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a prayer for which no words exist

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Billy was drunk by the time Steve made his way down the stairs in the morning. Somehow, that figured.

His shirt was open, exposing sun-kissed skin, no wife beater underneath. There were bruises on his collarbone in the shape of fingerprints. His hair was a mess, a wild tangle of curls that are flat on one side from where he slept. His face didn't look much better. Standing next to the kitchen window, a bottle of Steve's dad's expensive, imported whisky in hand, he looked like something out of one of those after school specials about drugs and drinking and too much of a good thing.

Steve stared for a beat too long, eyes dipping down to the bottle in Billy's hand, before he sighed. He should have figured. He really should have. His dad was going to kill him.

“It's a little early for that, isn't it?” Steve asked flatly, stepping around the island and opening the pantry, pulling down the coffee canister and filters. If Billy was drunk before 7AM, then Steve was going to need at least two coffees before he could deal with him.

He'd never actually seen Billy drunk. Wild and vicious, chaos rampant in his eyes, sure, but even at the last party he'd gone to where Billy had been, Billy hadn't been drunk. Steve hadn't known what he was, but drunk wasn't it. High, probably, by the way his pupils had been blown wide, lopsided grin on his mouth, all teeth and joy.

“It's never too early for a lil' hair of the dog,” Billy said, turning on his heel to look at Steve. The whisky sloshed in the bottle. That smile was on his face against, the one made up of teeth and delight.

“Hair of the dog is for hangovers, not morning drinking.” Steve filled the coffee maker's reservoir with water from the tap. “You owe me for that,” he said, nodding to the bottle in Billy's hand.

Billy held up the bottle, squinting at the label like it was the first time he had seen it. “What the hell is it?”


“Yeah, I can see that,” he said, words slurring together on the S. “But what does it say?”

“You're the one holding the bottle.”

“I can't read Russian.”

“It's French,” Steve said, flicking the coffee maker on.

“Can't read that either.”

“What can you read?”

Billy tapped his index finger to his lower lip. “English.”

Steve snorted, grabbing two mugs from the cupboard. He said nothing as the coffee maker burbled to life, filling the pot with barely enough coffee to fill a mug. Steve listened to the sizzle as it dropped onto the hot plate, pouring the coffee into a mug. He set the pot back and turned, reaching across the island to where Billy was nursing his pilfered bottle of whisky. Plucking it from his hand, he set the mug in front of Billy, ignoring the indignant hey!

“Don't pout,” Steve said, holding the bottle out of reach as Billy tried to swipe at it. “Drink your damn coffee.”

“You're no fun, Harrington,” he said, definitely pouting. He looked like an overgrown, rock-and-roll toddler. Steve tried not to laugh.

“Yep,” Steve said, watching the coffeemaker drip enough to fill his own mug, “that's me. No-fun Steve. Ready to ruin your before school drinking.”

“I don't know why anyone likes you.”

“I've been told it's because I'm real pretty.”

Billy squinted at him, and then took a large gulp of his coffee. He winced as it went down. Steve almost offered him a glass of water. “Not that pretty,” he said after a moment.

Steve rolled his eyes. “Maybe because I'm not an asshole?”

“Heard you used to be.”

Billy had him there. “I used to be a lot of things.”

“Yeah?” Billy propped an elbow onto the counter, chin resting on his fist. “Like what?”

Steve stared at him, uncertain. “None of your business,” he said, finally, lamely. God, he really was lame.

“Oh, c'mon, Stevie. Who's this King Steve I keep hearin' about? You don't look like him.”

“What am I supposed to look like?” Steve muttered, turning away from Billy to fill his own mug. He topped it up with a heaping of sugar and cream, stirring slowly, taking his time so he didn't have to look back at Billy. That surreal feeling from the night before was back.

“Like a king,” Billy said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Steve braved a glance over his shoulder, eyes rolling again as Billy tipped whisky into his coffee. That figured. “You're just normal.”

“What's so wrong with being normal?” Steve turned and stole the bottle back from Billy. Instead of squawking, Billy just grinned impishly.

“Normal means you're not special.”

“Well, shit, Hargrove,” he said flatly, “you're really onto something there.”

Instead of snapping back, Billy just smiled again, more teeth this time, taking another gulp of his coffee. It went down smoother; Steve watched his Adam's apple bob in his throat.

“You're chatty when you're drunk,” Steve muttered against the lip of his coffee, averting his eyes from Billy's throat.

