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something broke in me and i wanted to go home (to be where you are)

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November, 1984

Lucas grew up in a house filled to the brim with love and affection. A house with a father who made time to play with him and his sister and taught the two with patience and pride on their accomplishments, a mother who hung her kids’ photos and drawings on the fridge and made breakfasts the way they liked them, a sister who threw mean jabs at him as often as she looked out for him. It was a home built on the legs of gentleness and adoration, and so at his core, Lucas grew from the seeds planted on that soil. A boy who cared and sought to protect, who was brave enough to love deeply his family and his friends.

A boy who watched his parents and the way they moved around each other. With tender smiles, roaring laughs, understanding looks, a ground of affection beneath their daily morning bickering, absentminded touches that felt like second nature, and i love you’s exchanged everyday like a folk song; repeatedly, a rhyme so familiar, but not once did it get old. Lucas wasn’t sure it ever could. Not once did the words lose its fervency, as if each time they were uttered, the mantra grew stronger. It was as much a brick layered foundation as it was a warm blanket on a snowy day.

Lucas watched and wondered to himself, when would he experience this kind of love, and who he would be so besotted with, as much as his father was with his mother. But he was in no rush. He was still young, still a kid. He was in no rush for that sort of love; he knew the beauty of familial love and what he had for his friends. The right person will come, but in the meantime, Lucas had others filling enough places in his heart.

He was in no rush, but with that being said, he wasn’t prepared, either. He wasn’t prepared for the mysterious alias tearing through the ranks of arcade, nor was he for the girl behind it. A round faced, snarky girl, with long hair so red, that upon seeing her– really seeing her, Lucas thought of her as the sort of girl to walk into a forest fire, to take away all its rage off the tree lines, and walk away with all the fire around her frame. She was still burning, but what once was a forest fire to be looked at in terror, Max Mayfield was to be looked at with adoration.

Lucas Sinclair wasn’t prepared for a girl so fearless, headstrong, intelligent, yet so compassionate and so utterly desperate to be good, to land in Hawkins and swoop him off his feet. Knock him off balance. Fill his head with fog. Electrify him, as Dustin said. Max Mayfield was a magnet, and he was helpless to be pulled into her circle like gravity.

They were on top of a bus in the middle of a junkyard, and Max Mayfield was crying. Lucas couldn’t understand it, how family could be so cruel to one of their own. He knew people were always cruel, always so ready to hurt others for the sake of it, but family weren’t supposed to do that. Family weren’t supposed to make you feel like you were broken and wrong.

So Lucas did what he could; he talked, let compassion lead his heart, and honesty spilled out as easy as it was for him to fall into companionship with Max Mayfield.

A look of disbelief, a smile, then, a laugh.

“I like talking with you, Madmax,” he said, and none of his words had been a lie that night.

She gave him a smile, so honest and carefree, unlike any he’d seen her put out, unlike any he’d ever received from anyone.

“I like talking with you, too, stalker.”

He’d read the expression somewhere; a heart skipping its beat. He never knew how to quite imagine it, until that moment, when he felt it. He didn’t know warmth would swarm his stomach and his entire body afterwards, he didn’t remember ever reading it. Then again, Max Mayfield was fire itself, so how was the rest of the world, all the writers and the poets, to know how warm it felt to earn her smile?

Lucas felt his own smile creeping, and suddenly, he remembered a conversation between him and his father over a bouquet of roses. A gift for his parents’ anniversary. He’d asked his father, how did you know Mom was going to be the person you were gonna marry?

He never forgot the fond smile on his father’s face, watching his mother walk down the stairs. He leaned down slightly, and said, I spent a night with your mother, and I felt like I found my matching puzzle piece. I looked at her smile, and I was a goner. I just knew it. He paused, like he was remembering, and then he added, it’s not everyday you find someone you feel so connected to.

All his life, Lucas wasn’t sure what ‘just knowing it’ felt like, but there was something and Max’s smile that made him feel like he knew everything.

But he knew that really, he knew nothing. He was still so young. The three words flashed, but he was young and the night was young and the string tying them was, too. So he simply smiled, and waited for the next sign of danger.

