“How are you feeling?” Victoria sat on the couch next to Max, her feet pulled up under her, phone on the table with an alarm for the food. Max knew an answer was expected of her, but it was hard to find the words. Even Penny didn’t have a lot of input.
I’m in here with you, they said, but I don’t have the words for any of this. This is a pain I have no context for. Max sighed. She didn’t have one either. She didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. What was the right way to feel wrong? The correct way to feel broken, like a stranger in your own body? That, Penny said. Max gave them an inquisitive nudge. Tell her that. Those might be the feelings she wants to know about.
“I don’t know,” Maxine finally said. “I don’t know what’s right anymore. I feel like… I’m being lied to. By my own body. Penny helps, of course.” A small nod from the symbiote made her feel warm for a moment. Victoria nodded, listening intently. “I’m… I don’t know. I feel broken. Like I’ve been broken for a long time and I was just holding myself together because that was easier than to figure out where the cracks were, I guess.”
Victoria sighed and sipped her wine. “I think I understand that feeling,” she said. “I was lucky enough to find the fissures a lot earlier, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
“So… you agree?” Max asked with a slight twinge of trepidation. “I’m broken?” Victoria smiled, shook her head, and reached out to squeeze Maxine’s hand. The gentle touch shot sparks up Maxine’s arm.
“No. But you did need some more putting together. That’s what you’re doing now. It’s… hard. Hard work. There’s no manual. I can walk along with you, but you’re the one putting yourself back together.” Victoria looked Max in the eyes, and then out the window. “It’s worth it,” she said softly.
“I hope so,” Max said. “It hurts.”
“That gets better, too.”
“Of course, Maxine.” Victoria looked back at Max. It was like getting hit with a sledgehammer. She didn’t know why she was crying, but she was. Tears rolled softly down her face as Victoria tried to scoot closer to deal with the sudden mini-crisis. Maxine tried to understand why such innocuous words were hitting so close to home, and found nothing. Victoria took her glass and put them both on the table, then wrapped Max in a hug. She said nothing. Not that Max could hear much. She was lost in her own head, hidden away in a hole even Penny had trouble finding her in. She wasn’t thinking, not as such. Her head was a swirling miasma of confusing emotions, her heart thumping in her ears. It was like she’d put her ear up to the world’s angriest seashell. So she just cried and Victoria held her. When her mind came up for air, she took a deep breath and tried to sit up, pull away from Victoria. She felt guilty, so guilty someone had to take care of her. She tried to mumble an apology, but Victoria wasn’t having it. “Hush. You didn’t do anything wrong. Do you want to pull away, or do you want me to hold you?”
Max thought about this for a moment, her face gently pressed against Victoria’s collarbone. “...hold.”
“Good girl,” Victoria said softly, and Maxine was immediately pulled out of her spiral to do some heavy blushing. She was glad Victoria couldn’t see her face. She checked on Penny, who seemed to be feeling… not great. She shot them a similar hug the way they’d done for her, and was repaid in kind. Maxine relaxed into the hug. It was good.
“I’m making your dress wet,” she mumbled, still feeling a little guilty.
That was all the encouragement Max needed to relax again. If it was up to her, the moment would stretch out for infinity, although ideally she’d feel a little better. She preferred a bit more equality in her cuddles. But for now, this was good enough. It was, right up until Victoria’s alarm went off.
“So rude,” Victoria said, but did move to turn it off and get up. Max wiped her face and looked over, watching Victoria tend to the food. She took her glass of wine, so far untouched, sipped it, and just barely managed to avoid making a face. It was cheap wine. She couldn’t admit to not liking it, of course, she’d brought it as a gift. Still. Sour grapes, in more ways than one. But when she looked back over to Victoria, she was hit with a wave of something new. She sat on the sofa, looking at someone she felt all the bubbly, floaty, anxious things for making them food, and felt a distinct sense of domesticity. Victoria caught her gaze and smiled her smile. Max hid behind her glass, which Penny reminded her was transparent and did nothing to hide her smile.
“Shut up,” she whispered. Penny giggled at her. When Victoria started setting the table, Max hopped up to go help her. She was slightly worried she was overstepping, but Victoria just showed her where the glasses and cutlery were with a smile, and they quietly worked for just a moment. When they sat down at a corner -- Victoria had wisely decided that this was much preferable to the alternative, awkwardly sitting opposite each other across too large a table -- they ate in comfortable silence. Not that this meant nothing was said, it just wasn’t said with words. Maxine couldn’t help but look over at Victoria, who returned the stolen glance quietly. She had no idea what she was eating, completely preoccupied with Victoria.
She’s no better than you, Penny said. Look. Max shifted her eyes down and saw Victoria idly poking her fork at an empty part of her plate. Victoria noticed the shift in attention and hid a smile behind her hand in quiet embarrassment. You’re both terrible. I don’t care how good your shows are, this is better than television. They took on a British narrator’s accent. Here, we see the useless gay, grazing nervously while trying to attract another one of its kind. However, both of them are too demure to say something, so they are forced to resort to obscure mating rituals. Max suppressed a laugh.
