they were fucking with. There was a cold animosity festering inside of him and it showed in his raised fists and murderous blue eyes. Billy didn’t want to have it in him to hurt a kid, but he thought he might already be failing that test with each slow, stalking step he took toward the source.

The laughter was the final straw. “I find you, it’s your funeral,” Billy threatened. They knew the risk of messing with the infamous Hargrove boy. Everyone knew what he’d done to Steve the year prior, knew all the run-ins with Hawkins police and scrapes at school parties. He ruled the community pool with an iron whistle.

So it wasn’t murder. It was the kid’s suicide.

He thought he recognized the voice. His pendant struck his chest as his pace quickened and his muscles tensed, a wolf closing in for… he wasn’t sure, exactly. He wasn’t going to kill anyone, although the rabid smile pulling at his lips declared otherwise when he spotted a figure in the sauna.

“Got you.”

Billy cackled, clapped, and hoped it was terrifying enough that the kid would bolt before things got out of hand. Because Billy was ramped up and ready to tear down all the good he’d built in the town. That night was about to not end well for anyone involved, and he couldn’t care less as he tore open the heavy door.

A mannequin stared at Billy, its jacket as red as the haze which colored Billy’s vision. His chest heaving, Billy grabbed its neck and held it high, his gaze drawn to the black walkie-talkie taped to its plastic chest. “Behind you,” the box whispered. Billy barely had time to turn around before a small girl in a neon-patterned shirt greeted him and presumably pushed him, except that Billy was flying backwards like he’d been hit by a train and all she had done was move her head.

Tile and wood shattered with the impact of his body. Billy groaned, nursing his ribs and trying to decipher words beyond the interference from the noise in his head. Righting himself, he dashed toward the door only to be immediately trapped by it.

All the fire was overtaken with ice when Billy saw his attackers. He recognized a majority of them once they stood together: Byers, Wheeler, fucking Sinclair, and his sister. Max trembled next to Neon Girl, who was calmly wiping away a bloody nose and looking at Billy the way he knew he was looking at her and her gang.

He tried to crush the pain because he’d always found it easier to substitute hurt with hate, abuse with anger. Unfortunately, his heart wouldn’t cooperate with the demand, and his glare crumpled into sullen bewilderment the more he studied Max. He said her name.

 

Eyes hard, she said something that made Byers run to the temperature control and dial it, though which direction Billy could not tell from his tiny square of sight. He pounded that glass with his fist and begged his sister to let him out.

Not receiving an ounce of sympathy from her, Billy switched tactics. He addressed the group, throwing insults and spitting vitriol until at least some shock or panic registered on their faces.

“You little shits think this is funny?” he asked them. He could feel hysteria nudging its way into the spaces left by enmity and anguish, even eating at them so that his breath hitched and his voice climbed higher than the rising temperature.

But it deepened again as his pleas went unanswered. “Open the goddamn door!” he yelled. The sound was a ninety foot wave breaking a surfboard into a thousand pieces.
Neil and Susan had raised one heartless bitch, he figured, since Max’s face was fiercely determined and unflinchingduring the episodes of appeals and admonishments alike. Billy collapsed, then, exhausted, discouraged, and at a loss for what could possibly gain his freedom. The heat was more than unbearable; he could feel it choking him, melting him, his skin almost growing a new layer made entirely of sweat. The wrapping on his tattoo was peeling off and he pressed it back to his hip.

Above the drilling noise inside his brain he heard Sinclair call him a monster.

So they knew about him. He feared they that meant they knew about Steve, too, which made Billy claw desperately at the fragmented floor. Blood burst from his palms where his skin caught steam-cloaked pieces. He heard more snippets of the kids’ conversation: flayed, fever, and he could guess the other f-word. Billy tried to tell them they were wrong, that he was as normal as the rest of them, but he was gagging on the tears streaming down his face.

The worst part was the certainty that Max had spilled his secret, that she had been lying to him for weeks about accepting him. Billy curled over himself in the white-hot furnace in which he was being held, almost delirious from the heat. He dry-heaved, then spoke once he could manage it.

