Billy grunted in reply and pulled a half empty pack of smokes out of his jacket. He’d barely slept, and it was too early to guess whether Harrington chattering away at him would rile him up or make him feel a little bit lighter.
“Wow, you’re a real ray of sunshine this morning.”
“Yeah well, there ain’t much for me to be smiling about Harrington.” He looked across to where Steve was leaning against his car, the pair of them facing out over the quarry.
Harrington snorted at the well-worn sort-of joke. He was well aware that Harrington didn’t have much to smile about either. It was something the two of them had been doing all through the long month of June, meeting at the quarry to smoke in the early mornings before school. After it had happened once or twice by accident, it had become a kind of mutual agreement; the two of them would park up and look out over the grey mist settled in the bowl of the quarry before it burnt off, each aware of the other’s unhappiness but not the specifics of it, and stood together in a strange, commiserating silence. But then they’d started to talk, and it was easy. Like once they’d realised they were both miserable, the old posturing seemed unimportant. Sure, Billy still got his kicks out of teasing him, enjoyed the smiling barbs Harrington would fling back in return, but there was none of the venom of before, the real anger and resentment Billy had coveted. And once school was over, they’d kept right on doing it.
“I’m thinking I might get a tattoo,” Billy said after he’d let the silence stretch, let the smoke sit heavy in his lungs.
“No way, man,” Harrington was all smiles, big and happy, and it made Billy feel like his stomach was about to fall out, “really?”
“Mm. But it’s got to be soon,” he said. “I got a job lined up at the pool in a couple of weeks, and I want it healed up before then.”
“No shit!” Harrington said, still smiling and only half-serious outrage, “you didn’t tell me about that either, asshole.”
“A guy’s gotta have secrets, Harrington.” Billy already had more than enough.
Steve snorted again. “So what are you gunna get?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see, pretty boy.” He didn’t know yet, was just planning on picking whichever looked the most badass from the sheets on the wall. “What about you?” he took another drag. “Tired of scooping ice cream yet?” Steve’s job in the new mall sounded like a circle of hell to Billy.
Steve shook his head, tapped the loose ash from his smoke with long fingers. “I’ve only been there a week, Hargrove.”
“So that’s a yes then.”
“How are the brats going to cope without their fairy godmother carting them around every minute of the day, huh?”
“They’ll be okay,” Steve shrugged. “And I can still drop ‘em home in the evenings and whatever.”
“Why do you still hang out with those kids so much, Harrington? It’s sad.” He’d meant it rhetorically, mostly, just one of the many half-assed jabs he threw at Harrington to keep up appearances. But somehow he misjudged and it didn’t land that way, at least not for Harrington.
“What’s it to you?” Without so much as looking at him, Harrington threw his cigarette butt to the stony ground, stamped it out with his foot. “I’ve gotta go.” He looked uneasy, eyes shifting across the rocks and scrubby weeds underfoot without really seeing them, mouth tight and unhappy, a suddenly remembered weight back on his shoulders. Despite Harrington’s obvious discomfort, Billy was still pissed over the abrupt brush off.
“Fine,” Billy said, a little sharp with surprise, the unexpected sting of rejection that came with Harrington leaving so soon.
Harrington must have heard it, because he hesitated before he got in the car, shiftiness and unease that had been there a moment ago replaced with a hopeful little smile. “I’ll um, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Billy’s mouth ticked up in a half smile before he could smother it, annoyed with himself for how much he inwardly fawned over any scrap of attention Harrington threw him, but too happy over said scrap to care. “Sure. Now fuck off, I got shit to do.”
With a wave and looking slightly less desolate, Harrington drove away, leaving Billy alone to watch the mist burn off.
Ever since he’d laid eyes on Harrington, Billy’d felt a heaviness between them. It hadn’t been a good thing; a weighty and angry inevitability that had grown and grown, right up until the moment Billy’s fist had met his jaw in the Byers’ kitchen. But it had lessened after that, lightened, even more so since their early morning smokes together. Lately the heaviness had started to seep back in, but it felt different than before. It was as though something sat between them, a charge; electric or magnetic or something else that Billy wished he could explain away. It pulsed away between them, pushing and pulling, but always drawing them closer, like waves moving up the shore.
