“What do I do now?” Max asked.
Victoria gave a reassuring nod. It was clear she was trying to step softly and carefully. Her eyes were kind, though the little twinkle Max had seen in there was even more prominent now. “That’s up to you. I think…” She paused for a moment. “Do you want to try a new name? Or pronouns, maybe?”
The question itself was terrifying. Changing to new pronouns was acknowledging something was different, that this was real, in a sense. Sure, the realization had already happened, but actually asking to be called ‘she’ and ‘her’ was taking an active role, was taking a step in a new direction. Agreeing something was up was one thing. Choosing to continue was another altogether.
But do you want to? Penny asked carefully. They had softly curled themself around Max’s hindbrain. It was comforting, and exactly what Max needed at that moment. Penny seemed to nod.
Max coughed softly and wiped away the tears. It was so hard to find a voice after all the inner turmoil that was going on, but it was necessary in that moment. It was important to be certain, to take the time to say the perfect and right thing.
“I think I would like to try… the pronouns,” she said. It was like a gunshot had gone off in Max’s chest cavity. Penny did that thing again that felt like they were hugging her, and she shivered in gratitude. Victoria smiled her broad, dazzling smile, and Max saw something in her expression that looked almost like pride.
“All right. Would you like to try a new name? I know the one you’re… you’ve been using is already different from the one you were given at birth, but maybe you’d like to change it again?” Victoria made eye contact. Max awkwardly rubbed the back of her head, slightly worried that would be too much of a bother.
“Honestly, I already picked the new one because it felt… good, you know?” She’d never really asked herself why that was, other than that it had been a rejection of what her parents had stood for.
Hmm, Penny interjected, I wonder why that was. Their ‘thinking’ expression was a physically tangible presence in Max’s head. Max suppressed a smile. They weren’t wrong. It had always clearly run deeper than she’d given it thought. Still, she tried not to make it too obvious she was having a second conversation in her head. Victoria seemed to take Max’s short silence for indecisiveness or thoughtfulness.
“What if… what is Max short for?” she asked. Max hadn’t really considered that. It hadn’t officially been short for anything. Her friends had called her Maxim, sometimes, but she had never made it a full name. “What if,” Victoria continued, sensing the fact that Max didn’t really have an answer, “it was short for Maxine? You can be Max if you want to, but you can also be, well, Maxine. The girl.”
Maxine felt tears well up in her eyes again and she couldn’t help but smile despite herself. She went to rub the tears out of her eyes and felt the unmistakable rasping of stubble against her hand. For some reason, something that had only mildly irked her before, was now an abhorrent, horrifying thing. Victoria must have caught her expression.
“Hey,” she said. “Don’t worry. There’s a lot of steps that can be taken for you to be more comfortable in your own body. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.” Victoria smiled. “Trust me.” Max couldn’t help but admire her even more now, and now realized why she’d looked up to her so much before.
“I think Penny might be able to help with that?” Max blurted out. She was a little excited to try being, well, different. To be allowed. In a certain way, she felt like she had suddenly gotten permission to be.
You already had it, Penny said. But I understand. Are you sure you want to tell her about me yet? About us? Max wondered about that for a moment. Penny’s existence was something Victoria now knew about, but she didn’t know what they were. Would Victoria be scared? Unbelieving?
“Is Penny trans, then? The person you know? Why not ask them the questions you had for me then?” Victoria asked quizzically. Max felt like her only options were to slowly spin a web of lies or mistruths, or to sit down and explain the whole situation to this borderline stranger. But a part of her really wanted to trust the woman.
“I… Not really. I… hmm.” Max hemmed and hawed for a short moment, debating things in her head. Penumbra didn’t have any answers either. They had very little experience with human interaction, and the situation was pretty unique for both of them. “Do you think we could talk somewhere a little more private?” Max asked, having made a decision. “I want you to meet them, but not here.”
Victoria chewed her lip for a moment. She clearly wasn’t very comfortable going somewhere alone with Max, but there seemed to be a part of her that was conflicted in the other direction. Like curiosity, but more. “Where are you thinking?” she asked, thoughtfully.
“Well, we could just go across the road and into the shop. The blinds are down, but I can leave the door unlocked so you can leave whenever,” Max suggested. Sure, it was a little contrived, but she wanted to be, well, out. And that did, in this case, include Penumbra. She wanted to have someone to confide in. Someone that didn’t live inside her head.
Victoria nodded. “Will they be meeting us there, then? Do they live close by?” she asked. Max tried not to smile.
“In a way,” she said, and both of them got up. Nobody had come to take their order, after all, so they could just get up and leave. Max nodded at the barista when they left the cafe, who waved back at her without looking up from his phone.
They crossed the road at a slight jog and stopped in front of the shop. Max opened the door and held it open for Victoria. The lights just inside popped on when the motion sensors kicked in. Max pulled the door closed behind her and put the key in the lock, but left it open as a show of good faith. When she turned around, she saw Victoria walk around the bookshop, hands in her jacket pockets, idly browsing the different categories.
“Do we wait for Penny here? I take it they don’t live in the bookshop,” Victoria said with a little smile. Max smiled back, trying to find the courage, and the right words to go with it. It wasn’t easy.
