Steve really wishes he was more familiar with that one stupid right turn onto Gloucester Street. Maybe then he'd be saving gas money, instead of wasting fuel taking the turning too early.
“Your location sucks,” he says, as Robin swings her legs into the footwell. “I always run into Elm instead of Gloucester when I come up Cherry Street-- jeez, are you sure that's shut?!”
“Sorry,” Robin says, and tugs at the hem of her coat, which she trapped in the passenger door roughly two seconds ago. “And I know, right? It's basically far away from everything in the worst way ever when you don't have a car.”
“Don’t you have a bike?”
“Oh, shoot, I left it at the mall,” she says. The dismay is ever-so-slight.
Steve pulls off the sidewalk and tries to ignore her sarcastic pout. “You’re completely unsympathetic, aren’t you?”
“It’s shrapnel now, baby!” Robin crows. “Ain’t nothin’ I can do about it. Hey, you wanna listen to some tunes? I made a mixtape of driving stuff I thought might be good. I don’t know if you’ll like any of it, but honestly, if you don’t then you can mix your own damn tape, I don’t care.”
“No, I wanna hear--!”
She waves a brittle rectangle in the air victoriously. Steve snatches it from her evasive grip and jams it into the slot.
There’s a second of clicking, before a violently distorted guitar riff attacks the interior of the car.
“Christ… Is this Van Halen?”
“Hey, you know it!” Robin beams.
“You’ll learn,” she decides, and throws her head back. “Model citizen! ZERO DISCIPLINE--”
“Oh my god,” Steve mutters, over the rough tones of their new friend Eddie.
It stays in his tape deck for a full two weeks. During this time, Steve familiarises himself - loudly - with the lyrics to ‘Panama’, ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, and, mortifyingly, ‘Come Sail Away’.
When he finally ejects it, he realises Robin named it. dingus mix, oct 85 ♡ , it reads, in her weirdly spiky handwriting.
Maybe he should make her one back.
Ah. The great question of the decade. It’s been plaguing him for months.
Where do kids go to hang out, now that Starcourt’s gone?
Steve thinks maybe the mall was one of those things that’s great in theory, but bad in practice. He’s grateful for his time there, sure - he learned about the horrors of capitalism, the transcendence of lesbianism, the briefs-soiling intensity of, uh, Cold Warism.
And then lost his shitty job after getting trapped in a gigantic, yet claustrophobic network of conspiracy ventilation…
Tripped enormous cajones on Russian truth serum…
Saw countless people die, almost died himself, damnit-- almost lost everything when a thirty foot meatmonster crashed through the atrium and started, god, spraying teeth and guts and Upside Down bullshit everywhere…
He’s grateful for his time there?
Steve’s gonna take that back, actually. It mostly sucked.
There’s a great bakery down the other side of town, just before Eugene’s Farm, so sometimes Steve drops in. It’s nice to be able to meet Robin for fresh waffles with strawberries and sprinkles after school lets out. Robin loves strawberries. Steve loves not being in the house with his increasingly-neurotic mother and POS-father.
How else would he get a glimpse back into high school life, anyways?
It’s a whole different world. Something he used to miss, but is steadily becoming accustomed to not dealing with. Robin’s friends are salvageable, but everyone else? God. Insufferable. Sometimes Robin divulges stuff that her AP Lit class gossip about before Mr Cooke arrives and he just, who knows, crumples or something. It’s a dumb ol’ perspective that he’s more than happy to leave behind. The cringe factor is way up there.
He never said she couldn’t bring her friends, because that wouldn’t be fair. She never does, though.
(Steve’s met her friends. They seem nice.)
They’re halfway through what’s been nicknamed ‘Working For The Weekend Waffles’, a triple stack with fall berries and syrup drizzled over, when Robin freezes up. Ah. Information is about to be relayed, Steve-O.
“That’s Pamela McCauley,” she says, trying to be casual and failing catastrophically. “She used to spit in my lunch in ninth grade.”
“Jesus!” says Steve, “what’s she like now?!”
“Uh, tolerable. I guess.”
The stab of a blackberry punctuates Pamela’s sharp glance at their table. “She’s seen us,” Steve hisses.
“It’s because she can smell fear. Like a shark.”
“I thought that was dogs,” says Steve, frowning, and it momentarily distracts him from the clomp-clomp-clomp of heavy Reeboks.
“Hey!” Pamela sings. “It’s Red Robin! How the hell are ya?”
Robin smile-grimaces. It’s very impressive. “Hi, Pam,” she squints, and god, Steve’s gotta admire her patience. To him, it looks like all she wants to do is melt into the floor like a spilled shake.
“And Steve ‘the Hair’ Harrington? I haven’t seen you in forever!”
