Steve doesn’t know how he found the place.
The faded sign outside says Benny’s Burgers but they clearly haven’t been in operation for a while, if the empty interior and desolate surroundings are any indication.
In the cold, harsh January sunlight, the peeling walls appear even older than they probably are, all washed-out mint green. If he peers inside, blinking past the glint of the reflection on the windows, he can still see furniture that the owners didn’t bother bringing with them. Chairs scattered about, stools knocked over, diner booths still intact. Like they were leaving in a hurry.
The thought is a little unsettling.
He vaguely remembers the reports in the papers: Hawkins’ first suicide since ’61. It’d been the talk of the town for months. And as expected of a small town full of gossiping wives, the superstition surrounding Benny’s had permeated the consciousness of everyone in town. The owners fled, and no one dared to buy the property after.
But ‘unsettling’ hasn’t stopped him, not in a long while. Not since he’d seen his girlfriend, hand bandaged but bleeding and whispering urgently at him Steve? You need to leave.
He goes around the back; doesn’t quite know what he’s searching for until he sees it.
‘It’ is a small bathroom, disconnected from the rest of the diner. The door is hanging loose on its hinges and sunlight streams through the cracks, allowing him a glimpse inside. He enters, hearing his sneakers squeak and echo on the tile. The bat drags behind him, screeching occasionally whenever the nails catch onto the tile.
He eyes the cracked mirrors, splattered with some unidentifiable white stains and the grimy walls. Most of the stalls are missing door bolts, or already hanging off their hinges but there’s one that’s fully intact.
Steve steps into it. Slides the bolt shut. Rests the back of his head against the cool wall of the stall. He breathes in deep, feeling the stale air fill his chest, and slides down to the cold tiled floor.
Once he’s down, he sets the bat down carefully beside him. Far enough that he won’t brain himself on it if he passes out or something, but within reach. Always within reach. He pulls the sloppily-rolled joint out of his pocket and puts it to his lips.
So, yeah. He doesn’t know how he got here. But he remembers that time— Dan Rogers’ party, sophomore year, when Tommy had bought some dodgy weed and spent three hours puking, shivering and half-passed out over the master bedroom’s toilet bowl. Bad trip, he’d laughed the whole thing off a week later but Steve was there, rubbing his back and he knows he doesn’t want to go through all that in his big, empty house.
But he really, really needs to get out of his own head right now. Because if he doesn’t, he doesn’t— doesn’t know what he’s going to do.
The bathroom is cold, grimy and decrepit. But it’s also small, with one entrance— easily defendable— and he knows no one will find him here.
Relief kicks in around five minutes later. He lets that floating feeling take him, soaks it all up, like a cat eagerly lapping up the cream. Aimlessly, he lets his eyes wander over random points in the stall; the broken tile at the upper left corner, expanding into a web of thin, capillary-like cracks; the pattern of the creeping ivy crawling down the wall from the open window near the ceiling. The stale air transforms, and he is suddenly aware of the faint smell of bleach, of lavender tinging the air around him.
He keeps looking around, never closing his eyes. He’s distantly aware of the fear that he might see something if doesn’t fill his vision with everything, anything else. Flowers blooming, blooming into rows and rows of teeth, blooming until the flowers aren’t flowers anymore and they scream—
He doesn’t know how much time has passed when the high wears off but the sunlight coming in through the window has weakened and it’s a lot colder now so Steve groggily gets to his feet. It takes a few moments to get his bearings, swaying slightly like he’s just arisen from a deep sleep.
Finally when he feels steadier, he unbolts the door and steps out into the crisp twilight air. He looks around. The surroundings are as bare as before, nothing but road for miles. He’d parked his car a seven-minute walk away, at a convenience store. Just to be safe— the Beemer is way too noticeable for him to park it in front of an abandoned diner without drawing suspicion to his name.
It’s getting colder by the minute but he thinks a walk might do him good anyway. Might steady the rattle in his chest that’s returning as the high wears off. The air is cold, bracing but not freezing so Steve lets it hit his face and run through his hair.
