“Hey, Penny?” Max asked. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, holding his phone like it was the only thing keeping him afloat, staring at the little screen. He felt Penny stir. He was getting better and better at gauging how Penny felt. At first it had been soft tugging sensations in the back of his head, but he was starting to be able to feel their feelings, almost as an emotional picture-in-picture. Penny was worried, but trying to keep out of things, letting Max figure himself out.
Yes? Penny moved a little more to the foreground, and Max felt their presence a little more strongly. Having the creature in his head was a strange experience that was becoming more and more tangible as time went on.
“Can you stay… on, for a bit? I don’t… I just…”
You got it, Penny said. It felt a little like they tightened up around Max, not quite a hug but not quite not one either. Rather than expressing it out loud, Max tried to feel his gratitude a little more loudly. You’re welcome, came the response, and in spite of the situation, Max smiled under the mask.
There was another ping from the phone. ‘What brought this on, anyway lmao? Thought you got over this stuff in high school :p’. Max stared at the phone for a bit. He didn’t know how to answer. He’d been struggling with not being himself for a long time, that much was obvious, but at the time, it had only seemed like questions, ones he’d shared with Andrew. Now it felt bigger.
‘Just questions, ig. Tryina figure stuff out,’ Max finally responded. He was trying to keep it casual. What was he gonna say? That he had an alien in his head that could change his body at will, and that the first time it had offered to do so had sent Max into an anxiety spiral? Even if Andrew had been less of a tool, Max probably wouldn’t have trusted him with that kind of information.
‘Well, dw, i had this talk a dozen times. Totally normal bro. Girls are better, so it just makes sense. More proof you’re a hot-blooded straight male tbh. Who wouldn’t want to look down and see a pair of tits, amirite?’ Max mulled this over in his head. Somehow, Andrew was making both perfect sense and none at all at the same time.
I don’t feel like that’s how it works, Penny said, but I’m quite new to all of this. He seems to know what he’s talking about. Max felt like he had to agree. But something about it was rubbing him the wrong way. It didn’t feel like a fetish thing. But maybe it was and he just hadn’t done the introspective legwork yet.
‘Thx man. Idk. does everyone feel that way? Who do you even talk to about this stuff?’ Max was wondering about that. They’d only talked about this once or twice as kids, so Andrew having had this talk a lot was something that confused him. Had he found other people like that? Or was it really that common and had Max just never bumped into anyone else who felt that way before?
‘I’m on a couple servers for streamers that do cosplay. I’m not gay but some of these guys dressing up as girls is hot af. I’m not gonna do that kinda shit any time soon but like… if you could, yknow? But yeah it’s totally normal.’
Max got up and looked up at the ceiling, thinking about stuff, and saw the holes they’d made when they’d climbed around up there together. “Do you think we can climb walls without doing that?” he mused out loud. Behind the mask, his voice was muffled. It felt, sounded different. He definitely didn’t mind, not right now. He felt Penny do the mental equivalent of scratching their chin, thinking of possibilities. While the symbiote was thinking, Max sent another message to Andrew, what he intended to be the last one.
‘Not planning on joining your femboy streamer groups Andrew. Gld you found your people but I don’t think it’s for me. Anyway thx for the help,’ he sent. He already felt weird asking Andrew for anything, even if it was just information, after having blown him off the day before, but Andrew’s denseness seemed to extend in every direction.
I suppose, Penny said, still thinking of the ceiling problem, we could try to… cling? Normally I’m a little sticky for terrain traversal. They paused. Without a host, I mean. Max was about to ask what Penny looked like outside of Max’s body when Andrew’s response came in with a buzz.
‘Np broseph. We all got urges, normal to have them and normal to talk about them. Just don’t get all wrapped up with the sjw’s bc they will try to trans ur shit.’ Max stared at the message. It was full of Andrew’s usual chuddery and he was able to ignore the most annoying parts of it, but there was a word there that burned itself into his retina so strongly even Penny had to pause for a moment.
Your heart rate just doubled, Max. Max just nodded. He was still stuck between trying to think and trying not to think. He got up and walked to the window, following the trail of climb damage on the ceiling.
“We did a lot of damage going around the city last night,” Max said, distracting himself with all the subtlety of a brick to the hindbrain, but Penny seemed, at least for now, willing to indulge him. He took a breath. “Do you think we can fix some of it?”
“We” sure did, Penny said sarcastically. And I don’t know much about brickwork, but I’m sure we can get some things done. You’re free for the weekend anyway, can’t hurt to try. You’re worried about people finding us? Max nodded.
“Among other things. I also just feel a bit bad. Sure, most of the damage will probably come out of landlord paychecks, and that doesn’t exactly hurt my soul.” He paused for a moment, trying to think what it was he could do out there. He couldn’t exactly fix broken walls, but maybe some of the damage could be fixed with plaster or like, some posters or something.
