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it takes guts to be gentle and kind

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Steve is baffled, confused, and completely flabbergasted. Here he is, innocently counting tips at the end of a gloriously awful day, and he’s bombarded with, what, some cruel joke?

 

Really? After all his suffering? First, his hair wouldn’t cooperate, so he fussed with it endlessly, which made him late to work, which is the reason he sped to Starcourt (and received a speeding ticket; sweet, Officer Callahan!) and to top it all off, Billy fuckin’ Hargrove, asshole extraordinaire, stopped in to simultaneously torture Steve and make him so impossibly hard (oh, yeah, and there’s that, too... ). Also, Steve forgot that part of his uniform is a hat, which means he’s an idiot and the state of his hair never mattered.

 

The joke is a pink slip of paper stuffed into the tip jar with the words Nice shorts, Sailor Steve written on it in bubbly cursive. The i’ s are dotted with hearts and Steve’s face burns a shameful shade of red.

 

Now, Steve kind of gets it; he was once a douchebag, after all. And sure, what he did to Nancy forever ago was cruel, but that was all a performance, really. It was all for show. But this, this is unusual and it feels embarrassingly personal and whoever did it has to be well and truly mean.

 

Steve would rather be told to his face that he’s ugly. This is, like, his secret humiliation to bear.

 

He doesn’t tell Robin about the note, the prank, whatever, because she’s overprotective of Steve. She says his single brain cell should wear a helmet, so she functions as a helmet.

 

At least someone left a five-dollar bill in the tip jar.

 

  •  

Notes like the first one become regular, as in a shocking turn of events, it ends up being not a prank but a series of serious observations, though Steve’s unable to identify the “secret admirer,” as Robin calls it. And then they have to fight the Russians, and the Russians try to reopen the gate to the Upside Down and there’s this big goopy monster in Hawkins, but then a possessed Billy Hargrove almost dies in order to save them and God Steve’s gone for him. Summer of ‘85, in a nutshell.

 

Oh, and Eleven’s powers are gone. So is Starcourt, and with it, of course, Scoops. Steve and Robin work with Keith at Family Video now. Robin is a lesbian! And Steve’s got a stupidly fat crush on the ‘Hero of Hawkins,’ Billy Hargrove (who can finally walk again!). Nothing makes sense, but Steve clings on for the ride and tries to keep up.

 

And Billy still bothers him, Robin still laughs at the way he looks when he’s “pining,” he gains 10 pounds, and the notes return in December.

 

So what if his heart leaps in his chest the moment he finally sees that pretty handwriting again? So what if he likes being admired? He’s only human.

 

This note is stuck to his windshield when he closes Family Video late one Friday night. He was planning on hanging out with Robin at her house; he’s got beer in his trunk and Robin scored some weed the night before. But what this note says stops him in his tracks.

 

I think I’m a little bit in love with you (is that even possible?)

 

Steve huffs out a laugh because, come on, this person… they can’t be serious. The last time someone loved him he got dumped for someone else after being called bullshit. So. Yeah, Steve has doubts about this one.

 

Still, it warms his heart a little to be appreciated like that. He gets this crazy idea that maybe he should try to find this person again, but he quickly dismisses the thought. If they actually like him like they claim to, they’ll reveal their identity, right?

 

Steve sighs, a burst of warm air in the freezing night.

 

But thank God for Robin, because after Steve scarfs down two slices of pizza, downs a couple of beers, and gets a little high, she’s pushing at all his weak spots. Getting him to admit his insecurities, acknowledge his strengths, and steering him toward the resolution to find out who this secret admirer is.

 

  •  

During his next shift, Steve takes one too many bathroom breaks so he can idly gaze out the window in an attempt to glimpse his admirer, leaving another note for him.

 

But they never show.

 

Billy Hargrove, however, does show up to Family Video that evening, sauntering on up to Steve (didn’t he, like, break a hip?) like he owns Hawkins. He does, basically, and that’s what makes it so infuriating. People obsess over him now even more than they did before.

 

Steve would probably hate him if he wasn’t as hot as he is, especially with those scars on his chest, and those stupid curls, and even his fucking mustache. Steve never knew he’d be a mustache kind of guy, but here he is, apparently gagging for Billy and his hideous mustache. Again — only human.

 

“Where’s the princess, Princess?”

 

Steve feels Billy’s voice in his throat, he swears he does.

 

“Honestly? Probably smoking out back.”

 

“Good,” Billy nods approvingly and then drapes himself across the counter, leaning into Steve’s space. “She’s always hogging all your attention. I get jealous, you know…”

 

People say Billy is calmer after Starcourt. Like some restless thing inside him was soothed by the events, or like some toxic part of him died. He doesn’t seem as “troubled” anymore, as the parents around town like to phrase it.

 

But Steve didn’t really understand any of that, because this Billy, the Billy that’s vying for all his attention, is the one Steve’s known for a while now. Maybe Billy’s just teasing him with all the flirtatious shit, but there’s this weird sort of camaraderie between them. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but whatever.

