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it's a risk, it's a gamble

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Robin has started crawling through his bedroom window. She nearly gave him a fuckin’ heart attack the first time she did it, too. Just climbed up a tree and leapt, like some sort of crazy cat, to the low shingled roof and then tapped on the glass, fast and irritating.

What, asshole, it’s like three-thirty, I was sleeping, what’s wrong?” Steve had said, and then kept going, because why say two words when twenty will do? “Is it the kids? Did those shitheads finally crack and drive themselves to Chicago to see Will? I’ll kill them myself, God, give me two minutes and I’ll be right down—”

“Steve,” Robin had interrupted. “Shut the fuck up. Nothing’s wrong, I just couldn’t sleep, so I’m sleeping here tonight.” And then she pushed past him and into his room. She kicked off her shoes, and Steve, in the dim light of the moon, realized she was wearing all black: not quite goth, but close, tough and cool-looking and not band geeky at all, all of the soft nerdery gone along with the stupid fucking Scoops uniform.

“Fuck off,” Steve had told her, tripping over her boots. “Asshole.”

“Dingus,” she said, and then started snoring. 

They happen more nights than not, now, the sleepovers, and Steve looks forward to them every day. There’s a comfort to being with Robin, to being around someone his own age that he doesn’t have all sorts of stupid history with. To being around someone his own age and not feeling like his heart is breaking. It’s good. It’s really, really good.

Right now, Robin’s got her socked feet up against his desk, and she’s laying flat on the floor, her hair spread around her like a halo. They’re both a little high, because Robin knows some guy two towns over who has some brother who’s a dealer. 

They’ve got a tape playing, loud as they can make it go, and Freddie Mercury and a ton of back-up singers sing I’ve just gotta get out of this prison cell, someday I’m gonna be free, Lord — and the music fades, and Robin looks so sad, like her heart is aching. Like she’s yearning for something. Steve looks at her and aches, too, but the ache is different from the one that comes when he looks at Nancy. He looked at Nancy and wanted to give her the world, wanted to give her everything, but he couldn’t do that so he gave her himself, which wasn’t enough. He doesn’t blame her for it. 

He looks at Robin, now, flat on his floor and looking lost and sad, and Steve wants to give her the whole world, too, but in a different way. He doesn’t know how to describe it. It’s a little like how he feels around Dustin and Max and Lucas but it’s different because she’s as old as he is. He lays down beside her and reaches out for her hand. She lets him hold it. She’s got black nailpolish on but it’s chipping off. He thinks maybe he’ll re-do it for her tonight, when they watch Ghostbusters for the ninth time. 

“You’re my best friend,” he tells her.

She turns her head to look at him, her blue eyes fierce, and certain, and laughing just a little. Part of Steve thinks, finally, but he can’t really explain why he thinks that. Or maybe he can. It’s just that, his whole life he’s been looking for someone to love him as much as he loves them. His parents, Nancy, even fucking Tommy H and Carol. He looks at Robin and he knows, he knows, that they’ll be ninety years old and in rocking chairs arguing back and forth, making fun of each other for breaking hips and having dentures and not knowing how to work their new TVs. 

“You’re my best friend, too,” she says, and then rolls her eyes. 

In the background, the music builds, the drums coming back in from where they had faded out, one voice piling on top of another, building and building, a dozen people singing find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love.

“Somebody,” Robin sings, lips twitching.

“Somebody,” Steve echoes, with the music.

“Somebody,” Robin says, sitting up, raising her eyebrows. A dare.

“Somebody!” Steve answers, getting up on his knees and tossing his head. 

“Somebody find me somebody to love!” They chorus, leaping to their feet, and then it’s a free for all, both of them dancing around each other, twirling in each others’ arms, screaming at the top of their lungs, just singing and singing as loud as they can, stupid as anything. Looking dumb as fuck. Shrieking and laughing and skinning up their knees when they trip over Steve’s old sports gear. Anybody could look in the window and declare them insane, call the police on them. Steve doesn’t care. Robin doesn’t either. 

It’s fun. 

Robin sleeps over, again, and the house doesn’t feel as big or lonely. 

 

 

The months pass and suddenly it’s Christmas again, and Hopper is back somehow, and so is El and Will and Miss Byers and Jonathan. They’re all chasing each other around: nobody has all the facts, not even Steve, who’s been stuck to these kids like glue or a bad fungus for the past four months. They end up at the Byers house, everyone tearing open the walls to do something with the wires, something with the electricity, and all Steve can do is sigh, and shrug, and try to help as best he can. It goes dark and suddenly Miss Byers and Hopper are shouting and he’s standing in front of Nancy and Jonathan with his bat in his hand while the adults put the kids behind them. It’s familiar, and heartbreaking, and something in Steve’s chest turns over on itself until all he can think is God, I wish Robin were here. And then there’s nothing for it but to start swinging, nothing to do except try and keep Jonathan and Nancy behind him and trust Joyce Byers and fucking Hopper to keep the kids safe.

It’s chaos, and horrible, until it isn’t anymore, until everyone’s gone their separate ways and it’s just Steve again, just Steve in his car after dropping Lucas, Max, and Dustin off, and then it’s just Steve in his fucking empty house.

He’s standing, bloody and dirty, bat still in hand, in his own foyer. The floors are pristine. There’s nothing on the walls, nothing torn open and sparking like at the old Byers place.

“This is bullshit,” he says, and then goes to Robin’s.

“Steve?” Robin says, eyes going bigger than dinner plates when he shoves his bat through her open window and then follows right after it.