===

May, 1985

“Am I doing good?” he asked nervously, hands outstretched as a means for balance. His eyes were supposed to be on the road, on his feet, on the skateboard, but they weren’t. They were on Max.

She giggled, one hand covering her mouth while the other was on her hip. Lately, she’d been shedding her more tomboy-ish style for more colourful wears. He reckoned it was for the summer. He reckoned it made no difference; she was beautiful no matter what. He only cared that she seemed more confident and comfortable in Hawkins as time passed, and that to him, Hawkins felt more like home than ever with her in it.

“I feel pretty good about this, by the way,” he added, even though he wasn’t, and he knew he didn’t look like he was doing so good. But he knew it would make her laugh, and that was always a good thing. He vaguely remembered his dad telling him about keeping his mother happy, smiling, with silly jokes, and how it seemed to work. It was working for him, too.

“You’re on a skateboard, stalker, not a tightrope,” she joked, and there was no heat to it. Her hands found his, and he halted on the skateboard. “Relax, okay?”

And to his credits, he did try to relax. He tried to follow her instructions and demonstrations, but his feet was apparently not coordinated enough for skateboarding. It wasn’t long until he attempted a trick that sent him falling, his knees scraping the concrete road.

He laughed as he sat up, but Max ran to him quickly, down on her knees with a panicked look on her face. “Shit! I’m so sorry, are you okay?”

But he was still laughing, if only softer this time, not even minding the tiny bit of blood trickling from his wound. She furrowed her eyebrows, “You didn’t hit your head, did you?”

Lucas snorted, sliding himself closer to her, pressing his forehead to the side of her arm. Only then did he hear the telltale sign of laughter from her, and he pulled away.

“I’m okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m a big boy,” he joked, a wince finding its way to the corner of his eyes.

Max snorted, rolling her eyes with a smile. She did that a lot around him, he noticed. “Yeah, alright, big boy.” She stood up, pulling him up gently as she did. She threw a glance at his house, where they were hanging out for the day, “You’re such a klutz. Lets get your legs fixed up.”

Soon, they were on the garage, a med-kit box and Max’s skateboard next to them. Max was quiet as she cleaned his wound, pausing every little while to check for his reaction, wincing and apologizing awkwardly. He mumbled it’s okay or don’t worry, I’m fine here and there, and sat still as she bandaged his particularly bad knee. He wasn’t sure he even needed a bandage, but he let her do it, anyway. He stared at the skateboard, a small smile playing on his mouth, and he could feel her eyes on him, and then the board.

He’d given it to her, an identical but new skateboard, after hers was broken. He saw the duct tape, and thought that couldn’t be safe in the long run. After Max made a throwaway confession that Billy had broken it as a ‘punishment,’ Lucas was livid enough to immediately start looking for where to buy skateboards. It was a stroke of luck to find one identical to her old one, but seeing as she seemed to like it, he immediately chose that one. Anyone would think it was the same board, if they didn’t turn it around to see the silly message he left; keep on zooming, madmax, complete with a smiley face. The board was upturned, then, and he could see it, written in black sharpie.

“Why’d you even want to learn to skate? Didn’t see you as the kind of guy who’d like it.” she asked, putting back all the med-kit tools in the box.

Once she was seated next to him, he shrugged, “Because it’s something you like.”

And it was the simple truth; he wanted to get to know her in any way he could, he wanted to learn all the things she loved and maybe learn to love them, too. He wanted her to find common grounds and likeness in him. He wanted her to know he cared about her and what she cared about. It was as simple as that, as natural as breathing for Lucas, but it seemed to take her by surprise. Like the act was a kindness too far fetched rather than what someone simply did when they cared about someone else. There was always a faint sadness in these moments; how affection and efforts in relationships were something new for Max. How being heard had always been unheard of for her. It only made him want to show her more and more, how much he meant it. All of it.

Her features softened in a flash, and she smiled. It still knocked him off his feet. It still made him dizzy. She glanced at the board, then, at his writing. The smile twitched into a wider one.