Uh oh. Steve doesn’t remember her. She’s got a perm, and several plasticky-beaded bracelets, and these weird bright shorts on even though it’s goddamn November.
“I’ll say. You were on the news after Starcourt burned down, right? That was crazy.”
“We-- we both were,” he says, gesturing uselessly, because the attention is getting a little too focused for his liking.
If it wasn’t clear before that she hadn’t approached for Robin’s sake, then the crap that comes out of her mouth next cinches it: “I never thought I’d see you with Robin Tretiak. Are you two dating?” she asks.
And isn’t that the million dollar question.
Answer correctly, and Pamela leaves them the hell alone. Right?
Robin and Steve lock eyes, and have the same idea. He offers to take her hand under the table, nudging at her knuckles, and she seizes the chance:
“I fucking hate his guts, actually,” she says cheerfully, their joined hands aloft, and Pamela McCauley scowls like Robin had just presented her with a fresh plate of dog shit.
Steve stuffs a forkful of dessert into his mouth to distract him from laughing.
When they walk to the car an hour later, it’s still funny. “She so wasn’t impressed!” Robin wheezes, “I can’t believe that worked. Hilarious. Now everyone’s gonna know about this, you realise that, right?”
“Sure,” Steve grins, “but I don’t mind. It gets people off both of our backs, I’m really starting to get sick of accidentally seducing random girls in the Palace on Keith’s behalf.”
“Seducing? You’re an idiot.”
Steve clutches his shirt. “Ouch! Be careful, you’re hurting your beloved’s feelings!” he pouts, and sets Robin’s laughter off all over again.
“Hello?” she giggles, miming a call into a pretend walkie-talkie, “Dustin, are you there? This is Boy Toy and Gal Pal, we have a Code Queer--”
“Robin!” Steve shushes, delighted, “don’t you dare make me have that talk with Henderson, I won’t live through the embarrassment.”
“Better get over it, straightie. I’m here to stay.”
Steve’s about to jab back, but in the dim light of the parking lot, he sees their waitress from earlier clocking out. “Bye, Fran!” he calls. It’s more of a warning for Robin to cram it, but he gets a friendly wave in return.
Robin doesn’t say anything else until they get into the car. She checks his shoulder with a gentle closed fist:
“Was that normal enough?”
“Hm?” says Steve, turning the key in the ignition.
Robin’s suddenly lit up in dashboard yellows and stereo greens. “The, uh, the hand holding. Was it normal? Was it convincing? Everyone I know who dates can’t stand each other, so...”
And Steve can’t help but cackle at it. “Sounds about right,” he grins, and throws the car into reverse. “Hey, you’d love my mom and dad.”
“Hell Squad. It’s coming out in the New Year, it’s about a bunch of models who fight terrorists--”
“Of course you’d like that one,” Dustin says, and rolls his eyes in the worst way possible.
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Milk’s starting to boil,” Robin interrupts, launching herself over the back of the couch and landing heavily between Steve and Dustin’s argument. “And he means that your next suggestion is pretty likely to be One Night Only!, and I’m definitely not sneaking Dustin in to see that.”
Dustin blinks. “What’s One Night Only!...?”
“It’s raunchy. And Canadian.”
Robin clicks her fingers in front of his face. “Steve, milk,” she reminds, “don’t ruin my dad’s stove.”
“Fine,” says Steve, and rolls over the back of the couch, in the reverse of Robin’s much more elegant leap.
Her parents are out for the evening, so him, her, and Dustin have congregated in the sitting room to trawl through VHS tapes and talk about movies. Steve’s been put in charge of making real cocoa after he and Henderson expressed simultaneous outrage. Robin’s never had it. Steve immediately bought a sack of mega marshmallows following that conversation, and hauled it over to her house with his Grandma’s cocoa recipe.
He sets out three mugs. They’re not from Mrs Tretiak’s nice set, they’re the stupid novelty ones, the kind that collect in cupboards with half-empty coffee pots and never see the light of day at family events. One bright standard size, one tall-and-thin in the shape of Sears Tower, and a squat, wide one, emblazoned with a golf club logo.
He pours the milk and stirs. All different cups… But still able to hold cocoa together. Maybe it means something.
Steve wishes he’d been better at Lit class.
Dustin’s voice carries through the open door. “Blockbuster have A Nightmare on Elm Street now,” he hopefully tells Robin.
Steve doesn’t look up from the cocoa. “No, no, and no.”
“Aw, c’mon, dude,” the kid calls back, twisting in his seat to plead with him, “you two are supposed to be cool with stuff like this--”
Steve shoots a look at Robin. It’s your go, he tries to telepathically broadcast out to her.