The sky is a shade away from dusk when Steve sets off down the long road, walking away from the abandoned diner, yet inexplicably knowing that he will be back.
He’s been coming to the diner for two weeks when something finally happens.
He doesn’t always come to get high, or cry about all the ways his life has taken a turn since the Upside Down and babysitting children that raise terrifying monsters in their turtle aquariums. Steve’s not even much of a crier, if he’s being honest.
Mostly, he comes to just stare at the ceiling for a while. Or close his eyes, rest his head against the wall and listen to the birds outside, letting the mundane sounds lull him into a peaceful state. Lets himself just— just exist for a while.
He doesn’t know how he did it before—all the performing and peacocking and being King Steve, twenty-four hours of every single day. Now even when he’s not expected to be the carefree, charming King of Hawkins High anymore, he has to be damn good babysitter Steve or I’m-Fine-Don’t-Worry Steve. He cares about all of them, the kids, Nancy, JonathantheChiefandMrsByers, he really does but still—
That’s why no matter what he comes here for, there’s one constant:
He is always alone.
Except now he’s not.
Because there’s someone in that stall.
And now Steve is stuck because whoever is in the stall definitely heard him come in; the squeak of his sneakers and the scratching of the nail-bat against the tile reverberated loudly off the walls. And Steve didn’t bother being quiet when coming in, alright, because who the hell sees a dirty public bathroom next to an abandoned, supposedly cursed, diner and thinks: cool, I’ll head in?
(Except people like Steve, of course, who saved the world last month and deserve to be cut some slack with regard to their decision-making processes, okay?)
And as if things couldn’t get any more fucking awkward, Steve distinctly knows he heard a sniffle right before his foot made contact with the tile and the shadow under the door had stiffened, like a rabbit spotting a fox approaching.
Holy shit, are they crying?
No. Nope. He’s out, Steve is so not equipped for this confrontation. Just because he now babysits a pack of eight-graders and occasionally has to fumble his way through comforting them through their emotional crises—read: Max and Lucas’ fifth break-up of the month or alternatively: Will’s desperate attempts to get his friends to play D&D with him again— does not mean he is equipped to help any other persons with feelings. Holy shit.
Another sudden fear strikes him; honestly, it’s what should have occured to him in the first place because he is carrying a fucking bat full of nails which he has no way of explaining without coming off as some kind of lunatic.
“Hey, hey, hey. Um.” He doesn’t know what possesses him to speak, maybe the fear, the desperation to take control of the situation somehow and distract the person inside the stall from opening the door and seeing him but he blurts out the words like he was choking on them. “You don’t. Have to come out, or anything. I was just— um. I’ll just leave. Sorry.”
There’s a distinct pause.
Steve hears the slow, deep inhalation of breath like whoever it is is still trying to disguise the fact that they were crying. When the voice comes, it’s unexpectedly deep and wow. Steve did not expect that at all; not that he thinks guys can’t cry or anything but after hearing that little sniffle, he honestly thought it’d been a girl—
“Yeah, you fucking better.”
The voice is deeper and way more masculine that Steve expected but it’s also rough in the way that can only mean whoever’s in there has been crying for a while, enough to make their throat all hoarse and scratchy.
Well shit. That does evoke some sympathy from him but most of it evaporates by the time he processes the words because wow, fucking rude. Steve was just trying to give the guy some room and in his bathroom sanctuary, thank you very much.
He doesn’t want to anger the guy, not willing to run the risk of him making good on that threat and actually coming out to fight Steve or something but he can’t help but throw in a muttered “Okay, asshole” as he leaves the bathroom.
And if he does an embarrassing half-run, half-jog back to his car, no one’s around to see it anyway, especially not the guy in the bathroom.
He doesn’t think about the encounter at all, at least not for the next few days, mostly because he didn’t think it’d be anything more than a one-off encounter.
But when he comes back again on Tuesday, after studying with Nancy and Jonathan— he knows they mean well, he does, but he can’t help the way his heart clenches sometimes when they share those casual little touches and lingering gazes the exact same way he and Nance did before—
Well. He has more urgent problems to deal with, anyway.
Because the stall next to his is occupied. Again.