She got up then, and though he was puzzled, he let her. She seemed to rummage around the garage, looking for something, until she exclaimed, there you are! Then, she was skipping back to Lucas, sitting back down next to him. A sharpie was in her hand. She took the cap off, and took the newly bandaged knee, softly writing something on it.

Eventually, he could make up the words, though tiny and written in her messy scrawls; Careful next time, stalker.

He couldn’t hide his smile, as he looked up to her, finding his expression mirrored. Then, her smile turned slightly sheepish, if not a little mischievous. She went back with the sharpie, and he could feel the shape she made before he even saw it.

A heart, next to stalker, and just slightly above it.

“Better?”

Erica told him that his crush on Max– though he insisted it wasn’t a crush because she was literally his girlfriend– was embarrassing. That he always turned into a bigger idiot and an embarrassing dork around her. She told him he was, a ‘hopeless romantic,’ whatever that even meant. Then, she called him a ‘lovesick fool.’ That was slightly more understandable to him. Because lately, love, both the word and the abstract concept of it, had been floating around his head more often in regards to Max.

He’d only known her for six months, and yet, the three words had its burst here and there.

He’d never said it, and he didn’t say it then, because he didn’t really know if he would mean it, and if he ever said it to anyone, to Max especially, he wanted it to be meaningful. Though, he didn’t worry about it much. He had a sneaking suspicion that sooner or later, he would know for sure. He would mean it.

“Definitely better.”

She grinned, putting the marker away. Then, her eyes caught sight of the basketball peeking from a cardboard box.

“Hey, you play basketball?”

“A little. Yeah. I guess I do.”

“I’ve always wanted to learn,” she started, standing up, “Think you can teach me?”

Lucas was beginning to think that the certainty he was waiting for would come sooner than later.

===

September, 1985

Lucas woke up to the rustles of blankets, followed by gasps and ragged breathing. He could see that it was still dark, save for the blinding static on the TV Mike had forgotten to turn off. He could see that Max was no longer lying next to him, but sitting up and trying to calm her nerves. He was up in a flash, a hand pressed on her back, rubbing circles as he called out her name.

“Max? Max, it’s okay. You’re okay. It was just a dream. I’m here. You’re okay,” he whispered, pulling her closer to him.

She was so cold, but she knew the trembling wasn’t from the temperature. He knew she wasn’t just feeling sick, either. He’d known she was having trouble with sleeping, plagued with nightmares, the moment he saw her at school with dark bags underneath her eyes and unkempt hair. He’d known the battle of Starcourt took more of a toll on her than she liked to admit. He knew so much and he knew so little; he knew nothing about how to help her.

“It’s alright, you’re alright. You’re here. I’m here,” he added, and waited until her sharp breaths and hiccups calmed into a smooth flow. Her side was pressed against his chest, and his hand held her by the shoulder, keeping her there; safe and protected.

He looked around to see the other two remaining party members in the Wheeler’s basement. Mike and Dustin were still fast asleep after their movie night, with Mike’s head dangling off the couch and Dustin’s foot sticking up on Mike’s chest. The two were oblivious to Max’s nightly terror, and he supposed it was better this way. Max would hate for them to see her that way. Lucas felt that, deep down, she hated that he saw her in that moment, but she was still letting him see, and that was something for the hard shelled Max Mayfield.

All at once, she tensed, her frame growing rigid in his hold. Like she finally realized where she was; in his arms, and felt she had to get away. He knew it wasn’t him, he knew it was just the way Max was processing, and yet a pang hit him in the chest. He wasn’t sure if it was pure hurt or the helplessness gnawing at him, he wasn’t sure it mattered if the pain was all the same. He was so used to the fire in her, so used to the warmth, he wasn’t prepared for her to grow colder and colder.

“I’m sorry,” she said, but she was already pushing herself to her feet before he could respond, “I’m gonna grab a glass of water.”

She left, and he watched her disappear from the staircase before he followed. He knew she needed some space, but he also knew that she shouldn’t be alone.

When Lucas reached the kitchen, Max was leaning against the counter, a half empty glass of water in her hand. She looked like she’d just washed her face, an attempt to look and feel alive, awake, away from the nightmare. Upon seeing him, her face fixed into one of surprise, before a frown took over, “You should go back to sleep.”

