"Max. Maaaaaax. Max! Wake up!"

"Gah, what?"

"Wake up, sleepyhead. You're sleeping the day away."

Chloe's face stared down at her from above, wearing a sly grin, a playful spark to blue eyes. Hands were on Max's shoulders, jostling her into consciousness with gentle shakes. Max glared with bleary, squinted eyes at the azure-haired punk before propping herself up onto her elbow so she could sweep her own hair off her face.

"Chloooe," Max grumbled sleepily, trying to shake off her sleep. "What's up? What time is it?" She was clearly struggling to come to her senses. A quick glance around the room revealed a fully dressed Chloe sitting on the bed next to her, a plate of food in her hand, and a familiar sweet scent floating through the air.

Pancakes?

"Dude it's, like, eleven. I actually got up before you for once. You were dead to the world!" Chloe laughed.

"Oh, ha-ha," Max teased. Then she raised an eyebrow and tilted her head. "...Actually, I'm proud of you." She grinned when Chloe winked at her.

Max shuffled her way up the bed and into a sitting position, resting her back against the wall and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. She noted with some surprise how rested she truly felt. It almost seemed like a new feeling. She hadn't had a nightmare that night, and could believe Chloe - she must have been out like a light. Her heart swelled as memories of the previous evening's adventures came flooding back to her all at once, and when she looked over to her best friend she felt as if her stomach was floating.

"What have you got there?" Max asked, referring to the food in Chloe's hands. The girl grinned and looked down at it with pride, then back to Max.

"Merry Christmas, Max. It's not much, but," She moved herself up the bed so that they were sitting next to each other, offering out the plate of food. "I made food. For eating in bed. Here!"

Max smiled and accepted the offer and Chloe passed her a knife and fork from the bedside table.

"Wow Chloe… this is so nice! But, what about you?" Max queried, pointing out the lack of any other food in the room.

"Don't worry, I made breakfast for me too. I've been waiting for you to get up, but you were out cold. I got impatient." Chloe shrugged and chuckled. "Sorry."

Wow, she's so sweet.

"Ah, it's not a problem. Thanks for waking me up." Max rolled her shoulders and stretched a little to make herself more comfortable. "I don't know why I slept in, I don't actually remember anything from last night for once."

"Hey, it's good you got some rest. I don't remember you having bad dreams or anything either, you just mumbled a couple of times. It was my turn to have a nightmare last night."

She had a nightmare?

"You had a nightmare last night?" She asked. Max was concerned, Chloe wasn't one to get nightmares. The taller girl looked at Max with the tiniest of frowns and ran her hand through her blue hair in thought.

"It was... really weird. It felt real, like it wasn't just a dream, but like a memory or ...something. Kinda cryptic shit too, I was having visions of the weirdest things." She shook her head and sighed. "I kept running and running and calling your name out a lot, but I couldn't find you. I was so scared and sad at the same time and... and then I woke up in a cold-sweat. Just jumped upright in bed." She gestured to the room with her hands, then glanced sideways to Max again. "You didn't even flinch, though, so that's alright."

Max chewed on the inside of her lip, slightly annoyed at herself that she hadn't woken up to comfort Chloe when clearly it had bothered her. "That sounds like it sucked. I'm sorry to hear that. Are you sure you are alright?"

Chloe met her eyes and her facials relaxed, that cheeky smile making a return. It was the same face Max knew Chloe would make when she didn't want anyone to worry about her, but she did seem fine now despite that, so she was okay with letting it go.

"Dandy. Don't worry, Mad Max. I'm all good now." She shuffled to the edge. "Let me just go get my meal and I'll be back in a sec."

Chloe hopped off the bed and left the room to the kitchen. While she waited, Max pulled the comforter up a bit more and propped her pancakes on her lap. She noted that the blinds had been opened, revealing snowflakes still falling outside. She yawned and smiled, and let the heat from her breakfast warm her legs while a different warmth blossomed on the inside with a fuzziness to her chest.

