Steve was warm through and through. The darkness inside himself and in Hawkins had left when the leaves began to grow back and the daffodils peaked their yellow heads from the once frozen ground. The spring had brought heavy rains that cleared the air and fed the grass above the filled in tunnels. It brought a sun high enough in the sky that the shadows were short and manageable. They weren’t like the long shadows of winter that caused Steve to constantly make a double take.The ominous black formation in the corner of his eye hadn’t appeared in a while.
Summer came quickly and without warning, but spring did not succumb gracefully, heavy April showers plaguing May whilst July heat hung in the air. Sometimes, Steve swore that he heard the ground hiss with steam when the first droplets hit. Summer brought intense, thick heat that coddled the entire town. Steve wondered if the air was actually thicker. On particularly hot days it felt like breathing in molasses. This period was sprawling, with days that were long and nights that were longer.However being alone in the sun was infinitely better than being alone in the darkness.
Steve would occasionally walk in the cemetery at dawn, the low sun casting familiar, yet strange, long shadows from the tombstones. It’s where he would go when he couldn’t sleep. He’d visit Barb’s grave by the old apple blossom tree and would sit down on the ground, cradled by fallen flowers. He’d always feel responsible for her death and guilty for not visiting her grave sooner.
Sometimes, Billy Hargrove would be there. Steve didn’t know why. At first it was concerning. Billy had this caustic presence that threatened to ruin Steve's sombre tranquillity. However, Billy would just wander quietly and alone through the graveyard and speed away before Steve could say anything.
Their quiet pattern continued. Steve wanted to say Billy had changed, but that wasn’t true. He was just as brash and as obnoxious as always at school. He’d swagger down the hallways and have girls swooning around him. He’d smile at them like an animal baring its teeth. He didn’t really pay much attention to Steve anymore. It was the end of the school year and Billy had the crown. He’d still knock Steve whilst playing basketball, his large sweaty chest colliding with Steve a like a freight train,, but he’d help him back up.
One day after practise, about a month before school was due to cut out, Billy apologised to Steve in the showers. If a couple of their other teammates hadn’t been around, Steve might have been sure it was genuine. Instead, he’d rolled his eyes and left. He always wondered why Billy just didn’t come up to him in the graveyard and apologize then. It might have been weirder, but at least Tommy H wasn’t there.
One day, Steve was sat in his car in the graveyard, window down,absent-mindedly picking at a wild cherry Danish his mom made and left for him. The Beach Boys bled out of the car stereo whilst the final pinky hues dissipated from the sky. Suddenly, a large hand passed through the gap in the window and grabbed his breakfast.
Billy stood by the door of Steve's BMW, one hand on his hip and the other holding tightly to the danish. His open white shirt billowed in the slight breeze. Steve hoped that it would collide into the deep red of the cherry jam.
Billy looked Steve dead in the eyes and took a large bite from the home-made pastry.
“What the fuck, dude?” Steve stuttered, stunned. He scrambled to try and get the pastry back from Billy’s clutches. His efforts were in vain as Billy look another bite.
Billy shrugged. “I missed breakfast.”
Steve got out of his car and snatched the pastry back, rolling his eyes. He couldn’t ever imagine Billy eating anything other than a steak so rare blood dripped down the fork as he lifted it his mouth. Or trash, straight out of the trashcan like a raccoon goblin hybrid. He was pretty high when he thought of that one.
“Asshole,” Steve muttered, popping the rest of the danish in his mouth.
Billy brushed his hands off on his jeans and stuck out his hand.
“Truce,” he said with conviction, more conviction than he’d ever managed before with Steve.
The sun glowed behind Billy's hair like a halo, softening him immeasurably,and in this moment there was no reason to hang on the past. Sure, Billy had tried before, with that grunt after basketball practice and Dustin telling him that Billy had apologised to Lucas. But now, after every thing, after school was slowing down, his college applications were all in limbo, he was alone. It was better to salvage a bridge than pour gasoline on the smoking remains.
“Fine,” Steve sighed, clasping Billy’s hand in a firm handshake.
