“I left for two hours ,” Lucas protests, throwing his hands into the air.
From the hospital bed, Max gives him a grin—small, shy, but real. On either side of her, Robin and Eddie do their best to look innocent, despite the marker stains on their hands, the black ink that covers every inch of Max’s two casts.
Left leg, right arm. Green fiberglass wrapped around soft cotton padding, a stockinette holding bone and muscle in careful configuration. Lucas had watched those bones break, in that empty blue room, contorting and bending like snapped celery. He sees it, when he closes his eyes. The open-mouthed gasp, dark tears trailing down freckled cheeks. The tight squeeze of her good hand around his, afterwards. Despite it all, how grateful he’d been, to feel the rabbit-quick beat of her pulse under his fingers.
Lucas shakes the image from his head. He steps further into the room, reaches out to touch Max’s arm cast. Robin has doodled all over the plaster, flowers and spaceships and skateboards, snails, strawberries. Eddie’s still hunched over Max’s leg, putting the finishing touches on a dramatic battle sequence—the Party, in all their battle regalia, triumphing over a horde of what are either supposed to be demobats or pigeons. It’s kind of hard to tell, what with the thickness of the marker he’s using. Lucas traces the edge of a sword. “There’s no room left for me to sign,” he says, trying not to pout.
“Don’t pout,” Max says, tangling her free hand with his. Her face is flushed with laughter, hair half-tied in a messy braid (Robin’s work, ostensibly), and half-spilling around her shoulders, a sun-strand halo. “You can just—I don’t know, you can write over whatever Eddie’s doing.”
“ Hey .” Eddie draws a hand over his heart, eyes wide with mock offense. “I put my blood, sweat, and tears into drawing this masterpiece for you, Red.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Robin says, idly adding spots to a ladybug. “It’s, well. It’s a piece , for sure.”
Eddie’s eyes narrow. He chucks the cap of his marker in Robin’s direction, and she squawks in indignation when it lands squarely between her eyes. Their bickering flares up again, but the noise fades into static when Lucas looks at Max. She’s beautiful. She always is, even when she’s pushing him away, even when she’s scared out of her mind, even when she’s swallowed by puffy white bedsheets and IVs. Tired quirk of the lips, gaze warm when it settles on him. The hospital put her on some medicine, for the pain. He’s trying not to think about how much pain she would be in, otherwise—how much pain she’s going to be in, when they let her out of here.
Max’s mom has been by one time, in five days. He’s trying not to think about that, either.
“Alright, alright.” Eddie’s waving his hands in the air, clamoring to his feet. Apparently, he’s lost whatever argument he and Robin were having. “Let’s clear out, Buckley. Clearly my artistic prowess isn’t being properly appreciated here.” He winks at Lucas, then, which is just—unnecessary, really.
The two of them make their way out, probably to go meet up with Dustin and Steve and Nancy, still doing damage control with their families at the Wheeler house. They call out a chorus of goodbyes, which Lucas returns with a wave. And then it’s quiet. Not the bad kind of quiet—not hollowed-out, lonely. If he pays attention, Lucas can hear the chittering of squirrels under the hum of hospital machinery, the rustling of leaves as a gentle breeze picks up outside. Even closer, Max’s huffed laugh, the breath of fabric on fabric as she shifts around, trying to get comfortable.
Lucas sits down in the chair beside her bed. He’s still holding her hand, thumb tracing absentmindedly over the soft skin of her knuckles. His own knuckles are achy, bruised, but no worse off than that. The only thing Jason Carver had managed to break in that dead house was Max.
He’s in jail, now. El’s government friends made sure of it. Cleared Eddie’s name, too. But they didn’t make it in time to stop him from hurting Max, hurting Erica. And now he’s—somewhere, some place Lucas can’t see, can’t touch. Most of all, he’s trying not to think about that.
“Hey,” Max says, jostling Lucas’ hand, bringing his brain back online. Her brow is furrowed, concerned. “Are you okay?”
Lucas works the muscles in his mouth to form a smile, but he can tell that Max doesn’t believe it. “Yeah. Long as you’re okay, I’m okay.”
Max studies him, for a moment. Then her gaze softens—either she’s come to a conclusion, or she’s getting tired. “I’m here, if you want to talk,” she says. Her eyes blink slowly, like a cat’s.