A white Christmas...
I feel so relaxed right now.
And Chloe has already made me smile more than I thought we would today.
I hope she's alright. We could do with a good day today.
I just wish that... there were more people here to celebrate it with us. Joyce and David. Oh, Chloe...

She could hear Chloe tinkering about with some utensils while Max remembered she should check her phone. No doubt, her parents would have sent her a message first thing in the morning, and she'd already overslept apparently.

This is the first Christmas I've ever spent without them.

Her gut sunk a little with guilt.

It was a good idea that I called them yesterday. They really do miss me.
I miss them too, but... at least I know they're safe and sound in Seattle.

Sighing, she gingerly moved her plate to the bedside table and stretched, reaching down the side of the bed to pull her phone off of the charger. The screen flashed at her the moment she touched it, battery at 100%, and messages from her family piled up in her notifications. Max opened the one from her mother and read:

"Merry Christmas Maxine. Your father and I were so relieved to hear from you yesterday. It doesn't feel right to be waking up this morning without you here with us, but we hope you are okay. We understand that today might be hard for you, and that you're a big girl looking out for yourself right now. Give us a call any time. Sending all our love to you, and of course to Chloe. Give her lots of love today from all of us. XOXOXO Mom n Pop."

Max's eyes stung while reading and she had to suppress a sniffle before her nose ran too. In another lifetime she would love to be there with them, relaxing and laughing with her father's special hot coco, rugged up with blankets and passing presents between them. In another lifetime everything and everyone was fine and good, and even Chloe could have a special Christmas with her family. In another lifetime... but this was not that lifetime.

She hurried to reply before she would forget, and mentally noted she would have to remember to call them later in the day.

"Merry Xmas Mom & Dad. I just woke up. Chloe and I are having breakfast in bed, then we might visit a friend later so we wont be alone. I will call you later. I love you and miss you so much. Please don't worry about me too much and try to have a nice day. I will pass the love on to Chloe. Talk soon, xoMaxo."

She pressed 'send' just as Chloe padded back into the room with her own plate of food. Max looked up at the beautiful girl in front of her and her breath hitched. To see Chloe, tall and gorgeous, even with her disheveled blue hair, but standing right there in front of her on Christmas day... Max was internally grateful that despite everything that happened, she was here and they were together.

Chloe hopped into bed and joined her with an eyebrow raised questioningly in Max's direction. Max figured she must have looked a bit guilty after she had been a bit contemplative over her text message trying to find the words to say the right thing, but had been caught staring at her as well.

"I just had to text Mom and let her know I'm alright," Max explained, "She's a bit upset that it's our first Christmas apart, but I'm going to make sure to call her and Dad later. Ah, and they send you love too."

Chloe nodded and smiled thoughtfully and made herself comfortable next to Max again but didn't say anything else. Max wondered where her mind was going.

Probably thinking about it being her first Christmas without Joyce.
It can't be easy for her. I wonder if Christmases were ever good for her since William died...
I'm afraid to ask.

"Thanks for this Chloe, you're the best." Max smiled at her best friend, hoping to keep some conversation flowing to distract the girl from her thoughts. Chloe smiled back.

"Only the best for my first mate, Max!" Chloe grinned, eliciting a small groan and a chuckle from Max.

"First mate? Oh man, how long has it been since we pretended to be pirates?" Max said.

"Too long, if you ask me! That was the life. Just you, me, and the wide-open seas."

"Ahhh yer speaketh the truth, Cap'n Chloe." Max tried her best imitation of a pirate. It fell pretty flat, and she found herself cringing at her own failed accent. Chloe burst out laughing.

"Oh god, that was bad! Max!"

"Shuddup, I know." Max pinched her nose and shook her head. Chloe nudged her playfully, but from the look on her face Max's distraction attempt worked. It didn't look like she was caught up somewhere else at least.

