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been so long (and now we're finally free)

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Julie is in big trouble.

It’s only been, like, a half hour since they started, but she’d noticed it only a few minutes in (the same way she’d felt it the other night, his song open for her on the kitchen table and their voices ringing together as if they’d been made to fit). Her chest had suddenly filled with that familiar fire she hadn’t felt since her mom died the second he’d pulled out his notebook, and the flames still flicker now, growing stronger with every new guitar lick and piano chord. It’s not the exact same as it was with Mom, though (nothing will ever be exactly the way it was with Mom ever again). Instead of the comforting, ever-present warmth rolling through her chest that each of her and Mom’s writing sessions had felt like, like the music was wrapped around her heart in a perpetual hug, writing with Luke has Julie’s heart in a free-fall. His excitement is contagious, and she finds herself breathless as all the passion she’d been trying to reach for all year tumbles out of her in a rush — raw and a bit rusty and sometimes still hurting, but there.

Writing with Luke feels like flying.

The air is rough, and she’s a little off-balance, but she’s felt more like herself in this last half hour than she has in a year. It’s terrifying and amazing and stressful and cathartic all wrapped into one, and she’s not totally sure how to deal with all of that yet, so she focuses on Luke instead, fiddling with his guitar with a nervous energy she’s never seen on him before.

“Okay, this is what I’ve got. Be totally honest, ‘cause I was never able to finish this when I was alive, so there’s definitely workshopping to be done.” 

After he explains how she’d start with piano at first (“so you get your starring moment,” he’d said with a wink, to which she’d rolled her eyes before retorting with “and because you guys need me to start the song to be seen?” — he hadn’t confirmed or denied it, simply laughed and continued on with his explanation), he starts the song, and Julie can barely contain her grin as his gentle strumming fills the space. It’s really good — and it’s not like she didn’t expect it to be, because Bright was way too good to be a fluke, but it’s, like, really good. He’s just barely started, but she can already feel the music notching into the space around her heart, and she has the sudden realization that Luke doesn’t just write songs, he’s a songwriter.

As her heart does a loop-de-loop in her chest in tandem with his rising vocals, she glances his way.

Luke’s fingers soar across the strings of his guitar as he sings through his lines, and Julie has to tear her gaze away from their mesmerizing dance when she remembers she’s supposed to be following along as he sings. Her eyes fall to the table, gaze flickering between the various half-opened notebooks decorating the wood before Luke’s increasingly familiar scrawl catches her eye. As she tugs it towards her, Finally Free written at the top of the page in his charmingly crooked all caps scribble, she can’t help but smile at the doodles dotting the pages. He hasn’t seen any of hers yet — she hasn’t worked up the nerve to open up the notebook containing the scraps of Stand Tall her and Mom had worked on before she’d gotten too sick to focus on it — but she wonders that if she shows him ( once she shows him, she reminds herself, she can’t go back on that plan now) if he’s going to notice they doodle in the same places in the margins.

She also wonders why she’s noticing they doodle in the same places in the margins. 

Her finger brushes against the word alive at the same time as he sings it, and her smile grows as she looks up to meet his eyes, that same fire he’d had onstage at the pep rally reflected back at her now underneath the studio’s natural lighting. He looks so alive like this, sounds so alive like this. If she didn’t know any better, she could almost think ...


She does, so there’s no need to finish that thought, right? 

A particularly electric riff thankfully pulls her from her thoughts, and she focuses on the music once more, head bobbing along with the beat. Even now, hearing it for the first time, she can already hear where her voice could slot in on a harmony line (— or maybe he’d take the harmony, and she’d bring the melody up higher?) Unable to stop herself, she hums the melody along once he launches back into the chorus a second time, and tries to ignore the flip of her heart in her chest when his grin grows somehow impossibly wider at the sound. Even casually, their voices blend together in that effortless way they did that night in the kitchen and onstage during Bright , and it sends a tingle of something electric running down Julie’s spine. If the fire in his eyes tells her anything, he’s thinking the same thing. 