“I'm not drunk.” Billy licked his lips. “Swear on my mother's grave.”

“You don't—” Steve stopped himself, shaking his head. It didn't matter. Billy was already well on his way to ass over teakettle; arguing about it would just waste time. “I assume you're not going to school.”

“Neither are you.”

Steve frowned. “Yes, I am.”

“No, you're not.

Yes, I am.”

“No,” Billy said, straightening in his seat, “you're really not.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are? You can't tell me what to d—“

“Look outside, dumbass,” Billy said, jamming his thumb over his shoulder at the window. “No one's going anywhere.”

Steve blinked, looking over Billy's head.

He was right. He wouldn't be going to school. He wouldn't be going anywhere.

That meant Billy wasn't going anywhere either.

“Listen, kiddo,” Steve said into the receiver, watching as Billy flipped through channel after channel on the TV, landing on one for a moment before switching to the next, “there's no way I can get my car dug out to come over tonight. I don't even think my car's going to start.”

Dustin sighed, heavy and dramatic. “Yeah,” he said, “it's just my mom, y'know.” His voice dropped to a low whisper. “She wants to play bridge.”

He barely smothered a grin. “It can't be that bad.”

“Bridge is pretty bad, Steve. It's, like, worse than Monopoly.”

“Monopoly isn't that bad.”

“Monopoly is pretty bad,” Billy said loudly, drunkenly, laughing as he took another swig from the whisky bottle. Steve had tried to hide it from him, only for Billy to go to the bar in his dad's office and steal another one.

Steve slapped his hand over the receiver and hissed, “Shut the fuck up.” He dropped his hand, and to Dustin, he said, “Be nice to your mom. It's only one day.”

Dustin sighed again, heavier, somehow more dramatic. Steve was impressed; he didn't think it could get much more melodramatic than before. “Oh-kay, I guess. But if it clears up, you're coming over, right?”

“Right,” he said, cheerful even as he watched Billy spill whisky onto the couch. He thanked God that his mother was obsessed with Scotchgarding every piece of furniture in the house. “I'll be there in a heartbeat.”

Dustin perked up at that, tone ticking up in joy. “Alright-y, captain! Hey, if you do come over, do you think you could bring—“

“I'm not bringing you alcohol,” Steve said. Billy opened his mouth to say anything. He picked up a cushion off the couch and whipped it at Billy's head. Billy sputtered, the bottle tipping over and spilling across the couch. Steve winced. “Hey, man, I've gotta go. My mom's supposed to be calling soon.”

He said his goodbyes to Dustin and hung up the phone, shooting a dark glare at Billy. “You're an asshole,” he said uselessly, because Billy already knew that. He was probably too drunk to care.

Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose, blood rushing in his ears with the thud of his heart. He hadn't realized how horrified he'd been that Dustin would hear Billy until Billy had spoken. Betrayal was something Steve had learned intimately in the past year, and to see that on Dustin's face wasn't something he could handle. The idea of it churned cold dread in the pit of his belly.

Lucas...he didn't even want to think about the look on Lucas' face.

“Clean that up,” he mumbled as he left the living room. He locked himself in the powder room, sitting down heavily on the closed toilet, the heels of his palms pressed tight to his eyes.

What the fuck had he gotten himself into? What the hell had he done? Whatever terminal case of stupidity he had come down with last night had passed, and the panic had settled in, the clenching fear that clawed its way inside his chest, burrowed deep until it was smothering his heart.

Billy Hargrove wasn't someone he thought about. He was background noise, someone who did something bad to him once because he was a bad person. Steve had met a lot of those kinds of people. He used to be one of those people. Selfish, uncaring for the kind of damage he caused.

But he'd never been that violent. He'd never gone after a kid because he was black, because his not-sister was friends with him. The biggest fight he'd ever gotten into had been with Jonathan, and Steve could admit that he had that coming. He'd been a dick and he'd paid for it with a broken nose—but he'd never been like Billy.

Billy, who was sitting in his living room, spilling his dad's expensive alcohol on his mom's expensive furniture, drunk off his ass.

Billy, who last he'd heard, had been arrested last weekend.

Billy Hargrove, who wasn't his friend, who wasn't his buddy, who wasn't even someone Steve liked.

Steve pressed his palms harder to his eyes, until he saw bright-white stars behind his eyes, until his heart thudded to a steady pace in his chest. Calmed, splashed cold water on his face and ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing down sleep-twisted cowlicks.