There’s no way to tell for sure if it’s the same person from before but somehow, he just knows. When he stepped into the bathroom, the shadow under the door doesn’t freeze up the way it did before. Like he’s been expecting him.
Like he’s been waiting.
Which is a completely ridiculous thought, totally egotistical, and Steve knows he’s been known to have bouts of egomania (read: his entire stint as King Steve and keg king and whatever other titles he allowed to be bestowed on himself) so he dismisses it soon as it comes.
But Steve really needs this today so he throws whatever remaining fucks he has to give out the window and slides into his usual stall, bolting the door shut behind him, determined to ignore the person next to him.
At least if the guy sees him, he didn’t bring the nail-bat this time.
But just as he’s settling onto the floor, prepared to stubbornly ignore the presence of the other person, the guy speaks up. And he sounds amused.
“What, no s-s-stuttering apology this time for getting in on my space?”
Now that he’s not crying, his voice sounds… different. Less rough and broken and more smooth and deep, like the kind of baritone his mother used to say was perfect for reading poetry. Steve finds himself annoyed that he actually finds it pleasant. The words aside.
Steve frowns. “That’s rude, man. I was just surprised someone else was here. Didn’t expect it.” After a thought, he adds: “And you got it backwards— you’re in my space.”
The guy actually laughs at that. “What, you claiming ownership of this place now?” There’s a pause, then he clicks his fingers like ‘got it!’. “You royalty around these parts or something?”
Steve sulks a little at that, feels a pinprick of soreness in his chest at the jab that hits a little too close to home. “Or something. We’re in the middle of fucking Indiana, man. There’s no royalty out here.”
“Geez, you’re touchy. A real princess, aren’t you?” The guy says, clearly amusing himself at Steve’s expense.
“Look,” Steve starts, then stops short, unable to find the words to express why he’s here or why he feels so strongly possessive over this space. He knows it’s kind of pathetic that the only place he feels safe anymore is a derelict bathroom at an abandoned diner but he thinks he’s given his fair share of fucks his entire life— spent the entire first seventeen years of being alive caring about what everyone else thought— so he shouldn’t be expected to give any more, okay?
Instead, he just sighs.
“I was here first. This is my place for, I don’t know, crying all alone and pathetic so could you, like, fuck off, please?”
It comes off a little too desperate and sad to be a joke. He’d meant for it to sound defiant, a little dramatic so it would come off funny and maybe charming but it seems he’s just… not too good at being that anymore these days.
Steve doesn’t even know why he’s fighting for this. He’s come to see it as his safe haven but in the end, it’s just a stupid bathroom. It’s cold and wet and dingy and he should really be planning for his future instead of spending his time here.
He really doesn’t want to give it up. Part of him knows, with stone-cold certainty, that if he leaves, it’ll mean countless nights without sleep, even more nights spent at the farm where the tunnels used to be, waiting and watching for everything to go wrong again.
Then the voice responds, brash but a little vulnerable too.
“I don’t know, don’t see your name written on it anywhere, so how about you fuck off, huh princess?”
Steve doesn’t know what it is about the way he said it but the way the voice dipped and lingered on the word princess makes heat coil in his belly. It lingers there, a pooling warmth against the cold January air, stark and impossible to ignore.
He leans back, pretending his flush is because of the cold. “Well, you don’t have to be such a dick about it. Maybe we can just… share? I’ll just do my thing and you do yours. I won’t even act like you’re here—“ What the hell is he saying? He does not want to share and he expects the guy to voice the same protest but all he hears is quiet and then—
Quiet, so quiet Steve almost didn’t catch it but it’s there. Okay? Of all the things he expected the brash, sarcastic voice next to him to say, it wasn’t okay. But well, he’s stuck with it now.
“Okay then,” Steve says dumbly, still shocked.
And as he sits for an indiscernible amount of time, watching their shadows grow long under the stall doors in the relative quiet, he thinks maybe, just maybe he doesn’t regret it after all.
Not yet anyway.