In the graveyard, before the cicadas started singing and before the sun barely had time to rise, was an contextless void that existed outside the past and the present. It was easy like this, warm air and peach skies. A graveyard seemed like an ironic place to start a new friendship.
It was the 4th of July in Hawkins, Indiana, and plumes of smoke billowed from the barbeque in Steve Harrington’s backyard. It was a Wednesday, a little after Billy and Steve’s graduation. They watched Jonathan carefully flip over burgers on the cramped grill, everyone had been too hungry and impatient to be on the second round of burgers, everyone gave terrible reasons why they couldn’t possibly wait. The thick summer air hung at head height, making everyone relaxed and lazy. It swathed Steve as he lay sunbathing on one of the beds, with Billy on his left and a pile of towels on his right.
Steve knew that Billy loved the heat, he was like a cat laying in a pool of light, sleepy and docile. He lay outstretched next to Steve, the sun filling the peaks and troughs of his abs with light. He was born in sunlight. Steve imagined him like this in California, golden through and through, wearing tight red shorts and sunglasses that screamed douchebag (although Steve would never tell him that). He often wondered if he and Max brought the weather with them, or if Hawkins was just overcompensating for the winter they'd all endured.
Billy turned over and slapped Steve's exposed chest, hard. Steve yelped and sat up quickly, like he'd been hit in the chest with a lawn dart. He gripped the stinging hand print, stringing a collection of profanities from a few different languages. Somewhere, Steve's Italian and French teachers were rolling in their proverbial graves.
“You're burning,” Billy muttered, letting his glasses slip to the bridge of his nose.
Steve rubbed his chest. “So? why did you slap me?!”.
“Handprint thing, isn't it? If it leaves a mark or something it means you’re burnt.” Billy shrugged, whilst pulling out a cigarette and popping it between his lips.
“Pretty sure that's bullshit, dude,” Steve hissed, like the searing skin on his chest.
Billy leant over and pulled his glasses off his face, holding them in front of Steve to let him check out the welt on his chest in the reflection of the glasses. Steve could see the air of caution in Billy's eyes, almost worried that he'd actually hurt his new friend.
“See it’s fine.” Billy coughed nonchalantly, slouching back into the sun lounger. He lit his cigarette and popped the glasses back on his face.
Steve huffed and poked the redness on his chest. Perhaps he was a little burnt. He'd stupidly decided to go toe to toe with Billy on the sunbathing front, despite not having seeing sun this strong since the day after his 4th birthday.
“You still slapped me,” Steve grumbled, clambering from the sun bed to get some more sunscreen from inside.
“I'll slap you again if you keep being a whiney piss baby, Harrington,” Billy mumbled, clearly at least a half of the way there to dozing.
Steve wandered inside. The dark house was darker than usual, his eyes took a while to get used to the change in brightness. He stumbled through the lounge, clumsily fumbling for the sunscreen. Billy was an ass, but he'd reminded him on multiple occasions that he should be careful in the sun, especially because he had so many moles.
Everyone other than Will and Steve were still cautious of Billy’s presence, dampening their voices when they got close to him,afraid he was like a lion ready to be spooked by any loud noise. He’d been constantly hanging around Steve lately, much to everyone else's confusion, and after a string of apologies and a candy based bribe from Dustin, Billy started to hang around the party too.
Billy was the attack dog of the group. Once he warded off the bullies that would pick on Will on his way from school to Jonathan’s car. Just the appearance of the muscled up, denim clad 18 year old was enough to send any middle school bully running.
Sometimes, Billy would come to the Byers’ house to trade some records with Jonathan. Apparently Jonathan was easily swayed by the sudden availability to a guy with Led Zeppelin's entire back catalogue.
Billy would sit at the kitchen table, nursing a small glass of lemonade whilst he waited for Jonathan. He’d look around the small house uneasily, averting his gaze from the nail holes in the wooden floor. It was a subtle aversion. He’d let his eyes wander so dangerously close, almost daring himself to look, to remember and try and piece together what happened that night.
