Steve doesn’t want to start paying attention to Billy Hargrove. It just kind of happens. After Max had tackled him, after everything, Billy had become more of a human on Steve’s radar. Less of a threat. He admits that right now, fifty-five minutes into their final English exam, Billy Hargrove couldn’t be less threatening if he tried.
Exam period is hard for everyone, Steve knows. Retaking two subjects is tough enough without having to keep up with the rest of your class. He leans back in his chair with a stifled yawn, pointedly ignoring the probably-less-than-average paper in front of him. English isn’t one of the classes he failed last year, but he’d be lying if he said he’d revised for more than half an hour- he’s been a bit distracted this term. He ends up staring at Billy from halfway across the room instead. He can’t help but look, with the same morbid curiosity as someone does when passing a car crash. Billy’s written absolutely nothing but his name. There’s five- no, three- minutes left of the exam, and for the whole thing Billy’s eyes have been locked on the wall in front of him. Steve doesn’t exactly feel bad for the guy. Despite the fact Max has said ‘he’s alright now, really’, he’s still the asshole that beat the shit out of him after nearly beating the shit out of a thirteen-year-old. Steve watches as Billy chews the end of his pen, looks straight ahead with dead eyes, and when the invigilator comes around to collect papers, he flinches like he’s just been knocked back into the present.
The class trickles out in a low chatter, and as Steve turns left out of the room Billy crashes into him turning right.
“Fucking watch it, Harrington.”
Steve gathers himself, looks Billy in the eye as he straightens his jacket, glaring because it was definitely Billy’s fault and not his.
“Or what, you’re gonna smash my face in again?”
“Maybe,” Billy says, and Steve’s a bit unnerved by how unconvincing it is. Something in Billy’s jaw ticks. Before Steve can examine his face, he snarls and stalks away like a permed fucking raincloud.
“No, I’m sorry,” Steve calls after him, before muttering, “fucking asshole.”
“Aw, fucking asshole,” Steve hisses, ducking underneath the Scoops Ahoy counter.
He’s worked here for exactly three weeks, and he can’t wait to quit already. Slinging ice-cream to bratty kids in the new plastic mall every weekend is just about the least dignifying way of earning savings, but his dad is insistent that Steve isn’t going to be ‘leeching his funds for college parties and weed’ in September. The sailor outfit is just adding insult to injury, really.
“Excuse me?” Robin raises an eyebrow. She makes the job a fraction more bearable, despite the fact Steve feels like she’s always judging him for something. She probably is.
“Not you,” Steve hisses.
“Is there any reason you’re on the floor, sailor?”
“Do you see the guy with the red shirt?”
“Oh yeah, the one guy in this huge mall in that red shirt. Yeah, I see him.”
Steve rolls his eyes.
“Shut up. The one with the hair and the eyes.”
“‘The hair and the eyes’?”
“Oh my god, you’re so annoying,” Steve groans, poking his head over the counter enough to pick him out: Billy Hargrove leaning smugly on a pillar, sipping a Coke, batting his eyelashes at a girl. “That one.”
Robin looks at Billy, then back at Steve.
“What about him?”
“He’s a fucking asshole, I said that, keep up. That’s Lucy Mills, she’s nice, what is she doing? God is every girl in our school sweet on that guy?”
Robin looks back at Billy for a while.
“No,” she says plainly. Steve blinks, spinning round to look up at her.
“You serious? That not your type?”
Robin just throws her head back and laughs.
“Get up, Jesus,” she says, grabbing the front of Steve’s shirt and pulling him back into a standing position. Steve cringes and tries to fold in on himself. “He’s all the way over there, Steve, he’s not looking at you. What’s with this guy?”
Steve laughs a short, humourless huff.
“What’s not with him,” he says lowly. Robin looks at Steve with a dubious expression for a minute, before getting bored and turning on her heel.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
“Break,” Robin says over her shoulder. Steve extends his arms in indignation.
“Aw come on, Robin, don’t leave me out here.”
“You’re obviously very busy!” Robin calls before disappearing into the back room. Steve scowls after her.
“So, what’s the appeal?” Steve asks Lucy Mills on Monday, leaning on his locker, wondering absently why he suddenly cares. He’s interested, he tells himself. He does not care.
Lucy blows a bubble in her gum and turns to Steve with a frown.
“The appeal of what?” she asks.
“Hargrove,” Steve says like it’s obvious. “Saw you two at Starcourt on Saturday. What is it then: his winning grimace? The constant smoking?”
“You jealous, Steve?”
“Pah,” Steve says.
Lucy drags a couple books out of her locker and shoves them into her bag before turning back to Steve with a resigned sigh.
“Yeah, not doing that again,” she says. Steve frowns.
“Billy,” Lucy clarifies. Steve’s interest peaks.
“Oh?” he says, feigning casual. Lucy’s eyes light up like she’s been dying for an excuse to gossip and starts talking in a hushed voice.
“We were getting it on, right, in the back of his car-”
“Shut up. We were getting it on, right, it was getting pretty- you know. And I go to unbutton his shirt and he, like, completely freaks out. Starts doing it all the way up and tells me to get out of the car. Like what the fuck?”
Steve isn’t sure Lucy’s talking about the same Billy Hargrove- the Billy Hargrove that Steve is pretty certain has an allergy to putting his chest away.
