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go west, young man

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

They're only a couple of hours out of Hawkins when Billy feels a familiar itch beneath his skin. A burning restlessness. The endless stretch of land and grass and the occasional unremarkable town passing by the window only makes it worse. He loves driving, but he hates sitting still for too long. It's a constant battle: the desire to move freely warring with the pleasure of being behind the wheel. He wonders which one will win out today. Restlessness, probably, if the way his blood is fizzing means anything. He drums his fingers harder, turns the music up louder, but it does little to ease it.

Steve must be feeling it, too, or else sensing what Billy is feeling, because he starts fidgeting not long after. Folding his legs under himself on the seat, rapping his knuckles on the dash in a poor approximation of the drumbeat pulsating from the stereo, taking his sunglasses off then putting them back on again. Finally, he reaches into the back of the car and pulls out a map, squinting at it for a moment, tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth. Billy smiles. Steve looks out the window, then back to the map. He taps the paper and turns the music down. 'Turn up ahead.'

'Where are we going?' Billy asks, but he starts to pull over, anyway.

There is a twinkle in Steve's eyes when he says, 'Do you trust me?'

Billy tilts his head as though he has to think about it. 'Hm, I suppose so.'

Steve rolls his eyes. 'Just turn here,' he says and Billy does.

'So, Mr Mysterious, gonna tell me where we're headed?' Billy asks as Steve directs him, no longer consulting the map. It seems he knows where he's going.

Steve shrugs. 'Did you pack swim trunks?'

Billy raises a brow. 'We're moving to California.'

Steve just stares at him as if to say, 'You didn't answer my question.'

Billy sighs, exasperated, and says, 'Yes, I brought swim trunks.'

Steve smiles, then, and says, 'Good,' but he still doesn't say where they're going. Billy is pretty sure he can guess, though, and he can't help but feel excited.

__

Lake Michigan stretches before Billy, all the way to the horizon, glittering in the sunlight, but something feels off. It's not like when he would stand on the shore of the Pacific. There's no sense of vastness. Of infinity.

The scent of brine is absent from the air, too, replaced by the crisp scent of new-fallen rain. It smells good, he supposes, but it doesn't smell like a beach. Doesn't sound like one—too quiet, no ocean roar—doesn't look like one if you look close enough, either. The waves are all wrong, too choppy, not big rolling things like he's used to.

Still, it feels good to be on the sand, to feel it under his feet, between his toes. And it won't be long until he's back in California. Maybe he can take up surfing again. Teach Steve. Max had asked him to teach her how to surf, once, before they moved to Hawkins, but Billy had only sneered at her, said something cruel. His throat feels tight. Maybe he'll get another chance to teach her, some day. She would be good at it, he thinks.

Steve's hand whacks Billy's shoulder as he stretches his arms out to either side, breaking through Billy's thoughts.

'Sorry,' Steve murmurs.

Billy shrugs and grunts. He finds his gaze trailing along the length of Steve's torso, down to his tight red swim trunks, which hug his slim thighs. Billy bites his lip and looks back out to the lake.

Despite the strangeness of being on this beach that doesn't feel like a beach, Billy is looking forward to swimming in something other than a small swimming hole or the Harringtons' pool. Steve still isn't comfortable in that pool. Not since what happened to Nancy's friend, Barb. Billy doesn't blame him. He shudders. Even he had felt wary of it after Steve had told him the truth of what happened to Barb there, despite Steve's reassurances it was all over.

'Wanna swim?' Billy says. The sooner he gets in the water, the better.

'Yeah, in a minute.' Steve holds up a bottle. 'I want to put some sunscreen on first.'

Billy squints up at the sky, then looks back at Steve who is slathering sunscreen on his arms. 'It's not that sunny.'

Steve shrugs and squeezes more sunscreen out, then tries to put it on his own back. Billy watches him, amused as he twists and turns, not quite reaching. 'That some kind of new dance?'

Steve huffs but otherwise ignores him.

Billy bites back a laugh and holds out his hand. 'Give it here.'

Steve flings his arm over his shoulder, clearly trying a new angle, the furrow in his brow deepening when he still can't reach. 'What?'

'Give me the sunscreen.'

Steve does, with a small frown, and Billy squeezes some into his palm. 'Turn around.'

Meaning seems to dawn on Steve and his eyes widen. 'It's OK, I can do it myself.'

Billy fixes him with a disbelieving look and Steve relents, turning around with a sigh. Presented with the expanse of Steve's back Billy starts to regret his offer. He's seen Steve shirtless, before, seen him naked—those showers are probably the only thing he'll miss about high school—but he wasn't really meant to look, then. He did, but he wasn't meant to. Now he has to. And has to touch, as well. It's much more intimate than the casual touches that have built up between them as their friendship's grown.

He shakes his head and slaps his palm onto Steve's shoulder, leaving a sunscreen handprint. Steve jumps and glares over his shoulder at Billy who just smirks back.

Steve's skin is warm beneath Billy's palm, smooth. Dotted with moles, some clustered together like constellations, others spread out, as if daring Billy to follow their path. He sucks in a breath and rubs the sunscreen into Steve's shoulders with broad sweeps of his palms, moving down his back, trying not to let his touch linger. Steve's breath hitches when Billy's hands skim his waist.

'Ticklish?' Billy asks.

'Uh, yeah,' Steve says, 'I guess so.'

When Billy gets to the small of Steve's back he has to resist the urge to press his thumbs to the dimples there. His mouth goes arid.

'OK, done,' Billy says, stepping away from Steve.

'Thanks,' Steve says, turning around. He shifts his weight, eyes averted. 'Wanna put some on?'

The thought of Steve helping Billy, the way Billy had helped him has its appeal, but he says, 'Nah.'

'OK.' Steve puts the bottle in the backpack he brought from the car, and then he says, 'Race you to the water,' before setting off.

'Hey!' Billy races after him, sand kicking up around his feet, stinging his shins, but Steve had a head start, so he gets there first.

'Cheater,' Billy says, as he splashes in up to his knees. The water is colder than Billy thinks it should be but he likes the way it feels lapping around his thighs.

Steve grins and kicks water at him. Billy narrows his eyes and splashes Steve back, watching the water trail down his chest. They splash each other until they're completely soaked, but Billy isn't satisfied. He tackles Steve, and they go down into the water, a tangle of flailing limbs. Beneath him, Steve sputters—'You asshole!'—but he's laughing as he wrestles with Billy, knees digging into Billy's ribs, hands scrambling for purchase on slippery skin, until he manages to wriggle out of Billy's hold. Billy has a moment to appreciate Steve's triumphant grin before he's dunked under the water. He comes up gasping, then knocks Steve's legs out from under him, but Steve grabs hold of Billy and they both go down together again.

A few feet away, a dark-haired woman, holding the hand of a small girl with pigtails, glares at them from beneath the wide brim of her sunhat. Billy curls his lip at her but Steve gives her a small, apologetic wave and pulls Billy further into the lake, away from the woman and her daughter.

Billy's heart is still racing from wrestling with Steve, but there is anger laced in his quickened pulse, now, at the woman's silent judgement. It starts to rise up, simmering, but then Steve nudges his shoulder and says, 'Guess we can call that one a draw,' and the anger fizzles out.

Billy gives Steve a half-smile, then plunges into the water fully, letting himself sink down, as far as he can go. Some gets in his mouth and he has that same sense of wrongness when he misses the rush of salt against his tongue. He stays under until he can't hold his breath any longer, and then comes up, breathing heavily. He wipes the water off his face, pushes his hair back.

Steve is floating nearby, looking at him strangely. Billy can't tell if he's blushing or if the sun has brought that pretty flush to his skin. Billy raises a brow as Steve continues to stare and Steve shakes himself then smiles, oddly shy.

Billy's stomach flips. He can't believe his sheer dumb luck. That anyone like Steve could want to not only be his friend, after everything he's done, but move across the country with him, is beyond all good reason. He smiles back at Steve, then dives into the water again, swimming as far as he can, holding his breath until his lungs are burning.

__

A breeze blows along the bay as Billy emerges from the water, raising goosebumps on his skin. He grits his teeth against it and looks around, finding Steve a little way down the beach, building a sandcastle with a kid who looks about six or seven.

Billy shakes his head and goes over to them, hoping he's holding back the fond smile that threatens to break forth. Steve looks up as Billy's shadow covers the sandcastle but, before either he or Billy can say anything, the little kid shovelling sand into a bucket peers up at Billy and says, 'Who are you?'

'This is my friend, Billy,' Steve says, gesturing to Billy with a small plastic spade. 'Billy, this is Sam.'

'Nice to meet you, Sam,' Billy says. Little kids make him nervous, but they love Steve. He bites his nails. 'I like your castle.'

Sam gives Billy an assessing look, then shoves the bucket at him. Billy is too stunned to do anything but take it, earning him a smile from Steve. Sam says, 'You can help with the turret,' pointing to where Steve is constructing what Billy guesses must be the turret.

'OK,' Billy says, shooting Steve an amused look. 'Uh, what am I doing?'

Steve shows him, under Sam's watchful eye, and Billy sets to work, upending the bucket of sand to make a second turret for the castle.

'How'd you end up making sandcastles?' Billy asks when Sam goes to get some water for the moat.

'His mom wanted to get some ice-cream. She saw me sitting nearby and asked if I could look after him. Guess she could tell I'm a great babysitter.' Steve winks as he pats some sand in place. 'I don't mind.'

'I know you don't,' Billy says, smiling.

Steve smiles back and Billy feels something flutter in his chest. He clears his throat and focuses his attention on the castle.

'Michelle used to be the best at building castles,' Sam says as he stomps back over and pours water into the moat they've dug. It seeps right into the sand, of course, but Sam doesn't seem deterred.

'Who's Michelle?' Steve asks.

'My sister,' Sam says. His mouth turns down when he adds, 'She didn't want to come with us. She's too cool, now.'

'Well, she's missing out,' Steve says. He looks up at Billy. 'Right?'

'Yeah,' Billy says, distracted. He's thinking of Max, again. How she had thought it was cool to have an older brother, for all of five minutes, before she realised he was an asshole. They had parted on better terms but he's not sure he'll ever be able to make amends for everything.

'Are you OK?'

Billy blinks at Steve. 'Yeah, just...' He bites his thumbnail. Steve already looks concerned, and Billy doesn't want to ruin the mood, so he blurts, 'The beach feels wrong.'

Steve raises his brows behind his Wayfarers. 'The beach feels wrong?'

'It doesn't feel like a beach.' Billy waves a hand. 'You'll see what I mean when we get to a real one.' The thought of showing Steve his old stomping grounds dispels the ache he had felt while thinking about Max, replaced now by a slow burning thrill.

Steve snorts and goes back to scratching windows into the castle with a twig. Just then, a woman wearing a flowing shirt over a one-piece swimsuit comes over to them, holding three ice-cream cones.

'Mom!' Sam yells when he sees her. 'We built a castle.'

'I can see,' she says, handing an ice-cream over to him. 'It's beautiful.' Sam takes the cone and plonks himself back on the sand, cross-legged. The woman hands another cone to Steve and says, 'I got one for you, too. To say thanks for looking after Sam.'

Steve stands and takes the ice-cream with a pleased smile. 'It was no problem, honestly.'

She looks at Billy, now, standing by Steve, and says, 'I'm sorry, I didn't realise Steve had a friend.' She blushes. 'You can have this one.'

'It's fine,' Billy says, rubbing the back of his neck.

'I'm not much of a sweet tooth. Really,' she says, so insistent, that Billy takes the ice-cream.

'Thank-you,' he says, a little embarrassed.

Steve looks between them. 'Oh, sorry, this is Lucy. Lucy, this is Billy.'

'Nice to meet you,' Billy murmurs and Lucy dips her head.

A seagull hops nearby, head twitching, like it's eyeing their ice-cream. Some kids run past, whooping and laughing, and the seagull beats its wings, spooked, before landing back in the same spot, still looking hungry.

'Are you boys locals?' Lucy asks.

'From Indiana,' Steve says, 'but we're on our way to California.'

Billy pushes against the urge to correct Steve, tell Lucy he's not from Indiana, he's going home, finally, and just hums his assent.

'That's a long trip.'

Steve nods. 'We're switching up driving, though, so it'll be OK.'

'Well, I wish you both the best of luck,' Lucy says. She holds her hand out to Sam. 'Come on, Sammy,' she says, 'we have to go.'

'But I can't leave my castle!'

Lucy rests a hand in Sam's hair. 'You can't take it with you, honey.'

'Just a second,' Steve says and rummages through his backpack, one-handed, until he brings out the polaroid camera. He hands his ice-cream to Billy while he takes a photo of the castle. When it pops out he hands it over to Sam. 'Now you can keep your sandcastle forever.'

'Wow, thanks,' Sam says, transfixed by the developing image.

Lucy smiles. 'It was lovely to meet you. Both of you.'

'You too,' Steve says while Billy nods.

Lucy takes Sam's hand and leads him away. He waves back at Billy and Steve, clutching the polaroid. Then they turn into the path that leads through the dunes, disappearing from sight.

Steve sits, careful not to disturb the castle, and Billy sits next to him. He watches Steve lap at the ice-cream running down the side of the cone and onto his hand, tongue slowly dragging over his skin. Billy bites back a groan and sinks his teeth into his own ice-cream, hoping the frozen treat will cool his blood. The water certainly didn't seem to.

He draws in a long breath and tilts his face to the sky, listening to the waves wash against the shore, relishing the feel of the sun beating down on him. 'You know, this was an okay idea, Harrington.'

Steve grins. 'I do have them, you know.'

'Occasionally.'

'Whatever,' Steve says, cheerfully. He leans back on one hand, Wayfarers obscuring his eyes as he looks out across the lake. His hand is nearly touching Billy's where it rests in the sand. He doesn't say anything, but he sighs in a way that sounds content, mouth turned up in a small smile. Billy's stomach swoops.

'How do you feel about Chicago?'

'The city or the band?' Billy asks around the last mouthful of his ice-cream.

'Don't be a smartass.'

'Can't help it.'

Steve sighs, all long-suffering, now. 'The city. We're so close, we may as well go, right?' He looks over at Billy as if to gauge his reaction.

'Sure,' Billy says. He doesn't really care where they go.

Steve nudges his shoulder against Billy's. 'Thanks.'

Billy stands, wiping sand off his legs, then jerks his head in the direction of the car. 'If we leave, now, maybe we can make it for lunch.'

'Sounds good. I'm still hungry,' Steve says as he pops the end of his ice-cream cone in his mouth, crunching loudly. 'Chicago here we come.'

Chapter Text

'This one will do,' Steve says, as they pass a nondescript motel. 'I'm so tired, I don't care where we stay.'

'Fine with me,' Billy says and pulls into the parking lot.

An old neon sign above the long, squat building promises vacancies, 'Color TV' and air conditioning. It shines on Steve and Billy as they get out of the car, bags slung over their shoulders.

Inside, the reception is brightly lit by a buzzing fluorescent light, which illuminates a lopsided display of dusty travel brochures, wood panelled walls, and a drooping fern. It smells a little musty, too, stuffy after being out in the night air.

A bored girl, about Steve's age, sits behind the counter reading Cosmo. The tag pinned to her pink blouse is crooked, reads 'Clare' in thin capital letters. Billy leans on the counter, giving the girl a distracted smile when she looks up. She blushes and Steve rolls his eyes.

'We'd like a room, please,' Steve says, inanely. As though they would be here for any other reason.

'Sure,' Clare says, not looking at Steve. A small metal fan whirs on the counter, blowing her bobbed red hair around her face as she leans forward to check the register. 'Oh, we only have a king left.'

'That's fine,' Steve says, a little short, and not really listening as he follows Clare's gaze to Billy's biceps, exposed by the cut-off sleeves of his Iron Maiden shirt. Steve can't blame her for staring but he can't push back the wave of irritation that rises up, either.

He hands over his ID when Clare asks for it, drumming his fingers while she scribbles something on a form.

'What are you doing in Chicago?' Clare asks Billy as she absently hands Steve's ID back to him.

'Just passing through,' Billy says.

Clare nods, biting her lip. Her gaze flickers to Billy's arms again. 'Oh,' she says, reaching across the counter and brushing her fingertips over Billy's shoulder, 'you're sunburnt.'

Billy shifts away, looking down at his shoulder, which is tinged pink. 'Ah, that's nothing.'

Steve mutters 'oh brother' under his breath but it comes out with the hint of a snarl. He feels heat rise to his cheeks and he clears his throat. Clare blinks over at him, like she's just remembered he's there. 'How much do I owe you?' Steve asks. 'For the room.'

Clare flushes and says, 'It'll be $30.'

Steve signs the register—hesitating over which address to write down—and slides three crumpled ten dollar bills towards Clare. Clare hands the key to Billy.

'If you need anything, I'm here until one,' she says, a shy smile dimpling her round cheeks.

'Thanks,' Billy says, spinning the keychain around on his finger.

Steve grits his teeth and says, 'Thanks,' too, then turns and walks towards the door.