“Hey, Robs,” Steve says, flat on his back. He thinks his nose is bleeding. 

“Oh my God,” Robin says, and then walks out of the room. She comes back with a fully-loaded first aid kit, hauls him up on his feet, pushes him into her desk chair, and then fixes up his face, cussing him out the whole time. “What happened?”

So Steve tells her, the whole thing coming out of his mouth like vomit because it hurts to talk about Jonathan Byers, more than he thought it would, more than it hurts to talk about Nancy, because he and Nancy are friends now, kind of. Sometimes. What hurts the fucking most is the fact that his shithead kids left him out of the loop for so long, that everyone grouped up and then left him alone, cheerfully adrenaline-high and happy to see each other again. 

“—and I missed you so bad during that whole thing, Robs, holy shit.”

Robin blows her hair out of her face, her eyes flashing. “They all just let you fucking go off on your own?”

Steve shrugs. “I mean, I got saddled with the kids, and everyone else had their own kids, too, and Nancy and Jonathan had, like, just reunited, or whatever, it was super Romeo and Juliet, and I didn’t want to get between Joyce and Hopper, so—” 

“So you just left,” Robin finishes.

Steve raises his hands like what can you do and then winces. He must’ve fucked up his shoulder, somewhere, somehow. 

“You’re staying here tonight,” Robin tells him.

Relief floods through him, because God, Robin knows him so well. Sometimes he thinks they can read each others’ minds, thinks something in that crazy fucking Russian drug made them just a little telepathic. He strips off his jacket, and then steps out of his boots, and then takes a whiff of his shirt and decides he should probably take that off, too, it smells so rank. Robin strips off her black sweatshirt to pull on a large t-shirt before crawling into bed. She stares at him when he hesitates and then pats the spot next to her, so Steve squeezes in and tucks himself around her. 

“Well, my day wasn’t half as exciting as yours, thanks a fucking lot, Harrington, but I did see Kerri Anderson hiding under the bleachers with Blake Jimens.”

“Really?” Steve asks, already drowsy. “Her and Tom Marks must be off again, then.”

Robin turns in his arms, staring at him like he’s said something crazy, like he’s said something genius. Like he’s discovered a new planet, or bought her an entire fucking birthday cake.

“What?” He says, fighting for coherency.

“Nothing,” she grins, smiling so wide and mischievous Steve gets a little nervous. “Go to sleep. I’ll tell you in the morning.”

 

 

In the morning, it takes a minute for Steve to remember where he is, and then a further thirty seconds for him to wake up enough to be worried. He stomps down the stairs, still shirtless, making as much noise as he can because he wants to annoy Robin and he knows her parents are never home, anyway. 

It’s another thing they have in common.

“Alright, shithead, it’s morning, tell me what that demonic look was for last night,” Steve says, banging into the kitchen. 

“Jesus Christ, Steve,” Robin says. She’s got four Eggo waffles in front of her and she looks like she’s going to eat them all. Her hair is everywhere, and she’s still in that too-big shirt, that spiky black cuff that she never takes off still on her wrist. She looks so different than she used to, back at Scoops. 

“When’s our next shift at the video store?” Steve says, suddenly.

“Steve what the fuck, ” Robin hisses. 

“Right,” Steve says. “Not the point. What was last night about, then?”

He collapses beside Robin, one foot up on her chair, the other spread out below the table. The hard wood of the kitchen chairs digs into his back but he doesn’t care. He reaches out, swipes a waffle off her plate, and starts eating it like a sandwich. Syrup drips down his fingers but he just licks it off. Robin stares at him, disgusted, and then looks down at her plate. Shrugs. Picks up her third waffle and starts eating it his way.

“So, you’re gonna think this is nuts, but I think it’s super great, so hear me out, right?” She tells him.

Steve rolls his free hand at her like a projector: go on.

“I think we should pretend to date,” Robin says.

“What?”

“Not all the time!” She adds, quickly. “Just when it’s convenient. We can say we’re on-off, you know? And that way I wouldn’t be so worried all the time, and you could hang out with Nancy and Jonathan without being awkward.”

He doesn’t ask her what she’s worried about. He knows. He knows almost everything about her: the fact that she loves almonds and hates peanuts, the fact that she has an older sister who got the hell out of dodge almost ten years ago, the fact that she shook two years ago when Billy Hargroves took one look at her and called her a fucking classic band dyke. There’s no reason to bring it up. No reason to pull it all out and make her talk about it, to hurt her all over again. She loves him for it, he knows. 

He wants to do it, for her. He knows he’s going to say yes, knew it the second he finished processing her question. This is going to make Robin safer, make her feel more comfortable walking around town, help her deflect questions. It’s not even a question, not for him. He’d give her the whole world. He can give her this, easily.

“Of course I’ll do it, Robs. You don’t even have to ask.” And then he registers the second part of her statement. “How the hell would this help with Nancy and Jonathan?”

He doesn’t bother to ask her how she knows he wants to hang out with them, now that they’re all back in the same place and his broken heart has fixed itself up as good as it’s going to get. Of course she knows. She knows everything about him.

“Well, it’s, like, a little pathetic for you to tag along with them while you’re single, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“This way, if you’ve got a ‘girlfriend,’ it doesn’t look like you’re just there because you don’t have any other friends, or because you’re still in love with Nancy. It can be, you know. Casual.”

“Casual,” Steve hums. He shoves the last bite of waffle in his mouth and then licks his fingers clean. “Alright, Robs. I’m in.”

“Bitchin’.” Robin says, and then licks her fingers, too.