The thing is, Lucas means it. As long as Max is alright, as long as Erica and Dustin and Will and Mike and El are alright, everything else—the nightmares, the bruises, the way his breath catches funny sometimes—it’s small potatoes. His swollen eye is healing. So is the rest of it. He just needs time.
“Can—” Max clears her throat, lips pursing in a frown. A tell-tale sign she’s about to ask him a favor, and is gearing herself up for it. He probably shouldn’t find it as cute as he does. “Can you read to me?”
Lucas smothers a grin. “Yeah, of course.” It feels good, warm in his chest, to have something to do. He pulls The Talisman from his backpack, flips to the last page they left off on. A couple nights ago, she’d confessed with red cheeks and closed eyes that something about his voice makes her feel safe. Lucas thinks it might be the best thing anyone has ever said to him, right after the way she gasped his name, when she first woke up.
“He opened his eyes,” Lucas reads, “and further words died in his throat. He forgot about the need to sick up that horrible parody of wine…”
Max’s eyes flutter shut, the lines on her face smoothing. Outside, the sun has just begun to set, painting Hawkins in shades of pink and purple. The wind blows through the trees, the heart monitor hums, and Lucas reads, until his throat is dry and hoarse. All the while, Max holds onto his hand.
“Alright, what next?”
“I kick you in your marbles?”
Lucas sighs, letting go of Erica, stepping back. “Take this seriously, please?”
Erica frowns at him. She’s the picture of every nerdy thing she used to make fun of him for—overalls over her Hellfire shirt, silver bracelets clinking together as she crosses her arms. She looks tiny. Lucas blinks and he sees her on the ground outside the Creel House, hands pinned behind her back, and feels so sick he has to close his eyes.
“I just don’t get why I have to do all this,” Erica says, the edge of a whine eking into her voice. “Like, it’s over, isn’t it? Even if Vecna isn’t totally wasted, there’s no cult-hunting hicks following me around anymore.”
Lucas opens his eyes to shoot her a sharp look. “Okay, first off, no body, no proof. Vecna is definitely still out there.” He watches her shift, gaze flickering towards the ceiling, like if she injects enough sass into her eyerolls, he won’t be able to tell how scared she is. God, he is the worst fucking brother in the world. “Second, even if Jason and Andy are in jail, there could be other crazy people who might—” Might associate you with me, with my friends. And want to hurt you.
Lucas doesn’t remember when Erica was born, but his mom has told him the story. The day they took her home from the hospital, he snuck out of his bed, and into her room, just to watch her sleep. He stayed there for hours, according to the footage on the baby monitor. Sitting over her, like he knew there was something from which she needed protecting.
He does remember being older, maybe seven or eight. The look in his mom’s eyes when she told him that he or Erica might have a harder time than some of the other kids. That they had to look out for each other. He remembers promising that he would always protect her. He remembers meaning it.
Stellar job he’s done of that, lately.
“Again,” he says, a little snappier than he means to be.
Erica sighs, turning around to re-assume the position of Person Being Grabbed From Behind. “Come at me,” she says, overdramatically resigned.
Lucas wraps his arms around her middle. “Okay, a bad guy grabs you like this. What do you do?”
“Move in close to loosen the hold,” Erica recites, miming along with the steps. “Bend to the side to create an opening. Elbow to the family jewels.” She ducks out from the loose hold he has around her, spreads her hands out. “Tah-dah.”
And it’s ridiculous, but all of a sudden, Lucas feels like crying. Because she’s wearing her stupid Hellfire shirt, and all he can think of is the look on Gareth’s face as the basketball team confronted him, the way Jason Carver’s fist had flexed around the black and white fabric as he shoved Gareth into the ground. The way his mind had blanked, right before he spat out Erica’s name as an excuse. Lucas has a lot of shit that he regrets, but that—that might be the worst thing he's done in his entire life.
Erica’s eyes are wide, bugged-out, and Lucas realizes he’s just been standing there, silent. “Lucas?” she asks, voice small, and he knows she’s thinking of Nancy Wheeler, floating towards them upside down. Milky-white gaze and a slack mouth.
“Sorry,” he says, too loud, shaking his head. “Sorry, I’m—”
He doesn’t get to finish his apology. Erica thuds into him, a solid weight, wraps deceptively strong arms around him in a hug that should not be as comforting as it is. “Don’t do that, you dumb nerd,” she says, squeezing tight. “Contrary to what you might believe, you’re actually not funny.”