Billy catches up to him with a few strides. He nudges Steve with his shoulder and says, 'Room 214,' waggling the yellow plastic tag.

Steve looks at the numbers on the brick wall outside reception and says, 'This way,' with a jerk of his head. He swings his backpack onto his shoulder and makes his way to their room with Billy beside him.

'Man, I'm looking forward to a long cold shower,' Billy says as they walk up the stairs.

Somewhere in the distance, a siren wails. 'I just want to sleep.' Steve yawns, dragging his feet.

The door creaks open as Billy unlocks it, that same musty smell from reception hitting Steve as he steps inside.

Billy flicks the switch by the door and warm light bursts forth from the wall-mounted lamps, shining over the modest sized room. 'They must have the same decorators as you,' he says, nodding at the plaid wallpaper.

Steve grunts, looking around the room. It's kind of dingy—it's clean but everything has that worn in look about it—but, somehow, he finds it appealing. It's the opposite in every way to his house—his parents' house, he thinks, not his anymore—small, shabby, lived in. There's one chair, a small dresser with a mirror above it, a telephone on the bedside table and a television set at the end of the bed.

'Oh. One bed,' Steve says, stomach twisting at the implication. He wonders what Billy thinks but when Steve looks over to him, he only blinks back.

Billy sets his backpack on top of the dresser and pokes his head inside the bathroom. 'Yeah, that's what the chick at reception said.'

Steve rubs the back of his neck. 'Guess I wasn't listening,' he says, sheepishly.

'Is it a problem?' Billy moves back to the main room, and sits on the bed, kicking off his shoes, bouncing a little.

'No. It's fine,' Steve says, a little too quickly. He's tired, after all. And it's a big bed.

Billy flops back, hands resting on his stomach where his shirt has ridden up. He yawns, the rise of his stomach pushing his shirt further up, exposing pink blotches of sunburn on his smooth skin.

Steve looks away and sits beside him. He sighs. It feels like heaven, he thinks, as he pulls off his sneakers, freeing his throbbing feet. They've been walking for hours. After leaving the beach they'd driven straight to Chicago; Steve had never been before but, surprisingly, Billy had. He'd come up for a concert last winter, and had insisted he knew good places to go, had seemed eager to show Steve around, despite only having spent one night here. As it turned out, Billy did know good places to go and they went to all of them.

They hadn't meant to stay overnight, but the city had provided one distraction after another and by the time they were ready to leave the sun had long since set. They talked it over and decided it was probably too late to move on, tonight, so they'd driven around until they found a motel with a vacancy.

Billy starts laughing, startling Steve.

'What?'

'I still can't get over the look on your face when you thought that punk was gonna jump you,' Billy says, breathless, 'but he just wanted to bum a cigarette.'

'Yeah, well, he snuck up on me,' Steve says, face hot at the memory. The guy had materialised beside Steve when he and Billy were leaving the pizzeria where they'd had dinner. He'd startled Steve and the guy's shaved head, studded leather jacket and tattoos didn't exactly calm him. But he'd only wanted a cigarette and turned out to be kinda sweet. They'd all chatted while they smoked, before going on their separate ways, and Steve had felt like an idiot for jumping to the wrong conclusion. He pokes Billy's thigh. 'Anyway, weren't you going to shower?'

Billy gets up on his elbows, levelling Steve with a disbelieving look. 'You saying I smell?'

'Well, now that you mention it, you're kinda ripe, dude.'

Billy makes a show of leaning in and sniffing at Steve, scrunching up his nose. 'You don't exactly smell like a rose garden.'

Steve shoves him. 'Fuck off.'

Billy grins as he stands, grabbing his backpack and walking to the bathroom. He shuts the door behind him.

Steve peels his sweaty clothes off, leaving them in a heap on a wooden chair by the door, and changes into a fresh shirt and shorts. He pulls back the floral comforter on the bed and, deciding it looks clean, gets in, settling down on the side closest to the door.

The mattress is softer than he's used to and he has the strange sensation of sinking as he stares up at the popcorn ceiling, hands folded on his stomach. He listens to the patter of water from the shower, the way it splats on the tiles when it falls off of Billy's body. The wet purr of the air conditioner promised by the motel sign. The murmur of cars passing by. Trucks and buses rumbling, people yelling, doors slamming. A Chicago nocturne. Despite the noise, and the unfamiliar contours of the mattress, he's nearly asleep by the time the bed dips under Billy's weight.

Steve looks over. Billy is stretching, sheets pooled around his hips, and Steve is wide awake again. 'Are you naked?'

Billy raises his brows, adjusting the chain of his necklace. 'No? I'm wearing underwear. Wanna check?'

Steve blushes and shakes his head.

'Weirdo,' Billy says, then he winks and adds, 'Didn't take you for such a prude, anyway.'

'I'm not,' Steve says, face hot. 'It just looked like...never mind. I'm tired.'

'Then sleep,' Billy says, settling down, bed shifting and creaking beneath him. He yawns.

'Right,' Steve says. His mind is stuck on the split second he'd thought Billy was naked beneath the thin sheet. 'Uh. Good night.'

'Mmm.'

Steve closes his eyes. He's been longing to go to bed for the past hour but now he can't sleep. His body is exhausted but his mind is awake, racing as fast as his heart. 'This is weird.'

'Feel free to sleep on the floor,' Billy says, not needing to ask what Steve means. His voice is muffled by the pillow he's burrowed into. 'Or in the car.'

'No, it's just...I haven't shared a bed with someone I haven't, you know, slept with for...I don't know how long.'

Billy snorts, softly. 'Well, if it makes you feel less weird, we can do it. But make it snappy—I'm beat.'

'What?' Steve splutters, stomach pitching.

'I was joking. Geez.'

'Uh, right,' Steve says and tries to get comfortable, ignoring the prickly hot feeling in his throat. The sheets are scratchy, and the mattress is lumpy and he's still sweaty. Maybe he should have showered.

'Quit wriggling,' Billy says, kicking his legs back, hitting Steve in the shin. 'I wasn't joking about being beat.'

'Ow.' Steve reaches out to flick Billy and immediately regrets it when his hand brushes Billy's shoulder. The feel of Billy's skin makes Steve think of Billy spreading sunscreen on his back, at the beach. His stomach goes hot. 'You stop wriggling.'

'Go to sleep, Harrington.'

Steve looks over at Billy. The streetlights filtering through the gauzy blinds hit his back, washing his skin in lurid yellow. They trace the curve of his shoulder, the dip of his waist, leaving shadows pooling in the tangle of sheets. Shadows that crawl from the bed, spreading out across the room, strange and menacing. At home, Steve's been sleeping with the lights on ever since...

'Uh, Billy.'

'What?' Billy snaps.

'Do you mind if we have the bathroom light on. I...'

Billy shifts and turns to look up at Steve. He frowns but nods. 'S'fine.'

Steve pushes himself up but Billy is already shuffling across the room. Even in the dim light the strength of his thighs is captivating, draws Steve's gaze. He lets it drift up to Billy's briefs. They're blue, tight over the swell of his ass. Steve swallows thickly.

'I got it,' Billy says. He flips the light on and leaves the bathroom door ajar. A swathe of greenish light spills into the main room, chasing away the creepy shadows.

'Thanks,' Steve murmurs when Billy gets back in bed. He doesn't just mean for turning on the light. Billy didn't judge him for it. Didn't even ask why.

'You good, now?'

That uneasy feeling Steve gets in the dark has abated, but it's replaced with the realisation that he can see Billy lying next to him all too clearly, now. Still, he says, 'Yeah.'

'Good,' Billy says and flops back with a sigh. 'Now. Sleep.'

'OK.' Steve rolls over, facing away from Billy, but he can still hear Billy's breathing, still smell the cheap soap he showered with, feel the heat from his body. He's aware of every small dip of the mattress as Billy shifts around, their feet occasionally bumping together. It's a long while before he falls asleep.

__

There is someone else in the room, Steve can feel it. No, not someone, something. He should warn Billy—he can sense Billy is still here, sleeping soundly beside him, even if he can't quite see him—but when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out. His breath quickens. The something, the presence, is on Steve, now. It's crawling up along his legs. A heavy weight that moves up and up until it settles on his chest. Pressing down. He can't see it, but he knows it's a Demogorgon. It's all meant to be over, it was meant to be over. He should have brought his bat. But even if he had it, he wouldn't be able to get it. He can't breathe.

He's going to die, right here in this motel bed, and he can't even yell out or fight for himself. Can't move. Can't scream.

Then Steve jerks, and he's waking up again, disoriented. The phantom Demogorgon is gone. He can move. He groans. He'd thought he was already awake but he must have been having one of his weird awake-dreams. They always feel so real.

'What the fuck?' Billy murmurs beside him, rolling over to glare up at Steve.

He must have hit Billy as he jolted awake, he thinks, or kicked out.

'Sorry,' Steve says. His arms are trembling and his heart is beating so fast he feels like he's going to puke.

Billy blinks and sits up. He looks at Steve a moment before he says, 'Are you OK, dude?'

'Yeah, just...' Steve rubs a hand over his face. 'Weird dream. Sorry. For waking you.'

'S'okay.' Billy sounds half asleep but he stays sitting next to Steve. He doesn't say anything, doesn't ask Steve if he wants to talk about it, just sits there.

Steve draws his knees up to his chin, hugging his arms around his shins. He hasn't told anyone about these awake-dreams. Doesn't want anyone to think he's crazy. Billy is the first person he's shared a bed with since he started having them. It's a relief that Billy doesn't question him.

'Wanna watch TV?' Billy asks, idly scratching his stomach.

Steve presses his lips together and draws in a deep breath through his nose. 'Yeah. OK.'

Billy crawls forward on the bed, reaching out to turn the TV on—the remote is missing, so he has to use the dial on the set—and the picture fades in, glowing blue light flickering over his face. He flips through some channels and Steve tells him to stop when it gets to a rerun of Magnum, P.I.

Billy shrugs, then settles back against the headboard, close to Steve but not touching. 'Been thinking about growing a moustache like that. What do you think?'

Laughter bursts out of Steve, uncoiling some of the tension in his body. 'I think you'd look like an out of work porn actor.'

'Hey!' Billy affects an insulted expression. 'Like I'd ever be out of work.'

Steve ignores him. 'Would you wear the shirts to complete the whole look?'

'Shut up,' Billy says. 'Hm. Maybe it should be more like Lemmy's.' He strokes along his upper lip and down the sides of his chin in the shape of a moustache.

'Lemmy?'

'From Motörhead,' Billy says, as though Steve shouldn't have had to ask.

Steve wrinkles his nose. 'Is that what we were listening to in the car?'

Billy sighs. 'No, that was Mötley Crüe.'

'Right, sorry,' Steve says, in mock-seriousness.

'So you should be.'

Steve snorts but he's pretty sure Billy is trying to distract him and is grateful for it. It's working, too, and soon he's more engrossed in arguing the plot with Billy than thinking about his dreams. Outside, the city still growls and clangs and shouts, but it seems distant to Steve over the buzz of the TV and the whisper of his voice mingled with Billy's in their small room.

They watch TV long past when Steve's heart rate returns to normal, when he can forget the feel of that invisible thing weighing down on him. He doesn't realise he's fallen asleep again, until he wakes much later, with the back of his hand pressed against Billy's shoulder and the sound of static filling the room.

Chapter Text

The dirt road stretches out before the Camaro, disappearing into the line of trees as they recede into the distance. There's lush green pasture on one side of the road, some kind of crops on the other. Fucking farms, Billy thinks. He's sick of them. It's quiet, though, away from the highway. No other cars to get in Billy's way.

'What are we doing out here?' Steve arches his back, bones popping and cracking, nearly hitting Billy in the face when he stretches his arms. Even though they’d slept in and had a late start leaving Chicago, Steve had napped fitfully in the car while Billy drove. Billy had got bored of the endless highway, though, and turned off to find this out-of-the-way dirt road.

'I wanna see how fast she can go,' Billy says, stroking his hands over the steering wheel. He always drives at least a little too fast but he's never really let her go, before. It seems like a good time to try.

'Then let's see,' Steve says, grinning.

Billy grins back. He turns up the music—it's so loud it rattles the dashboard—and guns the engine. The speedometer climbs higher and higher, as he plants his foot, wind roaring into the opened windows. It stings Billy's face, makes his eyes water but it makes him feel alive, too.

Beside him, Steve whoops, one arm hanging out the window. His hair is blowing in his face, the evening sun washing his skin in gold. He looks good. Six months ago, Billy wouldn't have expected Steve to be so excited by this. But he knows, now, that sometimes Steve needs to chase this rush the same way Billy does. Not as much and not as often but it’s there. Undeniable. It’s one of the things that drew Billy to Steve, even if he didn't realise it at first. One of the reasons he was so desperate to get to know him.

The speedometer hits 90 and Billy slams on the brakes, narrowly avoiding careening into a tree as the car spins out. Dust billows up in the rearview mirror, pours into the opened windows.

In the passenger seat, Steve is breathing heavily, eyes shining, a flush high on his cheeks. He's gripping the dash tight but he yells, 'That was awesome,' over the din of heavy metal.

'Yeah,' Billy agrees, breathless. His heart is pounding, his blood buzzing through his veins. There's a fire in his belly, stoked by the thrill of flying down the road and Steve's beaming smile. He surprises himself when he asks, 'Wanna give it a go?'

Steve blinks at him. 'Are you serious?'

Billy nods and runs his hands through his hair. 'Fuck yeah,' he says and gets out of the car, moving around to the passenger side. He leans on the door frame, looking down at Steve. 'Come on and show me what you've got, pretty boy.'

__

There's dirt in Billy's mouth and his nose and his eyes as he hangs out of the Camaro's window but he doesn't care. At the wheel, Steve drives as fast as he can. It's not as fast as Billy was driving but it's fast enough. 'Wooooo!' Billy drums his hands on the roof. This is almost better than driving, he thinks. Music is still blasting from the stereo but Billy can barely hear it over the screaming wind, the thundering engine, his pounding blood.

The car swerves and Billy's heart leaps but it sends electricity through him. He feels fucking invincible.

'You OK?' Steve yells.

Billy wriggles back into the car. 'Fan-fucking-tastic.' Heat floods him now that he's out of the wind, a flush rising from his throat up to his face. He wipes over his mouth.

Steve grins. Just then, white clouds start billowing out from under the hood. Steve eases off the accelerator and hits the brakes. 'Shit!' His eyes are all wide, and he's clutching the steering wheel. 'Sorry.'

Billy ignores Steve and gets out of the car to pop the hood. He waits for the anger to come, towards Steve for harming his car, but it doesn't. That's weird, he thinks. Steam spews out of the engine and Billy has to step back until it clears. It's too hot to touch anything, so he takes his over shirt off, wraps it around his hand but even then he can't touch the scorching metal. He crouches down and looks under the car and sees a wet spot in the dirt. Hopefully it's just a hose. Once she's cool he can check properly.

'Is it OK?' Steve is hovering behind Billy. 'I'm sorry,' he says, again.

'She should be OK,' Billy says, reaching into the car to turn off the ignition. 'You just have to cool off, don't you, baby?' he says, patting the Camaro.

Steve raises his brows but says, 'Are you sure?'

'I think it's just a leaky hose—it'll be easy to get fixed.' Billy unwraps the shirt from around his hand and throws it on the hood of the car. He's warm enough in his henley for now.

'OK. Because that felt so fucking good,' Steve says, breaking into a wide grin.

Billy smiles back, any lingering worry for his car dispelled by Steve's enthusiasm, and says, 'You know you're an all right driver, Harrington. For a pretty boy.'

Steve's smile only widens and Billy's stomach flip-flops. He clears his throat and slips his hands in his back pockets. The air around them is still hazy with dust, only just starting to clear. Billy can taste it at the back of his throat, feel it on his skin, in his hair. It sits in a fine layer over the Camaro, too. She's going to need a good wash when they get to the next town.

Steve crosses his arms and looks around. 'What should we do, now?'

Billy shrugs. 'Wait until she cools down.' They could probably find a farm, ask for a tow. But he'd rather wait here with Steve for a while. 'We should push her out of the road, though.'

Steve nods and helps Billy push the Camaro to the side of the road, under a tree. Billy's sweating by the time they're done and he makes a mental note to sign up for a gym as soon as they get to California. Steve wipes over his brow with his forearm and rests back against the car. He's taken his jacket off, leaving him in a white tee, damp under the arms. He tips his head back, closes his eyes. His neck is glistening with sweat, beading in the hollow of his throat.

Billy reaches into the car and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one and offering it to Steve, then lighting another for himself. He takes a long drag, savouring the hit of nicotine and leans back against the car. They smoke their cigarettes in silence, and when he's done Billy crushes his cigarette beneath his heel and climbs up onto the roof of the car.

'What are you doing?'

'Come on,' Billy says and gestures for Steve to join him. He helps Steve hoist himself up—their hands interlocked, Steve's warm and clammy against his—and then they lie back, gazing at the sky overhead. It's a deep mauve, lingering hints of pink and orange tinting the clouds, but the sun is barely visible. It will be dark soon.