He shrugged, and walked over towards where she was standing, until he saw the look on her face. He saw it, then, clearer than ever, the wall she was building. He used to be able to jump over it, climb it, break a brick or two to reach her, but something was different that night. All the bricks, all the height, and suddenly he couldn’t fix his hands to tear it apart anymore, though he wanted to.

He wanted her to tear it apart herself. He didn’t know how to make her realize she didn’t need this wall.

“Do you want to tell me what it was about this time?” he asked, sure that she didn’t want to.

She shook her head, and he simply nodded. Somehow, he knew it was about Billy. It was always about Billy. Everything hellish about her life had all centered around him, even after he was put to grave.

The name itself, those vile four syllables of Billy Hargrove, had always made him shiver. All the violence, all the rage, all the pain he spouted in others, that was the legacy he left. In Hawkins. In Max. In him. That, he could never forget nor forgive. Billy’s death never rid him of all that he did, only solidified that he lived and died as a monster, and Lucas hated him. And he knew that Max did, too. He knew that behind her tears, beneath all the nightmares, hidden by the frowns, were not of grief and mourning. He knew that it wasn’t Billy as much as it was herself, and how much blame she put on herself for every bad thing going on in her life.

He wanted to tell her it was okay. That she didn’t have to blame herself. That she didn’t have to feel a bone deep guilt over her relief of a monster’s death, just because they shared a roof. He didn’t know how.

“Max, talk to me, please,” it was the first time he’d ever pleaded. He hadn’t even realized it until it slipped out of his mouth.

She didn’t budge, until she turned away. “There’s nothing to talk about. I’m fine. It was just a stupid dream. Go back to sleep, Lucas.”

Deflecting. Pushing him away. She always did that, he noticed. Like the weight of her words, her problems, would be too much. Like they would be burdens rather than something he was offering his hand to carry with her, so she wouldn’t have to be alone. So he wouldn’t have to be, either. There were so many things he wanted to say, so many words that might’ve helped her, but it all died in his throat as she said, “Please, just leave me alone. I want to be alone.”

She knew that he would give her anything she wanted.

He wanted to give her something, too. A declaration. A confession. A promise. Three words. To let her know he would always be there. To let her know he cared. To let her know he wasn’t going anywhere. I love you, he wanted to say. He knew it was true, then. He’d known for a while, really. I love you. You’re not alone. Not ever, not when I’m here. Please don’t shut me out. Please talk to me.

No further words were exchanged that night. She didn’t look at him, not even as he was walking away.

===

February, 1986

They hadn’t talked in days. It was happening more and more frequently. She would disappear– and she was good at it, when she didn’t want to be found– and Lucas would only get two or three words out of her before the cycle began again. He knew she was dealing with a lot; Billy, her mom and her stepdad, talks of moving out. It was a lot for anyone, but especially when they were alone. And Max was alone. Max wanted to be alone. Lucas couldn’t seem to break down her barrier.

He knew he hadn’t been around as much, either. Both to her and the others. High School started and for once, he wanted things to be… better. He’d never grown up wishing to be anything but himself, and he wasn’t wishing to completely turn into someone else, either, but for once, he wanted a change. No more getting bullied, no more getting alienated, no more of being a ‘freak.’ He saw the chance in the basketball team, and he took it. And so began the new life of Lucas Sinclair, but Max Mayfield had always been a stark exception; an anchor to the old days. An anchor he never wanted to cut away.

She seemed to dislike him for the new change, trying to fit in with people who didn’t care for him, but in her eyes, there was a glimpse of understanding. It was more than Dustin and Mike were willing to give him.

They hadn’t talked in days, and they were currently sitting together during detention in a Monday. He didn’t know what she did, but he admitted he was stupid for joining the basketball jocks trying to aim their food in each other’s plates during lunch, creating a ‘quiet’ food fight. Max looked restless, like she hadn’t had a good nights sleep in days, weeks even. Her hair was a mess, and she threw on the same clothes she wore the past two days. Her feet bounced quickly beneath her desk, soft thuds as she hit her knees on the downwards surface. One hand was writing the essay, and the other was propping her chin, but something was wrong. She was biting her fingernails, so harsh it must’ve been painful.