 

 

When Dustin shows up at Steve’s door two days later, scowling and with Max and Lucas in tow, Steve thinks about Robin, still sleeping up in his room, and then thinks showtime.

But first he gets yelled at.

“Where have you been everyone has been so worried because none of us have seen you and you know everyone is on winter break and so there’s no reason to not have seen us and we just fought another monster and you’ve been gone like an asshole—” 

“Aw, kid,” Steve says, and then pulls Dustin in for a tight hug. “I’m fine, man. I’ve just been resting.”

“You’re coming to breakfast with us,” Dustin says, his voice muffled. Behind him, Steve can see Max and Lucas frowning, too, trying to look tough but mostly looking young and fragile. Steve lifts an arm and they both join the hug, holding him tight, tight, tight. 

God, but he loves these kids. 

They stand there, everybody clinging, until Robin comes up behind them and scares the shit out of the little shitheads.

“What’s all this?” She asks, knuckling her eyes and shivering at the open door. Her big sleep shirt goes down to her knees, and she’s got a pair of Steve’s sweatpants on and, huh. Maybe this’ll be easier than he thought.

“Robin?” Dustin exclaims, his eyes bugging, when he fights his way out from under Steve’s arm.

“Hey, doofus,” she says. “Why the long faces?”

“Robin?” Max and Lucas chorus, also pulling away. 

“That’s my name,” she says.

“Did you sleep at—” Dustin starts, but Max and Lucas cut him off, both whacking him on the shoulder. 

Robin’s eyes light up, all mischief and pride, because her plan is going to work, and it’s going to be easy. Both of them had been a little worried about convincing people, worried about acting too much like best friends, worried about making people think they were attracted to each other. 

Fuck, why the hell had they worried about that? It’s going to be cake. It’s going to be so, so easy. Steve grins at her and she grins back, wide, and Dustin makes a choking sound and Max half-squeals and then clears her throat. Lucas hits him three times, very excitedly, on the arm.

Oh, yeah. They have this in the bag.

“Is it cool if Robin comes to breakfast?” Steve asks.

Yes,” Dustin says, nearly bouncing in place. 

“We going soon?” Steve asks.

“Right now! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, ” Max says. “I haven’t seen El in forever, and you idiots are holding me back!”

Steve laughs. “Let me and Robin get dressed,” he says. “We’ll be down as fast as we can.”

The kids let them go, Max calling after them, “and you’d better be quick! Because I’ll come up there if I have to and I don’t wanna be, like, scarred!”

As soon as they get to his room, Robin starts giggling, and then Steve can’t help but laugh, too, and soon they’re both flat on the floor. 

“What the fuck were we worried about?” Robin says.

“I don’t know, oh my God, shit, did you see their faces?” Steve wheezes.

“Yes,” Robin says, almost a shriek, and then stuffs her fist in her mouth. “Shit, okay, be cool, Harrington. Where’s my clothes?”

“How the fuck should I know?” Steve asks, but gets up to help her look anyway. 

The ride to breakfast is quiet, because Max and Lucas have shoved Dustin between them in the back seat and every time Dustin opens his mouth they hit him hard on his shoulder. Steve would start up a conversation, but every time he looks over at them he feels like he’s going to start giggling again, and he sure as shit can’t talk to Robin, because as soon as she opens her mouth he’s going to lose it, and the kids are so damn curious they’d never let it go until they found out what they were laughing about, and that’d be the game played, everything over not even an hour after they started.

Steve takes a deep breath and firmly tells himself he’s an adult, and he can keep it together. He clears his throat and sees Robin look out the window, her face working like she’s swallowing a smile. “So,” he says, “who’s gonna be at this shindig?”

“Well, all of us, plus El, Will, Mike, Miss Byers, Chief Hopper,” Dustin lists off, before hesitating, glancing between Steve and Robin and then continuing, “and Jonathan and Nancy.”

Steve feels his breath catch in his chest, something deep and soft and yearning clawing up and blocking any words that might come out. Jonathan’s back, a small and quiet thing inside him whispers, Jonathan’s back, Jonathan’s back, Jonathan’s back. He’s back and Nancy’s with him, and you should be with them, you should be there. The thought feels dangerous, feels like standing in front of them swinging a bat and thinking just try and get through me, motherfucker.

“Oh, great!” Robin says, nodding and smiling, saving Steve’s ass like she does all the time. “Yeah, I haven’t talked to them yet, not really. It’ll be cool to meet them for real.”

Dustin smiles so big Steve can see his molars and he gives Robin a grateful look because she’s said exactly the right thing. She winks at him and he winks back. 

Max reaches around Dustin to slap Lucas on the arm, raising her eyebrows and looking between Steve and Robin like she’s trying to communicate something to the other boys in the car. Steve bites his tongue so he won’t start laughing and Robin stuffs a knuckle in her mouth. 

Max starts up a conversation then, loudly talking about a new edition of a Wonder Woman comic that came out which Steve knows nothing about, but he knows Robin reads them, and Max needs more female influences in her life, and Robin can be so shy sometimes, so he says, “you know, Max, Robin is, like, just as big a dork as you, and she’s got almost every single edition of those comics.”

Max’s eyes go big and starry and she breathes, “wow. What did you think about—” and then they’re off, talking faster than Steve would’ve thought possible with the boys interjecting every now and again. 

Steve grins and flicks on the radio. Suddenly, the car is filled with guitars, smooth and blue-rock loud, and Steve mouths the lyrics as they vibrate through the air. I broke a thousand hearts, before I met yo-ou. I'll break a thousand more ba-by, before I am through. He turns the knob all the way up and all conversation stops, three little pairs of eyes lighting up at the noise.

