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"Bah, humbug" (No, that's too strong)

Chapter Text

“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away…”

Steve stopped wondering how he got into these kinds of situations a long time ago. He knew the how.

The how was because of all the little shits that had been hanging around him since November, because Steve let a bunch of 13 year olds boss him around. The how was because he was a people pleaser at heart, so all the parents just had to love him and use him as a babysitting/chauffeur service. Not that he was getting paid for this, nooo. ‘Cause Sweetheart Steve Harrington just had to refuse their money. Like an idiot.

No, what Steve wanted to know was the why. More specifically; why him?

...This year, to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special…

With a maybe too aggressive motion, Steve turned the radio off.

“Hey,” Max began indignantly. “I was listening to that.”

“They’ve been playing that shit since November. I’m sick of it. Shit’s giving me a headache...” Steve grumbled pointedly, which wasn’t necessarily true. He had a headache since he woke up this morning but the little shits didn’t need to know that. So instead, he sniffed, “Besides, you’ve heard one Wham! song, you’ve heard them all.”

“What’dya got against George Michael?” Lucas accused.

“Nothing.” Steve answered, probably a bit too hastily. Which was true. He had nothing against that guy in particular, but the crap he sang about was much too...lovey-dovey for Steve’s current tastes...

“Mhmm.” Lucas hummed, sounding entirely unconvinced, as if he could somehow hear Steve’s actual thoughts (which was impossible, because as far as Steve knew, there was only one superpowered child taking up residence in Hawkins). Regardless, Lucas was watching Steve with a critical expression through the rearview mirror, which the latter didn’t appreciate one bit. Steve glared back before adjusting said mirror, the scrutinizing teen now out of his line of sight.

“Well, Steve being a buzzkill has presented a useful opportunity for a segway…” Dustin began as he started rifling through his backpack for something.

“It’s my car, dipshit. I get radio contro—JESUS!” Steve exclaimed, cutting himself off as his line of sight was suddenly blocked by whatever Dustin had just ceremoniously shoved in his face. He grabbed it from Dustin, the material crinkling as he quickly pulled it out of his view of the road. “I’m driving, dickhead!”

“Yeah, that was kinda a dumb move, genius.” Max agreed, surprisingly coming to Steve’s defense. “He crashes ‘cause of you, I’ll kill you. No way I’m almost dying with you losers a second time. Once was enough.” she added flatly and okay, maybe she wasn’t so much as siding with Steve as she was lumping him in with the dorks, which inarguably stung.

“He’s fine.” Dustin assured. “You know what’s gonna get you killed? Him being petty enough to adjust his mirrors so he can block out his mouthy backseat rider, giving himself a new blind spot in the process...” he rambled a little too testily as he leant as forward in his seat as his seatbelt allowed and readjusted the rearview mirror back to its previous position.

“Yeah, whatever, Henderson. You throwing garbage in my face sure isn’t doing me any favors either, you know?” Steve bit back, throwing the paper back to Dustin.

“Rude.” Dustin merely said as he used the window to smooth out the crinkled up paper. “And this isn’t garbage, it’s important information.”

Steve glanced over to Dustin and the mysterious piece of paper. “What the hell is it?”

“It’s a hypothetical list of upcoming possibilities.” Dustin answered.

“That’s a vague answer.” commented Max as she leant forward and plucked the paper out of Dustin’s hands to study it herself.

“Namely, possible locations!” Dustin furthered before he cleared his throat and began, “As you can see, most of the other possible locations have been crossed out.” he pointed out in a tone that reminded Steve of the one his dad used when rehearsing for upcoming board meetings.

“Mhmm, mhmm.” Max hummed, sounding as if she were playing along.

“I see.” Lucas commented. “Oh, all except one, it would seem.”

Wait a fucking second.

“Is this a set-up?” Steve voiced aloud.

“By Jove, you’re right, Lucas.” Max droned in a poor English accent, completely ignoring Steve, her voice dripping sarcasm. “All other possible locals have been crossed off, except for this one.” she noted as they pulled to a stop under a red light and she shoved the paper back into Steve’s line of sight, pointing at one line of non-scribbled out writing in particular.

He read the line that contained ‘Steve’s’ before his eyes roved up the list to see ‘Byers’’ and ‘Hopper’s’ crossed out before they finally reached the top of the notebook paper page to see the header that read ‘Possible Party Places’ written atop in Dustin familiar, messy scrawl. Overall, it was a pretty useless list, if you asked Steve, considering there were literally only four things written on it, including the title.

What party?” Steve blanked before a honk from the apparent car waiting impatiently behind them startled him. Once recovered, he waved the other driver off before he rolled the car under the now green light.

“The First Annual Upside Down Defenders Christmas-slash-Holiday Bash!” Dustin ‘clarified’ in a rush of excited, practical gibberish. “Seeing as how we missed out on last year, what with all the government officials hanging around and El being presumably dead and all.”

“Uhh, I didn’t agree to any party...” Steve stated, filtering out all of the unnecessary information Dustin provided him.

“Of course not. This is us asking you.” Max said, gesturing between herself and the other passengers of the car.

“Well, consider yourselves answered; no.” Steve announced bluntly, pausing for all of two seconds, for dramatic effect. “The Harrington Household is vacant this holiday season. Sorry, kiddos.” he apologized in a flat tone as he smoothly turned the car down a corner.

“You’re going away?” Dustin frowned, looking as if he were blindsided by Steve’s reveal.

“No?” Steve answered with a sideways glance, brows furrowed in his own bought of confusion.

“But you just said—”

“My parents are?” Steve said before Dustin and Lucas then erupted into noise, startling Steve into a jerk. Needless to say, Steve was getting pretty damn good at not letting any bouts of jumpiness effect his driving.

“Great!” Lucas cheered. “We won’t even have to worry about getting rid of them, then.”

Huh?” Steve blanked again.

“They wanna use your house to throw the party, genius.” Max clarified, apparently over Steve’s lack of ability to follow the conversation.

“What? No.” Steve said pointedly. “No. No way. No way am I throwing some kinda nerd party at my place for everybody to crash when my parents are gone.”

“Wasn’t that how you spent like, the majority of your high school career?” Lucas said, sounding confused.

“Look, I know you’ve never been to one before, Sinclair, but those were high school parties. For my cool friends.” Steve stated, a bit meanly.

“Ouch.” Lucas deadpanned.

Dustin pshaw-ed, “Those were your old, lame friends. Now it’s time to throw a party for all your new, much cooler friends.”

Which was admittedly true. It wasn’t like those friendships lasted long or were very rewarding or meaningful in the first place, but the little shits didn’t need to know that either.

“We deserve some fun and good old holiday cheer, Steve. After all the shit we’ve been through.” Dustin continued.

Amen to that, Steve thought tiredly. All kids deserved to party with friends and not have to worry about parents hanging around, judging them for things they couldn’t understand. Especially these kids, whose problems were transdimensional...

“Maybe.” Steve sighed. “But why the hell’s it gotta be my place? And who the hell is coming to this party? Theoretically.”

Dustin beamed, no doubt sensing that he was swiftly winning Steve over. That was him. Good old Steve Harrington, the push-over.

“Well, the Party, of course - which includes El and Max, just so we’re clear - all the Byers, and Hopper. Oh, and Nancy.” Dustin counted off.

Steve shook his head. “Nuh-uh. No way. No way in hell.”

“Why not?! It’s perfect!” Dustin exclaimed, with all his usual self-assured pluck.

Steve scoffed. “Yeah. Maybe for you little shits.”

“You said your parents are out of town. Empty house with no one out of the loop around, check.” Lucas began, counting off on his fingers. “Big house, big enough to fit the whole troop, check.” he continued before he brought his hand down and simply stated, “Also Dustin’s been over before and we’re all a little insulted.”

Dustin indigently began, “You don’t have to say it like that—

“And you’ve cooked for him already.” Lucas continued, heedless of Dustin’s complaints.

