Disclaimer: WHR tain't mine.
Michael. Robin. Cans of coffee and star-shaped candies. There's always something bitter in the sweet.
Written on a whim after watching Episode 9. All the snacks mentioned are real, even the ice cream. I really wish I was joking about the ice cream. Comments and crit are sugary love.
Sometimes, she brings him food.
Rigatoni tossed in olive oil and fresh, chopped herbs "from Touko-san's balcony", she says. Potato gnocchi, lumpy and hand-kneaded, in butter and basil pesto. Wedges of fresh foccaccia, golden and dotted with cherry tomatoes.
He half-complains, once, jokingly, that she never makes anything with meat. Her face takes on that odd, thoughtful cast, like when someone says a Japanese word she doesn't quite understand and she has to ask them to repeat it.
"I'm sorry," she says, presently. "We never ate much meat at the convent, so I'm not very good at cooking it."
"It's fine," he mumbles, swivelling his chair back and finding his screen the most fascinating thing in the world. The next day, she brings him fettuccini with slices of lemon chicken carefully arranged on the side.
She gives the food to him unobtrusively, and he never stops to question it, or to be more than grateful; he breaks out into a sweat just thinking of the merciless teasing he'd undergo if anyone else knew. Instead, she leaves the containers in the office fridge for him to find and to eat when everyone else has gone home for the day, during those still hours when he tells himself that he has always preferred being alone.
In exchange, he shares his snacks with her, making it his job to introduce her to the full range of Japanese packaged cuisine. He likes seeing her brows arch with puzzlement or amusement or complete confusion as she silently reads the labels to herself. He starts off easy on her with girly things he thinks will suit a foreigner's taste: like sakura mochi and castella cakes and handfuls of brightly-coloured, star-shaped konpeitou. Then he ups the ante with strips of flavoured chewing kelp, sweet pickled plums, sticks of squid jerky, watermelon and salt Kit Kats, octopus dumpling-flavoured potato chips. She is always game for it, always tests the snacks with an air of deep and utter gravity. If it weren't for those oddly light-filled green eyes, and the strands of hair that fall into that sweet, childish face, narrow but not yet sharpened into complete adulthood, that look of hers would remind him of Amon. Best of all is when she finds something she actually likes - the Amon Look falls away to be replaced by an open smile, and she looks no more than fifteen.
She tries to describe for him her favourite dessert, gelato. "Like ice cream?" he asks. "No, not like ice cream," she said. "It's… smoother, in a way, and not as heavy, not as fatty. Icier, cleaner. And the lemon gelato - it's so light and cool and tart, it bursts on your tongue. I can't find anything like it here."
"We have ice cream here," he said and then, just to be cruel and a little teasing, "Ox tongue ice cream."
He lives to see those green eyes widen. "Michael-san, you're pulling my leg."
"Just Google it," he says, before a crabby Dojima calls him over to fix her internet, so she can keep shopping for Jimmy Choos online.
Sometimes they drink coffee together quietly while munching on snacks. He builds small pyramids out of coffee cans, and she always takes her black. Perched on the edge of her chair and observing the office around her, she suits her name: a baby bird, just stumbling out of the nest. Her dark, heavy skirts spread around her like wings.
Sometimes when she looks at him with those wide, unblinking eyes, he's unsure if her lack of canniness about the world is due to her being from Italy, or from a convent, or if that's just Robin herself. Michael himself almost drowns in the oceans of information that he wades through day in and day out, but Robin doesn't - she sees things so cleanly and clearly. It's an elegant gift. She cuts through swathes of irrelevant information and somehow pierces the heart of the matter. Amon has a knack for it, too, for coming at things from underneath, from an oddly twisty angle.
Michael is never there, in person, when they do their thing, but he's always hooked up to the audio feed and sometimes the video as well, and he reads their reports after. He marvels at how little is actually said in the reports that get fed into the database. They never mention how Sakaki collapsed in a train station terminal, clutching his head and almost screaming, how Robin held him in her arms, saying quietly over and over, It's okay. It's okay, until the demons were driven out. They never talk about Robin's quiet obsession with a dead woman she met once in a storm, driven to the point where she dragged Amon out by the elbow to go visit the place where she died.
"She was kind to me," Robin explained once, much later. "She gave me her umbrella, during a storm."
Small things touch Robin deeply - when you get a cup of coffee for her, when you collate a years' worth of data for her, when you replace the squeaky wheel on her rolling chair because the sound is driving you nuts, when you organize a training ground for her pyrotechnics and run the scans on her practice. She says Thank you and he finds it odd; it's just a part of his job, just a part of his punishment, just a part of his day-to-day, as everyone else in the office knows and accepts and automatically ceases to think about it. It's not really anything.
But she still says thank you. And she still brings him food.
That food becomes one more link to the outside world. Most of the time, he tells himself, he doesn't miss it. It is impossible to be confined when the whole world is at your fingertips, available in a few strokes of the keyboard. Even before STN-J, he had lived in a six-tatami, one-room apartment with his computer as his only company, living with the aid of grocery deliveries and anything he could order online, which was everything. He had sometimes forgotten to emerge for weeks or even months. While his body stayed in place, he himself roamed everywhere. He had a million satellite eyes, and every digital door fell open to his touch.