“I wanna be yours, pretty baby,” Dustin screams, along with the guitar. 

“Yours and— ” Lucas caterwauls, then points at Max to finish the line.

“Yours alone!” Max shrieks, then points at Robin.

“I’m here to tell ya honey,” Robin says and points at Steve.

He flicks his sunglasses down off his head and over his eyes then croons, “that I’m bad to the bone!” 

The kids scream like he’s done the coolest thing in the fucking world, absolute ear-piercing squeals, and Steve throws his head back and laughs. 

It’s warm in the car, warmer than the winter outside, and so loud Steve thinks his eardrums are about to pop, but it feels comfortable. The familiar town around him whizzes by, and for once, it feels like home, and the kids in the back feel like family, and Robin feels like someone he’ll love for the rest of his life. He feels sure, steady and confident in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time, hasn’t felt since before he and Nancy broke up. Maybe he’s never felt like this. 

He thinks he likes it.

 

 

The first thing Joyce hears is the noise.

They’re all loitering outside the diner, her boys and Hopper, and Nancy, Mike and El, waiting for the rest of the kids to come back with Steve. He’d slipped away from them the other night, Steve did: she’d sent him to bring home the kids under the impression that he’d come back right after and let her and Hop patch him up, but he’d done no such thing. He’d just gone off, probably back to his house, Nancy reassured her, but she hated to think of him by himself in that big old place. 

When she had asked, Dustin had leapt at the chance to go and drag Steve to the diner for breakfast. Jonathan didn’t even groan about it, like she thought he might. It makes her proud, that her son is turning into such an understanding man. She knows he doesn’t like to think of Steve alone in his house, either.

So they’re all waiting, stomachs growling, nobody speaking, when the dull roar of an engine comes up the empty road, followed by music blaring. It’s all guitar and blues, with the yelling of three extremely excited kids overlayed, all of them shrieking.

“What the fuck?” Jonathan asks, startled, and Joyce can’t even tell him to watch his language because she’d been a second from asking the same thing.

Nancy snorts, and they both turn to look at her. She’s got a tiny smile on her face, which is good, because Joyce keeps finding herself thinking that the poor girl is too serious for her age.

“Steve,” Nancy sighs, almost fond. 

Sure enough, Steve Harrington’s car peels into the parking lot, the music still going loud and strong. El is tucked up by Hopper, but Joyce can see the way her eyes light up at the heavy rock guitars. Beside her, Will and Mike bop their heads to the music and Joyce finds herself smiling.

When the kids tumble out of the car, the music is still going and they’re screaming along, acting their age for once, dancing like idiots and twirling each other around. 

“Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-ba-ad,” they’re all shouting, Max shaking her head like she’s at a rock concert, her red curls flying. None of them have noticed her or Hopper, or Jonathan and Nancy, because they would’ve stopped. The kids don’t like to act silly around them, want them all to see them as mature and grown-up, but Joyce feels tears springing up in her eyes because God, she wishes they acted like this all the time. She wishes she saw them like this more often. 

“When I walk the streets!” Steve Harrington hollers, slamming out of his car with sunglasses over his eyes and a bomber jacket on. “Kings and queens step aside!” 

He looks steady, bruises on his face fading, a cigarette hanging from his lips and crazy smile on his face. He’s dancing a little and he looks more like the Steve Harrington that Joyce saw around town before all this Upside Down shit started happening, back before El and Will, back when he was all cool confidence. He’s grinning like everything is funny, just like he used to. God, but they’re all still just kids: it’s so good to see them all acting like this. What she wouldn’t give to see Jonathan acting like this.

And then the passenger door opens.

“Every woman I meet,” a girl croons with the music, pointing at Steve. “They all leave satisfied.”

Steve throws his head back and laughs. Beside her, Jonathan stiffens and Nancy breathes out hard through her nose and Joyce thinks, shit. Steve and Nancy used to date, she remembers, and doesn't know how she forgot. Jonathan spent a whole year sulking about it. 

The girl dances around the car and it looks like she’s going to go to Steve, and let him dance her around, but then she glances over and spots Joyce and everyone and gives a little wave. She ducks into the drivers’ side while Steve watches the kids dance and scream, then shuts off the car. The kids don’t even notice the music turns off, they’re yelling so loud. Max and Lucas keep tossing their heads around and bumping into each other while Dustin yells the guitar solo over and over. 

“Hey, idiots,” Steve says. “Pull it together. They’re waiting for us.” He nods over at her and Joyce gives him a smile that feels only a little stranded. 

Immediately, the kids stop dancing and yelling. Max glances over at the group and turns bright red while Lucas straightens up and Dustin sticks his hands in his pockets. Steve Harrington throws his head back and laughs at them, then gives Dustin a little push forward and all the kids come running. Max goes up to El and the both of them start talking over each other, voices going so high Joyce can’t understand what they’re saying, while Dustin and Lucas hurry over to Will.

Steve Harrington saunters over, throwing an arm around the girl’s shoulders and kissing her forehead. She slides her arm around his waist and tucks her hand into his coat pocket. Joyce feels herself grin, bigger this time, more genuine. They look sweet. 

She tells Jonathan this. “Who’s Steve’s new girlfriend? They look sweet.”

Jonathan’s teeth grind together so hard Joyce can hear them. “I don’t know. I think I recognize her but I don’t—” 

“She was at the mall,” Nancy says, her eyes narrow. “I don’t think we talked to her but it was all such a blur that I don’t quite remember.”

