Robin has looked at the red, white, and blue VHS cover of Wonder Woman six times before now, the official seventh.
She’s pretty sure it used to just sit in the back corner and collect dust. It was a made for television movie, if her memory is correct, and it came out over a decade ago so there’s already been a shitload of new superhero flicks to replace it. If Robin cared enough to check the system, she’d probably find that it was rented out for the first time ever by a card registered under the name Mayfield. And now it’s being rented out again, for the seventh time in one month, by the card registered under the name Mayfield.
“You know if you just like, stole this?” Robin taps the cover with a chipped purple fingernail and Max Mayfield looks up at her with the expression of a startled baby deer. “No one would notice. Or care.”
“This is the last time I’m renting it.” Max says hastily, grabbing the tape from under Robin’s hand and shoving it into a button-covered backpack. Her green eyes remain firmly locked on the counter. “I just keep forgetting to watch it.”
“Well, just saying.” Robin shrugs and swipes the card. “If you forget to return it, I won’t prosecute. I don’t get paid enough for that.”
Max grins a little, relaxes when she realizes that Robin isn’t making fun of her. She should probably work on making that more clear. Usually when the kids arrive, they come all bunched together rather than solo. Today Max is alone, unaccompanied by the usual suspects like her possible boyfriend or the little telepath or the kid with the bowl cut. She should probably work on names, too.
And usually Steve is behind the counter to guide Robin through interacting with children and translate between everyone, but today he’s out sick. Without him she’s sort of flailing, both with working and with the current interaction. She has no one to fuck around with behind the counter so she's actually gotten bored enough to do her job, which she's discovering she isn't that great at. Maybe because they were fucking around during training. Either way, she can't figure out how to renew someone's subscription and she can't figure out how to connect with this kid the way Steve does. Getting a smile out of Max is pretty good, though. She adds it to the long list of things she’ll tell him today, right under the observation that Tommy Rivera and Candace Appleby came in together holding hands despite Tommy’s semi-serious relationship with Jessica Manor.
“Where’s Steve?” Max asks after receiving her card and cramming it into the backpack, where it’ll surely stay until the next time Wonder Woman graces the counter.
“Afflicted by the grossest flu I’ve ever seen. Fully disgusting. He looks worse than that guy.”
Max follows her gesture to the display for Patient Zero, where a zombie is munching on the worst excuse for a realistic leg Robin has ever seen. The leg belongs to a sexy blonde decked out in a hot pink bikini, who’s screaming rather prettily and posing with her hips thrust out despite currently having an amputation performed in the worst way possible. When Max glances back, she’s grinning wider and Robin feels pretty goddamn proud of herself. Maybe she doesn’t suck with children. Maybe she has something to offer that Steve doesn’t, like cunning wit or general knowledge of the world or—
Max is looking at the display again. She’s staring at the blonde bikini babe with a fixed fascination, an innocent but intentional gaze.
Or an ability to detect her own species.
Robin suddenly feels the weight of extreme importance on her shoulders. She looks at Max Mayfield, who is gradually drifting away from the counter and towards the shelves surrounding the zombie display. She’s pretending to look at the other movies but Robin is fairly certain she’s actually looking at the bikini babe, possibly searching the display for the actress’ name so she can find other titles with a matching name and rent them out seven times. With Robin, it was Cindy Williams in American Graffiti, which she’d had to hide both because watching a movie over and over to stare at a girl isn’t allowed and because American Graffiti is cheesy as fuck. She’d take her father’s little crank-operated television that he used in Hurricane Elouise and hide under a blanket, crank the stupid thing and its stupid attached tape player which always skipped, and stare at Cindy Williams.
She’d had no one to tell. No one who could possibly understand. And even now that she has Steve, who agrees about Cindy Williams being hot but disagrees about American Graffiti being cheesy, she wishes that she’d had someone at Max’s age. It’s important. It’s especially important for Max, whose evil brother died two months ago.
“So, yeah, uh,” She starts talking without a plan and Max startles from ten feet away, obviously not expecting the conversation to continue, “tell the boys that they can’t rely on Steve for life-saving advice in the next few days.”
“Okay?” Max’s grin has been replaced by scrunched eyebrows. At least Robin got a few moments of victory.
“But they can talk to me.”