“Are you sure?” he says. Lucy pulls a face.
“Yeah, Steve, I’m pretty sure I remember what happened on my date,” she says, padlocking her locker, turning to leave before pausing, saying, “Why are you bothered?”
Steve expels a short breath and shrugs, like its some kind of answer. He doesn’t really know himself.
Later, in the locker rooms, Steve catches a glimpse of Billy pulling his gym shirt down over his head, and the ugly, dark bruise on his ribs.
A week passes, and Steve doesn’t see or think of Billy Hargrove. His retakes roll around and he sits in a depressingly empty hall three days in a row, churning out three abysmal papers. At the weekend Dustin drags Will and Lucas and Max to Scoops Ahoy, and Steve spends most of his Sunday shift sinking into the vinyl booths next to them. He pushes a piece of soggy strawberry around his float, trying desperately to forget his exams. Dustin’s animated, talking about all his plans for science camp (he’s not saying he’s capable of creating a fully motorized waffle maker that wakes you up every day like an alarm clock but with fresh waffles, but he’s going to try), and the others are nodding along, trying not to laugh.
“Hey, Harrington,” Robin shouts from the counter. “Are you going to do any work today or what?”
Steve looks up, gesturing to the empty establishment.
“Yeah, we’re swamped” he says. Robin throws a maraschino cherry at him and it lands in a sticky puddle by his feet.
“She’s cool,” Dustin says.
“No she’s not,” says Steve. He goes back to slumping, propping his chin up with his hand as Lucas and Max start scrapping over something, and Will and Dustin fall into a conversation about D&D.
After about twenty minutes, Max says ‘shit’, and hops down from the booth.
“You alright?” Lucas asks as she grabs her skateboard from under the table.
“Yeah, Billy’s gonna be outside in a minute,” she says. Steve straightens up.
“He was here last weekend,” he says automatically. Everyone turns to look at him.
“What’s your point?” Will asks.
What was his point? Steve clears his throat and shrugs. Max kisses Lucas goodbye and Will and Dustin make gagging noises, mime sticking their fingers down their throats before she skates off through the mall.
When Steve looks over, Robin’s looking at him from the counter with a tiny smirk on her face.
During first period Monday, Billy’s nose starts bleeding. There’s a red mark on one side of it, the shadows of a minor black eye forming when he walks into class, and halfway through their teacher’s endless drawl his nose starts bleeding onto his desk. Steve stares as Billy swipes at the blood with the back of his hand, feels a strange twist in his stomach as he watches him realise that it’s not going to stop any time soon. Billy pushes his chair back and swings his bag over his shoulder, one hand still pressed to his nose as he walks out without a word, ignoring their teacher calling after him.
Steve tries to concentrate on the lesson, but his eyes keep flitting back to Billy’s empty seat, the blood dripping grimly off the edge of the desk. Before he knows what’s possessing him, his hand is thrust up in the air.
“I, uh, I need to piss,” Steve says unceremoniously. His teacher frowns before letting him go, and Steve is out of his chair in a second, walking through the hall as if on autopilot towards the toilets. They’re empty except for the far end stall, door swinging open slightly. Steve moves towards it and winces when he hears retching, hesitates slightly, because Billy is still the asshole who-
“Are you vomming blood?” Steve says without meaning to when he peers in. Billy’s head snaps up and he looks like he’s about to say something before a shudder wracks his shoulders and he turns back just in time to heave. Steve edges closer still, seeing that Billy’s thrown up dark red into the bowl and half on the seat and he frowns because that’s not normal.
“Should I get someone?” Steve hears himself ask.
To his surprise, Billy shakes his head, croaks out, “just swallowed it,” and breathes heavily.
Steve stands awkwardly, watching Billy cough and spit into the toilet before straightening out with a hiss. He steadies himself against the wall for a second, then flushes, turns around and walks straight past Steve. Steve watches as he washes his hands, rinses out his mouth, and runs his fingers through his hair. He catches Steve’s eye in the mirror and his expression hardens.
“Do you want something, Harrington?” he says. Steve notices his hands shake as he lights up a cigarette, ashing into the sink. Steve looks for a second more before shaking his head and leaving.
It’s Thursday night when Max gets the call. They’re in Mike’s basement (Steve’s there because Dustin is helping him with his science revision, not because the only people he ever hangs out with these days are kids, thanks), when the phone rings. Mike detaches himself from El for long enough to answer it, brows furrowing when he yells over to Max.
“It’s for you,” he says, and she gets up with a matching frown.
“Who is it?”
“Chief Hopper,” Mike says, voice rising at the end like he’s not quite sure. Everyone watches as Max pales, taking the phone.
“Hello?” she asks nervously. “Yeah? Shit. Um-”
Pulling the phone away from her ear for a second, she turns to Steve.
“Can I get a ride to the station?” she asks. Steve raises an eyebrow.
“Uh, yeah, of course,” he says. Max utters a few more words to Hopper before hanging up. She stands in silence for a moment, and when she turns around everyone is staring.
“So?” Lucas asks. Max grits her teeth.
When they get to Hawkins station, it’s pretty clear why Billy’s there.