Joyce shrugs. “Well, the more the merrier. Come on, everyone, inside.” She directs the last part to the kids, who hustle inside out of the cold as soon as she says it’s alright. Hop grins at her and holds the door open when she follows them. God, but it’s good to have him back.

They take three different tables, her and Hop, the teenagers at another, and the kids at the third. Well, it’s more like five tables: the kids have to push three together in order to make room for everyone. Steve goes to sit next to Dustin but his girlfriend rolls her eyes, says, “Steve, I love you, but I am not sitting at that loud-ass table full of kids this early in the morning,” and drags him over to Jonathan and Nancy and pushes him down into a chair.

Across from her, Hopper grins and stares at all the kids. “It’s good to have everyone together again. It’s good to be back.” He says. He puts his hand on hers.

“It’s good to be back,” Joyce agrees. She turns her hand over and laces their fingers together. “It’s good to have you back, Hop.”

“Mom, can we get milkshakes?” Will hollers from across the room. 

Hopper gives a sarcastic little huff and rolls his eyes, his mustache twitching. “I take it back,” he tells her, and she can’t help but laugh.

 

 

Robin forces him into a chair across from Nancy and then sits beside him, across from Jonathan.

“Hi,” she says, white teeth gleaming, eyes twinkling behind her dark eyeliner. “I’m Robin, we've met before but, like, only once, and it was a little chaotic, so. Hi.” She smiles wider.

Steve is going to kill her. He should’ve sat by fucking Dustin, which he tried to do, except Robin wouldn’t fucking let him. He glares at her, tries to tell her with his eyes that he’s never painting her nails for her again. She just rolls her eyes so he takes a deep breath, reminds himself that he’s a fucking adult, and he’s taken on monsters for Jonathan and Nancy, so he sure as fuck can tolerate a brunch with them, even if his heart is turning over in his chest and he feels stupider than he’s ever felt, even counting eleventh grade chemistry.

He just doesn’t know what to say.

Nancy snaps her fingers. “Yes!” She exclaims. “Mike’s talked about you a few times? And Dustin, too. You’re friends with Steve, right?”

Robin nods. “Yeah, we worked at Scoops together, and now we’re over at the video store.”

“We’re best fucking friends, Robin, God, way to make me sound like your freak co-worker. We got kidnapped by the Russian government,” Steve tells Nancy and Jonathan, who blink at him, confused and a little dazed, like the joke went right over their heads. “Friends who do experimental drugs together stay together!” He finishes, and Robin smacks his hand when he holds it up for a high-five. 

But Dustin heard Nancy say his name and is staring at them, along with the other kids, who all have shit-eating grins on their faces. “But they’re not just friends,” Dustin says, sing-song. 

Steve opens his mouth to tell Dustin that, for the nine thousandth time, him and Robin aren’t fucking like that, except then he remembers. His teeth click shut. 

“Oh?” Jonathan says, like an asshole, and Steve’s remembering why he used to make fun of the guy. The little flare of anger tucks itself up against his already pounding heart, and God, why is he so nervous? Why can’t he think?

He doesn’t have any control over his mouth, is too busy staring between Jonathan and Nancy to plan out anything, so he doesn’t know why he says, “well, yeah. We’re dating.” And then he waits for Robin to hit him.

But Robin smiles, super big, like this is going just fuckin’ perfect, and isn’t horrible and awkward, and God, it’s so fucking hot in this diner, isn’t it hot in this diner? 

“Well, how could I resist?” Robin says, theatrical, and Steve doesn’t know where the fuck she’s going with this. “He just was so sexy in that scoops uniform.” 

It’s so ridiculous he starts laughing, just bends right over the table and laughs so hard he almost knocks over his glass of water. Robin starts laughing right after, until they’re both bent over with it and Jonathan and Nancy are staring at them like they’ve both lost their marbles. The kids turn back around, because apparently it’s boring to watch Steve have a breakdown, but once Steve gets ahold of himself he feels better. Lighter. Robin winks at him and Steve feels his heart swell up in his chest because she did that on purpose, made him laugh so he’d feel better. 

Steve tosses his arm around her chair and she leans in automatically to accept the kiss on her forehead. 

Nancy’s smile goes a little fixed. Steve knows that look, recognizes it from all the nights he used to spend helping her study. It’s Nancy finding something she doesn’t understand, some problem that’s tripping her up, and deciding that she’s going to work through it, no matter how long it takes and how many times Steve tells her that it’s Friday night, Nancy, come on, you have the whole weekend for this and it’s not due until Wednesday anyway. 

His heart skips in his chest. God, but sometimes he misses her so much he can’t breathe. They’re not even friends anymore, not really.

He wants to be her friend. 

“How about you guys, though? How have you been?” He asks, and his voice comes out so gentle and tender he almost winces, but he chokes it back. Robin glances at him out of the corner of her eye but doesn’t say anything, which he’s grateful for. “Jonathan,” he says, and it feels so good to say his name that all he wants to do is say it again. “Jonathan, man, I haven’t seen you in ages! How was Chicago? How’s school?”

Jonathan stares at him for a second, lips parted, and God, Steve needs… he needs Jonathan to stop looking like this, all soft and doe-eyed. It’s why he picked at him, back when they were different people, forever and three years ago. Part of Steve wants to dig his nails into Jonathan and pull, just to see him react, just to see his soft eyes get big and shiny. Steve shakes his head like a dog climbing out of a lake the same second Nancy reaches over and elbows Jonathan.

“Good!” Jonathan sputters. “Yeah, good. I mean, it wasn’t Hawkins, but I guess that’s why we left.”

