“Remind me,” Steve huffed, straining to push his couch back against the wall, “why I agreed to this?”
Robin laughed breathlessly. “Because you’re a soft touch,” she said. “And Dustin knows it.”
There was very little Steve could say to that, since it was absolutely true. He’d made only the most token resistance when Dustin had called to ask if the party could stay for the weekend; deep down, he was touched to have been asked, and he suspected Robin knew it. It had been a while since he’d seen all the kids. Apparently they were having some sort of celebratory Dungeons and Dragons session, designed to last the entire weekend, and they needed to be shut away from the rest of the world to do it.
As much as he loved Dustin, he would never really understand the D&D thing.
It turned out that the Harrington dining table was no good - it was too long and narrow, and Dustin wanted a circular table for the game. So Steve and Robin had spent the last hour pushing all the furniture in the living room against the walls, and they were about to attempt to drag in the outdoor table, which was round.
“It’s gross,” he complained to Robin, not for the first time. “It’s covered in moss, and it’s going to be really heavy. Do you think we’ll even get it through the doors?”
“You measured it, dingus,” Robin said. “And we’ll use a tablecloth. Lighten up, Steve, stop pretending you’re not happy about this.”
Steve stuck his tongue out at her.
“If we wait until they get here, they’ll have to help,” he said ten minutes later, when he and Robin were straining to lift the table. “They’re going to help me put it all back.”
“Steve, shut up and lift,” Robin said, so he did. And yeah, okay, it wasn’t too difficult to maneuver the table into the living room, and once he’d covered it with a cloth it actually looked pretty good. Steve put one of his mother’s vases in the middle, and threw a cushion at Robin when she laughed at him.
“Shut up,” he said. “You’ve missed them too.”
He hadn’t seen the kids since Christmas, and it was June now. They’d come home for spring break, but Steve had been working and he hadn’t been able to get back. He and Robin were sharing an apartment in Philadelphia these days - whatever they did, they always stuck together. She was working as a sound technician for their local radio station, while he had just finished up his first year as a nurse.
It was hard work, and it meant he didn’t get back to Hawkins as often as he’d like to. Which kind of sucked, especially now that the kids had gone off to college.
Still, they would be here later tonight; they’d all come back to Hawkins a couple of days ago, getting in time with their families before the weekend at Steve’s place. His parents, predictably, were away.
There was food in the refrigerator, enough to last a couple of days even though Dustin had said the kids would be bringing their own - Steve didn’t trust that for a moment. He’d put fresh sheets on all the beds and got out all the blankets he owned. Now that the table was ready, there was nothing left to prepare.
“Do you think Billy will come?” Robin asked him, as they sat on the newly positioned couch. Steve was itchy and restless; he needed to take a shower before everyone arrived.
“No idea,” he said. Billy had not returned to Hawkins since Christmas; he lived in New York these days. “I think Max was going to try and persuade him.” It was a little uncomfortable, talking about Billy, but Steve forced himself to keep his voice natural.
Robin, of course, wasn’t fooled. “Will it be weird with you guys?” she asked, giving him a sideways glance.
Steve shrugged. “Probably not.”
He meant it. Five years ago, Billy Hargrove had almost died defending the party from the Mind Flayer, and no matter what else might have happened since then, Steve couldn’t quite forget how horrifying that had been. He and Billy hadn’t been friends then. They might even have been enemies. But none of that mattered when Billy was standing alone with the monster’s fleshy tentacles ripping into him.
It had taken nearly a year for Billy to heal. He’d had nobody to talk to except Steve and Robin; the kids were still kids, and Jonathan and Nancy had gone off to college. So they’d become friends, of a sort. Billy would come into Family Video, rent movies, chat aimlessly to Steve particularly because Robin was often at school. And then she’d graduated, and she and Steve had moved to Philadelphia for college.
Billy got into Columbia. It wasn’t that far from Philly, and he’d come and visit every now and then. It went that way for a few years, while they were all studying. And then, eighteen months ago, the Christmas before last, everything had gone sideways.
There was nothing big or dramatic about it. But Steve and Billy weren’t friends anymore.
Robin was still looking at him, the expression on her face telling him she didn’t believe him. But he was telling the truth: it probably wouldn’t be awkward with Billy. The dissolution of their friendship had happened with a fizzle, not a bang. They had seen each other since, and they’d both been civil. None of the kids had noticed anything amiss; they hadn’t really known how close Steve and Billy had become, since most of it had happened outside of Hawkins.
Steve stood up. It was almost five, and the kids would be there in an hour. He wanted to shower and maybe start preparations for dinner - Dustin had said they’d all make it together, but that spelled disaster in Steve’s mind. And honestly, he was kind of done thinking about Billy Hargrove.
By the time six o clock rolled around, Steve was in the kitchen, clean and with his hair perfectly styled. He was making spaghetti, a staple in his and Robin’s apartment back in Philly, and laughing as Robin fiddled with the radio and sang along to random snippets of songs. He was peeling carrots when the doorbell rang.
Robin went to answer it. She called back from the hallway: “Steve! Your children are here!”
Steve put down the peeler, but before he could go anywhere a cacophony of sound rounded the corner and came into the kitchen.
“Steve!” Dustin exclaimed, and Steve grinned, heading over to give him a hug.
“Every time I see you you’ve got more hair,” he groused, as Dustin’s thick curls spilled over his face. Dustin just laughed. He was pulling the Michael Jackson look, hair pinned up and white socks under his black trousers and matching open jacket over a low-cut white top. College suited Dustin; every time he came back to Hawkins he seemed a little more confident than the time before.
He was followed by Will, Mike and El, each of whom Steve hugged. He was fond of all the kids, as much as they weren’t kids anymore, but Dustin would always be his favourite. Mike, as always, looked exactly the same as he had at thirteen, except taller. He wore a brightly patterned shirt over ripped jeans, and he was holding El’s hand.
She was possibly the most changed out of the kids. Puberty had given her curves, and she’d leapt into fashion with a vengeance; every time Steve saw her she was made up a different way. Today it was high-waisted flared khaki trousers and a pale blue cropped top, her hair in tight corkscrew curls halfway down her back.
“How was your dad?” Steve asked her. He hadn’t seen Hopper for some time now; he usually tried to make time to get lunch together when he was in Hawkins, but of course with El home all bets were off.
She smiled. “Arguing with Joyce about curtains.”
Steve decided not to ask, turning instead to greet Will. Will still looked about twelve, emphasised by his oversized stripy sweater and floppy hair; out of all the kids, he was the one Steve knew the least. He’d always been quiet, like his older brother, but he’d grown quieter still as he’d got older, always seeming a little removed from the whirlwind of school and dating dramas the other kids had been caught up in. He was up at Michigan now, studying to be a psychiatrist. Sometimes Steve wondered if he would have been interested in the field if his own mind hadn’t been invaded so brutally.
“It’s spaghetti for dinner,” he told Dustin, who was inspecting the half-made food on the counter with interest.
“Okay,” Dustin said. “We can get takeout tomorrow, right?”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “I’m an excellent cook.”
“Sure,” Dustin said, and Robin stifled a laugh.
The doorbell went again before Steve could retort, and he headed to the front hall to answer it, still shaking his head. Somehow whenever Dustin and Robin got together, Steve ended up the butt of the joke.
Well, he had to at least pretend to mind it.
He opened the door, and stopped in his tracks.
He hadn’t really thought about who it would be, but of course, all the other kids were already there; it was Lucas and Max, and standing behind them was Billy.
Billy looked as tall and effortlessly attractive as Steve remembered. His hair was shorter these days, cut in a shoulder-length Kurt Cobain kind of style, but he still wore his trademark leather jacket over a tight white top and jeans. He was smiling, the kind of smile that made Steve want to smile back - an inviting kind of smile, a smile that could cause trouble.
And had, as Steve well remembered. He turned his attention to Lucas and Max; they were holding hands, which was nice. Steve was never sure what the status of their relationship was from one week to the next - they had broken up and got back together so many times over the last five years that it was by now a long-running joke in the group.
“Hey,” he said to them.
Max leaned forward and hugged him. She looked much the same as ever, long red hair hanging long and straggly around her face; unlike El, she had taken absolutely zero interest in fashion over the years. She wore comfortable jeans with an oversized shirt tucked into them, and from a distance she could still pass as the easily irritated thirteen-year-old Steve had met five years ago.
Lucas, on the other hand, had sprung into puberty a new man. Steve barely recognised him from the kid he’d once been. He wore a green turtleneck tucked into cropped black jeans with bright red socks visible underneath. Steve hugged him, as well, and then there was no avoiding Billy.
“Steve,” Billy said, politely.
“Hey,” Steve said, equally polite. He stepped back to let Billy in. “How are you?”
Billy wiped his feet on the mat. “Not bad, you know,” he said. “You?”
“Yeah, pretty good,” Steve said. Beside him, Max looked particularly unimpressed by their stilted civility. “Come in, the others are already here.”
Robin, of course, made it less awkward. She and Billy had always got on well, and she greeted him with a tight embrace that made Steve feel a flare of unexpected jealousy. Eighteen months ago, he would have been able to meet Billy the same way; eighteen months ago, he wouldn’t have gone so long without seeing Billy, because they would have been hanging out in Philadelphia in between visits home. Not anymore.
He served up the spaghetti in the dining room - Dustin apparently didn’t want to risk any spills on the D&D table. Dustin also took the seat at the head of the table, which was kind of hilarious because Steve wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anyone sit there other than his dad.
When he mentioned this to Dustin, Dustin’s face took on a serious expression, and he leaned towards Steve and said: “Well, Steven, someone has to be the man of the house.”
Robin, on Dustin’s other side, inhaled some of her soda from laughing.
“How’s college, anyway, man?” Steve asked, clapping Dustin on the shoulder. “Blown anything up yet?”
“Yeah, it’s okay,” Dustin said, shrugging. “I could explain what I actually do, but you wouldn’t get it.”
Steve did not argue with this. Dustin was studying chemical engineering at MIT; Steve wasn’t totally sure he knew what that actually was. “Nerd stuff,” he said instead. “Seeing anyone?”
This was a trick question; Dustin was always seeing someone. “Her name’s Theodora,” he began. “She comes from Boston and she’s a total badass.”
“How’d you meet her?” Robin asked. She always found Dustin’s exploits amusing.
Dustin blushed. “Well,” he said. “She’s kind of… I mean, she shares a flat with someone I know.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“Roberta,” Dustin said. Steve shook his head, while Robin cackled. Roberta was Dustin’s last girlfriend but one. “But it’s totally cool! Roberta and me are friends now, and she even found out about Kathleen—” here he named the other girl he had been dating at the same time as Roberta “—and she didn’t even care.”
“Slut,” Robin said cheerfully.
“Anyway,” Dustin said. “We have other shit to talk about. We have a serious problem.”
Steve sighed. His definition of a problem did not always tally with Dustin’s; Dustin had a tendency to be over-dramatic, and no matter what Robin said, Steve liked to think he could keep things in proportion. “What kind of a problem?” he asked warily.
“Oh, God, the problem,” Max, overhearing, chimed in, rolling her eyes. “Dustin hasn’t shut up about the problem.”
“It’s not their fault,” Will piped up. “Jonathan had to work.”
Dustin dropped his fork in his agitation. “Yeah, but Nancy could have come! And anyway, they knew how important this was!”
“Dustin,” Mike said, “it’s a game of D&D.” El giggled.
“Nostalgic D&D,” Dustin insisted. “A game that honours our roots.”