“I want my fucking car,” he’s practically screaming from the holding cell, banging his hands against the door and spitting at the square window. Max shrinks into herself by Steve’s side at the sound, and Steve places a hand on her back.
“You can have it when you’re sober!” Hopper’s yelling back at him, startling when he turns to see Max and Steve stood staring. “Shit, hi kids.”
“Hey,” Steve says slowly. “Everything alright?”
Hopper sighs and runs his hands over his face. He’s damn tired.
“Your brother,” he says to Max, “is a god damn pain. Was driving round the quarry like a fucking- shit, sorry- like a damn animal.”
“Is he okay?” Max asks anxiously.
“He’s fine,” Hopper grumbles. “He’s way over the limit, as if driving like that sober is a bright idea. He’s lucky he didn’t hurt anyone, let alone himself.”
“Aren’t you holding him?” Steve asks. Hopper chews on his next words, before looking Max in the eyes.
“He does this one more time, and I’m going to have to book him. You understand? I know-” he hesitates, before settling with “I don’t want him in more trouble.”
Max nods with a grimace. Steve’s lost.
“So you’re not holding him?” he says, struggling to believe that Hopper will just let him off. Max shifts uncomfortably.
“We can drive him back,” she says, making Steve blanche.
“What makes you think I’m letting that into my car?” he says, punctuated perfectly by Billy letting out a frustrated howl in the cell and slamming himself against the door.
Hopper walks over and slaps his hand against the window.
“Are you going to calm down if your sister takes you home?” he hollers. Silence. “Are you going to make a scene if I let you out?”
A pause. Then, quieter, still a growl:
Hopper unlocks the door to the cell and out comes a dishevelled, teetering Billy, scowling so hard Steve thinks it might actually hurt, affect heightened by the black eye that’s now in full swing. Max walks over to him tentatively.
“I want my fucking car,” Billy repeats, slurring slightly, still pissed but not screaming anymore.
“You can get it tomorrow,” Max says, tugging at his sleeve. Billy looks down at her, and Steve thinks his face softens just a tiny bit. “Thank you, Chief Hopper,” she says like she’s making a point. Hopper nods. Billy doesn’t thank him, but true to his word doesn’t make a scene.
Max bundles her brother into the back of Steve’s Bimmer and crawls in after him. Steve starts the car and they get halfway down the road in a stony silence before he hears Max talking very quietly.
“Are you going back?”
Steve glances in his rear-view mirror as Max wipes at her eyes.
“Don’t start,” Billy sighs. Max sniffs. “Stop it, grow up, it’s fine.”
“Shut up, Max. S’fine. I’ll be quiet.”
Max sniffs again and stops talking. When they’re around the corner from the Hargrove house, Billy leans forward and slaps Steve on the shoulder.
“Stop here,” he says, with a decided lack of please or thank you.
“We’re just round the corner,” Steve starts.
“Yeah, I know that. Jus’ stop here.”
Steve pulls over, watching warily as Billy swings the door open and ruffles Max’s hair. He catches Steve’s eye, before slamming the door and walking off. Steve lets out a bitter laugh.
“Yeah, you’re welcome,” he mutters. “Hey, Max, you okay?”
Max nods, saying nothing on the way back to Mike’s.
Exams are finally over. Steve’s more miserable than he expected at the prospect, sipping on his beer with the heavy feeling that his results will be even more miserable. Tommy’s party is in full swing, and Steve feels unfamiliarly out of place. Nancy and Jonathon chatted with him for a bit, but have since retreated to a private corner, giggling to themselves. Steve feels a pang of jealousy at the sight, more at the company than anything else. By midnight, he’s decided to just get hammered, and by one he’s feeling notably cheerier and dizzier. He stumbles into one of the upstairs bathrooms and falls backwards, bottle in hand, into an empty bath. He sighs, leaning back, cold tile against his cheek absolute heaven. Steve sits like that for a while, eyes closed, before hearing a cough.
“Do you mind, Harrington?”
Steve opens his eyes and his vision comes swaying back like he’s in the hull of a ship, and he rubs at eyes until everything stops spinning. When he pulls his hands away, he sees Billy standing in the doorway with his arms crossed.
“I said ‘do you mind?’. I need to take a leak,” Billy says, and Steve bursts out laughing at the realisation that it’s the most Billy has spoken to him since that night at the Byers’. Billy looks at him like he’s an alien. “Do you wanna keep laughing, or do you wanna fuck off?”
“First one,” Steve says, but hauls himself up and out of the bath anyway. Just as he wobbles on his feet, heading towards the door, Billy grabs him by the elbow.
“Harrington,” he starts, grinding out his words like it physically pains him to say anything that’s not scathing. “The other night. Thanks.”
“And for looking out for Max.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say so he looks hard at Billy. His eyes are bluer than anything, framed by purple. Steve, drunk, pushes his luck.
“Is that it?”
“Is that what, Harrington?”
“You got nothing else to say?” Steve says, steadying himself against the bathroom wall and fixing Billy with his most challenging, fake-sober look. Something flashes across Billy’s face, like he’s impressed Steve went there, before he steels it back into control.
“I didn’t mean it,” he says eventually. Steve crosses his arms and waits, but all that follows is, “I couldn’t stop.”