When he stepped back into the living room, Billy was passed out, bottle of whisky lolling in his grip, spilling onto the carpet. 

Somehow that figured, too. 

He cleaned up the whisky, threw a blanket over Billy and stepped outside for a cigarette. Thirty seconds later, when a gust of wind walloped him in the face, he regretted it, chucking his barely-smoked cigarette into the snow and shivering his way inside. Billy was still asleep on the couch, head tilted down, chin to his chest. Steve left him there and went to make lunch and another coffee.

Turning the radio on low, he hummed along to Billy Joel and Duran Duran, wiping down the counters and putting the dishes into the dishwasher. He drank a cup and a half of coffee and traced the patterns of ice on the windows with his fingertips. It was quiet when Billy was asleep, silence pressing in on him. Steve poked his head into the living room just to see that he was still there. Every time, he was.

His father called at noon.

"Listen," he said gruffly, a shiver in his voice. Steve thought he could hear the bite of wind into the receiver. "You need to use the fireplace. Crank the heat. If those pipes burst, you're going to be the one paying for them."

"Are you outside?" 

"Your mother," his father said tightly, "is talking to her sister."

Ah, Steve thought. Aunt Judith could talk a nun into cursing. "Tell her I say hi."

"Yeah, I'll do that," his father, sour.

Hanging up, he went to nudge Billy awake, prodding him in the shoulder with a finger. He woke like he had in the car; loud and violently, body jerking like he'd been hit. He turned an angry look to Steve, hands tangled up in the blanket. "What."

"It's cold," Steve said brightly, just to be obnoxious. "Dad wants me to start a fire."

Billy squinted at him. There was sleep in the corners of his eyes. He looked like hell. "What's that got to do with me?"

"Start pulling your own weight, you lush." Steve pointed to the fireplace, the stack of logs beside it. When Billy didn't move, Steve narrowed his eyes. "Billy, come on."

"I don't know how."

"You don't know how?" he said, incredulously.

"I grew up in California, dickhead. It never got that cold." Billy rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned. He stood, blanket crumpling to the floor. Steve resisted the urge to pick it up. Billy swayed on the spot, shaking his head and blinking. "Think I'm still drunk."

"Well, you did drink a whole bottle of Scotch. You owe me for that. That shit isn't cheap."

"It tasted cheap."

Steve bit his tongue, hard, to keep from laughing. He tasted iron in his mouth. "I'll let my dad know to only stock Budweiser from now on."

"You do that." Billy gave him a surly look. "Where's the lighter?"

"Uh, no, I don't think so. I'm not letting you near open flames." Steve shooed him away with a hand. "Go make coffee. Get sober." As Billy turned, Steve added, "And stay the hell out from the bar, Billy."

Filling the fireplace with wood and crumpling newspaper in between the logs, he wondered if he was going to find Billy face down in liquor when he was done. Fire fixed, still crouching, flames jumping from the paper to the wood, he closed the safety gate, locking it in place. He watched them lick into the timber, until yellow-orange-red tongues warmed his skin from a safe distance away.

Like always, Billy's presence was thick beside him, something that beat against the side of his head with all the weight of an anvil. It had happened the first time, during practice when Billy had left a bruise on his thigh and Billy had beat them 10-4. It had been humiliating. Even Coach had given Steve a weird look, eyes trailing over his shamed face with something that tasted too much like disappointment. Shown up by the new kid in every sense, at the one thing he had thought he was still good at, Steve had nursed his wounded pride back to health with the affirmation that Billy was a junior and he would be graduating soon.

"Do you understand the concept of personal space?" Steve asked, feeling Billy's jean-rough thigh brush his bare shoulder. A shiver slid up his spine. It had nothing to do with the chill still lingering in the air, being burned out by the heat of the fire.

Billy said nothing. Steve looked up, biting the inside of his cheek. Blue eyes as icy as the frost plastered to the windows bore into his. They weren't cold. Heat, hot as the fire warming Steve's forearms, and something thick, heady, coiled in Billy's eyes. Steve swallowed, counted from five, and opened his mouth to say something. Something didn't come out; instead, he licked his lips, biting the bottom one.

Billy's eyes dropped to his mouth, watching the curl of his tongue, the press of his teeth. His eyes seemed darker, hotter, hungry for something.

Steve stood abruptly, clearing his throat. He took three hasty steps to the side. "Do you wanna shower or something? You smell like wet dog." Lackluster, barely an insult, but it broke whatever trance Billy had been under.