The chorus finally ends, and he rests his hands against the guitar, the still-humming strings vibrating against his silver rings as he curls his fingers almost casually against them, as if holding the guitar is what makes them whole, and — oh god, why is she staring so intensely at his hands?!

Julie’s head shoots up, a deer caught in the headlights of those huge eyes of his as he fixes her with a curious look. Her stomach flips at the thought of being caught, but before she can scramble an excuse out, he beats her to speaking. 

“So? What’d you think?”

Right. Right, he — he wants her to tell him what he thinks. That’s why he’s curious. He didn’t notice anything. The tension leaves her in a whoosh, all but forgotten as her excitement about the music replaces it almost instantly. 

“Well, first of all,” she starts, fingers finding a pencil and pointing at Luke with it, “it sounds incredible. Like, seriously. I really love it already.”

If she could bottle the look on his face, Julie thinks, she’d carry it with her everywhere. His eyes brighten at her praise, the pink of his tongue peeking through his grin as he nods, and she can’t help but notice how stupidly effortlessly charming he looks. At her brief pause, he raises an eyebrow, lips quirking in a questioning smile as he taps his fingers eagerly against the strings of his guitar in what looks like very poorly-hidden excitement.

“Am I sensing a but here? I really hope I am, ‘cause I am dying to know what’s going on in that genius mind of yours.”

Shaking off the compliment with a playful roll of the eyes (ignoring the way it makes the tips of her ears grow warm), Julie laughs, shifting a bit closer to get a better look at his notebook. 

“Well, you’re in luck,” she says, stifling a giggle when he playfully fist pumps with a goofy whisper-shout of yes! She taps her pencil against the page to grab his attention back to her, biting the inside of her lip in thought. “I really like the way it sounds already, honestly, but —”

“It’s just missing something , right?” Judging by his tone, Julie’s got a feeling he’s been trying to figure out the something for longer than he’d like to admit. 

“Yes, exactly! And I think I know exactly what that something is.” Julie holds the pencil out, a questioning look in her eyes as she hovers it above the page. The can I? resting on her tongue doesn’t even need to be voiced, Luke reading her intentions just by the glimmer in her eye and all but shoving the notebook towards her. The pick in his teeth shifts as his smile grows impossibly wider when she laughs and pulls it closer, and Julie’s traitorous heart does another flip at the sight (when did it even get there?). 

It’s not cute. That thing’s been everywhere , from his fingers to his pockets to literally who knows where else, and besides, it’s, like, a choking hazard, which, even if he can’t die anymore, is definitely not cute. 

It’s not.

(The voice in her head insisting this sounds suspiciously like Flynn.)

“I think — okay, hear me out,” Julie says, her pencil scratching against the paper as she refocuses her thoughts on the song in front of her, “The modified chorus you’re using for the bridge here, right? I’ve got a spark in me, and you’re a part of me? What if we switched it to, like, a call and response thing?” 

She glances up once to garner an idea of his reaction, and when she sees his eyes flash with what looks like excitement, her smile grows, and she dips her gaze back to the notebook and taps her pencil against the words. 

“So it’s already slowed down, but we slow it down a bit more since we’re both singing, and repeat each line once, like —” she touches the pencil once to her chest before she sings: 

I’ve got a spark in me

She tips the pencil his way, eyebrows raised, and he catches her drift right away, leaning almost imperceptibly closer to sing into her makeshift microphone as he repeats the line once, dipping lower in his voice to shift the melody into something gentler, and she feels her cheeks grow a bit warmer. Her smile matches his as she tips the pencil back towards herself as the next line comes. 

And you’re a part of me

And he doesn’t need to wait for her cue this time, coming in immediately with his repeat, even lower than before, and Julie finds herself impressed with how similar his improv sounds to what she’d imagined. Not for the first time (because once she’d finally sat down and let him show her the music he’d come with for Flying Solo , it was hard to remember that it hadn’t always been a song), their music styles seem to have meshed into something so seamless it’s hard to tell who came up with what. They sing through the rest of the lyrics, and he directs the end of his response higher this time, which leads her into the final line of the bridge — been so long and now I’m finally free. 