Steve thinks there’s almost an apology in there somewhere, but that it would just be too much for it to be explicit. He takes what he’s given, and nods.
After a moment, Billy’s default glare returns, and he says:
“You fucking off or what?”
Steve’s snapped back into the moment, but he can’t help smiling slightly. He wonders briefly if Billy is capable of expressing gratitude or regret whilst sober but concludes definitely not before his first thought is even over. He hesitates in the doorway.
“You know,” he says. “You can always come round. Like, with Max. If you wanted.”
“Right. You, my sister, and your bunch of kindergarteners. I’m alright.”
Steve thinks it’s nearly midnight when he hears a revving in his driveway. He lies still in bed, looking up at his ceiling, thinks he could have imagined it, when a loud knock comes from his front door. He groans, rolls under the covers, hoping it’ll go away. When it doesn’t, he groans louder and crawls out of bed, sleepily tugging on sweatpants and the nearest t-shirt. He realises with a pang of regret halfway down the stairs that it’s the joke one the kids got him for Christmas- World’s Best Mom scrawled across the front in glitter. By the time the knock sounds again, he’s at the door, yelling:
“Yeah, okay, I got it.”
He turns the lock with full intention of being an asshole to whoever is on the other side, but it all dies on his lips when he opens the door. It’s Billy. He’s leaning to one side with a hand on his ribs. Steve gapes as he takes in his wild hair, the red mark on his jaw that looks like it’s been grabbed.
“Max isn’t here,” is what his mind supplies to say first.
“I know,” Billy says shortly. “Can I crash?”
Steve does a double take.
“Can I crash?” Billy says again.
“Are you mad?”
Billy heaves a sigh, runs a shaking hand over his face.
“Please,” he says through gritted teeth, reluctant. “You said I could come over.”
Steve raises an eyebrow, starts to say “Yeah, I meant when-” but sighs and gives up, moving aside to let Billy in, shutting the door behind him. He gestures towards the sofa and Billy immediately flops down onto it, eyes screwing up in pain at the movement. Steve watches at a loss as he peels off his leather jacket and tugs off his boots, leaning back against the sofa with his eyes shut and his face tense.
“Do you, uh, need anything?” Steve says unsurely, thinking his parents must have Aspirin somewhere.
“You got a beer?” Billy asks, and suddenly Steve’s whole soul needs one, too. He grabs two Buds from the fridge, pops the caps, sits down in the armchair and slides one across the table to Billy. They drink in awkward silence for a couple of minutes. Steve looks at the mark on his jaw and wonders if it’ll bruise.
“Who got you?” Steve says finally.
Billy says nothing, takes another sip, jaw clenched.
“Alright,” says Steve, suddenly so tired. He wonders why he’s letting Billy Hargrove of all people sleep on his sofa with no good reason. Max better be right about him straightening out, because Steve suddenly has the vision of some girl’s angry boyfriend, or a fouled team member hounding his door, looking for Billy. Steve really can’t be bothered with that. He can barely be bothered with this.
“Can I smoke inside?” Billy asks, pulling a crumpled pack from his jeans.
“No,” Steve says. He half expects Billy to spark up anyway, but he shoves the packet back into his pocket, and Steve suddenly feels guilty.
“But you can go out by the pool,” he adds. Billy looks up at the glass doors. “Just turn the lock back when you come inside. I’m going back to bed.”
Billy nods, and Steve hovers for a second before heading back upstairs, confused, tired, beer half-full.
When he heads out for practise in the morning, Billy’s still asleep on the sofa. His brow is knit, his jaw is working slightly, grinding his teeth. Steve thinks he’s never seen someone look so restless whilst sleeping. He thinks for a few long minutes, before getting the spare key out of a drawer. He leaves it on the coffee table by Billy’s head with a note that says, ‘lock up on way out’. He doesn’t see Billy all day and goes home dimly aware that he still has his spare key.
“He just came round your house?” Robin repeats, hoisting herself up onto the counter and settling herself in for Steve’s anecdote. Steve likes to tell Robin things. It feels good to have someone who doesn’t know their group, doesn’t have to navigate around that time with El’s powers or that time with the demodogs, someone he can talk to normally. Steve nods.
“Is it weird? It’s weird, right?”
“It’s pretty weird,” she says. “But you did say he could, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, like, with Max. I didn’t think he’d just turn up.”
“Did you share a bed?”
Steve nearly spits out his soda.
“What? No. We got, like, four spare bedrooms. He took the couch.”
“Harsh,” Robin says, and Steve whips off his hat to hit her with it.
“He chose it.”
Robin smirks and turns back to the faulty ice machine. Steve tries to shake the unwelcome thought of what it would be like to share a bed with Billy Hargrove out of his head. He’d definitely steal the covers.
Over the next couple of weeks, it becomes a weird routine. Billy, uninvited, always late, knocking on Steve’s door, and Steve, unquestioning, always half-asleep, letting him in. The second time it happens, Billy says his tire blew out going through Steve’s end of town. Steve just steps aside as Billy walks into his house and assumes position on the couch. Steve cracks a couple of beers, they sit and don’t talk, Billy goes out by the pool for a smoke, and Steve goes back to bed. Steve doesn’t know why he doesn’t say anything when Billy takes off in the morning in the Camaro, all four tires unscathed. The next time, Billy says something vague about losing his house key, reminding Steve that he still has his. He doesn’t ask for it back, and says instead:
“Why didn’t you just get someone else to let you in?”