'I've never done that,' Steve says.

'Hm?' Billy is distracted by the feel of Steve pressed up against his side, warmth bleeding through the thin fabric of his henley.

'Driven a car that fast.'

'I'm not surprised,' Billy drawls. 'You're such a square.'

'Fuck you, no I'm not.'

Billy laughs. He knows Steve is far from being square, but he loves teasing him, all the same. It goes some way to satisfying the itch that's been under his skin since the first moment he saw Steve. He knows it will never be fully satisfied, not by Steve, not in the way he wants, so he does what he can. And he thinks Steve enjoys it. This back and forth. Can give as good as he gets, though they both have tender spots that accidentally get prodded by their good-natured jibes at times. It's been a learning process. Having a friend he doesn't want to hurt. Well, not anymore. Not on purpose.

Steve shifts beside Billy, jeans swishing against the car roof. 'What's your favourite colour?'

'Huh?' Billy is starting to feel drawn out, the thrill of driving fast just a faint tingle beneath his skin, now.

'Your favourite colour,' Steve says. 'What is it?'

Brown, Billy thinks, immediately. Like those big eyes of yours. He silently curses himself for being so damn cheesy. Jesus. 'Uh, red, I guess. Why?'

He feels Steve shrug against him. 'Figured it'd pass the time.'

'What? Asking each other questions like we're twelve year old girls at a slumber party?'

'Shut up.'

Billy huffs a laugh. 'OK, what's your favourite colour?' He turns his head and finds Steve looking at him. Their gazes lock. Billy swallows, thickly.

'Blue,' Steve says.

Billy licks his lips and looks back to the sky. It's darker, now, stars fading into view, the sliver of a moon visible through the tree above. It's quiet, too, quieter even than Hawkins. At least in Chicago he had the sounds of the city, the hustle and bustle, to settle him even if it was different from home. It was still a city.

Steve nudges Billy with his elbow. 'Your turn.'

'For what?'

'To ask a question.'

'I just did.'

'No, you asked my question back to me. You have to come up with one of your own.' Steve sounds like he's trying not to laugh. 'That's how the game goes.'

'Oh really? Says who?' Billy looks at Steve. He's doing a poor job of looking serious.

'Says me.'

'Fine.' Billy decides to play along, figures it's better than sitting with Steve in silence. Maybe. He doesn't know what to ask, though. He already knows a lot about Steve, some of it from Steve himself, some from others—mostly Tommy—information gleaned before he and Steve were friends. He knows that Steve loves cop shows, that he takes his coffee with cream and three sugars, that he prefers reading magazines to books. And, now, his favourite colour. But the things he doesn't know, the things he most wants to know, are the things he can't ask Steve. So he casts about for a safe question and asks, 'Did you have any pets as a kid?'

'No. My mom said it's because my dad's allergic to, you know'—Steve waves his hand—'animals in general. But I think she just didn't want to deal with pets. Have anything mess up her house.'

'That sucks.'

Steve shrugs. 'Did you?'

'Had a goldfish in one of those bags you get from carnivals and shit,' Billy says, forming his hands into the shape of a bag filled with water, 'but it lasted about a week. I kept forgetting to feed it.'

'Poor Mr Goldfish,' Steve says, solemnly.

'RIP,' Billy says and Steve huffs a laugh.

It goes on like that for a while, tossing trivial questions to each other, and back again, under the cover of the darkling sky, until Steve goes quiet. The droning chirp of cicadas rises up from the trees, filling the silence between them. It's a few minutes before Steve asks, 'Have you ever been in love?'

Billy's stomach drops and his face goes hot. That's not a question he wants to answer honestly. His voice is a little strangled when he says, 'Too deep. Ask me something else.'

He glances over to Steve and wonders if he looks disappointed. Steve presses his lips together, then a twinkle comes into his eye. 'OK, when did you first do it?'

Billy snorts. 'Seriously?'

'You said not deep.'

'Sex isn't deep?' Billy says, without thinking, then blushes.

Steve coughs. 'Well, yeah. Sometimes. Depending on who it's with.' He's not looking at Billy. 'I didn't mean details, just...when.'

Billy wonders which of his first times to count. Todd Miller going down on him in the back of his truck after the Judas Priest concert? How Billy had felt so good, so right, until he'd come down from the high and reality crashed in. How he'd freaked out. Didn't touch another boy for eight months after. Or, a few days later, fucking Amy Mancini at some party—he doesn't remember whose or where it was—desperately trying to pretend he wasn't thinking of Todd the whole time. It doesn't matter, he supposes, he was sixteen either way. 'Uh, I was sixteen.'

'You don't sound sure.'

Billy squirms. 'I'm sure. You?'

'Same.'

'Yeah?'

Steve hums and then they fall into silence, looking up at the stars above them. It's getting cold but Billy feels warm where Steve is pressed close against him on the small space of the car's roof. Steve's hand brushes Billy's thigh as he shifts to rest his hands on his stomach. It sends sparks shooting along his leg.

'You know anything about stars?' Billy asks.

'They're burning balls of gas really far away?'

Billy snorts. 'No, I mean, constellations and shit.'

'No. You?'

'Not really. My mom used to tell me stuff, but I've forgotten most of it.' Billy points up at the sky. 'That's the Big Dipper, though.'

'I've heard of that one,' Steve says.

'And that's Cassiopeia.' Billy points at another. He can't remember any other names but he shifts his finger and points somewhere else and says, 'And that's, uh, the white snake.'

Steve looks over at him, eyes narrowed. 'You made that last one up.'

'Did I?' Billy gives Steve a challenging look. 'And you can prove that how exactly?'

Steve is silent, brow furrowed, and then his eyes light up. 'Wait, isn't that the name of one of your stupid bands?'

'They're not stupid!' Billy does his best to feel offended but he's secretly pleased that Steve remembered.

'I knew it. You're such a shit.'

'Yep.'

Billy keeps going, though, making up more and more ludicrous names as he goes on—'That's Dickus Majoris.' 'Oh my god, shut up!'—and it has Steve in fits of laughter. Billy soon joins him and he can't stop. It's been a long time since he's laughed this much. His whole body quakes with it. So much so he loses his balance and nearly slides backwards off the roof. He barely has a moment to register the feeling of falling before Steve catches him, one arm around his waist, their legs tangled together. Steve's hand is splayed on his back, strong and warm.

'Jesus,' Steve says, chest heaving against Billy's, 'I thought I was the one with shitty balance.'

'Uh, yeah,' Billy says, breathless. 'Good reflexes, though.' Steve's thigh is pressed between his, too warm, and despite the shock of nearly falling still coursing through him, Billy feels heat coil low in his belly. Steve's face is so close, his breath warm over Billy's lips. Billy wriggles in Steve's hold and Steve must finally realise he's still got his arms around Billy because then he lets go, lies back with a thud. Billy feels cold, though his cheeks are hot.

'She's probably cooled down enough by now,' Billy says.

'Who?'

'The car.'

'Oh. Right,' Steve says, voice strange. 'Should we try it out?'

'Yeah.' Billy doesn't sit up, though, and neither does Steve. A balmy breeze rustles through the trees and the crops, nearby. It almost sounds like the whisper of waves. Billy sucks in a breath. 'Maybe we'll give it a little longer.'

Steve sighs and says, 'Yeah, OK.'

Billy is still worried about his car but it's a distant feeling, now, fading into the background like the humming chorus of the insects around them. And he's pretty sure it was worth it. The buzz of flying down the road, seeing Steve wild-eyed and free. Even lying here, looking up at the stars. Billy didn't think he would ever find himself stargazing, especially not with Steve Harrington, but he has to admit it's nice. He glances at Steve who is looking up at the sky with a content tilt to his mouth. It sets a liquid warm feeling going somewhere near the base of Billy's sternum, spreading steadily outwards. Then Steve looks at him and smiles, fully, and the warmth in Billy catches alight. Yeah, he thinks, definitely worth it.

Chapter Text

Steve steps out of the shower, one foot landing on the soggy bathmat, the other on the slippery tiles. He grimaces. The air is humid, the softly whirring exhaust fan doing little to actually suck the steam out of the air. He wipes a hand over the mirror. His hair droops in his face.

He's about to start drying off when he hears the door slam in the other room. Billy must be back. Steve had gone back to the motel while Billy was at the mechanic—they'd slept in the car out on the dirt road, overnight, then in the morning they found a farm and got a tow into the nearest town—wanting to freshen up. Steve wraps a towel around his waist and opens the bathroom door.

Billy is pacing, radiating anger.

'What's wrong?' Steve asks coming out of the bathroom. The brown carpet is scratchy beneath his bare feet. He rubs one foot on his calf. 'Is the car OK?'

Billy nods once, jerky. 'She'll be ready tomorrow.'

Steve pushes his hair back, to keep the water from dripping down his face. 'Oh, well. That's OK, right? We're not in a hurry.' He crosses his arms over his chest

Billy shrugs, tense.

'I'll pay,' Steve offers. He still feels bad even though Billy doesn't seem to blame him for what happened with the car.

'It's not about the money.' Billy glares at him. 'And I can pay for it myself. Typical rich boy.'

Steve flushes. 'Wow, OK, I just meant it was my fault, so I should pay.'

Billy runs a hand over his face. 'It was my fault. She's my responsibility.'

Steve sighs. 'Whatever, dude, just let me know if you want any money.' He moves past Billy to get to his bag—he'd forgotten to take his clothes into the bathroom—and grabs jeans and a red t-shirt.

When he turns around, Billy is staring at him. 'What?'

'Nothing.' Billy cuts his gaze away. He doesn't apologise for snapping at Steve, but he seems mollified. 'Just...go get dressed.'

Steve shakes his head and goes back into the bathroom. He dries himself—he gets damp with sweat no sooner than he wipes the water from his skin—and dresses quickly. He runs a comb through his hair and sighs. He finds a hairdryer under the sink and plugs it in even though it's so hot he feels like he might combust. Once his hair is dry enough he combs it again, sprays it with the hairspray he brought from home. It's not perfect, but it'll do.

When he comes back out, Billy is sitting on the edge of his bed, knee bouncing. He's changed into a tank with the sides slashed, and it's somehow more distracting than when he's not wearing a shirt at all. When he moves, Steve can see his nipple, a hint of chest hair.

Steve looks away. He tugs at his t-shirt, which clings uncomfortably to his still damp skin. 'I wish I had a tank top or something,' he says. The fabric is too thick, chafing his underarms.

'I saw a thrift store on the way to the mechanic,' Billy says, looking up. 'You'd probably find something there.'

Steve stares at him. There's no trace of his anger, now, but Billy gets like this sometimes—mood shifting from one moment to the next.

'You do know what a thrift store is, don't you?' Billy asks with a smirk.

Steve rolls his eyes. 'Of course I know what a thrift store is.'

'Bet you've never been in one, though.'

Steve blushes.

'Ha, knew it,' Billy says, standing. 'Come on, let me show you how the other half lives.'

__

The thrift store is dimly lit and it takes Steve's eyes a few moments to adjust after being in the glaring sun. It smells musty, old. The scent sticks at the back of Steve's throat. He shifts the polaroid camera resting heavily against his chest, runs a finger under the strap around his neck. It's uncomfortable, especially in the heat, but he likes to bring it wherever they go, just in case.

A grey-haired woman behind the counter gives them a suspicious look as they walk in—her bouffant never moving as she tracks their entrance—lingering on Billy's hair, his earring. Steve narrows his eyes at her before he turns to the racks of clothes, looking over them warily. 'You know, I could always roll my sleeves up...' he says.

Behind him, Billy snorts and shoves him further into the store. 'Stop being so prissy.'

'I'm not prissy,' Steve says, even as he wrinkles his nose at the array of secondhand clothing.

'Sure thing,' Billy says. 'You're a regular Rambo.'

Steve humphs. At least Billy isn't sulking about his car, he thinks, but as he flicks through a rack of shirts, Billy says, 'Just hurry up and pick something. I want to get back to the mechanic's.'

Steve wheels around. 'I thought the car wasn't going to be ready until tomorrow?'

Billy raises a brow. 'So?'

'So, why do you need to go to the mechanic today?'

'I want to make sure he's looking after her.'

Steve throws his hands up. 'Oh my god.' A ten gallon hat catches his eye. He gets an idea. 'Well, you'll have to wait because I want to try this stuff on first,' he says, gesturing to the shirts draped over his arm.

'You need me to hold your hand or something?' Billy bounces on his toes. 'You can just meet me back at the motel.'

'But, uh, I...need your opinion,' Steve says unconvincingly. He doesn't need Billy's opinion about tank tops and they both know it. But the thought of Billy wandering off alone, stressing about his car, maybe haranguing the mechanic, sits uneasily with Steve.

'Seriously?'

'Yes,' Steve says though it sounds more like a question.

'Whatever.' Billy looks Steve up and down. 'You do have shitty taste in clothes, I guess,' he says, smirking, like maybe he's trying to see how far he can push Steve, trying to call his bluff. 'You need guidance,' he adds, sagely.

Steve grits his teeth. 'Sure do.' He leaves Billy looking smug and, grabbing a few more things on the way, goes into the change room. It's even dingier in here; Steve tries not to look at the stains on the walls, or the curtain that doesn't quite go all the way across the stall, too closely.

There's a stool in the corner so he sets his own clothes on it as he takes them off, rests the camera on top of them. He nearly falls back through the curtain when he tries to manoeuvre himself into some chaps. Billy's amused voice comes from the other side of the curtain: 'You OK in there? Need a hand?' Billy's voice is closer, lower, when he adds, 'I think Doris out here would help you. Saw her eyeing you up from the counter.'

'Shut up,' Steve says and then he pushes the curtain aside.

Billy is leaning on a lopsided bookshelf, smirking. But when his eyes land on Steve's outfit his smirk falls. 'What the fuck are you wearing?' Billy says, eyebrows shooting up, earning him a reproachful look from the woman at the counter.

'Don't like it?' Steve asks, trying to keep a straight face. 'Thought you were implying I needed a new look.'

'So you decided to go for deranged cowboy?' Billy asks, flicking the brim of Steve's hat.

'Yes,' Steve says, turning to the mirror so he can straighten the kerchief around his neck. He looks like an idiot.

'I gotta get a photo of this,' Billy says, pushing past Steve to grab the polaroid camera.

'What? No!'

'You're the one who wanted to bring the camera everywhere,' Billy says, aiming it at Steve. 'Say cheese, cowboy.'

Steve groans as the flash goes off. Little lights sparkle in his vision and he blinks against them. When he opens his eyes Billy is shaking the polaroid and smirking again.

'Give me that,' Steve says, reaching out to grab the photo, but Billy holds it away from him. Steve grabs for it again, so Billy plants a hand in the middle of his chest, holding Steve back. Steve slumps. He could take the photo from Billy if he tried hard enough but he doesn't want to make a scene. Well, he thinks, eyes sliding to the grey-haired woman who is now watching them intently, more of a scene.

'Uh-uh,' Billy says, 'this is mine.'

'Fine,' Steve says. 'But just wait. I'll get you back.'

'When I least suspect it, I suppose?'

Steve nods.

Billy rolls his eyes. 'Look. You got any more outfits you desperately need my opinion on or can we get going?' he asks, tapping his watch.

Steve weighs up the merits of embarrassing himself further vs letting Billy worry himself to death or unleashing him on an unsuspecting mechanic. He decides it's better to let his dignity take the blows and just dips his hat at Billy then goes back into the change room.

When he comes back out in tight trousers and a dress shirt unbuttoned to his navel, pulling his best 'Billy' face, he waits for another quip or for Billy to take another photo but he only stares at Steve, mouth slightly open.

Steve frowns. 'What? Nothing smart to say this time? Don't wanna take another embarrassing photo?'

Billy visibly shakes himself, mouth snapping shut, and says, 'Don't want to waste the film.'

'Thanks,' Steve says, flatly. He squirms under Billy's gaze, crosses his arms over his chest. A flush rises slowly from his throat and his mouth feels dry.

The woman at the counter clucks disapprovingly in their direction and Steve is starting to feel even more stupid, so he says, 'I'll just...get changed and then pay for the tank tops,' and ducks into the change room, feeling off-kilter.

__

The chains of the swing creak against the wooden frame as Steve idly pushes himself back and forth. He's got one hand wrapped around the chain, the other holding a melting popsicle. The late afternoon sun shines down on the playground, glinting off the metal equipment.

On the opposite swing, Billy licks his own popsicle, tongue—which is all blue now—lapping at the coloured ice. Steve's grip on the swing tightens as Billy wraps his lips around the top and sucks. Heat floods Steve and he has to look away. He pretends to be engrossed in studying a small group of birds, pecking at something, and not thinking about Billy sucking his popsicle.