Steve frowned at him. “Have Nancy and Jonathan ever played D&D with you before?”
“That’s what I said,” Max told him.
“Yeah, but part of our roots is the Upside Down! That’s why no girlfriends were allowed. It was supposed to be all of us.” Dustin actually looked a little upset. Steve kind of got it, actually. He had other friends in Philly, and of course all the kids were branching out in their various colleges and making connections, but it wasn’t the same. How could it be? No one they met could ever know the things they had gone through. They wouldn’t believe it even if they could be told. Coming back to Hawkins and spending time with the small handful of people who understood was the only thing that helped.
Sometimes, he wondered if that was why Dustin couldn’t keep a girlfriend for longer than a couple of months. But then, Dustin was eighteen; he was playing the field for the first time ever, dating all the girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day a few years ago. Not everything was because of the Upside Down.
“So Nancy and Jonathan can’t come,” Robin said. “What about the game? I thought everyone has parts assigned, or something?”
Mike sighed. “Well, yeah, we wrote everyone in, because you guys don’t know how to create characters and stuff. And Nancy and Jonathan’s characters were important to the campaign, so we can’t just write them out.”
“So what will you do?” Billy asked.
Inexplicably, Max laughed. She said to her brother: “Bad news for you, dude.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Billy sighed, and he glanced over at Steve. A couple of years ago, Steve might have laughed in a commiserating fashion, colluded with him in the long-suffering big brother act. Now, he just gave a faint smile. No one had been sure whether or not Billy would be attending, so a character had presumably not been designed for him in the game Will and Mike had put together. It was safe to say that he was now going to be roped in to play either Jonathan or Nancy’s part.
“What about the other role?” Robin asked.
Will shrugged. “There are a couple of other parts that could be merged into one, I guess,” he said. “I need to have a look at it tonight. It’ll be fine.”
“It sucks,” Dustin said. “I really wanted us all to do this together.”
Steve patted his arm. “Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “They’ll come another time, right? And this game will be awesome.”
Dustin grinned at him. “Yeah, it will,” he agreed. “You know you’ll have to step up though, right?”
Steve had already surmised as much; he had requested a small role in the game, given that he had never played D&D and didn’t really have any interest in it. It seemed pretty obvious that he would have to step into one of the larger parts now. He nodded, and rolled his eyes at Billy before he caught himself.
The party moved into the lounge after dinner, talking rather aimlessly and going through a box of VHS tapes Steve had got out for the occasion. Quite a few of them had been purloined from Family Video, back in the day; Steve was still not really a movie person, but he’d had to entertain the kids on multiple occasions. An argument broke out about various movie choices, but eventually Die Hard was selected and put on.
Steve noticed Billy heading outside, lighter in hand, and after a minute or two of indecision - again the bitterness, because eighteen months ago he wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment - he grabbed his jacket and followed.
Billy was sitting on the edge of one of the loungers by the pool, hand cupped around the end of his cigarette as he lit it. He was looking out across the water, watching the dead leaves floating on top of it.
“Thought you were trying to quit,” Steve said, coming to sit on the lounger opposite.
“Yeah,” Billy said with a laugh. He sucked in a lungful of smoke. “Want one?”
Steve grinned. “Sure,” he said, and Billy passed him his packet and lighter.
Billy said: “Weird being back.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Steve said. He was well aware that there was a reason Billy rarely came home. “Did you see your dad?”
“Yeah,” Billy said, his tone a little too casual. “When I picked Max up.”
Steve lit his cigarette. It had been a long time since he had had one; he never really smoked unless it was with Billy. “Was it okay?”
“Max was there,” Billy said, which meant - a witness. Billy never stayed at home, always got a room at the motel on the edge of town when he came back to Hawkins. He had never explicitly told Steve why , but Steve had seen bruises and cuts, seen Billy on the edge of tears, and he didn’t need to know any more than that.
“How’s work?” he asked, in a transparent effort to change the subject.
Billy’s face, as it always did, lit up at the mention of work. When he had first told Steve - a little hesitantly - that he was planning to study to become a social worker, it hadn’t made much sense. Steve hadn’t known then what he knew now, and he’d never really thought about something like social work as a career, never considered what it might entail. But now, having seen Billy excel at university, heard him talk passionately about work in a way Steve had never seen him be passionate before, it made total sense.
It didn’t take a genius to work out why Billy wanted to help abused children. And from everything Steve had seen, Billy was absolutely kickass at his job.
“It’s good,” Billy said now, blowing out smoke. “It’s awesome, actually. I mean, you see stuff, obviously, but it feels fucking good, knowing you’re making a difference. There was this case a couple of months ago—” He stopped, abruptly, and glanced sideways at Steve.
Steve thought he knew why, and it annoyed him. This was the way they used to talk, back when they were friends; for a moment it had been as though Billy had forgotten the polite distance that now existed between them, and now he’d remembered again.
“Go on,” he said, encouragingly.
“It was this kid,” Billy said, tone hesitant. “This boy.” He stopped again, and Steve wondered if perhaps he’d been wrong about the reason for Billy’s reticence. He went on haltingly: “His dad… his dad was, you know, hurting him. He was twelve. His mom left when he was a baby.”
“How did you find out about him?” Steve asked.
Billy’s smile was just a little sad. “A teacher at his school noticed bruises on his shoulders,” he said. “Where his dad had been shaking him.”
“That’s awful,” Steve said faintly, but he wasn’t thinking about the boy in New York, and he didn’t think Billy really was either. “What did you do?”
“We got him out,” Billy said, and now there was a note of pride in his voice. “I was his caseworker. I mean, junior caseworker, but he liked me. We found some foster parents for him, and he’s been there for a month now. I visited him a week or so ago. He’s… happy.”
“That’s amazing,” Steve said, and he meant it. “Jesus. I don’t know how you do it, but it’s awesome that you do.”
Billy rolled his eyes, but Steve could tell he was pleased. “Says the guy that sticks his hands into people’s assholes for a living.”
Steve had never quite lived down the day he came home to tell Robin and Billy he’d had to perform a rectal exam. “That was once,” he said now, although he’d actually had to do it a few times at this point. “And I do plenty of other stuff.”
“With blood,” Billy, who was squeamish, said. “And people coughing disease on you.”
Steve, maturely, stuck his tongue out.
All in all, it was a nice conversation, but when Steve wandered back inside to catch the second half of the movie, he felt restless. He didn’t like the place his friendship with Billy had ended up, the fact that talking like this felt unusual now. Billy used to drive to Philly nearly every weekend. And it was over something so… well, Steve couldn’t exactly say unimportant, because it wasn’t, but it shouldn’t have had this kind of power. The power to end a friendship.
There was the predictable shuffle over who was sleeping where after the film. Steve lived in a four-bedroom house, so with nine people and two couches there shouldn’t have been a problem, but of course there was. Not with the kids - Mike and El were in his parents’ room, Max and Lucas in the double spare and Will and Dustin in the twin room. No, the problem came because Robin flatly refused to share a bed with Steve.
“Never again,” she said, and Steve sighed, because he knew what was coming. “Not since that time after Lucille’s party when you threw up all over the sheets.”
“Robin,” he said patiently. “I haven’t been drinking tonight.”
She crossed her arms. “I told you I wouldn’t share with you after that, and I won’t,” she said. “Take the couch.”
“You take the couch, if you care that much!” Steve exclaimed exasperatedly.
“Hell no,” Robin said, and so Steve ended up with a couple of blankets on the couch in his own goddamn house.
Three feet away from him Billy lay silently on the couch against the opposite wall, and Steve knew that at least part of Robin’s insistence had been a maneuver to put them in proximity with each other. She wanted them to talk it out, thought that the way their friendship had petered out was ridiculous. She wasn’t wrong, of course, but Steve didn’t like feeling manipulated.
Still, he was stubborn enough to call out a hasty, “Goodnight,” after the lights were out.
“Goodnight,” Billy replied, all politeness. There was a silence, and then Steve rolled over, and went to sleep.
It had taken Steve a couple of years to break his tendency to lie in, waiting until the last possible moment to roll out of bed, but shift work had pretty much beaten that out of him; he was up at seven, watching the early morning sky out on the pool loungers with a cup of coffee.
Robin, who also worked a lot of early mornings with the radio station, came to sit beside him at a quarter to eight. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said reflexively. He glanced at her. They knew each other pretty well, Steve and Robin. “Kind of. I don’t know.”
“You should talk to him,” she said.
Steve put his empty mug down on the ground with a clatter. “There’s nothing to say,” he said. “He was pretty clear, and I don’t want to… I don’t know, mess things up even more?” He sighed. “I just wish we could go back to the way things were.”
“Well, maybe you can,” Robin said. “This is the first proper time you guys have spent together since, right?”
“Eighteen months,” Steve said, shaking his head. “Feels like forever. I don’t even know why it’s getting to me so much.”
She nudged his shoulder with her own. “Because he’s here, dingus,” she said comfortably. “Talk to him. I don’t mean about anything,” she added, forestalling his immediate objection. “Just… talk to him. Be normal, you know?”
“We’re polite,” Steve said. “We can talk. We talked last night.”
“Well, keep talking,” Robin said. “You guys were friends before. You can get it back, with some time.”
Steve gave her an affectionate smile. But as he was washing up his coffee mug, he couldn’t help thinking that he and Billy had already had time, eighteen months of time, and it hadn’t made a damn difference to anything.
The kids were up by ten. Steve had deliberately stayed out of the lounge while he was waiting for them all to get up, but Billy hadn’t made an appearance; Steve and Robin had got all the breakfast things together, and then took turns showering, just like they did at home. They were like a machine, oddly domestic, and if Robin weren’t so goddamn gay she’d probably make a good wife. Steve was having a second cup of coffee at the kitchen table, while Robin sat on the counter eating cornflakes, when the kids finally filtered in.
“Morning,” Steve said.
Lucas gave him a look. “Why are you up so early? It’s the weekend!”
“Don’t you dorks ever have early classes?” Robin asked, milk dribbling down her chin.
“Gross,” Max said flatly. “And yeah, sure, but that’s why we sleep in on weekends.”
They ate breakfast, with the usual bickering and banter, and Steve let himself get lost in the pleasure of having them all around. As much as he liked the little circle of friends he and Robin had gathered in Philadelphia, as much as he enjoyed being in the apartment they called home, there was something special about being back in Indiana, surrounded by his party.
He even had his own role. The Babysitter. Robin thought it was hilarious.
“Okay,” Dustin said, when most of the food had been demolished. “What time is it?”
Steve looked at his watch. “Ten thirty.”
“Okay,” Dustin said again. “Someone needs to wake Billy up, because we’re getting started. In an hour, maybe?”
“He’s already awake,” Max said. “He’s been outside smoking for ages.”
El frowned at her. “Breakfast?” she said. She was always a little protective of Billy, ever since she saw into his mind five years ago. Max just shrugged at her.
Dustin was not to be sidetracked. “One hour,” he insisted. “Half past eleven, we all need to be in the lounge, ready to start. Mike, Will, have you worked out the Nancy and Jonathan problem yet?”
“Yeah, we did it last night,” Mike said. “I’m having first shower.”
“Half past eleven!” Dustin shrieked, as the kids all leapt from the table, tripping over their own feet in their effort to get to the bathroom first. “Be there or—” His voice disappeared down the hall, and Steve hid a smile.
Robin, however, had not been distracted by the party. She gave Steve a meaningful look. “He’s outside, smoking,” she said, as if perhaps Steve had not picked up on that himself.
