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go west, young man

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The sun is just cresting the horizon, washing the yard in soft gold light, when Steve hefts his duffle bag into the Camaro's trunk. It's a tight fit between the other bags and boxes squeezed in there but, despite the fullness of the trunk, there's still a lot he's leaving behind. His stomach clenches. Moving to California with his best friend may not be the craziest thing he's done in his life, but there's a difference between adrenaline fuelled monster fighting and the slow build of this dream to move across the country. At least this time he's pretty sure he won't die.

Billy is leaning against the car, thumb hooked in the belt loop of his jeans, cigarette in his other hand. His head is tilted back, eyes closed as he exhales a plume of smoke. As Steve watches him, some of the niggling doubt in his belly eases. He wants to do this. They're going to do this.

Duffle bag firmly lodged in place, Steve slams the trunk shut, letting his palms rest on the car. He yawns, even though he's too wired up to feel tired. Billy looks over to him, then, the hint of a smile playing on his lips. They look especially pink in the dawn light. Steve blinks and shakes off that line of thought, like he always does.

'Ready?' Billy asks, flicking his cigarette.

Steve wipes his palms on his jeans and looks around. He's spent his whole life on this street, in this house, and now he's not sure when he'll see any of it again. But he nods and moves to the passenger's side and opens the door.

As he's about to get in, Jonathan's car pulls up. It sputters to a stop and Nancy spills out, followed closely by Jonathan.

'We thought we might've missed you,' Nancy says, a little breathless. She's clutching a box to her chest as she hastens towards them, blue skirt swishing around her knees.

Steve exchanges a glance with Billy. They'd said their tearful goodbyes to everyone, last night at the Byers', but Nancy and Jonathan had said they wanted to drop by in the morning to see them off. Steve had started to think they weren't going to make it in time. 'You nearly did,' he says, one hand on the top of the car door.

'I know you said you didn't want a fuss, but we wanted to give you this.' Nancy thrusts her arms out toward Steve.

The box in her hands reads 'Polaroid Sun 600' and has a photograph of a camera on it, against a blue and black background.

'We thought you might want to document your trip,' Nancy says.

'And this way you don't have to wait or get photos developed along the way,' Jonathan says. 'Oh, here's some film.' He hands a few packs of film over to Billy who looks as stunned as Steve feels.

'Thank-you.' Steve smiles, turning the camera box over in his hands. He's lost for words.

'Yeah, thanks,' Billy says, voice rough.

'You're welcome,' Nancy says. She bites her lip. 'Are you sure you're all set?'

Steve nods. He looks between Jonathan and Nancy and Billy and thinks how strange it is that, against all odds, the four of them have forged a friendship that probably shouldn't have worked as well as it has. He didn't realise how hard it would be to leave behind, until now.

'We should take a photo,' Steve says, 'of the four of us.'

'The camera doesn't have a timer,' Jonathan says.

'We can just...' Steve mimes holding a camera out at arm's length and Jonathan shrugs, then opens up the camera and loads it with a pack of film, before handing it back to Steve.

The others shuffle around Steve, until they are huddled close together, and Steve holds the camera up.

'Smile,' he says and pushes the button. The flash goes off and moments later a photo pops out. They watch it develop, four faces appearing within the white frame. It's out of focus and most of their faces are cut off but it's the last photo they'll take together for some time, so, to Steve, it's perfect.

'Guess I should leave the photography to Jonathan,' he says, though, and everyone laughs.

He puts the photo on the dash then sets the camera and extra films on the backseat. A charged silence descends.

'We should get going,' Billy says.

'Yeah.' Steve runs a hand through his hair. He didn't do anything to it, when he got up, and suddenly feels self conscious. 'Thanks again, for the camera.'

'That's OK,' Jonathan says and Nancy nods. Her lips are pursed and her eyes are glassy. She blinks, and a tear rolls down her cheek.

'C'mere,' Steve says and pulls her into a hug.

'I'll miss you,' she says.

'Yeah, me too.'

Steve squeezes her tight, the scent of her shampoo threatening to dredge up old memories, and then lets her go. Jonathan is giving him a strange look and Steve wonders if maybe he'd hugged Nancy a little too long, but then a moment later Jonathan flings his arms around Steve. Steve pats him on the back a couple of times and then his arms are empty as suddenly as they were full.

'Good luck,' Jonathan says, clearing his throat and looking anywhere but at Steve.