“It’s not my fault,” he whimpered. He repeated the sentence like a prayer. “I’ve done things, Max. Really… bad things.” Billy closed his eyes and saw Jack’s twisted arm, and all those boys in high school, guys in bars, Susie Elliot and the rest of the casual fucks and heartbreaks and broken bones. He saw Steve’s battered, bloody face, a remnant of one of the worst nights of Billy’s life.

Maybe the punishment fit those past crimes, but Billy would not lie down and suffer for the love he felt in the present. He dragged his arm across the ground until his fingers clutched a large, broken shard. His head rested on the bench and he moved that to draw her eye.

Max soothed him from her spot at the door. “We’ll figure it out together, okay?” she said. 

Billy wanted to spit in her face. Hurtling toward her at top speed, he carried his fist to the window, expecting enough impact to worry them into setting him free. Instead, his hand broke straight through. Glass shattered, blood splattered, and his scream bit through the silence in a violent crescendo.

The assholes had chained in him in. Aided by adrenaline, Billy reached down and twisted the metal bar loose, his teeth ripping at his lips as he screamed at Max. Phlegm, blood, and perspiration sprayed around him. He threw himself against the door hard enough to bruise his ribs, and even harder until he heard one crack.

Momentarily stunned, Billy stumbled backwards, and further still when Lucas launched a pebble directly to his forehead. His skull hit the floor first, followed by his shoulders. White light seared across his vision. Motionless, he grunted and groaned, willing his legs to muster the strength to stand even as they begged for reprieve.

Eventually, the rage running through Billy’s bloodstream was the catalyst he needed to jump to his feet. The quick movement left him dizzy and he used the wall to steady himself. His head was ringing, and he squeezed his eyes shut, his body convulsing involuntarily, the corded muscles of his arms spasming, his knees jerking. He roared and charged the door again while the lights overhead flared.

The door whined as its hinges strained. Billy grunted. Steam floated through the small space he’d made between the door and wall. His shoulders heaved as he returned to the bench, then took another running leap at the heavy metal. The kids had formed a circle with Neon Girl at the forefront as some sort of protector. Billy grinned maniacally, wondering how she thought she had a chance against a man who was about to break through literal chains.

Billy’s throat was torn raw, but he continued screaming, grounding the sound deep in his chest as he pushed with all his might against the sauna door. When he finally broke through, the kids scattered. Neon Girl was the only one who stood her ground. Breathing heavily, Billy cocked his head at her curiously and considered fighting her, if she wanted to be so reckless as to challenge him. The exit was right there, though. He stepped toward it.

Someone threw an entire barbell at him. Out of the corner of Billy’s eye, it seemed as if the barbell threw itself, but that was impossible. He caught it deftly even as it carried him to the opposite wall and pinned him against the bricks.

And then Billy was certain Sinclair’s pebble had done more damage than expected, because Neon Girl gritted her teeth at Billy and suspended him in midair. His feet dangled above the floor, his collarbone ached where the iron weights pressed, and the brick suffered, too, cracking and piling dust onto Billy’s damp shoulders.

The barbell climbed higher, crushing Billy’s windpipe. His white-knuckled grip was beginning to lapse. Where his effort was nearly spent, or at least subdued while he recovered, the girl’s power and ferocity only increased. Some irrational part of Billy thought she was responsible for the strobing lights and the whistling pipes.

He strained to lift the bar away from himself. Despite all of his strength, he could only move it inches away from his throat before it returned. Billy screamed.

The girl screamed as well, blood gushing from her nose. The pain must have been overwhelming; her split-second of closed eyes gave Billy the time he needed to throw the barbell toward her and escape whatever bound him to the bricks. Neon girl gasped and shrieked and crawled quickly away, but Billy was faster. He dragged her by her stupid ponytail, then wrenched her head back so he could look into her wide, terrified brown eyes.

Billy felt as if he was watching his body from the outside. He moved, and all of his senses told him he was awake and in control, that he didn’t want to wrap his fingers around the girl’s neck, and he did it anyway. Because he could. Because seeing Max set a group of teenagers on him made him feral.