He called her name softly, but she didn’t seem to hear. If she did, it only made her more restless. Once more, and still, no response.

Slowly, he reached for her arm, pulling it away, “Max, enough.”

Only then did she look at him, like she only noticed him then. Except that wasn’t true, because he could feel her glances during the early hour of the detention. Then, her eyes dropped to his hand, still holding her arm, making sure it was far enough away to stop her from hurting herself.

“Let go,” she said firmly, and he did, but he never let her out of his sight. Damn the stupid essay he was supposed to be making.

It was then that he noticed something odd. For the past months, he’d never seen Max without her walkman. It was almost an extension of her. He knew it was a comfort thing, and he respected that, even though a part of him hurt with the knowledge that it was just another means for her to shut out the world. To shut out her friends. To shut him out. They’d called it quits since the previous year, but nothing hurt more than the perpetual loss of Max and every last ghost of their friendship.

Still, he asked, “Where’s your walkman”

“They took it. Said it’s too much of a distraction, and I can have it back by the end of the week. It’s bullshit.”

She frowned, and so did he.

“It’s not a distraction,” she added, and she sounded like she wanted to cry, but he knew she wasn’t going to. She would never cry in public. She would never cry over a cassette player in front of him.

He also knew that it genuinely upset her. It was the one thing that helped her get through her days. It wasn’t distraction, it was the opposite. It was a lifeline she was hanging onto.

“I know it’s not,” he said softly, even as she broke the tip of her pencil at the speed and force in which she was writing. He gave her his pencil, and the two settled back into silence. She no longer bit her nails.

At the end of detention, she stood up before he did, and she stopped to look at him. Really looked at him, like he was just Lucas Sinclair and not another person she needed to get away from, in order to deal with her own shit. For a moment, Lucas felt like the same lovestruck boy, earning Max Mayfield’s smile for the first time. For a moment, he felt that same jolt again. The moment stretched a little too long, and under her gaze, ocean blue boring deep into his brown eyes, Lucas realized that perhaps he had never stopped being that lovestruck boy. She still had that effect on him, of drawing his endless and unconditional affection, of feeling genuinely connected to someone, even after everything. Even after the last, final break up, and all the quiet, wordless days in between.

But then something changed as she looked down to his jacket. The Hawkins High basketball team jacket. The same team he worked so hard to make it in, the same team that never let him do anything but stay on the bench, the same team whose games Max never wanted to watch. She understood why, he knew it, he could see it, but she didn’t like it. She parted her lips, like she wanted to say so many things, things that mattered.

Instead, she said, “That jacket’s too big for you,” and then she was gone, and Lucas only watched.

The next day, Lucas pulled way too many strings and committed too many sneaky rule breaking to be considered careful, but he achieved his goal. He managed to snag Max’s walkman, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

He found her sitting alone after school, waiting for the bus. She didn’t look any better than she did the day before, but at least she had a change of clothes, and her hair was tied this time.

“Here. I got it back for you,” he thrusted the cassette player onto her hand.

The look of bewilderment mixed with joy was enough for a flicker of that warmth, or at least an imitation of it, to bloom in his chest. He couldn’t help smile as she fought not to.

“How?” she asked, already hooking it on the side of her waist.

“Sinclair’s magic,” he shrugged, saying it with a hint of smugness. She rolled her eyes faintly, and a small smile played on the side of her mouth.

A beat, and then, she looked up at him. The smile was still there, though beginning to fade.

“Thank you.”

He said nothing, but he offered her a smile, and it seemed enough. Immediately, she dug her bag and fished out a cassette. He could see its purple cover, and the name of the artist.

“You like Kate Bush?” he asked, watching her out the cassette in.

She nodded. “She’s my favourite.”

There was another silence as the song began playing, and she closed her eyes to listen to the music. For a brief second, she looked so tranquil, and Lucas would find comfort in it if he didn’t know that it was so temporary. He didn’t move an inch. Only kept his eyes on her.

