“So,” Steve said, running his thumb over the edge of his glass. Billy gave him a sharp look, eyebrows raised. “Is it you just don’t like it? Or, like, do you think you’re someone’s bitch if you do it?”
“I regret talking to you.”
“It’s not like you got anywhere to go.”
Billy rolled his eyes, throwing down the cloth over his shoulder onto the bar top. “You’re starting to piss me off.”
“I always piss you off.”
“You could try being nice.”
“I tip. That’s nice.”
“You barely tip.”
“Blowjobs are tips.”
“They’re nice,” Billy conceded after a moment, and rested his palms onto the edge of the bar, leaning forward, “but they don’t pay my bills.”
“Are you two done eye-fucking,” Tommy asked as the STAFF ONLY door swung open, a box labeled fragile in hand, “or am I going to have to listen to more of this shit?”
“You’re just jealous,” Steve said.
“Of him?” Tommy snorted, dropping the box onto the stool next to Steve. It made an unpleasant rattle. “That’s never gonna happen.”
“One time you cried because Steve called you pretty.”
Tommy turned a pointed glare on them both. “You both suck.”
Billy smiled, all teeth and joy, and said, “You love us.”
“I hate you both.”
Steve leaned over, setting his hand on Tommy’s shoulder. Solemn, he said, “Tell us you love us and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“It’s nine-thirty in the morning and I own the bar.”
“Well, then you can buy yourself a drink.”
“I don’t actually like you.”
“You love me. You adore me,” Steve preened, scooting to the edge of his seat and closer to Tommy. Tommy gave him that one look that said it wasn’t too late for him to drop him on his ass.
“Which is very sad,” Billy cut in, reaching over and prying Steve’s fingers off Tommy one by one, “but you have work and Steve needs sleep.”
“Steve is fine,” Steve said.
Tommy cracked a grin and ruffled Steve’s hair. He yelped, swatting at the hands fluffing his mousse-stiff mane. “Steve is drunk.”
“It was a bad night.”
The taste of bile overrode the whisky sour on Steve’s tongue. He could see it—the blood and the bones, snapped clean through the girl’s femur and the horrible scream her mother had let out when Steve’s fingers had brushed her husband’s dead neck.
“Billy is scared to let me put my dick in him,” Steve said, knocking back the last of his drink and standing up.
Tommy’s eyes lit up like the Fourth of July. Billy scowled, hard, and slapped his palm onto the bar.
“Oh, ho-ho!” Tommy crowed, delighted. “You scared of taking cock, Hargrove? I thought you were king of the gays.”
Billy hissed like a snake, drew back his lips in indignation. Steve smiled sweetly and leaned over the bar. He kissed Billy’s mouth, teeth and all, and when Tommy let out a hoot of laughter and Billy was distracted enough to turn away, Steve slipped through the door and up to his apartment.
He stripped to his skin and crawled into a bed that smelled like Billy and sex. He dreamed of nothing.
He awoke with a hangover throbbing in his temples, and the lush sounds of people crawling home from work down below. Struggling to free himself from the tangle of sheets around his legs, he tried not to throw up the contents of his empty stomach.
Two Alka-Seltzers and a ferocious scrubbing of his tongue and teeth later, Steve sat at the cramped kitchen table and nursed day-old coffee thick enough to chew.
The move to California hadn’t been easy. Only a handful of his graduating class had even left the country, let alone the town, and Steve could only think of three who had fled the state entirely. Bumming around for a few years, doing nothing of particular importance besides driving Dustin to and from games night had been enough until it hadn’t.
Twenty-three and with nothing but a few grand to his name, he’d moved to Riverside because oranges weren’t scary. They weren’t threatening, like things with too many legs and eyes and tentacles crawling up from the ground were.
Carving out a little place for himself had been easy. He’d bounced from shitty apartment to shitty apartment, even shittier jobs followed closely behind, until he’d landed in college, finally, desperate for something in his life to change.
When Billy and Tommy had bought the building his less-shitty apartment was in, his life had changed.
He rubbed his eyes, brushing sleep out of his lashes, and got up to fix a new batch of coffee. The coffeemaker burbled, sputtering and spitting, and Steve peered out the window. Down below, cars lined the street, making the most of the limited parking space, and people grouped together in clumps, soaking up the last of the sun’s heat.
The front door rattled, the sound of keys bouncing together. Steve craned his head back and caught a glimpse of Billy shuffling into the hallway, setting his shoes on the rack Steve had demanded he buy during the rainy season.
“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Billy said, low and sweet, hands settling on Steve’s waist.
Steve cracked a smile. “Put on your glasses if they hurt.”