“Wow,” Lucas responds, stretching the word out. His voice only comes out choked because she’s gripping him like that. He hugs her back, notes but doesn’t mention the slight tremor in her shoulders. “Have you gotten meaner?”
“Just the facts,” Erica says. She pulls back, wrinkling her nose at him. “Okay, so. What’s next?”
Lucas blinks. “What?”
“What’s next , idiot?” Erica waves her hand, like that’s supposed to help him decipher whatever she’s asking about. “You’ve only taught me, like, one self defense move. What if the bad guy comes at me from the front? What if it’s a girl, and there’s no nuts for me to punch?”
And—shit. “I actually didn’t think about that,” Lucas admits, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
Erica hums, thinking. And then she perks up, a devilish grin worming its way onto her face, and that can’t be good. “You know what?”
“I should get a gun.” Erica nods, like the decision has already been made, approved, signed into law.
“Wh—no!” Lucas splutters. She’s leaving the room, heading towards the front of the house, and he scrambles to follow her. “Erica, you can’t get a gun.”
“Why not?” she asks, shoving the front door open. Spring is in full bloom in Hawkins. The air outside is warm, sticky-sweet. Somewhere down the road, the jingle of an ice cream truck wafts like the song of sirens. Erica hops backwards onto the grass, so she can walk and make her stupid, terrible argument at the same time. “Nancy has one.”
“Nancy’s an adult ,” Lucas protests, trailing helplessly. “It’s not even legal for you to have one.”
“Oh, yeah, because breaking the law is a super big concern of ours when we’re lighting up giant manifestations of apathetic evil with Molotov cocktails—”
She’s heading towards her bike, probably planning to rope the rest of the Party in this absolutely nonsensical idea of hers, and Lucas—Lucas does what he always should have done, what he promised to do, all those years ago. He looks out for her.
“You know, you’re just lucky, that’s it.”
“Oh, lucky?” Lucas asks, resting his hands on his hips. “I just sunk two threes in your face, dude. That’s not luck. That’s skill .”
Steve Harrington glares at him, all harsh eyebrows and flat frown, but the effect is kind of muddled by the fact that he’s folded over like a lawn chair, breathing so heavy Lucas is sure they can hear it for miles around. “God, you’re an asshole, Sinclair.”
Lucas grins. He feels lighter than he has in days, like his basketball shoes have been enchanted to have the Striding and Springing attribute. “Don’t hate the player, man, hate the game,” he teases, bouncing the ball once, twice, straight through Steve’s bent legs, just to be obnoxious, sending another layup against the backboard and through the hoop.
Steve’s mumble of, “I can do both, I contain multitudes,” is muffled by the squeak of sneakers on polished wood. He jogs for the basketball, dribbles back out to the middle of the court. “Alright, you ready?”
“Am I ready,” Lucas says, and they’re off again, running and jumping and dodging and running again, slinging playful insults and shots and elbows.
It’s new, basketball with Steve. A couple nights ago, they’d both been hanging out with Max, and after the hospital staff kicked them out for the night, Steve had seemed to notice how restless Lucas was feeling—he’d driven them right to Hawkins High. Breaking into the gym felt trivial, after all they’d done, more like jaywalking than trespassing. They’d played until Lucas couldn’t feel his legs and Steve was face-down on the nasty wood floor, and then Steve had taken him home.
Earlier tonight, he’d biked over to the Harrington house, just to sit for a minute someplace where his parents’ worry didn’t feel like a physical object, diffused heavy into the air. Steve took one look at him and herded him into the passenger seat of his car.
“Which way am I going? Am I gonna go this way?” Steve is the kind of player who doesn’t shut up, which is sort of comforting, but definitely hurting his game, given how out of breath he seems after every run at the hoop. Like, his lung capacity is crazy. But maintaining breath for basketball is way different than for swimming. Lucas tells him so, but it only serves to put a crooked grin on Steve’s face. “No, man, it’s like, psychological warfare.” Dribble, dribble, juke out to the left that Lucas just barely misses, shot, and swish. A grin on his face that could light up whole stadiums, hand running ineffectually through sweat-slick hair. “See?”
Steve looks happy. Really happy. Lucas realizes, with a jolt, that he doesn’t remember the last time he’s seen Steve grin like that, mouth stretched wide like he doesn’t care how it looks to anyone else watching.