It’s clumsy and awkward, but it accomplishes the goal. It plants the seed. Max Mayfield still looks weirded out, but she nods and gives Robin a possibly sarcastic thumbs up. Then she shoulders her bag, shifts the skateboard under her arm, glances at the bikini babe one more time, and heads towards the door. Robin stops herself from adding anything else.
Now there are only two customers milling around. She pushes the bell forward so it’s clearly unobstructed and heads into the back room, where it takes ten minutes to get the system running and scroll through to find Wonder Woman. First check out: 06/03/85. Mayfield.
“I just always thought that Jessica was dating Dylan Fielder, but then I found out that he’s her fucking cousin.”
“I honestly don’t think that would stop Dylan. Remember his speech about how Reagan is going to save America from darkness?”
“Shh!” Steve is so good at shushing, probably from his experiences dealing with children, that Robin startles and looks up at him. “Don’t diss Reagan in here. My father will totally ban you from this household.”
“Your father isn’t even home.”
“Ears everywhere.” Steve says ominously, only able to hold his composure for a few seconds before he breaks and laughs. Then he coughs. Robin returns her attention to the stovetop and extends a hand to rub his shoulder, trying to focus on several objectives at once and having trouble.
She’s forcing herself to go chronologically through the list of things to update him on, knowing that if she jumps right to what she really wants to talk about it’ll seem suspicious. Not that Steve will even notice, probably. He’s currently sitting on the counter with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders while he shivers and listens to her recount the day. To his credit, he’s actually paying attention despite only having woken up twenty minutes ago and looking like the poster child for flu vaccination. Still, his common sense isn’t fully functioning. He’d gotten out of his nice, warm bed just to follow her into the kitchen and listen to her talk. Clearly delirious.
Robin isn’t sure how to bring it up. Does she even need to bring it up? Max Mayfield likes girls and Robin wants to make sure she knows it’s alright. What does that have to do with Steve? She doesn’t have to dance around the truth and bend over backwards to bring it up to him without fully outing the kid because really, she could handle it on her own. But Steve has valuable information that Robin won’t be able to get anywhere else. And she wants to talk to him about it because after two months straight of telling Steve every thought that pops into her head, it would feel unnatural not to.
She finishes reheating the soup first. The idiot hasn’t eaten all day and he’s struggling to breathe through his nose, so soup is the first priority. Once she has it into a fancy glass bowl (because his rich family only uses glass kitchenware) the new priority is making sure he doesn’t lose his balance or trip over his blanket on the way back to his bedroom. She runs through the priority list until Steve’s comfortably resting against the three pillows wedged between his back and the headboard with the bowl in his lap and Robin beside him, ready to call him gross every time he coughs or sneezes but also hand him a Kleenex.
“So what else?” He asks, slurping on his soup louder than necessary. “Hey, did the chihuahua guy come back?”
“Nope. But one of your kids did.”
“Oh yeah? Only one?”
“Max.” Robin watches his expression, looking for any sign that Max showing up by herself is unusual. His face doesn’t reveal anything helpful, so she continues. “It’s kinda weird that she wasn’t with the others, right? At least Lucas.”
Steve shrugs. “Pretty sure Mrs. Sinclair has Lucas on a tighter leash recently. That night’s a blur but I do remember Erica saying something about a party? Apparently it was like, an important fucking party.”
“Maybe she’s freaked out that both her kids went missing for two days straight.”
“Yeah, I guess. Sucks for Max, though. She really needs him right now. I mean she needs all her friends because, you know, her brother died. She doesn’t know how to feel, I think. She hates him for everything he’s done but she can’t just walk off seeing him...die in front of her.” He shakes his head. “Lucas gets that. He’s perceptive.”
“He’s her boyfriend, right?” Robin asks. Steve nods, then reconsiders it and shrugs.
“Last I checked. Which was like, two days ago, so that easily could’ve changed at least twenty times.” Steve is getting the usual expression on his face that sets in whenever he talks about the kids, a soft smile and fond eyes. “They’re always changing their minds. Well, Max is. Lucas is just kinda along for the ride.”
“Isn’t that,” Robin tries to think of a gentler word and fails, so she goes with, “unhealthy?”
Steve looks over, startled. “You think so? I mean they’re about to be in high school. That’s just how high school relationships are.”