She grits her teeth back at him: he’s not my kid, Harrington, you deal with it.
Come on, Robin--
But I don’t wanna do it!
Steve stares her right in the eye and holds the salt shaker over her mug.
“Fine, you baby,” she says, out loud, and Dustin stops mid-rant. Steve had barely registered he’d been talking the whole way through their dialogue.
“We’re not watching Elm Street,” she says firmly. “Johnny Depp isn’t worth it. He looks like a chalkboard doodle.”
“He does not--!”
Steve stirs the cocoa just a little too vigorously to distract himself from the nuclear blowout that’s threatening to happen on Robin’s mom’s couch. There aren’t many people who would take the helm from him like that - he likes Dustin, like, of course he likes Dustin, but younger teenagers are kind of full on at the best of times. Sometimes he just needs a break. Preferably from someone who knows how to handle the sitch.
“Why do you want to have nightmares?” she’s saying. “Why do you want pain? Why do you want your mother to skin me alive?”
Steve puts extra syrup and whipped cream in her cocoa. (He tells her that he hopes she chokes on it, but he doesn’t mean it for a second.)
They end up watching The Dark Crystal. He complains at Dustin that it feels as though they watched a horror film anyway; puppets give Steve the creeps these days. Jim Henson’s betrayed him.
“Did you put Styx over the speakers again?”
“So what if I did?”
“No, not like that,” Steve says. Goddamnit, where the hell’s the catch he needs? The engineer can’t come out til tomorrow, and he’s ninety percent sure that the display for Dragon’s Lair is just being cranky because of a loose wire, so he figured he’d take a quick look inside. “It’s just… This is the robot one, yeah?”
Domo arigato, misuta Roboto, sing the backing vocals. Robin stares at him. “What gave it away?”
Ah. There’s a few tabs on the inside of the quarter slot - it won’t hurt to try. “I’m just checking!” he protests. “I’m not really familiar, I just… I know Will Byers likes this one. That’s all.”
Talk of the Byers family sobers Robin up. Steve’s thankful that she (mostly) knows when to stop pushing topics in certain directions.
“Do you miss them? The Byers?”
“Wasn’t close with any of them,” he says factually, “unless you count the time that Jonathan rearranged my face, then saved me from a bear-trapped, burning hell monster, all in one day.”
Robin smirks. “You miss them.”
“I miss Joyce asking me about my life every time I bought a Coke from Melvald’s. Aha!”
Steve finally cracks the panel open with a click, and the dashboard flips right open. The problem’s pretty clear - all the button mashing for the quicktime events has jiggled a clump of wires free. Their customers were aggressive little bastards. He knew something was rattling around in there.
“How’s home?” Robin suddenly asks. Steve almost drops a screwdriver into the open cabinet.
“Well,” he says, in a higher pitch than he intended to, “put it this way - I’m looking for a place to live.”
Her expression loses some of its hard edge. “How the hell are you gonna afford that?”
“Got Christmas cash. Money from here saved up.” Even though he unplugged Dragon’s Lair ten whole minutes ago, he double checks that it’s not live before jamming his hand into the machine’s guts. “Don’t know where I’m gonna go, but there’s gotta be somewhere. Who knows.”
“Damn,” Robin grins, “that’s responsibilities, Steve, that’s adult stuff. You’re a grown up dude of the world, now.”
“Mm, kinda get the feeling that the world doesn’t like me that much.”
“Tell me about it,” Robin mutters.
It feels like Steve wasn’t meant to hear that bit, so he busies himself with loosening one of the terminal screws. “I mean,” his traitorous mouth says, as he frowns at twists of stripped copper and the mess inside, “we could always, I don’t know-- when’s graduation?”
“Jeez, that soon.”
Robin puffs hair out of her face. “Yup. I’m almost an adult too, believe it or not.”
“So let’s get a place.”
He can sense the drop in Robin’s heart, like a physical lurch, almost. For a worrying second, he sees a flash of concrete and cardboard, but they’re not in the Starcourt elevator - it’s just the Palace.
“What?” she breathes.
“I’m serious,” Steve says, and still doesn’t look her in the eye - he’d rather tie these wires up real quick and screw everything back together before Keith catches him - “we could get a two bedroom apartment, share groceries, come into work at the same time, whatever.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for that,” Robin says. She looks stunned, pale white and tense in the middle of the aisle. “I don’t know if-- like, I’m eighteen, Steve, and I need to get out of my house but--”
“Hey, no pressure. The offer’s there if you want it,” Steve says firmly. He tightens the last terminal and snaps the dashboard back into place, pushing the quarter slot in until it crashes closed. “No rules. Just split bills and arguments about whose turn it is to take out the trash.”