Then Robin would mention things like the park she walked through on her way to church, and the way it had looked in a Witch-girl's painting. Or the small European grocery where she managed to find ingredients for her favourite dishes, and the way the owner smiled in his crinkled red-and-white apron. And he would be forced to remember that there was a physical world out there, one that could be touched and felt and seen with the body. It made him feel strange, to remember things like that, like when Robin hovered by his shoulder, her breath warm and steady as it fell upon his neck, or when she turned and he was struck by the slenderness of her waist, at how breakable it was, or when he caught himself imagining how pale her skin would be underneath all those funereal layers.
He was glad Dojima couldn't see his face when fragments of these thoughts came to him. Sakaki never noticed because he was too busy trying to get Dojima to notice him, but sometimes Karasuma looked at him with something like sympathy tucked away quietly in the corner of her eyes. His can pyramid almost toppled once, and she caught the top one - one that Robin had bought for him - and her eyes widened and then softened, and she placed the can back on the table very carefully in front of him and walked away without saying a word.
Once when Robin stumbled on the edge of her long dress, she steadied herself by clutching his shoulder and he allowed himself one moment to revel in the feel of her fingers gripping him through the weave of his shirt, his eyes half-closed at the warm, brief contact. When he came back to himself and Robin had let go, he saw Amon watching him. His face was unreadable but Michael could feel a sort of pressure suddenly making the air heavier, as if a storm was building. Amon strode away, the edges of his dark coat flapping as if he was some vigilante superhero stalking through the night. Robin's eyes followed Amon, as they always did.
One night long after this, it was late at the office and only Amon was there. He kept the weirdest hours, sometimes sleeping overnight in the office or coming in super early or leaving inexplicably halfway through the day; as much as the middle management huffed and puffed, he was still the best. Amon was just walking out when he stopped right behind Michael's desk. A single hand entered Michael's vision and plucked the maroon ribbon that had pooled into a little pile next to his left hand speaker.
"What's this?" Amon asked.
"Robin's," Michael said, his mouth suddenly feeling dry, the words on the screen in front of him becoming meaningless. "Her hair was unravelling, so she pulled it out. She was in a hurry getting home, and she left it here."
There was something just… odd about seeing that small maroon ribbon wrapped so intimately around the knuckles of Amon's long, pale fingers. They were usually gloved, and usually holding a gun. He wondered, distantly, if Amon ever thought of the far off day when Robin would cease to a be an old soul in a child's body, and become a woman. And if her eyes would still follow him then.
"You can't have her, you know," Amon said, finally. Michael couldn't tell if this was a warning or a fact or if the difference even mattered.
"We're friends," Michael mumbled, mortified. "It has nothing to do with having."
Amon nodded, looking uncharacteristically thoughtful, as opposed to carve out of granite. And then he tucked the ribbon, still wrapped around his hand, into his pocket, and began to walk out.
"H-hey!" Michael said, a little indignantly. He did not squawk. "You can't have that either!"
Amon didn't even stop walking.
"I'll give it back to her tomorrow," Amon said. And then he added over his shoulder, his voice so deadpan that Michael couldn't tell if he was being serious or ironic or what, "It has nothing to do with having."
"It has something to do with wanting, though," Michael said - but quietly, and only to himself, because Amon was already in the elevator, going, going, gone.
The next morning, Robin and Amon walked out of the elevator together. Amon's face had gone back to being bored and inscrutable. A single maroon ribbon dripped from Robin's right hand, forgotten, and she looked younger than Michael had ever seen her. He didn't know if it was because of the cinnamon-coloured hair that was loosely framing her face for once, instead of tied up, or because of the dazed, open look on her face when she stared at Amon's back.
"Coffee," Michael said, handing her a mug when she dropped into her seat, and her eyes finally focussed on him.
"Oh," she said, as if surprised to see him there. Her voice, always soft, was also husky with sleep so early in the morning. "Michael-san. Good morning."
His fingers itched to put her hair back into its tails, if only so that she would stop looking at the ribbons still in her hand with that absurdly tender expression.
"The chicken," he said. "It was really good. "
Her face relaxed, and she began to look more like herself. "Oh, I'm glad," she said. "It's been a while since I last made that."
"There's a kitchenette in one of the lower levels here," he said, surprising himself with his own boldness, not even caring anymore if the whole office heard, and pitching his voice slightly louder so that one person especially would. "I'll cook for you sometime."
She smiled and she was so close to being 100% percent Robin again. "I'd like that." Then she shook her head, that smile still lurking around her mouth. He found himself watching the faint depression on her upper lip, as if someone pressed the tip of their finger there when she was born. Her mouth made her different from anyone else. Among other things. "Oh, and I Googled the ox tongue ice cream. Japan gets stranger and stranger all the time."
That morning, instead of the usual canned coffee from the vending machine, he poured himself a cup from the fresh pot he'd made. His hand hovered over the sugar, over the creamer, just for a moment - and he decided, for the first time, to drink it black.
Even at its bitterest, he found it strangely sweet.