Penny felt as bad as Max did, of course. Max could tell. She couldn’t tell if it was out of guilt, or empathetic, second-hand pain. But Penumbra was miserable. They occasionally reached out to each other, neither of them quite strong enough to respond properly. She took solace in their presence, and she could only hope they felt the same. The symbiote had slowly enveloped her again. She couldn’t stand to hear the normal sound of her voice, the possibility of looking down and seeing the sheer bulk of what she was now. Not unobstructed. With Penny around her, it was like she was wearing a suit. She was inside, piloting a mech of meat and black, oily liquid. That didn’t mean she was ready to stop being curled up, of course. For one thing, Victoria was still holding onto her.
Maxine was experiencing a unique feeling, guilty because she was glad that she felt so bad that she needed to be held. ‘I shouldn’t benefit from feeling like shit’, she thought to herself. Penny only grumbled and gave her a nudge, but it was a sticky feeling and hard to get rid of. Still, out of a sense of responsibility towards Penny, she did her best to shove it back. It was the least she could do.
“How are you feeling?” Victoria asked, holding the large shape in her arms as if it wasn’t a black-and-purple monster, devoid of features with the exception of two milky white eyes. Max was impressed, once again, with how she’d taken to all of this.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Maxine said, her voice muffled behind the mask. It didn’t distort her voice, as such, but it masked a lot of the lower resonances in her voice. It lacked the frequencies that had made her voice so distinctly masculine. She wondered why that was also happening in her own head, and then realized that that was probably Penny too. She shot them a quick thank you, which was followed up with what she could only describe as ‘the feeling of being nudged gently by a cat.’ It wasn’t unpleasant.
“What for?” Victoria asked, leaning back a little. They looked each other in the eyes. Maxine wondered what she looked like to her, the two catlike eyes in the inky blackness.
“For breaking down. For making you take care of m--”
“Hey. No. I’m here because I want to be. If this was too much for me, I’d just leave. You don’t have to apologize for that.”
“Well, there’s also the part where I was a pretty girl and now I’m back to being, well, this.” Max gestured vaguely at herself.
Hey, Penny said, tired but a little indignant. Max chuckled.
“I mean like… I’m like before, again,” she said with a sigh. It was an unhappy and uncomfortable feeling, one that had its claws in her brain and slowly seeped unspoken poison into the wounds. “I can’t help but feeling like this is who I am, underneath. Like I always will be this big, bulky, ugly thing.”
“I know how you feel,” Victoria said, softly. “It gets easier. But it’s still there for me too, sometimes.” It sounded like a confession, something she didn’t like admitting. To herself or otherwise, Max didn’t know. It was clearly something that was difficult for her to say. Max took Victoria’s hand in her own.
“I’m sorry,” Max said again, softly. “I didn’t mean to make you feel… this. I don’t want you to have to play therapist. You didn’t sign up for this.”
Victoria squeezed her hand. “You’re fine, sweetie. Think of it as… uh… shared experiences, I think. I mean, you’re obviously going through different things, but I can relate to a lot of what you’re going through. And I want to be here for you.” Victoria swallowed and for a second she looked very insecure. “If you want me to be, of course. This is all very personal and--”
“I want you to be here,” Maxine said quickly, cutting her off. “I’m glad I don’t have to do all of this alone. It’s… good to have someone to talk to. Someone who doesn’t live in my head, I mean. No offense.”
“None taken,” Penny said out loud. There was some humour there. They still sounded very tired, but at least they still had their spirits up. Good. Max had been scared that the pain might have been too much for a young creature like Penny. Don’t count on it, Penny said. I’m a tough baby.
“It’s my pleasure, then,” Victoria said. “And when it comes to your appearance… Look, Maxine, you don’t look like you want to. I get that. I feel that. God do I feel that,” she said with an exasperated sigh. Max didn’t really get why, she was gorgeous, but she figured this kind of feeling wasn’t really rooted in anything rational. Not for Victoria, anyway. “A lot of people like us feel the same way. But you’re out to me and yourself and I can see the girl in you. Even when you can’t.”
Maxine didn’t know if she’d nudged Penny at that moment, or if it had been some other subconscious signal she’d sent to them, but slowly, Penumbra retreated from their face. Again, she felt the evening breeze on her face more acutely. She felt she could feel her stubble, its presence. The jawline. It was all wrong. But she needed to look Victoria in the eyes with her own.
“Really?” she asked, her voice painfully low to her own ears. It was like nails on a chalkboard and she squeezed her eyes shut as soon as the word had left her lips. How could anyone not find her disgusting like this? She hung her head, but Victoria caught Maxine’s face in her hands and held it up and looked at her.