Max loved this kind of banter between the two of them. Laughing and making fun of each other, just like it should be. Maybe Christmas wouldn't be so bad after all.

"Eat your pancakes, Max." Chloe encouraged, pointing out the plate on the table. "They're probably not as good as Mom's but I get points for effort, right?"

"You do, Chloe. Thank you. And I promise I'll enjoy them."

They ate contentedly, Max admitting to herself that Chloe was quite the good cook.

She couldn't help but to be thankful for her best friend, Chloe had been looking after her and made sure she ate almost every day since they escaped from Arcadia Bay. Gratitude radiated throughout her, and Max threw sidelong glances at her. She was reminded about what Chloe had said the night before, that the only thing she wanted from Max was for the both of them to have each other's backs and move forward. Max agreed with that and noted to herself that Chloe had truly changed after their ordeal. She was far more… determined for the future, and Max was glad to have her by her side.

"You haven't said anything about my culinary skills yet. That bad?" Chloe asked.

"Not bad at all. You're a real good cook, for real." Max praised.

The smile that lit up on Chloe's face made Max's chest swell a little and glow. It was easy to tell that it genuinely meant something to her best friend that Max honestly enjoyed her gesture. It was really nice, and again Max was so full of gratitude that Chloe was always looking out for her. They continued eating until their plates were picked clean, and Chloe took their dishes to the kitchen to wash up so Max could get dressed and un-zombify herself in the bedroom.

When Max had gotten dressed and walked out to the kitchenette to join Chloe, she was greeted by the girl with a cup of hot coffee.

"Honestly, Chloe, you're amazing!" Max exclaimed as the accepted the coffee with enthusiasm.

"Well, doy. Can't forget the most important part of brunch." Chloe chuckled and took a sip from her own cup. Max followed, and hummed with approval as the warm liquid gave her a light buzz. She walked around the bench and wrapped one arm around the taller girl.

"Seriously, Chloe. Thank you."

Chloe hummed and returned the hug.

"Max it's alright. I'm just so glad you're doing so well lately. It's making me feel good, too."

Max looked up at Chloe to meet her gaze, but the girl was adverting her eyes. She understood where she was coming from though, and Max was grateful for her honesty.

This is good. This is what we need.

She pulled away from Chloe and took another sip before setting her coffee down on the bench. Max decided it was time to bring out her own present for Chloe after the blue-haired punk had put so much effort into making her own Christmas morning so nice in her own way.

"Close your eyes Chloe, I'll be back in a second." Max told her.

"Huh, what?" Chloe's voice sounded confused from behind as Max made her way back into the bedroom.

"Close your eyes! Just trust me." Max called back.

"Ohhhhkaaaaay." Chloe called from the kitchen. Max fumbled around the pile of clothes on the floor for her coat.

Ugh, we really need to tidy up after ourselves, wh- ah ha! Here it is!

She pulled her coat up off the floor and found the keychain hidden in its pockets: the little hand-carved bull with blue feathers tattooed on its side and a small, silver chain linked to its spine. Holding it in her palm behind her back, she returned to Chloe standing in the kitchen with her eyes squeezed shut. She had set her own coffee down on the bench next to Max's.

"Am I all good to open my eyes again?" Chloe asked curiously. Max held out her open palm towards the girl, key chain on display so that she'd see it once she could look again.

"Yup."

Chloe's eyes flickered open and blue eyes looked directly at Max, then focused on what was in Max's outstretched hand. She audibly gasped when she spotted the key chain, gingerly reaching out to pick it up.

"Merry Christmas, Chloe." Max said.

"Max!" Chloe exclaimed, "This is hella cool!" She turned over the little bull in her fingers, inspecting it from every angle. Max observed Chloe's face carefully, and it showed nothing but joy.

"Yeah? It reminded me of you."