While Billy trudged upstairs to the bathroom, Steve poured himself two and then three and then four fingers of his dad's expensive liquor. They burned all the way down, doing nothing for the flames licking the inside of his belly. He poured himself another glass and sat down on the couch, turning the TV volume up to just below earsplitting. It didn't help. The thoughts in his head, muddled and cloying, flashes of Billy's face and eyes and the bob of his throat when he swallowed, weren't drowned out by the noise. They were amplified.

Long, knuckle-bruised fingers plucked the glass from his hand.


Billy grinned, feral, and downed the rest of the drink. He didn't look any more sober, standing in his own jeans and a too-small sweater Steve had fished out from the laundry room. He was bigger than him, more muscled, thicker in the thighs and hips and chest and arms. He'd heard Tina sigh dreamily and say, look at that ass more than once. Steve had always averted his gaze and asked Nancy a stupid question to distract himself.

"Lookie what we got here," Billy said, singsong. "Goody two-shoes Harrington breaking his own rules."

"It's my house. They're my rules." His dad was going to kill him. Maybe cut him up into little, itty-bitty pieces and toss his remains to the wolves. 

Billy held up the glass like a trophy, triumphant, like he'd cracked a code he'd been puzzling over for months. "You're drunk," Steve said mildly.

He snorted. "I'm barely tipsy."

"Sloshed. Wasted. Plonked."

"No one says plonked anymore."

"I just did."

"Are you going to give me my glass back?"

"Are you gonna let me have another drink?"

Standing, Steve snatched the glass from Billy's hand. A tiny voice, secretive and pleasant, asked if it would be such a bad thing. School was closed for the day, his parents were stuck in Indianapolis until Saturday afternoon and neither of their cars would start in the cold. Billy had tried already. Getting drunk with Billy Hargrove wouldn't be the biggest sin Steve had ever committed.

"Okay," he said, "but you're not allowed to pick your poison."

In the end, he pilfered a bottle of vodka from the bar, cheap and gifted to his father by his secretary over the holidays, left to collect dust. It wouldn't be missed.

Slumped on the couch, a Frank Sinatra record playing in the background, Billy filled two shot glasses, sloshing vodka onto the table. Steve wiped it up with a Kleenex. "Okay," Billy said, and it sounded like declaration, "never have I ever been dumped by a nerd."

Steve shot him a dirty look, lips twisting. "What's your obsession with my love life?"

"Do you even have one?"

He looked down at the shot sitting on the table. A drop of vodka dribbled down the side. With a sigh, he picked it up, swallowing it down. "Never have I ever been hit by my dad."

It was, Steve knew, the worst thing to say. It was wrong. There were lines Steve didn't cross, even when he wanted to. Nancy and Jonathan had been the one lingering in his head for months, since they'd attached themselves to the hip less than a week after Nancy had dumped his ass, but Billy was something that had been tucked into the corner of his mind for just as long. Feigning indifference, distaste, was easy, especially after the number Billy's fists had done to his face. Billy had stayed to himself, to his crowd of admirers and Tommy and Carol, taking over the throne Steve had once sat upon with glee. Steve hadn't cared, he'd told himself, but that wasn't entirely true. Disappearing from the world, a ghost of who he'd once been—no matter how much he didn't like who he'd been now—hadn't been easy.

Maybe they'd been dancing around it since the night before. Hopper at the Hargrove's, the bruise on Neil's face, the ones marring Billy's own, his collarbones, the one ugly one that peeked out from where Steve's sweater rode up on his hip. Steve knew, in the way Billy probably didn't want anyone else to know, in the way he didn't want anyone to know he was sleeping in his car in the middle of winter.

Billy hit him. Hard. Knuckles landed on his jaw, slapping Steve's head to the side, into the fabric of the couch. It hurt, stars exploding behind his eyes, black spots dancing in his vision. A hot throb crawled along his chin and cheek, a sharp sting weeping blood into his mouth where his lip had dug into his own teeth. He blinked until his vision cleared and the world righted itself.

He touched his mouth, fingers stained pink. Billy stared at him, eyes hard, sharp, angry. Fire burned behind them. Steve hadn't seen rage like that in a long time.

They stared at each other, Steve bewildered, Billy angry, for a long stretch of silence. Then Billy downed his shot, stood and walked away.

The slamming of the front door echoed in Steve's ears long after Billy had gone.