She doesn’t mean to, had only meant to sing it the way he had earlier before to finish up their little improv instead of stopping halfway through, but she finds her voice rising into a run as the lyrics sink into her mind, reminding her of how far she’s already come in the last few days after deciding to come back to music. 

As she slips into a smooth run comfortably in her mix (she thinks she’d like to belt it during the actual performance if they keep this, but she doesn’t want to wake the neighbours), Julie shuts her eyes tight, just for a moment. She does feel free. It’s been a long time coming, but she does.

“Shit, Julie, I think you just fixed a 25 year old writers block.” 

His voice interrupts her thoughts, playful but tinged with something heavier she can’t quite place, and her eyes pop open with a giggle and a tease on her lips — one that catches in her throat the second she sees the look on his face. His expression schools into something more casual so fast she thinks she might have imagined it, but the intensity still lingers in his eyes, and she laughs through her sudden breathlessness. She hopes he doesn’t notice.  

“Yeah, you think?” She’s already leaning towards the notebook to write down what they just did as she speaks, replaying it in her mind. They’ll have to polish it later on, obviously, turn it into something more concrete, but what they just came up with worked (not just worked, it sounded really good ), and she thinks the other boys will feel the same way once they show them. He speaks over the sound of her writing, arms waving so enthusiastically she can see them moving in her peripherals. 

“I know , Julie! I’m starting to think what was missing was just your killer vocals, and we’ve got those now, so it’s only a matter of time until this song is another guaranteed hit!

“I think you’re giving me a bit too much credit there,” she laughs, turning to face him with a raised eyebrow and cheeks that are definitely not warm at all, “but you’re definitely right about this being a hit.” Her tone slips into something warmer, more genuine, and Julie tucks a curl behind her ear with a small smile as she meets his gaze. “This is a really great song, Luke. I’m really excited to work on it with you guys.”

“Me too, but you’ve gotta stop downplaying your power, Julie!” She can practically see the fire flickering behind his eyes, and Julie briefly wonders if she’s in for another Luke Patterson Pep Talk as his hands begin to wave through the air once more. He points at her, that stupidly bright grin of his widening as he gestures towards her head with a wink. “And you’re gonna prove it by coming up with another rad thing to add to this song, ‘cause I know that bridge thing was definitely not the only thing that insanely talented mind of yours came up with.” 

He’s not wrong , she does actually have more ideas (a harmony line, specifically, that’s been floating through her brain since halfway through the song), but the sheer confidence Luke has in her abilities makes her pause for a second anyway. 

It’s almost hard to remember the boys have only known her for a few days now, have only heard her sing a few times and have interacted with her writing even less, with how much faith Luke has in her. But the expectation for greatness doesn’t weigh on her like she’s grown used to in the past year. Luke doesn’t know how she used to be, isn’t pushing for her to become the Old Julie again — he’s just excited to see what Now Julie has on her mind, no strings attached but the love of music, and it makes the terrifyingly heavy move of dipping her toes back into the music pool feel so much lighter. 

Speaking of Luke being excited, he’s still looking right at her with that eager smile of his, leg bouncing against the couch as if he can’t physically contain all of his excitement at the thought of what else she could have come up with, and the sight is so endearing that Julie decides she’s made him wait long enough. Tilting her head to the side as though she has to think about it, she bites the inside of her cheek to try to suppress her smile as she taps the side of her jaw theatrically. 

“Well, I guess there was one other thing I was thinking about,” she says, playfully drawing out the vowel sound of the words as she reaches for the notebook once again (trying to ignore the excited laugh that bursts out of Luke — that totally isn’t cute at all — as he scoots closer to her on the couch), and she pulls it onto her lap and scans the page for the lyric she’s looking for, humming under her breath to solidify the melody running through her brain before she tries singing it out loud. “Here,” Julie starts, tapping against the line with her pencil as she holds the page up to Luke with a curious grin, “Sing this line for me? I wanna try a harmony to it.” 

His eyes, already shining with curiosity, seem to brighten even more at the mention of a harmony — and she’d expected that, considering how tight and clean the ones he’d written into Bright and Now or Never (which she finally listened to it a few days ago, after her first attempt had been, well … interrupted ) were. She’s sure there’s already harmonies built into this song already that she just hasn’t heard yet too, but the addition of a second lead vocalist and a female voice does give them much more options than what he’d been working with when originally writing this, and she’d be lying if she said those possibilities didn’t excite her.