They were both waiting for the kids at the entrance to the fair, leaned up against the temporary fence and eyeing each other. The hot afternoon was cooling into dusk, the back of his neck still sticky with it, and Harrington’s nose slightly burnt. Billy kept his sunglasses on against his hangover and the flashes of pink-blue-yellow from the rides and games, and so that Harrington couldn’t see his eyes. The silence between them wasn’t a comfortable one, made all the more stark by the hollering of kids and ringing of bells and buzzers, shouts of food vendors and parents yelling to be careful. But it wasn’t a hostile one either, like they used to be. He felt that crackle between them again, the weight of Harrington’s eyes on him. Billy wanted to touch.
Harrington looked hungover too, pale under the yellow lights of the carousel twirling off to the side, though not as much as Billy felt. They’d both been at a party the night before, the usual snooze fest of shitty booze and the same boring guys, chicks dropping heavy hints they wanted in his pants. He’d drunk enough to make it bearable, almost fun even. In a haze of cheap beer, it would have been so easy to slip up behind Steve, breathe into his neck, let a hand creep up to spread flat over his belly… But Billy hadn’t done that, because he wasn’t a fucking moron. Or perhaps he was, because the way Steve was watching him across the entrance way made him wonder if he was thinking something similar.
“Billy,” Steve said, and it made him jerk in surprise after the long silence. Not ‘Hargrove,’ not ‘asshole,’ but Billy. He looked like he was finally about to say something real, something he meant, tongue swiping nervously over his lip and eyes darting. “Billy, I – “
The brats were bounding over, in a cloud of dust and a cotton candy, and clamouring for Steve’s attention.
“You said you’d take us to see El””
“Y’know, because she wasn’t allowed to come to the fair and – ”
“Yeah, if we don’t get to the cabin soon it’ll be dark.”
“You know El can’t – “
“Okay!” Steve slapped a hand over Henderson’s mouth. Which left Billy stumped and more than a little curious – he didn’t give a crap about whatever ‘L’ was or some old cabin, but he did care about why Steve thought it was necessary to hide it. “I got it. Just go get in the car, assholes.”
“You not even gunna ask me if it’s okay for my sister to go?” Billy said as Max rushed out of the gate with the rest. “That didn’t exactly end well for us last time, did it.”
Steve frowned. “Look man, I don’t – “
“It’s fine, Harrington,” Billy sighed, “don’t give yourself a headache. Where’ve I gotta pick her up from?”
Steve watched him, waiting for a punchline. “I can drop her home. Uh, if that’s okay?”
“Before dark,” Billy said, and headed off deeper into the fairground without looking back.
The days of Billy only seeing Steve for their self-pitying early morning smokes were long over. Without either of them arranging it or even acknowledging it, they saw each other pretty much every day. Billy might have felt pathetic about it, the way he’d show up to Scoops most afternoons just to bask in his attention, if Steve didn’t do the same thing. He’d bring the kids to the pool, sneak looks across the water at him behind his sunglasses while herding them around, sauntering over to lean up against the lifeguard chair to talk to him. Which was why Steve didn’t look surprised at all when Billy arrived at Scoops right before the end of his shift, just ducked to say something to the chick working behind the counter, and jerked his head to the back room.
“This is the third day in a row you’ve turned up and not bought anything,” Steve said when the door swung shut behind them, “you’re gunna give a guy the wrong idea Hargrove.”
“What if it’s not the wrong idea, Harrington?”
And simple as that, Steve’s tongue was down his throat. After a moment of shock where Billy couldn’t do much more than stand there, he came back to himself and grabbed a hold of Steve’s hips, wrestled him up against the back-up freezer. With a grunt of surprise, Steve let him, sucked hard on Billy’s lower lip in retaliation. Billy worked a hand up under the slippery fabric of Steve’s work shirt, creeping over his back to keep him close. Steve took the hint and made a grab for Billy’s ass, squeezing hard over the denim. Smirking against Steve’s lips at what he was about to do, Billy slid his hand around to pinch Steve’s nipple, which made him gasp and jerk and slam his other hand down into an open tub of ice cream someone had forgotten to put away. He didn’t seem all that bothered about it, just brought his ice cream covered hand up to pet at Billy’s cheek and neck, melting and dripping everywhere as Billy ducked to lick it off his fingers, before Steve hauled him back in for a sticky, strawberry ice cream kiss. More desperate by the second and already far closer to the edge than he’d admit, Billy made a grab for the front of Steve’s shorts.
