Steve's summer job at Scoops Ahoy: not the worst thing that had ever happened to him. It was not, for example, worse than having a monster from another dimension try to eat his face. It wasn't worse than Billy Freakin' Hargrove punching him so hard that he'd had migraines for a month, or thinking that a whole pack of monsters from another dimension were about to eat Dustin's face.
... okay, so his bar was set pretty low, all things considered. And hey, as much as the job sucked, it meant cash in the bank, gas in the car's tank, and proving to his parents that he was learning goddamn fiscal responsibility since they cut off most of his spending money after he'd flunked half his classes his senior year and missed the fall application deadline for every college in the state except the community colleges. (It was senior year! You were supposed to cut! Everyone did it!)
It also meant that he had five-sometimes-six rugrats underfoot constantly, or at least what felt like constantly, asking for free ice cream just this one time, Steve, you jerk and hanging over the counter and wanting tours of the big freezer in the back, and occasionally making up for it by stuffing what had to be half their allowance into his tip jar, the adorable little dickheads.
And there was also Dennis Klein, the manager for the Starcourt Mall outlet of Scoops Ahoy.
Dennis was a year older than Steve. He was dark-haired and skinny and, from what Steve vaguely remembered from shared classes in past years, smart as a whip and weird as hell. He'd worked his way up from dispensing cones of Rainbow Starburst to middle schoolers to managing the whole store in just a year, and while Steve considered that a pretty damn sad career trajectory, come to find out ...
... Steve had a goddamn type, was what he had, because he found it extremely difficult to take his eyes off Dennis whenever their manager happened to wander into the store, clipboard in hand.
Smart brunettes. Shit.
It was starting to cast his interactions with Jonathan Byers in a whole new light, which he was trying really hard not to think about.
And because the whole world hated Steve, Dennis occasionally filled in for whichever one of the Scoops Ahoy Scoopistas (yes, the corporate office called them that; no, Steve was not going to say that word except under heavy torture if he didn't have to) when someone was out sick or whatever, which meant he wore the goddamn short-shorts. It was so unfair.
The thing about Dennis, too, was that he had a fiancée and was -- Steve hoped -- entirely oblivious to Steve's tiny, teensy-weensy ... well, it wasn't a crush, exactly. It was just that he kinda liked watching Dennis move around in those shorts.
The rugrats had actually managed to catch on that they had to be on their best behavior when Dennis was in the store -- no climbing on the glass case, no asking to wear Steve's paper hat. Still, Steve was always braced for something to go horribly wrong, because things typically did, especially when Eleven (or whatever she was calling herself these days) was with the party. Even if her look when she'd first seen the glass case full of ice cream flavors had almost been cute enough to make up for it.
Luckily, today it was just Will, who had come in with his mom and was now at a corner table after Mrs. Byers (in her Melvald's work shirt) had leaned over the counter, gripped Steve by the bow on his sailor costume, and told him from five inches away that she needed to go into the Budget Housewares outlet one floor down on her lunch break, if he could just keep an eye on Will it would mean so much to her, and it was really impossible to say no to Joyce Byers when she had that steely look in her eye that meant she was approximately one more overtime shift away from snapping. So Will hung out in the corner and quietly ate an ice cream cone, and Steve watched him out of the corner of his eye while he and Dennis dealt with the lunch-break rush. Steve hoped desperately that nothing tried to eat Will on Steve's watch, because Mrs. Byers would kill him, and Steve was more afraid of her than of a whole pack of Demodogs.
"You good here for awhile?" Dennis asked him when the rush died down. "I gotta get up to the Ashleyville store, they've got no one at all to cover the afternoon shift, and Melody will be in at three to back you up."
Melody was sixteen and not the most reliable person, but Steve didn't care, his shift was over at four and he was only making three-fifty an hour anyway. "Yeah, sure, no big."
Dennis patted him on the shoulder, which Steve tried like hell not to enjoy too much, and then walked off, short-shorts and all. The only people in the place at the moment were Steve and the Byers spawn, who was focused on his triple chocolate scoop, so Steve indulged himself in a brief moment of watching Dennis walk away in the fucking short-shorts, and then decided that poking himself in the eye with his ice cream scoop would be a better use of his time. Couldn't even score with boys or girls, he thought savagely, and turned around to wash and tidy the scoops and get things in order for the next rush because he was here by himself for the next two and a half hours, and he'd learned the hard way that customers didn't appreciate getting Rocky Road in their Mega Mint Swirl, and they sure as hell didn't tip.