“I know plenty of people from school who had like, functioning relationships.”
Robin thinks of her band section, the cast of As You Like It, her soccer team and the adjacent boy’s team. Using that pool of people she starts counting off on her fingers, “Mary Shetland and Jacob Porter. Nick Wagner and Julia Stein. Beth Wildfire and Alex Zang. Louise—“
“Okay, wow.” Steve looks down at the bowl in his lap, contemplating. “All my friends in high school broke up like, more than Max and Lucas. I thought me and Nancy were pretty good because she only dumped me twice. I thought that was like, a new record.”
Robin knows for a fact that Steve is great for these kids. He can keep them alive through times of crisis and drive them around if it’s raining and provide them with cheering up when the memories of giant monsters start to become too much. But maybe, Robin is starting to think, he can’t really help them with all the romance stuff. Maybe Steve’s fucked up high school social circles and parents who don’t have any pictures of their family framed throughout their home have left him with less than proficient skills in that department. Which means that more than ever, Robin needs to help Max Mayfield. She needs to.
But now Steve isn’t eating anymore. He’s stirring his spoon around in the bowl and avoiding eye contact because, for the millionth time since they became friends, Robin has accidentally made him realize how depressing his high school experience was. He sniffles and it’s marginally more pathetic than before because now he’s sad. Priority shift again. Now she has to fix this before she can do anything else.
“You’re not unhealthy, dingus.” She says, her voice all soft without intending it to be.
“Aren’t I?” Steve smirks and demonstrates what happens when he tries to breathe through his nose, which is a tiny bout of coughing to compensate for the lack of air. She rubs his back.
“Okay, you’re not emotionally unhealthy. You don’t suck at relationships like all your shitty friends and, you know, Nancy. I mean personally, I’m fulfilled.”
“Yeah?” He grins.
“Yeah. At first I was only in it for your money but now I actually tolerate you.” She plucks one of the pillows from behind him and sets it on her lap. “C’mon, lay down.”
“You won’t love me anymore if I get you sick.” He predicts, slumping over and adjusting until his head is in her lap. She grabs the soup and sets it aside, replacing it for the television remote. With one hand she starts searching the channels while the other combs through the hair she used to hate with her entire being.
“Definitely.” She confirms. “Enjoy these final moments. If you sneeze on me I’m calling the police.”
“Good luck with that.” When he talks she can feel the vibration from inside his chest against her knee. “Who do you think brought me the soup?”
Max Mayfield is back.
Robin watches her roam the horror section for ten minutes. Someone comes to the counter with A Christmas Story and a fundamental misunderstanding of how video rental works. During the near fifteen minutes she has to deal with this moron and his seven month late fee (accumulated to about $268 which he keeps insisting he doesn’t even have) Max still floats around in the horror section. The moment the idiot is gone, taking his printed notice of payment owed with him, Max replaces his spot at the counter. She has Footloose in her hands.
“How’s Steve?” Max asks. Robin wasn’t expecting this as a first question, but she supposes that after visiting the store every single day to harass Steve, Max might be missing him just as much as Robin is. Maybe her dead older brother has something to do with it, too.
“Congested, but he’ll live. How’s Lucas?”
Max’s face scrunches up at his name, which isn’t usually how girls in love react to their boyfriends. Perhaps she’s just weirded out that Robin would even ask. But she needs to get used to it, because Robin is dedicated now. She is doing this. So help her God.
“Fine, I guess. He’s grounded for ditching Erica the last time we went to the arcade. But Erica sorta ditched him in the first place, and then he just…didn’t look for her.”
God, Robin misses Erica. There’s a kid who’ll just say what’s on her mind. No prying necessary. Sometimes she’d end up prying info out of them.
“You miss him?” She scans Footloose and winces. It was probably too forward of a question. Max’s face stays unscrunched, though. She must be adjusting.
“I mean,” Max shrugs, “I guess so? When he’s here he always uses his card to rent and he has the better membership.”
True romance. Robin scans the card and hesitates before handing it over. Max roamed the store for over half an hour, and maybe Robin is self-centered but she was starting to think that Max was going to take her up on her offer to hand out advice. But if she hands the card back over, the transaction is complete. Max leaves. And Robin is failing her primary mission.