Steve checks his watch. The mechanic closes soon. So far, Steve's managed to keep Billy's mind off the Camaro or, at least, kept Billy away from the mechanic's, despite Billy's best efforts. Steve doubts it would come to blows, even though Billy is agitated about being separated from his car, but he doesn't want to risk it. Billy is still quick to anger.

When Billy finishes his popsicle, he throws the stick across the park and then starts swinging. He swings higher and higher, his hair flying around his face, and then he jumps, landing with a thud. He picks himself up and dusts himself off. 'You finished yet?'

Steve shakes his head and waves his half-eaten popsicle at Billy, who rolls his eyes. He saunters over to the slide, climbing to the top, then runs all the way down. His boots thunder on the metal, booming out across the park. Never able to stay still, he moves over to the roundabout and pushes it so it starts spinning, then jumps on. Steve joins him.

'This was always my favourite,' Steve says, wind rushing in his ears, 'until I ate too much cake before I went on one day and threw up everywhere.'

Billy eyes him warily. 'Not gonna puke on me, are you?'

Steve shrugs, blushing a little, and Billy wrinkles his nose. 'I liked the jungle gym,' he says, simply.

Steve smiles, imagining a tiny Billy climbing all over the jungle gym, falling down and picking himself up again. He wonders if Billy was a rowdy kid, if he was happy. If he and Steve would have got along. Billy looks at him from across the roundabout, the hint of a smile playing on his lips, and Steve feels giddy.

The sun sinks lower as they spin, painting the playground in candied hues. A warm breeze carries the scent of dinners cooked in nearby homes. It's still balmy but it's pleasant, now, without the bite of the sun.

'Wanna see if anywhere will sell us some beer and go back to the motel?' Billy asks.

'Thought you'd want to check on the car.'

'Nah,' Billy says. 'It's too late, now, anyway.'

'OK,' Steve says and hops off the roundabout. His legs feel wobbly and his head spins as he follows Billy from the park, but it's nice. It's been a good afternoon.

It's easy enough to find somewhere that will sell them beer, so they grab a six-pack, a couple of burgers and head back to the motel where they spend the night drinking, watching shitty TV and talking until they pass out.

__

It's still dark when Steve wakes feeling disoriented. He squints at the clock on the bedside table. It's midnight. He's only been asleep for about an hour. He's debating whether or not he wants some water when he hears noises from Billy's bed. Whimpering. He's about to call out, ask Billy if he's okay, when his sleep addled brain catches up and he realises what the sounds are. Oh. Billy is definitely okay. Steve looks over to Billy's bed. He can make out the line of his hand moving under the sheet in the moonlight slanting through the blinds and the light spilling out from the bathroom.

Steve holds his breath and stays as still as he can. Heat shoots through him, going straight to his dick. Billy is jerking off and Steve can hear him. Can see him.

Steve fists his hands by his sides. He wonders if staying this still and quiet is more suspicious than if he just acted like normal but, then, he's sure Billy isn't thinking about him right now. Steve can't think of anything but Billy. He starts to wonder how exactly Billy likes to touch himself. The faces he makes. How he'd sound if he wasn't trying to be quiet. Steve can still hear soft moans, though. What would it be like if it were Steve eliciting those those sounds from Billy? Touching him. Fucking him.

Fuck. Why couldn't Billy just jerk off in the shower, like Steve's been doing.

Steve's heart thuds. What if Billy looks over and realises Steve is awake, watching him? But then, Steve thinks, why would Billy look over at him when he’s jerking off? Just then, Billy's hips arch up beneath the sheets. He gasps softly and Steve's stomach does a slow somersault when he realises that Billy has just come.

Steve's own cock is painfully hard by now, and he digs his nails into his palms, bites his lip to keep from making any sound. He squeezes his eyes shut tight, like he should have from the outset, and tries to think unsexy thoughts. The woman from the thrift store wearing a bikini, stepping on the prongs of a power cord, algebra. Nothing works. He's still hard.

Billy's bed creaks and the sheets rustle and then there's nothing to hear but Billy's breathing, Steve's own thundering heart.

Steve waits as long as he can bear before he gets out of bed and rushes to the bathroom, shutting the door with shaking hands. He hopes Billy doesn't hear him, doesn't realise, somehow, what Steve is going to do.

He shoves his boxers down and braces himself with one hand on the wall. It's not the first time he's jerked off thinking about Billy, not even the first time he's done it with Billy in the other room—there was the shower that first morning in Chicago—but it's entirely different when he has to do it because he's so turned on from listening to Billy jerk off there's no way he'll sleep otherwise.

As he strokes his hand over his cock, he imagines Billy lying in bed, knowing that Steve is touching himself because of him. Getting hard again, thinking about it. Coming into the bathroom, pressing himself up against Steve, wrapping his hand around Steve's cock. Steve has to bite his lip to quiet the moan he can't keep down. He's so close, already. He leans his forehead on his arm and moves his hand faster, hips snapping. He remembers the way Billy's hips had arched off the bed, that soft gasp, and then Steve's coming. 'Fuck,' he whispers.

He wipes his hand off on some toiler paper, then flushes the toilet. Sweat trickles down his forehead, itches at the back of his neck. He has to take a moment to catch his breath before he runs the faucet and washes his hands, splashes his face with tepid water. He doesn't look in the mirror.

When he goes back in the other room, Billy is turned on his side, away from Steve's bed. Shoulders rising and falling with each breath. He seems to be asleep. Steve gets back in his own bed, heart racing, still a little sweaty. It takes him ages to get to sleep and, when he does, he tosses and turns all night. He wonders if he can make himself believe this was all a dream.

Chapter Text

The sun is high and bright in the clear sky, glimmering off the asphalt ahead, shining down on the Camaro speeding along the highway. Behind the wheel, Billy can feel his skin humming. There's something on his mind, something he's been thinking about telling Steve, and the further they get from Hawkins the looser his tongue feels. The more he wants to spill secrets he's kept closely guarded for years.

He glances at Steve napping in the passenger seat, mouth hanging open, snoring lightly. Billy's stomach flips. Steve already knows some of Billy's secrets, but not the biggest. Not the one that could fuck everything up. Maybe he should just wake Steve, get it over with. But something stops him.

A yellow Volkswagen passes in the opposite direction, a bright spot against the blur of flat green land, and it spurs Billy into action. He reaches over and punches Steve in the arm.

Steve startles awake. 'What?' He wipes at his mouth.

'Punch buggy,' Billy says, jerking his head back in the direction of the bug.

'Asshole,' Steve groans, rubbing his arm. He turns and squints out the rear window. 'How long was I asleep, anyway?'

'About 20 minutes.'

Steve grunts and slumps back in the seat. Neither he nor Billy say anything else, there's just the music playing to fill the silence in the car. Billy bites his thumbnail. Steve stares out the window, forehead resting against the glass, idly drumming his fingers on his thigh.

Billy glances over at him several times, before he turns the music down. 'Steve?'

'Yeah?'

Billy's just going to say it. If Steve freaks out, they're in the car in the middle of nowhere and Billy's driving. It's not like Steve can go anywhere. He could leave Billy at the next town, though, go back to Hawkins. Maybe Billy has to take that chance. He licks his lips and sucks in a breath. 'I'm gay.'

There, said it. His heart is pounding and his neck feels hot. He doesn't look at Steve.

'Gay?'

'Uh-huh.'

'Oh, right. Um. Cool.' It sounds like a question but Billy isn't sure if it's directed at him or if Steve is asking himself if Billy being gay is 'cool'.

'Cool,' Billy repeats. There's a ringing in his ears. He wishes he hadn't turned the music down.

'Yeah,' Steve says shifting in his seat. There's a moment of silence, filled only by their breathing, and then he says, 'I, uh, I should tell you...'

'Tell me what?' Billy asks, a little too harshly.

'Um. Just...' Steve sighs. 'Congratulations?'

Billy nearly veers into the next lane. 'What?' He finally looks over at Steve, who's gone all red. 'Congratulations?' Steve looks like he's five seconds away from throwing himself out of the car. 'You are such a fucking dork, Harrington.' Billy laughs and it feels like all the tension he hadn't realised he'd been holding just melts away.

'Sorry,' Steve says, looking sheepish.

Billy shrugs. Now that he's told Steve he feels a palpable sense of relief. The sun is still shining, the steering wheel still solid and familiar beneath his hands and Steve hasn't recoiled in disgust. But beneath the relief there is also the sense of being exposed, being known in a way that sits uncomfortably under his skin. A squirming kind of feeling that threatens to burrow deeper as the seconds pass. But he looks over at Steve, and he's not looking at Billy any differently, and the feeling lightens. In that moment, Billy knows that telling Steve was the right decision.

__

They reach Des Moines about twenty minutes after Billy told Steve he's gay. They passed the time playing car games, neither one letting silence fall between them for too long. Billy isn't sure if it feels unusual, uncomfortable in some way, or if it feels more normal now. In the back of his mind he's waiting for the other shoe to drop, on alert for something to go wrong. But he's not going to push it.

'Wanna find a motel, or get some food first?' Billy asks, as he turns into a road lined with red brick buildings, sun glinting off their blank windows.

'Food,' Steve says, without hesitation. Billy isn't surprised. Steve has an appetite that matches Billy's own. It's kind of impressive, actually.

'Food,' Billy agrees.

They find a small diner that looks like it hasn't been decorated since the 1950s and sit in a booth by the window. The window is dusty but the table is clean. Billy shifts, looking the menu over, vinyl seat squeaking beneath his jeans.

'I'm starving,' Steve says from behind his own dog-eared menu.

Billy's stomach growls. 'Yeah.'

Their order—two burgers with the lot, cherry soda for Billy, and a coke for Steve—is taken by a waitress with a swinging ponytail and hot pink nails that go tap tap tap on her pad as she scribbles it down with the chewed up pencil in her other hand.

'I'll bring your drinks out first,' she says, ripping the docket off the pad, then weaving through the tables toward the kitchen.

At a nearby booth a brother and sister squabble over the last onion ring, while their frazzled mother tries to placate them. A jukebox plays country music that jangles on Billy's nerves, makes him think of his dad. Steve, though, is quiet while he slurps his soda, staring out the window.

Billy drums his fingers, looking at the side of Steve's face. He rips the end off his straw wrapper and blows into the straw, aiming it so the paper sails across the table and hits Steve's cheek, right on his mole.

'Hey!' Steve says, rubbing at his face. 'What was that for?'

'For free.'

Steve raises a brow, but his lips quirk and he's looking at Billy now, so that restless feeling that wells up whenever Steve isn't looking at him settles.

Billy leans back, gulps some of his cherry soda, ice pouring into his mouth. He crunches the ice cubes, rolls the little pieces around until they melt against his tongue.

Steve is still quiet but it's not that uncomfortable. Everything seems...fine. Billy wishes he knew what Steve was thinking, though, watching as he absently pours some sugar onto the table and starts drawing in it. He's about to ask Steve what he's drawing when the waitress comes over with their burgers and Steve sweeps the sugar onto the floor.

'Thanks,' Steve says.

'Enjoy your lunch,' the waitress says, before she leaves, ponytail still swinging.

Billy sinks his teeth into his burger, ketchup splatting onto the plate below, but Steve just picks at his fries. Billy frowns. 'Thought you were starving,' he says, around a mouthful of half-chewed burger.

'I am,' Steve says, with a shrug, 'but I thought it might be too hot.'

'S'fine,' Billy says.

'OK.' Steve picks up his own burger, taking a bite, and they lapse into silence.

Steve doesn't eat with his usual gusto, shifting in his seat, looking out the window, gaze sliding over Billy. Distracted.

'Would you spit it out already,' Billy says, the third time Steve opens his mouth as if to say something and then seems to change his mind, snapping his jaw shut.

'Huh, what?'

Billy tilts his head. 'Seems like you want to say something.'

'No.' Steve presses his lips together and shrugs.

Billy wants to believe him so he lets it drop. He finishes his burger, then mops up the splotches of ketchup on his plate with his fries, the tang of salt and acid bursting on his tongue as he pops them in his mouth. He chews noisily then licks the salt off his fingers.

'Wanna get out of here?' Steve asks, pushing his plate into the middle of the table. A quarter of his burger remains, listed to one side, surrounded by several soggy fries.

Billy nods. Ice clinks against the sides of his glass as he raises it to his mouth, gulping down the last of his soda. They wave the waitress down, so that they can pay, then they leave.

On the way back to the car, Billy spots a sign and stops dead. Steve nearly walks into him. The sign, hanging above the window of a small shop, is modest and unobtrusive, so Billy had almost missed it. The shop itself seems out of place, wedged between a drugstore and a laundromat, but there it is, its small sign calling to Billy.

'What's wrong?' Steve asks.

Billy turns to him, a grin slowly forming, and points. Steve's eyes widen. 'You're not...'

'I am,' Billy says and strides off. He turns back and gestures for Steve to follow him. 'Come on.'

They walk into the tattoo shop side by side. A bell above the door rings as Billy shoves it open. It's a narrow shop but long, walls covered with sheets of paper filled with images of hearts and roses and skulls and eagles.

'Awesome,' Billy says. Beside him, Steve is looking around at all the pictures, brow furrowed.

'Can I help you, boys?' An older woman, long silver hair pulled back in a braid, arms covered in fading tattoos, is looking up at Billy and Steve expectantly from behind the counter.

'Uh, I want a tattoo.' Billy licks his lips. Five minutes ago he didn't know this shop existed, had no immediate plans to get a tattoo but, now, he's certain.

The woman smirks and says, 'Didn't figure you were looking for lunch.'

Steve snickers and Billy elbows him, the tips of his ears going hot.

The woman's expression softens and she says, 'Well, know what you want?'

Billy shakes his head. Tattoos are badass, and he's always wanted one, but there's so many to choose from.

'You look the flash over,' she says, pointing at the images on the walls, 'and tell me when you've decided, OK?' She goes back to drawing, looking up at Billy and Steve every so often.

'Are you sure about this?' Steve asks. 'It's permanent.'

'No shit.'

'I just meant...' Steve shifts his weight, gaze flicking to the woman at the counter. Her lips are twisted in an amused smile. 'Whatever. It's your body, man.'

Billy grunts and turns away. He wipes an arm across his forehead, mopping the sweat beading there. It's not much cooler in the shop than it is outside though air is dry, at least. There's a pedestal fan in the corner, that catches some of the paper on the wall, making unstuck corners flutter as it turns from side to side.

If Billy were the kind of person to believe in fate, he'd think finding the tattoo parlour today, after telling Steve, was meant to be. The universe telling him to mark the occasion or some shit. He doesn't share this with Steve. Just quietly looks over the images on the wall until one catches his eye. 'That's it.'

'That's what you want on you forever?'

'You don't think it's cool?' Billy turns to Steve.

Steve raises his brows. 'Do you need my approval?'

Billy rolls his eyes. 'No, just...forget it.' He makes towards the counter but then Steve catches his elbow, hand warm on Billy's skin. Billy turns around.

The corner of Steve's mouth ticks up and he says, 'I think it's cool.'

__

The needle buzzes, vibrating through Billy, as the tattooist, Corinne, inks the design Billy chose—a panther, strong and ferocious, clawing its way up Billy's deltoid—into Billy's skin. The buzzing would almost tickle were it not for the hot, sharp pain. Billy has never felt anything like it. Piercing his ear had stung for a moment but this is relentless. It's kind of exhilarating, though.

Nearby, Steve sits in a chair, arms crossed, visibly fascinated and disgusted by turns. He chats with Corinne while she works, about where they're going, where they've been, but Billy stays silent.

'I didn't know there were ladies who did tattoos,' Steve says, eyes wide as he leans forward to peer at Billy's arm.

Corinne shoots him a sharp but amused look. 'There are ladies that do all sorts of things.'

Steve blushes. 'I mean, I think it's cool,' he says, quickly.

Corinne chuckles and says, 'Thanks,' drily.

Beyond the sound of their voices there is music playing from a small stereo. Janis Joplin, Billy realises, stomach pitching. His mom always liked Janis Joplin. She probably still does, wherever she is.

The needle pricks a tender spot and Billy flinches, thoughts of Janis Joplin and his mom fleeing his mind. He tries not to tense. Corinne had said it would be better if he relaxes. He's always wound so tight, poised for action, but after today he finds relaxing is a little easier than usual.

'You're doing good, honey,' Corinne says, as she wipes away excess ink and blood. It feels like Billy's skin is burning. He glances down at the panther taking form and thinks it looks cool, though. The pain will be worth it.

A couple of hours pass before Corinne turns off the machine and says she's done. It's so quiet, now, without the buzzing of the needle.

Billy stumbles a little as he stands. Steve steadies him, a hand on his shoulder. Corinne lets Billy look at the tattoo in a mirror. It's shining and the skin all around it is raised and red but it looks fucking awesome. Billy feels awesome.

When she cleans it off, Billy nearly sighs in relief at the cool touch after hours of hot pain. It feels good. She bandages his arm up, explaining how to look after the tattoo while it's healing, then they go to the counter so Billy can pay.