“Steve?” The crackling and distorted sound of a radio came from the small row of lockers in the corner. “Steve, can you hear me? Over.”
Steve yanked himself away, eyes blown big and cheek tacky with ice cream, to stare at the lockers. “Uh…”
“Steve!” Billy was pretty sure the voice belonged to Henderson. Because if anyone was going to ruin him finally getting his hands in Harrington’s pants, it was always going to be Henderson. “Steve, we are having an emergency meeting, and we need you here now, over!”
“I’d better…” he ducked out of Billy’s grip and went over to the lockers, flinging open the metal door hard enough to make the whole row clang and wobble, to snatch a radio the same as the one Max kept under her bed from a backpack. “What?” he hissed as he held down the button. Billy was torn between laughing at the outraged expression on his face and being pissed Steve’s tongue wasn’t still in his mouth.
“You have to say over, over.”
“Shut the hell up, Dustin. I’m on the way.” He let go of the button and looked over to Billy, face still flushed and looking annoyed and apologetic. “I gotta go.”
“Right,” Billy said. “Emergency meeting.”
“Yeah,” there was a flash of concern across his face, like he was worried Billy was going to press him for details. He wasn’t going to. Not yet anyway. “I’ll – I’ll see you around?”
“Pretty boy, you won’t be able to get rid of me.” Ain’t that the truth. He reached up to straighten Harrington’s ridiculous sailor hat.
Steve brightened at that, the cloud that’d settled over his shoulders when Henderson’s voice had crackled through the radio lifting again. Billy just about melted, right alongside the strawberry swirl dripping onto the floor. “Cool.” Then he was leaving, shouldering open the door as he held down the button on the radio. “This better be a real emergency Henderson, I was busy.”
Billy was left wondering two things – what sort of emergency was important enough that Henderson had to used a radio to contact Steve at work, and two, how the hell he was going to explain what he was doing in the Scoops Ahoy break room with half a boner to the chick who was still working out front.
“Shit,” Billy panted wetly into Steve’s neck before pulling him down for another kiss. “Shit.”
“I know,” Steve said against his mouth, “I know, baby.”
And didn’t that just drive Billy wild. A new development, something Steve had only let slip a handful of times, but Billy lapped it up. He damn near lost it every time. “Mm, come here.” He grabbed a handful of Steve’s ass to push him closer, let himself be hemmed in against the chain link fence around the pool.
It was long after hours, the sky dark and pool empty and everything locked up, the two of them hidden in a shadowy corner away from the buzzing of the security lights that surrounded the water. The night was hot, Billy’s back damp with sweat and the smell of chlorine strong in the heat. It was stupid maybe, to hook up somewhere so public, but it was late and there was no one around, and Harrington always left him so embarrassingly desperate.
Billy splayed his hands over hot backs of Steve’s thighs, fingertips creeping up under the bottom of his shorts to palm as much of his ass as he could. Steve sighed and rolled his hips, Billy’s still damp swim shorts rubbing up against him and leaving a wet patch on Steve’s dumb pastel shit. Fucking lavender. He could feel every inch of him, hot weight of his cock pressed along the crease of Billy’s thigh.
“Harrington,” he bit out, “I – “
Before he could finish, the security light turned off with a loud click, leaving only the dim underwater lights in the pool and scant white of the stars to see by. “Shit,” he broke away from Steve to glare at the light, “they’re on a timer, I forgot.”
Steve didn’t answer. He’d gone still, eerily so, eyes fixed on the backlit blue of the pool.
“Steve? The fuck’s wrong?” He squeezed his shoulder. Still nothing, as Steve continued to stare at the cool lapping of the pool water, face tight and eyes unseeing. Billy was actually starting to worry, which was probably how the endearment slipped out without him noticing. “Steve,” he raised his hand to smooth gently over Steve’s cheek, tilted his head to look him in the eye, “I need you to talk to me, sweetheart.”