The second and third time he comes by with who he’s increasingly referring to as Bathroom Guy in his head in the stall next to his, they spend their days like that, in near-quiet until it gets dark. The silence is only broken by the sound of their steady breathing, or the whisper of shifting denim as one of them moves.
It’s actually… peaceful.
He didn’t even know peace could exist with people around, much less a random stranger. Except this stranger, oddly enough despite their lack of talking, seems to understand a little why he needs this. Why he comes by so often. Maybe, and Steve really hopes this isn’t wishful thinking on his part, because he needs it too.
So on the fourth time, when the guy next door breaks the silence, it’s so unexpected that Steve nearly clocks himself on the door bolt as he jolts to attention. He hadn’t been sleeping, just slumping against the door, sort of… drifting.
“You alright there, amigo?” He says, sounding amused again. Probably at the way Steve jumped like a startled cat, knocking himself against the door, causing it to slam against the hinges with a rattling thunk.
Steve tries to keep the embarrassment out of his voice as he scowls. “Jesus. I was trying to sleep, dickhead. What’d you say? Didn’t catch it.”
“I said, can I bum a smoke? Forgot to bring my pack.” The guy says.
“I don’t smoke.” Steve says automatically.
The guy barks out a laugh. “What, you trying to quit? Or you never tried?” He says the last line like a taunt, bait for dumb fish.
Steve sees the taunt for what it is but he still lets himself bite, latches onto it all hook, line and sinker. “I’ve smoked, jackass. I have a pack in my car. But yeah, I’m trying to quit. My girl— I mean, my ex. She didn’t like it.”
“Well, why are you letting you ex tell you what to do? Get the pack.”
Steve doesn’t want to do what he says. Doesn’t want to tell him his car is parked a good ten minutes away and it’s too cold for a walk just to get cigarettes. The act of walking out to get his pack just to let this guy bum one off him feels too much like submission, like pushover. But then he realises what he said wasn’t true at all.
He wasn’t trying to quit anymore.
The realisation stuns him a little. His heart stings at the reminder of just how much power Nancy had over him, still has, really. She came into his life, something real and substantial, eyes always twinkling as she smiled that bashful-playful smile up at him and she made him want to be better. It was always a stupid fantasy of his— he’d never admit to anyone else he’d ever thought something that disgustingly sappy— but he’d always imagined himself quitting smoking, quitting drinking, all so he could better for Nancy and their 2.5 kids living in a nice house ten years from now.
And he’s only just realising that even though that’s not an option anymore, he still hasn’t touched a cigarette since March, senior year.
With that realisation, the sweeping urge to kick something overcomes him. The frustration is familiar, but the itch in his fingers has become foreign in its months of absence. He recognises it though.
He wants a cigarette.
Grumbling, he hauls himself to his feet and practically kicks open the door. He treks to his car and back, returning only twenty minutes later.
He’s almost surprised to see the guy is still there, his shadow hovering under the stall door.
“Wow.” The guy claps, once, twice, real slow. “I’m actually impressed. Didn’t expect to have royalty at my beck and call today.”
“Shut up.” Steve growls back. “This isn’t about you, alright? You just made me realise I wanted a cigarette too. Got a lighter?”
The guy snickers and there’s a shuffling sound where he’s probably reaching into his jeans. Then, a blue lighter comes sailing over the door. A Zippo.
Steve scrambles to catch it, scowling. “What the— what’d you do that for? If I hadn’t caught it, it would’ve broken and then we both wouldn’t get a smoke, dipshit.”
“Didn’t want it sliding on that nasty-ass floor.” The guy says simply. “And you caught it, didn’t you? Seems like you got pretty good reflexes. You play a sport?”
Steve cocks his head, thrown off by the sudden amicability. “You here to play twenty questions and braid each other’s hair now? I’m not telling you, fuck off.”
“Hey, no need to be so hostile. I’m just asking. Didn’t want to bum one off a complete stranger, I have some class after all.” The guy says.
“So, what? You knowing what sport I play automatically makes me not-a-stranger?” Steve snorts. “Not how it works, man.” He lights up, then tosses the whole pack over.