Lucas hasn’t spent a lot of time considering whether or not Steve has been doing okay, after everything. He finds himself considering it now. Steve is—he’s always taking care of them. He whines about being the babysitter, but Lucas has seen Steve take a beating for him without blinking an eye. Steve would take a bullet for him, just as easy. He’d take a bullet for all of them. And Steve’s got Robin and Nancy and Eddie looking out for him, but—
It’s not like Steve has been noticeably unhappy, or anything. He drives the Party to the movies, hangs out with them in Wheeler’s basement despite his loud disdain for all things Dungeons and Dragons, tolerates Lucas and Dustin running through the aisles of Family Video, competing to find the weirdest tapes they have in stock. He pretends to be annoyed by it, sure, but there’s always a smile stuck in the corner of his mouth. So, yeah, Steve has at least seemed to be keeping it together.
This, though, is something else. Bouncing on his toes, eyes big and shining, Steve looks… kinda young. Lucas feels dumb for thinking it, because Steve is 20, now, practically a real adult. But then he thinks about the fact that he’s getting to be the age Steve was, when he first fought the Demogorgon, armed with nothing but a nail bat and determination. And then he’s thinking about how Erica’s the same age he was when it all started, when Will disappeared and they found El soaked to the bone in that big yellow t-shirt. And Erica—Erica’s just a baby, still.
“Getting tired on me, Sinclair?” Steve asks, and there’s a real touch of concern in his gaze. Lucas shakes his head, but now he’s thinking about it, again, Andy’s hands around her wrists, the way she’d screamed and writhed and he’d been stuck in that fucking house. Steve sighs, tucking the basketball under his arm, walking over to one of the bleachers. He jerks his head to the spot next to him, and Lucas sits.
“I’m fine,” Lucas says, tucking his knees up to his chest.
“Listen, kid,” Steve says, running a hand through his hair—it’s already slicked back, so he’s probably buying time to gather his thoughts. “You did a good job.”
And that is so not the direction Lucas thought this conversation was going to go in.
“With what,” Lucas says, the words landing heavy in his mouth. Stupid, because he knows what Steve is talking about. He just—it just—
“Max is gonna be fine,” Steve says. He’s turned to look at Lucas, and the expression on his face is so careful , Lucas wants to throw something. “So’s Erica.”
“Then why do I still feel like this?” Lucas blurts.
He wants to take it back immediately, shovel the words into his mouth and swallow them down, if only so Steve will stop looking at him like that. “Because part of your sense of self worth comes from your ability to protect your friends, and when they get hurt, you feel like a failure.”
“Jesus Christ,” Lucas mutters, crossing his arms.
“Shut up and let me finish, asshole,” Steve says, not unkindly. “I get it.”
And, like. Of course he fucking does. Steve, who sticks an arm out to keep everyone else behind him. Steve, who flinches when they get too rough with each other, who took one glance at Lucas’ swollen eye after Jason Carver got his hands on him and looked like he might vomit. Steve, who’s been happy, but not happy .
“It’s okay, to feel like that,” Steve says. “To not be okay. As long as you know there’s a whole Party of people who have your back.”
A piece of that old guilt rises in his chest, cloudy floodwater. “Everyone’s problems are so much worse than mine,” Lucas says, hating how small his voice sounds. “I don’t want to—they shouldn’t have to deal with—”
Steve’s hand lands on his shoulder. “Give your friends some credit, Sinclair,” he says. “You know how pissed Max would be if you thought she couldn’t handle you having feelings?”
Lucas frowns. “When did you get so articulate,” he grumbles.
“My aunt’s a therapist,” Steve says, looking way too pleased with himself.
“Yeah, okay.” Lucas snatches the basketball back out from under Steve’s arm, then, darting back onto the court. His heart feels light again, something buoyant, especially when Steve splutters, racing after him. He’s too late. Lucas jumps, shoots, arm arching, sinks another perfect three. It takes a moment for him to realize the sound of laughter is coming from himself.
And then there are arms around Lucas’s shoulders, Steve’s chin resting on the top of his head. Steve’s voice, kind of awed, if Lucas is feeling charitable. “God, you’re something else, kid.”
Jason Carver’s foot lands heavy on the walkman, and the crackling of plastic and electronics is louder than any earthquake. “ No ,” Lucas protests, the motion stinging viciously where his lip has split. Despair and anger and fear fight for real estate in his chest, digging their vicious poison-tipped claws into the soft lining of his heart.