“You just want me to pick up your dirty underwear and clean your dishes, you freak,” she mumbles. There’s a repressed smile in there, somewhere. Deep down, maybe.
Steve doesn’t say anything when he spots her doing a happy little dance behind the Frogger case.
“I’ve got a waitress update,” she says, busting through the front door and not even bothering to close it.
“Can you take your shoes off? You’re an animal.”
“Steve,” she whines, “this is serious. I need, like, actual help now.”
He’s snagged a fairly cheap two bedroom apartment with a really cute kitchenette - the guy who rents it to him was making some pretty bunk insinuations about Valentine’s Day, but whatever. Seeing as Robin can’t move in yet, Steve’s planning on spending tomorrow night in front of his second-hand set with weed and cereal.
It’ll work out. He’s paying Robin’s share of the rent right now, and she’s steadily moving her things in, bit by bit, so they’re getting there slowly. They’ve even developed their own handshake, for crying out loud.
“Is this Fran? From bakery diner?”
“Yes,” she mopes.
He sits up. The cushions he stole from his parents’ basement den still smell like his mom’s laundry powder.
Robin looks distraught. “Like, I know how to tell other people how to talk to girls,” she says, “but god, I don’t know how to do it when it’s me talking to them!”
“Okay,” he says, swinging his legs down off the arm of the couch. Serious talks require serious posture. “Are we talking date ideas? Picnic in the park? Necking in the back of the movie theatre?”
“What? Ew, no,” Robin says, disgusted. “I don’t know if she even thinks it’s a romance-type date, she could just think we’re hanging out.”
“Unlikely. It’s February thirteenth, Robin.”
“Okay. Bad timing for a hangout, I know,” she concedes. “But what if it all goes horribly wrong? What if she’s straight? Worse - what if she’s gay but I’m just not her type? What if she figures out that she doesn’t like me?!”
“Then she’s an idiot,” Steve says. “You’re the coolest person I know and you look like a cover model from those British magazines my mom orders in. Yeah, she’d have to be a complete Joanie to pass on you.”
He needs to derail this train of thought, damn. “You’re what-if-ing,” he points out calmly. “Some of it might be possible, sure, but you’re dipping into unrealistic territory, here. You’ve got a date! And if you haven’t, then you’ve got a friend. So get out there and knock the chonies off’a her, kid!”
He tips his head back onto the cushion. Pretty good pep talk there, Harrington.
It seems to have done something, anyway.
Robin rolls her eyes. “Well… That’s the plan,” she grins, and perches on the couch where Steve’s feet previously were to extend a hand.
Steve’s figured out, over the past couple of weeks, that this handshake development is Robin’s way of saying that she appreciates something he’s done. This way, though, she doesn’t have to say it - she can just give him a friendly, mutual smack until the affection subsides. Which is much more comfortable for all parties involved.
“What’s up?” he asks, popping out from behind the glass of the crane machine. Hydraulics needed lubricating, which figures, because it’s their busiest day and most complicated machine. Why shouldn’t Steve get elbow-deep in WD-40 at four PM on a Saturday?
He peers around the corner.
Robin’s stopped dead in her tracks, looking like she regrets every decision that led her to rounding the corner. There’s a three foot nightmare with a wobbling bottom lip, right in front of her, and she’s paled very concerningly.
He wipes his hands and strides over. “What’s up?” he murmurs.
She jabs a terrified look his way. “I can’t,” she whispers, “I can’t do kids. I say the wrong stuff. I almost called Keith instead of you right now and made the whole thing worse.”
"You were fine with Erica."
Robin scowls. "Erica doesn't need anything. Except maybe attention, and ice cream. Other kids need stuff."
“What, is the little squirt lost?”
“And you almost called Keith to deal with this?” he asks incredulously. “Jesus. Okay, I can supervise. Can you lock the crane machine cabinet for me?”
Robin nods mutely and dashes over to clean up Steve’s mess - he preoccupies himself with her mess, crouching down so he’s level with the child.
“Hey, kid. Lost your mom?”
“My brother and Dad,” she says, lip still wobbling, “they went to use the restroom but they haven’t come back yet--”
“What’s your name?” he asks. “How old are you?”
“Louise. I’m nearly seven.”
Louise is a dark-haired, timid looking child, with tear-streaked tanned skin and big, sad eyes. “Well, Louise,” Steve says brightly, “if you want, you can sit on the counter with me and we’ll see if we can find them. How does that sound?”
“We’ll get you some tissues,” he continues, already laying out his plan of action, “and I’ll stay right here with ya ‘til they get back. You need a hand up?”
“Yes please,” says Louise, so Steve picks her up like one of the giant stuffed toy prizes you can get from the skeeball machine, and sits her on the desk.