Steve pointedly glared at Dustin. “That was our secret.”

Dustin was making it a point to avoid eye contact as he flimsily started, “Well, we never explicitly agreed—”

“You wanna get explicit? I’ll get explicit you little—”

“I just think that it’s high time that the rest of us were extended an invitation, is all.” Lucas cut in, ignoring the two front-seaters’ bickering. He leant back into the cushions and crossed his arms, an all too pleased look on his face, as if he had just performed some kind of ultimate, unbeatable move. A checkmate.

“Yeah, well me making tacos and shit for Henderson is a lot different than making a whole goddamn Christmas feast for you nerds and the Byers and the goddamn Chief of Police and his magic daughter.”

Tacos?” Lucas parroted with utter disappointment (and a hint of betrayal) over having missed such an occasion.

“Yep.” Dustin popped with a little too much satisfaction over having one-up’d his friend seeping into his voice and evident by his jutted jaw. “With freshly chopped steak and everything. Like he cut up a hunk of steak and then chopped it into itty pieces and seared them up.”

Lucas audibly swallowed before he sighed, “Ah, man…”

Ignoring them both, Max leaned forward and stuck her head over the center console between the two front seats and lolled her head in the driver’s direction. “Don’t be a Scrooge, Steve. It’s a major cliche.”

“I know that you’re new here, kid.” Steve started, as if he were about to begin one of his ‘I’m more experienced than you’ speeches. “But my whole life is a cliche.”

“Well, you’re not very good at sticking to the script, if you ask me.” she shrugged.

“I didn’t.” he said without missing a beat as he turned a corner. “And just because I don’t want a home invasion doesn’t mean I’m a Scrooge.”

“But tis the season for home invasions, Steve.” Lucas practically sing-songed. At the rest of the car’s blank looks, he furthered, “‘Cause of Santa Claus? Duh.”

Steve’s brows furrowed in distaste. “That’s a messed up way of looking at it, Sinclair.”

“Yeah, thanks for forever ruining Santa Claus for everybody, Lucas.” Dustin chimed in.

Lucas clicked his tongue. “You’re just mad ‘cause it’s true.”

“And you’re all idiots.” Max rebutted before she turned her attention back to Steve. “You most of all if you think a party’s a drag. Weren’t you some kind of party king?”

“Yeah, y’know, before her brother dethroned you?” Lucas prodded.

“Strike two, Sinclair. One more and I’m literally kicking you to the curb.” Steve threatened with another pointed glare in the rearview mirror.

Lucas scrunched up his face in confused annoyance. “When was I even given a strike one?”

“It’s not like all the cooking duties are gonna be left to you. Everyone’ll pitch in and bring something.” Dustin continued despite Steve’s various attempts to shut this conversation down.

“Like a potluck.” Lucas furthered.

“Yeah!” Dustin exclaimed.

And,” Max began, holding a hand up to her chest in her version of a sincere gesture, “we’ll personally help you set things up and lend you a hand in the kitchen.”

“That’s awfully generous, Mayfield…” Steve drolled, sending Max a suspicious look in the mirror. “What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that I got nothing better to do.” she answered plainly.

“I just don’t see why it has to be my house.” Steve groused stubbornly. “I’m sure there are plenty of other places to—”

“You don’t get it, Steve!” Dustin continued to protest, loudly. “This is the only way that Hopper’s gonna let it happen! It can’t be at any of our houses ‘cause of our families and the Byers’ house is too small and the cabin is supposed to be a secret. Your house is gonna be empty.” he pointed out and if Steve hadn’t faced down both a Demagorgon and demadogs (he didn’t care that they were basically the same thing), he would’ve flinched at the slap of that harsh truth.

But as it turns out, Steve didn’t have to as Dustin’s expression quickly sobered as he seemed to realize the implications of what he just said, all on his own. “I...I didn’t mean it like that.” he quickly assured.

With a calm that didn’t betray the sting the words brought to his old wounds, Steve shrugged and said, “I know what you meant.”

He couldn’t blame the kid. It was true, after all. Like every year since before he could remember, Steve’s house would be empty and this year he didn’t have Tommy or Carol or Nancy’s celebration to crash.

So what was so wrong with the idea of throwing a post-We Saved the World (twice) bash at his place instead of shooting back spiked eggnog after eggnog and pathetically singing along to Garland and Crosby till December 25th came to an end?

“We’ll help.” Max repeated in an oddly calm and reassuring voice, breaking Steve from his depressing thoughts. “Mom and Neil have a party and who the hell cares what Billy is doing. I have all day to help you.”

“And this’ll get me out of going to my Great Aunt Edna’s with my mom.” Dustin added. “It’s in Wisconsin, Steve. Wisconsin. Don’t make me go back there.”

“What’s wrong with Wisconsin?” Lucas asked, seeming genuinely confused.

Dustin looked back at him and plainly answered, as if it were entirely too obvious, “Great Aunt Edna is there.”

Steve drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in thought, weighing his options (which there weren’t many of).

Eventually, he gave a heavy sigh. “What day would this hypothetical party be?”

Lucas barely contained his victorious noise, Max hitting him in admonishment, and Dustin beamed a strange smile at him. One that looked...proud, for some reason.

“The 23rd.” Dustin answered him, which Steve noted was only like, less than a week away. “Everything’s all planned out, from who’s bringing what to what time everybody’s coming and everything.”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “That so? You tell everybody that this party was happening at my place before you asked me?”

“I said I had an idea for a fixed location.” Dustin countered, at least looking a bit sheepish.

“Hopper may have also mentioned that the only way he’d let it happen would be if it was at your place.” Lucas shrugged in admittance. “‘Cause of how secluded we’d be or something.”

“I think he only agreed because he was pretty freakin’ sure that you’d say no.” Max stated to Steve in a tone that spoke plain truth. “I wish I could see his face when he finds out it’s actually happening.”

“That makes one of us...” Steve murmured as he slouched a bit in his seat. Great. Now the freakin’ Chief of Police was gonna be pissed off ‘cause of him. Maybe not directly pissed off at him, but because of him. Which was just as bad.

“But imagine how psyched El will be!” Dustin added jovially. “Her first actual Christmas with family! It’ll be the greatest Christmas party of all time!” he proclaimed.

And shit, that’s right. It was that El girl’s first Christmas out of hiding, as far as Steve knew. He doesn’t know much about the kid (he’s only kinda-sorta met her in person once, but holy shit was she a little badass, with a popped jacket collar and dark eye grease, looking like a Joan Jett look-alike). He figured that those kooks at the Lab didn’t treat her the best (which was the understatement of the century) so he’s pretty damn sure that any sorta history of holiday celebrations was off the table.

With a suddenly sparked - or rather, afire interest, Steve began to actually contemplate throwing a Christmas party for their weird little troop in earnest.

“What...What’s everyone bringing exactly?” Steve asked somewhat hesitantly, a bit confused as to why it was so hard to voice in the first place.

Dustin beamed at him again, that strange little satisfied - proud smile he sometimes gave him. “Lots of different things!” he answered enthusiastically.

As they finally pulled up to the front of the Arcade, Dustin began rummaging through his backpack again, this time pulling out a freakin’ Manila folder with the word ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ written across it in red Sharpie. Overdramatic little shit.

Steve pulled into a close by vacant spot, the whole lot basically empty because it was so freaking cold out that nobody in their right mind would think about going outside if they absolutely didn’t have to. Nobody except Steve’s dumb kids, he thought as he put the car into park.

“This is everything you need to know.” Dustin said vaguely, giving the folder a light smack with the back of his hand before handing it over to a scrutinous Steve.

As the gremlins filed out of his car, the Winter chill flooding in, Steve repressed a shudder and opened the folder only to have his eyes drawn to an envelope taped to the inside of it.

However, this envelope had something much more specific written across it in red and green Sharpie.