'I got an old friend who has a shop in Venice Beach,' Corinne says, scribbling something down on a piece of paper. 'If you want any more work done when you're out in California, you should look him up.'

She hands the paper to Billy who tucks it into his pocket. 'Thanks,' he says, and turns to Steve. He jerks his head toward the door and Steve nods, walking out with a small wave in Corinne's direction.

'Good luck, boys,' she calls after them. They both thank her as they step back out into the humid air. The sun is still shining bright so Billy slides his sunglasses on.

'I can't believe you did that,' Steve says as they wander down the sidewalk, toward the car. Billy thinks there might be something like awe in his voice.

'It was nothing.'

'No, it wasn't.' Steve nudges him.

'Ow,' Billy says, jerking back, nearly bumping into a streetlight.

'Oh, fuck, sorry,' Steve says, looking contrite but smiling beneath it.

'It's fine,' Billy says. He rolls his shoulders. His arm is throbbing, but it's a dull ache. More like sore, tender muscles than a wound. He thought it would feel different.

'Motel?' Steve says, as they get to the car.

Billy nods. He feels kind of giddy and buzzed and worn out all at once. It's weird. He likes it.

'Cool,' Steve says, looking at Billy's arm. 'I'll drive.'

Billy waves him off. 'I'm fine, I can drive.'

Steve raises a brow. 'I don't think you should.' He stares Billy down, arms crossed over his chest.

With a sigh, Billy reaches into his pocket, then throws the keys to Steve. He's tired and Steve is probably right. 'Fine.'

Steve catches the keys with a triumphant smirk and gets into the car.

Billy settles into the passenger seat, trying not to jostle his swollen arm, tipping his head back. He lets his eyes drift closed but he opens them again after moments pass and Steve hasn't started the car.

Steve is sitting still, hands resting on the steering wheel. He doesn't look at Billy when he says, 'What you said in the car on the way here. I just wanted to let you know...that I...'

Billy's heart thuds. 'That you what?'

Steve seems to steel himself but then he deflates. 'I, uh, I think...it took guts,' he says, cheeks all pink.

'Oh.' Billy flushes. 'Um. Thanks.'

Steve nods and turns the key in the ignition. There is the vague thought at the back of Billy's mind that Steve had wanted to say something else, but with a gentle breeze cooling the sweat on his skin and his favourite tunes playing, Billy doesn't think about what it might've been.

Chapter Text

A haze of cigarette smoke hangs in the air, diffusing the dim lights, as a jukebox plays something bluesy in a corner. The singer's voice is rough, the guitar buzzing.

Steve absently drums his fingers on the burnished wood of the bar as he waits for the bartender to pull two beers. He hadn't asked Steve for his ID and Steve takes it as a sign the night is going to go well. Glasses clink and people chatter, mixing with the music playing. Steve pops a handful of peanuts in his mouth, munching happily. Salt bursts on his tongue, peanut skin sticks to the back of his teeth.

The bartender clears his throat and Steve turns back, handing over some money and murmuring his thanks.

Beers in hand, he winds his way through a maze of mostly empty tables—a redhead with hot pink nails wearing a low cut top winks at him as he passes, the blond with her scowls—to the back of the bar where Billy is setting up a pool table. He's leaning over, arranging the coloured balls into the rack, shirt pulled taut across his shoulders, jeans as sinfully tight as ever.

Steve flushes, takes a sip of his beer, then nudges Billy.

Billy looks up, still bent over, his blue eyes nearly swallowed by the black of his pupils in the low light of the bar. He straightens up when he sees Steve and takes the proffered beer. 'Thanks,' he says, sipping at it. He gets foam on his top lip and he licks it away, slowly.

Steve looks away.

'You wanna break?' Billy asks, gesturing to the pool table.

Steve sets his beer down on a ledge behind him and shrugs. 'Sure,' he says and grabs a cue from the rack. He chalks it up, then rounds the table to where the cue ball sits in a pool of yellow light from the lamp shining above it. He leans over the table, lining up the cue, then strikes. The cue ball whirls across the table, scattering the other balls—clack clack clack—and he pockets the striped yellow.

Billy raises his brows as he leans back, his own cue tucked in his elbow, beer in his other hand. 'Impressive,' he says. He rolls his shoulders, drawing Steve's eye to the bandage that still covers his healing tattoo.

'Just wait,' Steve says, 'you haven't seen anything, yet.'

Billy laughs, then, freer than Steve has ever heard him. He's been looser since he told Steve he's gay. It suits him. It makes Steve feel lighter, too, but then something heavy settles in his belly when he thinks he should've told Billy, when Billy told him. Two simple words—'Me too'—and it would've been done, even if it was more complicated than that. It would've been a start.

'Don't tell me I've got a shark on my hands,' Billy says.

Steve winks and then he flushes. He clears his throat and leans over the table, again, to take another shot, trying to clear his mind. He pockets a second ball but misses the third.

'You're good, Harrington,' Billy says, as he lines up his own shot, 'but I'm still gonna kick your ass.'

Steve snorts and watches as Billy pockets the solid blue. 'I'll believe that when I see it, Hargrove.'

At the next table, a burly blond, hair cropped short, is talking and laughing loudly as a man with dark hair and a moustache sets up the balls as Billy had done. Beside him a willowy redhead in a flowing skirt looks bored, her arms crossed and candy pink lips pursed into a displeased moue when the blond slings his arm around her shoulders. Steve recognises her as the redhead who had winked at him earlier.

Billy pockets a second ball, like Steve had, but he misses a third when the blond raises his voice, gesturing at the dark haired man with his beer and, for some reason Steve hadn't seen or heard, telling him not to be 'such a fag.'

Steve's heart skips unpleasantly and he looks over to Billy, whose fingers are curled tight around his cue, all agitation and something Steve can't recognise. He brushes his arm against Billy's in what he hopes is a sympathetic gesture when he moves over to take his own shot.

Beneath Steve's forearm the varnish is peeling, sharp edges catching on his skin as he adjusts his pose before striking. The felt is furred and worn but the balls still glide smoothly across the table, sinking into the pocket with a satisfying thunk.

Billy is sipping his beer and keeps glancing over at the other table, eyeing the blond, brow furrowed. That tension he always holds is slowly seeping back, making something coil tight in Steve's stomach.

'Whose game are you playing?' Steve asks, leaning on his cue.

'Huh?' Billy's gaze snaps back to Steve.

'It's your turn,' Steve says, nodding at the table.

'Right,' Billy says. He drains his glass and sets it down, then gets back to the game, no longer distracted by the obnoxious blond at the next table.

Steve wins the first game, so Billy buys the next round of beer, while Steve sets the table again.

'Hi,' Steve hears as he's placing the last ball in the triangle. The redhead who'd winked at him is standing beside him, one hand resting on the edge of the table.

'Hi,' Steve says. He glances over to the next table; the dark-haired man is still there but the blond isn't.

'What's your name?' the redhead asks, standing close. She smells like honeysuckle and whisky.

'Steve.'

'Hi, Steve,' the redhead says, white teeth flashing as she smiles, 'I'm Joanie.'

Steve smiles back. 'Won't your friend miss you?' he asks, nodding toward the other table.

Joanie glances over her shoulder, the strap of her top slipping down, and says, 'Oh, him. He's one of Eddie's friends. He's kinda dull.'

'Eddie your boyfriend?' Steve asks, assuming she's talking about the blond from earlier.

Joanie nods, picking up the cue ball, and turning it over in her hand.

'Won't he miss you?'

'Probably,' Joanie says, 'but he's not here right now.'

'Maybe you should go wait for him,' Steve says. Joanie is cute and if it were another time, if she were single and if Steve weren't hung up on Billy, he'd see where this might go. But not tonight.

Just as he's thinking this, Eddie comes back over and, when his gaze lands on Joanie standing by Steve, his nostrils flare and his face goes red.

'Shit,' Steve murmurs. 'Your boyfriend's back.'

Joanie wheels around, eyes widening, but before she can say anything, Eddie stalks over and grabs her arm. Hard.

'What's going on?' Eddie asks.

'Nothing, baby,' Joanie says. Eddie's fingers tighten on her arm and something unpleasant settles in Steve's stomach.

'We were just talking,' Steve says, gaze flicking to Eddie's fierce grip on Joanie, her skin white under his fingertips.

Eddie finally lets go of Joanie and turns to Steve, getting right in his face. His breath is hot, smells of beer when he says, 'Talking, huh?'

Steve nods. 'Yeah. Talking.'

'Don't fucking talk to my girl, got it?' Eddie says, fisting his hands in Steve's shirt.

Steve raises his hands and says, 'Got it,' but just then Billy comes back over with the beers.

He sets the beers down, frothy liquid sloshing onto the pool table, and shoves Eddie. 'Get the fuck off him.'

Eddie staggers back, eyes blazing. He looks between Steve and Billy and says, 'Looks like you were barking up the wrong tree, babe. This one's a fag.'

'What did you call him?' Billy says, voice low and dangerous.

'You heard me,' Eddie says.

Billy shoves Eddie, again, and says, 'Don't call him that.'

'Hey, leave it,' Steve says, catching Billy's arm.

'Better listen to your boyfriend,' Eddie says.

'So what if he was?' Billy says.

Eddie's face twists into a sneer and he spits at Billy. 'That's disgusting,' he says.

Steve doesn't have time to stop Billy, can only watch as he curls his hand into a fist and swings his arm, cracking Eddie across the jaw.

A hush descends as it seems everyone in the bar turns their way, watching and waiting. Eddie dabs at his mouth, fingers coming away slick and red, and then he swings back at Billy. The bar erupts into a chorus of shouts—some egging them on, some begging them to stop—as Billy and Eddie grapple.

Joanie has slunk into the shadows, chewing on her lip and rubbing her arm. The dark-haired man looks poised to join in if he needs to.

'Jesus Christ,' Steve mutters, and dives forward to catch Billy around the waist. He pulls Billy off of Eddie. 'Come on, man,' Steve says, 'it's not worth it.'

Billy staggers back, knocking into the pool table, wiping over his mouth. His eyes are wild, knuckles red, a bruise forming along his cheekbone.

'Gonna wimp out on me?' Eddie says, goading. 'Just like a little faggot.'

Billy surges forward again but before he can do anything Steve is turning, saying, 'OK, that's it,' and punching Eddie square in the nose. He hears the crunch of cartilage as his fist connects.

That's when the dark haired man finally leaps in, pulling Steve off of Eddie and punching him in the face. Billy takes the opportunity to jump into the fray again, laughing as he hits Eddie, teeth shining red.

It's a mess of scrabbling limbs as the four men pitch between the tables until the bartender comes over and yells, 'Break it up!' He pushes between Billy and Eddie and repeats, 'Break it up, or I'm barring you for life, Eddie.'

This finally catches Eddie's attention and he pauses, chest heaving, his gaze now turned to the bartender. 'OK,' he says, 'we're done.'

'Good,' the bartender says. He turns to Steve and Billy. 'Now you boys get out of here. And don't come back.'

Billy is still coiled tight and Steve can tell he's not done fighting, would probably punch the bartender in a heartbeat, so Steve grabs hold of him and says, 'Yeah. Sorry. We're leaving,' to the bartender.

'Come on,' he says to Billy, urging him to follow. He doesn't look at anyone else as he drags Billy away.

Just before they step outside Billy turns and yells, 'I hope you fuck better than you fight.'

Eddie lunges forward and Billy laughs, mean and dark, before he grabs Steve's wrist and runs, pulling Steve with him. Steve's blood is racing, adrenaline coursing through his veins, as he and Billy run down the street. Their feet pound in time with the thundering of Steve's heart all the way to their motel.

Steve unlocks the door and follows Billy inside. He's panting, covered in sweat, leaning against the wall. 'Fuck,' he says, 'that was actually kinda awesome.' He looks over at Billy who is pacing the length of the room, chewing on his thumbnail. Steve frowns. 'You OK?'

'I gotta piss,' Billy says and storms into the bathroom, slamming the door. It vibrates through the wall, rattling the picture frame—a print of a tacky mountain scene—and making Steve jump.

His heart finally starts to slow and he wipes the back of his hand over his brow. There is a dull throb in his cheek and his knuckles ache. He pulls off his shirt, using it to wipe under his arms and over his chest, then puts on a clean one. When he's done, Billy is still in the bathroom. He sits on his bed, eyeing the bathroom door. Maybe Billy is cleaning himself up, Steve thinks, but when minutes pass and the door remains shut tight, he stands and moves across the room.

He pauses at the door, hand poised to knock, bouncing on his toes. He doesn't want to intrude, or piss Billy off, but if something's wrong… He knocks but there's no response. 'Everything OK?' Steve asks but, still, there is only silence.

What if that guy hit Billy harder than Steve had realised? Steve tries the door. It's unlocked, so he pushes it open. Billy is sitting on the closed toilet, elbows on his knees, head hanging.

'Sorry,' Steve says, 'I thought you were—' He stops, feeling foolish.

'S'fine,' Billy says, voice rough.

'I'll just…' Steve gestures back to the other room, but then he hears Billy sniffle. 'Are you crying?'

'No.'

Steve steps further into the bathroom. 'What's wrong? Did that guy really hurt you or something?'

Billy huffs. 'What? Think I'm that delicate?'

'No, of course not. But…you are crying,' Steve says, tongue loosened by beer and the receding adrenaline. He should probably just ignore that Billy is crying, like Billy clearly wants him to, but he can't.

Billy looks up at Steve, then, eyelashes glistening in the dingy light. He stares at Steve a moment before he says, 'When he called you—called us—that I heard…' Billy sucks in a breath. 'I heard my dad. OK?'

All the air leaves Steve in a rush. 'Shit.'

'Yeah,' Billy says. He laughs, rueful. 'I thought I'd be free, you know? But he's still up here.' He hits his forehead with the heel of his palm.

'Hey, don't,' Steve says, stepping forward and grabbing Billy's wrist. 'It's only been a few days since we left,' he says, though time and distance may only be half the battle for Billy. He drags his thumb across Billy's pulse. It skips and Steve lets go of Billy's wrist.

Billy turns his head, wipes his eyes, and nods. 'Fuck.' He squeezes his eyes shut tight and then he rests his forehead on Steve's stomach, just for a moment, before he seems to realise what he's done and pulls away.

'It's OK,' Steve says, voice almost a whisper, even though it's probably not OK, and reaches out to rest a hand on Billy's shoulder.

Billy bites his thumbnail and then he stands, turning away from Steve to splash water on his face.

Steve's arm falls to his side. 'Are you OK?'

'Sure,' Billy says, fingers curled over the edge of the sink, knuckles going white.

Heart thudding Steve reaches out again, turning Billy to him with a hand on his shoulder. Billy doesn't resist, just blinks at him. Steve slides his hand to the back of Billy's neck and pulls until Billy is in his arms.

Billy stiffens but then he sighs and clutches at Steve's shoulders, hands fisted in his shirt. Steve pulls Billy closer, so he's hugging him tight, one hand threaded in Billy's hair.

They stay like that for long minutes, the bathroom light flickering and buzzing above them, the tap dripping, Billy's soft breaths warm and damp on Steve's neck. In other circumstances, Steve would relish the feel of Billy in his arms, but seeing Billy cry has left him feeling unmoored, left something curdling in his stomach. He has an idea of what Billy went through at the hands of his father. But even with the amount of times Steve has had the stuffing knocked out of him, he can't really imagine it. His own father may be strict, distant, but he was never violent. Never cruel. Not on purpose, anyway.

'I don't think you're delicate,' Steve says, voice low.

Billy sucks in a breath and pulls away. 'Thanks.'

Steve reaches out and cups Billy's jaw, runs his thumb along the bruise on his cheek. Billy looks at him, eyes wide and nostrils flared. Steve thinks maybe he could kiss Billy, right now, and Billy might let him. Might want him to. He lets his hand fall from Billy's face and clears his throat. 'Just…don't pick any more fights. I'd like to get to California in one piece.'

Billy's lips quirk. 'Thought you said it was kinda fun.'

Steve shrugs. He tries not to smile but when Billy stares back at him, gaze unusually open, he lets his smile break free and says, 'Yeah, it was.'

Chapter Text

The motel room is stifling, even with the air conditioner rattling in the window, its wet purr mingling with the hum of the television. Billy's tank sticks to him as he shifts, the comforter scratching on his bare legs, catching the hem of his cut-off shorts. His blood feels slow and thick, partly from the heat, partly from the beers he's knocked back in the past hour. It's not enough to dull the ache of his bruised face or knuckles but it's enough to make him feel loose in a way he rarely does. He's been feeling like that a lot lately, though. It's weird.

The door opens, letting in a swathe of yellow from the fluorescent lights outside, the hot night air. Steve steps inside, juggling junk food in his arms.

'What took you so long?' Billy asks as Steve throws a packet of chips and a candy bar at him.

'I got talking to this lady at the vending machine.' Steve shrugs, apologetically. 'She was nice.'

A pang of jealousy shoots through Billy. He swallows it down. 'Hey, don't let me cramp your style if you wanna get laid.' He waggles his brows.