“You know,” he says, “this is a big old place. I get lost in here all the time. What does your brother look like?”
It’s when he’s squinting into the clusters of arcade patrons, looking for the brown hair and bright red shoes of Louise’s father, that he spots Robin again. He knows that she doesn't get on with kids - hell, she can only just tolerate the teenage company Steve’s fallen in with - but she can't stop staring.
She’s leaning against Asteroids, and for a split second, Steve sees a softness in her smile that’s so very speedily masked.
“What are you lookin’ at?” he calls.
Robin crosses her arms. “You know when Kid Byers called you ‘Dad' that one time?” she smirks.
There’s no further explanation - she refuses to elaborate.
Steve tells her to shut it.
“...You haven’t moved for a whole day, have you?”
“Whaaa?” he mumbles, peeling his face away from the pillow. He's fully aware he's got gross fabricky texture marks all over his face, but he can't bring himself to care.
“Oh, god. You look like the sad thin bread that comes with a boiled egg.”
He twists his neck painfully to view his doorway. Robin pokes a pair of boxers that he left in a heap at the entrance with the toe of her sneaker, and curls her lip.
“What can I say?” he remarks, trying to be casual, “it’s been a rough old week. Do you think I’m a deadbeat?”
“God, no. From the looks of things, you’re dead beat,” she grins, and that almost gets a smile to rise out of him.
“Argument with your dad again, champ?”
“Hit the nail on the head, princess,” he snarks back. “Apparently I’m a waste of space - already knew that one - I’m irresponsible - knew that one, too, it’s a wonder Mrs. Henderson still lets me hang around like a nasty smell. Oh, and I’m causing arguments between me and your mother,” he adds, in a deep voice, “which is totally my fault, I guess, because I obviously control everything they choose to say to each other.”
“Y’know, my mom's too soft and thinks they should be supporting me a little more. So my dad got pissed because he felt guilty and said some choice stuff about my character. The usual.”
He hears Robin’s footsteps edge into the room. She catches a knife on a plate by the bed and flinches; Steve does not, because he’s already done that three times today on his way to the bathroom. “What things?” she says gently. “You don’t have to tell me, but I kinda wanna let you know they’re not true.”
Rolling onto his back, Steve pokes fingers into the air above his face: “I’m a waste of space. No wonder I can’t keep a girlfriend. He hopes you don’t get drawn into my world of crap - I did correct him on the girlfriend thing, but I don’t think he was listening. Hey, isn’t it weird how we never actually tell people we’re dating, but they all assume anyway? It’s convenient. We’re not lying about anything.”
“Steve,” Robin says softly.
“Then he called me some names that don’t really match with the boyfriend-and-girlfriend lifestyle,” Steve continues, “and I told him maybe I would settle down with a guy, just to spite him, because I never wanted him to be the most important man in my life. At least a boyfriend would make me happier than being around him.”
He lets his arm drop back down onto the bed.
“I’m not sure about living with two masculine slobs, you know,” she remarks.
Steve catches her smile and hits her limply with a pillow. “I’m not gay,” he says, “I don’t think so, anyway. Do you think it was shitty to use that to throw at my dad?”
“What?! No. You used love as a weapon, dude,” says Robin. “And you did it really nicely, too. Oh, no, what will the gay community think when they hear you came up with a domestic, all-American queer dream? You’re an idiot.”
“I know,” he says, but he feels pretty happy about it.
She reconsiders. “You’re not an idiot like that. Not like how your dad says. Wait here.”
In the time Robin takes to get back, Steve falls into a doze; he’s been in bed for, like, almost twenty four hours, so his sheets are warm and comfortable and lived in, and it’s all too easy to slip back into his lethargic, defeated snoozing.
“Ey. Brought you soup in a cup. Hope that’s okay.”
“Oh, god, tomato,” he moans, and actually sits up to accept it.
Robin looked like she was just gonna leave it on his bedside unit. She seems pleasantly surprised at the response. “Chin up, little soldier,” she says, irritatingly radiant, “I’ll swing by tomorrow after class, okay? Please, like, shower or something. Please.”
“You got it,” he croaks, and starts funnelling tomato soup into his face. “Robin? You rock.”
“I know,” she says simply, and turns his bedroom light on as she leaves.
It’s about forty minutes later when he finally resolves to get up and stop wallowing in self-pity. It’s roughly ten seconds later that he realises everything is…
There’s dishes drying in the rack. The couch cushions have been rearranged. No crumbs on the counter or boxers on the floor.
There is, however, a post it note against the peephole on their front door.