"Steve?" piped up a small voice. "Hey ... Steve?"
Steve looked over the glass countertop at Will standing there looking up at him, half-eaten ice cream cone in hand and a smudge of chocolate on his nose. The kid was just cute, there was no other word for it, the kind of cute that did actually kind of make Steve want to punch anyone who messed with him (including himself as of a couple of years ago, if it was possible to go back in time and kick his own ass).
"Can I, um." Will fidgeted. "... talk to you? Like, privately? For a minute?"
There was no such thing as privacy in this glass fishbowl, but there were no customers right now and none of the wandering mallrats looked like they planned to come in. "Yeah, sure," Steve said. He dropped the scoops in the sink and leaned over the counter. "What's up, mini-Byers?"
Will smiled slightly at that, then looked down at his cone. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," Steve said.
"Were you ..." Will gulped, and his gaze squirmed away to look at anything except Steve. "Were you ... can I ... Do you think ...?"
He trailed off to total silence. Steve was now baffled and just a little worried.
"Is there a problem?" he asked. "Is there the kind of problem that's going to make your mom kick my ass?"
Will smiled again. "No, probably not."
"Is there the kind of problem that's going to get us all chased by Upside Down bees or something?"
"No," Will said quickly. "No, definitely not that. It's ..." He leaned forward until he was nearly plastered against the glass case. "Private," he whispered.
Inwardly, Steve panicked. Oh God. What did private mean when applied to a 13-year-old boy. What was he talking about, he'd been a 13-year-old boy not too long ago. Private was bad news. Private definitely meant the sort of questions that would make Joyce kick his ass for even thinking about answering.
But it was impossible to say no to that face. Especially with that smudge of chocolate.
"Hang on," Steve said, and he sprinted across the store, took a quick look out into the food court for anyone who looked like they might be thinking about coming in (or Mrs. Byers, or especially Dennis Klein), scowled at a couple of middle school girls who were inspecting the menu in the window, then flipped the sign to CLOSED and shut the door.
"Okay, kid," he said, steering Will to a table by the counter. "You have five minutes. Less if your mom comes back, or anyone opens that door. And get that chocolate off your face." He handed Will a napkin.
Will wrinkled his nose and scrubbed at it. "I was just thinking," he began, and stopped again. "Do you ever ...?" Another pause.
Oh God. Maybe this would be easier if he'd ever had younger siblings. The closest thing he had to work from was Dustin, and Dustin didn't seem to know the meaning of the word "embarrassment," which could be a real pain but also meant that getting him to open up about things wasn't the problem. Getting him to shut up about embarrassing topics was more of an issue.
"Shouldn't you be talking to your brother about this?" Steve asked. "Or your mom?"
Will looked horrified. "No!"
"Well, look, kid, I don't have a great track record at guessing this stuff. You're just gonna have to tell me."
"If I tell you," Will said, his eyes huge, "you might not like me anymore. That's why I can't talk to Jonathan or ... or Mom."
Oh God, what constituted an unacceptable sin to a 13-year-old, especially one with giant kitten eyes who looked like the worst thing he'd ever even thought about doing was stealing the pennies out of the "take a penny" cup in Melvald's?
"But you can talk to me?" Steve asked.
Will nodded, not looking at him and turning pink. He took a quick bite of his cone to stop it dribbling onto his hand.
Well, why not. The kids seemed to consider him a sinkhole for all their inappropriate confidences anyway. Steve cast another nervous look at the door for any sign of Joyce's blue work shirt. "Better get on with it before your mom comes back." Seeing Will squirm, he softened and leaned forward. "Look, I'm not gonna hate you. I bet whatever you're going to tell me, I already did it when I was your age. And then some. Probably."
Will looked up quickly and Steve didn't miss the flash of hope in his eyes. "I hope so," he said, the words tumbling over each other. "Did you ever -- do you ever -- do you know how some people like boys, Steve? Instead of girls? Like --"
"Are you telling me you're gay?" Steve blurted out.
Will turned bright red up to his hairline and flailed out, almost smashing his half-eaten cone into Steve's face as he tried to shut him up. "Not so loud. Not so loud, Steve!"
"Jesus," Steve said, sitting back and crossing his arms and staring at Will.