Muffled into the curve of Steve’s neck, Billy said, “Ha-ha.”
Steve closed his eyes, tipping his head back until it rested on Billy’s shoulder. Billy’s hands flattened on his belly, thumbing over his navel, touching the shape of his hip bones and the flat plane above his junk. He kissed Steve’s neck, buried his nose into his shoulder and held him. Warm, solid, Steve leaned into him, letting his weight sink against Billy.
Steve sighed, reaching a hand back awkwardly to curl into Billy’s hair. “Maybe if you order dinner.”
“It’s not gonna get here in an hour.”
“Connie called in again.”
“You should fire her.”
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“Mhmm.” Steve hummed, turning his head until his nose bumped Billy’s cheek. “She calls out all the time.”
“She makes the customers happy.”
“That’s ‘cause she’s got nice tits. She pisses me off.”
Billy smiled against his shoulder, trailed a line of kisses up to his jaw and flicking his nail over the rim of his bellybutton. Steve shivered and turned, arms looped around Billy’s neck.
“She’s not that bad.”
Steve lifted an eyebrow, pointed. Billy snorted on a laugh and pressed a kiss, butterfly-soft, to his mouth.
“Maybe she’s bad,” he admitted, “but she knows how to make a martini.”
“So do I.”
“You wanna come work for me, sweetheart?”
Steve petted over the back of his neck, slipped his fingers through the short strands there, tugged at them just to see Billy bare his throat.
“Nah,” he said, and kissed the dimple of Billy’s chin. “You’re too bossy.”
“How the hell am I the bossy one?”
“Swallow my cock, you little slut,” Steve mocked, bright-eyed and grinning.
“You like when I’m bossy.”
“I like when you’re mean to me. It’s different,” Steve said, and kissed Billy again, just because he could.
Billy’s fingers brushed along the hollow of his spine, drifting over the Lichtenberg figures webbing across Steve’s him. A leftover from the Mind Flayer’s last attack, Billy was obsessed with them. They spanned over his chest, crawling up his neck, flitting across the base of his cock. They fanned over his scalp, hidden beneath his hair, but they branched out toward his temple, a singular web curling over his eyelid. Billy had taken tongue and teeth to them all, traced over each one like they belonged in The Lourve.
“You know,” Billy said between kisses, “if you’re trying to distract me, it isn’t totally working.”
Steve sighed, loosening his hand from Billy hair. “I’m hungover. We don’t gotta do this right now.”
“Maybe if you didn’t tell Tommy I’m scared of cock—”
“I didn’t say that.”
Billy laughed and leaned back. “You weren’t that drunk.”
“Okay,” Steve said, “maybe I told Tommy you’re scared of dick.”
“Yeah,” Billy said, and he laughed again, touching Steve’s cheek. “You really fucking did.”
“You never let me fuck you.”
“You’ve never asked to.”
“Grabbing my ass and saying come here, big boy isn’t asking.”
“I did that once.”
“I don’t know why I love you.”
“I charge you half rent and make you come.”
“So did Tommy.”
“We both fucked Tommy. Stop trying to distract.”
Steve sighed and pulled away, let his hand linger on Billy’s cheek before padding across the room and pouring himself another cup of coffee.
“Bad night,” he said and shrugged. His coffee tasted like blood and sulfur, like something stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“You have bad nights all the time.”
Steve’s lips twisted, sardonic. “Thanks,” he said, “I needed reminding.”
Billy sighed, stepped forward and grabbed Steve by the shoulder. He turned him, hands sure on his skin, thumbs pressed hard into the muscle. If Billy pushed any harder, he would be able to feel it in his bones.
“Don’t give me that shit,” Billy said. He tugged Steve close. Steve stumbled, hand braced against Billy’s chest. “You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you drink too fucking much and sometimes I think you doesn’t even remember you’re alive. What’s going on?”
Steve stared, dry-mouthed, and tasted ash. He could feel the heat of existence pulsing where Billy touched him, throbbing with life. Billy always burned when he was upset, but Steve had learned to tune it out. He tuned out Billy’s anger and his sorrow the way he tuned out Tommy's longing whenever their hands brushed.
It was new. Not mindless and raw; it channeled directly into the place they touched, burned him all the way down to his core.
Steve jerked himself away, coffee sloshing in his mug. He set it down firmly and bit out, “Dont fucking do that.”
“Touch me. God. You know what. It hurts.”
Billy just raised his eyebrows and held his hands up. He pointed a finger at Steve and said, “See? I fucking told you. Something is wrong.”