“Y’know we have like, a shit ton of lost cards in the back. I could just give you one.”
Max looks up, eyes wide. “Seriously?”
This is so against the rules and will definitely get her in trouble with Meghan The Merciless, their general manager, if she’s caught. But between the two of them, Meghan prefers Robin over Steve. She’d just sent Steve home early yesterday and spent the next hour disinfecting every surface he’d touched while complaining that minimum wage should be lower. So maybe Robin can get away with this without getting fired, whereas Steve would get like, permanently banned from ever entering the store again.
“Seriously.” She steps over to the counter entrance and kicks it open. “Right this way, Family Movie Golden Member.”
Max is smirking in satisfaction but there’s still...something. Something holding her back a little. Like she thinks maybe this is a trap à la Hansel and Gretel, but she wants the membership card badly enough to risk it.
Robin guides her into the back room and reaches for the lost and found tub. Among several gloves, hair scrunchies, lipstick tubes, and one neon green flip flop is their stack of lost cards held together by rubber band. Usually people don’t ever come looking for them, and after fourteen days the pin numbers get crossed out with Sharpie and they’re thrown in the trash. Robin unsnaps the rubber band and starts shuffling through them.
“Okay, let’s see.” She holds one up. “Howard Baker?”
“Guy’s name.” Max points out. “If Keith doesn’t already know my name, he’ll know that’s fake.”
“Good point, okay, uh,” Robin keeps shuffling until she finds,
Her breath catches in her throat. She stares down at the card in bewilderment, running her thumb over the bumpy lettering and rereading the name at least ten times. It must have been found by Keith, because she definitely would’ve remembered and Steve definitely would’ve told her. She wonders how many days it’s been. When will someone put Sharpie through this pin number and toss this card in the trash? She sort of wants to be the one to do it, for symbolism and metaphors and shit, but even now that she looks at the thing her hands are clammy and she knows the Sharpie would probably never be uncapped.
Max leans over and peeks at the card. “Who’s Tammy Thompson?”
“She is,” Robin takes a deep breath and squeezes the card in her palm until it cuts idents in her skin, “another girl from school.”
“Uh, please.” Max sounds actually insulted. “I’m not stupid. You’re being all dramatic for a reason. C’mon, who is she really?”
Robin can visualize Click’s class nearly perfectly two years later. She sat right by the door, one seat behind Steve and two seats behind Miriam Acosta. The vent was right over her desk and always blasted her with freezing air while it rattled noisily away, sometimes making Steve’s hair move just so. And Tammy was four rows down, one row over. Middle seat. She’d sit forward with her elbows on the desk like she was eager to learn, but really she was just trying to see over Brian Harlen’s giant jock shoulders. Her hair was usually tied up, sometimes down if she didn’t have gym that day. When it was down the tips of it would splay out on the desk. Dark, silky bursts against the cheap fake wood.
Robin wonders if Max has a Tammy. Does she know it’s okay to have a Tammy? Does she even know how she feels? Does she recognize the jealousy in her chest when her year’s version of Steve Harrington makes a joke and a pretty girl laughs, a little too loud and a little too soon? Does she know what that jealousy means? She needs to know.
“I was into her.” Robin tells the truth, for the second fucking time in two months. “Romantically into her. I had a crush on her.”
She wishes she had the guts to look at Max, but she doesn’t. It’s stupid that she’s scared of what this kid thinks, this thirteen-year-old whose primary mode of transportation is a skateboard. But she does because this kid is one of the few people on Earth who can say they’ve fought a literal monster. She also fought a different kind of monster when she protected Steve from her older brother. The older brother she watched die two months ago. If she’s wrong about Max Mayfield, if this kid really does love her boyfriend and never lets her eyes wander in class to the girl four rows down and one row over, then she might just decide it’s wrong. And if this kid, this tiny warrior who picked herself up off the Starcourt floor and walked back into the world knowing full well how shitty it is, decides it’s wrong...then maybe it is.
“Are you a lesbian?” Max asks, voice even. “Or bisexual?”
“I’m a lesbian.”
“You only like girls?”
She finally chances a glance in Max’s direction. She’s focusing hard on the floor, making the same face Steve does when he’s trying to do mental math at the register. Then, very slowly, she nods. “That’s pretty smart.”