Steve doesn’t know what the fuck to say to that. “Did you like it over there?”

Jonathan frowns, thoughtful, and suddenly Steve is imagining him under red lights, Nancy staring at him like she’s doing right now, the both of them intent and quiet and purposeful. “All I’ve wanted to do, my whole life, is get out of Hawkins, and as soon as it happened I couldn’t wait to come back. I don’t know. I didn’t dislike it, but I just… well, it was hard being away from… from everyone.”

Steve hears him bite back the words away from Nancy and doesn’t know whether he appreciates it or not.

Nancy and Jonathan gaze at each other, loving and soft, Jonathan’s hand all twisted up between Nancy’s on the diner table. Nancy looks… adoring is the only word for it. A jealous, twisted-up part of Steve hates it, but the bigger, newer part of him is just… well, he’s still sad. But he’s happy for them, too. They deserve it. They deserve so much, Steve would give them so much, if they asked. All they’d have to do is ask. 

But they don’t and so he sits there at the fucking diner table and flounders, trying to think up something, anything to talk about, and Jonathan and Nancy don’t even notice, too caught up in each other. 

Robin gives him a nudge and Steve pulls himself together. “Well, it’s good to have you back, man. We missed you,” he tells Jonathan, because it’s true, and it’s also the only thing he can think to say. 

Nancy pulls herself away from Jonathan then turns back to look at Robin and Steve. And she’s definitely looking at Robin and Steve, her eyes pinging back and forth between them, like she’s trying to figure out how they work, how they act together as a couple.  This is it, Steve thinks, because Steve was in love with Nancy, is maybe still in love with Nancy, and Nancy knows how he acts when he’s in love. Nancy’s the most observant person he knows. Fuck, if they can fool Nancy, they’ll never have to worry about anything again. 

“Ouch, shit,” Robin says, and Steve swings his head over to her so fast he gets whiplash. 

“Robs, what’s wrong? Are you alright?” He asks, the words coming out of his mouth so fast his tongue almost gets tangled. “Let me see, what’d you do?”

Robin rolls her eyes at him but lets him pull her hand up onto the table, lets him cradle her hand between both of his. “I’m fine, dingus, I just cut it.”

“Here?” Steve says, shrill. “On what?

“No, not here, stupid, last night on your stupid fucking death-trap of a roof.”

“Where was I for this?” Steve asks.

“I think you were making dinner,” she responds, letting him twist her hand around between his. There’s a long, thin cut across her palm, deep but not so deep he needs to be worried about it. “We left those stupid beer bottles up there, from last week, remember? I broke one and cut my hand on it trying to climb through your window.”

“I keep telling you to just come through the fuckin’ door, you know nobody’s ever home!” Steve says, scowling and bringing her palm up to his mouth to kiss better automatically. He’d done the same for Erica two days ago when she’d stormed up to his door, bleeding at the knees and trying not to cry, tugging her bike along behind her. She’s a tough kid, but she’s only ten, and sometimes ten year olds still need to be coddled a little. Fuck, Steve can’t even count how many times he wished his mom would be there to kiss him better after he scraped himself up, back when he was a kid. He can’t let any of the kids feel that way.

Robin’s giving him a soft look, like she knows he’s thinking about his mom, and she scrubs her hand through his hair affectionately before scooting her chair closer to his and leaning into his side.

“Oh,” Nancy says, her voice tiny. When Steve looks at her, her eyes are big and dark, and she’s looking at him like… like she hasn’t in a long time. Steve doesn’t know how to describe it. It makes him want to wrap her up in his arms, tuck his face down in her hair and hold her until that look is gone. Something about that look makes him think that she’d let him do it. 

He tears his eyes away from her to look at Jonathan, reminding himself of all the reasons he very much cannot do that, except Jonathan’s looking hurt and fragile, too, and all of this is too fucking much, Steve can’t understand it. It feels like he’s back in stats class, staring at a problem, trying to solve for X and not knowing where to start, not knowing what the equation is even supposed to look like. 

Robin stares out at the two of them, and then looks at Steve, and Steve begs her with his eyes to please, please, please do something to save him.

“Look at us, I’m so sorry, we’re being assholes,” Robin says, her voice casual and warm and funny. Steve feels himself relax, lets himself slump further against her and reach for his coffee. “We’re not making any sense. So, I went over to Steve’s last night, right? Because he said he wanted to cook, and hates cooking for just himself, and how could I pass up a—”

“You cook?” Jonathan interrupts. Steve frowns at him, because, like, that was rude, and Robin was talking, but Robin’s looking between him and Steve with her eyebrows up on her forehead. She looks like she did when she was translating Russian, intently curious. 

“Uh, yeah,” Steve says.

“Steve makes great lasagna,” Robin grins.

“I’ve had it.” Nancy says, her voice strange.

There’s a pause. “Alright,” Robin says, a little baffled. 

Nancy puts her head in her hands and takes a deep breath. Steve watches her do it, and he watches Jonathan watch her, too. “God, I’m sorry,” Nancy says. “I didn’t sleep well last night. What were you saying, Robin?” 

Robin, God bless her, God, Steve is going to make her waffles every morning for the rest of their lives, picks up the story where she left it, and keeps talking all through breakfast. Steve relaxes after a few minutes, interjecting every few seconds when Robin gets something wrong, and feeling his chest warm with how many sentences Robin starts with Steve and I, Steve said, I told Steve… 

She’s his best friend, the best friend he’s ever had. Steve beams at her like an idiot and tries to keep from looking at Jonathan and Nancy, because he’s finally got his head screwed on straight and he refuses to lose it again. 