“Just this?”

“Yeah, uh — start at now we know what we’re worth, and I’ll come in on the pickup.”

As he fiddles with his guitar, pulling it back into its rightful place tucked against his body, she hums her line once more, settling it into her muscle memory. When she cues Luke in with a nod, he strums the guitar and sings the end of the verse, glancing over at her when it’s her time to jump in. 

We know we can make it, we're not falling down under

And her voice soars above his, a bright major third that adds a sweet lift to the melody without changing it up too much. Both of them lock eyes at the sound of their voices tangling together so seamlessly, a crackle of electricity running down Julie’s spine. There’s an intimacy to harmonizing that Julie’s always loved, and that feeling seems to explode tenfold whenever it’s with Luke. Almost like they’ve always been meant to sing together, like something’s finally become whole. 

Close my eyes and feel my chest beating like thunder

A smile ghosts across Julie’s lips as they continue through the next line, Luke leaning closer with a matching grin of his own. Her heart pounds in her chest at the sight, as though trying to mirror his lyrics — or that’s what she tells herself, at least.

The line ends and they both trail off to silence, but their eyes stay locked on another for another moment as the music hangs in the air. Have his eyes always been this green?

“You’re incredible. Have I told you that in the last five minutes?”

Their trance is finally broken when Luke speaks, smiling crookedly at her, and she can’t help but smile back when he’s looking at her like that. She laughs off the compliment, raising an eyebrow at him challengingly. 

“Not in the last five minutes, maybe.” Julie laughs again, ignoring the way her heartbeat seems to stutter when he laughs with her — even his laugh sounds musical. 

(Not that that’s surprising to her. Music’s intertwined so deeply with everything Luke does that she’s pretty sure even when he was alive his chest was moving to the beats of his music rather than the beats of his heart.)

“Should I take that as a sign that you liked it, though? Because personally, I think that sounded even better than it did in my head, and I already had a really good feeling about it,” Julie teases, pulling the notebook back onto her lap and twirling the pencil between her fingers. 

“Jules, I loved it. Seriously. It adds that exact oomph that we need going into the second chorus.” 

The nickname slips off his tongue so comfortably that Julie doesn’t even think she would’ve noticed it had it not sent the butterflies residing in her chest into a fluttery frenzy. Tucking a strand of hair behind suddenly burning ears, she swallows down the feeling as best she can, focusing instead on jotting down the notes before she can forget them.

Luckily for her, he doesn’t seem to notice, too excited about their song to spot her blush. 

Unluckily for her, he leans across her shoulder to watch her write in his excitement, their bodies as close as they can get without his chest phasing through her shoulder, and it only makes the tips of her ears burn hotter. They stay that way for a while in a comfortable silence as he watches her write. When he speaks again, leaning back as her pencil lifts off of the paper, there’s a gentleness to his voice that takes her by surprise. 

“I do mean it, you know. I’m not just trying to butter you up.”

“What?” Julie asks, lifting her head to meet his gaze, confusion etched into the furrow of her brow. 

“You are incredible. Like,” he starts, hands waving as he sits up taller on his knees, “We’ve only been working on this for, what, like an hour? And the song is already, like, ten times better, and it’s all shit that I’d never even have thought of, but it’s perfect, ‘cause it’s your style.” He laughs once, holding his hand up and wiggling his fingers in the air in the direction of the notebook resting on her lap. “It’s got the Julie touch now.”

She snorts, reaching over to swat at his hand with said notebook, and as it phases through his hand, he grins even wider. “You’re a dork,” she says.

“And you’re not listening to me, Julie! I’m pouring my heart out to you, come on.” He punctuates his sentence with an overdramatic pout, and she sighs, rolling her eyes, though her own dramatics can’t hide the hint of a smile on her lips. Finally, she concedes, raising her eyebrows as she motions for him to continue.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted —”

“Uh huh.”