Sorry you’re in a funk. Laundry’s in the basement, needs to go in the dryer at 9:30. You’re out of milk so I’ll bring some tomorrow.
THIS IS A ONE TIME THING
Hope you feel better dingus xx
She’s always reluctant to hear it, but Steve’s best friend is the greatest person ever.
“Steve, man, calm down! You’re gonna make yourself sick.”
“I can’t calm down!” he yells, “it’s not-- it’s not happening!”
“I still don’t get why you're so worked up about this!"
Steve's tongue feels heavy in his mouth. There's so much he wants to say, but Robin's preoccupied, listing the sensible options:
"It’s a good opportunity, it’s more money, it’s something that you’re really good at, so what’s the problem?!”
“My problem is if I take the engineer offer, then-- then-- shit, we won't be able to hang out as much!” Steve explodes.
Robin breaks out in goosebumps, like she’s just been hit with a freezing lightning bolt.
Steve’s not good at this kind of thing. He’s never been amazing at working through personal issues quietly - while he can keep his inner thoughts on the down low in front of company, he’s his own worst enemy when it comes to being left alone with his internal monologue. And expressing it? Hoo boy, no.
It used to be simple. He could articulate if he did or didn’t know something, and he’s never been one to what-if himself into a corner, and expression was loud and vivid and brief and over.
Now he lingers. Now he sees the worst in every possible outcome, and it takes him longer to sift through the reality of it all. These days, Steve has trouble getting words out sometimes, and he wonders if a few too many knocks to the head is what makes adjectives stick to his tongue like peanut butter.
Yeah, he always had a problem with repetition. But now panic worsens it.
“Stop warping it,” Robin says. She’s full of good points and endearment. “It’s a job with the engineering company that works with the Palace. How often do we see them every day? You’ll be in the arcade all the time. We can still go grab groceries after. Give it three weeks, I’ll be moving in - Steve, we live together. We're best friends. Now Robin gets your arcade shift hours, that sweet pay for her college fund, and she doesn't have to fork over as much rent...”
“That last one? Not gonna happen,” Steve says.
Robin shrugs. She’s had a haircut, and her bob shakes under her audacity. “Worth a shot,” she smirks.
He pulls her into a hug.
He needed it, and it shows, because Robin doesn’t make any comments about him being a soft loser, and he doesn’t have to bring out a retort about her sharp shoulders.
Robin’s lady friend is a partier.
And she parties very, very frequently.
“It’ll be fun,” Robin told him, as though he needed convincing. (He didn’t. He’d actually said ‘yes’ before she started trying to list the pros of going.) “Fran’s got booze. Her roomie has a friend with a house and pool. It’ll be fun.”
“You said ‘fun’ twice, I’m already in,” Steve had grinned, and that’s how he finds himself making his way to the restroom, Robin and Fran dancing and chatting in the back yard, and Steve navigating his way past the bodies to the floor above.
As soon as he shuts the restroom door, he gets stabbed with a jumpscare. “Jesus,” he says, “you startled me. Sorry, dude, I can come back in a sec--”
“Nah, it’s okay,” says the guy sat on the basin counter. “I’m just here, I can go.”
Steve frowns. He’s a little buzzed, sure, but he hasn’t been drinking enough to gloss over the obvious dip in demeanor this guy’s indulging in. “Were we talking downstairs? About baseball?”
“Yeah,” says the guy, lighting up a little, “it was Steven, right? I’m Jose.”
“Just Steve,” he replies. “Nice to properly meetcha, man. You okay up here? Party’s not exactly going off by the shower stall.”
Jose bites his lip. “My buddy had to bounce. We’re visiting from college, but he’s got to drive tomorrow ‘cos of an exam, so...”
“But you don’t?” Steve asks.
Jose shakes his head. “Basketball practice, but I can skip it. And I am skipping it.”
“To not get drunk in some random girl’s restroom?” asks Steve, and cocks his eyebrow, because he’s still not really sure what’s going on.
It looks like he said the right thing, because the corner of Jose’s lips twitch and he makes for the restroom door. “Maybe you should come with me to get drunk downstairs,” he grins, and--
And all of a sudden, the two are in very close quarters. It’s an accident. The restroom’s pretty small, and there’s not really enough space to edge around each other.
When they don’t move away from each other, though, it’s definitely on purpose.
“Basketball, hey?” Steve breathes. Jose’s wearing a sleeveless jersey and his arms are very distracting. It’s not often Steve’s faced with a taller dude that doesn’t want to kick his brains in. He points nervously at a bicep. “It, uh... it shows.”