All in all, it’s a pretty good breakfast. 

Toward the end, the kids start flicking food at him and Robin, and him and Robin start flicking food back, as subtle as they can, and Jonathan and Nancy watch them do it, forced smiles on their faces. The one time Mike tries to rope Jonathan and Nancy into the game, Nancy turns around and says, as sweet and as fierce as Steve has ever seen her, “Michael, if you get syrup in my hair one more time I’ll tell mom you threw up at breakfast and will make sure she checks on you every other hour tonight.” 

Mike scowls at her and spins around. El feeds him a piece of waffle off her fork, and Steve stares at them and thinks, young love and finds that the thought isn’t bitter.

The meal wraps up and Steve pays for Robin, and Dustin, Max, and Lucas, then shepherds them all to the door. 

“This was fun,” he tells Jonathan and Nancy. He isn’t lying: it was fun. It was good to see them. “We should make this a thing.”

“Yeah?” Nancy says, eager.

“Yeah,” he agrees, letting himself smile at her. His hand twitches, because he wants to tuck her hair behind her ear, but he holds himself back. 

“You should come to my house today,” Jonathan blurts.

“What?” Steve asks. “Dude, no offense, but I thought you didn’t, like, have a house here anymore.”

Jonathan blushes, red and hot, and Steve’s mouth feels dry and his stomach feels warm but he focuses on Jonathan’s next sentence anyway. 

“I don’t,” Jonathan says, scrubbing his hands over his face once. “But nobody bought it or anything after we moved out and me and Nancy are going over there to try and, you know, fix it up a little.”

Steve remembers standing in that house, Christmas lights flashing, he remembers standing there with Dustin and the kids, he remembers the way Jonathan looked so small and cold this most recent time he was back, when wires were sparking and Hopper had come back from the dead. 

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I’ll swing by. What time?” 

“Around two,” Nancy says, with the prettiest smile Steve's ever seen. 

“Cool,” Steve says. “Robs, does two work for you?” 

Nancy's smile disappears like smoke in the wind. Steve can't figure out what that look on her face is: it's not angry, exactly, and it's not quite sad either, but a mix of the two with some third emotion mixed in that Steve can't decipher.

“Robin can’t come,” Jonathan says. 

“What?” Steve says, baffled.

“Jonathan,” Nancy scolds. 

“I just mean that it’s going to be, like, cold, and there are… you know… things, still around, things that she can’t… see.” Jonathan says, losing steam as he goes.

“Oh.” Steve stares at him all confused because, like, Robin had introduced herself to them, in the mall all those months ago. “No, man, it’s totally cool, Robin knows about the Upside Down. I thought you knew this? She was there that night with the Mind-Flayer when we thought Hopper died, you remember? I think this is, like, the third time we've told you? Like, the third time today." Jonathan's got his head in his hands, now, but Steve can't stop talking, his mouth running away without him like it always does. "We got kidnapped by Russians together.”

“And tortured and drugged,” Robin adds.

“Fuck off, you didn’t get tortured at all,” Steve scowls. Nancy gasps, her pale cheeks going paler, and Steve adds, hastily, “not that I got tortured! Nobody was tortured! Just, like, hit a few times.”

“And drugged,” Robin repeats, grinning like an asshole. 

“And drugged,” Steve sighs. He smiles back at her, because he can’t fuckin’ help it, and shrugs at Jonathan and Nancy. “Shared trauma, you know. We bonded.” 

Fuck knows why, but their faces fall at the words, like he’s pulled a rug out from under them. 

“Oh, well, if Robin wants to come—” Nancy starts, but Robin interrupts, still grinning.

“Thanks, but I can’t, I’ve got to meet up with some girls from band. We’ve got a new piece to practice.” Robin’s eyes are twinkling and she’s swinging Steve’s hand back and forth like a kid, and Steve needs to grill her about these girls she’s meeting right fucking now, why the fuck didn’t he know about this before?

“Anyway, Nance, we’ve gotta go, I’ll see you at two, I’ll bring beers, drive safe,” he tosses over his shoulder, pulling Robin along as she dissolves into full-on belly laughs, like she knows she’s getting interrogated as soon as they’re alone. “Hey, shitheads, who am I driving home?” He hollers, and suddenly they’re surrounded by shouting kids, everything chaotic and loud, just the way he likes it.

He still glances back at Jonathan and Nancy, though. Just the once. They’re watching him leave, and when they see him looking, they raise their hands in unison to wave him off. 

Steve hesitates, just for a second, and then he waves back. 

 

 

They drop Max off first, then Lucas, then Dustin. The second Dustin’s front door slams shut, the kid safely inside, Robin turns to Steve and smacks his arm.

“You didn’t tell me it was like that,” She exclaims, her voice high and excited.

“Like what?” Steve asks, baffled.

“Like that,” Robin hollers, then hits his arm again. She’s giddy, grinning so bright it’s like the sun. “Oh my God, Harrington, dating me is the best thing that has ever happened to you.” 

“What?” Steve asks, again. 

“Nancy and Jonathan,” Robin says. She puts a weird emphasis on the ‘and Jonathan.’ Steve doesn’t know what to make of it. He just stares at her until he remembers, wait, he has something to interrogate her about, too.

“Hold on, don’t reflect,” Steve says.

“It’s de-flect, dumbass,” Robin says.

“No, you won’t distract me,” Steve tells her, nose in the air. He reaches over and punches her gently on the arm and she punches him back, way harder. “Who are these fuckin’ girls you’re hanging out with today?”