‘Secret Santa for Steve’

“My freakin’ what—” Steve began before he was interrupted by the sound of the passenger door slamming shut, apparently the only way Dustin knew how to end conversations.

“I knew he’d freak.” Steve heard Max add before the back doors promptly shut and Steve was left alone as the three pre-teens hurriedly made their way out of the cold and into the arcade.

With a scowl, Steve turned his attention back to the folder. The other paper inside it was just a list of things people agreed to bring, from food to games to decorations.

The other thing was of course the damn envelope.

A Secret Santa gift exchange? What were they, a damn Girl Scout troop?

Steve threw the folder on the passenger seat, deciding to just ignore the stupid concept entirely and just focus on getting the house ready and breaking out those Lurkins and Rosso cookbooks his mom bought and then never used, already having a good idea of what he should make for the stupid dinner…

But then again, he thought as he looked back to the folder, he didn’t wanna be the only asshole who didn’t get anyone anything. (Imagine one of those kids’ heartbroken faces when they found out nobody got them anything. That they were forgotten).

With an audible groan, Steve leaned over and roughly grabbed the folder, opening it up and tearing the envelope away from the piece of tape that held it to the folder.

“What bullshit…” he muttered to himself as he ripped the envelope open.

When he read the little slip of paper that was written inside - small enough that it must’ve been put into a hat along with a bunch of others - Steve’s face fell and something that had to be dread or despair settled in the pit of his stomach.

Great. How was he supposed to know what the hell freaking Max Mayfield - stepsister of the reason Steve’s face and ribs still held a twinge of pain anytime he pulled the wrong move - wanted for Christmas?

Chapter Text

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas
It's the best time of the year...”

Max wasn’t really in the Christmas mood this year, despite how cheery the animated snowman on the radio sounded. Or really, she hasn’t been in the mood any year since her parents split.

But the Christmas after moving to the middle-of-nowhere, Indiana and learning that there’s an alternate dimension that has multiple crazy monsters that are trying to kill you and take over the whole dimension while they’re at it, left her feeling especially not so holly jolly.

But the Hargroves (plus one Mayfield) had a new house, new jobs, new people to show off to. So they’d send out their Christmas cards, go to the parties they had to go to. If there was one thing her home life had taught her, it’s that image is everything. Images told people what to think. For the expanded Hargroves, they wanted their image to say, ‘Look at our modern family, aren’t you impressed?’

If only everyone in this blind town could see behind that Brady Bunch facade that her mom tried desperately to keep in place. If Hawkins could see what everyone in California saw, then maybe they’d have skip town again. Or maybe - even less likely - they’d become so good at playing their roles that eventually, it would be an act anymore. They’d be a functioning, normal family. Maybe then Max would stop feeling like she had to be on high alert every time they were all together.

But since that was all super unlikely, she guessed she could get used to Hawkins.

Evil monsters aside, this town wasn’t all bad. She had made some great friends here. Better friends than she’s ever made in her whole life spent in California.

All the girls in her hometown were too...valley girl for Max’s taste. On the hot black top at recess in elementary school, while Max wanted to explore, adventure, play superheroes, all the other girls just wanted to sit down in a shady part of the black top and just talk. All recess long. About nothing really because they were like nine, what the hell could they have to talk about that was so important? It bothered her a lot at first, that she couldn’t completely fit in with the other girls. She liked Laverne & Shirley as much as the next girl and was prone to voicing the occasional, unironic‘gag me with a spoon’ but that didn’t mean that they had anything in common. Very few of them went for her whole rebel-secret-nerd vibe and boys were just brain dead and thought she had some sort of disease that they could catch if they went near her and didn’t try and pick a fight with her. So she spent most of her time alone. But she had the skatepark and the arcade at the Pier. She was fine. She had fun on her own. She had the scars and high scores to prove it.

But moving to Hawkins, having friends her age, with interests she actually shared, who literally risked their lives for her’s and everyone else’s, was pretty sweet (not that she’d ever admit that, she was supposed to be the cool Californian after all).

Despite her bad stroke of luck with holiday seasons, having a friend group-wide Christmas party was also pretty sweet. Grown up and teenage relations to those friends aside, she never thought she’d have enough friends to even have such a thing. It was...nice.

But she couldn’t believe her incredibly bad stroke of luck when the Secret Santa assignments were given out. She knew it was anonymous, but come on. Someone had to be messing with her.

Of all the people to choose from, she had to get El. The only one of the Party who hated Max, for some reason. Maybe it was just because Max was - well - Max. And no girl’s ever liked Max.

But the assignments were final and once you picked a name, you couldn’t put it back (unless it was your own name of course). Dustin had been super adamant about that rule for some reason. Which kind of pissed Max off because she would’ve traded with Mike in a heartbeat because he clearly wanted El and was noticeably mad when he didn’t get her and Max would’ve taken anybody else out of the lot. Anybody. Even the freaking Police Chief if it meant not getting El.

But no. The results were final, she reminded herself as her hands gripped the shoddily wrapped present in her lap a little tighter. The Party had picked their gift recipients and then Dustin made sure that Mike’s sister, the Chief and El, and Will’s brother and mom were given their random assignments. And Steve, who was given the last name in the lot, since no one bothered to inform him about all this until the last second.

As that old snowman finally sang his last note, the car pulled up outside of the Harrington residence, the address having been radioed to her by Dustin only a few days ago. Her mom (she wasn’t stupid enough to hand over Steve’s address by having Billy drive her) then pulled into the driveway and - for some reason - cut the engine.

As her mom unbuckled her own seatbelt, Max felt something like dread dawn. She whipped her head into her mother’s direction and asked with abject horror, “What’re you doing?”

Mom looked over to her, looking mildly amused yet confused at Max’s reaction. “Going to go greet your host?”

“No.” Max responded immediately.

Mom just rolled her eyes as she opened the car door and stepped out, heels clicking on the pavement as she found a snow-free patch to walk on.

Mom.” Max choked out in horror as she momentarily struggled to undo her own seatbelt, rushing out of the car, not caring about the cold snow leaking into the Mary Janes her mom forced her into as she lept straight into a snowbank in her haste. Max nearly sprinted around the car and blocked her mom’s path through the Harrington’s massive - what the hell - driveway, nearly causing her to drop the plate of gingerbread men she had made the night before.

“Maxine.” Mom huffed in frustration.

“You’re not going in there.” Max stated firmly, even holding her arms out for good measure.

Mom just rolled her eyes again, clearly unimpressed. “Max, hunny, I’m not hanging around. I’m just dropping these off, I promise.”

“Well then, I can just bring these inside for you...” Max insisted as she began to reach for the plate before Mom easily pulled them away from her reach.

“Honestly, Maxine, knock it off.” Mom said in a stern tone, causing Max to frown and drop her arms to her sides with an audible slap. “Thank you.” Mom added, her expression doing a complete 180 as she delicately stepped around Max and through the shoveled path of snow that lead to Steve’s front porch. Max followed after, frowning. Mom somehow noticed, of course.

“Relax, sweety. I just want to meet the boy, is all. Not only does he drive you around all the time but he hosts a party for you and all of your friends? It’s sweet.” Mom explained, but Max wasn’t fooled.

“I know you think it’s weird.” she said bluntly.

Mom huffed another breath. “Well, I won’t lie.” she admitted, leaving it at that.

“I told you, Mom. He’s our babysitter.” she reiterated for what felt like the thousandth time.

“I know, I know...What a nice house.” Mom noted, clearly not listening to Max anymore as she took in the impressive sight that was the Harrington residence.