“Huh?” Steve finally pulled his eyes away from the water, blinking at Billy like he’d just woken up. “What?”
“What’s the matter?” Billy stroked his face again, unwilling to give an inch until he as sure Steve was okay.
“Nothing,” Harrington smiled, thin and papery, “we should uh, we should probably get going though.”
“If you want,” Billy shrugged, didn’t press him because he knew he wasn’t about to get any answers, would only send Steve retreating further into himself if he tried. But he didn’t miss the nervous glance Steve shot at the pool as he locked up behind them.
Billy loved driving. Or he loved driving in certain conditions, at least. He hated the stop signs and speed limits and slow drivers and junctions that came with downtown Hawkins. But he could appreciate the edges of town; the wide, straight roads edged with trees that ran out flat for miles and miles, where he could press the pedal to the floor and not worry about hitting old Mrs Jacobs in her dusty green Ford as she turned out of the grocery store parking lot without looking. Also the feeling of driving out of Hawkins, of remembering that the shitty town wasn’t forever, always did him good.
Harrington was sitting beside him as they sped out into the middle of nowhere, sunglasses on top of his head pushing his hair back from his face, eyes closed against the wind that rushed through the Camaro’s open windows and humming along to the Scorpions tape. It made Billy’s stomach hurt, to think they’d spent enough time whizzing about in the car together that Steve had started to know the songs. He shifted, bare leg under his cut-offs sticking to the hot leather of the seat, and reached across to put his hand on Steve’s thigh while he drove. Steve jumped, a small, half-moment flinch before he smiled at him, all sleep-lazy-happy. He’d started to get a little more colour to his skin over the summer, but his leg was still pale next to the bronzed brown of the back of Billy’s hand. His dad was away for the week on some depressing business trip, and Billy had dared to paint his nails in a fit of defiance, determined to enjoy the handful of days without him breathing down the back of his neck. They were black, the only colour he bothered with, and chipped from a week of Billy chewing on them, tinkering with his car and the list of chores Neil had left him with.
“Here,” Steve nodded to the left turn up ahead, and Billy took the corner fast and sharp enough to make him yelp. “Asshole,” he grinned, and smacked Billy’s hand away from his thigh.
They parked up somewhere along a dirt track, a little ways off the main road and out of sight. There were fields of dusty summer grass on all sides, the kind of dry hay seed that made Steve sneeze and his eyes itch. The sun was about to set, casting them both in a hot orange glow, warm on Billy’s back as they made out lazily against the sun-soaked wood of a fence. It wasn’t the sort of kissing that was headed anywhere, just a slow, happy way for the two of them to pass the time, away from Hawkins’ watchful eyes. Steve slid one hand into the back pocket of Billy’s cut-offs, the other skimming up to squeeze his upper arm. His tattoo throbbed. It had healed up nicely, but he knew he’d been spending too much time in the pool and in the sun than was good for it, and the skin felt too tight and hot. Steve sucked on Billy’s tongue, and he wished they never had to go back.
“Mm,” he broke away, at a loss with the rush of feeling, to mouth kisses into the moles on Steve’s neck. “I can’t wait,” he said, quiet and desperate into the soft skin of his throat, “to get out of Hawkins for good.” Although shit like this, like Steve, made it not so bad.
When Billy pulled back to catch his breath, Steve wasn’t looking at him, eyes unfocused and lost in the grass of the middle distance. “I can’t leave Hawkins.”
Billy felt a flash of old, familiar anger, the kind he felt when a ‘good day’ with his dad soured into a bad one, the giddiness of anticipation he’d let himself feel cut off as he was brought back to earth with a firm ‘no.’ “Why not?”
“There’s stuff I have to stay for,” Steve said, like that was a good enough answer, and shrugged out of Billy’s hold. “We should get back. Your dad’s home tonight, right?”
“Mm.” Like he’d wanted to be reminded. There was only so much longer Billy could bear Steve’s non-answers. But the looming return of Neil had already ruined the afternoon enough, so he pushed his frustration away, in an attempt not to make things worse.