I sense a but, Penny said. You didn’t seem very concerned with collateral damage last night. Why is it bothering you so much right now? Max shrugged. Last night he’d been in an ecstatic, almost hysterical high. He’d achieved -- no, he’d been granted -- a power he’d have never dared dream of. Nothing else had mattered. The whole world, for a little while, had been his playground. That feeling had gone away something fierce.
“I’ve been on the other side of callous harm. I don’t want to contribute to it. Someone is going to be hurt by this and I want to make that hurt as small as I can.” He opened the window and looked out and up. The scratches on the wall weren’t as deep as he’d feared they were, but if someone was looking for them, they’d definitely be easy to find.
That’s a kind attitude to have. We can see what we can do, Penny said, and Max nodded. You’ll have to buy some supplies for that. The way Penny had emphasised ‘you’ made it very clear to Max that he was going to have to go to the store without Penny enveloping him. He hadn’t really thought about that. He’d rather enjoyed being a featureless homunculus for a while. He sighed in resignation. When Penny finally retreated, he was his own self again. It was a relief, in a bad way. He struggled to think around the feeling for a moment, where it was coming from, and decided to push it back for now.
They went out a little bit later. Max was dressed in his usual hoodie-shirt-and-jeans combo, wholly unremarkable, all grey tones. He’d be invisible if he was standing in front of a black-and-white photo. Penny wondered about the lack of colour in his wardrobe. Max could feel it, and he couldn’t help but smile.
“You’re one to talk,” he said, thinking about Penumbra’s appearance, all black with white and grey accents. Penny smiled too, and Max felt the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. It was a strange sensation, but not terrible. There were worse things than second-hand joy.
There was a hardware store not too far from the bookshop, so Max went there just around noon to pick up what he could for materials. The cement mix had been a little more expensive than he was happy with, but he was resolute in his plans to do what he could, even if it wasn’t much, starting with his own roof. When he got back, rather than immediately bring Penny out in the middle of the day, risking anyone seeing them, he awkwardly went up the fire escape and sat on the roof to survey the damage. Sadly, most of it was on the wall.
It took him a while to set everything up, and he realized that it would probably take him a lot more materials and a lot more time to fix everything than he’d hoped. He sighed as he looked over the edge. “Just hope I’m ready by Friday,” he said to himself. Penny perked up, proverbially speaking.
What’s Friday? they asked. Big plans?
“I thought you’d looked through my memories?” Max asked, a little confused. He was looking forward to Friday, but he was confused why Penny might not know.
You basically gave me access to a library of memories. When you first go into one, do you look for what’s most relevant to you or do you start reading alphabetically? Penny said with an internal smirk Max couldn’t help but externalize.
“Point taken. I’m seeing Victoria on Friday,” he said, and he realized he was more excited about that than he’d even been really consciously aware of until just then. Victoria had left an impression on him, overshadowed only by meeting Penny, who had very quickly become more than a little central to Max’s life. Not that he minded, really. Overall, Penny’s presence was welcome.
Thanks, Penny said drily. Who’s Victoria? Max gave Penny explicit permission to go digging around in his recent memories, and he felt the familiar sensation of Penumbra rummaging around in his short-term memory, like having your scalp massaged but, well, deeper. After a few seconds, he heard Penny cough. Considering their lack of a respiratory system, he had no illusions as to what Penny was alluding to. He sat down on the edge of the roof and looked out over the city as far as he could. It wasn’t that far, his building was fairly small. But he could appreciate the skyline, at least.
There were some associated terms and ideas linked to the memory of Victoria, Penny said, with a very careful little voice. I had to do a lot of looking up, and I’ve got a few questions. They paused.
“Honestly I know people who can probably answer those questions better than I can,” Max said, thinking about his friend group. Most of them were queer, and were more of an authority on gender issues than Max had ever been, and he had to assume that that was what Penny had been referring to.
I don’t know I agree, Max. You’ve done a -lot- of research into some of this stuff. For a moment, it sounded to him as if Penny was accusing him of something, but he couldn’t put his finger on what. Just… earlier, you read a word in Andrew’s last message that set your anxiety off. That word is all over your memories and impressions Victoria. Max just grumbled.
“What’s your point, Penny?” he asked. He wasn’t in the mood to be lectured, not even by the alien living in his head. Why did he feel like he was being judged? He hadn’t done anything, hadn’t done anything wrong. He was just trying to figure things out as he could, wasn’t he?
Max, Penny said slowly, and the judgement in their voice was still there, but there was a strong undercurrent of care and worry they couldn’t hide. It was hard to be mad at Penny when Max could feel what they were feeling. You have been wondering about feeling like wanting to be a girl, they said, and you just didn’t think to consider any of your friends, or the person you -just met-, all of who have chosen to be different from… what they were born as?
“I… guess not?”
Dumbass, Penny said with a soft smile. Victoria seems nice. You should call her.
“What, like, now?”
Penny nudged his hindbrain. Your phone is in your left pocket.