Steve smiles. 'Thanks, man.'

Billy shares a brief hug with Nancy, then he and Jonathan stare at each other a moment before shaking hands. He nods once and gets in the car. Steve follows, winding his window down.

'Drive safe,' Jonathan says, with a soft smile.

'Send us lots of postcards,' Nancy adds, eyes still bright with tears.

Steve's throat is tight as he says, 'We will.' He looks over to Billy and nods and Billy pulls away with a small wave in Nancy and Jonathan's direction.

'Ready?' Billy asks, again.

In the side view mirror, Steve can see Nancy and Jonathan standing on the kerb, watching the car drive away. Steve wipes at his eyes. He tries to be subtle but he can tell by the look Billy gives him that he saw. 'Yeah, I'm ready.'

__

The window is rolled down, a balmy breeze ruffling Steve's hair as he watches the scenery pass by, with Billy's music playing from the tape deck. Each place they pass holds memories, good and bad and in between and he feels a wave of nostalgia threaten to overwhelm him.

There's the playground where he'd broken his arm when he was seven, the parking lot where he'd effectively ended his friendship with Tommy, the bowling alley where he'd had his first kiss with Sandy Beaumont in 6th grade. Little moments of his life sprinkled all over Hawkins.

Steve shakes his head and looks over to Billy when he hears, 'Earth to Harrington.'

'Hm?'

'I said, your dad is going to lose his shit when he finds out you sold your car.'

The grin that spreads over Steve's face matches Billy's and he feels that wave within him ebb. Excitement surges up, now, buzzing under his skin, tingling in his veins. 'Hopefully we'll at least be in Nebraska by then,' he says.

Billy's lips quirk as he looks at Steve then back to the road ahead. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. 'So, you end up telling your parents this isn't a one way trip?'

Steve opens and closes the arms of his Wayfarers. 'Yeah, but they still didn't believe me.' He sighs. His parents had fixed him with disbelieving looks each time he brought up moving to California. Brushed him off. They had thought it was a reckless dream, so, like with anything inconvenient, pretended it didn't exist. 'But I left them a note this morning. Gave them your aunt's number and said I'd call from the road when they get back from...wherever.'

Billy nods, chewing on his lip. Steve wonders what he's thinking about.

'You?'

'Swore Max to secrecy,' Billy says, shrugging one shoulder, 'and left before Dad and Susan woke up.' He clears his throat. 'Figured I'd send him a postcard from Fuck You, Iowa.'

Steve snorts. 'I don't think that's a real place.'

'No?'

Steve shakes his head in mock apology.

'Pity,' Billy says. 'Got a nice ring to it.'

Steve gets the feeling Billy is winking behind his aviators. He closes his eyes and inhales. The breeze brings the familiar scent of summer into the car. Steve wonders if summer smells different in California.

'I can't believe we're really doing this,' he says.

The whole thing had started with a drunken conversation during which Billy had confessed he'd been doing odd jobs to save money so he could move back to California after graduation. The thought of Billy leaving had left Steve feeling unmoored. He hadn't realised how much he'd come to depend on Billy's near constant presence. It had snuck up on him, one spontaneous game of one-on-one followed by another and then another, which turned to grabbing a slice after school, watching the game, going to the movies, until they spent most of their time together. Inseparable, or so he'd thought.

The next time California was brought up Billy had suggested, too offhand to be truly casual, that Steve come with him. Fuck working for his dad, he'd said. And Billy's aunt, the one he was going to stay with for a while, wouldn't mind. But it was still a pipe dream, then, for Steve at least. Until, one day, Steve had said, 'Yeah. Fuck it. Let's do it.'

And now, here they are. It was Billy's idea to drive there, see some of the country. Take their time. They're in no hurry, after all. And he didn't want to leave his car behind, anyway.

'You're not having second thoughts on me, are you?' Billy says.

'Not one.' Steve presses his lips together. 'Are you?'

'Nope.'

'Good.' Steve settles back in the seat and watches Billy drive. He always looks the most at ease behind the wheel of his car, Steve thinks. Looser. Free.

Just then, they get to the town limits and the sign that reads, 'Leaving Hawkins. Come again soon.' Steve won't be. He lets out a long breath.

Billy slows. 'Wanna stop? Say goodbye or something.'

Steve hesitates a moment and then says, 'Nah.'

Billy grins at him and floors it, leaving a cloud of dust and Hawkins behind them.