Steve snorts. 'She was, like, sixty.'

'Not into older women?' Billy asks, relieved. He rips open the candy bar, and shoves it in his mouth. The chocolate melts on his tongue, gooey and rich, and he swallows thickly.

Steve grabs a can of beer from where the case sits on the lopsided table in the corner. 'Not when they're older than my mom,' he says and clambers onto the bed, sitting by Billy. He leans into his space as he settles down, one hand holding his beer, mattress dipping under his weight.

'Uh, your bed is over there, dude,' Billy says, gesturing across the room. Heat crawls up his neck.

Steve looks over to his bed, then shrugs. 'I can see the TV better here.'

'Whatever,' Billy says and shifts over to make room.

But Steve only takes it as an invitation to shuffle over, pressed close against Billy. His leg hair catches against Billy's as their shins brush, his elbow digs into Billy's side as he settles back against the pillow. The mattress is soft, the springs broken, and it dips beneath their combined weight, making them lean into each other.

Normally, Billy would relish the casual touches but he's been so wound up, being so close to Steve—in the car, in cramped motel rooms, in tiny diner booths—and he doesn't want to get a boner because the hem of Steve's shorts has ridden up and Billy can feel the warmth of his thigh against his. He shifts, one arm crossed over his middle but the bed only brings him back, slipping close against Steve's side.

'What's this?' Steve asks.

'Hm?'

'The show,' Steve says, gesturing to the television set, beer fizzing and sloshing in the can he's holding.

'No clue,' Billy says. He hands the remote to Steve. 'I wasn't really watching.'

Steve hums and flips through some channels. Billy glances at him from the corner of his eye. Blue light flickers over his face, catching on the slope of his nose, the bow of his lips, the angle of his jaw. Billy's head feels foggy with beer and heat and a simmering arousal he wills away. Or tries to.

'Fuck, I loved this show,' Steve says, breaking Billy out of his thoughts. 'Lynda Carter is so hot.' He starts singing, 'In her satin tights, fighting for our rights,' then trails off into a soft hum.

Billy blinks and looks at the television where Lynda Carter is spinning around and around. He feels dizzy.

'Don't you think she's hot?' Steve asks, and then a moment later, adds, 'Oh, shit. Sorry. Never mind.'

'She is hot.'

'What?' Steve's head whips around.

'I'm gay, not blind,' Billy says, waving a hand at the screen, 'I can still see she's hot.'

'Oh, right,' Steve says, turning back to the television. 'I thought…never mind. Sorry.'

Billy frowns. Everything has been fine between he and Steve since he came out, but he's had a strange feeling building in his gut, like Steve is holding something back. Billy can't figure what it is. 'It's fine,' he says.

'I had this poster of her over my bed for years, even after the show ended,' Steve continues. 'I think my first, you know, sexy dream was about her,' he adds with a lopsided grin.

'Thanks for sharing,' Billy deadpans and reaches out for the new can of beer he'd left on the bedside table. He cracks it open and drains about half of it in one go, hoping it will clear his head of the thought of Steve and sexy dreams.

'What about you?'

Billy nearly chokes as a laugh startles out of him while he's swallowing. 'You want to know about my first sex dream?'

'No.' Steve is blushing. Billy can tell, even in the strange glow of the television that sucks the colour out of the room. Steve squirms a little. 'I meant your first, you know, famous person crush.'

'I don't remember,' Billy says, too quickly. He does, in fact, remember. He just doesn't want to tell Steve.

'Yes you do,' Steve says, poking Billy's thigh.

Billy closes his eyes and leans his head back, letting it thunk against the wall. Tongue loosened by beer and the odd intimacy of the dusty motel room, he says, 'Fonzie.'

Steve barks out a laugh. 'Really?'

'Fuck off,' Billy says, defensively, face hot. 'It was the jacket, OK?'

'Sure,' Steve says. 'That's cute, though. Did you ever try the jukebox thing?'

Billy huffs. 'Yeah.'

'Me too,' Steve says. 'It never worked. But I'm still tempted to try it whenever I see a jukebox.'

Billy bites his lip. 'So am I,' he admits.

'Now I see where the whole bad boy image comes from,' Steve says, nudging Billy.

Billy thinks It's not an image and I'm not like this because I had a crush on the Fonz. He says, 'Fonzie wasn't a bad boy. Not really.'

'Mm, guess not.'

There's silence for a few moments, filled only with the hum of the television. In the commercial break, Steve says, 'So you knew when you were a kid then?'

'Knew what?'

'That you're, um, into guys.'

'Oh,' Billy says. A wriggly feeling works its way around his stomach. 'Yeah, sort of. I thought I just wanted to look at Fonzie, or John Travolta, or Marlon Brando—young Brando—because they were really cool and I wanted to be like them,' he says, torn between years of keeping this to himself, telling himself he didn't want anyone to know, anyway, and the desire to spill his guts completely. 'And I did. But I also wanted to…'

'Fuck them?'

Billy snorts. 'When I got older, yeah.'

Steve's eyes light up. 'Are you still into Fonzie?'

'No,' Billy says, shoving Steve lightly. 'Jesus. I have better taste now.'

'Yeah?' Steve asks. 'Like who?'

Heat prickles under Billy's jaw. He pushes himself up—he's slowly slid down the bed as they've talked—and drains his beer. 'No, it's your turn.'

'My turn?'

'I've told you, like, three crushes. You've only told me one.' He sounds like a thirteen year old girl but he doesn't care.

Steve looks away, biting his lip. Billy lets his gaze drift down the line of Steve's neck, watches the slow bob of his Adam's apple as he swallows, follows the line of moles down to his collarbone. He's so distracted by the dark hair that peeks out of the top of Steve's tank he thinks he's misheard when Steve finally says, 'Harrison Ford.'

'What?' Billy's gaze shoots back up to Steve's face. His cheeks are flushed and he's not looking at Billy.

Steve shrugs. 'You said it was my turn.' He turns to look at Billy, then. 'He's hot. Right?'

Billy nods, mutely. This bed is too small. He can smell Steve's shampoo, his sweat, the beer on his breath. It's dizzying. Steve's words are dizzying. Is he saying…

Something crackles in the air between them as Steve keeps staring at Billy, seems to move closer, shifting to rest his hand on the mattress. But he must hit the remote, instead, because the volume shoots up and Steve jumps back as Billy's heart leaps. 'Shit,' Steve murmurs, fumbling with the remote, to turn the volume down. 'I gotta piss,' he says, throwing the remote on the comforter and launching himself off the bed.

Billy's heart is still thundering as he watches Steve stumble to the bathroom. Did Steve mean… Were they just going to… Billy groans and rubs a hand across his face. He picks up his can of beer, but it's empty, so he shuffles over to get another, then sinks back down onto the bed.

The toilet flushes and water splashes in the basin and the bathroom door creaks open. Steve hugs his arms around his middle and jerks his head toward his own bed. 'I'm pretty beat,' he says, staring at the wall above Billy's head. 'I think I'll just go to bed now.'

'Sure,' Billy says, tone far lighter than he feels.

Steve nods and moves over to his bed, getting in fully clothed. He rolls onto his side, facing away from Billy.

'Mind if I leave the TV on?' Billy asks.

'No,' Steve says, and then, 'good night.'

'Good night,' Billy says. He flips through the channels before settling on an old western. But he barely pays attention, keeps glancing over to Steve, letting his eyes skim the curve of his shoulder, the line of his thigh. Thinks about Steve's voice when he'd said 'Harrison Ford' and how close he'd leaned in.

Billy forces himself to focus on the television, tries to engross himself in the story, instead of thinking about Steve. He almost succeeds. But in the middle of the showdown, Steve says, 'What I said about Harrison Ford…'

Billy turns the television off. The room is swallowed by darkness and Billy thinks of turning on the lamp, but isn't sure if Steve would want him to. 'Yeah?'

Sheets rustle and springs creak as Steve rolls over. 'I wanted to tell you, when you told me.'

Billy's mouth goes dry. He knows what Steve means now, but, still, he says, 'You wanted to tell me you think Harrison Ford is hot?'

'Billy.'

The air conditioner sputters and Billy sucks in a sharp breath. He licks his lips. 'Sorry.'

The lamp comes on and Billy blinks against the light. Steve sits up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, curling his hands over the mattress. His head is bowed. When he stays silent, Billy sits, too, mirroring Steve's position. Their feet are nearly touching in between their beds.

'Are you saying...' Billy says.

'Yeah,' Steve says. 'I mean, I still like girls. But I like guys too?' Steve looks up and repeats, more certain this time, 'I like guys too.'

'Cool,' Billy says and Steve's shoulders loosen. 'Why didn't you tell me when I told you?' He'd felt so exposed when he told Steve. Like he'd been turned inside out. It never occurred to him that Steve might have a secret too.

'I tried to...I wanted to. But I couldn't.' Steve turns his head. 'I mean, I knew you wouldn't care, obviously. But I couldn't say it.'

Billy huffs.

Steve shoots him a sharp look. 'Don't laugh at me.'

'I'm not.' Billy knocks his knee against Steve's. 'I'm not laughing at you.'

Steve nods, quickly. 'OK.'

'I get it,' Billy says, voice low.

Steve smiles at him and Billy's stomach swoops. There's that feeling hanging between them, again, and Billy is pretty sure he knows what it is.

'I'm not really tired,' Steve says. His knee is bouncing, knocking against Billy's. It sends little sparks shooting up Billy's thigh.

'Neither am I,' Billy says and he wants to reach out, put his hand on Steve's knee, pull Steve close and kiss him. But he doesn't and he can't figure why. He's always been impulsive but something stops him. He swallows thickly. 'Wanna watch TV?'

'Yeah,' Steve says, after a beat of silence.

Billy shuffles over to make room for him, like he did earlier, turning on the television as Steve turns off the lamp.

There's an old monster movie playing, now, all screaming women and looming creeps. It's not really scary but Steve doesn't like horror movies so Billy makes to change the channel.

Steve stops him, long fingers curling around his wrist. 'It's OK,' he says, 'leave it.'

Billy looks at him. Their faces are close and he can feel each of Steve's exhales. 'OK,' Billy says and sets the remote on the nightstand. He turns back to the television, letting his head rest against the headboard.

Steve shifts beside him, settling in. When he ends up pressed closer than before—impossibly close, they're touching from their ankles all the way up to their shoulders—Billy doesn't shift away.

They stay that way, eating chips and drinking beer and laughing at how corny the movie is, until the credits roll. The hiss of static fills the room and Billy is too aware of his own breathing, his pulse thrumming in his ears.

'We've got an early start tomorrow, right?' Steve asks. He's turned towards Billy, eyes dark in the blue light of the television.

Billy nods. 'Yeah.'

'So we should get some sleep.' Steve says the words slowly, like maybe he's asking Billy something else.

Part of Billy is screaming at him to tell Steve they can head out later in the morning, they don't have to sleep, yet, but he takes too long to respond and Steve's shoulders have slumped, so he says, 'OK.'

'OK.' Steve hesitates a moment and then he stands, bones popping as he stretches, his shirt riding up. 'Good night,' he says but it's not clipped, like how he'd said it earlier. He stares down at Billy, biting his lip, before he turns and gets back in his own bed.

Billy turns the television off and rolls over. He exhales, long and slow, and says, 'Good night.'

Chapter Text

'Have you seen my black-' Steve stops as Billy emerges from the bathroom in a cloud of steam and hairspray. He's wearing the shirt Steve has spent the last ten minutes looking for, unbuttoned to the navel, the collar popped.

'Seen your black what?' Billy asks, leaning against the bathroom door, ankles crossed.

Steve's gaze sweeps down Billy's torso, stuttering over where the shirt has slid aside to reveal one of Billy's nipples. 'Shirt,' Steve says, swallowing, forcing himself to look back at Billy's face. 'You're wearing it.'

'Is this yours?' Billy looks down at himself, plucking at the fabric. 'I wondered why it was so tight.'

'It doesn't look too…' Steve trails off as Billy flexes his biceps. 'Oh, I get it. You have bigger muscles than me. Ha ha,' he deadpans, but his face is hot.

Billy just winks and pushes off of the door frame. His hair actually fucking bounces. He starts to untuck the shirt from his jeans but Steve says, 'It's OK, you can wear it. It suits you.'

'I know it does,' Billy says. There's a slight hint of pink colouring his cheeks that Steve doesn't think was there before. 'What're you going to wear?'

'I don't know,' Steve says, crossing his arms over his bare chest, feeling suddenly exposed. It's dumb, because Billy has seen him naked but this isn't the locker room and they're alone. Now he wonders if Billy might want to look, knows he wants Billy to look. He turns around to dig through his bag but then something lands on his head. 'Hey,' he says, as he pulls it off, no doubt messing his hair in the process. It's the dark green polo his mom got him for his birthday last year.

'Wear that,' Billy says.

'Why?' Steve asks, even as he pulls the shirt over his head.

'It brings out the colour in my eyes,' Billy says, smirking.

Steve rolls his eyes. 'You're too kind, dude,' he says, but he knows he's blushing. There's something so intimate about all of this—Billy wearing Steve's shirt, picking out something for him to wear. Ever since Steve had finally told Billy he's felt a tension building between them, crackling like electricity in the air. He's certain he's not imagining it—he just wonders when the tension will break, who will break it.

Steve runs a hand through his hair. 'I need to fix my hair,' he says and dashes to the bathroom.

It's still filled with steam, thick and hot. The scent of Billy's cologne and hairspray lingers in the air, filling Steve's nose. He wipes a hand over the mirror, clearing the condensation, then dries his hand on a damp towel. Heat floods his face when he realises it must be Billy's.

Hairspray mists out of the can, coating his hair and leaving his skin feeling sticky. He's just trying to wrangle some stray hairs into place when he hears Billy ask, 'Want a drink?' Billy is standing in the doorway, waggling his hip flask at Steve.

'Yeah,' Steve says, reaching out to take the flask from Billy, their fingers brushing. The whisky goes down hot and rough. Steve wipes his mouth and gives the flask back.

'You ready?' Billy asks, then takes a drink, his mouth right where Steve's had been.

'Nearly,' Steve says. He sprays his hair once more and then sets the can down. He turns to Billy—his arms are crossed, cuffed sleeves tight over his biceps, the tail of the panther tattoo curving around one—and says, 'Ready.'

__

The club is lit with coloured lights, a haze of cigarette smoke diffusing them. They reflect off the large mirrored ball hanging over the centre of the dance floor, which pulsates with men all dancing close together, wearing leather and denim, tight shirts and bare skin. The air throbs with four to the floor; Steve can feel it, thrumming against his skin, beating in time with the rhythm of his heart.

'I want a drink,' Billy says, mouth close to Steve's ear so he can hear him over the music. His breath tickles.

Steve nods, instead of saying anything, and Billy jerks his head in the direction of the bar.

'This way,' Billy mouths and Steve follows him through the throng.

It's more crowded than Steve had thought it would be at this time of night, but then he's never been to a club before. Especially not a club like this. He tries not to gawk at everyone as he passes but it's hard. Everyone here is so…themselves. They're mostly dressed like every other guy Steve knows though. It's surprising but comforting—he doesn't stick out as much as he'd thought he would.

Billy shoulders through the crowd and leans on the bar. Steve manages to squeeze himself in beside him. There's a mirror behind the bar, and Steve can just see their reflection between glittering bottles of vodka and tequila and bourbon. He looks good next to Billy, he thinks, then shakes off the thought, feeling foolish.

A bartender in a white t-shirt, sporting a pencil moustache, comes over and says, 'What can I get you?' raising his voice to be heard.

'Two beers,' Billy yells, holding up two fingers.

The bartender looks at Billy, then at Steve, then back to Billy. He pours two Cokes and sets them pointedly on the counter. 'On the house.'

Billy blinks at the glasses. 'I asked for beer.'

'And you're getting Coke,' the bartender says, sweetly.

Steve hides a smile in his shoulder.

'Look, buddy-' Billy starts but the bartender cuts him off, holding up a hand.

'Look, sweetheart, I don't know how you two got in here, except that you're cute and Rudy has a thing for blonds'—Rudy must be the bouncer who had winked at Billy, Steve thinks, before waving them through without asking for ID—'but I'm not risking our licence for cute. Now, you can make a scene and get thrown out. Or you can take the Cokes.'

'We'll take the Cokes,' Steve says, quickly.

The bartender smiles at him, then walks off to serve another customer. Billy is still glowering at the glasses so Steve picks them both up and says, 'Come on, we're holding everyone up.'

He weaves through the crowd, Billy close behind him, until he finds a miraculously free high top. It wobbles when Steve sets the glasses down and it's sticky under his elbows but it's a clear space where they can stand and drink.

'Fucking soda,' Billy says. He looks around, then slides his hip flask out of his jeans. 'Lucky I brought this with me.'

Steve rolls his eyes but he nudges his glass toward Billy, so he can spike his drink too. He doesn't really want to be sober, though maybe the atmosphere is intoxicating enough.