Then, she opened her eyes, and looked at him– truly looked at him, the way only she ever did. “Why did you do this for me?”

I hate seeing you hurt. I hate seeing you sad. I hate seeing you restless. I want to do something good for you. He wanted to say. He never said. Never had the courage nor the time to. The three words hung around. He didn’t say those either.

The bus came, and Max drew her gaze away. Before she pushed past him, she offered a weak smile, the last one for a long while.

“Take care, Lucas.”

===

May, 1986

Lucas turned up the volume of the cassette player, letting the song take over the silence in the hospital room, drowning in the monotonous beeping of the machines. He looked to her, lying on the bed, and hoped to see something. Anything. He’d gone and brought all the music she loved to the hospital room, and even went with El to the store to see which new music she might like. Lately, the two had their focus centered around Max. For the past weeks, he’d been playing cassette after another, and waiting. Kate Bush was playing, then. He always went back to Kate Bush eventually. She’d brought her back once, logically, she could do it again. He knew all the lyrics to her song at this point. Absentmindedly, he would mumble the words or the tunes, and each time he caught himself, he would look at her. A faint hope of his voice carrying onto her, wherever she was.

It had been two months. She wasn’t showing any signs of waking up. Ms Mayfield had been having talks with the doctor about letting her pass. She said she was going to think it over. If it was up to Lucas, he didn’t ned to think it over. At least, not so quickly. He still stayed by her bedside everyday, spending at least an hour just talking or reading to her, waiting for any signs of movements from her. Sometimes Erica was there, or El was, but mostly he was alone. There had been no signs. Not even a single twitch. But he still believed, he had to believe, that she was still somewhere in there. Vecna had been defeated, the gates had been closed, and things were going back to normal. He had to have faith in her, even if no one else but himself and El did.

Watching her, so quiet and still, he was hit with the brutal thoughts he’d kept at bay. That he’d always loved her, and never once did his love falter. That she was the only person that ever really understood him, and as much as she was hiding, she had tried in her own ways to spare him pain. That he should’ve done more, so much more. That if he’d looked for her hard enough, he would’ve been able to help her, and that none of this would’ve happened to her. He sat next to her, and in the quiet, whispered new promises, of doing better, of never leaving, of always fighting for her.

He missed her. He missed her full smiles and bubbly laughter that made the world seem all the little brighter. He missed her burning red hair and the confident loudness and sarcasm, the forest fire in a girl he loved. He missed her earnest words and electrifying touches, that spoke of home and kept him on his toes at all times. He missed her. He missed her so much it was all he could do from finding the remains of Vecna, the monster of the underworld, to shake him awake and demand he brought Max Mayfield back.

Instead he sat on her bedside, reading The Talisman, or sometimes comics, just so she wouldn’t get bored, and on other days, he would simply talk. He would tell her about his day, what shenanigans Dustin was up to, the new painting Will was working on, Mike’s newest obscure obsession, Erica’s nerdy fact of the day, El’s latest baking adventures, and how much they all missed her. He would say so many things, how he was feeling, what he’d been doing to fill up his time– which was, not very interesting, between homework and helping around the house and staying with her. He would say everything except what he really wanted to say.

It would be so easy to say the words.

And it would amount to nothing.

He wanted to believe she was still there, that she was listening, but he didn’t know. He couldn’t know. Even if she did, she couldn’t say anything. She couldn’t look at him and tell him to piss off, or to let him down gently, or to say the words back. He would never know which.

Many years ago he’d made a vow, to only ever say the words if it would mean something, the way his parents do it. So he wouldn’t say it, not until she came back.

In the meantime, his hand reached for hers and squeezed, and hoped that one day, he would feel her fingers returning the gesture.

===

April, 1987

Once Max awoke, Lucas finally remembered how to breathe. Still, he knew that a long, tenuous process was ahead of them. True to his silent vows, he never faltered, never backed down, never once left. He stayed, put a foot down to support her in any way he could, and made sure she knew she wasn’t alone. Made sure she knew she was cared for and simultaneously not a burden. He was there as she regained control of her limbs, as she learned to walk, as she broke down and got up again, as she learned to run, and as she swapped her hospital gown for her old apparels and the squeaky clean white room for her own home. They talked, they cried, they held each other, and though Lucas hadn’t said the three words he’d been biting for the past year, he could live with it, so long as she was finally letting him in. So long as she was leaning on him again, and slowly, he found himself beginning to lean on her as well.