Robin feels the second ever flood of relief that starts in her chest and moves out in waves through the rest of her body. With Steve it had been slightly elevated by it being the first ever time and also maybe the drugs and the fact that they were still miraculously alive. But this time has its own unique qualities. She’s sharing this moment with another girl, one who she strongly suspects feels the same way, and there’s something…religious about it.
If this is how people feel when they pray, she’s going to church on Sunday.
“Glad you think so.” She laughs. It comes out a little shakier than intended. Max looks up with her Granny Smith apple eyes and for the first time there’s only sincerity, no hesitation.
“I won’t tell anyone.” Max vows fiercely, like she’s promising to avenge Robin after death. “I promise.”
“Thanks, kid. You can tell Steve. He knows already.”
Max looks faintly surprised by this, but a satisfied smile dawns on her face slowly. She’s realizing, Robin understands, that her honorary older brother isn’t like her former older brother. Well, she likely already knew. But now she has even more proof and she’s clearly relieved. God, Robin is going to wrap Steve in so many fucking blankets later.
“So, Tammy Thompson.” Max already sounds unimpressed with Tammy. She definitely takes after Steve. “She didn’t like you back?”
“I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t. She didn’t even know I liked her.”
“And you were too scared to tell her? Because she might not like girls or she might...not like girls who like girls?”
It’s strange. Robin is pretty in tune with her own emotions. She’d figured out that she was gay pretty young, and it wasn’t a moment of great epiphany after long periods of introspection. It was a quick, swift realization that the way her mom described being in love with her dad could only apply to the way she felt about her childhood best friend, Morgan. When Morgan moved away to North Dakota in fifth grade, Robin cried for days straight and wrote poems about wanting her to come back. And she had known why she was doing that. Likewise, she understood her feelings for Tammy and her reasons for never waltzing up to her desk before the bell in Click’s and putting it all out there. But hearing it said by someone else, especially in the tone of matter-of-fact surety that Max is using, she almost feels comforted. It isn’t just some dramatic soap opera shit she’s made up in her head. It’s a logical human emotion. One that maybe, if Max’s certainty reveals any of her own experiences, is shared by others.
“Right.” She nods. Then, remembering she’s supposed to be the one helping Max and not vice-versa, she adds, “And yeah, not everyone is going to be cool with it. But some people are. I told Steve and it didn’t change anything.”
“I guess you can’t know if people are going to be cool with it until you tell them.” Max observes, now casting her eyes toward the front of the store again.
“I mean, yeah, I guess you can never know for sure how people will react. But you can make an educated guess. Like, if I were to guess about your friends I’d say they would take it pretty well. They’re nice kids.”
Max rolls her eyes and insists, “Not that nice. Mike took the last orange popsicle from the freezer yesterday and then he didn’t even finish it. Just wasted my favorite flavor like he was raised in the jungle or some shit.”
Robin can see it, though. Just under the surface of her exaggerated popsicle outrage, Max is considering. She’s thinking about her friends and imagining how the conversation might go. How they’d react. What they’d say. The faint grin tugging at her lips indicates that she’s imagining a scenario where they say something positive.
“So how come you told Steve and not Tammy?” Max asks suddenly. “You knew he’d be cool with it?”
“Nope. I had no clue how he’d take it. It just sort of…” For the sake of saving Steve from relentless teasing, she carefully redacts the part where he confessed his love to her, “happened. I was scared. But yeah, he was cool. I don’t know if Tammy would be but I mean, there was no point anyways. She was into Steve.”
“Yeah, I’ll take this one then.” Max plucks the card from her hand after a moment of contemplation. “She can pay for my movies.”
“I have weird news.” Robin announces instead of greeting Steve when he opens the door.
“Me too.” He replies, pulling her inside.
“I think I should go first.” She follows him across the tidy foyer to ascend the stairs, making sure to slip off her shoes beforehand because rich people are obsessed with their carpeting. Ahead of her, Steve glances back with curiosity clear on his face. He looks a little better today—still pale and sleepy but no longer deathly white and exhausted. Robin prays to God that this means he’ll be back at work tomorrow because one more shift without him might genuinely cause a mental breakdown.
“Fine, go.” He pushes open his bedroom door and collapses backwards into bed. When she doesn’t join him, he sits up and looks vaguely alarmed. “You’re okay, right?”