The taste of cigarettes sticks at the back of Steve's throat as he inhales the smoky air. Usually it would make him want to light up but he doesn't feel like smoking right now. He's happy to sip his whisky and Coke, and watch the men on the dance floor, bumping and grinding in a way that makes his cheeks flush.

Steve cuts his gaze away from two men kissing when he realises he's been staring, and glances at Billy. His hair shines blue then red then green under the lights, and his earring glints, swinging softly whenever Billy moves his head. He looks content enough to stand and drink in silence, though a couple of times Steve catches him scowling. He follows his gaze out into the crowd but can't see what, or who, he's scowling at.

'You OK?' Steve asks, leaning close, the potent scent of Billy's cologne filling his nose.

'Yeah, I'm fine.'

'OK,' Steve says. His gaze drifts along Billy's neck, down to his arm. 'How's the arm? The tattoo, I mean.'

Billy gives him a perplexed smile and says, 'Fine,' and then they fall back into silence.

Steve drums his fingers on the table to the driving beat of the music, taps his foot. He's itching to dance but he's not sure what Billy will think if he asks him, not sure if Billy suggesting this bar means anything or not. But he feels emboldened by the whisky and the disco music so he nudges Billy's shoulder and says, 'Wanna dance?'

Billy arches a brow. 'I don't dance. I especially don't dance to disco.'

Steve's stomach drops. 'Why are we at a dance club if you don't like dancing?'

'I thought that was obvious.'

Steve frowns. What does that mean? 'Come on. Just one song.'

'I'm not stopping you.'

'I don't want to dance alone.'

Billy gives Steve a pointed look. 'I don't think you'd be dancing alone for long.'

'Um…' Steve blinks. His throat feels hot and his hands are tingling. 'I- OK. But. I wanna dance with you.'

Billy chews on his thumbnail and just looks at Steve. Finally he nods and says, 'Fine,' grabbing Steve's wrist and tugging them toward the dance floor. 'But just one song,' he yells over his shoulder.

Steve nods, stumbling after Billy, right into the centre of the dance floor where Billy stops and has to pull Steve close, fingers hooked in his belt loops, so they don't lose each other in the crowd. It takes Steve a few moments to loosen up but he soon loses himself in the music.

Billy seems to as well. He's a good dancer despite his protests. Some other time the sight of Billy Hargrove dancing to disco might fill Steve with laughter, but tonight it only fills him with a slow building heat that starts somewhere at the base of his spine, spreading out, threatening to consume him.

'You better not tell anyone I was dancing to Donna fucking Summer,' Billy says into Steve's ear.

Steve pulls back and grins. 'Not a soul,' he yells and then he stumbles forward when someone bumps into him.

Billy catches him with an arm around his waist, strong and tight. He doesn't pull away when Steve regains his balance.

'Oh,' Steve says, licking his lips.

'OK?' Billy mouths, and Steve isn't sure if he's referring to how Steve nearly fell over or how Billy is still holding onto him.

Steve swallows thickly and nods. His arms are trapped between their bodies, so he frees them, rests them on Billy's shoulders. He feels too aware of his own skin: of everywhere Billy is touching him, how his hairs stand on end from the pulsating music, of every time a stranger brushes up against him. It's dizzying.

The coloured lights cascade over Billy's face, the bass thrums in time with Steve's pulse, Billy's hips press against Steve's. Sweat glistens on Billy's skin, catching the light when he throws his head back, beading on his exposed chest. Steve is sweaty, too, and impossibly warm.

There are people all around them but Steve only has eyes for Billy and Billy can't seem to take his gaze off of Steve. There is a look in Billy's eyes that Steve recognises and in the next moment they're kissing. Finally. It's what he's wanted for months. He's ached for it.

A frisson of lust threads through Steve as Billy licks into his mouth, his tongue hot and searching. He tastes like whisky and Coke. It's heady. Steve can't get enough of it. He feels Billy moan into his mouth when he sinks his fingers into Billy's hair, tugging.

Billy slips his hands under Steve's shirt, fingers digging into the small of his back and Steve lets his hands drift down Billy's neck, along his chest, until he settles them on Billy's waist. He fists his hands so tight he thinks he might tear the shirt but it's his, anyway.

Their dancing slows to a rhythmic shuffle as they keep kissing, holding each other tight, swaying to the music. Steve shivers when Billy bites his bottom lip, even though he feels hot. It's been so long since he's been kissed and Billy is a good kisser and all Steve can think about is Billy's mouth under his and how he wants more.

But then Billy shifts his hips and Steve can feel how hard he is, pressing against Steve, and a spark of panic ignites in his chest. He doesn't know where it comes from and he tries to ignore it but it's too much. Steve feels lightheaded and his heart pounds. It's not pleasant like it had been when their lips first met—a giddy breathlessness and a sweet quickening of his pulse. This is a cold sweat, a twist in his stomach, the world see-sawing around him. Steve breaks the kiss, gasping.

Billy's lips are shining and his eyes are so dark. He runs a hand over Steve's face, thumb trailing over his jaw, and kisses Steve again.

Steve tries to lose himself in it but he can't. He can't breathe. He pushes at Billy's chest, not looking at Billy's face. 'Don't. I can't,' he says, pulling away from Billy. 'I need air. I'm sorry,' he adds and then he's pushing through the crowd, vision sparkling, trying to find the exit.

He stumbles, muttering 'sorry' and 'excuse me', trying to swallow down the welling panic, feeling like he'll never get out. But then he finally sees a door and runs for it, breaking into alley behind the club. The warm night air feels like a shock of cold after the sweltering atmosphere of the club and Steve sucks in gasping breaths. He braces himself on the wall, the bricks rough under his hands.

What the fuck is wrong with him? He's wanted this, wanted Billy, for so long and now he's running away like a coward. But maybe that's the problem. It's not that Billy is a guy—that's new and, yeah, it's scary—but it's that he's Billy. If they do this, there's no going back. What happens if it all goes wrong? If it ends horribly?

Steve turns and tips his head back, palms flat on the wall. He closes his eyes and tries to slow his breathing. There's a sour taste in his mouth and the scent of trash mixed with stale beer and piss fills his nose.

Moments later the door bangs open and Steve jumps.

Billy is standing a foot away from him, biting his thumb. 'What's wrong?'

'Nothing,' Steve says, though it couldn't be further from the truth.

Billy's brow furrows. He doesn't look at Steve. 'Did I do something?'

Steve shakes his head and swallows but he can't make any words come out. His ears are ringing.

'We don't have to...we can take it slow. If that's what's wrong,' Billy says.

'No, I just...I just can't.'

'You can't, huh? Then what the fuck was that?' Billy says, voice rising, gesturing back toward the club.

'I don't know,' Steve says, fisting his hands in his hair.

'Maybe you were just testing the waters,' Billy says, voice as sharp as broken glass. 'Wanted to see if you can do it with a guy. Maybe it's just a game to you.'

'What? No, Billy, that's not—' Steve reaches out for Billy but Billy shirks his touch. Steve's chest feels tight. He has to explain but his mind is racing and he can't grasp the right words. Doesn't know what they would be, anyway.

Billy just stares at him, eyes blazing and cheeks flushed, his lips still swollen from their kiss. Steve knows the longer he stays silent the worse it will be but then the bartender who'd served them comes out, carrying two empty crates. When he sees Steve and Billy, he says, 'You boys can't be out here. You'll have to take the lovers' spat somewhere else,' before he throws the crates down and heads back inside.

Billy grunts and storms back into the club and Steve just says, 'I'm sorry. I'm really sorry,' to the empty alley.

Chapter Text

The air is heavy and oppressive, thick with humidity. Grey clouds hang in the sky and there's a feeling like there will be a storm soon. Inside the Camaro, Billy feels like he's already in the eye of one. Everything has been weird since the club. Oddly calm on the outside, but Billy feels off-kilter and poised for breaking. He and Steve have barely spoken and Billy isn't sure if they're pretending that the kiss never happened, or if they're just moving on, going back to normal. He doesn't want to ask.

Steve seems to be in a good enough mood at the moment, singing loud and off-key to fucking Wham blasting from the Camaro's speakers. It's almost like nothing has happened, except Steve won't quite meet Billy's eye, hasn't looked at Billy once since they got in the car. He hates when Steve isn't looking at him. He always has.

Billy fights a yawn and rubs a hand over his face. He hadn't slept at all, questions whirling through his mind the entire night and well into morning: had Steve really wanted to kiss him and just freaked out, was he playing with Billy or did Billy fuck everything up, somehow?

He grits his teeth when Steve leans forward and rewinds the tape. They've been listening to the same song for the past half an hour at least and Billy's nerves are raw. It would be bad enough on a good day but today it's just too much. Even the fucking yo-yo song would be better than this one again.

'Fuck's sake,' Billy mutters under his breath.

'What was that?' Steve says.

'Nothing.' Billy resigns himself to another five minutes of saccharine pop. It's not even the worst song on the album but it's so damn cheerful and Billy can't stand it. The lyrics seem pointed too—“You hurt me, desert me, in my darkest hour”—and he's not sure if Steve is trying to send him some kind of message or if he's losing his mind. Steve is the one who left, anyway, Billy thinks darkly.

Thunder rumbles in the distance and Billy taps his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of the song before he catches himself. He glares at his traitorous hands, gripping the wheel tight.

The song fades out and Billy holds his breath. Maybe Steve will let the next song play this time but, no, Steve leans forward and reaches for the rewind button.

Billy catches his wrist. 'If you rewind that song one more time, Harrington, I swear I'll—'

'You'll what?' Steve cuts in, yanking his arm from Billy's grasp.

'I'll drive us off the next cliff I see,' Billy says.

Steve looks pointedly out the car window. 'There are no cliffs.'

'I'll find one,' Billy says, 'especially for you.'

Steve snorts and presses rewind.

Something in Billy snaps. 'That's it,' he says, and ejects the tape before throwing it out of the open window.

'What the fuck?' Steve is gaping at him, spots of colour high on his cheeks. At least he's looking at Billy now.

'What?' Billy says, basking in the blissful hiss of static from the radio.

'Are you kidding me? I've been listening to your shitty music all the way from Hawkins. I put on one tape and you throw it out the window?'

'You kept rewinding the same song!'

'It's a good song,' Steve says, indignantly.

'No, it's not. It wasn't a good song the first time I heard it. And it didn't get any better the next three hundred times—'

'I did not play it three hundred times!'

'—you just don't know good music when you hear it.'

'Whatever,' Steve mutters, 'I can't believe you.' He puts his sunglasses on and sinks back into sullen silence.

Guilt wells up inside Billy so he puts British Steel in, hoping the driving guitar will drown it out. Hopes it will drown out the voice telling him he's gone too far this time. It doesn't.

So, when he sees a sign for Grand Junction he pulls off into the exit.

'Where are you going?' Steve asks.

'I'm hungry,' Billy says.

'Whatever.' Steve's mouth is turned down and his arms are crossed over his chest.

Billy sighs and hopes he can find what he's looking for.

__

As soon as Billy pulls up in front of a diner and cuts the engine, Steve gets out, slamming the door so hard it shakes the whole car.

Billy feels a moment of anger at Steve for treating his baby that way before he remembers he's the reason Steve is pissed off. He sighs and gets out, gently shuts his own door. 'You go in and order,' he says to Steve, across the Camaro's roof, 'I won't be long.'

'What?' Steve says, pushing his sunglasses on top of his head. 'You're the one who's hungry.'

'Yeah,' Billy says, ducking his head. He bites his thumb. 'I just, uh, I need to do something first.'

Steve rolls his eyes and storms off into the diner. He slumps into a booth by the window, frowning at the menu, expression as cloudy as the brooding sky.

Billy scrubs a hand over his face and looks around. He doesn't know where he's going but he starts walking, anyway. Thunder booms and it finally starts to rain, a light patter that soon turns to fat heavy drops.

'Just great,' Billy mutters, his t-shirt and jeans already soaked through. He considers turning back, forgetting about the whole thing. Ordering a burger that he'll eat in a tense silence with Steve, letting this just be another thing they don't talk about. But his stomach turns at the thought and so he keeps walking through the rain.

It takes him five minutes to find a record store, the bell above the door jangling as he pushes it open. The clerk at the counter—a girl a few years older than him, wearing a varsity jacket over a pink dress—looks up at him, quirks a brow at his wet clothes, then goes back to pricing stock.

He pushes his wet hair out of his face and heads for the cassettes, weaving through rows of records. The walls that aren't lined with shelves are covered with posters of The Smiths and Adam Ant and Madonna and the ceiling is covered in records. Billy wrinkles his nose at the posters but the ceiling looks pretty cool.

There's a new wave song playing as Billy pretends he's browsing, looking up at the clerk every so often, putting off going back to the diner. He's not sure he can face Steve, just yet. When he threw the cassette out of the window, some part of Billy had wanted to hurt Steve, the way it had hurt when Steve pushed him away, hurt even more when he couldn't give Billy an explanation. But, having done it, he regrets it.

When the clerk starts giving him suspicious glances—like maybe he's just snuck in to get out of the rain or maybe he's going to steal something—Billy finally grabs a copy of Make it Big and heads for the counter.

The clerk sets aside her price gun and says, 'How can I help you?'

Billy silently slides the cassette onto the counter, giving the clerk a look that says, 'I dare you to judge me.'

She doesn't seem cowed by it and says, 'Wham, huh?' looking Billy up and down. 'Wouldn't have taken you for a fan.'

'It's for my sister,' he says, face hot. Max would kill him if she ever knew he suggested she likes Wham.

The clerk snorts and rings the cassette up. 'Of course,' she says, cheeks dimpled by a brazen smile. The cash register dings, and she hands Billy his change.

'Thanks,' Billy says, taking the cassette.

'Hope your sister likes it,' the clerk calls after him as Billy leaves the store, his stomach in knots.

It's still raining and he's soaked again by the time he makes it back to the diner. Steve is in the booth by the window, picking at a plate of fries. He doesn't look up when Billy slides into the seat opposite him but he says, 'I already ordered. For me, not you.'

'That's fine,' Billy says. Water is dripping down his forehead, down the back of his neck, and he's leaving a small puddle on the seat. His jeans cling to him uncomfortably and the edge of the cassette cover digs into his palm as he grasps it tight.

A waitress in a lemon yellow uniform comes over before Billy can work up the nerve to hand the tape over and says, 'What can I get you?' She gives Billy's wet clothes a disapproving look.

He bites down the urge to say something rude and says, 'Just coffee,' between gritted teeth.

The waitress humphs and flounces off to the kitchen.

'Thought you were hungry,' Steve says, voice flat.

'I forgot,' Billy says. Steve's brows raise and Billy flushes. 'I mean, I guess I was wrong.'

Steve huffs and pushes his fries around his plate. Rain patters against the window, the other patrons chatter, a generic pop song plays on the jukebox. Everything is so normal.

'Shitty weather, huh?' Billy says, feeling like an idiot. Why doesn't he just give Steve the tape?

Steve grunts around a soggy fry, then says, 'I need to go to the bathroom.'

'Wait,' Billy says, a little too loud, reaching for Steve as he stands. But the waitress has come back with his coffee and Steve is already halfway to the bathroom, so he sits back heavily and thanks the waitress.

He turns the tape over in his hands then tells himself he's being ridiculous and sets it on the table, by Steve's plate. He gulps his coffee—it's too hot, burns his tongue—and waits.

It's warm in the diner—the heating must be cranked because of the rain, even though it's not cold—and Billy feels like steam is coming off his clothes as they dry. His jeans squeak against the vinyl as he shifts, craning his neck to watch the bathroom door. When Steve comes out, he snaps his gaze back to the table.

There's a charged moment of silence after Steve sits before he sucks in a breath and says, 'What's this?' picking up the tape.

Billy jiggles his knee, glancing up at Steve. 'It's for you.'

'I—' Steve starts, then snaps his mouth shut.

'It's the right one,' Billy says and it's not a question. He knows it's the right album. The empty case of the original tape still sits on the Camaro's dash.

Steve nods, biting his lip. He's holding the tape in his hands, blinking down at it, like it's some kind of mysterious object.

Billy sips his coffee for something to do and drums his fingers on the table. Why isn't Steve saying anything?

Steve shakes his head and looks up at Billy. There's the hint of a smile playing on his mouth when he says, 'You hate Wham.'

Billy shrugs. 'Still shouldn't have thrown the tape out the window.'

'No,' Steve says, 'but thank you. For this.' He sets the tape on the table, fingers lingering over it, and nudges Billy's knee with his under the table for the briefest of moments.

It sets something loose in Billy and he manages to say, 'I'm sorry,' without feeling like he wants to claw his skin off.

Steve sighs and slumps back in his seat. He looks as tired as Billy feels but more relaxed now. 'Yeah,' he says, and it sounds like an acceptance, and an apology of his own, all at once.

Their eyes meet as Steve looks up. It's the first time he's met Billy's gaze since the club and Billy's heart thuds. Fuck, Steve has pretty eyes. Billy sucks in a breath. They sit in silence, staring at each other across the table, until Billy's stomach growls.