There were Christmas lights hung up all along the roof and what her mom would describe as ‘tasteful’ decorations. No blatant baby Jesus in a manger or plastic Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh but a lot of little lights winding down the path, the skinny tree to the right strung with lights, and garland hung all over the place. And on the most massive, weirdest door Max has ever seen on a house - there were two of them, leading to one place - hung two massive, lushes green wreaths. It looked like something straight out of one of Mom’s home magazines. Max knew that Loch Nora was supposed to be the rich neighborhood, but damn. It was the type of place she would’ve hit up on Halloween. No doubt they gave out full-size candy bars. She wonders if the group deliberately avoided the place that night.

Without further delay, Mom rang the doorbell and Max half expected for like, a gong or something to sound but no, it just sounded like a normal doorbell.

Over the blaring sax of the music coming from inside, Max could hear what sounded like muffled, excited shouts, a cry of alarm, and then straight up screaming. Mom’s face twisted with something either worry or judgement. Probably both.

Then, the double doors opened inward and then Dustin appeared, face turned away as he screamed, “I GOT IT!” at what had to have been the top of his lungs before he turned his head in their direction and beamed. “Max!” he exclaimed at a lower-yet-still-high volume before he took a second and realized that Max wasn’t actually alone. “Mrs. Mayfield!” he greeted, equally as enthusiastic.

“Hargrove.” Max corrected.

“Oh shiii—right! Sorry, Mrs. Hargrove.” he amended with a somewhat sheepish smile.

“That’s alright.” Mom smiled, looking Dustin over from his loud ‘Holium Holium Holium’ sweater to his elf hat, fit with pointed ears and a jingle bell. “You must be Dustin?” Mom guessed and Max had to give it to her on that.

That only seemed to make Dustin more enthusiastic. “Yes! Hi, nice to meet you. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas.” Mom returned. “I’ll be honest, Dustin. You’re not quite who I expected to meet right now, but I’m happy to finally meet one of Maxine’s friends, regardless.” she said with a pointed glance to Max. Max just resisted rolling her eyes.

“Me too!” Dustin returned before realization of what Max’s mom actually meant set in. “Oh, but Steve’s just in the kitchen. He’s, uh, cleaning up a spill.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you made him drop the eggs!” came Lucas’ shout from what had to be the kitchen. Sure enough, from down the hall, Lucas came strolling into view, flicking what had to be egg from off his foot. “I swear, that guy’s jumpier than a bunny…”

“What the hell did you just say, Sinclair?” came Steve’s indignant reply from the kitchen.

“My mistake! You’re clearly Bambi!” Lucas shouted back pointedly before he caught sight of Max and her mom in the doorway and froze. Max was all but holding her head in her hands at this point. Idiots...

At least Dustin looked guilty, empathetic grimace on his face as his eyes nervously flickered from Max’s mom to the kitchen.

“I swear to God, Sinclair. How many times do I gotta go over the strike system with—” Steve began, walking out into the foyer and wiping his hands aggressively on a dishtowel. Once he caught sight of the woman in the doorway however, he paused.

Then suddenly, it was as if a flip were switched.

The startled expression switched to something almost sheepish. Meek. Despite looking completely off guard just a second before, Steve seemed to swiftly compose himself as he smoothly flung the towel over his shoulder, walking the rest of the slightly considerable distance between the kitchen and the front door with a clear hint of hustle. “Oh, sorry. Mrs. Hargrove, right?” he greeted, looking a bit timid.

Mom gave a polite smile. “That’s right. Steve, right? It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Steve flashed a pearly smile, seeming a bit more confident, “Thanks. You too. Sorry. Caught me a bit off guard...Oh. Let me get that.” he insisted as he reached out and took the cookie ladened plate from Max’s mom.

“Oh, well, thank you!” Mom returned, looking pleased.

What the fuck was going on?

Lucas and Dustin were also giving Steve baffled looks, so good, it wasn’t only Max who weirded out then.

But the weirdest part was that it didn’t look like Steve was faking. It just looked like this was how he always acted with adults. Which was weird, ‘cause Max can’t remember if she’s ever seen him act this way with the Chief or Will’s mom. He seemed very polite. Like he was watching everything that he did and choosing everything that he said very carefully. It was then that Max realized that Steve wasn’t playing shy. He was actually nervous that he’d somehow fuck up this interaction. Max didn’t know if she should be flattered or weirded out.

“And you must be Lucas?” Mom guessed, breaking Max out of her thoughts as a new kind of worry formed. She recognized that tone. That was Mom’s insinuating tone.

In a moment of weakness - and in the hopes of fending off further lectures about ‘being open to new situations’ - Max told her mom that she’d danced with Lucas at the Snow Ball (she left out the part about the kissing, because she wasn’t an idiot).

Lucas smiled and with an expressional transition that wasn’t nearly as smooth or subtle as Steve’s, he sauntered forward, knocking into said teen as he held out his hand to Mom. “Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m Lucas. Sinclair.”

“She just said your name, stupid.” Max pointed out, but she went ignored.

Mom took his hand and gave it a shake, amusement clear in her expression, so Max guessed that was a good sign. “It’s very nice to meet you, Lucas.”

“You as well.” he added in what Max assumed was supposed to be his Lionel Richie impression. But then, nervously, he added, “Ma’am.”

Mom laughed. “Well, like I said. It’s nice to finally meet some of Max’s friends.” she said to Dustin and Lucas, who flashed her smiles.

“Would you like to come inside, Mrs. Hargrove?” Steve then asked. “I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a mess because we’re still trying to get everything ready for tonight, but it’s a lot warmer in here than it is on the stoop, I can tell you that.”

“No, no, that’s alright. I can’t stay.” Mom informed. “But I just wanted to pop by and say thank you. Firstly to Maxine’s friends for being so nice to her. Moving can be tough, so thanks for making it a little easier for her.”

Mom.” Max groaned.

“No problem, Mrs. Hargrove.” Dustin beamed again.

“Yeah, I love Max.” Lucas assured before his eyes widened and he continued, “I love - We! We love having her around. Everybody.”

Steve gave a snort and Dustin seemed to be doing his best to keep himself from falling over, ducking behind Steve to hide his poorly contain chortles.

This time, Max rolled her eyes, despite the warm feeling that pooled in her stomach.

“Well that’s good to know.” Mom, to her credit, laughed before she turned her gaze to Steve. “And secondly, thank you for all the free babysitting. I do wish you’d let us pay—”

“No, it’s no problem. I love the little knuckleheads.” Steve assured as he grabbed onto Dustin’s head and ruffled his hair pretty roughly much to the other’s voiced annoyance. He even knocked Dustin’s stupid hat from his head, the little bell jingling frantically as the younger fumbled to catch it and keep it from falling to the floor.

“Um, Steve, if you don’t mind my asking, how is it that you know all the kids…?” Mom trailed and there it was. Max knew Mom was taking this all too well.

“Mom, he’s our babysitter.” Max reminded for what had to have been the thousandth time.

“Nancy’s—uh, our friend Mike’s sister’s boyfriend.” Lucas added. “Um. Ex. Ex-boyfriend.”

Steve gave Lucas the stink eye and Max is sure that he would’ve loved to bring up the strike system again right about now.

“Her ex-boyfriend?” Mom parroted, seeming confused.

“He’s also my big brother!” Dustin added hastily, to which the rest of the group gave him looks of horror (except for Max’s mom, who just looked more confused). Thankfully, Dustin was (debatably) smart enough to realize that there was no way Max’s mom would’ve bought that. “From the Big Brother program. At school.” he quickly amended.

Mom’s eyes lit up in what had to have been understanding and Max and Lucas visibly deflated from their worry, but Steve looked confused, like he had no idea what Dustin’s excuse even meant. Luckily, Dustin noticed this and was able to save the day again.

With a grand flourish, Dustin wrapped his arm around Steve’s back a bit roughly, nearly causing the latter to drop the platter he still carried. “Yes, ma’am, the day we got paired was the best day of my life. The Hawkins Big Brother program - that, uh, disbanded not too long ago - paired up us underprivileged, only children and gave us the best Big Siblings we could’ve asked for. Isn’t that right, big bro?”

