Max stood in the elevator of a fairly large building. Not a huge building. But she was still going to have to go up a few dozen floors. Not taking the stairs was just the best option, time-wise. She knew that, consciously. But she also didn’t like elevators. They made her uncomfortable. It wasn’t a phobia, she felt, because there was nothing unreasonable about being scared of being locked in a small metal box suspended from a few cables that were, for all she knew, miles long.
We have literally fallen from higher and survived, Penny said in a soothing tone. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Max grumbled and pressed the button for the umpteenth floor that Victoria lived on. She hadn’t expected the building she lived in to be this, well, fancy. Victoria being a student, even one studying for a master’s degree, had set Maxine up for the woman living in a small flat, but this place looked like it was upper class. Maybe Victoria came from money? She certainly didn’t look like it.
“And we walked away from a fall like that so well last time,” Max said grumpily, and looked at the bottle of wine she was carrying. If Victoria really was used to the finer things, this thing wouldn’t do. Would she think Max had skimped out and gotten her something cheap? Would she even care? She had asked Maxine to bring the bottle, so maybe she expected it to be of equal value to the meal itself. Max hadn’t even considered that. She probably looked like a parody of a rich person, wearing a suit she hadn’t worn in a long time -- she hadn’t even found a tie -- and holding a bottle of cheap red wine. What if Victoria just started laughing when she opened the door?
You’re overthinking things again, Penny pointed out. Max took a deep breath. Easy for them to say. They were already in a small, constrained space. Compared to the inside of Maxine’s head, an elevator was an exponential increase in real estate. I mean, Penny added thoughtfully, you could argue that you are just a brain inside of a skeleton too. Our perspective isn’t the same.
“True,” Max said as she watched the number on the display slowly tick up and she tried not to be too nervous, “but you function better outside of this body than my brain does.”
You’re not likely to beat me in a hundred-yard dash, no, they admitted. Still. I think my point stands. I am just as much a brain in a body as you are. I’m here with you. You should just have faith that nothing will go wrong, and that if they do, you won’t be alone.
“You’re not talking about the elevator anymore, are you?”
What gave it away? Penny asked, pretense thick across their voice. They were insufferably likeable that way, Max thought. Penny grinned with satisfaction. Thank you. Before Max could try to say something witty back, the elevator went ding and Maxine’s heart almost went pop. Before, Victoria had been very far away. Now, when the doors opened, she’d be on the other side of a hallway. Despite their chemistry, the fact that she’d invited Max over to her place, Maxine was still full of slightly hopeful anxiety. She undid the top button of her shirt. It was just too hot, and she wasn’t wearing a tie anyway.
There was another matter to consider still, of course. She pressed the button to hold the doors closed. “Do you think we change before we get in?” she asked Penny. She felt a little guilty asking, like she wasn’t allowed. She tried to remind herself that Penumbra had literally offered to do this within hours of them meeting (and almost dying), but it wasn’t helping a great deal.
You know, Penny said, it’s still the same as I told you the other day. You can do this on your own. You don’t need my permission. If you need me to give you consent, if that helps, you have it.
“Consent to do what? How?” Maxine felt a soft sigh in her head. She was worried for a brief moment she’d annoyed Penny, but she felt nothing of the sort coming from them. Just glacial patience. “I’m very lucky to have you as a symbiote, you know that?”
Have you met many others? Penny giggled. And yes, you are. I’m wonderful. As for changing: You have my consent to ‘use me’, and my powers, to change yourself at will. I promise I won’t even feel it. I’m kind of built from the ground up to feel what you feel, not the other way around. And as for how… just kinda… y’know… reach out?
Maxine smiled and shrugged. It was worth a shot. She tried to remember what she’d looked like yesterday, how it had felt to look like that, how it had felt to be that, and then she reached out to the part of her mind where she usually felt Penny. It was a strange sensation, like imagining a small hand going into her own head. She bumped into something that resisted.
Hey, Penny said. That’s me.
“Hey,” Max said sheepishly. “Now what?”
Now just… take what you want and kinda… I don’t know, I just feel this stuff? Just try whatever. With that bit of illuminating advice, Max tried to channel what she wanted through Penny and found it incredibly different. It was like trying to push a handkerchief through a keyhole. Something malleable and uncertain being forced through something that wasn’t built for it… she reconsidered her metaphor. It was probably easier to pull, right?
She reached out again and found Penumbra. But this time, rather than visualising a hand that was supposed to manipulate something, she just let her consciousness slip into the space where Penumbra was, and she felt them step aside. For a brief moment, she knew exactly what it was like to be an alien symbiote wrapped around a human brain stem. So she took the image again and pulled her awareness back into herself, which was a lot like falling but in every direction at once in slow motion. She clung to the image for dear life. Finally, she opened her eyes. Deep breath. She was vaguely reflected in the metal doors of the elevator but not clearly enough to make out facial features. She was shorter, at least.
She looked at her hands, and nearly cried. You did it, Penny said, and sounded almost like a proud mother. I told you you could do it. Now, eh, would you mind if I front for a moment?
I want to make sure your pants don’t fall off and I don’t want you to have to figure out how to do clothes so soon after learning how to do your own body. It was only now that Max realized that she was almost swimming in her clothes now. They hung off her like bedsheets.