"Yes, Max! It's rad! It's so nice. Thank you!" Chloe wrapped a long arm around Max's shoulders and squeezed her close for a hug. Max wrapped one arm around Chloe's waist in return, and the held each other tight.

"You didn't have to get me anything you know." Chloe added softly into Max's hair, rocking them side to side.

"Oh, I know, but I wanted to." Max replied. "Actually, there's a nice story behind it. It was a bit of a gift. The guy who carved it let me just have it, and I thought there was no one better to give it to than you Chloe."

"It's peeeerfect Max. Seriously. I love it, and I'm going to keep it on me as a token of our friendship."

She was beaming at Max with warmth in her eyes, once again igniting a fire in her chest. Max hummed and tried not to blush.

"Good." She stated simply, before letting go and reaching for her coffee again. Max made her way over to the couch with coffee in hand, and leaned against the window to watch the snow fall outside. In the kitchen, Chloe hummed happily to herself and quickly washed up the few remaining dishes.

Max was content in that moment.

Chloe is…home. My home.

Two new polaroid photographs had been added to the apartment wall from the previous night's adventures. Seeing their little collection growing was really starting to make Max feel good. She knew Chloe liked seeing the photos on display too.

New beginnings, Max remarked.

As if reading her mind, Chloe walked across the room and sat down next to Max on the couch, then leaned over and reached for the camera sitting on the coffee table.

"Hey, how do you feel about a Christmas selfie?" Chloe asked, looking at Max softly.

"Sure thing, Chlo," she agreed."You can even take it this time."

She was met with enthusiasm, "Hella yes!"

Max snuggled up to Chloe for the shot, acutely aware of how warm and smooth and soft the taller girl's cheek was so close to her own. Chloe held the camera out with one arm, positioning it where she thought would be best, and Max had just enough time to smile before Chloe had pressed the button anyway. The flash glowed and filled their vision without warning and the shutter whirred.

"Gah!" Max complained, hoping that she didn't look bad in the photo. "You could have given me a countdown!"

Chloe laughed, and it was so nice for Max to hear. She glared at her best friend from the side, waiting for the polaroid to develop in Chloe's palm so she could judge it.

"Yup, this one is going on the wall alright!"

Max could breathe a sigh of relief. The photo was nice; they were both smiling. Chloe had a natural knack for framing as well, it seemed.

"I'll allow it…" She muttered with fake distaste at Chloe's actions. Honestly, she was just so glad that she was having a good morning and it was all because of the blue-haired girl sitting right next to her.

She returned to finish the rest of her coffee as Chloe found the tape and placed the polaroid next to the others. Sipping the instant coffee mix she made a mental note that if they find a decent plunger for cheap anywhere they would have to snap it up. Max was missing half-decent coffee.

Max, quit being such a freaking snob! Coffee is a luxury as is, you idiot. She couldn't help but berate herself.

Sighing, she took another sip. Chloe really was right about her being a hipster, and she deserved to be called out for it. The couch seat dipped down next to her as Chloe joined her again with her new keychain in hand, mulling over it with her eyes and fingers.

I'm so glad she likes it. It's the very least I can do for her today.

A crease forms between Chloe's brows and Max notices she suddenly looked more serious while staring intently at the keychain. Her lips slightly part and she gasps, as if remembering something that shocked her. Max looks down at the bull, then back to Chloe, and the taller girl shrugs and shakes her head with a soft snort.

"Uh, Chloe? What is it?" Max prompted her, curious to find out what just crossed the girl's mind.

"It's just uh… I had a flashback. You know that nightmare I had last night?"

"Mhmm…?"

"I had a vision of a bull in blue blood. It's weird. Kinda looked like this."

"Huh. Oh. That is weird." Max isn't sure of what else to say and in any case Chloe continued to shrug her train of thought off.

"Just an interesting coincidence, I guess. Ha - not like we don't have our fair share 'weird' these days." Chloe smirks down at her, "Maybe we've been spending too much time together and I could just read your mind. Maybe you're rubbing off some kind of telepathic power onto me, Caulfield."