Because truth be told, he needed her just as much. He needed someone to see him, to understand him, to be honest with him, to be there. He needed her to be that someone. Most of all, however, he needed to know she was truly there, back and alive. He needed to know that he hadn’t imagined her waking up. He needed to know that he wasn’t losing her again, because he couldn’t. He wouldn’t survive it.

Then, one day, in the porch of her house, she looked at him with an inquisitive smile, “Do you still remember the plan we had? Movie Friday?”

He never forgot it. Not for a single day. He’d had dreams about it; the seats they would get, the caramel popcorn she loved so much, the random commentary she would throw in here and there, her smiles and laughter. He held on to it, and so, never for once did he forget.

“Of course I do.”

“I’ve put a long, long rain check on that one, haven’t I?” a flicker of sadness, of guilt, but they didn’t stick.

Lucas smiled, one of understanding and bittersweetness. “Well, weather’s been pretty rainy.”

“But not anymore.”

“No,” Lucas turned to her, breathing steadily, “Not anymore.”

“Are you free this Friday?”

She asked, and he could feel his mouth rising into the biggest smile he’d ever given anyone. A kind of smile he wasn’t giving to anyone but her.

“I’ll pick you up at seven.”

And he did pick her up at seven sharp. Not a minute before, not a minute after. She was already waiting on the porch, a grin on her face, a snuggly grey coat jacket draped over her shoulder. She looked more radiant than ever. She skipped towards him, and he held out an arm for her, just to be both gentlemanly and silly. It made her giggle, murmured something about him being a dork, so he must’ve been doing something right. Her movements were more at ease now, but he knew she still put effort into them. He knew the pain still came back at night and at random parts of the day. He knew it wasn’t always easy, but the light in her eyes was growing brighter by the day. Nothing could ever truly snuff it out, not this world or the one below. His path had never looked so bright and clear.

They bought tickets for Evil Dead II, along with a gigantic bucket of caramel and salty popcorn, and settled into the movie theatre. She made quips about how silly things in the movie were, he retorted with saying that it was a ‘true cinematic experience.’ They laughed, they screamed, hid behind each other’s shoulders, and threw popcorn at annoying teens who were overly loud they bothered everyone. Lucas watched her smile more than he did the movie, and thought that though he’d imagined this day for all of Max’s coma, none were as good as this. None had ever been so real and grounding.

The sheer reality of it all drove him to wrap an arm around her shoulders, to feel that she was there and no longer slipping away. She looked at him in surprise, but it melted into a smile, and she leaned onto him, head on his shoulder. Lucas never wanted the movie to end.

Then they were holed up in a diner booth, going for a quick meal. Her foot was playfully kicking his under the table, settling onto a tangle of limbs that felt like comfort. They were talking about the movie, still, mulling over the plot and the inconsistencies and the good. Despite her naturally critical lenses, he managed to coax out a confession that she did enjoy it, and it felt like victory. It felt like normalcy. It felt like they were just two kids on their first date. They weren’t, and yet they were at the same time, Lucas felt.

He braved himself, and asked the question he always wondered about, “When you were… did you ever hear me?”

“No,” she replied, frowning, and he’d expected that. Slowly, pulling her coat closer to her, she added, “What did you say to me?”

He smiled, shrugging. “A lot. I was there everyday. I read books and comics to you, too. The Talisman. You never finished it, so I continued where you left off. El helped me pick apart your favourite comics. She read to you, too, when she was still here.”

Leaning onto the table, she reached out a hand, but stopped before she touched him. Still, she smiled, “Tell me now what you told me then.”

He didn’t know where to start, so he thought of the things that would be funny. That would make her laugh.