“Yeah.” She stops pacing and positions herself in front of the television. Facing Steve kind of feels like she’s his mother about to lecture him, so she opts to join him on the bed. She kneels in front of him and blurts, “I came out to Max.”
“Max?” His eyebrows pull together in both confusion and surprise. “I mean, that’s good! I think that’s really good. How did she...?”
“She was cool about it.” Robin watches his eyes light up with pride and allows herself to smile at the memory. “I didn’t plan on doing it. I just—I found Tammy’s membership card and then—“
“Oh, shit.” Steve winces. “My fault, sorry. I should’ve just thrown it out but, y’know, the fourteen day policy and all that.”
“You found it? And you didn’t tell me?”
“You were in a good mood!” He protests. “I didn’t want to bring you down by mentioning her. My throat was already sore at that point, I couldn’t even do my Kermit voice to make fun of her.”
“You sound more like Kermit than ever right now.” She informs him, trying not to feel all gross and warm inside because Steve went out of his way to avoid making her sad. “Anyways. I didn’t have to tell her but I just thought maybe it would be good for her to know.”
“Yeah!” He slings his arm around her shoulders, smushes his cheek against the top of her head. She allows it only because he’d fallen asleep on her legs yesterday for two hours and probably infected her then. Also because he follows it with, “I’m proud of you.”
Robin closes her eyes. “Thanks, dingus.”
They stay like that for a few minutes until Steve starts falling asleep against her and she has to shove him back awake. While he’s rubbing his eyes and grumbling about her using her “strong muscles” on his “delicate bones” she remembers that she isn’t the only one with news.
“Spill your half.” She demands.
“Oh, right.” He nods over at his bedside table, where a purple plastic bag is leaning against the lamp. “You know what those are? Grape cough drops.”
“I didn’t know those existed.”
“Right! Because everyone just resigns themselves to cherry.”
She squints. “So my news is that I came out to one of your kids and your news is that they’re making a new flavor of cough drops?
“No, the news is who brought me those. Jonathan.”
Robin gasps, which might be an overreaction, but honestly she doesn’t feel like it is. Jonathan Byers (who she never talked to in high school but vaguely knew as the guy with the camera) and Steve have the most complicated relationship that two humans could ever have. First of all, they sort of were both in love with Nancy Wheeler at the same time which led to Jonathan’s fist breaking open Steve’s face. And then eventually they didn’t hate each other enough to punch anymore, but they still both loved Nancy and eventually Nancy chose Jonathan and left Steve the heartbroken mess that Robin met on her first day at Scoops Ahoy. Add that they’re two members of the exclusive monster fighting club in Hawkins and Robin maybe saw Jonathan put his hand on Steve’s shoulder in the Starcourt parking lot and you get: the weirdest fucking dynamic in history.
They’ve been becoming sort of friends, Steve says, ever since Starcourt. It’s easier now that he doesn’t love Nancy anymore and it’s a lot more comfortable and natural than Steve ever would’ve thought. But this is a step beyond casual friendship.
“That’s, uh, wow.” She says, not sure how Steve is expecting her to react.
“Remember when the paramedics gave us popsicles that night because we were dehydrated from puking?”
“And you asked for grape.” Robin realizes, nodding. Holy shit. Either Jonathan Byers is an extremely dedicated friend who does shit like remembering people’s favorite artificial fruit flavoring and taking it into consideration when buying them cough drops, or he’s into Steve. Robin’s internal detection device has been pretty on point lately, so she’s leaning towards the latter.
“He said Will told him I was sick and he did that whole like, oh I was just running errands anyways and I figured I’d stop by shit.” Steve grins at her, and for the first time she notices that his lips are faintly stained purple. “And then we watched two episodes of Miami Vice before he left.”
“Where’d he sit?”
“The chair.” Steve nods at the armchair beside his bed, which upon further inspection has been pulled closer than it was yesterday.
“Good. The bed is my spot.”
“What does it mean?” Steve presses. Robin is fairly certain Steve has the same thoughts as her about what it means. He looks...excited. In a way he doesn’t when absently flirting with everyone who walks through the door at work. But Robin is already working on one case of suppressed sexuality and she could very well be reading too much into this one, so she won’t tell him the full truth on what she thinks it means. She’ll tell him most of the truth.