You can do this, Penny said. If you really want to, you can do this. And I’m here. Besides, if she freaks out, what is she going to tell people, right? Max repressed a small giggle. She definitely didn’t want to come off as hysterical. This was already going to be a big revelation for Victoria.
“Penny is already here,” Max said, softly. Victoria cocked her head sideways, not understanding. “Penumbra, do you want to say hi?”
Max felt Penny slowly extract themself, slipping out through Maxine’s skin, enveloping her, and she felt herself grow another foot taller. It was clear that Penny was going for the full tall Amazon monster (amazonster?) presentation again. After a second, Maxine could see through the mask, her vision and Penny’s one and the same now. They stood before Victoria, who had completely frozen in place, her eyes wide.
“Hi,” Penumbra said. “I’m Penumbra.” Max was still trying not to giggle hysterically. This situation was absurd, she was having trouble imagining what it must have been like for Victoria. She must have been terrified.
‘I meant like, speak through my mouth,’ Max chided Penny internally. ‘Not do a whole takeover. But you can stay out there while we’re at it. You know what they say.’ Max paused. ‘In for a Penny.’
“H-hello,” Victoria stammered, and her cheeks flushed red as she looked up at the tall person. She seemed to be intimidated in a way that Max hadn’t expected. A part of her had figured that Victoria would scream, faint, yell, stuff like that, but she was taking this quite well. “I’m Victoria,” Victoria said, and she seemed to try and compose herself. “It’s good to meet you, Penumbra.”
“You can call me Penny,” Penny said, their voice like ripping velvet, and cocked their head. “Call me whatever you like.” Max was shocked on the inside, almost having a heart attack, seemingly mirrored by Victoria, who looked like she was close to a panic attack, like she’d straight up stopped breathing.
‘Oh my god,’ Max hissed. ‘Are you flirting?’ Max was mortified, but Penny just responded by shrugging.
You weren’t going to do it, they said internally. And I figured it was a good way to break the ice.
‘Clearly that didn’t work, look at her!’ They did. Victoria was almost shaking on her feet. Maybe Penny’s senses were sharper than normal person’s, but Max could practically feel her heart beat, a soft thrumming in the air. Penny smiled.
I don’t think she’s as scared as you think she is.
“I… Penny will be fine,” Victoria said with a soft giggle. “Wh-- eh… Is it improper to ask you what you are?” She was fiddling with her jacket nervously, and seemed to be having some trouble meeting Penny’s gaze. She was even smiling softly.
“Not at all. I’m a close friend of Max’s. We only met a few days ago,” Penny said.
“Like, at the supermarket?” Victoria asked with a nervous giggle. Max couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her, but again she felt Penumbra shake their head playfully.
“Not quite. I’m not from here. But I exist to make Max’s life better, in the best and healthiest way I can,” they said, and Max felt a rush of comfort, knowing that Penny was telling the absolute truth. She still didn’t feel like she deserved it, but she wasn’t going to start arguing when she was feeling all warm and fuzzy. Penny turned their attention inwards for a smirk. Good girl.
“So is this what Max meant when she said she thought you could help?” Victoria asked softly, staring up at Penny with what seemed to be blushing fascination. Her heartbeat was still audible to Maxine and Penny. “Because if so, I definitely agree that this is… uh…” Victoria seemed almost out of breath, staring openly at Penny now.
“Not quite,” Penny said. “Say hi, Maxine.” Penny retreated again, and Max felt the perspective shift. They were getting a little smaller again. Her slightly different center of gravity let her know that she looked like she had that one time Penny had reshaped her.
When Maxine’s face was exposed to the air again, she saw Victoria’s eyes grow wide and she wondered briefly if Penny had made a mistake, that her face was all wrong now somehow. Her cheeks flushed under Victoria’s scrutiny for a moment, so she just waved awkwardly.
“Hi,” she said. She realized that her voice was both the same, the same person speaking, the same inflection, and yet radically different. It no longer sounded like it had been ravaged by decades of testosterone. Instead, it was soft and slightly husky. It took her by surprise, but she had other things to focus on already. Victoria took a step closer, her hand going to her mouth in shock.
“Oh my god,” Victoria said, her voice a soft whisper. “Penny was… Imposing. Terrifying, in a good way.”
Oh really? Penny said and Maxine felt them grin from ear to ear on the inside. I had -no- idea. If only someone had told you not to worry.
“But this...” Victoria continued, not knowing she’d been interrupted. “You look amazing.” Max felt her cheeks start to burn. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that Victoria’s piercing gaze was making her incredibly flustered, the same effect that Penny’s presence had previously had on Victoria herself.
“I look okay?” Max asked, incredibly self-conscious now. Her voice was still a constant surprise to her. In her head, Maxine had never really been aware of how she sounded -- deliberately or otherwise -- but now the sound of her own voice was like a song. She wished she could enjoy it more, but she was worried Victoria was going to judge her, that she looked bad or sounded wrong. She didn’t want to consider the possibility that she was being made fun of, that Victoria was exaggerating.
That’s not what’s happening here, Penny said. Relax. A good thing is happening. Let it. Max tried to do as she was asked and took a deep breath. Victoria took another step forward and, almost as in a trance, carefully took Maxine’s face in her hands, touching her almost as if to confirm that what she was seeing was real. Victoria’s eyes darted all over Max’s face.
“Maxine,” Victoria whispered. “You look beautiful.”