'Guess you're hungry, after all,' Steve says. He rests his chin in his hand.

'Guess so,' Billy says, the back of his neck warming.

Steve smiles, small and tentative, and then he waves the waitress over. 'Two burgers with the lot, please,' he says, 'and more coffee.'

'And peach cobbler,' Billy adds, barely looking at the waitress.

Steve's smile bursts into a grin. Billy doesn't know what he's smiling at, but he finds himself smiling too.

They wolf down their food, neither having eaten properly since the night before, and they don't stop talking the whole time. About where they're headed, how Steve wants to send some postcards back home, how their burgers compare to all the others they've eaten the past week. They don't mention the club, or the kiss, but the sense that the world is spinning the wrong way has eased off and Billy feels a weight inside him lift.

When they get back into the car, Billy ejects his tape and holds a hand out toward Steve.

Steve bites his lip. He's playing with the cassette, turning it over and over. 'We can listen to your music,' he says, 'it's OK.'

'Nah, we'll listen to yours.' Billy tilts his head. 'Besides, I was getting used to it.'

Steve barks out a laugh and it's better than the opening riff of Breaking the Law. 'No, you weren't,' he says but he hands over the tape.

Billy shakes his head. 'No, I wasn't.' He slides Steve's tape in. It takes a lot of effort not to roll his eyes or scoff as the cheerful beat blares through the speakers. But it's worth it for the way Steve smiles, drumming his fingers on the centre console, eyes closed as he hums along.

It's stopped raining and sunlight peeks through the parting clouds, glinting off the slick road ahead. Billy puts on his sunglasses and tears off, happy to leave Colorado behind them.

When they hit the highway, and Billy doesn't have to change gears, Steve reaches over, lightly touches the back of Billy's hand. Billy glances at him.

'Thanks,' Steve says.

Billy swallows thickly. 'Don't sweat it.' He takes a chance and turns his hand over, laces their fingers together. He keeps his eyes on the road ahead, the music fading into the background as Steve squeezes his hand tight.

Chapter Text

The sky is a blaze of neon pink and orange, painting the scrub and craggy hills that pass by the Camaro in the haze of sunset. Steve has one hand on the steering wheel, his other arm resting on the opened window, hot wind rushing over him. Beside him, Billy snores lightly in the passenger seat, his legs propped on the dash, the hem of his cut-off shorts creeping up his thighs.

The dark smudge of Billy's lashes kisses his cheeks, which are flushed pink from heat and sleep, and his mouth is slightly parted. Steve feels something tug at him as he looks at Billy, a slow pull in his stomach. He smiles and looks back out at the road.

They've driven through most of Utah with few stops, in silent agreement to put as much distance between themselves and Denver as possible, but Steve is starting to flag. It's sweltering and he's tired—the tension he'd carried since the club had kept him feeling wide awake, but after the cassette incident he's felt looser, at ease, more susceptible to sleepiness—and Billy is clearly worn out, too.

'Billy,' Steve says. He reaches over and shakes Billy's knee, a thrill running through him at the knowledge Billy won't mind how his hand lingers, how his fingers graze the inside of his leg.

'Mmph.' Billy shifts in his sleep.

Steve bites his lip. Guilt still swishes in his stomach—for how he'd run out on Billy after they kissed, for not giving an explanation—so he decides to let Billy sleep and drives until he sees an exit.

The rush of wind whistles in Steve's ears, the asphalt rumbles beneath the tires, but the car is otherwise silent. He doesn't mind it. Not like Billy, who seems to always need some kind of noise to soothe him.

Civilisation comes creeping alongside the Camaro as Steve turns off the highway, leaving the arid beauty of the wild desert and entering the town. The squat red hills are still visible beyond the buildings that appear with more frequency; the intense, dry heat is more noticeable as the rush of wind dies down with the slowing of the car.

It's not until Steve is pulling into the parking lot of the first motel he sees that Billy stirs. He stretches, bones popping, and yawns. 'Where are we?'

'Still Utah,' Steve says, fighting a yawn of his own. 'I thought we should stop for the night.'

Billy nods and they get out of the car. The sky is bruised purple, now, and rapidly darkening. The moon is just visible and stars are fading into view.

'Hey, there's a pool,' Billy says, gesturing to the sign. 'Wanna go for a swim?'

'Yeah,' Steve says. He's tired but it's so hot, sweat running off of him, and the thought of being in cool water makes him practically weak at the knees. So, they book a room, dump their bags, and change into their swim trunks before heading back outside.

No one else is there, which is strange, but Steve is glad they have the pool to themselves. It's not as nice as his own pool and that thought makes a sickly feeling well up in his chest that he thinks is probably homesickness. He shakes it off and jumps in. The water is cool and it's like heaven as it rushes all around him, washing off the sweat from the long drive.

He comes back up, gasping for air, and sees Billy watching him from the edge. 'Thought you wanted to swim,' Steve says. His stomach turns over slowly at the look in Billy's eyes. It heats him as much as the water cools.

Billy licks his lips. 'Yeah,' he says, voice low and rough. Then his lips quirk and he says, 'Better move back,' and he takes three steps back, runs at the pool and cannonballs into the water.

Steve grins.

He watches Billy emerge from the water and swim over to him. 'Wanna race?' Billy asks when he's level with Steve.

'Yeah,' Steve says, 'OK.'

They swim to one end of the pool and Billy says, 'First to do five laps?'

Steve nods. He licks his lips, the taste of chlorine hitting his tongue. 'What does the winner get?'

Billy gives him a wicked smile and just says, 'On the count of three,' and then he's counting down and they're racing each other and Steve lets the thrill of competition propel him through the water.

Steve wins, and he watches Billy finish his last lap, strong legs kicking, pushing him forward, water splashing.

He swims up beside Steve, breathless, and runs a hand through his hair. 'Holding out on me, Harrington?'

'I was on the swim team,' Steve says, 'for half a season.'

Billy laughs. 'Of course you were.'

'So, what's my prize?'

Billy's gaze flicks to Steve's mouth and he leans closer. But then he blinks and pulls back. He looks around, shakes his head. 'I'll, uh, I'll owe you.'

Steve presses his lips together, sucks in a breath, the scent of chlorine thick in his nose. 'OK,' he says. He hauls himself out of the pool to sit on the edge, the surface rough beneath his thighs, and pushes his hair out of his face. Billy climbs out and sits beside him.

It's peaceful, the silence between them no longer fraught, but their night in Denver weighs on Steve's mind. 'At the club…' he starts, not looking at Billy.

'Don't,' Billy says.

Steve's stomach drops.

Billy rubs a hand over his face. 'You don't have to…it's fine.' The set of his jaw, the tension in his shoulders, say it's not fine though.

'It's just…it was a lot, OK? I just—' Steve huffs in frustration. He presses his lips together and tilts his head back. He breathes in deeply and says, 'I don't want to fuck this up.' He looks at Billy.

Billy blinks like he hadn't expected Steve to say that. 'You won't,' he says. 'I— We won't,' he adds, though he doesn't sound entirely sure. Maybe that's okay. Billy's brows knit together. 'I mean, if you— You do want...'

Steve's mouth goes dry and his heart beats hard. 'I want,' he says. He lets his foot rest by Billy's in the water, and when Billy doesn't move away, he gently runs his toe along the arch.

Billy twitches.

'Ticklish?' Steve asks.

Billy scoffs. 'No way.'

Steve bites his lip against a smile. Billy is totally ticklish. He files that away, but, for now, he just lets his leg rest gently against Billy's, occasionally running his foot up Billy's ankle. It feels good that Billy lets him.

The night air is cooling, raises goosebumps on Steve's skin. He shifts closer to Billy so that their shoulders brush.

'Wanna get back in?' Billy asks, nodding toward the water. The fluorescent lights cast a sickly yellow glow over the pool, washing everything out.

'Not really,' Steve says. His hand touches Billy's where it rests on the edge of the pool.

Billy bites his thumbnail. 'Wanna get dinner?'

Steve shakes his head, even though Billy isn't looking at him. 'I'd rather go back to the room,' he says. A flush crawls up Billy's neck and Steve wants to follow it with his mouth.

Billy looks at him. His gaze flickers between Steve's mouth and his eyes. He hooks his pinkie over Steve's and says, 'Yeah, me too.'

__

Steve jams the room key into the lock, Billy close and warm behind him.

'Helps if you turn it,' Billy says, breath hot on Steve's neck, and Steve laughs.

The patented Billy 'smartass' Hargrove remark steadies his hand, and he finally gets the door open. There's a moment after they spill into the room where they just stare at each other in the dim light, breathing in the warm musty scent around them. The air crackles and Steve's entire body is alight with want and yet he doesn't move. Stays poised on the edge.

And then they both move at the same time, surging forward, grabbing hold of each other. It's a little messy when they meet—bumping noses and clashing teeth—not like their first kiss. But it bursts the bubble of anxiety that's formed in Steve's stomach and he huffs a soft laugh against Billy's mouth.

Steve gets his arms around Billy's waist, bumps his nose softly against Billy's. 'Do over?' he says.

Billy's lips quirk. He cups Steve's jaw with one hand and nods. 'Do over,' he agrees and leans forward, at the right angle this time, and their lips meet sweetly.

Steve hums against Billy's mouth, digs his fingers into Billy's waist. He tilts his head and licks at Billy's lips until Billy's mouth opens under his and he can slide their tongues together.

It's still strange because Billy is more or less the same height as him, more or less the same build, and he's used to being with girls who are smaller, who look delicate and soft even if they aren't. But it's good strange.

Billy's skin is hot under Steve's hands as he maps the contours of Billy's back, palms fitting over the wings of his shoulder blades, bumping along his spine, settling over the waistband of his shorts.

'You OK?' Billy asks, barely pulling away, so Steve feels the movement of his lips against his.

Steve nods. 'Yeah, yeah, I'm…more than OK.'

Billy smiles and kisses him again. He tilts Steve's head back, fingers twisting and tugging in his damp hair, then trails kisses along his jaw, his neck.

Steve moans and pulls Billy's hips flush against his. Their erections grind together and it feels so fucking good, even through the damp, clinging fabric of their swim trunks, and Steve is relieved to find there is no surge of panic like there had been at the club. Just the thought that not having this would be so much worse.

'My bed or yours?' Billy says, teeth grazing Steve's pulse.

Steve laughs and pushes Billy back, following him down onto the closest bed. He kisses Billy long and hot and slow, sliding a hand in between them, skimming Billy's stomach, to cup his erection. 'OK?'

'Yeah,' Billy says, but his nose is scrunched, even as he thrusts up.

Steve moves his hand back, hovering. 'Not OK?'

'No, I mean, yeah,' Billy says, fingers curling around Steve's wrist. 'Just, uh, wet shorts. Not really comfortable.'

'Oh,' Steve says. He bites his lip. 'Wanna take them off?'

Billy nods, lips quirking. Before Steve can move, Billy hooks his thumbs into the waistband of his shorts, lifting his hips so he can slide them off, and kicks them away.

It's not the first time Steve has seen another guy naked, it's not the first time he's seen Billy naked. But he's never seen Billy like this. Eyes dark and lips swollen; his cock is hard, curving toward his belly, and Steve wants to touch him so he does. Billy's eyes slide shut when Steve curls his fingers around him.

'Fuck,' Billy says, breath catching, even though Steve's touch is still light.

Steve's always loved being able to do this, make someone feel like this. But it's heady, in particular, to elicit that reaction in Billy. It makes his head swim and his pulse quicken.

Billy hooks a finger in Steve's shorts, tugging. 'Don't you wanna take these off?' he says.

Steve blinks. 'Uh, yeah,' he says and moves to slide them down. But he overbalances and ends up on his back, narrowly avoiding falling off the edge of the single bed. He blinks up at the ceiling.

Beside him, Billy huffs, then shifts so he's kneeling over Steve. 'Need some help?'

'I think I can manage,' Steve says, face hot, but Billy is already pulling at Steve's shorts, peeling them off and throwing them aside.

'That's better,' Billy says and leans down to kiss Steve, one hand on his chest, the other sunk into the pillow by Steve's head.

Steve cups his hands around Billy's jaw, slides his tongue into Billy's mouth, but he breaks away with a gasp when Billy presses their bodies together, shifts so their cocks align.

'That's new,' Steve says and when Billy's brow quirks he adds, 'but good. Like, really fucking good.'

'Yeah,' Billy says, with a small smile, curling his fingers around Steve's hip, urging Steve to rock up against him.

It sends sparks shooting along Steve's spine, and he hooks his leg around Billy's, pulling him closer.

'You know I've never…' Steve breathes in through his nose. 'With a guy, I mean.'

'I know,' Billy says, with a small frown, like he doesn't know where Steve is going with this.

'So,' Steve says, his heart beating so hard it almost hurts, 'tell me what to do.'

Billy swallows thickly. 'Just…let me take care of you,' he says. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes are glassy and he looks so beautiful.

Steve nods and says, 'OK,' and then he fists his hand in Billy's hair and kisses him.

'Fuck,' Billy says, when he pulls away. 'The way you kiss…' He shakes his head, presses a hand to Steve's chest, right over Steve's thundering heart, and says, 'Let me…let me—' and he kisses Steve's neck. Wet and open-mouthed.

He stays there a moment, mouth pressed over Steve's pulse, before he's moving down, lips leaving a searing trail over Steve's chest, his stomach and then he takes Steve into his mouth and Steve swears he sees stars.

Billy's mouth is hot and wet and he moves in a way that tells Steve he's done this before. Billy takes Steve's hand, from where it's fisted in the sheets, to rest on the back of his head, letting Steve guide him. Not that he needs much guidance, Steve thinks, thrusting up.

An electric heat builds and builds in Steve, threading through him, snapping along his spine, tingling in his veins. 'I'm gonna come,' he says, tugging at Billy's hair.

Billy just hums and sinks down further, one hand curled into the meat of Steve's thigh, the other rubbing over his stomach.

'Fuck,' Steve says, 'that feels—' His hips cant up and his head pushes back into the pillow as he comes. Billy swallows, lets Steve ride out his orgasm, before he pulls off. He presses a wet kiss to Steve's thigh and then he kneels, leaning over Steve, lips shining with saliva and come. He looks wrecked.

Steve reaches up and touches Billy's neck, feels his pulse flutter beneath his fingertips. His stomach swoops and he says, 'Was that my prize?' on a breathless laugh.

Billy stays silent, breathing heavily and Steve's stomach sinks. He remembers Billy saying 'maybe it's just a game for you' at the club and his chest feels tight.

'I didn't mean…fuck,' Steve says. 'Sorry. I was joking.'

'I know.' Billy's mouth quirks into an amused grin. 'You are such a dork, Harrington,' he says, 'Jesus,' and then he laughs.

Steve pushes at Billy. 'You're an asshole,' he says, but he's smiling, can't stop smiling. 'I thought you were pissed at me.'

'No,' Billy says, simply and he kisses Steve again and again and again.

Steve wraps his arms around Billy, pulling Billy flush against him. His skin is feverish, slick with sweat. Steve kisses along Billy's jaw, bites gently at his ear. 'I wanna make you come, too,' he says and feels Billy shiver against him.

Billy shifts so he's looking in Steve's eyes and says, 'Just touch me,' he breathes out, 'I'm close.'

And so Steve licks his hand and reaches between them, curls his fingers around Billy's cock. Billy's hips snap forward, rocking into Steve's touch. His thighs are shaking, slotted between Steve's, and his breath is hot and heavy, coming fast.

Steve remembers hearing Billy touching himself, that night, how he'd sounded, how it had been thrilling in a secret kind of way. How he'd wished he knew what Billy looked like when he comes. Now he knows, he thinks, as Billy spills over his hand, mouth slack and eyes bright.

'Steve,' Billy breathes out, resting his head in the crook of Steve's neck.

Steve wipes his hand on the comforter, then runs his hands over Billy's back. 'I've got you,' he says. He feels tingly all over, lax and blissed out, from the combination of his own orgasm and the heady rush of making Billy come.

Billy presses a kiss to the juncture of Steve's neck, then he rolls off, lying on his side facing Steve. Steve shuffles so he's on his side, too, skimming a hand down Billy's ribs, along his hip, his thigh. He settles it on Billy's waist, feeling the rise and fall of Billy's breath beneath his palm.

Steve had thought this might be weird or feel profound in some kind of way. That he'd see Billy differently. But it's just like everything else has ever been between them since they became friends: a natural progression.

The ceiling fan whirs above, moving warm air around the room, slowly cooling the sheen of sweat on Steve's skin. His heart rate slows, and his eyes feel heavy.

He feels sleep pull at him until Billy says, 'Not going to run out on me again, are you?' tone light, like he's joking, but he doesn't quite meet Steve's eyes.

'No,' Steve says. He runs the back of his fingers over Billy's cheek, lets his thumb trail along his jaw. 'It looks like you might be stuck with me.'

Billy's licks his lips and smiles. 'I guess I can deal with that.'