Stay with me.
Just try not to fall asleep.
You’re dying. I’m doing what I can here. Just stay with me. Talk to me.
Why are you hurting like this?
“Think I fell off a building, Penny.”
How are you being a smart-ass while your spine is -- never mind. I mean on the inside. I was in your memories. There’s nothing in there that caused… what you’re feeling. Sure, your mom is… not great, but you have good friends, you’ve had good partners…
“I shouldn’t feel this bad. I know.”
That’s not what I’m saying, Max. I’m trying to unders-- hmm -- understand.
Nervous systems are hard. Keep talking.
“I just feel like I don’t fit. I’m wrong and I don’t have the power to fix it. I’m not good enough. Never was.”
Good enough for what?
“For me, I guess.”
I made you stronger and better and now you’re suddenly perfect and all the bad feelings were going to go away?
“Looks like that wasn’t true, huh?”
Looks like it. Why was the mirror turned away?
The mirror. In your room. It was turned to the wall. Why?
“It made me feel bad.”
Didn’t make you feel bad when we merged. I would’ve been able to tell.
“It was different. I was someone else.”
Do you… always want to be someone else, Max?
“Definitely don’t want to be me.”
Who do you want to be?
“The tall creature in the mirror was a good start.”
Was it not being human that did it? Or is this about the pronouns again?
“Wait, no, that’s not… no.”
Hey, count to five for me.
“One. Two. Three. Fo-- FUCK.”
Max’s eyes shot open. He looked at the night sky. He was lying on his back in a parking lot, and everything hurt. It was hard to breathe. He realized he was dying. Or rather, he had been dying only seconds ago. He felt like some time in the hospital would be enough, now. Where they didn’t feel like he’d been punched by a truck with another smaller, slightly angrier truck, his legs tingled. He realized that this was a good thing.
Sorry about that, Penny said. Had to reattach those and it was gonna be a bitch one way or another.
“What did you do?” Max asked. He looked left and right and realized he’d fallen between some cars, which he was glad for. He would’ve hated people gawking at him now, wondering what the creature on the ground was. He was in a very small crater and realized the trail of destruction he’d left all over the city. If anyone started following those tracks, they might lead back to his apartment. Fuck.
I think I’m healing you, Max. It’s not easy, Penny said, and it almost sounded like they were gritting their teeth. I’m going off your cortical homunculus. Max didn’t say anything. He was sure this was something he’d picked up in a class some time ago but he was too frazzled to really remember. He probably had a concussion. He felt Penumbra shake their head. It’s just a map that tells me which nerves go where. Also no, you don’t have a concussion. Not a bad one, anyway. Did what I could to protect your brain.
“Thanks,” Max said, not really sure his brain was worth protecting all that much. It hadn’t exactly done him a lot of favours over the years.
Don’t mention it, Penny said. I live here. Anyway, there’s a lot of issues with the damn thing because if I wire this thing back up the way the quote-unquote ‘manual’ says, it’s going to make you feel miserable. What the hell is this?? Max was intimately familiar with Penny’s tone. It was the tone of someone trying to establish a piece of Swedish furniture and not yet realizing they’d looked at page three upside down. It was the tone his therapists through grade school and high school had tried not to show when they were talking to him.
“I don’t know,” Max sighed. “Told you I’m wrong.”
Well, if you’re wrong I don’t want to b--
“Don’t you dare.”
Nyeh. Can’t stop me. Anyway. This is getting easier by the second. How are you feeling? Max took a deep breath. He no longer felt that stabbing pain he was trying not to realize had probably been his ribs perforating his lungs. He felt his muscles shift, rather than scream at their inability to give or receive information.
“Better. What did you do?”
I’m… I think I’m a bit stronger than I thought I was. Your bodies are like… clay. That might be the best comparison. On a very small level, I can move stuff around without issue. And I can do things on a small level very fast and very big.
“What does that even mean?” Max groaned and tried to sit up, with unspoken permission from Penny. He was still tall and covered in Penny, he realized. That was probably for the best. He didn’t want to know what a mangled wreck he looked like under all that. It was probably not a pretty sight.
It means I think I can make more changes than just fixing immediate physical damage, Max. A realization started to dawn on Max, one he was trying not to have. Why not? What’s wrong, Max? What are we going to find if we go down this hole? He wasn’t ready, he wasn’t ready to deal with this yet. If not now, when? There’s something wrong and you have someone who can help. Go into that alley, will you? You’ll get spotted.
Max shook his head and did as he was asked, crossing the street quickly, staying in the shadows between the streetlights before slinking into the darkness between two buildings and hiding behind a large ventilation unit.
“I don’t know what you mean, Penny,” Max lied. There was a hook in his brain and Penumbra had tugged at it. “I want to go home.”
I think that’s a good idea. Do you want me to take you there? You can sleep while I, uh, drive. Max considered this for a moment. Being unconscious sounded pretty good right now, if he was honest with himself. He was still in pain, he was just distracted enough not to let it bother him too much.
“All right. Thank you,” he said, and he felt the sensation of falling backwards again. Immediately the pain became less present, something happening to someone else far away, and he was grateful for the distance Penny inadvertently put between him and his broken body. He realized he was still very tired. He just wasn’t going to die if he fell asleep now. He thought. Probably.
