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Max sits in her room, which is just... normal, for her. It is her room after all, and she does live here, but something about it is different. It's about a feeling, a feeling that she's not sure she's felt before, that she can't quite put her finger on it -

She almost laughs. Almost. Because it's so fucking ironic – she can put her finger on it. In fact, that's the reason why she's sitting numbly on her bed, already in her pyjamas, and having a huge internal panic about it.

"I'm not..." The last word dies in her throat, despite nobody else being here to witness it, because El's gone to the bathroom, Billy isn't home (thank fuck), and her mom and Neil are out on a 'romantic dinner' or whatever.

There's... there's just no way. She'd heard of them, of course, but she never thought she'd be-

"Gay." She says out loud, and immediately cringes at how alien the word sounds in her mouth. It's not normal. It's not supposed to happen. "I- I'm not gay. I'm not gay! I like- I like Lucas!" She argues with nobody but herself.

But you like El the same way you love Lucas, an admittedly large, truthful part tells her. She usually listens to it, because it's her, or at least her brain and internal reasoning, and 99% of the time her internal reasoning is correct, but it can't be, because she can't like both, right?

Jesus, what is she even thinking? She can't like El, that's not how it works.

In a quick realization, she realizes that she – by society's standards – shouldn't like Lucas either. Because of his skin, and it being darker than hers. The moment she'd heard it – from Lucas himself, nonetheless – she'd declared it bullshit. It was, and always had been, far too dangerous to be out in public and do the things Jonathan and Nancy did, like kissing and stuff, but she still found herself reaching for his hand and glaring at whoever gave them a weird look, which was like, ninety-nine percent of the time.

She'd said, fuck what they say, stalker, I like you.

Why is this any different? Says the truthful voice in her mind.

It just was. Lucas is a guy. Lucas is a guy. And El- El is a girl. And girls are never supposed to like girls romantically.

She's heard of gay people, of course – at the dinner table, Neil saying about 'those fucking gays' and the distainful comments by her mother even before she had divorced. And don't get her started on Billy. The asshole could rant about why fags and dykes were even worse than him, and-

Oh, god, is she worse than him? She's not... She's a girl. Who likes El.

Does she like El?

Yes, you do. Face it.

"I can't." She whispers to herself. "It's not... it's not like that."

Then stop giving her longing glances.

"It's not like that!" She says, a little louder, trying to stay as defiant as she always does, but it comes out weak. She doesn't believe it herself, and that shows in her voice.

Coward.

She swallows. She hates being called a coward, always has, because she's brave. She wears boy clothes and plays video games and doesn't get a tan or a manicure because those are the single most disgusting things that she'd seen in her life. That alone is enough to let her receive weird, off-hand looks and comments. Even Nate, her best friend back in Cali, had said it that it was 'weird that she was a girl who could play video games so well'. She'd punched him for that, and he apologized, but it was still weird to hear it from him.

The point is, that she's not a coward, she's not. She doesn't care what people think of her, whether she's weird or snarky or outspoken, because she is all those things.

She takes a deep breath. Reasserts herself.

I can do this, her truthful voice and actual voice say at once.

She takes another deep breath, screwing her eyes shut for some reason, though there's nobody there.

She thinks, thinks about all the time she's spent with El so far, and thinks of the way her heart stuttered during the photoshoot, the way their hands brushed, the way El's doe eyes were so big and sweet and adorable as she looked around, the way she'd even stolen some of Billy's cash, which she was definitely gonna pay for later, for a girl she barely knew. Thinks of the way her heart clenched painfully as El brushed past her, uncaring and cold. Brown hair, that was always messy, tangled, and that Max would love to brush her hands through it. Even the way she'd been vaguely jealous whenever she saw Mike and El beforehand, holding hands, breathing the same breath. She wanted to do that, with El.

"I like El." She whispers, a confession, a dread, an oath. "Fuck, I- I have a crush on Eleven."

Surprisingly, Mike isn't the first person to come to mind when she says that. Of course, him and El are going to inevitably get back together. Mike will inevitably get his head out his ass, and El will forgive him and they'll go back to the old cycle they've always been in.

No, it's not Mike she thinks about first. It's Billy.

Because, fuck- he's going to kill her. He'll find out eventually, and he'll kill her. She'd been certain of it when she was in the Byers' only a year before, and is even more certain now.

He is actually going to murder her. That isn't even exaggeration, she's heard him talking about 'those fucking dykes' all the time, always sucking up and telling his dead that if he ever set eyes on a queer, they would end up in the hospital. That, if he ever saw a queer on life support, he'd unplug the life support to plug it in his music.

"Max?" Calls El, and fuck, she isn't ready to face her. She isn't ready to face her at all.

"Yeah?" She calls in return, and her voice only cracks slightly, so she tallies it as a win.

El walks in, one hand on the wall, smiling at her. Max's heart skips a beat, rising to her throat, making it impossible for her to talk or make a sound.

El's smile morphs into a frown, and part of Max is relieved, because that smile made her feel too many things in too short of a timespan, but part of Max wants to say, no, bring that back, it looks good on you.

"Max?" She asks. "Are you... okay?"

And suddenly she's reminded that she's Max. Maybe it's her name that jarrs her into realization again, but she remembers that she's the tough MadMax. Nobody's supposed to see her cry, apart from maybe Lucas, because he's special that way.

"Yeah?" She repeats, and isn't surprised by how hoarse her voice is.

El's frown deepens, and her mouth does that thing it does when it goes in that little pout, which is so adorable it makes Max want to cry.

El walks over to her side, and grabs her hands. "Max, you're..." She clearly struggles to find the word. "shaking."

"Am I?" She hadn't noticed, but now she sees her arms trembling and her hands even more so. " Oh."

"Max." El tries to meet her eyes, but Max looks away. Despite being aware that El will almost definitely not know what being gay even is, she's scared that if El looks her in the eyes, she'll gleam all of her secrets, her shame, her... her feelings.

"Come on, El." She tries to keep her voice upbeat and steady, but suppresses a wince at how harsh it ends up. "Let's keep reading Green Lantern."

El is silent for a long time. Then she says in that quiet, toneless voice that both break's Max's heart and makes it beat ever faster at the same time, "Okay."

She hears rustling, and Max lays down, letting out a low sigh. She knows she should explain, knows that El deserves an apology, but she can't bring herself to do it. She tries to ignore her breath catching, her heartbeat accelerating, as El lays her head down on Max's shoulder. El is so close. They could kiss...

Max shakes the thought from her head and begins to read.