Wheeler swept in with a crowbar, striking Billy’s back. Turning on Wheeler, Billy grinned slowly, licked his lips, and drew back his elbow. He couldn’t even swing before his body jerked once more above the ground.

It felt like hooks in his stomach, like spinning around a Gravitron made of needles. He coughed up a thick combination of blood and saliva. His brain was still attempting to explain how he was hovering, though it was coming up with less viable solutions every second he remained afloat under Neon Girl’s influence. Unable to speak, he wailed instead, his neck spasming with the almost unnatural angle he’d twisted it into.

Max wasn’t even crying. Billy fought hard against the invisible pressure in order to look at his sister. She held on tightly to Lucas’ wrist. Billy resented every act of affection between them when his own had been deemed deserving of assault.

“Why?” Billy asked her.

She stepped forward. The hold on Billy lessened somewhat, enough that he could breathe without pain. He turned, but not by his own volition; Neon Girl was controlling him with either her hands or mind. Billy couldn’t decide which was stranger.

“There are these monsters, these, um.” Lucas tried to shush Max and she shook him off. “Y’know, beasts. Living inside humans.”

Billy’s laugh was a short bark of disbelief. “Like fucking Poltergeist ? Give me a break.” As soon as he said it, the pressure returned. His limbs swayed or constricted, following the same pattern as the girl’s hands as they flexed or tensed. Billy gasped as the force reached his chest again and squeezed his organs.

He glanced between the kids. Realization came in waves, and beyond the confusion was relief. They were serious about the monsters. “And you think I’m one of them?” he clarified evenly.

Billy dropped. His ankles gave out instantly and he tripped, saving himself halfway to the floor.

“I feel him, though.” Byers argued. He clutched the back of his neck and shivered.

Narrowing his eyes, Billy advanced on Hawkins’ resident weirdo. He curled his lip. “You ‘feel’ me?” he sneered.

“Not you.” The kid’s eyes were piercing as he regarded Billy like he could see right through him. “The Flayer.” He flattened his palm over Billy’s heart. “I feel the Mindflayer. Just not in you.”

“No.” Max shook her head rapidly, then jutted one finger toward him. “He’s always disappearing, and, and, I found blood in his room--”

“You know where I go,” Billy snarled, eyes dark and teeth bared as he stalked over to and loomed over his little sister. “You know where that blood comes from.” Too many hits from Neil and not enough money for laundry meant the stains stayed. Max must have noticed them the night she slept over. Billy turned to the whole group, arms outspread and chest puffed, daring another attack. “There are plenty of monsters in this town, you little bastards, and I’m not the worst of ‘em.”

Billy leaned over to cradle his cracked ribs. His abdomen was a canvas of black and blue. After a last, scathing look at Max, Billy limped away past the party, knowing they wouldn’t try to stop him.

The pool’s first-aid kit was a sorry substitute for the ER, but it would do. Billy had patched himself and his mom up enough times to know exactly what he needed: gauze, tape, ice. He stole all of them and threw them in the passenger seat along with the shirt and shoes he’d retrieved from his locker.

He stared at the key in his hands much longer than necessary. Realizing idly that his two recent head wounds meant he shouldn’t be driving, he started the car. His hands shook violently on the wheel and he kept having to wipe the sweat off his palms onto his already sweat-soaked jeans.

Billy drove out of the parking lot in a state of total shock. He needed to find a long, straight stretch of road to just cruise and think. The night was drenched in fog, and the patches of light cast from lamposts shone like ethereal beings smashed into the pavement. Mesmerized, Billy almost drifted off into the shoulder until he slammed in a cassette and focused on the guitar. Whenever he nodded his head to the beat, a chill ran the length of his spine. He felt sluggish and slow, his reaction time to red lights and stop signs way too delayed.

It had been simple to discount Heather’s abduction as a nightmare. Billy preferred that narrative to the one where he left Heather to… what? Not to die, obviously. He wasn’t sure what to call it, and pondered it further as his foot floored the gas pedal.

Monsters existed, but they were all human. The fairytales and alien flicks and stories about beasts were as fictional as Santa Claus, and told for the same reasons: to keep kids happier at night. Of course, Billy had never believed in Santa.