“One time I told you about how I was helping Erica with her science project. She made a rocket, and she wouldn’t listen to me when i said something was wrong with it. When she tried to fly it, it ended up hitting me square in the stomach,” he was being generous with the description. In the hospital room, he told her about how he toppled to his knees and how Erica felt so bad she did his chores for five days.

“Oh, no…” she grimaced, but she was also holding back a laugh.

“It bruised really bad after,” he snorted, and then moved onto the next tale. “El and Mike dragged us to bake with them once. It was a disaster.”

They talked about all the things he told her then, chuckling and grinning over their milkshakes and old memories. He knew there was a sadness in her, for missing all of it. There was a sadness in him, too, to not have her in those sunlit moments. But the two paired sorrows held onto each other, to ease the loss from a gaping wound into a healing stitch of flesh and skin. That was just what they did for each other.

The night was growing older, and on the walk home, Lucas felt that they were, too. That the illusion of being normal kids on their first date had began to wane. They were never going to be just kids anymore, nor were they ever going to be normal. She died in his arms and he waited for months for her to come back. He was there as she stood proud again and she was there to tear apart the guilt on his shoulders. No one else would ever know the terror, the pain, the longing, the patience, nor the love of it all. No normal kids would.

Her arm was hooked around his, until his hand traveled down to her own, and entwined their fingers together. Her hands felt warm, this time. Her fingers squeezed his, and she wasn’t letting go.

“I told you that I missed you,” he said, and the two cam to a halt. His eyes locked onto hers, “I told you that every single day. I told you that life didn’t feel much like it without you around. I asked you to come back to me, because there was so many things to say and do that I, that we, never did. I told you that I needed you. I still do.”

She looked at him like she couldn’t believe it. Like she still couldn’t comprehend that he meant every single word. So he continued.

“And now, I’m asking you to stay. To never leave me again. Not like that. Please,” he held her hand tighter, determining his tears not to fall away. He could still remember the way she looked in his arms that night, still could feel her growing rigid. Losing her felt like death itself had murdered him. “Don’t ever go away. I can’t lose you again.”

He could see the moment she believed him, how tears began to form around her eyes. She stepped closer, and shook her head, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You better not be,” he blurted out, and the two chuckled.

She looked so present, so alive, with her eyes on him, and once again, the three words flashed in his head. They didn’t leave. They grew clearer, bolder, bigger, like they were trying to break out of his mind. Like they were forcing themselves down to his vocal chord so he could say it.

He thought about how he regretted never telling her as she died in his arms. He thought about how he waited for months, telling himself over and over again that she was still there and she would come back to him, and that he would finally tell her when she did.

She could tell him to piss off, then. Or let him down gently. Or say the words back to him. He would live with any of them; he just wanted her to hear it.

Trailing his free hand upwards, his palm landed on her cheek, gently cupping it. She didn’t draw away.

“There’s something else. Something I’ve always wanted to say, but I never did.”

A beat. Then, she asked, “What is it, Sinclair?”

He let out a breath, and opened his mouth, setting the words free before they gnawed him any further.

“I love you. I always have. I never stopped.”

In an instant, her eyes widened, lips parted, and she looked at him like he’d said something so terrible and yet so wonderful. He could see the battle behind her eyes, of believing or rejecting, of deserving or being a fraud. He could see the moment she believed that it was true and deserved as he caressed her cheekbone, and stared so deep into her eyes, he felt like the only thing she saw was his own heart. Beating and bleeding with a space only reserved for her.

Then, she kissed him. His hands were on her face, her hands were on his face, and then around his neck, and his on her waist. She tasted like chocolate milkshake and strawberry chapstick, and she felt like home. She felt like love, akin to what his parents had, and yet so different. One of their very own. Lucas felt like he could burst, but he held himself on the ground, on Hawkins, holding the girl he loved.

When they pulled away, Max never let their foreheads part, until she pulled him into a tight embrace.

Under the moonlight, serenaded by the nightly crickets and gentle gust of wind, Max buried her face in the crook of Lucas’ neck, and said, “I love you, too, Stalker.”

In that moment, Lucas finally understood what his father meant. In that moment, Lucas just knew. He held her tighter, and he never let go.