“Um,” says Jose, and then all of a sudden there’s the click of the lock turning, and Steve’s backing into the sink, unsure if he’s being steered there or taking steps of his own accord. “Listen--”
“I’m listening,” says Steve, hoisting himself onto the counter and letting Jose stand between his knees. He lets himself touch the man’s arms, admiring how his fingers look so white and scarred against the sunstained muscle, and that’s when Jose dips in to kiss him with an open mouth.
Steve decides there and then that he quite likes this.
“I’m no flamer,” says Jose eventually, and Steve mumbles “no, no, ‘course not, me neither,” against his mouth, pulling him closer. Impossible, really, since he’s shivering and can’t stop. Jose’s not like the girls who’d make high pitched noises against his lips, and when he does make noise, it rumbles in his chest and into the limited space between them.
He spots a flash of pretty brown eyes, shocked into vision when Jose tangles big hands in his hair and pulls slightly.
When he stumbles out into the back yard a half hour later, he’s still playing with his hair, hoping that he looks presentable, except he must have done a shitty job of not looking completely shellshocked. Robin immediately pounces on him.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Oh, you know, around,” he says vaguely, in a voice that’s gently and suspiciously hoarse.
Robin’s scowl turns into a visible threat.
“Okay, okay!” he says, dragging her to the end of the fenced off garden and into the dark. “Sheesh, relax. I was in the restroom.”
“You sure look rested,” she remarks.
Steve flushes. “My jaw’s clicking now, yeah. Any chance we can talk about this later?”
The penny drops straight away. More than a penny, maybe. Like, a whole dollar’s worth of dimes. “Steve!” she whispers, “did you just have an encounter?”
“Yeah, I had an encounter,” he says, and Robin beams, and Steve beams, and he’s suddenly feeling even better about the whole thing than he did before. Which he hadn’t thought was possible.
“In a dude way, yes.”
“Oh my god,” says Robin. She’s ten seconds away from clapping her hands in rapid succession. There’s a beer stain on her sleeve the same colour as her freckles. “So? Thoughts? How did you find it?”
“Kind of awesome,” Steve admits.
Then he stops himself to consider.
He wants to tell her everything. More than what went down - or who, ha ha ha - but what led to it, why he went through with it, how he wasn’t thinking about what anyone else thought. That he never would have done it, not if he hadn't met Robin.
But somehow he doesn't think it'd go over as the compliment he wants it to be.
“Yeah, I'd do it again,” he decides instead, and Robin punches him just a bit too hard in the ol’ sternum out of sheer delight.
There’s a thump.
Then a clatter.
It’s not out of the ordinary to hear random noises in the middle of the night, even at three in the morning, but Steve rarely hears them from their floor on top of the building. They usually come from below.
He jerks awake.
Robin was going out tonight. Some summer party thing. He should probably see if she’s okay.
The apartment hall isn’t lit up. She isn’t sober enough to flick the lights on in the corridor, apparently - confirmed, when Steve peeks through the peephole and sees the fisheye image of blonde hair slumped against the doorframe.
He unlocks it for her.
“Woah,” he laughs, catching her, “heavy night?”
And instantly regrets his words when wet eyelashes flutter in response. Robin holds onto his t-shirt halfheartedly.
“She left me there,” she mumbles.
“Fran,” she says, scratchy with sadness, “said ‘no’, said I couldn’t keep up, said she’d found someone else, and then! Then she left me there!”
“Shit, Robin, that’s horrible!” he says, closing the door - when he turns back to her, he can spot the telltale scrunched up eyes, the tightness of her mouth, the trembling of her hands, and herds her into the bathroom without a second thought.
“I’m sorry,” she rasps, between what looks like pizza and bright red punch. “Steve, I’m so sorry.”
“Don't be sorry ever.”
“I am sorry. I don't understand. I thought we were fine...”
Robin’s not talking about Steve anymore. “Life does that to you,” he reasons, “and so do shitty people. I doubt it's you, dipstick, I think it's just a thing for assholes at parties to do--”
He holds her hair back when she enters round three of puking.
“--What do I do?”
She coughs it out like the heartbreak is smoke in her lungs. Steve's getting second hand sadness, here, Christ.
“We'll find a new dessert place to go to. Yeah! Hell, we'll make our own desserts right here, I bet I can steal my mom’s waffle iron,” he suggests, and Robin’s laugh echoes off the porcelain. “We'll see if any of your college choices for next year have gay bars near them, too. Gotta get you meeting some lesbians.”
“And now?” she slurs.
“Now? Well, uh… I guess now we'd better get you into bed, Miss Terminally Pretty.”
She rests her head against the seat. Steve's smile grows bittersweet, more sympathetic, when she whispers: “fuck, Steve. That song, that Eagles album. I made her a mixtape and she still has it. No… Fuck.”