He was turning into a long, perfectly paved driveway before he really registered where the road had taken him. The Harrington house’s windows were lit both upstairs and downstairs in what Billy knew were the master bedroom and living room. Steve’s curtains were drawn, and Billy considered climbing the drainpipe before the nausea warned him against it.

Billy winced as he pulled his shirt overhead. His ribs hurt the worst, and he sucked in a few piercing, shallow breaths before he could muster the strength to finish dressing them using the stolen medical supplies. Looking in the rearview mirror, he tousled and twisted his curls until they hid the welt caused by Sinclair’s slingshot. Then he put his shirt back on and plastered on his best meet-the-parents smile, all processed sugar and flattery that didn’t reach his eyes.

“Can we help you, son?”

They were a couple out of a magazine, him in a blue polo and her in a pink shirt dress and matching kitten heels. Steve had his mother’s hair and eyes, and his father’s build. Billy found himself scrutinizing them more than speaking, and had to be jerked back into reality with a smooth, “You’re a friend of Steve’s, I take it.”

There were a thousand different responses to that assumption clambering over one another in Billy’s addled brain; every variation of yes and no and actually, his boyfriend or more like the guy that almost killed him warred at the tip of his tongue. Eventually he sufficed with, “Yeah. Is he.” He was having trouble stringing together his words with a mouth full of metallic cotton. “Is he home? I need to talk to him.”

Mr. Harrington crossed his arms and shifted so that his wife had to step behind him. “It’s almost midnight. What’s this about?”

Billy’s plastic grin faltered. The pain was draining the energy he usually reserved for bullshitting people. The Harringtons were blurry, too, and Billy wasn’t sure if it was him or the ground that was tilting. The exhaustion that had been creeping up steadily now hit him with the force of a sledgehammer, and his arm dropped from the doorframe back to his side, swinging as if all the bones had shattered inside.

“He came home, right?” Billy asked, pulse racing.

Mrs. Harrington put her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “John,” she whispered.

“Does he owe you drug money, is that it?” Mr. Harrington didn’t raise his voice, but it was no longer the polite tone with which he had greeted Billy.

“You think I’m a drug dealer?”

The man snorted. “Earring, long hair, bum clothes.” His gaze slid past Billy toward the Camaro. “Smashed-up vanity car. It adds up, boy.” He reached into his wallet and withdrew a crisp hundred-dollar bill. “That should take care of his debt.”

Billy’s hands remained rooted in his jeans pockets. His mouth slanted into something unflinchingly amused and dark enough that both parents retreated farther behind their threshold. Billy remembered the way he’d barreled past that doorway with his tongue down their son’s throat and his hands down their son’s pants. He bet that’d be more horrifying to them than the marijuana.

Mrs. Harrington’s eyes were wide. “He owes more?” She gaped, then clapped a manicured hand over her mouth. John Harrington went to withdraw more bills from his thick leather wallet.

Perturbed by their idiocy, Billy blew out a hot breath and said, “Jesus Christ, relax. This isn’t about weed.” He chuckled when the drug’s name made her recoil. His tone softened when he thought about Steve coming home to scary stories about strangers with bad attitudes. “Just… tell him I dropped by, please.”

He smoked the last couple cigarettes in his pack leaning against the Camaro door and watching the Harrington house from across the street. Steve never showed. He wrapped his ribs tighter, paced, and iced his forehead.

And Steve never showed.

Worry gnawed at Billy’s gut like a starving animal. Even the nicotine couldn’t ease his anxiety. Steve could be in trouble. It was a good possibility that the nerd squad could be interrogating Steve about their delusional theory, with or without the amount of violence they’d extended to Billy.

Jumping in the Camaro, Billy created a mental list of the places in Hawkins they could be, and it was a long-ass list. He swore. He assaulted his dashboard and steering wheel with his open hands until his bones ached and his skin stung. Overwhelmed, he sank into the driver’s side seat with the car in neutral and his chin resting on his bruised knees. His fingernails dug into denim, sending shivers up his spine as if his pants were a chalkboard instead.