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve sighed, and he stood.
At that moment, however, Billy himself walked into the kitchen. He was wearing last night’s clothes, his hair a straggly mess, and he looked tired. Steve sat down again abruptly.
“Morning,” Billy said, running a hand through his hair.
Steve swallowed. “Morning,” he replied. “Want some breakfast? I think the kids left some crumbs.”
“I’d kill for some coffee,” Billy said. Robin lifted the pot from the countertop beside her. “When’s this stupid game starting, anyway?”
“Hmm,” Robin said. “I’m not sure if Dustin mentioned it.”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, I just can’t think.”
At Billy’s quizzical look, they both said together: “Half past eleven!”
Billy, who knew Dustin well enough to understand why this was funny, rolled his eyes as he poured a mugful of coffee.
It was nearly quarter to twelve before they were all sitting around the enormous round table Robin and Steve had wrangled into the lounge the day before. There were still rumpled blankets on the two couches pushed against the walls; Steve tried not to look at them, tried not to remember the way he had lain in the dark listening to Billy’s breathing.
“Steve, pay attention,” Dustin said sharply, and Steve snapped back to the table guiltily.
Mike cleared his throat. “Okay, well, we all have our own characters already,” he said. “Me and Will wrote roles for, you know—”
“The adults,” Billy supplied, and Robin laughed.
“Right,” Mike agreed. “Robin, you’re keeping your role, okay, but we made it bigger because obviously we’ve lost a character. Your name is Syldove, and you’re an Elf. I have your stats here.” He passed her a piece of paper. Then he turned to Steve. “Steve, you’re taking over Jonathan’s character. He actually helped to create his own role, and we thought it was most like you out of you and Billy. You’re a Halfling called Faldek the Wise, and your stats are here—”
Steve scanned the information sheet Mike had given him. It was spectacularly unclear.
“Okay, Billy,” Mike said at last. “We figured you wouldn’t want to be a girl, so we changed the name of Nancy’s character—”
“Yeah, because it’s totally obvious that Faldek is a boy’s name and Syldove is female,” Billy snarked. Steve smothered a chuckle.
Mike ignored this. “You’re human,” he said.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Billy said, straight-faced. “I was worried then.”
“Your name is Duo Sternshaper, and you’re a Chondathan human,” Mike went on.
“Uh huh,” Billy said, resting his chin in his hands. “What was my name before?”
Mike glared at him. “Well, when it was Nancy playing the role, she would have been called Hatha Sternshaper.”
“Much more feminine,” Billy said seriously.
“We didn’t have time to change anything else,” Will interjected. “Hatha Sternshaper isn’t that big of a role, neither is Faldek, so we figured it would be okay. It was mostly Robin’s part we had to change, because she’s two characters in one now.”
Steve nodded, trying to pretend he was invested in Faldek the Wise. “Sure,” he said.
“Billy, here are your stats,” Mike said, handing Billy a slip of paper, and then the game began.
It turned out that Faldek the Wise was a spectacularly unlucky character. Within the first half hour, Steve had been kidnapped by a group of orcs, failed to escape when given the opportunity, and lost his magic sword when he tried to fight back. His stats appeared to be weighted against him, and he had to sit and wait as the rest of the party gathered to rescue him.
“Is this it?” he groused. “Is this the whole point of the game, am I the freaking damsel in distress?”
Robin laughed. “You make a great damsel, Faldek.”
“Why couldn’t Nancy be the damsel? Why was Jonathan the goddamn damsel?” he complained.
“Nancy,” Mike repeated flatly. “You think Nancy should have been the damsel. Seriously?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve muttered, because it sounded stupid even as he was saying it. Across the table, Billy sniggered.
His character - Duo Sternshaper - had not yet entered play, although he had been discussed at length by the rest of the party. Apparently, Duo was a legendary hero, long since retired, and the first part of the expedition was going to be about persuading him to come out of retirement to assist the party in rescuing Faldek the Wise.
About forty-five minutes in, Syldove - Robin’s character - made her first appearance, as the gatekeeper of the fortress where Duo Sternshaper lived. It was soon apparent that she was meant to be one of two gatekeepers, both of whom would have eventually joined the party, and Steve - still stuck and awaiting rescue - felt a pang for the character he should have played. Damn Nancy and Jonathan.
Robin, of course, was in her element. “I set a challenge for the questers,” she announced. “If you can defeat my cave troll—”
“Cave troll? Come on, Robin, that’s not in the script—”.
“If,” Robin said firmly, overriding Mike, “you can defeat my cave troll, then I will let you pass. And better yet, I’ll join your fellowship and help you rescue the fair maiden.”
She smirked at Steve, who gave her the finger.
They defeated the cave troll, although Dustin and Mike both lost a significant number of hit points, whatever that meant. Robin joined the quest. She led the party to where Billy’s character was living, and they spent another twenty minutes jumping hoops to persuade him to join the party.
Steve was getting bored.
“Tell you what,” Billy said, smirking. “You roll a twenty, I’ll help you. Otherwise…”
“You’re supposed to stick to the story,” Dustin groused, but he rolled the die anyway. It bumped along the table, the sharp edges sticking and stopping it from rolling smoothly, and came up with a seven.
Billy raised his eyebrows. “Tough luck—” he began.
The table shook a little, and the die rolled over again, landing on a perfect twenty.
El wiped her bloody nose on the back of her hand, and tried to look innocent.
“Cheat,” Billy said cheerfully.
“Jesus,” Will said, rolling his eyes. “Let’s take a break.”
Steve stood up immediately, stretching out and cracking his back. It had been almost two hours since they started, and he hadn’t done anything except get himself kidnapped and then watch Billy and Robin fuck around with the kids. It was nice, seeing them all enjoying themselves, but he still didn’t actually get the whole D&D thing.
“Okay, fifteen minutes,” Dustin warbled, obviously still trying to control the situation. Half the table’s occupants were already gone. “We’re back in fifteen minutes, guys!”
Steve looked over to Billy. “Enough time for a smoke, right?”
“Sure,” Billy said, not meeting his eyes.
They went out onto the patio by the pool, sitting on the sun loungers just as they had the night before. It was warm, the June sun beating down on them, so Steve peeled off his sweater while Billy lit a pair of cigarettes, held together in his lips. When he’d finished, he held one of them out to Steve.
“Thanks,” Steve said, taking it. He inhaled, feeling the smoke fill his lungs, and then blew it out into the warmth of his garden. He could feel Billy watching him.
“You enjoying yourself, Harrington?” Billy asked.
Steve sighed. “Yeah,” he said. It was true, he was enjoying himself - but, as always, the tension that now existed between him and Billy where before there had been none made him feel melancholy. And Robin was right - it was worse this time. He and Billy hadn’t really spent any time together in the last eighteen months, until now.
Billy laughed. “Sure, that’s convincing,” he drawled.
“I miss being your friend, Hargrove,” Steve said. He sucked in another lungful of smoke, and looked away.
There was a silence. Billy looked stricken; he obviously hadn’t expected Steve to say that. When he spoke, his voice was choked. “We’re still friends, asshole.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, shaking himself a little. He wasn’t sure where that had come from. “Of course we are.” He gave Billy a smile. “How are you finding the game?”
It looked as though it were taking Billy an effort to answer. He puffed on his cigarette, letting Steve stew for too long. “Yeah. It’s fine.”
“Seriously?” Steve sputtered. “Fine? You’re not going to take the piss out of me for all that stupid damsel bullshit?”
Billy’s eyes were dark, unreadable. He flicked his half-done smoke to the floor. “Nah,” he said, standing. “See you in there.”
And then he was gone, and Steve was left with the remains of a cigarette he didn’t even want burning in his hand, alone in his own backyard.
He took another draw reflexively, feeling the nicotine settle heavy on his chest. Jesus Christ, he never fucking smoked. It was such a Billy thing, a thing they had done together, and just like always Steve was here, a fucking puppy dog following Billy around, doing what he was doing, waiting to be acknowledged. And just like always, Billy was nowhere to be found.
Steve couldn’t quite explain the thing that had happened. He’d tried to, with Robin, but even now it was hazy in his mind; he’d been high, for one thing, mellowed out on some heavy-grade weed Jonathan had brought to the grown-ups only Christmas thing at the Byers’ place eighteen months ago. By grown-ups, of course, they meant them - not the kids, and not the real adults, either. Jonathan, Nancy, Steve, Billy and Robin. The ones who tipped over the cusp of adulthood with the Upside Down hanging over their heads.
It was the height of Steve and Billy’s friendship. They’d shared the joint, giggling in the corner of Jonathan’s living room and refusing to share even when Robin made demanding noises at them. Everyone was a little fucked up, but in a nice way, and there were empty beer bottles everywhere and Jonathan was sat by the record player so there was a steady stream of music, and even Nancy was laughing and dancing a little.
“Christ,” Steve remembered Billy saying. “Christ, Christ, Harrington, Christ.” And then he’d laughed again, a gentle, un-Billy-like laugh. Other parts were less clear, but Steve remembered the way Billy’s face had looked when he’d laughed.
They’d ended up outside, on the old lawn chairs out front. Steve couldn’t recall how they’d got there, only that the joint was finished and the world was spinning, just a little, and they were alone.
He’d said, impulsively: “You ever think you could be this happy?”
“Nope,” Billy replied, and even in the hazy state he was in, Steve was struck by the sincerity in both their voices.
He’d turned his head, and Billy’s face - his face was right there. Just a couple of inches away, his nose practically touching Steve’s, and he felt warm and close and right.
The past is a foreign country. He’d thought it, uncertain of where the words were coming from - perhaps dredged up from years-gone English classes - but it had been a crystal clear thought, cutting through the fog of his drugged-up mind. All the bullshit he and Billy had been through - some of it together, some of it separate, and some of it they’d done to each other - it was long gone, a foreign country indeed, and the only thing that counted was the here and now. Billy’s breath, warm on his face, and his eyes, electric and alive.
“They do things differently there,” he’d whispered, and for a moment Billy’s brow had crinkled up in confusion. Steve laughed softly, because it was beautiful and real, and Billy smiled at the sound of it.
Looking back, Steve wasn’t sure which of them had moved first. Maybe neither of them had, maybe it was gravity, pulling them together. He certainly couldn’t remember making the conscious decision to lean that little bit further forward, but nor could he remember Billy making the move. It had seemed that one moment they were apart, and the next they were together - kissing noiselessly, seamlessly, as though it was always meant to happen in exactly that way, at exactly that moment.
Maybe that was just the weed talking.
It had just been one kiss, one soft brush of lips that felt deliciously right, although Steve could still remember the smouldering look in Billy’s eyes as he drew back, promising something more. A lie, as it turned out, but a lie that had carried Steve gloriously through the rest of that night, the last night he would really be able to call himself Billy Hargrove’s friend. They had slept nestled together on the floor of Jonathan’s living room, and then the next morning Billy had changed everything.
Steve shook his head. He’d replayed that night about a thousand times in his head, but he still couldn’t make himself feel regret for it. As much as he missed having Billy as a friend, he couldn’t wish that kiss away.
“Steve?” It was Dustin’s voice. “We’re starting!”
Steve ground out his cigarette, and left it behind on the patio with all thoughts of the softness of Billy’s mouth and the glow in his eyes.
When he got back into the lounge, everyone else was already sitting around the table. There was also a large platter of sandwiches which, judging by their shittiness, were Robin’s handiwork. Robin herself gave Steve a look, raising her eyebrows.