He doesn't know why that's so bad, but to Drunk Robin, it's the end of the world, and the catalyst for a fresh bout of tears.
Not to mention more barf.
She doesn't say anything else.
“Hey,” he says, trying not to look into the bowl or breathe through his nose, “Robin? Hey. It's gonna be okay. Everything's gonna be okay.”
He doesn't explain how he knows, and she doesn't ask.
In the morning, she doesn't even remember. But she doesn't seem so miserable anymore, so Steve’s counting it as a win.
It's been six days. Robin graduates. Steve meets her parents and brother at the ceremony - they seem nice enough, but he can understand why she needs to leave. What started as a couple of nights a week in the apartment is now fully permanent, and she's ecstatic about it.
Which is nice. Y'know? She's not been very happy lately. The fact that Robin’s still upset is understandable, but it still makes Steve's blood boil to think of that woman screwing over the best girl he's ever met.
It's not fair. It's not fair at all. Robin deserves so much better, for all her snark and smarts and tenacity.
Which is why he wants to drag her away from whatever shitty direct-to-TV movie she's vacantly staring into right now.
“You wanna do something tonight?” he asks into the arm of the couch.
“What, like a party?”
“Mm,” he says. Steve didn't think you could remember a smell, but the reminder of last week's alcohol-fueled pukefest in his nostrils is self-demonstrative. “Nah, I was thinking more of having a smoke, if you wanted.”
“Where'd you get your pot from this time?”
“Keith. Well, his brother. Well, his brother's girlfriend. Her dad works with my dad. Small world.”
“You sound like you need it.”
“I'm always up for a smoke,” Steve says indignantly, and that's how they end up sprawled out on Robin’s bedsheets, arguing about how they're sharing their snacks. No, you have the last one!
Robin sounds thick through a mouthful of half-chewed Skittles. “How's work?” she asks.
“It's work, I guess. I’m still not really sure how I know what I know, I just see where the wires have to go and put them there,” he shrugs. “It's only a game, right? I can see where everything needs to be, that's all.”
“Pretty smart going for a former scooper,” she grins.
“Eat shit and die, Tretiak. Smart would be charging Keith double for wasting my time.”
Robin laughs and laughs, and it sets Steve off too, and when she collapses back against her pillows he follows suit.
Something gets more sombre.
“I was gonna go with her to Ohio,” she confesses. They're back on the girlfriend train. “Little further thataway… Just wanted to see what it would be like. That's all.”
“She’s crazy,” Steve says instantly. “Anyone would be lucky to have you.”
She's got red eyes and a quick smile. “Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we could date.”
“Terrible, terrible things, I’d bet anything,” he says. Robin snorts. He's feeling quick today. “I'm glad we can't, y'know... I'd fuck that up thoroughly.”
She curls into his side - warm and friendly and affectionate. “On brand for you, then.”
“You know it.”
There's a silence, filled only with relaxed breathing and the sensation of soft bedsheets under their backs, before Robin stops staring at the stitches on Steve's shirt. “You're not a fuckup,” she says quietly. “I'm glad we can't date, but I think if we could then it'd be almost as good as this.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, dynamic with the realisation, “yeah, you're right! We can't get better than this, I don't think. You’re my best friend. I have a good time with you. You’re important.”
But now that he's started, he can't stop. It's like all-natural truth serum is settling into his brain, firing synapses and opening the floodgates. “I’m glad I got the job at Scoops,” he says, “I’m glad you showed me that high school culture is super dumb. I’m glad I didn’t become a mall-maggot, or a yuppie, or any of those other things, and Robin? I’m really glad I met you. You're the best person who ever happened to me. I mean it.”
She rolls over onto her side. She looks overwhelmed, like how Steve felt when he went to the Grand Canyon as a kid, and with a delicate finger she strokes the healed bump over his eye socket. Her wrist smells like joint smoke. Steve's eyebrow isn't gonna grow the same ever again, but he thinks it makes him look kinda cool, so he doesn't mind.
And Robin… she's just great. Attentive and determined. Steve's never had someone who he can be with like this before. Keeping stupid scores over trivial things. Holding hands in the back of a Commie golf cart so they didn't get thrown around so bad. Singing Bonnie Tyler as Kermit the Frog in a blood-and-vomit-stained sailor suit, on the floor of a mall restroom that was somehow dusty and wet.
“I love you,” she says.
Steve's never been told ‘I love you’ in that way before. He knows exactly what she means, but he can't explain it.
Robin’s the best person in the world. Especially right now, in this moment specifically - he scans her earnest face and finds a peacefulness he wasn't looking for on purpose.
“I love you too,” he says honestly.
When she wriggles closer, he pulls her into his side. Breathing, but not sleeping; drifting, but not lost yet.