Steve pulled a face, which was hard to describe. He still looked confused, but instead of the disgust Max was expecting, his expression looked carefully...neutral. “Yeah.” Steve practically croaked. “Right.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” Mom cooed, looking at Steve as if he were some kind of Saint. Damn, Max didn’t think that the lie would work that well.

“Yep. Ever since, even after the program shut down, we’ve been thick as thieves. I haven’t given him a single day of peace since.” Dustin continued, doing his best impression of someone reminiscing about times much farther away than like, a month ago.

“Not one.” Steve added dryly.

Mom giggled again. “Well, thank you again for always looking after the kids. And for throwing this party! How nice! And for including Max.”

Alright, her mom was making her sound like a loser.

“No problem. I appreciate the free labor.” Steve joked as he used his free arm to pull Max into the doorway, the chill already leaving her as the heat from the indoors and her nearby friends radiated to her. “Got a lot of prep to do before six, so I need all the help I can get. Even if Lucas has just been using the time to riffle through my records.” to which Lucas made an indignant noise of complaint.

Mom was clearly charmed, because she laughed again. (What the hell, Steve? What kind of lame superpower was this?)

“Well, I’ll stop wasting all your heating and let you all get to it.” Mom dismissed politely as she turned to Max and brushed a lock of hair that had fallen from the braid she had painfully given her earlier behind her ear. “I’ll see you later tonight. Thank you again, boys. It was nice meeting you all. Merry Christmas, from my family to yours!”

None of them voiced their shared thought that the only members of her family that would even want to wish them such a thing were already standing on this porch. Instead, they returned the kind gesture and offered their goodbyes as Mom’s heels clicked down the path back to the driveway and the car, the woman soon pulling away to many enthusiastic waves from Dustin and Lucas.

“She’s nice.” Lucas commented, turning to Max with a smile, who did not return his gesture in the slightest.

“That could’ve gone a lot worse.” Dustin noted.

“You think so, little bro?” Steve asked pointedly.

“I didn’t see you coming up with anything better!”

“Whatever, just get inside. You’re wasting all the heat.” he said as he promptly turned, ushering the rest of them inside with a few pointed shoves.

“No fair. Why’re you only an asshole to us?”

“Yeah, that’s some BS.” Lucas added before Steve kicked the doors closed.

If Max thought the outside of the Harrington home was impressive, the inside was even more so. Asides from being massive, it looked pretty modernly designed with the neutral color tones and the Christmas decorations inside matching those of the outside, with garland and twinkling lights wrapped around the stair banister. She noted, however, that any sort of non-Christmas decoration remained entirely...neutral. She didn’t see one family photo anywhere. Not even any pictures of just people in general.

“Nice digs. I love what Martha Stewart’s done with the place.” Max commented as she shrugged out of her coat, the warmth of the house already seeping into her body.

Like the gentleman Lucas was (trying to be), he held out his arm and with a roll of her eyes, Max draped her coat along it.

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to say, what the hell, Steve?” Lucas asked as he opened the door nearest the stairs (the coat closet, apparently) and hung her coat on one of the hooks for her. “I thought your mom wasn’t home?”

“She’s not.” Steve grounded out, clearly annoyed as he continued on down the hall, the rest of the group following along.

“Oh, then you’ve done all the decorating yourself? I didn’t take you as the artsy type.” Max jabbed as they walked past an impressive looking china cabinet.

“Shut up, Mayfield. Even if my mom isn’t here, I think she’d have an aneurysm if the house wasn’t perfectly decorated. And, f-y-i, she didn’t leave till a couple weeks ago. Besides, she hires people to do most of it anyway...” Steve explained. Max doubted that was entirely true, eyeing the elaborately set dining room table they walked past skeptically. When they finally reached what had to have been the kitchen, Steve turned in the entryway and stopped, blocking the rest of the way for everyone with his long limbs. “The rest of the decorating, you shits are supposed to be doing. Including decorating that goddamn real tree Henderson insisted on.”

“You can’t have a plastic tree at El’s first Christmas, Steve!” Dustin responded with a bit of an edge to his tone, giving Max the impression that they’ve had this argument before. “Think of the precedent you’re setting!”

“No, what I’m thinking of is all the shit that you and Sinclair still have to set-up for tonight. I put it in the stupid stand for you, get the decorations for the fake tree and put them on the real one, already.”

“Okay, okay. Just relax, buddy.” Dustin sighed placatingly as he retreated, knowing that he had nothing more to argue.

That didn’t mean Lucas didn’t though. “God, you’re so bossy...” he grumbled as he and Dustin retreated from where they came, back past the dining room and to the foyer.

“You’re going to the attic only.” Steve called after them.

Yeah/Okay.” Dustin and Lucas answered simultaneously, both sounding equally as unconvincing as they stomped up the stairs with as much noise as a band of horses.

Steve made what could’ve only been classified as a growling noise before he turned into the kitchen and Max followed after him.

Of course, the kitchen was pristine white with goddamn marble and granite or something and an island, complete with stools and shit. The only thing looking off about the picturesque scene was all the cooking crap strewn around everywhere.

Steve walked over to a corner of the long countertop near the fridge and placed the plate from Max’s mom down alongside another covered tray already there, probably brought by one of the other idiots. He then went to the sink and rinsed his hands off before he wiped them off on the rag hung over his shoulder and made his way over to the stove.

“Wash your hands and then crack two more eggs into that the bowl over there. Mix it after each one.” Steve ordered with a gesture over his shoulder to the metal mixing bowl on the island countertop and half-empty egg carton next to it, before he bent over and checked a knob on the oven.

“Making the girl help you in the kitchen? I thought you were more open minded than that.” Max scoffed as she placed her wrapped gift on the little table they passed near the windows. Despite her comment, she made her way to the sink and after having to take a moment to figure out what knob controlled the water and what released the soap (damn rich people), Max washed up.

“You can do whatever the hell you want, Red. Just that those bozos have proved to be completely incompetent with any kind of utensil, not to mention Sinclair keeps trying to eat all my goddamn cereal every time he comes in here, so I thought you’d be the best bet ‘cause no way I’m getting all this shit done in time by myself.” Steve rambled before he straightened up and looked straight to the gift she had placed down. “That for the Secret Santa?”

Max just raised an eyebrow.

Steve rolled his eyes with a sigh. “Yeah, obviously. You can put it in the living room with the rest of them. Just keep heading straight and then it’s on your left.” he instructed.

“Making me wash my hands for literally no reason...” Max groused as she made her way out of the kitchen to do just that.

“Now who’s being a Scrooge?” was Steve’s lax reply as he continued to do whatever it was he was doing.

As Max made her way out of the room and past the china cabinet, she decided now was as good a time as any to do some snooping of the ground floor. She followed the music and went past a little sitting area with windows to the woods outback and took a left, finding the room with the stereo with relative ease. Peeking over a random mini half-wall, she found what had to be the stairs to the basement. Looking back to the entryway of the next room, she saw what looked to be a loveseat, so she guessed that had to be the living room, despite all the couches she’s walked past already. Well, since she found the living room already, she might as well check out what was straight down the hall, before the turn.

She retraced her steps and surprise surprise, she found more chairs in a room she was able to identify as a sunroom, thanks to her mom’s love of home magazines. It had wide windows all around and a set of sliding doors that lead to a big snow-covered back lawn and patio and a giant, covered pool. The lack of snow atop the tarp lead Max to believe that the pool was heated, a fact that she would be sure to confirm and/or exploit in the near future. There wasn’t much else to look at in this room, so she let the sound of the music that was still playing guide back to where she came from, thinking to herself that it was doing a pretty decent job at describing what she just saw. The yard looked like a calendar picture, mostly undisturbed sparkling snow blanketing the grass, the rest of it sprinkled on the trees that lied beyond the tall wooden fence...