He shook his head at her as he sat down. She reached under the table and squeezed his hand.
The game commenced. Steve, still wasting away in the orcs’ prison, occupied his time mainly by demolishing several sandwiches. Robin, as it turned out, was extremely good at Dungeons and Dragons; she was quick to pick up on the meaning of the stats Mike had given her, and made daring decisions that always seemed to pan out as they should.
“Are you sure you’ve never played this before?” Lucas asked her suspiciously, as she managed yet again to get through a fight with a rogue Green Hag without the slightest damage.
“Nope!” Robin replied cheerfully. “Natural nerd talent. I’d like to check the body for loot, please.”
Mike shuffled the papers in his hands. “You approach the Green Hag warily,” he said. “There’s a satchel attached to its belt. Roll to find out what’s inside.”
Robin rolled the die. She scored an eighteen. Everyone groaned.
Steve waited patiently as the party drew nearer to the place he was held captive. It was nearly four in the afternoon before they arrived, springing into the camp where the orcs were keeping him below ground in a complex maze of caves.
“At last, the truth is revealed!” Mike exclaimed, and then he stopped short, an odd look on his face, and bent to whisper something to Will.
“What?” Steve said suspiciously.
“Nothing!” Mike said, too brightly. “I just forgot something we put in for Jonathan and Nancy. It’s just a game.”
Billy frowned at him. “What’s just a game?”
“Let’s just carry on,” Will said, although he was still smirking. Steve rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” Mike said, coughing. “At last, the truth is revealed - the reason why the orcs kidnapped Faldek the Wise in the first place.”
Max raises an eyebrow. “The question on all our minds,” she observed drily.
“They wanted to draw out the legendary hero, Duo Sternshaper,” Mike explained. “Everyone knows he’s retired - and nothing and nobody could convince him to leave his fortress. But the orcs have long held a grudge against Sternshaper, and wanted to draw him out in order to kill him!”
El gasped in mock horror. Max giggled. Mike glared at both of them.
Will said loyally: “But why would kidnapping Faldek the Wise draw Hatha - I mean, Duo Sternshaper out of retirement? It makes no sense! Unless…” He paused dramatically, and Steve could just feel that the reveal was going to shit on him somehow, he could just sense it.
“Unless,” Mike went on, picking up Will’s thread, “they’d discovered the truth that few know - that Faldek is Duo’s one true loving husband!”
“Dun-dun-duuuuuun,” Robin crowed.
Steve shut his eyes. Yeah, he knew it was going to make his already wobbly day just that little bit worse.
There was a short pause, and then El said, a little timidly: “Faldek is married to Duo?”
“Well, yeah,” Mike said. “I mean, it was supposed to be Hatha. It was supposed to be Nancy and Jonathan.” He wouldn’t meet Steve’s eyes when he looked at him.
“Oh,” El said, apparently considering this.
Robin said, in a voice that only barely contained her amusement: “Can you even be married in Dungeons and Dragons?”
“Robin,” Dustin said seriously. “Anything can happen in Dungeons and Dragons.”
Billy cleared his throat. Until now, Steve had avoided looking at him; now that he did, he saw the faintest flush in Billy’s cheeks. Of course, the kids would be finding this funny - he and Billy taking on the roles Nancy and Jonathan had been meant to play - but the reality was somewhat less amusing for Steve and Billy. Billy said: “Is this going to get mushy, Wheeler?”
“No!” Mike exclaimed. “I actually kind of forgot it was in there. It’s just your motivation for leaving your fortress.”
“True love, huh?” Steve made himself say, and then faked a casual laugh that probably convinced the kids but definitely didn’t get past Robin. “Should have been you and El, Mike, right?”
“Well, Nancy did save Jonathan,” Mike said obstinately. “So it makes sense.”
Steve picked at the crust of a sandwich in front of him. “Guess so,” he said.
“But they’re guys!” Lucas, often a little late to the show, burst out. “You should have kept Billy a girl!”
“Yeah, well, I might’ve, if I’d remembered—” Mike began heatedly.
Robin interrupted, voice icy: “Something wrong with them being guys, Sinclair?”
Lucas shut his mouth with an audible clack. Max shoved him, and he said meekly: “No.”
“Don’t be homophobic,” Robin scolded. She’d been out to the party for a couple of years now, and they all loved Lucille.
“I wasn’t—” Lucas started, and then stopped. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. I just meant, it’s not legal, right?”
Robin gave him an incredulous look. “This is Dungeons and Dragons,” she said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “We just fought orcs.”
“Well, who’s to say orcs aren’t real,” Steve pointed out. His heart was doing something funny, beating too hard for no reason at all. “The Mind Flayer’s real, after all, right?”
“Right,” Will said, and he smiled at Steve.
“Right,” Robin agreed. “Anything’s possible, so why don’t we just let Duo Sternshaker—”
“Stern shaper,” Billy corrected.
“Sternshaper,” Robin went on smoothly, “continue with his mission to rescue his beloved husband Faldek the Wise, and stop freaking out about a stupid game?”
She looked at Steve while she said this, and he knew her words were at least partly for him. It was true that he was close to freaking out; being put together with Billy in a romantic sense, even if it was just as two characters in a D&D game, could only remind him of that night.
Will, unexpectedly, said: “Yeah, exactly. Let’s carry on.”
So they carried on. True to Mike’s word, there was nothing remotely romantic between Duo and Faldek as the game continued; they didn’t even come across each other, with the orcs deliberately keeping them apart. The leader of the orcs challenged Duo to a battle of single combat, while a few of the other characters sneaked down to the caves where Steve was being held to rescue him. At last, Steve rejoined the game, and got to be part of some of the decisions being made.
By half past five, all the orcs were dead, but as they were dying one of them had cast a spell on Duo which rendered him unconscious and in a coma. This was so close to the mark that Steve looked uncomfortably across the table at Billy; Billy did not look back. He hadn’t met Steve’s eyes the entire game.
“You must travel across the mountains to find the Scroll of Awakening,” Mike proclaimed.
Robin stretched. “Can we travel across the mountains tomorrow?” she asked. “We’ve been playing for hours, and this feels like a good time to stop. Get some air, maybe, you know?”
Dustin pouted. “We were supposed to—”
“No, actually, this is about halfway through,” Mike interrupted. “My voice is getting tired. I don’t know how we did this every weekend when we were kids.”
Steve stood up, stretching his arms up above his head. “Neither do I,” he said emphatically. “Are we doing take-out for dinner, or do you want me to cook?”
There was a pregnant pause. “Um,” El said, gently, “Steve, you’re a really good cook, but—”
“Pizza,” Dustin said firmly. “We’re getting pizza, no arguments.”
Steve laughed. “Okay. You guys order, and I’ll go and pick it up.”
It was a good half hour before the kids were ready to make the call. Everyone was milling around, taking bathroom breaks, chatting to each other - it was nice. Steve had really missed this. He sprawled on the couch and talked to Max and Lucas about their studies while Robin went to the kitchen to call Lucille and Dustin and Mike got into some minor tiff about the game.
Billy had gone out for a smoke. Steve was deliberately not looking for him.
“So how’s the course?” he asked Lucas. “Is it as hard as you thought?”
Lucas wrinkled his nose. “Some of it’s awesome,” he said. “But I have this one guy, Calhern, and he just kicks my ass. He’s so old, he was probably alive for the goddamn Stone Age, but he makes me fall asleep.” Lucas was majoring in history at Indiana State; he and Max were both there, though living separately. “And sometimes he looks at me, and you just know he’s wondering who invited the black kid.”
“Fuck that,” Steve said, protective instincts rising. “Do your parents know? You want me to make a call?”
Lucas laughed. “Nah, it’s okay. He still grades fair.”
“Yeah, because he doesn’t actually know your name,” Max cut in.
“Still,” Lucas said. “It’s changing. Mom and dad couldn’t even go. And by the time Erica gets there it’ll probably be even better.”
It still pissed Steve off, but Lucas had always had a very live-and-let-live attitude towards the discrimination he faced. He hated when everyone got fired up over it. So instead of pushing the subject, Steve said: “How is Erica?”
Lucas glanced at Max, and laughed. “Same old, you know,” he said easily. “Thinks I’m too lame to even exist.”
“Well, that’s true,” Max said reasonably. She and Erica had bonded over their mutual sarcasm.
“You know we invited her, this weekend?” Lucas said to Steve. “She said she’d rather face the Mind Flayer alone than spend two days hanging out with my friends playing nerd games.”
Steve laughed. He could very well imagine Erica saying exactly that. “Tell her I said hi,” he said. He always passed regards on to Lucas’ little sister, out of respect for the hours they’d spent together stuck in the tunnels underneath the mall five years ago. She, being fifteen and a hell of a lot cooler than anyone else Steve had ever met, rarely returned the greeting with anything more than a scathingly raised eyebrow.
“Steve!” It was Dustin. “We’re ready to order pizza now, tell Robin to get off the phone!”
“You tell her,” Steve called back, although he stood up anyway. “See how well that goes for you.”
Dustin, maturely, poked out his tongue.
In the end, it was almost seven by the time Steve finally got in his car to go pick up the pizza. Max was with him; she was more restless than the other kids, and seemed to welcome a break from being around everyone. She got into the passenger side, long hair swishing over her shoulders.
“You alright?” Steve asked her, turning the key in the ignition.
She glanced at him. “Yeah,” she said. “Sometimes I get kind of claustrophobic, you know?”
“Yeah, I get that,” Steve said, even though he didn’t, not really. He never got lonely in this crowd.
He peeled out of the driveway, and for a few minutes they didn’t speak. Over the years, Steve had grown closer to Max, maybe closer than he was to any of them - except Dustin, of course. She couldn’t be more different to him, but he liked the way she always spoke her mind and didn’t take any shit from anyone. She reminded him a little of Robin.
And, of course, she reminded him of Billy as well.
She said: “I hate when Lucas talks like that about his professors.”
“Yeah,” Steve said heavily. “Me too.”
“People give me shit, sometimes,” Max told him. Steve, who already knew this, kept quiet. “We argue about it all the time. Lucas thinks I should let it go.”
Steve shook his head. “Why should you? People are assholes.”
“He thinks I’m too angry,” she said. “And that it’s not my thing to get pissed about.” She sighed. “I guess that’s in the family gene, right? Getting mad about everything.”
“You sure learned from the best,” Steve said with a laugh.
Max grinned at him. “Billy’s way better, though,” she said. “I think I’m angrier than him now.”
“I believe you,” Steve assured her. He pulled up outside the pizza place; a red Civic who’d been hoping for the spot honked angrily at him.
Max got out of the car. As Steve followed, she turned to him suddenly. “He seems kind of sad,” she said abruptly. “Billy, I mean. Is that because of you?”
Steve blinked. “What?”
“Are you the reason Billy seems sad?” she repeated. She had her classic interrogatory look on her face. “He used to talk about hanging out with you and Robin, and now he doesn’t. He seems pretty lonely, to be honest.”
Unexpectedly, Steve’s chest tightened. “I didn’t know he was lonely.”
“So why is he?” Max pressed.
“I don’t know,” Steve lied. He sighed. “We were friends, but I guess it fizzled.”
She scowled at him. “Well, you should un-fizzle it,” she said. “He’s not an asshole anymore.”