He'd never actually met a gay person before. Well, there were all those rumors about Lisa Cranshaw in homeroom back in 9th grade, but that was mostly because Lisa hated makeup and was built like a fireplug and aced all the girls' sports teams. And also had zero interest in dating any of the boys in homeroom. Which ... well, maybe it was true, but maybe it was that they'd all been dicks to her most of the time.
"I thought you might be too," Will whispered, staring down at the table.
At which point the carefully constructed supportive comment Steve had been working on collapsed into pieces, because ... shit.
Will might ... It was ... Okay, no. No. He did like girls. He had been absolutely certain that Nancy was The One, and, well ...
He took a breath. Will looked both crushed and terrified. Steve was pretty terrified himself. He'd never actually said this to a single other person, ever. Including himself.
"I like both, Will," his mouth said, without input from his brain. His brain was busy crawling off into a corner of his skull to die of embarrassment. "Girls and boys."
Will's crushed look faded into amazement. "You can do that?"
"Sure. Um, I think so. They're just ... both pretty awesome, I guess?"
Will wrinkled his nose. "What if you don't like girls at all?"
"What, like them or like them?"
"Like them," Will said earnestly. "I mean, I do like Eleven, and Max. They're cool. But I don't like them."
"Oh," Steve said. "Well, maybe you haven't met the right girl yet. You're dripping on the table, by the way." He pointed to the spreading chocolate puddle.
Will took a few surreptitious licks at his cone. He shook his head. "It's not that. It's ... I did meet a boy. That I liked."
"Oh ... really?" Steve said, wanting to die to escape this conversation. He darted a look at the door. No Joyce. There were some teens looking at the closed sign. Steve gave them his best King Steve scowl. They left. Steve tried to think of something else to say. Something helpful. "That's great, I guess?" Okay, not that, because Will still looked miserable. "Does he ... like you?"
"Not like that," Will whispered.
Steve thought involuntarily of Nancy, with a pang in his chest. "Okay, that sucks, dude. Sorry."
Will nodded without looking at him.
"Other fish in the sea, though," Steve said brightly.
Will didn't say anything.
"Hey, kid," Steve said. "Look at me."
Will slowly tilted his head up. There was chocolate on his nose. Again.
"You just told me," Steve said. "You just told me, right? You're gay. Are you sure?"
"Do I look like I hate you?"
Will shrugged. He looked at his cone and nibbled off a bit of the edge.
"I don't," Steve said. "For the record." He took a slow breath. He knew he was total shit at giving people romantic advice; Dustin had told him often enough. In so many words. He didn't have any advice; what he did have was honesty. "You know, you're the first person I've ever told? About liking boys too."
"Really?" Will said. He grinned.
"You're the first person I've told too," Will whispered.
Steve grinned back. "I kinda got that."
He reached for a handful of napkins to wipe off the chocolate, then dropped them in a snowflake-like flurry when there was a sudden rapid knock on the door. Steve glanced around to see Mrs. Byers all but pressed against the glass, making frantic semaphoring motions at him. Will looked terrified. Steve held up a finger at her: one minute! Then he leaned across the table and spoke quickly, because she was probably going to open the door any minute and discover it wasn't locked.
"Listen," he said quietly. "Your mom and your brother -- they aren't gonna hate you, dude. Okay? They're cool." Not like my parents, a part of him said. You goddamn lucky kid. "You don't have to tell them, you know. But I think they're gonna be okay if you do. And your friends are cool too. You're gonna be okay. Hear me?"
All the things he wished someone would say to him. Well, maybe it was almost the same saying it to someone else. Almost.
He held up a hand. Will hesitated and then held one up too, and smacked Steve in the palm. Steve's hand peeled away, sticky. Ugh.
The door opened abruptly, and Mrs. Byers all but tumbled into the interior of the store. She'd discovered it was unlocked.
"Oh, Steve, I'm sorry -- I didn't know you closed for lunch!"
"Only when we're shorthanded." Steve sat back in the chair and tried to get himself back together again as she collected her son.
"I hope this wasn't an imposition -- I am sorry."
"We were just hanging out," Steve said, lamely. "You know. Talking."
"Oh, about what, baby?" Mrs. Byers straightened Will's collar and patted at his face with a handful of napkins. Will looked horrified again.
"Just some guy stuff," Steve said, and winked at Will.
Will, after a moment, grinned shyly back.