Billy says, “Better not,” and Steve shrugs. After a couple swigs of Bud, Steve presses because he’s nosy, because he has the right to be, because Billy keeps fucking showing up like it’s normal.
“Do you have, like, an issue with your own bed?”
Billy’s grip on his beer tightens, but his face remains calm, like he’s trained it to.
“Kick me out if you want, Harrington,” he says, and it’s not really an answer. Steve just shakes his head and finishes his beer.
Billy starts towards the patio door, pulling a lighter out of his pocket.
“Just crack a window,” Steve says, and Billy raises an eyebrow.
“I thought you were a good boy?” says Billy, and it’s taunting but it’s not cruel.
“My parents aren’t home for a week.”
Billy pushes open the nearest window and slumps back down on the couch, sparking up.
“They home often?” he asks. Steve looks at his hands.
“Can I bum one?” he says, because apparently they’re both avoiding shit tonight. Billy passes him a cigarette and they smoke in silence.
The next time it happens Billy’s hammering on Steve’s door, yelling “Harrington,” and Steve nearly trips downstairs to answer.
“Jesus-” Steve starts to complain, but he stops when he looks at Billy. He’s drunk as shit, eyes red a bit like he’s been crying, which sends something cold down Steve’s spine. Billy’s leaning on the doorframe, and when Steve lets him in, he leans on Steve, who sighs because he thinks he should be paid for this, really.
“Good night?” he asks, and Billy doesn’t justify that with a response as he stumbles over to the couch and falls back onto it.
“Can I crash?”
Steve raises an eyebrow because Billy hasn’t even bothered to ask that since the first time.
“Why else would you be here?” he asks.
Billy melts into a horizontal position on the couch and Steve goes to get a glass of water from the kitchen. He fills it up once, downs it, then fills it up again and brings it over to Billy. When he puts it down on the coffee table by his head, Billy grabs Steve’s wrist and looks up at him with heavy-lidded, unfocussed blue. Steve stops breathing for a minute, thinks his heart stops beating for a second as Billy’s other hand finds it way to Steve’s face and just barely traces the curve of Steve’s top lip.
“What-” Steve starts to ask, but whatever is happening right then ends abruptly as Billy jerks to one side and suddenly vomits all over the couch cushions.
In the morning, Steve’s horrified when he walks into his bathroom to see Billy Hargrove brushing his teeth with Steve’s toothbrush.
“Oh come on, man, that’s so fucking gross!”
Billy glances up into the mirror and has the gall to look like he’s innocent.
“Mouth tastes like shit,” he gurgles through toothpaste. Steve balks.
“That’s even worse,” he moans, running a hand over his face and through his hair, thinks it’s too early for dealing with Billy Hargrove, then thinks is it ever the time.
Billy spits into the sink and rinses out his mouth, then rinses the toothbrush and rubs at the bristles with his thumb until the water’s running clear.
“See?” he waves the toothbrush at Steve before putting it back in the pot. “All clean.”
“Jesus Christ,” Steve grimaces.
“How come I was in a bed?” asks Billy as he turns around to face Steve and sits down on the edge of his bath. Steve blinks.
“You don’t remember?”
Billy shrugs in one motion, face reading do I fucking look like I do?
“Man- you threw up all over my couch. You were wasted. I spent, like, an hour getting your spew out of the cushions. My mom’s gonna kill me.”
“Oh, shit,” Billy says.
“Yeah. You hungover?”
He mulls over the night in his head, pretty sure that if Billy doesn’t remember vomiting all over his mom’s upholstery then he probably definitely doesn’t remember whatever it was that happened right before. Steve feels kinda weird about that, like he’s keeping something from Billy by not reminding him. He doesn’t know if he wants to remind him or not. Before he can decide, the doorbell rings, and both of them jump.
“My parents aren’t back yet,” Steve says, tugging on a shirt and leaving Billy sat on the bath as he staggers downstairs. When he opens the door, the kids come swarming into his living room, already talking far too loudly for- Steve checks- half fucking nine. Steve can’t remember the last time he was up and out before half nine on a weekend.
“What are you guys doing?” he groans, shutting the door behind them.
“She’s redoing the basement!” Mike’s whinging, throwing his arms into the air. Steve pinches the bridge of his nose.
“His mom,” Dustin looks at him with that duh expression he’s mastered so well and uses so often. “It’s fascist.”
“Do you even know what that means?”
“It means crappy, it must go against our rights!” Mike cries. El’s nodding seriously next to him.
Steve thinks about asking ‘Your right to play D&D in your mom’s basement?’ but doesn’t, because he loves the kids too much to be too harsh, even at nine fucking thirty. He tries not to laugh. He must not be trying hard enough, because Lucas chimes in furiously.
“It was a good campaign,” Lucas says emphatically. “Me and Will worked on it for ages. She threw out all our notes because she thought they were ‘doodles’.”
He spits out the last word like a curse.
Steve’s about to ask what crashing his house has to do with this, when Max’s voice cuts through the hubbub loud and clear like a knife.