“I know that,” Steve said, and that was the absolute truth. It had been a long, long time since Steve had thought of Billy as an asshole. Billy was one of the coolest, funniest motherfuckers Steve had ever known. Being friends with Billy had been awesome, almost as awesome as being friends with Robin. And for the brief hours when he’d thought there might be something else there…
Well. That had been more than awesome. It had been just right.
Max didn’t bring Billy up again. They picked up the pizzas, and on the way back to Steve’s place she talked about her business major at Indiana State, and how frustrating it was being one of a small handful of women on the course. Steve got indignant in all the right places, and suggested that she talk to Nancy about it.
“Nancy,” Max said wistfully as they got out of the car, pizzas in hand, “is a badass.”
“You’re not wrong there,” Steve agreed, and meant it.
The sound of music playing assailed him the second he opened the front door. It was loud, peppy and distinctly feminine in nature; Max wrinkled her nose beside him. “What’s that?”
“Madonna,” Steve said, way too quickly for a twenty-three year old dude. Max snorted.
El appeared in the doorway to the lounge. “Max!” she said excitedly. “Come and dance with me!”
Max cocked her head to one side, apparently thinking about it. “Yeah, okay,” she said, and disappeared into the living room.
“That’s cool!” Steve called after her. “I’ll just carry all these pizzas, no problem!”
“Thanks!” Max yelled back. He looked into the room; she was already dancing her way to the spot in front of the fireplace, while El sang along and the guys showed off their totally mediocre. Robin was doing her cool-girl head bop from one of the couches, and even Will was giving things a go. Steve suppressed a smile.
A voice behind him said: “You need a hand?”
Steve whipped around so fast he nearly dropped the stack of pizza boxes. It was, of course, Billy, standing in the doorway to the kitchen with an unlit cigarette tucked behind one ear.
“Uh, yeah,” Steve stammered. He still had the conversation with Max on his mind. “Thanks.”
Billy stepped forward, a tiny smile on his face, and took half of the stack. It was impossible to know what he was thinking; Steve was already tired of the hot and cold he was blowing, and it had barely been twenty-four hours. Friday night, he’d talked passionately about his job, and today he couldn’t give Steve the time of day. And now here he was, offering help. It was fucked up.
Perhaps it was that that made him say, a little defiantly: “Max says you’re lonely.”
Billy turned around in surprise. “What?”
“Max,” Steve repeated, following Billy into the kitchen. “She said she thinks you’re lonely.”
Billy rolled his eyes. “Max,” he said, putting the pizza boxes on the kitchen table, “is a drama queen.”
“Rich, coming from you,” Steve said with a laugh. He hefted his own boxes on top of Billy’s.
“Me?” Billy said in mock outrage. “Dramatic? I don’t know what you mean, Harrington.”
Steve screwed up his face in his best Billy-impression. “Plant your feet, Harrington,” he imitated in a deliberately whiny voice. “Is that you, or am I dreaming? Something about this is giving me the heebie-jeebies.”
“I never said heebie-jeebies,” Billy said firmly.
“Oh, you did,” Steve assured him.
Billy shook his head. “Jesus. What an ass, huh?” His tone was light, but he was watching Steve closely.
Steve shrugged. “Light years ago, man,” he said easily. He grinned. “Good for mockery purposes, though.”
“Yeah,” Billy said, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Jesus.” Then, in a sudden rush: “I miss being your friend too, Harrington.”
Steve felt it like an actual wound to his heart, piercing right through him. Because what the fuck did that mean? If Billy wanted to be friends - if he missed what they used to have together - then why did he pull away like he had? Because it was undeniably Billy who had backed off. Steve had called, invited him over like always, and Billy had made excuses and been awkward, and finally Steve had stopped trying.
He said, voice choked: “So be my friend, asshole.”
“Yeah,” Billy said, and now there was something sad in his expression. “It’s my fault, right? That things are like this.” He laughed bitterly. “It’s always my fault.”
It was the most passionate Steve had heard him in a while. “Billy—”
“Forget it, Harrington,” Billy said, sounding tired. “There’s a reason we’re not friends anymore. I just keep forgetting it.”
“Wow,” Steve said shakily. His head was hurting as if Billy had actually hit him. His heart was hammering. “Wow, you asshole.”
Billy just looked at him, face inscrutable. Steve’s legs were kind of wobbly, like Billy had actually cut him at the knees the way it felt like he had. After a moment, he turned and left the room, leaving Billy standing alone next to the pile of rapidly cooling pizzas.
“Kids!” he hollered, heading into the lounge. “Pizza!”
For the rest of the evening, Steve very deliberately didn’t look at Billy. He could tell that Robin had noticed, because Robin noticed everything, but she didn’t say anything. She could probably also tell that Steve didn’t want to talk about it. She was good like that.
The kids picked Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to watch with the pizza, which was good because Steve - as with most movies - hadn’t seen it before. He let himself get sucked into the silliness of the storyline, ate way too much pizza, and completely ignored the side of the room where Billy was sitting.
In all fairness, he didn’t think Billy was looking at him either. So maybe this really was the end of their friendship. The thought made Steve’s chest tighten painfully.
“You lot can clear up this crap,” he said, when the movie had finished. “Me and Max went out to pick it up.”
“Yeah, and I helped pay for it, so I’m out too,” Robin chimed in.
Steve snorted. “Helped pay for it, my ass.” She threw a piece of crust at him; he caught it and ate it.
“It’s cool, we’ll do it,” Will said, and he and Mike started picking up the old pizza boxes. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Billy sloping out of the room, lighter already in hand.
“Looks like there’s leftovers,” Dustin commented.
“Bodacious,” said Will solemnly.
Robin caught Steve’s eye, twitching her head towards the door, and Steve nodded. Robin was the only person he’d ever talked to about Billy, the only person he felt comfortable enough to tell. Even Dustin didn’t know about the kiss, and there wasn’t a lot Steve didn’t share with Dustin. He got up, slipping out of the room and heading upstairs. Robin followed him silently.
Everything had gone wrong the morning after the kiss. Steve was still a little at a loss, eighteen months later; he’d been so sure that they both felt the same way, that it was the beginning of a new phase of his relationship with Billy. There hadn’t been a doubt or a question in his mind.
He’d woken up sleepy, relaxed, happy. Now, he could look back and see the signs that it wasn’t the same for Billy - Billy hadn’t been next to him anymore, even though they’d slept the night beside each other, and he hadn’t met Steve’s eyes once over breakfast - but at the time he just hadn’t noticed. It had seemed so obvious to Steve, so obvious that not once did it occur to him to check in with Billy about it.
Still, he’d wanted to talk to Billy, maybe set something up to see each other alone, so when he’d seen Billy heading outside to smoke, he’d followed without a second thought.
Billy looked good, in a morning-after-the-night-before kind of way. His shirt was rumpled and a little dirty, and he looked tired, but he was leaning against the front of the house in his usual too-cool-for-school kind of way and Steve’s heart jumped in his chest. Later, he’d freak out about kissing a guy, being attracted to a guy, but right now that didn’t matter. This was Billy. It wasn’t like it was any old guy.
“Hey,” he called out, and Billy’s head twitched towards him, and then away again. He had a cigarette between his lips. “You okay?”
Steve had to wait while Billy lit up, and he didn’t seem to be in any hurry about it. He said at last: “Sure.”
It wasn’t particularly encouraging, and for the first time Steve felt his pleasurable haze begin to dim. “We going to talk about last night?”
Again, Billy took his time answering, exhaling a small cloud of smoke. “What is there to talk about?” His voice was too measured, and Steve felt his heart start to pick up, like his body knew there was a problem before his mind had got there.
“You kissed me,” he said slowly.
Billy still wasn’t looking at him. “Yeah,” he said. He blew out another gust of smoke. “I know.”
“Are we not going to talk about this?” Steve demanded.
Now, at last, Billy met his eyes. “You going to make a big deal about it?”
Steve was so floored by this that he couldn’t work out how to answer for a few moments. It felt like Billy didn’t care, like he didn’t want to think about the kiss - but that didn’t make any sense. He couldn’t understand it. It was so clear that what had happened had been right, it seemed impossible that Billy didn’t feel it too.
He said quietly: “It is a big deal.” Then insecurity made him add: “Isn’t it?”
Billy sighed. “So you can’t forget it happened, then.” His tone was oddly business-like.
“Is that what you want to do? Pretend it never happened?” Steve asked shakily. He couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. Surely, surely Billy couldn’t be thinking this way - like the kiss had been a mistake, a stupid thing he regretted—
“Yeah,” Billy said. “You think you can drop it, Steve?”
It was the use of his first name that made Steve give up, finally. Billy never used his first name, never. It was always Harrington, or princess, or King Steve, or pretty boy, or any one of the myriad of nicknames he had for Steve. Calling him by his given name was the start of the end, even though Steve didn’t know it just then. But it was enough for him to give up.
“Okay,” he said, shoulders slumping. “Let’s just forget it.”
Except ultimately Billy hadn’t been able to forget it, as he’d so pointedly reminded Steve tonight. Clearly he couldn’t really forget that Steve liked him that way, because he’d pulled back, dodged Steve’s calls, taken himself out of the game. It had become a huge stumbling block, right there in the way of their friendship, and they hadn’t been able to get back to the way things were before. Steve’s stupid feelings had ruined everything.
“No, they didn’t,” Robin said firmly, when Steve expressed this to her. They were sitting on his bed while the kids bickered and cleared up downstairs, and Steve had a painful lump in his throat. He’d thought he was past this.
“Yeah, they did,” he argued. “If I hadn’t - if I’d just—”
She folded her arms. “Just what? You didn’t do anything wrong! You’re not the one who decided to stop being friends with him.”
Steve bit his lip hard. “I freaked him out,” he said.
“Well, maybe,” Robin said. “But let me ask you this, Steve. If it was the other way around, would you have cut him out like this?”
It’s the first time she had put it that way. Every time Steve had spoken to her about Billy before, she’d urged him to give him more time, to keep trying to call. Not to let the friendship go. Steve knew that Robin didn’t quite believe that Billy hadn’t wanted the kiss. She thought that maybe Billy was just freaked out, that with some time he’d change his mind and want Steve back.
Steve knew better. He’d given Billy more than enough chances.
“You’ve changed your tune,” he said.
“Yeah, dingus, that’s what happens when someone’s an asshole to you,” Robin replied. “I know I give you shit, but I’ve always got your back.”
He rolled his eyes. “Nothing’s changed.”
“Yeah, it has!” she exclaimed. “What he said to you was totally over the line. What, he forgot that you had the audacity to have a goddamn crush on him? Asshole, seriously.”
Steve huffed, feeling his face heat up. “I did not have a crush—”
“Steve,” Robin interrupted, holding up a hand. “Please.”
And yeah, maybe Steve could admit that she was right. He had had a crush on Billy. It was more than a crush, really; he knew Billy better than he knew almost anyone, and the way he felt about him had developed so gradually that the kiss just felt like the natural next step. He’d spent eighteen months feeling shitty about liking Billy that way, but then again, why should he?
“I had a crush on you,” he said indignantly to Robin. “For like five minutes, but still. You didn’t make it weird.”
“Exactly,” Robin said crisply. “Look, Steve, it’s worse right now because he’s under your nose. We’ll get through tomorrow, we’ll go back to Philly, and we won’t invite him next time we do one of these things, okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, even though he knew he’d never be able to do that. Billy was a member of the party, always bonded to the group because of what they all went through together, and nothing would ever exclude him from that. It would be so unfair. None of them had anyone else they could talk to about the Upside Down.