“Really.” Victoria said. “I see you in there, Maxine. This,” she said, and looked Max’s face up and down, “isn’t who you are on the inside. I’ve seen who you are on the inside. And you’re beautiful.”
“That was just Penny,” Max said softly. “They made me pretty. That’s not who I really am, is it? Just an illusion. That had to go away after a few hours…” Her voice trailed off as the lump in her throat made it hard to talk. It was all fake, all transient. In the end, she’d always be here, always be this…
“No,” Victoria said resolutely. “I saw it before Penny showed me that face. I had my suspicions, but I knew before they changed your appearance. You are not what you look like. It took me a long time to learn that lesson, but you are more than how the world sees you. Trust me on this,” she said, and her voice betrayed decades of experience learning hard lessons.
“I… okay,” Max said. She simply didn’t have the strength to fight Victoria’s attempts at helping her. All she could do was accept what she was being told. Or at least try to. It was hard, and she doubted it was going to get significantly easier over time. “I think… I want to get off this roof,” she finally managed. Victoria nodded and helped her up on her feet. When they were both standing, Victoria didn’t let go of her hand, a fact Maxine was becoming acutely aware of. They had to let go to go back downstairs, of course. But the feeling of Victoria’s fingers softly pressed against her own lingered long after.
Victoria decided to go home for the night. She wanted to get some things in order, figure things out for herself, like the fact that sapient alien life existed and that it was on Earth and also maybe her feelings for Max. And she did have a thesis to work on. But it was mostly that first stuff.
“Will you be okay?” she asked. Max just nodded her head. She didn’t know what she was going to do with the rest of her night yet, but she was going to have to find a way to distract herself. Probably without Penumbra, who was still quietly tired in the background of her brain. Poor thing. “Can I see you tomorrow? Or some time soon? I feel like there’s still so much to find out and to talk about and I just… I have questions,” Victoria said with a sheepish chuckle. “And I would like to see you again,” she added. “Soon.”
“I’d love that,” Max said. “We can do tomorrow, if you want. Is there anything in particular, any place you would like to meet?”
Victoria nodded. “If you want we can have dinner at my place. I think, at some point, I would like to talk to Penny more, and I don’t think we can really do that in public.” Even Penny laughed at that, awakening briefly from their lethargy.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” Max said, blushing lightly. This was the first time in a long time she’d been invited to someone’s house, and the first time it hadn’t been for, like, a playdate.
I’m sure it could be ‘play’-date if you asked her, Penny quipped. Max blushed even harder now, but said nothing. She didn’t want to have to explain her thought process or Penny’s response to that. Instead she took a deep breath and smiled.
They made more specific plans. Max was going to have to take the metro and a bus to get there -- Victoria lived closer to the city center -- but it wasn’t going to take her more than half an hour. She wondered briefly how Victoria had ended up out here, but she could ask more about that tomorrow. Max promised to bring a bottle of wine. It was going to be a proper date, this time around.
They hugged goodbye. There was tension, and the hug lasted for a few seconds longer than was expected of people who’d only just met, especially after Victoria pulled away only partly, and they stood there in each other’s arms for a moment that stretched out infinitely, looking at each other. The spell was broken by a passing car, and they finally said their goodbyes. Maxine felt very weird closing the door behind her. It was only after Victoria had left that she realized she had nothing to wear tomorrow.
She went back up to the roof -- her room felt too stifling right now, and there was The Mirror to contend with in there. No, she needed fresh air, and to be back up there was a little bit like being in Victoria’s presence again. When she finally got up there, she found that climbing the fire escape was still easy. She hadn’t exactly been out of shape, but this had been easy. Penumbra was still quiet, and Max got the feeling they were pretty much sleeping. No point in asking. But she did remember something Penny had said, about her using their powers even when they weren’t around. She wanted to give that a spin.
A handstand was easy, just as easy as it had been the first time. Standing on one hand, too. Backflips, front flips, they all came to her like she’d been a gymnast for decades. Very carefully -- she didn’t have Penny to back her up -- she lowered herself off the edge of the building and focused on making her fingers ‘sticky’. After a short moment of panic, she just hung there, clinging to the wall like a housefly. She tried to crawl around and, while it took her a moment to synchronize the stickiness, she quickly got the hang of it. It didn’t take her very long to do so automatically.
Maxine crawled back onto the roof. She was trying to think of her body as a tool again. Not as her body, as such, just something that was useful to move around in. It was hard work and hardly working. She couldn’t shake the feeling, that every sensation was like her brain being rubbed against a cheese grater. She felt so wrong. Even thinking of herself using she and her pronouns felt wrong, like she didn’t deserve it. She looked at her hands again. How could she deserve it if she looked like this? She wasn’t a real woman, after all.