"Ha. Yeah, right. Then again…maybe? I can promise you no mind-reading powers over hear, though. I'd hate to look into the weird and twisted mind of Chloe Price." Max playfully teases.

"Oh god! No, you're right, you're far too innocent for my brain." Chloe sticks her tongue out. Max just snorts and rolls her eyes.

Hardwood floorboards creak as Chloe gets up and sanders her way across the room to unhook her car keys from the rack where they hang, then joins Max again so they could attach them to Chloe's present. They admire their handiwork together.

"There. Now I'll have no excuse to lose them." Chloe shakes the keys in front of them, then tucks them away in her jean pocket. Max has a thought and glances up at the clock on the wall.

"Oh, it's past noon. Do you…wanna go downstairs and visit the neighbor...?"

"Sure thing, SuperMax. I'm down for meeting this friend of yours," Chloe warmly replies. "It'll be nice."


When the apartment door below opens, they're greeted by a cheerful Ms. Dawkins wearing an adorable read and white Christmas sweater decorated with little pine trees and reindeer, matching red pants and a black apron covered in light splotches of what Max thought must be flour.

"Max!" The old lady beams and takes Max's hands in her own in a warm greeting, lightness in her eyes. She looks up to the taller girl behind her, whom Max could tell was shuffling a little awkwardly from side to side, and greets Chloe just as warmly. "And you must be Max's friend!"

"Chloe," The blue haired punk offers a hand, which is joyfully accepted too.

"Oh it's lovely to meet you, Chloe. You can call me Shelly. Come in, come in, don't be shy!" Shelly ushers them inside and closes the door behind them.

The first thing that hits Max is the overwhelming delicious scents of Christmas baking. The older woman's apartment is warm, bright and oh-so colorful. Walls were covered by photographs of smiling people, Max guessed must be Shelly's family, as well as artworks of painted landscapes. Bookcases in the corners overflow with books, and crocheted blankets covered furniture that Max knew would be much older than herself. The kitchenette in this apartment was on the opposite side of their own, the bench and table in front of it held plates of various foods.

It definitely felt like she had walked into a grandmother's home.

I wonder why she's alone when it seems like she must have family?

"Sit, sit! Would you girls like some tea?" Shelly offered. Max and Chloe obliged by taking seats in the soft armchairs around the coffee table.

"I'd love some." Max replied.

"Yes, please." Chloe also said, clearly remembering her manners.

"It's so nice to get to know the neighbors." Shelly said as tinkered about in the cupboards. "When Max here said you guys were here alone in little ol' Fork River for Christmas, I knew I had to offer to let you girls come around."

"Oh that's… really nice of you." Chloe answers, slight tinge of surprise to her voice rather than awkwardness.

"Sugar and milk, girls?" Shelly asks.

"Ah, just milk. Thanks." Max said.

"Same here."

The older lady shuffled back over to them and handed them cup each, then went back to the kitchen and returned with one of her own and a plate of homemade cookies.

"Help yourself." She offered them, and Max and Chloe didn't hesitate to take up on the offer.

It turned out to be a really nice occasion, spending the afternoon with the older woman. Chloe warmed up to her just as easily as Max had the morning before, especially after Shelly complimented Chloe's azure-colored hair and made the punk girl blush.

Always has been quite the softy under the hardened exterior, Max thought.

They chatted about their neighbor's family. It turned out that the reason she was alone was because she no longer had a husband, and her only son had moved to live in England with his family and her grandchildren, so Christmas wasn't exactly easily spent together. Max was silently glad they had agreed to join her once Shelly brought out a family album, in typical proud-grandmother fashion, to excitedly show off photos of her grandchildren.

"Oh and Max, I forgot to mention, I framed that little photo you took of me yesterday as well. It's right up there on the shelf." Shelly grinned and pointed towards the wall where there was indeed a little, framed polaroid photograph. "Best portrait I've had in years, if I do say so myself!"