“It means I was right about you being emotionally healthy.” Robin insists. “Look, I know you have shitty luck in the romance department but you have fucking fantastic luck elsewhere. Romance doesn’t matter when you’ve got the chief of police bringing you soup and your ex’s boyfriend bringing you cough drops, dude. People are subjecting themselves to your gross germs for a reason.”
“Are you saying Hopper and Jonathan love me?” Steve makes the joke solely so he can use it as an excuse to smile. His eyes are puffy from sleeping too much and his nose is running but he’s glowing and Robin feels a rush of satisfaction. He’d been so miserable three months ago, just half-heartedly flirting and waiting for his kid to get back from camp. Now he’s actually like, happy, and Robin feels the same sort of triumph that she’d felt when the first ever flower bloomed from a little cracked seed in her garden out back.
“Yeah, dingus, they love you.” She flicks his cheek. “They can get in line, though.”
Actually, Robin doesn’t love Steve. She’s going to kill Steve.
Her blankets are too fucking hot but the air is too fucking cold. Her ceiling fan is spinning on the lowest setting and making the annoying rattling sound but she can’t reach the fucking light switch from here. If she gets up to turn it off, her fucking legs will get all wobbly beneath her and she might bang her knee against the fucking bed again like she did last time. All this mess is solely due to Steve fucking Harrington and his germs.
It’s her fault for being selfless. She should’ve left him to die in his mansion, but her code of honor outweighed the risks at the time. Her only solace is knowing that Steve should be on his way right now with orange juice, no pulp. She’d specified no pulp over the phone so if there’s fucking pulp she’s going to break his neck.
The doorbell rings. Robin wobbles downstairs and opens it. Steve is standing on her porch, holding a carton of orange juice with no pulp, and he isn’t alone.
“Max?” Her voice comes out much worse than expected and Max makes a face. She glances back over at Steve, who shrugs and steps inside.
“She wouldn’t stop bugging me at work until I agreed to let her talk to you. She’s aware of the risks involved.” Steve’s hand is firmly on her upper arm, guiding her and Max both towards the stairs. “Jeez, you’re warm.”
“Yeah well whose fucking fault is that.” She grumbles, nearly tripping over the third step from the bottom. Normally she tries to censor herself somewhat in front of the kids, despite knowing that she was liberally using the word fuck at their age. Today she doesn’t have the energy. Max bounds up the stairs behind them and it’s still settling in how weird this is.
“This is unfair.” Steve admonishes on his way to the bedroom. His voice is back to normal, clearer than ever, and his face is a healthy color again. She hates him. He stole her health. “I was so sweet and nice to you. Return the favor, huh?”
What’s really unfair is that Robin’s entire plan was to make herself feel better by being comfortably bitchy to Steve and falling asleep against his shoulder, and now she can’t do that. She doesn’t know how Steve does it with these kids, how he’s available for them day and night. If any of them had called on him in the last three days he surely would’ve jumped out of bed and rushed to their side. Robin isn’t built for it. When she has the flu she needs to sleep or at least take it out on someone.
“I need to talk to you.” Max says when Robin has settled into bed and Steve has tossed extra covers over her. The kid is clearly trying to be casual, but her eyes are wide and she’s glancing at Steve like she wishes he would leave.
Fine. Robin isn’t built to withstand begging.
“Steve, get lost.” She sticks a thumb in the direction of the door. “Leave the orange juice.”
Steve hops up from the bed and obediently starts towards the door, halfheartedly muttering about being a slave. She’ll tone down the attitude once the Tylenol she’s washing down kicks in and starts working on her headache. And Max won’t receive any attitude because she’s apprehensively wringing her hands and hovering between the door and the bed. Robin sits up.
“I don’t have the plague, dude, you can sit.” She nods at the edge of the bed. Max abides but still sits on the absolute outer centimeter. She’ll probably fall off if Robin exhales too hard. “What’s up?”
“You like girls.” Max says it like she’s starting a longer spiel, but there’s nothing afterwards. She seems to be waiting for Robin to confirm, so Robin nods. “Right. And like, you told me that. And you barely even know me and the only other person you’ve told is Steve who’s your best friend, so, like, I guess I’m just wondering why?”