Everyone looks. Billy’s frozen at the top of the stairs, looking down at the kids staring up like he’s been caught at a murder scene. Steve really wants to go back to bed. No one moves for a second, Steve head in hands, kids gawping at his guest, and Billy weighing up his options, before he makes a beeline down the stairs, head down, tugs on his shoes. Max breaks the painful silence first.
“What are you doing here?”
“Mind your goddamn business, Maxine,” Billy says, not looking at her, or Steve, or anyone, before swinging open the front door and slamming it shut. It’s a full, excruciating thirty seconds before everyone starts yelling.
“Dustin told me about your sleepover.”
Robin’s leaning on the Scoops Ahoy counter, chewing the end of a straw after she’s sucked up the end of her milkshake, and looking at Steve with a barely contained smugness. Fuck it, not contained at all. Steve’s eyes go wide and he throws his arms out.
“You’re gossiping with Dustin now?” he almost screeches, because he knows if Robin and Dustin get in cahoots they’ll be unstoppable, Steve will be done for. “He’s my friend, you can’t steal him.”
“I’m not stealing your twelve-year-old-”
“Stop deflecting. He told me about your sleepover. Your other sleepover, although I didn’t tell him that. Did you share a bed?”
“Stop asking that.”
Robin chuckles around her straw, fixes Steve with one of her looks. Steve hates how nosy she is sometimes, mostly because she always finds out what she wants to, or just assumes until Steve tells her the truth. She’s normally right, anyway. Steve hates that, too.
“Don’t give me that look,” he sighs.
“That I think you’re hiding something look. I’m not.”
Robin raises both her eyebrows at him.
She crosses her arms and leans back against the wall behind her, and Steve feels himself crumble, because, God, he suddenly desperately needs to talk to someone who’s not in middle school.
“Okay, so there was this weird moment,” he says, and Robin immediately has a shit-eating grin, hops up onto the counter and straps in.
“My forte,” she says. “Please continue.”
Steve rolls his eyes but does anyway.
“He was hammered. But he…” Steve suddenly doesn’t know if he can say it, feels his cheeks flush. He feels unbelievably dumb and awkward. “He looked at me. And he touched my face.”
Robin looks disappointed.
“He looked at you. And touched your face,” she repeats slowly and incredulously.
“No, listen, he touched my mouth. Like, he just- God, this is stupid, never mind.”
Just as Steve turns to walk into the back room, Robin leaps down from the counter and grabs his shoulders, eyes wide.
“No, no, no!” she says. “You didn’t say mouth, you said face! Anyone can touch your face. Please, tell me more, go on.”
“That’s it,” Steve says, deflated. Robin looks at him for a long moment, before she steps back in peals of laughter.
“Oh my God,” she’s struggling to get out. “Oh my God, Steve.”
“Wha-at,” Steve moans.
“I can’t believe it,” she’s still laughing. Steve throws a straw at her and misses. “You totally like him.”
Steve suddenly can’t breathe.
“I- what- you-” is all he can get out. Robin tries to get her laughter under control, shaking her head.
“No, no, Steve, that’s totally cool, it’s fine!”
“I don’t like him,” Steve manages. Robin looks at him, eyebrow cocked. “I do not- he’s an asshole. And I’m not- he’s a dick, Robin.”
Robin just shrugs.
“You keep letting him sleep on your couch,” she says.
“I’m nice!” Steve all but squeaks. Robin shakes her head.
“You’re not that nice.”
Steve sinks down to level with the counter, puts his head in his hands and starts groaning. Robin ducks down with him and puts a hand around his shoulders.
“Hey, Steve,” she says more softly. “It’s okay!”
“He’s a dick,” he says again, muffled by his hands.
He pulls his head up and looks at her with desperate eyes. Robin just makes a face and shrugs.
“I do not ‘like’ Billy Hargrove.”
“Okay,” Robin says. “Do you think he likes you?”
“He doesn’t like anyone.”
Robin turns to the break room and leaves Steve crouched on the floor, head reeling, thinking maybe, just maybe, he’s not.
Tommy’s next party is even bigger than his end of exams party. Steve’s surrounded by people he forgot even went to his school, walks over to a bunch of them lying on the grass passing around a spliff at the point of the garden where the music is just far away enough to hear each other talk.
“Hey, Stevie,” someone stretches out their hand to him. “Wanna hit?”
Steve kind of does, to be honest, but it’s not why he’s come over.
“You seen Hargrove?” he asks, directing his question at Tommy.
“Somewhere,” Tommy says helpfully. “What d’you want with him?”
Steve isn’t really certain. He wants to make sure the kids barging in didn’t freak him out too badly. He wants to make sure the fragile olive branch between them hasn’t snapped. He wants-
A crash from inside the house cuts through his train of thought, followed by whooping and roaring. Tommy nods towards the noise.
“Bingo,” he says.
Steve’s stomach flips a bit, as he quickly pads back across the damp grass and through the open French windows. Billy’s being carried through the living room by several drunk patrons like a champion, open shirt soaked in beer and arms raised in victory. He spots Steve and points to him sloppily.
“Harrington!” he announces. “You been beat again.”
Steve supresses a smile as Billy drops down from the shoulders parading him, stumbles over to Steve, swaying slightly.
“Keg king,” he taps his own chest.