+ 1. Mall
It was getting late and the mall was long closed, but Billy knew Steve would still be there, mopping the floor or whatever the closing shift at Scoops involved before going home. Enough was enough. Billy needed answers, and once he’d decided putting it off for a moment longer seemed unbearable, he couldn’t handle the thought of Steve’s face closing off to him again. He was determined to get the truth out of him. Tonight. He slipped in through one of the unlocked staff entrances at the back, the same one he often used when he snuck in to see Harrington at work. The EXIT signs flashed red, the empty corridors the dim, humming purple of the back up lighting. Weird. Something must have been up with the power.
Steve actually was mopping when Billy found him, all the chairs flipped up on top of the tables as he bent to clean up wafer crumbs and blobs of syrup and milkshake, dumb little sailor hat still somehow clinging on.
“Shit!” Steve nearly brained himself on one of the tables when he jerked upright to look at him. “Billy? You scared the shit outta me, man.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
He frowned. “I thought we were meeting at my place.”
“We were,” Billy said, back-peddling a little, realising that yeah maybe it looked a touch desperate storming into Scoops instead of just waiting another half hour to confront Steve at home. But Steve couldn’t know that. He glared. “But this couldn’t wait. I want answers, and I don’t want you weasellin’ your way out of giving them to me again, you hear me?” Even as he said it, Billy knew he was pushing too hard, too angry. He didn’t want to lose him, he knew he had no right to demand to know all of Steve’s business like he was, but… whatever it was, it was making Steve sad, hurting him, and how in the hell was Billy supposed to help if he didn’t know the cause?
“Answers?” Steve said. “Answers to what?”
“To what’s making you so fucking miserable,” Billy said, ignoring the way his voice caught in his throat, “to what you’re not telling me.”
“Not telling you? Billy, I – “
“’Emergency meetings,’” Billy took a step closer, “why you won’t leave Hawkins, why you’re afraid of fucking pool water.”
“Fuck,” Steve swallowed, “baby, I – “
“Don’t you fucking ‘baby’ me, Harrington, just – “
He stopped when something in the shadows caught his eye. It was fucking huge and ugly as hell, some monster out of a shitty horror movie. But he didn’t have time to stop and consider if it was real, or if he was losing his goddamn marbles, because that thing, and its claws and its gaping, groaning mouth full of teeth was inches away from Harrington and Steve wasn’t going to see it in time and –
“Fuck!” Billy yanked the mop from Harrington’s grip and shoved it straight into the monster’s mouth. It screeched and groaned and thrashed as the handle sunk through its head, before falling limp and heavy to the freshly mopped tiles.
Billy blinked at its corpse, blinked at his own blood spattered forearms and converse, blinked at the look of horror, of recognition, on Steve’s face. “Steve, what – “
He was interrupted by the sound of running, shoes squeaking on tiles as the whole merry band of nerds rounded the corner into Scoops. It wasn’t until then that Billy noticed the entire mall was running on the emergency lighting, and the floor was covered in water. The kids looked between them both, confused, and holding an odd assortment of items aloft like weapons. A golf club, a bread knife, and… a can of hairspray?
“Billy?” Max broke the silence, frowning at him, “What are you – “
“Steve!” Henderson yelled over her, “I thought you weren’t working today.”
Steve looked so irritated, so exasperated, that for one crazy second Billy thought he might just burst out laughing. Although admittedly that might have been the shock of that thing trying to take a bite out of Steve. “Dustin, I don’t have to tell you every single thing I – “
“We don’t have time for this,” Wheeler Jr interrupted, “we have to find the rest of them.”
Steve’s attention snapped to him. “What?”
“We’ve been trying to get hold of you for two hours, Steve,” Henderson insisted, “we’ve got monsters to kill.”
There was a clatter and a roar from the other side of the mall, and the kids all dashed off without a backwards glance, despite Steve’s protests. Except for Sinclair, who managed a ‘bring Hargrove if you gotta,’ over his shoulder as they fled.
“This your big secret then, pretty boy?”
“Yeah. That okay?” Steve said, face hard, like if it wasn’t okay with Billy then tough shit.
Billy grinned and hefted the broken off mop handle, slick with blood, to get a better grip. “Sure is.”
“Well come on then.” Steve smiled and ran after the kids. They linked hands for a moment, tight and hot, as they ran into the dark underbelly of the mall.