Victoria had plenty more questions, of course. She was a little surprised to find out that Penny had only really been alive for a few days. After her initial shock, she seemed to be taking this whole thing in stride in a way that Max and even Penny hadn’t expected. Not that it bothered them, but Max couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t her first brush with, well, the absurd. Max offered Victoria the office chair from behind the front desk, while Max took a seat on the edge of a table.
“So what about your clothes?” Victoria asked. Max hadn’t even considered the fact that her clothes seemed to fit about as well, although the shirt was still a bit baggy. The jeans seemed to be sort-of form fitting and she was definitely a bit smaller than she had been before. She had actually resisted getting a proper ‘look’ at her new body, the presence of something in her peripheral vision when she looked even vaguely downwards, while Victoria was there. Max had a lot on her mind.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Penny?”
“Go ahead.” The tugging sensation was there and Max assisted the change this time, stepping backwards to let Penny take front and center stage. Penny stretched a little when they fronted, then looked at Victoria who cocked her head.
“Penny?” she asked.
“In the flesh,” Penny said with a little smile. Even when using this different body, Penny’s voice was distinctly different from Max’s. Even the accent was slightly off, as if they were trying to find an inflection that suited them. Penumbra’s intonation was a lot smoother, a lot more confident than Max felt she could ever be. “You can tell?” Penny asked Victoria.
“It’s a few things. Your eyes are darker. Your pupils are more dilated, I guess? But most of all you carry yourself differently,” she said. “It’s like you’re… older, I guess? Like you’ve been at this a lot longer than Max has.”
“Ironic,” Penny said with a little smile. “Max has been using this body a lot longer than I have. But as to your question: Obviously Max no longer wears clothes. The clothes you see here are just me. Technically we’re naked.”
Victoria and Max both blurted out a loud “What?!” at the same time, and it wasn’t until Penny started to chuckle softly that they both realized. Max tried to convey the emotion of grumpily crossing her arms, and she could tell Penumbra picked up on it, because her chuckle turned into a heartfelt laugh. Victoria clearly couldn’t help but laugh along.
“Could you imagine? No, I’m just editing the parts of the material I can. If it’s organic, I can kind of make changes.” Max had to think about this for a moment. The implications weren’t exactly mind-boggling, but they were definitely interesting.
“So, if she’d been wearing all synthetics, she’d be standing here in a baggy shirt and her pants around her ankles? Because even with those hips,” Victoria said, looking at Max while probably trying not to be too obvious about it, “her old pants would not have stayed up.” Max felt herself blushing on the inside. And not just that. “Are you blushing?” Victoria asked. Another soft chuckle from Penny.
“Max is,” they said. “You make her do that a lot.” Internally, Max protested softly against this, but couldn’t really muster up the angry for a proper response. Penny wasn’t lying.
“Well, she is very cute,” Victoria said playfully, throwing fuel on the fire. Max couldn’t help but wonder what it looked like, Penny’s confident demeanour, smiling and laughing along, with Max’s blush on their cheeks. She tried not to be too self-conscious about this, but now that she’d, well, changed, it was like some floodgates had been opened. Like she was allowed to be small, cute, bashful now.
“That,” Penumbra said with a little nod, “she is.”
‘Can I, for a moment, Penny?’ Max asked softly. Immediately, she felt Penny withdraw from the spotlight and herself sliding into place like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was becoming easier and easier for them to exist like this, and just how easily that went was a nice and comfortable feeling.
“I just want to say,” Max said when she was in full control of herself again, “that you are both terrible.” She felt Penny giggle softly on the inside, and Victoria’s smile was wide and playful. Maxine could not help but be weak under its warm glow.
“Do you want us to stop?” Victoria asked with a glint in her eye, and bit her lip. If Max hadn’t been sitting down, she would’ve been weak in the knees. Instead, she just had the butterflies again.
“How about,” Victoria said, letting up a bit anyway, “we try to get that coffee anyway, and we find a place to sit down. We might as well have that date now, you know?”
Max nodded, trying not to be too enthusiastic and ignoring the raised eyebrows she got from Penny. They exited the shop, locking up behind them, and crossed the street again. It had become almost a ritual at this point, and they were glad for the low amount of traffic. The shop was still open, and there was still a lot of clanking and making of coffee going on. Max wondered who for, because most of the tables were empty. This time, they both got their coffee before sitting down.
“A large chocolate chip frappuccino,” Victoria asked as she hit the front desk. “With a shot of espresso, thank you.” Something occurred to Max. Penny agreed.
“I’ll have the same, please.” Max said. Victoria shot her a sideways glance and Max smiled softly at the attention. Max was noticeably shorter than her now, and she didn’t hate having to look up at the Victoria. Especially when Victoria looked at her like that. “What? I’ve never tried it.”
“Because you weren’t allowed to?” Victoria asked softly as she took her drink and paid. Max realized just how on the mark she was and nodded. Victoria smiled. “I know that feeling. It goes away. You’re allowed to be just you, you know.” Max nodded again and took her own drink before they stepped outside again. They weren’t in the mood to sit in the café the entire time. “Where do you want to go?”
Max looked at the bookshop. “Do you want to see the view from the roof?” she asked, and Victoria’s almost wolfish grin was all the confirmation she needed. Max led them through the shop’s back door to the fire escape, and after a few minutes, they were on the roof, sitting cross-legged, looking at the city’s skyline.
“So,” Victoria said after a few minutes. It seemed like there was more to it, but she was thoughtfully sipping her drink, droplets of condensation glistening on her fingers in the light of the afternoon sun.