“Title defended,” Steve agrees.
Billy’s eyes glaze over slightly and he tilts forwards onto Steve, who catches him and drags him upwards.
“Hey, hey, you alright? Want some air?”
Billy nods and looks up at him with a lethargic smile. Steve pulls Billy out of the crowd and into the blissfully cool air, guiding him over the garden and sitting him down against a tree. Steve crosses his legs and can’t help but stare at Billy’s throat when he tilts his head back, eyes closed.
“You good, man?” Steve asks again. Billy hums noncommittally.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “Jus’ hot in there.”
Steve waits for Billy’s to catch his breath and lights up a cigarette. Billy cracks one eye open and looks at Steve, wriggles two of his fingers at him until Steve passes him the cigarette and Billy takes a deep drag.
“I’m good, Harrington,” he says. “God, you’re such a mother hen.”
“Got a lot of practice,” Steve says, and Billy nods, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes.
“Fuck, man,” he breathes. When he’s done rubbing his eyes, he fixes Steve with the same look he had on his couch, right before he spewed all over it. Steve squirms slightly under the gaze.
“Billy…” he starts, but Billy lunges forwards and kisses him before he can finish.
Steve stops breathing. When Billy pulls back, he’s wearing an expression Steve’s never seen on him before. It’s almost like fear. It’s gone in a second, and Billy laughs, running his hands over his face, before repeating:
“Fuck, man. I’m drunk, Harrington.”
Steve feels his heart drop, feels a bit ill, struggles to find a single thing to say.
“You know my name’s Steve, right?” he settles on.
“Right,” Billy says. “I, uh. Sorry for bein’ weird.”
“You’re drunk,” Steve says. It hurts. Billy nods, serious all of a sudden.
“Yeah. I mean, crashing at yours, too. I just…” he trails off.
“Don’t like going home?” Steve supplies.
Billy sets his jaw, says nothing.
“You could tell someone,” Steve says quietly, and Billy looks up from where he was staring at his knees, face abruptly sober and mean.
“Tell someone what?” he says, and it’s low and slow and sinister.
“You don’t know shit,” Billy snarls, using the tree to pull himself to his feet.
Steve leaps up to follow him, reaches for his hand, but Billy grabs Steve’s wrist hard enough to hurt, pulls Steve in close to his chest, growls in his ear.
“You don’t. Know. Shit. Steve.”
He lets go of Steve’s wrist roughly, pushing him back and turning away.
“Fuck,” Steve curses. “Billy. C’mon, man!”
Billy doesn’t turn back.
The Tuesday after, Billy’s throwing his weight around school like a storm. He’s already pushed two juniors into their lockers, walked out of three classes, and been dealt an after-school detention for telling their science teacher to fuck off. Steve feels like it’s his fault. Steve is pretty sure it’s his fault.
Coach blows the whistle for the second time that game, and Steve’s sneakers squeak to a halt as he turns to look.
“Hargrove! One more time and you’re benched,” Coach is yelling. Billy’s got a kid on the ground and the ball in one hand.
“This is basketball, not dodgeball.”
Billy shoots Coach a glare so hard that the kid on the floor trembles. Billy smacks the ball down just shy of his head and starts to dribble it across the court, not bothering to help him up. The game drags on, the ball’s lobbed at Steve who has a clear shot, and he goes for it before it’s knocked out of his control.
“I had that!” Steve shouts, spinning round to glower at Billy who’s snatched the ball from him and is bouncing it with one hand. “What’s your problem?”
“I’m not the one with the fucking problem, Harrington.”
Steve slaps the ball away from Billy and crowds his space as it rolls off across the court, everyone looking at them.
“I think you are.”
“You need to back off,” Billy pushes at Steve’s chest. Steve pushes back harder because it’s easy, easier than-
“I’m not the one who-”
Suddenly, Steve’s up against the wall with one of Billy’s arms across his chest, the other raised in a fist, hovering just above Steve’s face, breathing heavily.
“Dude,” Steve yells in his face, then, challenging, just for Billy, “Is that gonna make you feel better?”
Billy’s fist is shaking. Before he’s decided whether to go for a punch, he’s being pulled off Steve, eyes never leaving his as Coach blows the whistle once, twice, three times, the sound of it ringing around the hall.
Steve’s phone rings at quarter past midnight. He ignores it until it stops, turning up the T.V volume, determinedly packing a spliff. When it rings again, he groans and shuts off the T.V, dragging his feet across the kitchen to snatch the phone out of the receiver, snaps:
“Steve,” comes a very quiet voice. Steve presses the phone harder against his ear.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Max,” her voice is louder, but it’s wobbling like it’s about to crack.
“Hey, Max, are you alright, what’s going on?” Steve softens his tone, immediately feels a pang of guilt at being so aggressive.
“I didn’t know who else to call,” she’s crying now, and Steve’s heart leaps up to his throat. “I’m at the station, they’ve arrested Neil.”
“Billy’s dad,” Max squeaks. Steve feels dizzy.
“I’m on my way,” he says.
Steve doesn’t remember rushing into his car or speeding to the station, just sprints through the door to be met with a serious Hopper stood with his arms out.
“Hey, kid, slow down,” he says.
“Is Max okay?” Steve asks, breathless.