The whole house, including the yards, seemed to be really open. It was way less cramped than anywhere Max has ever lived, that was for sure. The hallways wound on for seemingly forever. It would be easy to get lost if she wasn’t paying attention. And this was just the first floor. Overall, Max thought that it seemed like a lot of space for just three people. A lot of empty space.

Finally, she entered the living room and of course, it was just as impressive as the rest of the place fit with a big TV, a nice fireplace, like, a dozen places to sit, and that tree the guys were bitching about.

It was an impressive height, taller than Max’s tree at home, the Harrington’s crazy high ceilings fitting it more than comfortably. It was also barren aside from some white lights wrapped around it, the empty cardboard boxes laid out by it, and the three presents laying underneath on the skirt beneath it. Clutching the gift in her hand, Max thought that El would definitely be impressed by the tree. It felt good to be sure about at least that.

But, like the rest of the rooms, the living room looked like it was straight from a magazine, any little telling knickknacks or mementos that could cue you into just who the hell was living here were missing. It was kind of...sad, she noted as she placed her gift underneath the tree, which lacked any other gifts besides the ones that they all brought.

“Pretty nice, right?” a voice called, causing her to crane her head all the way up to meet the owner’s gaze. Looking down at her from the apparently open-walled walkway of the second floor, was Dustin.

“It’s unnecessarily big.” Max noted as she straightened up.

Dustin, as always, seemed undeterred by Max’s slightly sullen attitude and just grinned at her. “Wait until you see the upstairs! Lucas got lost like, four times.”

Just then, as if he had been summoned, Lucas’ face appeared next to Dustin’s. “One bedroom’s got a fireplace, Max. A fireplace!

“THAT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE YOU’RE MOVING BOXES!” came Steve’s yell, audible even from the kitchen and over the music.

“ALRIGHT!” Dustin screeched back at an equally as loud volume before he and Lucas disappeared from her sight again. Max resisted rolling her eyes and instead returned to the kitchen.

“Your house is crazy big, rich boy.” she commented when she finally reentered to see Steve standing at the island countertop, dicing up like, a full loaf of bread.

“You guys are really making me feel good about agreeing to this party, you know that?” Steve replied, not taking his eyes off his task.

“What’re you making anyway?” Max asked as she peered over his shoulder.

Steve then muttered something, the words being lost in a clearly fake cough.

“What?” Max grunted.

Steve stopped his cutting, let out a way too dramatic sigh, and then muttered more intelligibly, “Pineapple soufflé.”

Max couldn’t help her laugh. “I’m sorry, what?

“You heard me, brat.” Steve bit out as he hunched his shoulders before giving her a shove with his elbow. This only spurred Max into further laughter. “It’s for the goddamn ham, alright? Keep laughing, I won’t let you have any.”

“You’re making ham? Like a whole ham?” Max asked.

“Yeah, cause the only other actual food for tonight is that small-ass, uncooked turkey Dustin brought over and I’ve seen how you gremlins eat, let alone the rest of this stupid group...” Steve explained as he continued his cutting with a bit too much gusto, face turned down.

Oh, Max then realized. He’s embarrassed.

“I didn’t know you could cook.” Max commented, easing up for the time being and making her tone more neutral.

Steve eyed her. “I thought Dustin blabbed to you guys?”

“He said you cooked.” she shrugged. “But I didn’t think he meant you could actually cook…” Max furthered, eyeing the open cookbooks on the countertop curiously.

“That remains to be seen.” Lucas then commented from the doorway, ‘causing Steve to practically jump out of his skin. “Relax, man. You’re too jumpy.”

“Keep it up, Sinclair and see how much farther you’re gonna get.” Steve, now recovered, threatened, along with a wave of the knife in his hand.

“In what?”

“In life.

Lucas huffed, unimpressed. “You’re so dramatic.”

“What the hell are you even doing here? Those boxes better be down here.”

“They are.” Lucas groaned. “We’re decorating, we just wanted to know how to change the radio over to the record player.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “I thought I told you not to touch my records?”

“And I thought you said they were your mom’s records?” Lucas countered with a smirk. “Because really, I didn’t take you for an ABBA fan.”

Max gave a disbelieving snort.

Steve scowled. “Those are my mom’s.”

“But if she’s been gone for like, a week, why’re they on the top of the pile?”

Steve sighed heavily. “If you’re some kinda genius, Sinclair, how come you can’t work a stupid sound system?”

Lucas put up his hands in a placating manner. “Was just double checking. I could always leave the radio on the Christmas station. If we’re lucky, maybe some more Wham! will come on.”

Jesus Christ, just get Henderson to do it! He knows how to work it.” Steve finally snapped, slamming the knife down on the counter.

Lucas gave a shit-eating grin over having won yet another battle of wits. “Thanks, Steve!” he thanked before he bolted out of the room and called out “He said yes!”, Dustin’s excited ‘WHOOP!’ easily audible from the living room.

Steve grimaced, as if he wasn’t sure whether to smile or scowl before he went back to his cutting, probably focusing a bit too much on it. Max eyed him, going back over to the sink and washing her hands before walking back over to the island next to Steve. She hitched up her sleeves and picked up an egg from the carton, cracking it on the side of the bowl.

“Yokes?” she asked.

“Huh?” Steve huffed.

“For the mix or whatever. Do you need the yokes?”

“Oh, yeah.” he finally answered, looking up and shooting her a...weird look. Appreciative was the best word she could come up with to describe it.

Without further prompting, she dumped the shell’s contents into the bowl which already had most of some kind of creamed mixture. She turned and tossed the empty shell into the sink behind her. When she turned back, she noticed Steve’s weird look was still directed at her and eyed him suspiciously. “What?” she asked, defensive annoyance leaking into her tone.

“Nothing.” Steve said in a breathy laugh, reaching across the counter and handing Max the hand mixer she didn’t notice before. “Just that those idiots wouldn’t even think to ask a question like that. That’s why I thought you’d be the best of the lot for this.” he explained as he went back to his cutting.

“I’m the best of them for everything.” Max corrected before she looked at the mixer, finding the switch she needed to and setting to work, trying not to let the fact that the power of the stupid thing caused her hand to jerk before she quickly regained control.

Over the sound of the mixer’s whirring, Max heard Steve actually laugh at her comment. “Damn right, Red.”

As Steve’s eyes were averted to focus on his task, Max now eyed him for an entirely new reason. That was the first time she ever heard him give a laugh that wasn’t slightly condescending or resembling a scoff. The first one he didn’t try to play off as cool. Christ, was Steve Harrington actually dropping his cool guy act infront of her?

She’d always been weary of boys like Steve. Good looking boys. The popular type with the enviable upbringing. A cliche. That’s what she had called him the other day and what she initially first thought about him when they met a few months ago, but she’s not so sure anymore. Max figured she shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. She of all people should know that people put up fronts. Especially people who wanted to look like hot shit compared to everyone else. And if Steve’s house was any indicator, then she figured that his parents and her’s must be kinda similar in that way.

Max turned off the mixer. “How come you know how to cook? Did your mom teach you?” she started conversationally, reaching across the counter for another egg.

“I’ve picked up some things from her, I guess.” Steve shrugged before using the knife to slide the cubed pieces of bread from the cutting board and into another ceramic bowl. “It’s mostly just from cookbooks and shit though. Just following a recipe...”

After making quick work of cracking the last egg, without prompting, Steve tossed her the towel and she wiped the bit of eggy membrane from off her hands. She then flung the towel back over his shoulder. Steve gave her an annoyed look.

“What?” she asked innocently. “I’m assuming you’re changing.” she said in her defense with a quick look to his plain‘Hawkins Basketball’ long sleeve.

“Still don’t appreciate being the human towel rack.” Steve grunted as he turned around and went into one of the like, thirty drawers and returned with a can opener. “But yeah, you’re definitely the smartest out of the shits, that’s for sure...” he muttered.