“This is cozy,” Maxine finally managed as she put her knife and fork down. The food had been great. She still had no idea what it had been, but it had definitely tasted good. Victoria was cleaning up her own plate and Max studied her face. She only realized her hand was resting on the table, something she would otherwise not pay any mind, when Victoria put her own cutlery down and her hand landed on Maxine’s. They both froze like deer in headlights, both looked at their hands, fingers touching each other so gently, and then up at each other. Maxine’s heart was up in her throat. Victoria biting her lip did not help matters at all. She swallowed, terrified of ruining the moment. Victoria squeezed her hand ever so slightly, Maxine squeaked, and the magic was dispelled. They both burst into laughter.
“Did you just go ‘beep’?” Victoria laughed. Maxine hid her face in her hands but couldn’t help but giggle along. “You,” Victoria said, and took Maxine’s hand in her own again, “are precious.” Immediately Maxine fell silent again, but Victoria was wearing her trademark smile. This time, the touch had been entirely deliberate. She stood up, still holding Maxine’s hand. “Let’s sit down,” she said, and Max felt a knot of anticipation in her stomach. She followed wordlessly, let herself be led to the couch. She was completely out of her element, and glad someone else was taking control. It felt like even Penny was holding their breath.
She sat down next to Victoria and hoped she wasn’t pushing too far when she sat fairly close to her. Not that Max had a lot of other options, still holding hands with her. She swallowed again and looked up at Victoria’s face. She realized she’d left her glass on the table; there was nothing for her to hide behind.
You fell into her trap, Penny said, but the joking tone was overshadowed by their nervousness. Max was a little relieved to know she wasn’t the only one who felt distinctly insecure. For all their bluster, they were at best still no more experienced than Maxine herself was. You’re the one she wants to kiss, Penny said and Max blushed feverishly at the realization that Penumbra was probably speaking the truth. Victoria’s gaze seemed to be flitting between Max’s eyes and her lips.
Finally, Victoria let go of Max’s hand, but the relief was only of short duration. She reached out and, with a gentleness that took her breath away, carefully tucked away a strand of hair behind Maxine’s ear. Where her fingers touched Maxine’s skin, they left white hot lines, and Max only barely managed to avoid whimpering. Victoria didn’t pull back, her fingertips ever so carefully tracing Max’s jawline down to her neck, and then curving around behind her head.
Max registered what was happening, but she didn’t realize until she felt an ever-so-soft pull, one she had neither the power nor the desire to resist. She was pulled closer to Victoria. Her heart was beating louder and louder, and she could feel Victoria’s pulse in her fingers, heard it resonate through the air. She was pulled closer and she felt another hand curve around her waist to pull her in. She let the other woman move her, tried to go with the movement without seeming overly eager, as if that was going to make a difference at this stage. The anticipation was almost lethal.
She felt Victoria’s breath on her lips. Their eyes were both half closed. Max had slipped her arms around Victoria too and she felt Victoria’s heartbeat through her chest now that they were pressed against each other. She felt like she could scream and had no idea why. She wanted to lick her lips; her shallow breaths made her self-conscious of how dry they were, but she was terrified that if she did, she would accidentally lick Victoria and give off the wrong impression. Then, with all the speed of an advancing glacier, she moved her head forward.
A lot of things happened at once, and none of them were the kissing thing. The window exploded, showering the room in shards of glass sharp -- and fast -- enough to embed themselves into the wood furniture. Maxine, her senses sharpened by Penumbra’s presence, yanked Victoria to the side so she could shield her with her own body. Penny immediately enveloped them both and prevented most of the glass from going in too deep. They were tough if they needed to be.
“Are you okay?”
Victoria stared up at them with terrified confusion. “What just happened?! I mean… yes. I think I’m fine…” She looked down at herself to make sure, then back up. “What happened to your voice?”
“What do you mean?” Max asked, and then shook her head. It was probably just the shock of the moment. She turned around at the window and, without hesitation, made her way over and looked outside. There was nothing just outside the window, but she heard a noise coming from above, and there was a shower of glass streaming past. She shielded her eyes with her arm and looked up.
“What is it?” Victoria asked, curled up on the couch. She was picking the larger shards out of the upholstery, and putting them on the table. She was barefoot and hadn’t made the mistake of trying to walk around.
“Uh,” Max said, not quite believing what she was seeing, “It looks like a car.”
“I promise you it gets weirder.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s being pulled by cats. Big ones.”
They were both quiet for a moment. Then Max sighed deeply. Already, Penumbra and her had grown to their full statuesque seven feet. It was time, it seemed, to exercise some responsibility.
“I’m sorry,” Max said, and jumped out the window.