“— as I was saying .” He shoots her a playful glare, and she giggles, holding her hands up in defense as he continues to speak. “All of Sunset Curve’s stuff was mostly my writing, y’know? The boys helped and had their own ideas, and obviously they wrote, like, the bulk of their own parts, but most of the time, the main melody and lyrics were all from me. This is kinda my first time really writing with someone else, and I thought it would be harder to give up some of that control over how the song turns out, but with you…” He trails off for a moment, ever-moving hands finally coming to a rest as he meets her gaze, and she’s almost taken aback by the sincerity in his eyes. “It’s really easy with you.”


Oh, she didn’t — she didn’t expect that at all.

If she’s being honest, she’d been really nervous when her and Luke had agreed to have a writing session over the weekend. What if she sat down and still couldn’t write anything, if she had to admit to Luke that it was all still blocked the way it had been all year? It was too hopeful of her to think that the events of the last couple days would be able to just undo everything from the past year — that as much as she wanted to write, as much as she missed it (so much that it left a hole in her almost as big as the one losing her mom had), she just couldn’t . Just because Luke had been able to come up with something with one of her poems didn’t mean anything. 

And yet, it had. Because she’d sat down, and he’d played for her, and almost instantly, her mind had been bursting with ideas, music flowing out of her the way she hadn’t felt in almost a year. In a mirror of his own words, it was easy with Luke. She couldn’t pinpoint why, but it was — and while she thinks she does want to figure out why eventually, right now, she’s just happy to be able to write again. Happy that the chill the last year of her life had settled into her bones is lifting, replaced with the rekindling of the fire that’s always been in her, growing stronger with every spark he sends her way.

“I feel that way too,” she says finally, chest warming at the way his eyes brighten at her words. “Not the — obviously not about the Sunset Curve stuff, but… it feels really easy for me too. To write with you. I feel like we — the band , I mean,” she clarifies, the tips of her ears growing hot again, “I feel like what we’re coming up with could be really good, you know? Like we’re on the edge of coming up with something really great together.”

He perks up at that, sitting up taller as he leans towards her, a sudden fire in his eyes. “What did you just say? That — that last thing, what did you say?”

“We’re on the edge of something really great?” She says, bewildered by his abrupt topic change, before the weight of her own words settles into her mind. Almost as if he can see the cogs turning in her brain, his grin sharpens, and he bounces on his knees, suddenly too wired to sit still.

“That sounds like a lyric, doesn’t it?” She asks, slightly tentative even though she’s pretty sure that’s where his mind just went, and she almost laughs at how quickly his head bobs up and down. 

“A damn good one, too!” Pulling the notebook out of her hands and flipping to a new page, he sits back, suddenly quiet as a fierce determination paints his face, and Julie swears she can see the steam coming from his ears. Seconds later, he glances up at her, the proverbial lightbulb above his head blindingly bright. 

Standing on the edge of great , obviously — for the chorus, maybe as a repeat? And we could reuse the same format for earlier in the song, maybe pre-chorus? With something other than great, but the same idea, like… something big, something —”

“Crazy?” She offers, something electric sparking in her chest as she realizes this is the first song they’re writing together, just them, with nothing pre-written in advance. It’s an even more incredible feeling than she expected, and it bolsters her to keep going. “ we're standing on the edge of something big, something crazy, our best days are yet unknown ?”

“Yes!” He whoops, jumping back onto his knees, the notebook tumbling onto the cushion next to him. “Jules, I can already hear it!” 

“Well?” She laughs, gesturing towards him and the notebook sitting next to his legs with a crooked smile, “Write that down!”

“You got it, boss!” Luke laughs, his nose scrunching up in that way it always does when his smile grows too bright for his face, and ducks his head down to scribble (something probably near-illegible, with how quickly he’s writing) into his notebook. The excitement radiating off of him, bouncing through his legs and curling into the curve of his grin, is so endearing she finds herself smiling too just from the sight of him. When he’s done writing, he tosses the notebook back to the table and pulls his guitar back onto his lap, and tosses his head back to meet her eyes.  

Her heart skips.

Oh, Julie is in very big trouble.