“I think the nerd club would strongly debate that.” Max commented. Besides, if they didn’t, their grades sure would.

Steve pffft’d. “They’re book smart. Which is great and all, but street smarts are waayy more practical, if you ask me.” he argued as he rummaged through a grocery bag and pulled out a large can with a shiny blue label.

Max paused. “You think I’m street smart?”

“Red, you ooze street smarts.” Steve emphasized as he picked up the can opener once more. “You’re observant as hell, remembering all the shit I tell you to when those guys couldn’t even mix sugar and butter together. And need I mention the Junkyard incident, where Lucas literally tried using a screen door as a reinforcement against monster hellhounds?” and Max couldn’t help her breathy laugh at that reminder... It was even funnier now that she knew that they weren’t trying to prank her.

Steve, noticing her reaction, flashed her a knowing smirk before he continued, “I said it before and I’ll say it again now; you were the most help that day, random girl. Even if you didn’t believe us, you still went to town, effort-wise. You’re persistent as hell too, since you annoyed your way into their little nerd troop and all. Though your driving leaves a lot to be desired.”

Max couldn’t help the warm feeling that caused the corners of her mouth to twitch up, wanting to pull into a wide, pleased smile. But she could keep it from showing. She never thought she’d get praised like this before. Certainly not by a boy like Steve Harrington. “Can I tell you something else I noticed?” she began, feeling as if she were given an opening she would be very unlikely to ever get again.

“Shoot.” Steve agreed as he lined the can opener up to the rim of the container.

Max, in the most neutral tone she could manage, stated, “I think you don’t like that Wham! song because it hits too close to home.” just as the speakers in the living room started blaring a loud melody.

Max wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but Steve sort of, twitched - jerked - and then let out a surprised yelp when the sharpened wheel of the can opener slipped from the rim of the can and clamped into his hand.

Shit!” both Max and Steve cried out at the same time, their voices drowned out by the energetic riffs of the song Dustin and Lucas chose to blast at that exact moment.

Steve quickly released the self-locking mechanism on the can opener and threw it on the counter in an erratic motion, Max paling as blood splattered along with the tool as it clattered noisily.

Sonuvbitch!” Steve cursed as he grabbed onto his hand in pain, blood rolling down his palm and past his wrist, dyeing his grey rolled up sleeves a dark red. He went for the towel still slung over his shoulder and that’s when Max jumped into action.

“Idiot! Don’t use that, it’s filthy!” she ordered as she grabbed onto the forearm of his bleeding hand and yanked it away from his own reach. “Here, lemme see it.” she muttered as she pulled his injured hand into view.

There was a giant, bloody gash running diagonally down his palm. The edge of his hand, the space between his pinky and wrist, seemed to be where the can opener clamped down, the skin being sliced open here. The graze on his palm was bloody, but thankfully shallow and the part that was clamped looked to be thankfully untorn, just pierced through.

Alright. This was fine. She didn’t need to panic. She’s handled stuff way worse than this like, hundreds of times. If she just kept telling herself that, then she’d keep calm, which would keep Steve calm.

“Come here, we gotta stop the bleeding.” Max began as she tugged Steve over to the sink by his arm, the older teen stumbling over his own feet as she lead him along. Max then turned the faucet to a mildly hot setting, letting the water run for a few seconds before testing it. Good enough, she decided as she pulled Steve’s arm into the sink, letting the warm water wash over his bloody hand, the water running pink into the basin below. “Keep it there.” she ordered as she let go. “You have a first aid kit?”

“Top cabinet. Third from the sink.” Steve rattled off, oddly quiet as he eyed Max strangely.

Figuring he was just in shock or something, Max followed Steve’s directions to what had to have been the Harrington’s medicine cabinet, the thing stock piled with all kinds of products from store bought cough and cold syrup to what looked like orange prescription pharmaceutical bottles. But there, on the bottom shelf of the cabinet was what she was looking for. A little plastic box with a red cross on the front. She grabbed it - only having to reach up slightly on her toes - and then after noticing a familiar dark brown bottle, she grabbed that too, for good measure.

She placed both items on a clean surface of the island and when she returned to the sink, Steve was still holding his hand under the stream but his gaze was directed to the doorway, where the music continued to play. Their little horror show had apparently gone unnoticed.

“...more look and I forget everything, woah
Mamma mia, here I go again...”

“Is that…” Max trailed, recognizing the melody.

The bastards…” Steve cursed through clenched teeth which Max was sure was because of rage as much as it was pain.

Max clicked her tongue in disdain. She was sure the idiots put that album on just to mess with Steve but clearly, they didn’t know how well it’d work.

She then looked back to the sink, where she found a clean dish towel folded nearby. She picked it up, turning the faucet off before she grabbed Steve’s arm again.
Blood started to pool again, so Max placed the towel over his palm and then pulled Steve over to one of the island’s stools.

“Sit.” she instructed.

“Max, it’s fine. It’s just a—”

“Sit. Down.” she repeated and with a petulant look, Steve perched himself in the stool. Satisfied, Max pulled the nearest stool a little closer and hoisted herself into it. She then carefully peeled the towel back and took a look. The gash traveled the width of his palm, but the open cut looked to be about an inch long, maybe shorter. The cut was bleeding still, but the flow from the gash was already starting to stop, the skin only splattered with a few gathering droplets. It just looked angry and raw, but nothing too concerning. And like she noticed before, the part of his hand that was sandwiched by the two blades looked like it wasn’t that serious. Painful, but not too serious. At least she thought so.

“It’s not too bad.” she observed.

Steve scoffed. “I could’ve told you that.”

“Well, sorry if I don’t trust your first aid, Mr. puts-a-dirty-towel-onto-a-bleeding-wound.” she snarked back as she turned the towel over to a non-blood soaked area and doused it in the rubbing alcohol she retrieved. Then without further pause, she wiped it along his palm.
Steve jerked before he went stock still. Glancing up, Max saw his grimace, but other than his initial smothered sound of pain, he offered no other noise of complaint while she worked.

“Sorry.” Max still apologized.

“Don’t be. It’s fine.” Steve assured as Max pulled away, placing another non-alcohol covered part of the towel back over the cut, which Steve helpfully took over holding as she began to go through the first aid kit.

As she riffled through the box noticing it was oddly...empty, she shot Steve a look, which she would later deny was one of concern. “You don’t seem all that freaked out.” she observed.

Steve shot her a look of his own. “I think you of all people should know that I’ve had worse.”

Oh, she recalled vividly.

“Yeah. I know.” she answered a bit defensively. She looked back to the box and found some bandages and a more than half-used roll of gauze. It would have to do. “I don’t think you need stitches.” she said, quickly taking the opportunity for a subject change.

“Too bad. That would’ve been the icing on the shitty cake, huh?” Steve joked with a wry grin.
Max just shot him a glare as she used a band-aid to cover the cut and close the skin together as best as she could. Steve’s look sobered as it pinched in pain. “Sorry.”

Max just hummed as she placed the gauze in his palm and wrapped the rest of it around his hand, using some more band-aids to tape it in place, making sure it wasn’t too tight, but not too loose. For good measure, she covered the gauze wrap in another layer of actual bandage. Hopefully the blood wouldn’t soak through too much and would stop bleeding soon.

“You’re...weirdly good at this, Red…” Steve trailed, voice coated with a clear amount of trepidation, as if he were cautiously approaching a cornered animal.

“I skate.” she answered without hesitation, as if that was all the answer he needed. Because really, he didn’t need to know that sometimes at the skatepark in California, when she failed to manage a trick and ended up falling painfully on her ass, instead of going crying to Mom - which is exactly what all the boys who would used to pick on her wanted - she learned to suck it up and dress her own hurts because Mom’s solution would’ve been to just stop skating. Or the other truth that her stepbrother got knocked around too much by his dad but wouldn’t admit it and Max used to sometimes help patch him up, which were some of the only times they’ve ever been non-hostile towards one another.