Steve scraped his hands through his hair. He screwed his eyes shut until he saw stars. “I don’t—it’s the death, I think. People keep fucking dying on me.”
When he opened his eyes, Billy’s arms were crossed, lips a thin, white slash across his face.
Steve snorted. “No.”
“It’s making you sick. Quit.”
“You make me sick but I haven’t quit you yet.”
“Yes, you have,” Billy said, impatient. “When you fucked Tommy ‘cause you were mad at me. When you kept fucking Tommy and pretended like I wasn't your fucking boyfriend.”
Steve closed his eyes and counted back from ten. He’d opened that can of rotten worms himself.
“You wanna fight about Tommy right now?”
“No, I want you to fucking talk to me but if you wanna keep saying shit like that to me I can bring up Tommy. Hell, we can fight about Tommy.”
He leaned against the counter and pinched the bridge of his nose. He counted back from ten. Billy said nothing. He kept saying nothing, so Steve admitted, finally, “It’s getting worse.”
“What is?” Billy asked, and it was low and sweet, coaxing.
“The connection. To—to everything.” He laughed, an edge of hysteria to it. “She was in the seat and she was screaming and bleeding and I was touching her when she stopped—“
He cut himself off, bit his tongue. Explaining it was like trying to explain the act of breathing. He didn’t know the mechanics, only that it just was.
Billy shuffled close. He kept his hands to himself. “Stopped what?”
“Being. Existing. Her soul or whatever just stopped.” He rubbed at his eyes until they hurt. “You ever feel someone die? It’s Hell.”
Billy was silent. Steve turned away, gripped the edge of the counter until his knuckles turned white. It was one thing to talk to Nancy or Jonathan or anyone who had slipped into the Upside Down the last time the Mind Flayer had ripped a hole in the fabric of existence, but it was different with Billy.
Billy knew because everyone who was in Hawkins, Indiana in the Spring of 1986 knew. They knew because half the town had collapsed into the Upside Down—buildings and bodies slipping into another dimension, leaving nothing behind but gaping holes and ruin. The Demogorgons had come in every shape and size, swarming and feasting, dragging the unlucky ones so deep into the Upside Down Steve hadn’t dared try to save them.
He’d saved Tommy and Billy, and then they’d known everything, just like everyone else who’d survived that night.
But Billy didn’t understand. He’d been inside the Upside Down for a handful of hours. Steve had been stuck there for years. Time had no meaning in there; a day passed like a day, but the seven weeks he’d lived down there had blurred into weeks, months. The crow’s feet on the corners of his eyes attested to that.
At thirty-one, he was going grey at the temples and he could feel death.
It was one great, big cosmic joke on him.
“You should talk to someone about that,” Billy said, finally, like that solved it all.
Steve squinted at him. “See who?”
Billy flapped his hand. “The doctors.”
“You know!” He huffed, making a vague gesture with his hand that could mean anything between fuck off and pass the salt. “The ones that checked us out after the shit went down. Those ones.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to get their names.”
“You want me to call Hopper?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Pretending it’s not there until it goes away?”
“Because that’s doing you so much good right now.”
Steve pressed his lips together and breathed through his nose. It was easier when he thought Billy wasn’t paying attention to everything. Between the struggle between him and Tommy, scraping rent out of his tenant’s pockets and keeping the bar breaking even every month, Steve had thought he was too busy.
Too busy, a little voice asked, sounding suspiciously exasperated and Nancy-like, to not notice you?
“So, what, you want me to call Hopper?”
“That or I will.”
Steve’s mouth twitched. The last time they had spoken, Billy had thrown a crushed beer can at Hopper’s head and called him a dickwad.
“You got drunk at eight in the morning after being up for twenty-four hours. I’ll tell your mom that.”
The twitch died quickly. Steve threw his hands up, scowled and said, “Fucking fine.”
Billy smiled so sweetly it made Steve sick.
His head thumped back against the door. The door rattled, threatening to give under his weigh. Eyes shut tight and face tipped up, Steve curled his fingers tighter in Billy’s hand, nails scratching over his scalp.
Billy yanked him forward by the belt loops. Steve let out a startled squawk, pulling on Billy’s hair hard enough sympathy pains pricked over his skull.
Billy pulled off his dick with an obscene, wet noise, eyes narrowed and cheeks flushed. Spit collected in the corner of his mouth, dripping down his chin until Billy caught it with his tongue, wet and pink and catching over the head of Steve’s cock.
His hips jerked forward. Billy snapped him back against the door. It rattled, a protest, telling them to shut the fuck up.