Robin gave him a look like she knew exactly what he was thinking. “Stop being so nice, dingus,” she sighed. “Come on. Let’s see what trouble your children are getting up to.”
The children, it transpired, had found Steve’s dad’s wine collection in the utility cupboard. They weren’t quite rude enough to actually start drinking without permission, but Steve and Robin came into the lounge to find three dusty bottles of red lined up on the table next to a tray of wine glasses they’d obviously dug out of the display cupboard in the dining room.
“So, Steve,” Dustin said, with his best wheedling face, “we maybe just happened to find—”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Did you get a bottle opener?”
Dustin fist pumped the air. “Of course I did,” he said, and took a small bow. Max giggled.
Mike poured the wine, handing the glasses out to everyone except Will, who never drank. Billy was back in his armchair, the smell of smoke in his hair, and Steve hated that he could smell it from all the way across the room, that it made him want Billy, even after Billy had been such a massive asshole.
He held onto what Robin had said. It would be easier when they weren’t in the same room.
“Let’s play a game,” Lucas suggested. “There’s this game we play at college, we should play that.”
“Oh my God, no,” Max said, shaking her head. “That game is freaking dangerous.”
Of course, that immediately interested Dustin. “What’s the game?”
Lucas sat up, always in his element when he knew something that Dustin didn’t. “It’s called ‘I Have Never’,” he said. “You find out all kinds of shit about people.”
“Oh, we played that back at college,” Billy said loftily, in the sort of tone that implied that college was many years ago rather than less than one. “Don’t you guys already know everything about each other?”
“Not everything,” El said. She was already a little giggly; she was a total lightweight. “How do you play?”
Lucas took a sip of wine. “You take turns saying something you’ve never done,” he explained. “Everyone else has to drink if they’ve done it, and the person who said it gets points for all the people who drink.”
“What happens if no one’s done it?” Will asked.
“Then you don’t get any points, duh,” Max said. “The point is to try and think of things that you’ve never done that other people have.”
Steve shook his head. “I think you were right,” he said to Max. “This game does sound dangerous.”
She laughed. “Yeah, but it’s fun,” she said. “Come on, Steve, you afraid we’ll find out all your secrets?”
“I don’t have any secrets,” Steve mumbled, but he avoided looking at Billy or Robin. He took a sip of wine. Well, it wasn’t him who was ashamed of the kiss.
“Will needs a drink,” El pointed out, so Will got himself a glass of orange juice, and Mike - always the organiser, no matter what the game - drew up a scoresheet on a spare piece of paper.
Dustin said: “Lucas, you go first. You’ve played before, right?”
“Sure,” Lucas said. “Okay, so I’ll start easy, alright? I have never… eaten meat.”
Max groaned. “You’re such a cheat,” she said. “You always do that one.”
“Because it works,” Lucas said, grinning. “Come on, guys. If you’ve eaten meat, you gotta drink.”
Predictably, everyone drank, and Mike marked down eight points under Lucas’ name on the scoresheet. Steve took an especially large gulp of wine; he was feeling a little raw after his conversations with Billy and Robin. As he glanced over at Mike, he happened to catch Billy tossing back his sip of wine, and for a moment he just watched the smooth motion of his hands, the way they curved around the wine glass.
Jesus. He was losing it. He brought to mind the way Billy’s face had looked when he told Steve that there was a reason they weren’t friends anymore.
Yeah, that was better. Steve took another sip of wine.
“Okay, my turn,” Max said. “I have never… been a member of the AV club.”
Lucas rolled his eyes, but he drank, along with all the other boys - and Robin. She shrugged when she saw Max looking at her. “What? I was a nerd!”
“Was?” Steve muttered, and she laughed. Mike wrote down Max’s five points on his sheet.
Dustin said: “Okay, okay, I get this game now. Okay, so… I have never been in a fight.”
“Bullshit!” Steve exclaimed.
“With a human!”
Steve subsided, and drank. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Billy doing the same.
Max, Lucas, El and Mike were all drinking as well; Mike marked down a number six under Dustin’s name. Dustin pointed to Steve, who said: “I have never had any siblings.”
This produced an uproar. “You asshole!” Lucas exclaimed. “I already have to deal with Erica, how come you’re using that against me?”
Dustin and Robin clinked glasses, while Max, Mike, Lucas, Will and Billy took sips of their drinks. For a first go at the game, Steve thought he’d done pretty well.
“Let’s make this more interesting,” Mike said. “I have never kissed more than one person.”
“You guys are so disgusting,” Robin told him, as El leaned into his chest. “Seriously, you should be ashamed.”
Mike shrugged, wrapping an arm around El’s shoulders. “Not my fault you guys are all sluttier than me.”
“Fuck you,” Billy said pleasantly, taking a sip. Mike wrote down a smugly triumphant six under his name. El, of course, hadn’t drunk either, but neither had Will. Nobody commented on it. Will’s romantic life wasn’t up for discussion in this group.
Unless, of course, he brought it up himself. “I have never kissed anyone,” he said easily, swooping into first place with another score of eight as everyone drank. He laughed as Lucas threw him a glare.
“I have never cheated on anyone,” El said, glancing at Max. Yeah, the game was getting dangerous. Max and Lucas exchanged a look, and clinked glasses as they drank.
“Wait, when did you cheat?” Dustin asked.
Max narrowed her eyes at El. “Not on each other,” she said. “One time when we were broken up, we were seeing other people when we got back together.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mike muttered. “One time.”
Max stuck her tongue out at him.
“Hey, Steve, looks like you drank as well,” Robin said sweetly.
Steve gave her the finger. “Way back in high school,” he said. “Before I even dated Nancy.”
“Yeah, and Billy, you drank, right?” Max said. “I mean, you slept with so many people, so—”
“Nope,” Billy said coolly. “Never cheated.” He grinned wolfishly. “Never got involved enough to cheat.”
Mike wrote down El’s measly three points; she looked disappointed. He said: “Robin, it’s your turn.”
Robin scratched her head. “I can’t think of one,” she said, for which Steve was grateful; she had plenty of dirt on him. “Someone else take a turn.”
“That’s such a cop-out!” Lucas said. “Come on, just say anything.”
“Yeah, do something easy, like… Oh, you could say you’ve never kissed a boy! That’s true, right?” Mike said.
There was a second of silence, when Steve was sure the beating of his heart was loud enough to be heard all through the room. Then Dustin said: “No, that’s shit, she’d hardly get any points.”
“Yeah, she’d only get two, for me and Max,” El said.
“Right,” Robin said slowly. Steve could feel her consciously not looking at him. He hardly dared glance at Billy. “I’d only get two points. That would be shitty.”
Mike gave her a funny look, so obviously her tone was off to everyone. But Steve knew she wouldn’t out him. Like she’d said upstairs, she always had his back; she’d protect him, even when it was just a stupid game with the party. He wasn’t worried about it at all.
And that, conversely, was what made him want to speak up. Robin was protecting him, but why should he? These people were his friends, his best friends. He didn’t have anything to hide from them.
“Make that three points,” Steve said, raising his glass.
For a moment, there was silence, as eight heads swivelled to stare at him. Steve’s cheeks were flushed, and his heart was pounding, but he made himself take a calm sip of his wine. He chanced a look at Billy; he looked like stone in his chair, horrified but silent.
Then El said timidly: “What?”
“That’s three points for Robin,” Steve repeated. Robin was smiling into her lap. “I’ve kissed a boy.”
“Steve!” Dustin exclaimed. “You have? When? I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!”
It was so tempting to tell them. It wasn’t as though Steve owed Billy anything. Billy had kissed him that night and abandoned him the next morning, and it would be a sweet form of revenge to tell the party now.
But revenge wasn’t his style. And Billy’s wasn’t the only story Steve had to tell.
“It was in Philly,” he said. “Robin took me to this bar.”
Dustin’s eyes were bugging out of his head. “Like a gay bar?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. He had to admit, there was definitely a sense of satisfaction in having Billy hear this story; his eyes were round as he watched Steve. “She was off with Lucille, and this guy bought me a drink.”
“What was his name?” Max asked.
Steve smiled, remembering. “Joey,” he said. “He was really cool. He was visiting from Sacramento.”
“And you kissed him?” Lucas said.
“Yep,” Steve said.
Robin laughed. “Sure, kissed him,” she said. “Kissed him in the bar, and the back of the cab, and in the apartment—” Steve didn’t miss the defiant glance she threw at Billy. “That was the noisiest goddamn kissing I’ve ever heard.”
Steve shrugged, smiling. “He was a good kisser.”
“But,” Dustin spluttered, “you like girls!”
Max elbowed him. “You can like both, moron!”
“Why didn’t you say?” Dustin asked Steve, looking so hurt by the omission that Steve snorted.
“I didn’t really know,” he said honestly. “And then… I don’t know, man, it never came up.”
Will shifted in his seat, and Steve looked over to him. Will always reminded him so much of Jonathan, so watchful, always seeing the details that other people missed. He had a feeling that this would be no exception. Will said: “Is Joey the only boy you’ve kissed?”
“Kissed,” Robin muttered, shaking her head in amusement.
Yeah, Will was way too observant. Steve’s mouth was dry, and he couldn’t help it; his eyes were drawn inexorably to Billy. “N-no,” he said, and forced himself to look away. “I mean, yes. I’ve never kissed any other boys except Joey.”
The lie tasted dirty in his mouth.
“Okay,” Mike said, after a moment’s pause. “Okay, so that’s three points for Robin. Who hasn’t been yet?”
“Billy,” Robin said, her voice cold.
There was another pause, during which Steve finally made himself look properly at Billy. He was allowed to now - attention was legitimately on him. Billy looked… shocked. Which given his hostility to Steve kissing him eighteen months ago was probably understandable, but it still pissed Steve off.
He seemed to shake himself a little. “Uh… I have never played Dungeons and Dragons before today,” he said weakly, and the party groaned as they all had to drink. Mike wrote down his six points, and the game continued. But it took a long time before Billy’s face regained some colour.
It was midnight when Robin finally called it. “Okay, guys, I’m going to bed,” she said, putting down her empty wine glass. “Congrats, Will—” Will had improbably pulled ahead in the game, and was four points ahead of Lucas “—but I think we should all get some sleep if you want to finish your campaign tomorrow.”
“Yeah, alright,” Lucas said grumpily. He wasn’t taking Will’s victory particularly well.
“Steve,” Robin added, as if as an afterthought. “You want to share tonight? No puking.”
Steve rolled his eyes, but he gave her a grateful look. There was no way he wanted to be down here in the same room as Billy tonight. He thought he saw Billy twitch, but he was absolutely not looking at Billy right now.
It was definitely a lot more comfortable sleeping in his own bed than on the couch with Billy three feet away. In spite of Robin’s earlier proclamation, she and Steve had actually shared a bed a ton of times, so he barely noticed her next to him anymore. She curled up around a pillow and fell asleep within minutes.
It took him a lot longer to drop off.
Steve was the first one awake the next morning, just as he had been the day before. He took a long shower, tried to ignore the way his stomach clenched every time he thought about Billy and the game last night. He was glad he’d told the others about Joey and the gay bar; he wasn’t ashamed of it, as much as it had taken him some time to come to terms with it. He hadn’t been sure if the whole Billy thing was an isolated incident, or if he might like other guys as well.
Robin had found that pretty hilarious, actually. “I’m not saying it never happens,” she told him, “but I can guarantee that Billy is not the only guy you’ll ever be attracted to.”
“How do you know?” Steve had asked.