 

“Jealous?” Steve asks, voice hoarse. He realizes he’s been smiling wider than the situation warrants, so he does this awkward frown thing and shrugs, mindlessly picking at his nails. “My attention’s nothing to get worked up over, believe me.”

 

“Oh, I get worked up over it every night, darling.”

 

Steve chokes on air and Billy cackles. Steve’s face is flaming hot and he kind of wishes Robin would come back already and save him.

 

“God, don’t look so disgusted, man,” Billy laughs, slapping a friendly hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Did I insult you? I didn’t mean to, Stevie.”

 

Steve’s legs are trembling, and he fucking blushes again. “No, no,” he stutters, trying to rein it back in. “I’m not insulted. At all.”

 

Billy grins at him, popping himself up onto the counter. He’s wearing his leather jacket and blue jeans and Steve swallows hard.

 

Tilting his head, Steve clears his throat and says, “It’s just that, you want all my attention, and now that you’ve got it, you’re wasting my time.” Steve really takes a chance with that line, praying to God that it pays off.

 

Christ, does it.

 

A look of bewilderment passes like a cloud over Billy’s sunny expression, and then he’s smiling wickedly at Steve, his tongue does that thing, it’s really inappropriate. Unfair.

 

“Well, I’m sorry, your majesty,” Billy says impossibly low, and they seem to keep getting closer. Steve can, like, taste Billy’s breath. “What do I do now that I have your attention, Steve?”

 

And no one will ever know what Steve says after that, not even Steve himself, because an elderly couple walks into Family Video and Billy slips off of the counter and then out into the night.

 

But at least there’s a note on his car when he heads home that night.

 

You’re so cute when you blush

 

  •  

The notes remain as consistent as Billy’s visits to Family Video and Steve puts two and two together. He’s not, like, actually dumb. He was just in denial before. And the closet.

 

Anyway, on this one night early into the new year, Billy steps in with snowflakes dusting his hair and eyelashes and Steve feels so lucky, for some reason. Blessed by his presence. It’s sappy, and pathetic. But he feels it.

 

Billy is talking to him about something but Steve doesn’t hear him because he’s zeroing in on the earring dangling from Billy’s ear. It’s a silver angel and Steve’s never wanted to kiss someone as bad as he does right now.

 

“I like your angel,” he cuts Billy off without realizing. “Oh, sorry. What were you saying?”

 

Billy blinks at him. And then he reaches up to touch his earring and Steve watches his eyes kind of go all big and round before returning to a normal size. Strange.

 

“Uh, I said, it’s getting bad out there.” Billy’s playing with his hands. He normally doesn’t do that. “Maybe I could keep you company?”

 

And so unsure of himself, suddenly. Steve wonders, briefly, if maybe he’s possessed again or some shit, but he quickly rules that possibility out.

 

He eyes Billy carefully. “Depends. You plan on entertaining me?”

 

Billy honest-to-God snorts and Steve’s heart swells.

 

“Sure, pretty boy,” Billy nods, but his face is reddening so beautifully. “Anything you want. I’ll keep you interested.”

 

Steve smiles at him and raises an eyebrow. “Okay, tough guy. You can start by coming to this side of the counter.”

 

Billy blanches for like half a second, seemingly taken aback by Steve’s directness. He smirks at Steve though, and moves in next to him behind the counter. Steve can smell his cologne, and smoke, and he’s not really sure what to say or do next.

 

He lands on, “Better?”

 

Billy nods before ducking away from Steve’s gaze. It’s the only time he’s ever seen the kid act…shy? Embarrassed? What the hell is going on.

 

“Where’d all that spirit go? Hm?” And then Steve crosses his arms and, smile crooked, awkwardly touches Billy’s hand, gripping his own bicep. “Don’t be shy or anything.”

 

Steve thinks he really pushed his luck with that one, but Billy bites his lip and, according to Steve’s ears, giggles softly, leaning away. Then Steve thinks maybe he’s laughing at him, but then Billy steps like an inch closer to him and stares at the floor with a wobbly smile on his lips.

 

“‘M not shy,” Billy insists quietly.

 

“No?” Steve challenges, suddenly feeling emboldened and aching to get this thing started, or whatever. If it even is a thing. “Then look me in the eye, hot stuff.”

 

When Billy does look him in the eye, it punches all the air right out of Steve.

 

Billy’s so pretty, and he makes Steve stupid with his long eyelashes and blue eyes and red lips. The silver angel dangles silently between them.

 

“Wow,” Steve breathes without meaning to.

 

Billy smiles wide, teeth showing and everything, and he inches that much closer to Steve. “You’ve got guts, Harrington.”

 

Taken aback, Steve laughs. “Please,” he rolls his eyes. “If acting like an idiot is considered gutsy, then, sure…” and he gets imperceptibly closer to Billy. His wrist brushes the zipper of his leather jacket.

 

Glancing down, Steve sees Billy twisting the thick silver ring around his middle finger.