They keep fighting. Lucas can’t feel or see from his left eye. His nose feels wrong. His mouth is full of the taste of copper. Every part of him hurts or stings, down to the bone, but he can’t stop. Max is still there, cross-legged on the floor. Milky-white eyes, mouth slack. She needs him. That thought is the only fucking thing that pushes him back to his feet.
Jason slams a bottle over his head. Wraps a hand around his throat, shoves him against the wall. Lucas wheezes. He struggles, tries to pull at Jason’s arm. No dice. His vision is already fuzzy around the edges. And Max is still there. Cross-legged on the floor.
Until she isn’t.
Her legs unfold like origami. It’s almost graceful. She rises, up, up, fingers twitching, aborted, at her side. Almost like she’s—reaching out, for something.
Lucas grits his teeth. He lets his shoulder bend, snap out of its socket. Slams Jason into the window. Glass crashes over him, a waterfall of iridescent shards. Lucas takes the arm that isn’t screaming in pain, punches him once, twice. The noise that leaves his mouth doesn’t feel human. Another punch. He’s lined up perfect, then. Lucas swings, connects.
Pain explodes from his shoulder like the birth of a new galaxy. There’s blood on his hands and his face, some in his eyes. But he can see Jason Carver collapse onto the floor, head thudding against the wood. There’s a finality to that sound.
And then, a snap.
Lucas spins around just in time to see Max’s right arm hyperextend, forming a perfect ninety degree angle. His stomach drops into the floor. Frantically, he scans the room for the Walkman—fuck, fuck , there it is, a mess of plastic and wires and no fucking help at all , no, no, no, what is he going to do ?
A streak of blood drips from Max’s eye. Her lip quivers. Her left leg shakes, like something is trying to move it, against a force trying to keep it still. Like she’s trying to fight.
Well, he thinks, feeling lightheaded. Terrified, in a way that fills every one of his molecules. If she needs music.
“ It doesn’t hurt me ,” Lucas sings. Or, tries to. His voice is wrecked, trembling, uneven. “ Do you want to feel how it feels? ”
The room is dead silent, except for his ragged breathing. Another snap, as Max’s left leg bends, breaks, thigh and shin and foot hanging loose from flimsy joints.
“ Do you want to know, know that it doesn’t hurt me ?” Lucas stumbles forward, trips over a loose floorboard. When his body connects with the ground, he feels it like a grease flame across every inch of nerve tissue. Still, he keeps singing. “ Do you want to hear about the deal I’m making? ”
Max’s body isn’t vibrating anymore. Just hanging there. A thick red tear trails down her cheek, splats and stains the front of her shirt.
“It’s you and me,” Lucas begs. His breath rattles out of him. He coughs, spits a glob of blood out onto the floor. “And if I only could—make a deal with God, I’d get him to swap our places. Be running up that road—” He sobs, dry and painful. “Be running up that hill, be running up that building—”
She collapses like a puppet with the strings cut. Right into his arms, into a puddle of loose limbs and muscles, but her eyes are clear, clear blue, and she’s saying his name, over and over again. “Lucas, Lucas, Lucas .”
“I’m here, Max,” Lucas says, and he can’t tell if he’s shaking or she’s shaking or they’re both shaking. “Max, I’m here, I’m here.”
“I’m here too,” Max says, gripping his hand so hard he feels the bones shift. “I’m— Lucas. ”
The blue light around them is steady. It illuminates her face, the soft curve of her cheek, the bloody tear tracks. Around them, the sounds of the night make themselves known. Crickets hum. Wind dances through the trees, through the old boarded up windows. From downstairs, Erica shoves through the front door, yells up to ask if they’re alright.
“I’m still here ,” Max says, a plea and question and a demand.
Lucas holds her, presses their foreheads together. He’s getting blood all over her. He hopes she doesn’t mind. “I know, Max. I know.”
The Byers throw a party to celebrate Max’s release from the hospital. Max’s mother drives her, which marks only the second time Lucas has seen her since the night they fought Vecna. She helps Max out of the car and into her wheelchair, which she’ll need for another five weeks, until her leg is stable enough to switch to crutches.
It could be worse. Lucas had watched those bones break, in that empty blue room.
But Max is here. A little pale, a little thin, but here , hiding a smile at one of Mike’s jokes, scowling when Steve and Eddie both reach over to ruffle her hair, eyes lighting up every time her gaze meets Lucas’s. Lucas finds himself just—just looking at her.
“Stalker,” she murmurs into his ear. Her fingers wriggle themselves around his, holding tight.