“I know these things,” she replied cryptically, and as it had turned out, she’d been right.
Steve got out of the shower, grabbing a towel. The trouble was, he’d enjoyed sleeping with Joey. Enjoyed the way his mouth tasted, enjoyed the feel of his body, so different from a girl’s. It had confirmed to him that yeah, he definitely wasn’t totally straight. It had also helped him get past the side dollop of confusion and shame that had accompanied his feelings for Billy. Joey had been sweet, and kind, and easygoing. He’d been exactly what Steve needed.
He also hadn’t been Billy. And that was something Steve just couldn’t get past.
He made himself a cup of coffee once he was dressed, standing in the kitchen and leaning against the counter. He didn’t want his feelings for Billy to take over the weekend. He wanted to enjoy his time with the kids, enjoy hanging out and playing D&D and being in Hawkins for a while. He had to find a way of being around Billy without this coming up for him every time.
Maybe the reason it was so hard was because something still felt so fundamentally wrong about the way Billy was acting. Steve knew Billy. Sure, Billy could be an asshole, but Steve had never known him to be this kind of asshole. If you had asked Steve before everything happened how Billy might react to a friend having an unrequited crush on him…
Well, this isn’t what Steve would have answered.
He was still standing there when El wandered into the kitchen. She was wearing a little pink pyjama playsuit, and her hair was a mass of curls around her face. Steve always had a soft spot for El, although he knew that Billy was her favourite.
“Hey,” she said, hopping up on the kitchen table. “Can I have some coffee?”
Steve poured her a cup. “We have Eggos, too,” he said, just to make her laugh.
El smiled. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, of course,” Steve said, and wagged his finger at her when she frowned. “It’s polite to let people lie without looking in their heads!”
“Polite,” she replied sceptically, although Steve knew this was not the first time she was hearing this. “Friends don’t lie,” she added, and this time it was Steve’s turn to smile. He hadn’t heard that one in a while.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I’m not okay, but you knew that, right? I’ll be fine. I’m really glad everyone’s here.”
El reached out and put her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry you’re lonely.”
“I’m not lonely—” Steve began, but she cut across him.
“He’s lonely too. And you’re not the only one who’s lying.”
Steve frowned at her. That was the thing about El: she could say the most confusing things, put together from everything she could sense inside a person’s mind, and she almost never explained them properly. “Who’s lonely too?”
El just rolled her eyes at him, like it should be obvious. And yeah, maybe it kind of was.
“We’ll be fine,” he told her.
“I know,” she said, and patted his arm again. “Where’s my coffee?”
Laughing, Steve handed her the mug, and the conversation was over.
They started the campaign a little earlier than they had the day before, Dustin hustling everyone into position by ten past eleven. Steve was feeling more peaceful than he had been when he woke up; talking to El often had that effect on him. She was a relaxing sort of person to be around. He even went so far as to pour Billy a cup of coffee; they didn’t speak, and Billy didn’t meet his eyes, but Steve figured it was better to try and be friendly.
That didn’t stop his heart from thumping when Billy came within arm’s reach of him, of course.
“Okay,” Mike said, as they settled around the table. “Where did we get to?”
“The Scroll of Awakening,” Robin said promptly.
Mike nodded. “Right, the Scroll of Awakening. You must cross the mountains…”
All in all, it was a more eventful morning for Steve, who actually got to participate in the adventure this time around. He joined in with an epic battle against a Red Dragon, and managed not to die. He made several lucky rolls and several more supremely un lucky ones, resulting in the loss of most of his money. He purchased an amulet of health from a passing trader, and then dropped it while attempting to cross a particularly treacherous ravine with the unconscious body of Duo Sternshaper lashed to his back. Steve tried not to think too much about that.
Billy remained out of the game for the first hour or so of play, until the party had retrieved the Scroll of Awakening and utilised it appropriately. Fortunately, Mike skipped past any mention of Duo Sternshaper’s reunion with his supposed ‘true love’.
“Now that you know that the orcs who kidnapped Faldek the Wise were only a faction of a larger group—” They had made this discovery about twenty minutes earlier, while Steve was navigating the ravines “—you have decided to track down the remaining orcs and slay them, to prevent such a travesty from occurring again.”
Robin let out a cough that sounded suspiciously like a snort.
The party continued on their travels, reaching the outskirts of the city where the orcs had last been seen. Steve took a brief break to get everyone drinks; by the time he returned, Mike was explaining that they couldn’t get into the city without an excuse for being there.
“The city is fiercely guarded, and many of the soldiers are in league with the orcs,” he said. “The only way to get in is to convince them that your purpose for being there is legitimate.”
“Um… I’m visiting my sick mother,” Max hazarded. She rolled; the die came up with a score of three.
Mike shook his head. “The guards ask what your mother’s name is. When you can’t come up with an answer quickly enough, they shut the doors in your face. You’ll have to think of something else.”
“I want to see the sights,” Lucas suggested.
He rolled a two. “The guards want to know why so many of you have come to see the sights at once. They don’t find your answer convincing,” Mike said. “Beware! If you don’t convince them this time, they’ll send you straight to the city’s prison.”
“Maybe that’s a good idea,” Will said. “We could break out, and then we’d be in the city.”
“Yeah, but it’ll take forever,” Dustin replied. “We should at least try one more time.”
El tipped her head to one side. “We’re here for a party,” she said. “Faldek the Wise and Duo Sternshaper are celebrating their marriage.”
There was a momentary pause, during which Steve shifted in his seat and Billy sat extremely still. Neither one of them spoke, and after a moment, El rolled the die. It landed on a perfectly serviceable score of seventeen.
“The guards believe you,” Mike said. “They congratulate the happy couple as they allow you into the city.”
“Jesus,” Steve muttered, and Max laughed. Even Robin had a traitorous smile playing around her lips.
“Congratulations,” Robin said to Steve. He gave her the finger.
“I think it’s sweet,” Max said unexpectedly. She glanced at Billy. “Even if you’re the grumpiest husband ever.”
Billy leaned forward and ruffled her hair. “I’m not grumpy,” he said. It was the first time he’d spoken outside of his moves in the game since they started playing.
Lucas said slyly: “Shame it’s not Joey playing, right, Steve?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Max said swiftly. Steve rolled his eyes.
“What?” Lucas said. “I’m just saying, if Steve was playing with Joey it could be an actual couple—”
“Dude,” Steve sighed. “Come on.”
Lucas looked around the table, where nearly everyone was giving him the same wide-eyed stare. “What?”
Dustin shook his head at Lucas, and then transferred his attention to Steve. “Do you still talk to Joey, Steve?”
“No,” Steve said. “I told you, he lives in Sacramento. It was just a one-time thing.”
“Would you… you know, be with a guy?” Lucas asked curiously. “Long-term?”
Steve was sure his face was bright red. He glanced at Robin; she looked a mix of amused and protective. “I guess,” he said guardedly. He made sure he wasn’t looking anywhere near the vicinity of Billy. “If I met the right guy.”
“Boys,” Robin said firmly, “are more trouble than they’re worth.”
“You got that right,” Max agreed. Lucas looked troubled by this; Max laughed at the expression on his face. “You should stick to girls, Steve. We’re much nicer.”
Steve shook his head at her. “Believe me, if I could choose who I fall for, my life would be a hell of a lot easier.”
He swallowed. That had come out a little too raw for his liking.
Will leaned forward, and Steve could feel it before it happened. Will, in his usual unerring way, was about to ask a question that Steve didn’t want him to ask, open a can of worms that Steve would rather remain sealed.
“Have you fallen for someone?” Will said, and Steve shut his eyes briefly.
“You kids are so nosy,” Robin said hastily.
As a distraction, it didn’t work. The kids were all looking at Steve. He knew he could just lie, or refuse to answer; it’s not like they’d know any better.
Have you fallen for someone? He’d never really thought about the extent of his feelings for Billy, always trying to push them away for the sake of a friendship that didn’t really exist anymore. Had he fallen for Billy? He could barely look at him without his heart beating triple time, and even after eighteen months, he still found himself replaying their single kiss in his mind, over and over.
He said, blushing: “Well, maybe.” He sighed, because that wasn’t true. There was no goddamn maybe about it, and if he was going to be honest about this, he might as well be honest about all of it. “Yeah. I have. I’m in love with someone.”
It felt good to say it. Even if it also felt a little like he was dropping a bomb in the middle of his living room.
“What!” Dustin exploded. “Steve, what’s up with you not telling me stuff!”
“Henderson,” Robin said. “Chill out.”
Dustin, of course, did not chill out. But Steve wasn’t listening anymore. Maybe confessing all his secrets was somehow making him a braver person than he had been before, because he was finally doing the thing he’d been avoiding the whole time they’d been playing.
He was looking at Billy.
Billy looked… shocked. He was pale, his eyes wide and very blue. It looked like he was barely breathing. And for once, he was looking right back at Steve.
Steve lifted his shoulders, and let them drop again. Yeah, he’d fallen in love with Billy. It wasn’t going away, as much as he wanted it to. And maybe he wasn’t about to tell the party any specifics, but all of a sudden Steve was done hiding how he felt. He was done feeling bad about the way he felt, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. Falling in love with Billy was the easiest thing he’d ever done, so easy that he’d slipped into it without even trying.
And if Billy didn’t like it, well… tough shit.
He could tell Billy was expecting him to back down. To look away. But Steve was done looking away.
Dustin, in the midst of a heated discussion with Robin about which of them knew Steve better, shut up abruptly when Max hit his shoulder.
Billy said, voice low: “Goddamnit.”
“Problem, Hargrove?” Steve asked coolly. Under the table, his knees were shaking, but his voice remained steady. Thank God. He’d probably have a goddamn anxiety attack over this later with Robin.
Slowly, Billy rose from his chair. His hands were trembling, and suddenly he brought one of them slamming down on the table. He hit the tabletop with a loud crash, making El jump and several playing pieces topple onto the floor.
“Goddamnit!” he bellowed. “Jesus Christ, fuck!”
“Billy,” Max said, sounding alarmed, but he wheeled away from her. “Billy, it’s okay!”
For a moment, it looked like Billy was about to storm out, but then he turned back. Steve, oddly, felt totally calm. It was like he’d known this was coming, even though he hadn’t. It didn’t make any sense - except that it did. Steve’s body knew something his mind hadn’t caught up to yet, and if he just kept still and quiet he’d figure it out.
Unfortunately, since this was Billy, keeping still and quiet wasn’t really an option.
“Harrington,” Billy bit out furiously. “I need to talk to you.”
Dustin stage-whispered: “What’s going on?”
“Shh!” El hissed at him.
Steve stood up. “What do you want to talk about?” he asked Billy.
“Don’t do that!” Billy yelled furiously. “Don’t pretend you don’t know—”
“I don’t know!” Steve shouted back, and suddenly all the anger he’d been feeling, everything he’d been holding onto since Billy rejected him without a shred of explanation or sense, came rushing through him. “You’re the one who—”
Robin stood up as well. “Hey, fellas,” she said reasonably. “Do you maybe want to take this outside? Or wait until we go outside? Come on, you don’t want to be having this conversation here.”
“I don’t give a shit where we have this conversation,” Steve said coldly. “Nothing’s changed, right, Billy? There’s a reason we’re not friends anymore. You just keep forgetting it.”
Billy sucked in a sharp, horrified breath.
“Kids,” Robin said. “We should move—”
Billy said, sounding broken: “I didn’t… I didn’t mean that the way you think I did.”