You’re welcome, Max. I’ll let you know when you’re home safe. Something about the way Penny said that reminded him of long car rides when he was a kid, when he’d get home late at night and would pretend to be asleep so his parents would carry him inside. It was a pretty good memory, all things considered. He drifted off.
His dreams were strange. He sat on a beach, which on itself was strange. He’d never gone to the beach often. He hated swimsuits and he hated the sand. The smell and the sound were nice but you could get those from a pier, too. He was formless, mostly. Like a grey shape without features. There was a woman standing in the surf, black skin in stark contrast to the white foam around her. She was too far away to recognize. She turned to him, beckoned him, but he couldn’t move. Maybe he didn’t want to? He was scared of the sea, that was true. The woman turned and walked into the ocean, and Max woke up.
He was in bed. His body was sore, still, but more of a ‘fell off the couch last night’ sore than a ‘fell off a skyscraper’ sore. That was good. And it was a gentle reminder that what had happened had been real. He heard birdsong outside his window. It was morning, apparently. It seemed like Penny’d had a lot of work.
No kidding, Penny said, softly. While there was no slurring, Max got the feeling they’d been sleeping too, in a sense. Yeh. Was very tired. Good morning, Max. How are you feeling? Max smiled.
“I’m alright. Last night really happened, huh?” He stretched and all of his joints went snap, crackle or pop. It was an immensely satisfying experience. That’s when he realized he was still ‘wearing’ Penny, but not in the way they’d previously had. He wasn’t seven foot tall, or explicitly feminine. It was like a black bodysuit that simply bulked him up some.
Yeah. Also, sorry about still covering you up. I want to try something. There was a hesitation in Penny’s voice that unsettled Max. He frowned.
“Uhhh, like what?” he asked.
Well, I think I have a solution for some of the things that have been wrong, but I’m not going to do it without your permission. I want to help you and heal you, Max.
“I don’t know what that means, Penny. Can you be more specific?”
I don’t know how to say it. I don’t think I understand enough yet.
“Well, uh, show me. You, uh, have permission.”
There was a shift, and his entire body seemed to twitch for a moment, like all of his muscles tensed up and relaxed over and over again. There was even a soft grinding noise as he felt his skeleton shift and readjust.
“That was weird.”
You don’t know the half of it. I’m ready.
He relaxed, ready to be moved backwards, but it was more like Penny reached past him to turn the wheel slightly. Like two people driving a car together without getting into an accident. He remembered last night. Okay. One accident. Penny smirked internally and sat them upright. The mirror was still facing the room. The shape sitting on the edge of the bed was featureless. Its skin was a deep purple, swirling softly in the morning light. There was no face to speak of.
Don’t freak out, Penny said, and slowly, Max felt the exterior skin, the suit that was Penny, retreat back into their body. It was a strange experience, like sweating in reverse. A fullness that was alien but not unpleasant. It was especially noticeable in the face, where it seemed to be pulling in more and faster than anywhere else as Penny stood up and approached the mirror.
Max expected to see his own face. It was, of course. It was also not. A softer jawline. Eyes that didn’t look like they didn’t want to be there. A smaller nose. Fuller lips. As Penny retreated inward, Max realised that there was a woman in the mirror. He froze. His blood turned to ice. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. He was mortified, horrified. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. He stumbled back, realizing he’d wrested control away from Penny, who immediately enveloped him again like a second skin. Max fell down against the edge of the bed and curled up, tears coming up hard and fast for reasons he didn’t know or understand. He’d gone from fine to hard panic in seconds.
I’m sorry, Penny said. I thought this would… I’m sorry. Max tried to say something in response, but he couldn’t. His chest had tightened up, his throat clamped shut. He felt Penny nudge control away just enough to allow him to breathe, and he was grateful for it. He realized he’d forgotten how. His mind was reeling. Why had this upset him like that? Why had the thought of looking like that been so terrifying? He didn’t look like that, he’d never looked like that, so maybe that was it. He was never going to be pretty; to be offered that kind of freedom was something he’d never imagined. He wasn’t allowed.
I-- is there someone you can talk to? Penny asked softly after a few seconds. Max was still trying to find his breath, and he realized that Penumbra was talking to him, trying to get him out of the spiral he’d fallen into.
“I… There’s someone I used to talk to about this stuff. That was a while ago, though,” Max responded, between laboured breaths, but he forced himself up, looking for his phone. He tried to type, but Penny’s skin didn’t work on the little gleaming surface. “Uh,” Max said. “I need fingertips.”
Oops, Penny said, and retreated away from Max’s hands. They weren’t as slender as they’d been moments ago. But they also weren’t what they’d been before, existing somewhere in between masculine and feminine. Trying not to think about it, Max immediately started typing up a message, deleted it, and typed it again, repeating that cycle over and over again. Every message typed was wrong and shot feelings through his chest and abdomen he didn’t understand, stuff he’d stopped thinking about a long time ago when he’d realized they would bring him nothing but fear and frustration. Finally, he was sort of satisfied and pressed send. He immediately regretted it, but it was too late.
‘If you had the chance to be a perfect, beautiful woman, just like that, would you take it? Is it normal to want that?’ his message had read. It took only seconds for the response to come in. His phone buzzed in his hands.
‘Yeah man. Every guy feels like that,’ Andrew responded.