They spend a couple hours outside, chasing each other through the Byers’ new backyard, gorging themselves on Hopper and Murray’s barbecue lunch. When the sun gets too hot, the kids move inside, nearly trampling over each other in the rush to get to air conditioning. It’s nice and cool in the living room. They situate themselves all over the furniture, the floor. Lucas settles onto the corner of the couch, and Max rolls up next to him, offering the last three straggling french fries on her plate. There’s something about all of them eating until they’re stuffed that makes Lucas feel—safe, sort of. Like maybe a stomach ache could be the worst of his problems, going forward.
He lets himself drift into that state of warm afternoon half-sleep. By the door to the kitchen, Nancy and Robin have a whispered conversation. El rests her head on Will’s shoulder, tracing patterns into the rug. Mike wraps an arm around Erica, either uncaring or oblivious to the chips she keeps surreptitiously stealing off of his plate. On the armchair to their left, Eddie sprawls dramatically across Steve’s lap, and Steve throws his head back, laughing wide and loud and bright. Happy , happy.
“Lucas agrees with me,” Dustin is saying.
“Woah, what?” Lucas straightens, rubbing at his eyes. He’s tuned back in, now, but the last part of the conversation they’re all having floated in one ear and out the other. He takes stock—Dustin is rubbing his hands together, Erica is watching with the flat-eyed gaze of someone deeply unimpressed, and Mike looks a half-second away from exasperated tears.
“Centipede sphere of doom is a solid tactic!” Dustin insists, with the wild-eyed look of someone who has been arguing this for upwards of fifteen minutes.
“Oh my god,” Mike sighs, burying his face in his hands.
Will crosses his arms, but he’s doing that thing he does where he purses his lips instead of laughing. “Giant centipedes have five hit points, Dustin.”
“Yes, and?” Dustin waves his arms around. “If you have a big ol’ sphere —”
Lucas shakes his head. “Okay, start over. What?”
“Creatures from Summon Nature’s Ally have an infinite duration as long as they remain within one mile from the caster,” Dustin spits out, rapid-fire. “So if you took the time, like only a couple of weeks, maybe months. But then you could have a massive sphere of giant centipedes, stretching, like—a mile in every direction.”
“But why ?” Mike despairs, slamming his hands down on the coffee table.
“ Why not ?” Dustin responds, mimicking Mike’s positioning. “You could lay waste to the countryside, Mike.”
Mike breaks, bursting into giggles. Dustin doesn’t let up, leaning in even further. When he speaks, it’s slow, every word carefully enunciated. “Four cubic miles of giant centipedes.”
“Yeah, Mike ,” Eddie chimes in, sitting up. “Even Vecna wouldn’t stand a chance against four cubic miles of giant centipedes .”
“But that’s gross ,” El protests, and then they’re all laughing, even Steve, who remains steadfast in his refusal to learn anything at all about D&D. Lucas tries to calm down, but every time he meets someone else’s eyes, it sets him off again.
The laughter isn’t easy on his bruised ribs. It hurts, but—the kind of hurt that warms you from the inside out. The kind of hurt that says, I am still fucking here .
Later, after everyone has tired themselves out, sprawling out on the mattresses Joyce and Hopper set up in the living room—after they get Max situated, propped up against the wall, Lucas lying right next to her—after that. Lucas looks at Erica, snoozing peacefully, squashed on both sides by Dustin and Mike. Something settles inside his chest. They love her, too—Lucas isn’t the only protector she has. He looks at Steve, then, hovering by the door. Eddie appears behind him, drapes himself all over Steve’s back, whispering something in his ear. Steve grins, takes a moment to nod back at Lucas, before he and Eddie disappear towards the stairs.
Outside, Hawkins rests.
Lucas breathes in, tries to calm his racing heart. Lays his head on Max’s good leg, pulling her arm around him.
“Hey,” Max says, shifting to hold him easier. Her hair is a little bit in his face. It smells like apricot. “Everything okay?”
And, like—no, not everything. But enough things are okay. Enough things are good, actually, solid gold, fireflies and puffy clouds and ice cream melting in the sun.
Maybe Lucas can’t tell her about all of it, not yet, not while the bruises are still that shade of empty blue. But he can say this: “Can you read to me?”
Max grins like it’s startled out of her, small and awed. “Yeah,” she says, stroking a thumb over his knuckles. “Yeah, I can do that.”