“Yet, it seems that now that I know you play a sport, I’ve earned a whole pack.” Steve can practically hear the wolfish grin on the other guy’s face. He hears a whistle. “Marlboros. Damn, you know what? I think I like you, stranger."
Steve steadies his hands on his cigarette, steadfastly ignoring the weird swoop his belly did at those words. “Don’t get used to it, shithead. I’m going back to ignoring you after this.”
“Sure, sure.” The guy chuckles. There’s a click of a lighter. The guy inhales, deep and lets out this low hum of satisfaction that sends Steve’s belly churning again. He lets his eyes rove over the smoke drifting out of the stall next to his.
Weirdly, it feels reassuring. Takes the surreality out of the whole situation; his gaze clings to it, almost like proof that there is a real, tangible person next to him right now. That he’s not gone crazy from hanging around here alone for too long and is talking to nobody.
After ten minutes go by, the guy— like the asshole he is— breaks their unspoken code again. He asks about him, what type of music he likes, what he does for fun. Only this time, Steve finds himself unable to stick to his promise of ignoring him either. Because there’s a curiosity now, to know this person who was all broken crying last week and is now all brash confidence and I-think-I-like-you-stranger today.
Steve has always liked talking to people. He thought that part of him had kind of died off, after falling off the social totem pole and everything, but it’s just occurring to him that maybe he just hadn’t been talking to the right people.
“You know, I’ve been wondering. Is there anything I can call you?” Steve asks, before realising he might’ve crossed a line and quickly tacks on: “You don’t have to tell me your name or anything but I don’t really want to call you Bathroom Guy in my head anymore like I’ve been doing the past week.”
“Aw, you thinking about me a lot, princess?” Bathroom Guy teases in a high-pitched tone, voice dripping with sugary-sweet adoration. He drops back to his normal register. “You can call me William. Not my real name, by the way, so don’t even think about looking it up, shitbird.”
William. Steve knows it’s stupid, the way it warms him from the inside just thinking it, even knowing that’s not his real name but there’s something about the way the name unspools on his tongue…
He thinks about saying something about that. Something along the lines of Thanks and I really like having something to call you by, before realising how weird that would be, thanking someone for giving you their fake name. Hurriedly, he course-corrects: “Hey, I haven’t thought of what you can call me yet.”
“Don’t need to,” The guy— William says. “Calling you Princess suits me just fine.”
“Fuck you,” Steve replies automatically. “You gave yourself a normal name, I should get one too. How’s, uh, David?”
“David. David?” William sounds way more incredulous than Steve thinks is strictly warranted. “You trying to play the character of a single dad who works in an office and has three kids, or what? Fuck no.”
Momentarily defeated, Steve slumps. “I’ll think of a better one next time.”
Steve smiles a little to himself at that. He thought it might be a little too much to assume there’d be a next time but the way William doesn’t even seem to question there might not be makes him slightly giddy.
“I gotta ditch.” William abruptly says, killing the mood Steve’s found himself in. He hears him get to his feet, dusting off whatever dirt had gotten onto his jeans. “Got a test to study for.”
“Oh?” Steve finds himself saying. Then, as casual as he can force himself to be: “You in high school too?”
He shouldn’t have said it. He knows. He’s breaking another unspoken rule, arguably the most important one. They can swap vague stories and chat a little about their interests but they never, never go into personal identities. Talk spreads fast in small towns, and no one wants to be caught with gossip swirling around them about how they hang around abandoned diner bathrooms.
He doesn’t know why he’s dancing on the line like this, dangerously toeing past their established boundaries. He didn’t think before saying it and that’s his problem most of the time, really. Deep down, he thinks he just really wanted to know that William wasn’t some middle-schooler with a really deep voice because Steve seems incapable of making friends above the age of thirteen lately.
There’s a long, drawn-out pause in which Steve holds his breath. He’s tense enough to shatter. But then there’s a huff, a quiet fuck it and William says:
And he leaves, just like that, taking the tension out of the room with him.
Steve lets out the breath. Hawkins High. William didn’t say it, but he didn’t need to. There’s only one high school in Hawkins.
Which means Steve now knows that he and William go to the same school.