“Uh-huh.” Steve voiced, sounding entirely unconvinced. “You sure it’s not...” Steve started before he cut himself off. He pulled a face, as if he were deciding something. Probably his next words. Then, tentatively, he trailed, “Your...Billy, he doesn’t...Y’know…?”

“No.” Max answered a bit too hastily. “No. I know it...It probably doesn’t mean a lot to somebody who literally got their face beat in by him—”

Thanks for the reminder.

“—but he’s not like that. He...He breaks things when he’s angry, not people. At least, I thought so. Until that time with Lucas and you.” she admitted, eyes glazing over a little as she thought back. “That was the first time I’ve ever seen him get like that. It was like something snapped.”

She once thought Billy and herself were similar, with one parent each who couldn’t stick it out and didn’t bother to take their kid with them. Two troubled kids thrown into the deep end and told to sink or swim.

Actually, when she thought of her and Billy’s situation, for some reason, she always thought of it like they were swimming, or rather, not swimming, but that they were both stuck in a shitty situation. Like they were on a sandbank, one step away from becoming instantly neck deep in shit, from inhaling too much seawater and being unable to resurface. But that night at the Byers, Max realized that she’s always been closer to shore than Billy’s been. She’s always had the chance to just...just catch a wave and ride it back in. But Billy that night, it was like he stepped off the sandbar in the opposite direction of shore, right into the deep end with no way back, fighting against the waves, thrashing wildly and not being scared but...thrilled by it all. By the opportunity to sink and go down with a fight. A fight he brought on by himself.

“He breaks things…” Steve repeated, freeing Max from her thoughts. “Like your skateboard?”

Her head snapped up to look at him. “How’d you know my skateboard’s broken?”

“Red, please. I drive you shits around like everyday. I have eyes.” Steve huffed, sounding mildly offended. “Plus, it’s been in my freakin’ trunk for like, a month now.”

“Shit.”

Steve gave another laugh at her eloquent comment, this one lacking any trace of humor at all. “Yeah. Shit.”

They sat in heavy silence after that, the only sound being the record still playing and Dustin and Lucas’ indistinct chatter from rooms away. Then, suddenly, Steve spoke up again, “Look, Red. If Billy...If he ever ‘snaps’ like he did that night - if he snaps on you then just...Just promise me that you’d tell somebody. It doesn’t have to be me—”

“No.” she started, Steve shooting her a confusingly offended - hurt - look. “No. I mean, I think I’d tell you if he did.” she clarified and surprisingly, she realized that she wasn’t just saying that to make Steve feel better or anything. If something like, like that ever happened, she couldn’t go to her mom because it’d just ruin the little fantasy she had created and she couldn’t go to Neil for obvious reasons, and the guys wouldn’t understand but Steve...Steve knew better than anyone what an unchained Billy was like.

And, not that she’d ever admit this, but Dustin kinda had it right. Going to Steve when you needed help, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. As bossy and as annoying as he got sometimes, when she was around him, she felt the kind of sense of safety that a dad or an older brother was supposed to give you. The way she thought Billy was supposed to make her feel when she found out she was losing a dad but gaining a big brother. The way she wanted Billy to make her feel.

Safe. Protected. Cared about.

“Sorry about the skateboard.” Max spoke up again, desperate for a subject change when she noticed Steve’s happy - he was clearly happy - smile. “I can take it home with me later.”

“Nah, get it whenever. No skin off my back.” Steve dismissed before he rose from the stool and then inspected his hand. “Shit. This is just gonna make things even more of a bitch to finish…”

“Shouldn’t be a problem though, right? It’s not like working with a handicap’s anything new to you.” Max posed from her seat, Steve turning his attention back to her, looking confused. “Trek through monster tunnels with a concussion aside, I take it you also hurt yourself in the kitchen a lot.”

Steve looked hilariously startled. “What gave you that idea?”

Now it was Max’s turn to be petulant. “Because I have eyes too. Your hands are covered in scars. Old scars.” she noted.

They were all over his hands and a little bit up his arms, minuscule marks you could only see up close. Random patches of discolored skin in various stages of life. Some looking like they were from years ago, others looking like they were from maybe only a few weeks ago.
She continued, “I think you’re just accident prone, what with how jumpy you are and all—”

Hey. I’m not—”

“—but you’d tell me if someone was hurting you, right?” Max continued bluntly. She’s already noted that their families were kind of similar. She just wanted to make sure they weren’t similar in that regard. “‘Cause this has gotta be a two-way street or it’s nothing at all.” she stated with a gesture between the two of them.

Steve then shot her a half-assed grin and answered, “Kid, the only one hurting me is myself. Which is kinda like the standard for me.”

She narrowed her eyes, not dissuaded in the slightest. “You still haven’t learned to patch yourself up properly though, which isn’t really surprising.” Max noted again, taking another look at his hands, which Steve jerked out of her grasp, self consciously. “Why keep cooking if you suck at it so much?”

“First of all, just because I’m ‘accident prone’ - your words, not mine - doesn’t mean I ‘suck’. I’m pretty decent at it, f-y-i.” Steve said testily as he went over to the sink and retrieved his watch from the window ledge above it. “And second, I cook just ‘cause, y’know, I like to eat.” he shrugged as he looked down to his watch, losing all the gusto he had started with and wasn’t that a bullshit excuse if Max has ever heard one.

Steve clearly wasn’t telling her the whole truth. Maybe not even part of it. But why would a guy like Steve take up cooking as a hobby?

“...Now you live on your own
Hey, hey Helen
Can you make it alone?”

Of-fucking-course, Max then realized with an embarrassing sense of sudden clarity. The chorus of the next song on the record had just handed her the real answer on a silver platter;

Steve cooked because he was alone all the time. Duh.

She was pretty damn sure that the Harringtons had more than enough money for Steve to order out, but she knew from experience that even that got old after a while. Max practically lived off take-out and fast food when her parents were splitting, both being the only options they provided when they were too burdened by the divorce to come up with anything else. She was sick of the stuff after only a week. And that was in crowded California. How many options could there be in Hawkins? How many years did Steve force himself to scarf down pre-made meals before he decided to make some for himself?

“Shit, if we weren’t behind before, we sure as hell are now.” Steve cursed, drawing Max back down to earth again. He was still looking down at his watch.

Steve did a lot for other people, Max realized. He helped them hunt down lost pets that happened to be monsters. He defended them from said pet-monsters. He defended them from human, mullet-wearing monsters. He drove them around when their other options came in the form of shitty douchebags and oblivious parents. He decided to cook a whole-ass meal for them when they wanted to have a good, safe Christmas party for their friends who went through absolute hell on a yearly basis.

He wasn’t a selfish douchebag like those cliche, entitled rich boys. He was just Steve. And Steve deserved better than to mutilate himself because he was consistently ignored by his shitty-seeming parents.

“Okay.” Max stated grandly, hopping down from her seat. Steve looked to her curiously. “Then from here on out, I’ll be taking over as head chef. That makes you sous chef.” she stated, resolutely placing the hand mixer in his uninjured palm.

Steve raised an incredulous brow. “You know how to glaze and cook a ham? Stuff and base a turkey?”

“Sure it can’t be that hard if you can manage it.” Max merely shrugged.

Steve’s lip curled up in a sneer and with one last final glare at his useless hand, he groaned frustratedly. “Fine. Have it your way, Mayfield. You can take lead. But you better listen to every goddamn word I say because if this house burns down or you go home to your mom more damaged than when you got here, there’s gonna be hell to pay and I’ll be damned if I’m the one paying.” he threatened before he gingerly placed his watch back down on the window sill. “Get the ham out of the fridge. And that bowl, that’s the glaze.”

“Yes, chef.” Max droned before going to do just that.

If life wanted to keep throwing these situations Max’s way then, whatever. She could ride this wave. Maybe even enjoy it too.