Unwinding his fingers from Billy’s hair, he muttered, “Shit, sorry.” Steve petted over his hair, down the back of his neck. He swallowed and nudged his hips forward, pressed the head of his dick against Billy’s bottom lip until it slipped in.
The look Billy gave him was so phenomenally annoyed, petty in a way Billy only could be with a dick in his mouth, Steve had to bite down a laugh. He choked when Billy’s eyes went cross, rolling, tongue flicking against Steve’s dick and slick heat pressing in around him.
Steve swallowed down his words, bit down on his tongue. Billy sucked, tongue flexing around his dick, one hand curling around the base of his cock and jacking up what he couldn’t fit in his mouth. It felt like heat and heaven; the steady pulse of Billy’s own want throbbed where his knuckles scraped over Billy’s scalp, humming like white noise on the edges of arousal.
It curled and coiled, snaking through his belly and bloomed on the back of his tongue. Billy’s tongue flicked, curled around the head and stroked down the shaft. A hand snaked between Steve’s thighs, slick with something cold, and pressed between his cheeks. He groaned, smacked his head back against the paper-thin door and spread his legs.
With a finger crooked on his prostate and Billy’s throat working at the head of his dick, Steve came with a strangled noise, knuckles pressed against his teeth. It burned through him, sharp and overwhelming and white light behind his eyes.
The sound Billy made was brutal. Like he was rubbed raw over his open nerves, like he’d been punched in the gut. He ripped away from Steve, falling back onto his ass, wiping at his mouth as he stared at Steve with wide, horrified eyes.
The aftershocks orgasm thundered painfully in Steve’s ears, tight in his chest. The panic swelled at the look at Billy’s face, souring the warmth radiating inside out.
“What? Jesus, what happened?” he asked, scrambling to catch his weight on something, anything.
Billy’s look of horror turned pointed, sharp like a bite.
“You asshole,” he hissed, shoving up onto his knees. He stood on shaky legs, face furious and cheeks staining red.
Steve flushed pink. “I thought you said I could come in your mouth whenever I wanted,” he whispered sharply.
Billy didn’t answer him, already unzipping his jeans and shoving his boxers down. He grabbed a wad of toilet paper. Steve frowned.
“What just happened?” Silence as Billy turned away from him, hands moving in front of his crotch. “Billy?”
Billy tossed the toilet paper and flushed, turned around. His cheeks were still pink.
Steve blinked, stared, wondered what it was that had happened. His heart rabbit-kicked in his chest, thudding in his ears. It turned his thoughts to sludge.
“Uh,” Steve said. His eyes dipped to Billy’s crotch.
“I didn’t say anything!”
“You said uh!”
“Because I’m confused!”
“You know what you did!”
“Hey,” said a muffled, absurdly British voice from behind the door, a hesitant knock vibrating against Steve’s back, “are you two going to be any longer? My son needs the loo.”
Billy stared at Steve. Steve stared at Billy.
“Seriously, guys,” the man said, and Steve felt himself go red, skin burning, “he really needs to go.”
There was an awkward shuffle as Billy wiped his mouth and flushed the toilet and they both tucked themselves back into their jeans. Steve opened his mouth to speak, silenced by the glare Billy shot him, and they lumbered out of the bathroom and past a man with a thick mustache and a bewildered-looking five-year-old.
In their seats, Steve leaned over and whispered, “Did you really—?”
“Steve, if you finish that fucking sentence,” Billy said, arms crossed over his chest, voice tight, “I’m gonna throw you out of this fucking plane.”
Steve, still red at the ears, did as suggested.
They didn’t speak as they exited the plane and collected their luggage; Steve tried but Billy shot him dirty looks, and even elbowed him when Steve tried to touch his lower back.
He kept his hands to himself, even when they slid into the backseat of Nancy’s car. Crammed knee-to-knee in her little Beetle, Steve tried not to brush up against Billy’s bare arm to feel the tension shimmering beneath his skin—the hot flush of embarrassment, the tangled confusion, the pin-prick pointed fear.
He wanted to reach out, touch his face and kiss his mouth and dig inside his brain. He was scared if he touched Billy he would be able to.
Max chewed on bubblegum and sat cross-legged in the front seat. Nancy asked about work and the bar, about the alleycat that came and went from the summer before she’d named Beau.
When she poked at the way Billy twitched away when Steve’s knee brushed his, Billy stared at her, and then smiled, all teeth, and said, “I can see your nipples through your shirt.”
“Gee,” she said, dry, “thanks.”
“Billy,” Max hissed, turned sharply in her seat to glare at him. “What the fuck?”
“She’s the one being fucking nosy!”
“You’re fucking shrinking away from Steve like he’s on fire!”