Max caught Chloe raising an eyebrow at her from the other armchair, but her smile had a hint of… pride in it towards Max?

It wasn't long before Ms. Dawkins announced that food for the three of them was ready, and plates were eagerly stacked up with an assortment of roasted vegetables, chicken and gravy, followed up by a fruit pie for dessert with cream. They laughed and talked and ate, and it was such a normal afternoon that Max found herself enjoying every moment of it. For a while, she forgot about everything that had occurred up until that moment of time and allowed herself to just be. And every now and then Chloe would share a knowing smile with her and Max's heart would just swell a little more each time.

After her talk with the older woman the morning before, Max was thankful that she hadn't brought up any questions about their storm-ruined home. And she didn't seem to pry too much in their lives, either. Instead, it was just an afternoon of sharing warmth, and joy, and really delicious food that Max couldn't believe was so good. Shelly seemed to really love sharing stories and opening family albums and… it was really nice to have made a new friend.

They talked well into the late afternoon and both Max and Chloe offered to help clean up dishes in gratitude for everything that their neighbor had done for them. Eventually, after the loveliest of afternoons, Max decided it was time for the both of them to go when she noticed Chloe's half-lidded eyes dropping and a yawn escaping her lips. They thanked Shelly for her hospitality, and the older woman insisted they not leave until they took a few plates of food with them. After all she couldn't finish the leftovers on her own and they were only a few steps away from each other, and that's how Max and Chloe found themselves balancing various baking goods and Christmas leftovers as they bid farewell and promised to visit again soon.

Neither girl spoke as they stored away the gifted food back into the apartment, and Max wondered what was on Chloe's mind when she wandered away into their bedroom while Max sat on the couch to make a phone call to her parents and fill them in on her day. She figured that Chloe would want some space for a while, and that was perfectly okay.

Max's parents were excited and still worried when they spoke, but today it was easier for her to quell their concerns over the phone. They expressed their gratitude that both Chloe and Max had company with a kind neighbor, however attempted once more for Max to consider coming home and bringing Chloe along with her.

She repeated what she told them on the phone the day before – that she wasn't ready to return just yet – but promised she would let them know when they would be. They said the word "okay" a lot, it was becoming a bit of a thing between them, and talked for an hour or so about niceties and Christmas related things. No one brought up Arcadia Bay, which Max was grateful for.

When Max finally walked into the bedroom to check on Chloe, she had half-expected her best friend to have taken a nap. Instead she found blue-eyes wide awake and staring at the ceiling, cheeks damp and glistening with tears in the glow of the bedside light. Max sat on the edge of the bed and place a reassuring palm on Chloe's knee, unsure of any words that she could say, but the taller girl smiled and turned to look at her.

"Hey." Chloe softly greeted, then raised a hand to wipe the under of her eyes.

"Hi." Max softly returned with a gentle smile.

Chloe sat up and the next thing Max knew arms were wrapped around her and she was being pulled down onto the sheets with Chloe, blue eyes gazing into each other's. Chloe held her there for a minute before speaking, and when she did she sounded small and hoarse.

"I miss Mom and Dad." Chloe whispered, a simple statement which carried the weight of all the pain behind those tears.

Max could do nothing but rub her hand along a tattooed arm in support, watching her best friend carefully. "I know."

"Hmm." Chloe hummed. Max positioned herself carefully so she could rest her forehead against Chloe's, and just stared into her eyes with knowing.

"Thanks, Max, for today. I really needed it." Chloe's voice was barely a whisper, but her eyes were kind and earnest. Max nodded.

"Me too."

They didn't need to say any more and that. It was the mark of their relationship that after all those years so few words needed to be spoken in order for them to understand one another. Max held Chloe close and the both of them silently cried in arms holding warmth and love, support and protection.

Slowly, we will heal.