Dustin, looking from Steve to Billy and back again, said plaintively: “I’m confused.”
“Oh, wake up, Dustin,” Max said impatiently. “Steve’s in love with Billy, and Billy didn’t realise it until right now.” She turned to her brother. “You idiot, why do you always wait until it’s too late?”
“Wait,” Dustin said, frowning. “Steve’s in love with Billy? With Billy? But Billy’s not… Billy doesn’t…” He stared at Billy. “I mean, you like girls, don’t you?”
Robin suddenly let out an odd, squawking noise.
“What?” Lucas said to her.
But Robin wasn’t paying attention to Lucas. “Steve,” she said urgently. “Steve, oh my God.” She shook her head. “Jesus, Billy, you’re a bigger idiot than Steve is.”
And suddenly, it hit him like a ton of bricks.
Steve got it.
“Robin,” he said, voice measured, “could you take the kids out, please?”
She glanced at him. “Come on, guys,” she said. “You heard him. Let’s go.”
“But - the game—” Mike began, but El took his hand, and they got up. Steve waited, heart beating, while everyone left the room. He didn’t take his eyes off Billy the whole time.
At last, the door closed behind Robin, and they were alone.
“Steve,” Billy said, but Steve raised a hand.
He wasn’t ready to hear it.
“Eighteen months,” he said. “That’s a year and a half, Billy. Eighteen goddamn months!”
“I know,” Billy said.
Steve shook his head. Understanding hadn’t taken away how angry he was. If anything, it made it worse. “There was no reason for that,” he said. “You made me feel like I’d lost you as a friend.”
“I’m sorry,” Billy said. He was very, very pale.
“Okay,” Steve said. He sat down heavily, resting his arms on the table. “Okay, fine. You explain it. Because I think I get it, but maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. None of this makes any fucking sense.”
Slowly, Billy sat down opposite him. There was a whole table between them, covered in Dungeons & Dragons game pieces and all the remnants of snacks and drinks the kids had brought to the game. But it still felt like the closest Steve had been to Billy in a really, really long time.
He’d been so goddamn polite. And maybe he shouldn’t have been.
Billy said quietly: “I kissed you.”
Steve sighed. “Man, come on, we kissed each other.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not what you said the next day,” Billy said irritably. “And I just figured…” He trailed off.
“What, you decided that I wasn’t into it based off a figure of fucking speech?” Steve fired back at him. “You just shut me down!”
“Yeah, I know!” Billy yelled. “Goddamnit, you think I don’t know that?”
Steve rubbed his temples. He was pissed, but he was also tired - and sad. Because this was just a clusterfuck of stupid. Because the last eighteen months didn’t need to have happened. He said wearily: “Billy, I get that you thought I was the one regretting it at the time. But you can’t have thought that this whole time. You’re not stupid.”
“Maybe I am,” Billy said, looking down at the tabletop. “I don’t know, man. I just thought… I thought it was all me, you know, and I’d taken advantage of you because we were high, and then you came out and said it was a big deal that I kissed you, and I just thought—”
“Confirmation bias,” Steve said, which was something he’d learned from Robin.
Billy gave him a look like he knew that wasn’t something Steve had come up with on his own. “Well, maybe,” he said. He sighed. “I didn’t want to lose you as a friend because I had - because I felt—”
“Yeah, but you did lose me as a friend,” Steve said. “You stopped being friends with me. That was you. I didn’t want things to change.”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Billy admitted. “I didn’t feel like I could be… normal, around you.”
This elicited an angry snort from Steve. “You didn’t even try!”
“Yeah, I know,” Billy said in a small voice. “I was scared.”
It was a really, really big deal for Billy to say that. Steve knew that. Billy never showed fear, never said he was scared of anything, not even when he was talking about his dad, or the Upside Down. Billy Hargrove did not admit fear. And here he was, actually telling Steve that he was scared.
And Steve believed him. He believed that Billy had been scared, the night they kissed, and Billy didn’t have a Robin to talk it through with. He believed that Billy hadn’t been able to bring himself to consider the possibility that Steve had wanted the kiss, and he believed that for Billy, shutting the problem out was the response that made him feel safest.
It still sucked.
“I just wish you would have talked to me,” he said bitterly. “I wish you’d asked. I wish we hadn’t spent eighteen months not talking, just because you were too scared to ask.”
“I know,” Billy said. “I’m sorry.”
Steve looked at him. He knew that was true, too. But he couldn’t ignore the fact that Billy would never have asked, if this whole thing hadn’t come up another way. And Billy wasn’t stupid. There must have been a part of him that knew he was wrong, that deliberately blinded him to the truth of how Steve was feeling. But that blend of fear and machismo that he’d got from his father had stopped him from reaching out.
“You really hurt me, man,” he said bleakly.
Billy raised his head. “I won’t do it again.”
Steve kind of believed that, too. “I don’t know where to go from here,” he said. “I’m pissed at you.”
“You said,” Billy began, and stopped, swallowing. “You said you loved me.”
“I do,” Steve said, because he couldn’t exactly lie about it at this point. He was pretty much past the point of embarrassment anyway.
This time, when Billy met his eyes, there was something like hope in his expression.
“I fucked up, Harrington,” he said. “I’m an asshole, and I’m sorry.”
“Stop it,” Steve said.
Billy stood up, moving around the table. “No,” he said.
“This doesn’t change anything,” Steve said, as Billy approached him. “You still left me hanging for eighteen months, you made me feel shitty for eighteen months—”
“Yeah, I know,” Billy said again, reaching Steve’s chair. He pulled out the one next to it, sitting so close that Steve could feel the warmth of his skin close by. “I’m a fuck-up, okay? I didn’t think you could like me that way, I thought you must be disgusted by me. I thought I was doing you a favour.”
“A favour!” Steve burst out indignantly.
Billy cut him off with a wave of his hand. “I know, I know, okay! I was an idiot. And I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again, and it’s taken me way too long to tell you the truth about what I want, but I’m doing it now. You’re what I want.”
For a moment, Steve’s heart stopped. “What?”
“You’re what I want,” Billy repeated. “I want to be with you. I love you. And if you’re too mad, if you can’t get past me being such an asshole, then I get it, but I’m telling you anyway.” He paused, forehead wrinkling. “And when I said there was a reason we weren’t friends, I thought the reason was because I’m in love with you. That was the reason I meant.”
Well, that was just unfair. Hearing Billy talk like that, sitting so close, warm and real and right, it was like all Steve’s totally righteous rage just drained away. How could he stay mad, when Billy was being so sincere? When Billy was saying everything Steve had been wanting him to say for…
For eighteen months.
“I’m still pissed,” Steve said tightly.
Billy was sitting way too close, his eyes warm. “How pissed?”
“It’s just the time,” Steve said. “All that time of not being friends, it just sucks! And… I mean, you were never going to tell me, were you? If all this hadn’t happened, if I hadn’t figured it out, if we hadn’t spent time together this weekend, you would have just kept quiet and I would have lost a friend for nothing.”
“I don’t know,” Billy said, dropping his gaze. “I want to say I would have said something, but honestly I don’t know. But I’m saying something now.”
Steve pushed a hand through his hair. “Well, maybe it’s too late now!” he exclaimed frustratedly.
Billy didn't look away. "Is it?"
That was the question, wasn't it? Steve didn't know. He was mad. Really, really mad. What Billy had done had hurt both of them, and for what? Because he was scared? His worst-case scenario had happened anyway. Steve wanted to feel the same optimism he'd had that night. He wasn't sure how to get that back.
But on the flip side…
Steve knew Billy. He knew him better than anyone. He knew the damage Billy's dad had done. Billy spent his whole life feeling like everything he felt was wrong. He was taught not to trust in the people he should have been able to rely on the most. He learnt not to want anything, because everything he wanted would be taken away from him.
Steve could point to parental neglect. He had a pretty good imagination. But he'd never fully know what it could feel like to grow up that way, and he was lucky because of that.
He understood Billy's fear. Billy's real life had started when he left Indiana, when he started making roots somewhere else, meeting people who appreciated him, finding a career he was good at where he could help children just like him. How could he really be mad at Billy for being scared it would all go away?
"No," he said.
Billy's eyes widened, and Steve realised that Billy hadn't expected him to say that at all. He'd been expecting a completely different answer. Even now, Billy couldn't let himself really hope.
"What?" Billy whispered.
"I said no," Steve said, and he found himself reaching out. His hand touched Billy's forearm. "It's not too late. Asshole," he added, in case Billy thought he was completely off the hook.
Billy bit down hard on his lower lip. "Oh," he said, his voice unsteady. He smiled, and it was blinding. "Good."
As Billy leaned forward, Steve stayed completely still. He still couldn't quite believe this was happening, but it reminded him of that night. Of his absolute gut certainty that the thing that was happening was right.
He was exactly where he needed to be.
Billy's lips touched his so gently that they were barely there, the ghost of a kiss. The world was very quiet around them. Steve touched Billy's face.
When Billy drew back, he rested his forehead against Steve's. "I don't know how to do this," he confessed quietly.
Steve smoothed down Billy's hair. It was very soft. "It's okay," he said, and he meant it. "I love you. We'll figure it out."
"I love you too," Billy said, so easily it was as though he'd known it forever. And maybe he had.
He kissed Steve once more, his mouth soft and warm and his hands tangled in Steve's hair.
"Are you guys done in there?" Robin's voice called through the door. "I don't hear any more yelling, so either you've sorted out your shit or one of you has killed the other—"
"Oh my God, Robin!" Steve groaned. Billy hid a smile.
Robin's face appeared around the door. When she saw their joined hands, she grinned. "For the record, I think Steve would have been the one doing the killing," she informed Billy. "You know he's a badass now? He won a right against a Russian a few years ago."
"Robin," Steve said. "Shut up."
"Are you guys done? Can we finish the game?" Dustin appeared next to Robin. He looked spectacularly unimpressed by Steve and Billy's linked hands, which meant he was still pissed at Steve for not telling him what was going on. Steve was going to have to do some serious butt-licking.
Billy squeezed his hand, which made the required ass-kissing seem pretty much worth it. "Yeah, you can come in," he said.
The kids filtered back into the lounge remarkably quickly; Steve had the sneaking suspicion they'd been listening in the hall. He decided not to ask.
They settled around the table, although this time Billy was sitting next to Steve.
"Okay," Mike said. "Okay, where were we?"
"Faldek the Wise and Duo Sternshaper just got us into the city," Robin said. She glanced at Steve. "Not before time, either. Also, I get an extra point for 'I Have Never' because Hargrove's a fucking liar."
Mike grinned, shaking his head a little, and Billy gave Robin the finger. "Okay," Mike said again. "So, you've been able to get into the city without arousing suspicion. Now you must continue your quest to find the orcs."
"Is there anyone around we can ask?" Will suggested.
"No, are you crazy?" Dustin exclaimed. "We can't ask, that'll tip them off!"
Max said: "Typical guy, never wants to ask for help—"
"It's got nothing to do with being a guy—"
The argument raged on, comfortingly familiar, and Steve found himself smiling. He was in the presence of everyone he loved the most in the world, and under the table Billy was holding his hand.
There was absolutely nowhere in the world he'd rather be.
He glanced at Billy, meeting his eyes. He looked so happy, a happiness Steve hadn't seen in his face for a long time, and it made Steve's heart jump.
"Ugh," Robin said loudly. "Enough of the googly eyes. You guys are disgusting."
Steve gave her the finger. It was no more than she deserved.
The game went on.