Will stood in the doorway, quietly observing him before getting the courage to go up and talk to him. Billy’s head snapped away from the floor. He smiled up at Will, kindly, his eyes of china blue something safe. Will never really saw Billy at his full crazy, he didn't really see him the same way the rest of the party did. Billy's face went soft when he talked to Steve sometimes, too, so he obviously wasn't all asshole. There was a sort of mutual understanding between them as Billy's face broadened into an open smile.
Will padded over to the table and placed his hand on the surface lightly, his voice was quiet and shaky, his large brown eyes quivering. “Th… Thanks for helping me out”.
“Don’t mention it, little guy.” Billy smiled a small, genuine smile and sipped the glass of lemonade.
Will smiled bashfully, shook his head and perched on the chair opposite Billy.
“Do they pick on you often?” Billy asked, finishing the last drops of lemonade in the glass.
“Sometimes.” Will mumbled like it was no big deal at all, but Billy knew that it was. “They call me Zombie boy and fag...”
That last word seared Billy's ears as it left Wills lips. He'd heard it too many times from his father's lips too.
He interrupted Will before he could say anything else that made his blood curdle in his arteries, “Well if you ever need any help at all, just give me a call. I'll frighten them so bad that they'll never pick on anyone like you again.”
Billy wanted to say that he'd floss his teeth with their tendons, but he knew that Will had been through some shit. He didn't want to add that vision to whatever else the poor kid had seen.
“Why are you being so kind? Because, no offence , everyone said you were an asshole,” Will said, almost whispering the word asshole, as he didn't quite believe that Billy was that.
“They're not wrong,” Billy corrected him and drummed his fingers on the old kitchen table. Will watched his fingers go.
“You helped me and you didn't have to, no girls or were around to impress, or Steve...” His eyes were suddenly with Billy to take the compliment.
Billy interrupted Will. “I see a lot of myself in you kid, deep down. Just with a load of extra shitty stuff on top too.” Billy sighed heavily and a heavy pause hung between them.
Will fumbled with with something in his hands and handed over a tape to Billy, his hand shaking and his eyes glowing. “I made this for you, they’re from the records you let Jonathan borrow.”
Billy accepted the gift gracefully and carefully flipped the tape over in his hand. He eyed the tape and the scrawled 'Billy' on the B side, keeping his expression as neutral as he could.
“Thanks, man.” He smiled and ruffled Will's hair.
Jonathan appeared in the kitchen with a very battered looking copy of Houses of The Holy between both hands.“Billy, uh it was just the Led Zeppelin one right?”
“Yeah.” Billy stood up and quickly shoved the tape into the back pocket of his jeans, took the record from Jonathan and slid it up underneath his arm.
“I’ll see you at Steve's on Wednesday?” Jonathan scrambled to follow Billy to the front door.
“Yeah, see ya.” Billy swung the door open, the handle collided with the wall. Jonathan wanted to tell him to be careful, but he wasn't sure if Billy would beat his ass like he did to Steve in the very same room. Plus, he knew his mom wouldn't notice another ding in the wall.
Will chased after Jonathan, the floor creaking as he barrelled towards the door.“Bye, Billy!” he sang brightly, his soulful brown eyes twinkling with anticipation.
“See you, Will.” Billy pivoted slightly as he exited the Byers household and gave Will a small two fingered salute.
Will waved at Billy happily. Jonathan glanced at his little brother and his now sudden apparent enthusiasm for Billy Hargrove. He parted a confused glance at Will, who was peering at the back of Billy Hargrove with the kind of adoration he hadn't seen from Will in a long time.
Jonathan wandered over to Steve, who was busy lathering his chest in SPF 50 and carefully trying not to drop any on the kitchen tiles.He cursed profusely when he didn't manage to contain the drips.
“Steve, I gotta talk to you.” Jonathan rubbed the back of his neck, obviously apprehensive about the impending conversation.