“You don’t gotta be the one to point it out!”
Steve cleared his throat. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Did you two break up or something? Have a fight?” Max asked. “You two couldn’t keep your hands off each other last time.”
“Shut up, Maxine.”
Her mouth twitched. She shared a glance with Nancy, eyebrows raised. “So that’s a yes.”
“It wasn’t a fight,” Steve tried to interject, when Billy said, “There’s something wrong with Steve.”
“What? Nancy asked, head craning around like an owl’s, squinting. “What’s wrong with Steve?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me!”
Billy ignored him. “In fact, he’s downright fucked up. It’s some straight Phenomenon kinda fucked up shit.”
Max smirked. “You saw Phenomenon?”
Billy turned a scowl on her. Steve elbowed him in the ribs, skimming across his arm. A rush of anger, burning from deep down, flooded Steve’s mouth. He jerked away from Billy, elbows tucked to his sides. He wanted a drink—something with the bite of alcohol—to wash the taste away. He wanted it strong enough to knock him out completely.
“That’s not the fucking point!” Billy snapped. “He’s all fucked up and someone needs to fix him.”
The right turned red and Nancy took the opportunity to turn in her seat, pin her doe-eyes on him with the intensity of a starving hawk. “Steve,” she said, gentle and sweet, “what’s going on? Is Billy telling the truth?”
“You lie all the—”
“—I’m telling the truth. Are you smoking crack now, Max?”
“—time!” Max grabbed the back of the seat to turn, belt digging into her neck. “You lied to Mom about that time—”
“She’s not my mom!”
“—you stole her car, and then you lied to Joyce when you—”
“I’m gonna fucking strangle you,” he said from between gritted teeth, leaning forward in his seat.
“—drank her beer at Easter dinner.”
“Steve,” Nancy said, frowning and ignoring their bickering, “is something wrong?”
His tongue felt sandpaper-dry, taste buds rubbing raw on the roof of his mouth. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “Billy’s just mad I made him come without touching him.”
“What?” Max jerked, blinking. Her lips twisted suddenly. “Steve. Jesus, ew.”
Nancy made a face of distress and said, uncomfortable, turning in her seat to face the road again, “I don’t think your sex life is relevant.”
“That’s what I’m fucking saying, though!” Billy snapped. He grabbed the back of Nancy’s seat and pulled himself to the edge, leaning forward. “He wasn’t fucking touch me, okay? His dick was in my fucking mouth and that was it.”
The light turned green. Nancy stepped on the gas and Billy settled back in his seat. Max’s face of horror haunted the corner of Steve’s eye as he stared pointedly out the window, crushed up against the side to avoid Billy.
An uncomfortable silence filled up the car like helium. Steve felt lightheaded and tight, skin knitted too close to his bones. Beside him, Billy vibrated with agitation. He didn’t need to touch him to know he burned, worry picking at the edges.
“You know,” Max said lightly, “you could have started with that.”
“You could have put it a different way,” Nancy said. “In any other way.”
“Sorry I can’t make his sudden psychic fucking abilities seem nice.”
“I really didn’t need to hear it that way.”
“Oh, suck it up, Nancy,” Billy said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’ve sucked his dick before.”
Steve scrubbed a hand over his face, eyes screwed shut until he saw white, and said, “Can we not talk about my dick?”
“Gladly,” Max muttered, sinking into her seat.
“I mean,” Nancy said, straightening in her seat and casting a look at Steve over her shoulder, “is it just when you’re having sex?”
“No, he feels dead people, too.”
“I’m gonna sew your lips shut, Billy,” Steve bit out. He pressed his nails into his skin until it hurt, distracting him.
“I would really love to see you try.”
“Jesus Christ,” Max said, sighing heavily. “Are you two ever going to grow up?”
“Dead people?” Nancy parroted.
“Yeah,” Billy said, “and he’s been having nightmares for a couple months. He sleep walks sometimes, too.”
“Steve. Steve, what the hell? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“And say what?” Steve asked.
“It didn’t seem relevant.”
“Sleepwalking? Nightmares? Seeing dead people?” Max snorted. “Seems relevant.”
“It’s not a big deal,” he muttered.
“That’s why you’re here,” Nancy said, sudden and sharp. Steve could see her knuckles turn white against the steering wheel. “It’s getting worse.”
“It’s getting...more. I don’t know.”
Next to him, Billy scoffed. “It’s fucking bad.”
“Is it the Mind Flayer?”
Steve flinched at the name. Dread bubbled in his stomach, churned sour up to his tongue, and he said, faintly, “I don’t know.”