Billy looked beyond the cobweb pattern of cracks on his windshield and could just make out John Harrington’s silhouette in the downstairs window. If Billy didn’t leave soon, the overly suspicious asshole would probably call the cops.

“Fuck me. Of course.” Billy looked over his shoulder as he let his foot off the clutch, coasting down the street until he balanced out the acceleration. Irritated that the Harringtons weren’t on their way there themselves, he drove extra fast to make up for their last time, and his tires were screeching into the Hawkins Police Station at speeds that should have had sirens wailing.

There must have been donuts inside, because the parking lot was empty of anyone, uniformed or otherwise. For the second time that morning Billy threw on that mechanical grin. He strutted inside the station with his chest puffed and his head held high, his heavy footsteps echoing on the linoleum.

The secretary held a plastic fork in her right hand, which meant her left hand was free enough to hold up one finger in a clear indication that she wanted Billy to wait while she finished eating the birthday cake on her desk.

Billy didn’t wait. He walked past her desk, ignoring her indignant, muffled chastisements, and wound his way through chatting officers. He assumed Chief Hopper’s desk would be near the back where he could observe and interact with all of his men in blue. When a couple guys moved toward the protesting secretary, however, Billy saw Hopper’s nameplate and an empty chair. His heart sank. Turning, he resolved to look for Steve himself, but a hand on his chest stopped him from leaving.

“You can’t be back here.”

Phil Callahan’s glasses were askew and there was white frosting on his cheek. Billy smiled and stepped back to keep the other man’s hands off of him. “There’s no sign,” he said. “I got lost.”

“But… you can’t be back here,” Callahan repeated stupidly. The cop had busted a party Billy had attended when he first arrived in Hawkins, and Billy had talked his way out of that arrest.

“I need to see Hopper. Big, hairy guy, you might know him.”

“Why?” Calvin Powell appeared at Callahan’s side with narrowed eyes.

“Because you work together,” Billy answered insolently, chuckling when the officers struggled to follow. His laughter boiled over into something manic, and he scrubbed his hand over his face to subdue the exhaustion and hysteria. “Look,” he groaned. “My… this… person.” He massaged his temples and exhaled shakily. “Steve Harrington is missing and I think some kids are tormenting him, okie dokie?”

There was silence before both men guffawed. Although Billy’s glare leveled Callahan, Powell remained unconvinced, injecting a snort at the end of his, “This a prank, kid? Because it’s way too early to get run around by a high schooler with too much booze and not enough common sense in him.”

“I’m not a fucking kid,” Billy snarled, “and I’m serious.” He hated how close he came to whining.

Powell and Callahan crossed their arms simultaneously. “Guilty conscience, Hargrove? The chief told us to watch out for you. Matter of fact, didn’t you beat Harrington to a pulp last Christmas?”

Billy shrugged innocently, although his skin was cold with the memory. “No one ever pressed charges, so what can you prove?”

“Like I said, the chief clued us in.”

A muscle in Billy’s jaw worked steadily. He clenched his mouth against the scathing rebukes he could hurl at those imbeciles. “When is Hopper coming back?” he asked instead of clocking Callahan.

“That’s classified.”

Although they didn’t know it, they’d given Billy a modicum of hope; whatever case Hopper was working had to involve renegade, monster-hunting preteens if it was labelled ‘classified’, because nothing else exciting happened in Hawkins. As close to satisfied as he could be, Billy pushed between the pair of them and flipped them off as he exited the station. He kind of wished he’d waited to see their dumbfounded expressions, but he had more important things to take care of.

He bought two of the the cheapest six packs he could find at the shady corner store that never asked his age and was drinking the first piss-poor can before the Camaro’s door shut. Drinking games were better with company, but Billy invented his own solo game as he drove--chug a can everytime Steve wasn’t at one of the places on Billy’s list--and it worked alright. It had the desired effect of getting him absolutely plastered, at least.

It was 8 A.M. when he swerved into a mall parking space, his vision blurred like the heat lines on a desert horizon and his entire body vibrating. He was running on as few fumes as his near-empty gas tank. Tinkling laughter drifted around his head, and his neck twinged while he sought out the source, only to realize it was his own voice. Eight malformed metal cans littered the passenger seat and steering console.