Steve didn't respond, focused on catching the areas of his chest that stung the most. Jonathan almost said that he should put a shirt on or something, but if the rest of the summer was anything to go by he was not going to do that . Steve had been perpetually half-naked this entire summer, and it was clear by the amount him and Billy worked out in his garage he wasn't planning on covering up soon.
“I need you to talk to Billy for me.”
Steve paused and removed his hands from his now glistening torso. He winced pre-emptively. He didn't want to know what a ' we need to talk ' conversation would look like with Billy Hargrove.“Can’t you do it?”
“Not for this, ” Jonathan stated, averting his eyes from Steve's bashfully.
“He’s still absolutely terrifying , Steve” Jonathan retorted ,and he wasn't wrong. Steve looked back at him and gave him a ' fair enough ' look.
“Okay, what is it?” Steve sighed, placing his hands on his hips, tapping his fingers as Jonathan paused.
The stereo went quiet between tracks.
“Thank god that's over,” Jonathan chuckled, stalling
“This is my house and No Jacket Required is always required,” Steve announced, proud of his terrible, terrible pun. He had been ready to lay his life on the line for Phil Collins the day he first listened to that album. Billy and Jonathan had been less enthusiastic about it, especially after Steve told them to just get over Genesis.
Jonathan inhaled sharply and rolled his eyes. This wasn't the time to get into that argument with Steve, especially considering what he was about to ask him.
They both paused as the opening bars of ' Take Me Home' came alive, both remembering what they were supposed to be talking about.
“It’s Will,” Jonathan sighed, breaking the silence.
“I thought Will loved Billy?” Steve stated, confused.
“Yeah, I think he likes Billy a lot, ” Jonathan peered at the taller boy. He could almost visibly see the cogs turn in Steve's head as he pieced the whole situation together.
“What’s the problem, then?” Steve began, holding his hands up pointedly, still confused. “ Oh. ” He paused and lowered his hands.
“I really don’t want him to… go full Billy on Will,” Jonathan mumbled, “and he likes you and you have a way with words that I just don’t have.” Jonathan knew that the way to get to Steve was either through his stomach or through his ego. “Remember that incident at the movie theatre last weekend?”
Steve chuckled and nodded. It was probably not a good idea for Jonathan to approach Billy about his little brother having a crush on him. He'd probably end up with a busted nose or three less teeth. At least Billy liked Steve rather than how he just tolerated Jonathan for access to his record collection and cooking skills.
“Please, Steve, just talk to him and I’ll talk to Will.” Jonathan's voice firmed as he pressed Steve.
Steve rolled his eyes and scoffed, his exasperated hand gestures making an appearance again.
Jonathan eyed Steve as he sat back down next to Billy and handed him one of the beers he had his long fingers laced around. Steve smiled at Billy as he thanked him for the beer and ran his fingers through his chestnut hair hair nervously. Billy lifted his hand to his blonde curls that had been exaggerated by the sweat and salt on his skin, seemingly mirroring Steve's nerves.
Will approached the BBQ and Jonathan handed him a burger adorned with fried onions and cheese. Will thanked Jonathan in a quick mumble as he squirted ketchup on the burger and his hand
Jonathan grabbed Will's wrist before he could get back to watch Mike and Dustin argue about something. “Hey hey wait,” Jonathan said. Will peered up at him with a mouth full of bread and meat. “So you and Billy seem to get along well.”.
Will gulped his mouthful and looked at Jonathan nervously. He'd never explicitly told anyone about the way he felt about other boys, but if anyone was to know it would be Jonathan.
“Yeah, he’s a good guy, he helped me out,” Will muttered, trying to play off that the only thing he felt towards Billy was thanks for helping him ward off bullies and that mixtape was a ' thanks for making sure I didn't get my ass kicked ’ mixtape.
“I mean, you seem to like him a lot,” Jonathan pressed, giving him those ' I know' eyes that Will recognised so well.
Jonathan sighed. “I’ve seen the way you look at him, Will”
“ Oh? ” Will questioned. He knew exactly what Jonathan was getting at, but he wanted to prolong the inevitable, just for a little while longer.
