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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 wasn't a bad 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.