“Why I told you?” Robin considers it. “Well it sorta just came up. We found Tammy’s card. You asked who she was.”
“That’s all?” Max asks, wide eyes searching. She might be on the very edge of the bed but she’s leaning forward, hands still wrung, shoulder tensed. She’s waiting to have a theory confirmed, Robin realizes. She’s desperate.
“Maybe,” Robin says lightly, “I thought you’d understand.”
It’s like flipping a switch. Robin always sits at dinner with her parents, watches them laugh and chat and ask about her day at work and in the back of her mind is always the terrifying thought that saying one thing could change all of that. Being a lesbian means she has a superpower, just like that girl at the mall. The power to control the weather. From sunny skies to stormy seas and all she has to do is say three simple words:
“I like girls.” Max whispers, hands unwringing and shoulders untensing. This is the first ever time Robin has used her powers, and it actually had an unintended effect. From stormy seas to sunny skies. Max smiles and says, “You told me because you knew that I like girls. You could tell.”
“And how do you feel about boys?” Robin asks. The kid knew the word bisexual somehow.
“I don’t...I don’t think I like them as much. I mean I do like Lucas. He’s my favorite person to hang out with and he’s the only one out of the whole party who can understand...certain things. But I don’t think I like him the way Mike likes El. Or the way Dustin likes Suzie.”
“That’s okay.” Robin promises. “It’s normal to get confused. I mean, you grow up being told that everything is one way.”
“Exactly! Everyone acts like if you like hanging out with a guy then you must be in love with him or something.”
“Right, when really it’s just friendship. It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong by dating him. It’s just confusing.”
Max nods eagerly. The only other time anyone’s looked at Robin with this much trust and openness and unrestrained admiration is when she was cracking the Russian code with Dustin. Maybe that’s why Steve likes these kids so goddamn much. They make him feel like Jesus Christ.
“Everything is confusing.” Max decides. Robin laughs and tries unsuccessfully to keep it from turning into a cough. “Shit, sorry. I shouldn’t bug you. Especially while you’re all, y’know,”
Max gestures at all of her. Robin rolls her eyes and finishes,
“You said it, not me.”
“It’s fine, squirt. When I was your age and I figured it out I didn’t have, like, anyone to tell.” Robin stops and considers the urgency that she’s felt in the last few days, ever since Max was staring at that display. This is why she was doing it. Unbeknownst to Robin herself, her subconscious wanted to right the wrongs that a thirteen-year-old lesbian had felt when it was 1981 and Robin’s Wonder Woman was American Graffiti. She wants to be for Max what no one ever was for her. So she extends an arm and pats the space on the bed next to her. “Come here. If you’re brave enough, anyways.”
Max inches forward until she’s beside Robin. She’s still a little stiff, a little awkward. Her shoulder is pressed firmly to Robin’s. She’s there.
Steve knocks before he enters ten minutes later. He eyes Max, who’s gradually leaned into Robin’s side just so, with a knowing grin as he distributes one bowl of soup and two glasses of orange juice. He takes his spot at Robin’s other side and she demonstrates to Max exactly how to lean into someone (Steve wore his softest hoodie today, coincidentally or not, and her cheek is marvelously cushioned) which Max watches but doesn’t mirror until almost an hour into American Graffiti.
“Oh, Cindy.” Steve hums wistfully while she hops onto the hood of a Thunderbird. “I’ll never get tired of you.”
“Back off, man.” Robin elbows him. “I have first dibs. You had your chance to pick her for ultimate celebrity crush and you went with Farrah Fawcett.”
“I have a lot of room in my heart, Rob.”
“He’s jealous because he knows Cindy beats Farrah and I got first pick.” Robin informs Max, who nods against her shoulder.
“Cindy is better.”
“Oh, whatever.” Steve sighs. “Keep that up, Speed Racer, and I won’t be handling you and the others when you’re all infected with the plague.”
Max reaches across Robin to shove him and he shoves back, gently, and she’s between two people she didn’t even know when she was thirteen-years-old, didn’t even know three months ago, and she loves it. It’s nothing she would’ve dared to even hope for when she was Max’s age.
On screen, Cindy Williams winks at the camera. Robin has seen this part a thousand times, but this is the first time it doesn’t hurt. Not even a little bit.