“Of course,” Maxine said. “Go ahead.” She slid into the background while Penny enveloped them and waited patiently. The feeling of having Penumbra outside -- they needed a better name for that -- was one that was quickly starting to feel very comfortable, almost like coming home in a sense. It had a sense of safety and security. ‘Thank you,’ she said softly. She felt the mental hug from Penny again, and she did her best to return it. A few moments later, Penumbra retreated and she felt herself sliding back into the driver’s seat. Her clothing fit a lot better now. It was still technically the same outfit, but the cut was decidedly feminine now. She realized she probably looked gay as hell, short hair and a suit, but it was decidedly an improvement over the uncomfortable mess she’d been just a few seconds ago.
What do you mean, ‘but’? You look gay as hell -and- that’s an improvement. Max smiled in agreement, and finally released the button. The door slid open, and the menacing hallway greeted her. In reality it wasn’t very menacing at all. It was a well-decorated hall with a large window at the end that let in a lot of natural light, and the whole place felt both cozy and classy. Not quite the Overlook Hotel she’d been dreading. She only remembered staying at hotels as a kid when she’d gone on vacations. She quickly shuffled those memories away again, not in the mood to relieve her childhood right then.
Slowly, they made their way across the carpet, keeping an eye on the apartment numbers, until finally they got to the right one, around a corner. Finally, she found the right door and rang the bell. She noted the name on the bell -- “Masters” -- and filed that away. They waited for a few seconds. Anxiety grew. Maxine wondered if they would survive the fall if she flung herself out that large window. Don’t even think about it, Penny chided her. Another few seconds, and the door opened.
Maxine’s breath caught in her throat, just like it had the first time. Victoria was stunning, awe-inspiring and dressed in a beautiful and simple yellow summer dress, which took Max a moment to notice. She found it hard to focus on anything but Victoria’s face, her eyes, her smile. After a small nudge from Penny, Max inhaled sharply. She had to tear her eyes away from Victoria if she was going to function.
“Uh. Um. Ah. Uh. Hi,” she said.
“Hey, you,” Victoria said. Max wondered how Victoria saw her, but with a very slight nudge from Penumbra, she couldn’t avoid noticing how the other woman bit her lip as her eyes scanned Max. Maxine tried not to blush, and failed. “Uh… come in,” Victoria said, and Maxine stepped past her into the apartment. She brushed past Victoria and felt her heart beat faster in response. Penny giggled in the background. She ignored them. It was easy, because the apartment took her breath away. It was huge. There was a large living area with a giant corner sofa that took up most of the living room, a small table in front of it, and a large television in the corner, next to a massive window. The other half of the space, where they’d entered, was a beautiful kitchen, all dark wood finishing and marble countertops, with a large kitchen island that had its own, separate heating element, on which were several large crock pots that bubbled happily. The whole room smelled like spices and sauces, and Maxine’s stomach rumbled in response.
“Wow,” Max said. She’d had no idea Victoria lived like this. She was completely blown away. She turned to look at Victoria, who was looking right at her.
“Yeah,” Victoria said softly. “Wow.”
Max knew in her heart of hearts she was beet red now, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear again. It was just long enough for that, at least. She tried to make aggressive eye-contact with the floor, too bashful to say anything, which was why it was surprising when the floor made eye-contact back and went “Mrow?” She blinked a few times and the large orange tabby blinked back.
“H-how do you… this place is huge!” Max stammered. Victoria smiled and picked up the cat as she walked past, who protested with a resigned ‘mrow’.
“I’m cat-sitting,” she said, and Max felt a weight fall off her shoulders. She was easily intimidated by wealth -- something, she figured, wealthy people were not opposed to -- and she could now foster the hope that she didn’t have reason to be any more intimidated than she already was.
“How long for?” she asked. “And what’s the cat’s name?” She put the bottle of wine on the counter, and took a few steps into the place just behind Victoria, her eyes wide open. There weren’t a lot of pictures around the place, but the walls had several large, beautiful paintings on them. Other than that, there were books on space, astrophysics and advanced mathematics on most surfaces, as well as notes hung up on one of the walls. Victoria moved the cat so that it was swaddled like a baby, eliciting another small noise.
“Two and a half years,” she said. “It’s a long story, but I used to… babysit for the owner’s daughter. I became something of a friend to the family, and most of the year they live in England. They let me stay here, as long as I keep the place clean and I give them weekly updates on Tilly.”
“It’s short for Artillery.”
“It’s good to see you again, Maxine. You look... amazing,” Victoria said, and Max almost cried with the flood of positive emotions that washed over her. “Which, I take it, means Penny does as well?”
“This was all Max, but thanks anyway,” Penumbra said and bowed their head for a moment, before Max fronted again.
“That’s going to take some getting used to,” Victoria said as she retrieved two glasses and a corkscrew. “Food is still a few minutes away. Can I tempt you with a glass of wine?” She raised one glass and one eyebrow seductively. The puddle formerly known as Maxine bubbled in the affirmative.
“So…” Maxine said after she’d managed to find her words again, “I take it Masters isn’t your name, then?” Victoria nodded and poured them both a glass. She handed one to Max and then guided them to the sitting area.
“It’s Douglas,” she said. “Victoria Douglas.”
“It’s beautiful.” Max smiled.
“I just realized I don’t know what your last name is, either. Please tell me it’s Oz.”
“I’m afraid to disappoint, but I think you’ll appreciate the irony anyway,” Max deliberately paused for a moment for effect.
You dramatic nerd.
“It’s wonderful to make your acquaintance, Victoria Douglas,” Maxine finally said. “My name is Max Powers.”