Jonathan said again, firmly but fondly, “I’ve seen the way you look at him.” He paused, trying to think of the best way to put it. “Billy can be dangerous, he’s not the most open minded…”
“He knows I'm…” The look Will gave Jonathan meant he didn't have to finish that sentence. He was 13 and definitely not ready to finish it. “He’s fine with it… well not fine…” Will paused as he fought to find the correct words. “He understands, actually.”
“Really?” Jonathan quizzed, flipping a burger nonchalantly trying to desperately disguise his absolute surprise at that thought.
Will nodded proudly. Will knew he knew something about the big bad Billy Hargrove that made him a little bit softer and a little bit more like Will, and Will wanted everyone else to see Billy the way he saw him.
“I’m surprised. He was okay with the whole queer thing?” Jonathan mouthed the Q word as not to alarm Will, just in case he'd gravely misjudged this entire situation.
Will peered up at him confused, his brows knitted together as he took another large bite from his burger.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” He asked after swallowing the bite.
Jonathan was more confused than ever. Billy was a predictable person. A jock asshole with a car that was probably compensating for something. The only thing out of character about him was him apologising to Steve and the rest of the party. He was still an asshole after that and would still be in six months time.
“What? Is Billy gay too or something?” Jonathan stabbed in the dark, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Will's eyes widened with panic and surprise. He hadn't seen that look on Will's face since last Halloween. “You can’t. ”
Jonathan felt his own expression mimic Will's.
“You can't say anything to anyone!” Will stuttered frantically, “ especially Steve. ”
He knew how terrified Will was, just by the way his skin turned white and then red with embarrassment. Jonathan didn't understand that last part, however. He didn't know Steve all that well, but he knew Nancy would have never been with someone was a bigot.
“I won’t, of course I won’t,” He said softly, placing a reassuring hand on Will's forearm.“It’s all fine, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Will smiled up at him, weakly but genuinely, and shook Jonathan's grip from his arm. “I'm fine, please don't worry.”
“How do you know?” Jonathan yelled as Will skittered away from his questioning.
“I just do!” Will yelled back from across the yard.
Jonathan secretly wanted to ask who else he ' just knows about ' too, but instead he looked over at Billy who was probably talking to Steve about this exact situation. Billy didn't look any different to Jonathan, he was still terrifying, dripping with golden tan and jewellery regardless of his sexuality. Steve looked at Billy, his eyebrows furrowed whilst Billy shrugged. There was no screaming or Billy's fist colliding with Steve's face so hard that it knocked the moles that adorned it clean off.
Steve settled down back on the sunbed, wiped his sunscreen covered hands on Billy's arm, and flipped his Raybans back over his eyes as he flipped Billy the middle finger.
Jonathan could make out the word 'Jackass' from Billy's lips as he watched him gaze at Steve. There was no malice in his face as he uttered the word and carefully wiped the sunscreen on a towel, only what could be described as complete and utter fondness there for the most minute of seconds. It was a blink and you'd miss it type scenario, but then come to think of it there had been so many of those incidents before, small and powerful and seemingly meaningless without the context Will had just given him. But then, Jonathan didn't know how he hadn’t noticed it before too, the softness in Billy's shoulders, the lightness in every insult, the warm look in his eyes when he looked at Steve. He didn’t know how he missed it. He saw that same look from Will, that’s what started this whole thing.
“Harrington! I can’t believe you didn’t invite me to your sad little 4th July party!” Tommy H stumbled into Steve’s eyeline, clearly pissed, in more ways than one way.
“Fuck off, Tommy.” Billy sprang from his sun lounger before Steve could get a word in.
“Is Hargrove your bitch now, Harrington?” Tommy slurred, swaying his way into the backyard “How the turn.. Tables turn.”
“Seriously, get your drunk ass off my property,” Steve barked, standing up next to Billy.
“Nope,” Tommy hollered as he encroached on the pack of 13 year olds who looked nervously between each other and then at Steve.
Billy glanced at Steve and then back at Tommy, his fists balled so tight, his knuckles were white.