 

“I don’t think you’re an idiot,” Billy assures him, though he says it so softly that Steve questions whether he spoke at all. “I think–” Billy cuts himself off suddenly, staring down at his shoes. He bites his lip.

 

Steve looks at him for a moment, curious, but Billy remains silent. “What?” Steve asks, smiling warmly.

 

“Nothing,” Billy shakes his head slightly. “I was just gonna say,” he sniffs, clears his throat, straightens up. “I think you’re cool, is all.”

 

Steve is troubled. Billy is… cute, like, really cute and it’s scary because what the fuck? And Steve knows he’s been writing the notes, but he won’t admit it, and Steve doesn’t wanna, like, pry it out of him or anything. And so what the hell does he do?

 

“I think,” he starts, but really he’s not thinking at all. “I think it’s possible.”

 

Billy regards him, lost, a question bubbling up from his throat. “What are you talking about?”

 

“You,” Steve says all too confidently, meeting Billy’s gaze. His heart pounds. “And me, I guess…”

 

Billy’s face goes through about sixty different expressions before he sort of grins and asks slowly, “You and me?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve breathes out and feels like he might drop dead. He had the words planned out, swears he did, but they all escape him now. Looking at Billy, he doesn’t know what to say. Nothing seems good enough.

 

“Can you please elaborate on what the hell you’re talkin’ about, Steve?” Billy’s not mad or anything – he doesn’t really get mad anymore – just genuinely confused. Maybe he’s just as afraid as Steve.

 

Steve looks at him for a long time. “C’mon, man.” Steve feels like he’s on the precipice of something wild. His toes hang over the edge of a steep drop-off, his hands shake.

 

Billy, he must be playing stupid at this point because he just stares blankly at Steve.

 

“You think I’m cool?” Steve grins knowingly at Billy, needing him to knock it off already and just get it. “Really? That’s all you wanted to tell me?”

 

Now, Billy looks caught. Like he gets it but he doesn’t know how to turn around and walk out.

 

Something clicks in Steve’s brain; now is the perfect time to kiss him, right?

 

They’re alone, and Steve just has to duck a little bit to plant one on him, but he remains frozen in place. Billy sighs and eyes Steve coyly.

 

“I think you’re funny, Harrington.” Billy’s smiling at him, but something lurks behind his eyes. Like sadness, or the desire to be held. “Like… really funny. Sometimes I still laugh at jokes you made when I first met you.” Billy’s not smiling anymore. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

 

“More or less, yeah.”

 

Billy smirks, probably not actually happy, but amused by how big of a moron Steve is. He sucks at his teeth. “Fine,” he whispers, eyes narrowing as he wedges himself between the counter and Steve. “I think you are,” he rolls his eyes, flushing, “a little bit dumb, but it’s good because everyone else acts like they know so much, and you’re just the kind of–” Billy scoffs and rolls his tongue in his mouth, “goofball that I like.”

 

Sure, it’s a weird compliment (Steve is pretty sure it’s a compliment), but Billy himself is kind of weird, so. It all adds up and everything.

 

“I think you’re really sweet and stuff, like, unnecessarily sweet, but somehow it’s not gross or fake or anything, and,” Billy inhales sharply when Steve moves in closer. Steve thinks he broke the guy. “And, yeah, I do think you’re fucking cool, I wasn’t lying. I like your fucking hair, and your stupid smile, and… you’re pretty, I guess.” He says the last part quietly, nearly whispers it, as Steve hooks his fingers through his belt loops and tugs gently. Billy looks nervous for a moment. Steve can’t feel his legs.

 

“Do you think,” Steve starts, his voice coming out much steadier than he feels. “You’re a little bit in love with me?”

 

In his head, Steve had imagined that now he’d be making his move, but Billy acts before he can do anything.

 

Billy surges up and kisses Steve, finally, finally. Steve grins against Billy’s lips because they’re soft and gentle and he kisses so sweetly. Billy’s bravery, however, does not extend beyond simply kissing Steve, as he remains rigid, his hands clasped behind his back and unmoving.

 

So Steve decides to draw him out; there’s no need for him to hide from Steve now.

 

Steve slips one hand around Billy’s hip, the other sliding up onto his neck. The angel in Billy’s ear brushes against Steve’s knuckles and, slowly, Billy softens. Steve feels his hands sneak up over his stomach, his chest, before Billy bunches Steve’s shirt in his hands when Steve licks into his mouth.

 

Billy makes this little noise, somewhere between a whimper and a squeak, and Steve knows the echo of it is going to be bouncing off the walls of his skull tonight.

 

They pull apart for air and, up close, Steve can see the freckles that dot Billy’s nose.

 

“Look at who’s got guts now, Hargrove.”

 

Billy starts to laugh before Steve pulls him in closer, shutting him up without meaning to.

 

Steve wonders whether they’re still on that edge or if they’ve already fallen, but he doesn’t have to wonder long. Billy closes the distance between them again, kissing Steve like he’s been craving his mouth for a long, long time, and Steve can’t believe Billy Hargrove, Hero of Hawkins, asshole extraordinaire, dots his i’ s with hearts.