“She’s okay, she’s with Joyce,” Hopper says, placing a large hand on Steve’s shoulder.
Steve feels a small wave of relief rush over him, before it’s gone again as he searches Hopper’s face, sees that it’s still tense and solemn.
“What is it, what happened?”
Hopper takes a deep breath and straightens his back.
“We’ve booked the dad,” he says.
“Steve,” someone cries, and Steve turns to see a flash of red hair tearing down the hall towards him, is bowled backwards slightly as Max hugs him tight around the waist. Steve looks to see Mrs Byers stood with a dark look on her face, mouthing ‘I’m sorry’ to Hopper, who just shakes his head in understanding.
“Hey, Max,” Steve drops down to her level, pushing her hair out of her face where it’s stuck to it with tears. Her lip’s trembling uncontrollably.
“It’s my fault,” she whispers. “It’s my fault, he heard me asking Billy about you. I didn’t think he was home, I’m so stupid!”
“Hey, hey,” Steve hushes, wrapping his arms around her small shoulders and pulling her in, trying to appear less terrified than he is.
“Come on, kid,” Hopper says, and Max peels back, rubbing at her eyes, nodding with a watery hiccup. Mrs Byers stretches out her hand and Max looks at Steve for an answer.
“It’s okay, Max, I’m here now. Go to Will’s, it’s okay.”
Max nods, a few more tears falling, as Steve ushers her towards Mrs Byers.
“I’ll call later,” Hopper says to her as she takes Max’s tiny hand in hers.
Max flashes Steve one last desperate look. Steve forces what he hopes is a reassuring smile until they’ve rounded the corner, drops the act, turns to Hopper:
“What the fuck? What’s going on, is Billy okay?”
“Max called us,” he says. “From their house. There was an- altercation.”
“Don’t. Don’t sugar-coat it, Hop, how bad?”
Hopper clears his throat.
“He got the shit kicked out of him,” he says. “Ribs, nose. It’s not pretty.”
“Fuck,” says Steve. He feels sick. “Fuck!”
“Hey, hey, that’s not going to help anyone,” Hopper raises his voice, but it’s not angry. He points towards his office. “He’s in there.”
“Why isn’t he in hospital?”
Hopper sighs, heavy.
“We checked him over here. He’ll be alright if he looks after his injuries. Of course, we want him to go, but he’s refusing it. Think you can do something about that?”
Steve grits his teeth, thinks he’s probably the last person in the world Billy wants to see right now, think has he got anyone else, and steels himself before heading to the office.
It doesn’t look like ‘he’ll be alright’, but Steve’s not a doctor.
Billy’s sat in Hopper’s chair, looking like the fucking kid he is, smoking a cigarette clasped between his shaking fingers. He looks up, and Steve tries not to hurl.
“Oh, fuck off,” Billy groans, voice hoarse, dropping his head back against the chair.
There are bruises already purpling on his throat. There are bruises everywhere. Steve walks cautiously towards him, wincing as he gets closer, sees Billy clearer. He says nothing as he drags the other chair in front of him, sits down, Billy tensing but not stopping him. There’s blood crusted around his nose, cheekbone split open, lip torn at one side, one eye swelling already. It reminds Steve, with a nauseating clarity, of what Billy did to him six months ago at the Byers’. Billy’s smoking with his left hand, two fingers on his right black and blue and bent like they’ve been trodden on. He’s wrapped in an ugly blanket, and Steve knows there’s more damage underneath.
“Billy,” he whispers. There isn’t an end to the sentence.
Billy closes his eyes. Neither of them say anything for a while, Billy letting the cigarette burn down to the filter, ash falling on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says eventually. Billy opens his eyes, regards him with an exhausted look. “I shouldn’t have assumed. At the party.”
Billy laughs once, hollow, before gesturing towards himself, face screwing up at the effort.
“That’s not the point,” Steve shakes his head. “It was none of my business. I just wanted you to know that you don’t need a reason to come round. It doesn’t have to be when it gets… bad.”
Billy’s jaw clenches.
“Why else would I come round?” he says, and Steve knows that he knows the answer.
Steve drops his eyes to his hands, plays with the chord of his hoodie. He takes a gulp of air, looks back at Billy, leans forward and kisses him. When Billy doesn’t pull back, Steve places a hand softly on the better side of his face, and thinks his head is spinning when he feels Billy tentatively kiss back. Steve pretends he doesn’t feel tears start to dampen Billy’s face, and when he pulls away Billy swipes at them quicker than they can fall.
“You gotta go to the hospital,” Steve says gently. Billy sniffs and shakes his head. “They’ve arrested him, Billy, nothing’s gonna happen if you do.”
“Where’s Max?” Billy deflects.
“She’s at the Byers’.”
Billy chews his bottom lip.
“I’m not going to hospital,” he says, and Steve thinks it’s maybe more to himself.
“What if I come with you?” he presses. Billy doesn’t say anything, and it’s better than a ‘no’. “What if I come with you, they check you out, and you come back with me.”
Billy looks at Steve.
“I can crash?” he says after a long thought.
“Yeah,” Steve says.
Billy bites the inside of his cheek and looks down at his knees. He nods almost imperceptibly, looks back up at Steve, takes a deep breath.
“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”