“So?” Max asked. She couldn’t keep her eyes off Victoria, who didn’t seem to mind at all, returning every stolen glance with one of her own. Maxine had to ignore Penny gently making fun of her on the inside.
“I wanted to say this Friday, but I might as well now,” she said. Her tone wasn’t inherently negative, but the phrasing reminded Maxine of bad news she’d received in the past, and she felt anxiety creep up on her. It was unwarranted, of course, but knowing it was didn’t make it go away. “I told you not to get your hopes up?” Victoria asked. Max nodded. How could she forget? “It’s complicated, but I just… don’t feel as comfortable around men as I do women. I don’t always feel… safe. I had my… suspicions about you, of course.”
“Of course?” Max asked, feeling like she was being called out.
“I got some serious vibes from you, sweetie.” Something about that small term of endearment turned Max’s insides into fireworks and her brains to mush. Penny was giggling softly and Max couldn’t even fault them for it. “Anyway, I’m not as attracted to men, either, but I’m open to, well, more. If it grows. But I don’t like telling people I’m bi when I first meet them. People have preconceived notions about what that means.”
Max nodded. “I understand. I’m sorry if I made you feel unsafe,” she said softly. She’d always been terrified of making people feel that way, of being scary. She’d leaned into it for an edgy couple of months in high school and she only ever shuddered when remembering it.
“You didn’t,” Victoria said, and softly touched the back of Max’s hand. Her fingers were cold to the touch from the iced coffee, and Max shivered. “You gave off… good energy. That’s why I wanted to have that coffee with you.”
“That went well, I think,” Max said with a smirk. “And now that I’m a girl?”
“I would say that I’m very much looking forward to more dates,” Victoria said and winked at her. Max just barely avoided whimpering. The effect Victoria had on her was so much more powerful than she had been ready for, and much more powerful than she’d expected.
You really are precious, Penny said. Useless as anything, but very precious indeed.
“Shut up!” Max said with an exasperated little laugh. When Victoria raised her eyebrows, Max awkwardly rubbed the back of her head. “Penny is bullying me.”
“As they should,” Victoria said. “You’re precious.”
“Aaa,” Max said with a little frown and a smile. They made eye contact for a few seconds, and Max tried to hide a little bit behind her coffee. Victoria’s gaze and Maxine’s gays were unrelenting. Max blushed again and turned her eyes back to the horizon, before her embarrassment and other feelings could pop her head off like cheap fireworks. They sat in comfortable silence again while Max tried to calm her gay little heart. It wasn’t exactly going well. Victoria was the first to break the silence again.
“So I was thinking, right,” Victoria said, “Penny says they’re here to help you. Why do you trust them?” Max felt that Penny was a little hurt, but it wasn’t an unfair question to ask, considering. They’d only know each other for hours, really. But Victoria couldn’t feel the almost transcendental closeness between Max and Penny.
“It’s hard to explain,” Max said. “But we’re connected on a very deep level. I feel what they feel, think what they think, and vice versa. I don’t think they could really ‘deceive’ me if they wanted to.”
Victoria sipped her drink and looked out over the city. “I’ve had relationships I wished were more like that. It does sound invasive, but yeah, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt. They also mention being able to heal you, but they can clearly do more than just fix a broken bone. What else can they do?” Max felt Penny’s desire to respond. Rather than making her ask for permission every time, Maxine offered Penumbra flat permission to speak whenever they would want to. The wave of gratitude coming off the symbiote hit Max hard.
“Well,” Penny said, “we haven’t finished experimenting yet. But we’re learning.”
“Like how?” Victoria asked.
Max got up, putting her empty plastic cup next to her and stretched. She ‘looked’ at Penny, internally, making sure they were ready. She got a thumbs up and decided to start small. She felt her body, really felt it, and felt her muscles like they were new -- which, in a sense, they were. Her body was completely new, and she realized she was going to have to rely on Penny to keep this from going wrong. She threw herself backwards, an enhanced sense of balance carrying her in a perfect arc, until she was standing on her hands. That was strange. She saw the world from a new perspective, and felt it, too. But it wasn’t hard. She was perfectly balanced, and keeping herself upright took as much effort as just standing still. That must be Penny’s work.
Hey, you’re the one doing the work. I’m just helping out, Penumbra said, and Max suppressed a little giggle. She felt good about herself. That was new. Then, her shirt fell down over her face and everything went black.
“Uh, Max,” Victoria said. “Penny… uh… forgot to make you a bra, I think.” She sounded a little breathless. With a small squeak, Max pulled the shirt back up. Or down, from her position. It was then that she realized she’d casually used one hand to do that, and that she was still balancing on the other. She saw Victoria peeking from between her fingers and they blushed at each other for a moment, and then Victoria spotted Max holding herself up with one hand going “wow”. Max suppressed a proud little smile as she stuffed her shirt in her pants. It was nice to be able to impress someone. It was the first time in her life that she realized that she not only could, but wanted to. That she wanted to be looked at, appreciated. That she wanted Victoria to pay attention to her.
Just wait, Penumbra said. We’re just getting started. I think we can do that thing you wanted to try. Max knew what they’d meant, but she was more than a little hesitant. After what’d happened last time they went out experimenting, she was a little unsure they’d be getting out of this unharmed. Trust me, Penny said. I’ll be there the entire time. Max nodded and took a deep breath. We’re a lot stronger than you think we are.
Max walked to the edge of the building on her hands -- which was a lot easier than she thought it was going to be -- and closed her eyes. Deep breath. Then, she stepped off.