Billy closed his eyes to refocus them. With alcohol thick on his tongue and his lids practically glued shut, the world was quieter and stiller and safer. He didn’t realize he was asleep until a knock on the window startled him awake.

With his arms crossed self-importantly and his mustache tickling grouchy lips, the mall cop was too absurd not to laugh at. Billy did so boisterously until he was directed to either leave the lot or go shopping.

Billy burped. He smelled rank, and he didn’t even need the mall cop to wrinkle his nose at him to know that. His clothes were stiff and still damp, dried blood had crusted on his face and knuckles, and both his skull and ribcage throbbed with any slight movement, including the Herculean effort it took to stumble out of the Camaro and into Starcourt. His muddled memory of how he arrived at the mall was overtaken with the desperate need to find Steve.

The details of why that was important were still filling in, childish scribbles on a coloring page, all bursting beyond the edges and dripping with layered colors that eventually turned a dull brown as they mixed. Billy sifted through his memories as he feet trudged on autopilot. He blinked at the too-bright lights, groaning at passerby’s scrutiny.

It was Scoops’ rush-hour, but Billy didn’t expect people to be out the door. He shoved through the crowd, trying to get to the front. No one was moving. He was close to throwing punches when he realized there was nowhere to go; the ice cream parlor was gated and unopened. A frazzled manager was apologizing for the inconvenience at the front.

Billy sidled up with a snarl. “I don’t want your apology cone,” he jeered when the manager offered him a slip of paper. “Tell me where Harrington is.”

“Neither of my employees elected to come to work today, young man. Please excuse me.” He handed more coupons out, then vanished into the dissolving mob.

Billy hung around for another hour before he surrendered to fatigue. Fighting chills, he bummed a cigarette outside and then walked the entire parking lot searching for Steve’s BMW. Fear tasted sweeter with fire on his tongue. But the cigarette burned out--ground beneath his heel on the asphalt--and suspicion replaced it, brutally bitter in the back of his throat.

Max would have answers. He didn’t have quarters to call the myriad houses in which she could be hiding, which meant he’d have to go get her. As much as Billy despised the thought of stepping foot anywhere near his sister, at that moment he needed her. Nancy Wheeler crossed his mind as well, but if Steve had told her about Billy’s pool stunt and she was anywhere near her gun collection, Billy didn’t want to be anywhere near her.

Plus, he was weary to his bones, ankles shaking with the effort to support him in flimsy shoes. Unwilling to travel again so soon, he bought fries in the food court, scarfed them down, and then searched for his runaway Max. She could have been any one of the striped-shirt-wearing dorks with GAP bags and grins. Starcourt wasn’t a large place, but it was big enough that every flash of red hair near an exit sign induced a frenzied heart and a sprint that almost got Billy kicked out for the day.

Later, he collapsed onto one of the marble benches inlaid with small gardens. Girls gave him a wide berth, though Billy couldn’t find it in himself to care anymore. He looked at the clock. If it was accurate, and Billy was sure it was, he was already late for work.

“Shit!” he exclaimed, attracting the cop’s attention again when he jumped up and ran out the door.

Steve could be playing hooky from work. He and Robin could show up at the pool, could even be waiting there to surprise him. The idealism of the thought embarrassed Billy, but he clung to it when the alternatives were much more unpleasant.

Billy relaxed into the driver’s seat for a moment, glad to have a plan when the previous night and the morning had sent his life careening off course. He refueled the Camaro at the gas station with the meager change he could find in the seats and glove compartment. Then he set off to work hoping his manager would let him shower before his shift despite his tardiness.

Staring at the road ahead, he forced a smile until it hurt, forced it until he fooled his body into thinking that life was okay at the moment. His heart fluttered pitifully while tears pin-pricked at the corner of his eyes until he killed them both with a familiar, fabricated off-switch. It was an old trick that he hated to use, but desperate times…

He blew through a red light with his middle finger extended to the other lane’s cars. The horizon was hot and hazy in the distance, and he raced the golden sun hoping it brought all the luck it promised in stories.

Then again, Billy Hargrove had never trusted fairytales, especially not their happy endings.