“Just… okay, you have to be cool, alright?”

Steve stares at her, indignant. “Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”

Robin huffs out something that’s close to a laugh. “Of course, sorry, King Steve. Okay, fine. Fine, I’m going to Monica Horowitz’s house.”

Steve waits and when Robin just looks at him, gnawing on her lip nervously, he bursts out, “to do what? Homework? Watch movies? Fuck? Come on, Robs, I’m dying over here.”

“Jesus, Steve!” Robin sputters. “I don’t know! We’re in band together and we got a new piece and it’s not a big deal—”

“Except it is because you haven’t told me about it until now, and also you lied earlier and said you were gonna be with multiple girls, not just one, which means you like her! Like-like her!”

“Could you be any more juvenile,” Robin hisses.

“Uh, yeah,” Steve answers, raising his eyebrows.

Robin glares at him for a second and then relents. “Fine, yeah. Fine. I think it might be… something. It’s not a date, but…”

“But it’s something,” Steve finishes, and feels love and pride and excitement and a horrible, overwhelming kind of fear swallow him up. Pride and love for Robin, because fuck yes she deserves this, but fear because… he wants her safe. He wants her to be safe. He’d kill and die for Robin. He would, he would, because he loves her more than he’s loved anyone, or at least loves her differently than he’s loved anyone. Immediately, Steve decides that he’ll beard for her however long she wants. The rest of his life, if that’s what it takes. He can imagine marrying Robin, years down the road, and living with her and her partner, covering for them until the sun explodes in the sky. 

Robin looks at him, stares at his face for a long time, and then pitches forward into his chest. She holds him tight, fingers clutching, and sniffles a little. 

“Fuck, Robs, are you crying?” Steve asks, a little frantic.

“I love you, you know that?” She says, her voice thick. “Like, I never thought… God, Steve. You’re my best friend.” 

They’ve said it to each other before but it’s always good to hear her say it again. You’re my best friend, she says, and Steve tucks the words away in his chest, because they’re better than anything he’s ever heard before. Steve feels his eyes welling up with sympathy tears and he presses his face into her soft, shaggy hair, feeling awed, feeling blessed. He presses kisses to her hair, one after another. They stay like that until a loud bang comes from the front of the car. Robin jumps a foot, slamming the top of her head into Steve’s chin as Steve knocks his elbow against the steering wheel.

He swings around to look through the windshield and finds Dustin standing in front of the car which, Steve realizes, has been parked in his driveway this entire time. He’s grinning like a doofus, his missing teeth making him look younger than he is.

Steve rolls down his window. “What, Henderson? We were having a moment!”

Dustin frowns, suddenly concerned.

Robin scrubs under her eyes, real quick, catching the dripping eyeliner before she leans across the gear shift to talk to Dustin, too. “I’m fine, squirt,” she says. “We’ll get out of your driveway soon.”

“I thought you were making out, maybe,” Dustin says.

“So you came to watch? ” Steve sputters. 

“No, asshole! I thought I’d tell you to get out of my driveway before my mom came home!” Dustin says, his face red. 

He looks so shy, suddenly, way less confident than usual, no know-it-all attitude in sight. It’s kind of funny, actually. Steve finds himself biting back a smile and can tell, without checking, that Robin’s doing the same. “Well, thanks for looking out for us, bud,” Steve says. He wants to ruffle Dustin’s hair but he’s still in his car and, besides, Dustin’s getting old for that, anyway. 

“Yeah, thanks, kid,” Robin says. 

Dustin shuffles his feet nervously. “Okay,” he says, looking like he doesn’t know what else to say. “Feel better, Robin.”

They wave at him and then Steve throws the car in reverse and gets the fuck out of there before Dustin’s faith in his ability to keep his girlfriends happy disappears completely. He comes up on Robin’s house fast, because Hawkins really is stupid-small, and rolls into her driveway with the radio playing, soft and sweet. Over the radio, the ABBA girls croon, look into his angel eyes, one look and you’re hypnotized.

If Jonathan were here, he’d look over, betrayed, and say fucking ABBA? Really, Harrington? Genuinely, comically offended, but Robin just sits and lets the music wash over here in silence. Robin and Steve shamefully and secretly love playing ABBA loud enough to echo through Steve’s big house. Love to twirl around the shining wood floors in their socks.

Steve doesn’t know what Nancy thinks of ABBA. The not knowing hurts his chest. 

“Alright,” Robin sighs. “Alright, I’ve got to go get ready.”

“You’ve got this,” Steve says, reaching over and rubbing her neck comfortingly. He remembers how nervous he was, way back before he went on his first date, and besides, Robin looks like she could use the comforting. 

“I’ve got this,” Robin nods. She leans over and pecks him on the cheek, then says, “and shower before you go to Jonathan’s! You smell like a barn.”

Steve sniffs his shirt and then glares at her, betrayed, as she hops out of his car. “Have I smelled like this all morning? Robin Buckley, fucking answer me! Hey!” 

But she’s running to her front door, cackling like a witch, and all she does is flip him off. Steve sighs and puts the car back in reverse. Fuck, but he’s got… two and a half hours before he’s supposed to be at Jonathan’s. Something tight squeezes his lungs, something like fear but not quite. A feeling like standing in line at the amusement park, staring up at the highest rollercoaster peak and thinking, soon. 

Steve takes a deep breath. Alright. Two and a half hours: more than enough time to take a shower, and to scrounge up a pack of beers, and to stop his heart from pounding, pounding, pounding in his chest.