“Angels? Really?” Victoria sounded incredulous but she typed everything down in as much detail as Max was able to give. Her fingers danced across the keys with all the experience of someone who was used to eight AM deadlines and the all-nighters preceding them. Every few words written, she immediately added notes and thoughts, mused on the nature of the mysterious thief’s abilities and how exactly they worked. All of this suited Maxine just fine, because thinking came with something of a struggle at that moment.
They both sat on the bed, both leaning against the giant headboard, the mess in the main living room pretty much forgotten by both of them and Tilly, who was curled up at the foot of the bed. Victoria was completely engrossed in the reality of what had happened. An actual person with superpowers had pretty much destroyed the apartment, while she’d been on a date with a person who also had superpowers -- after a fashion. The latter could change her appearance at will and seemed to have incredible physical abilities, while the former could apparently summon constructs out of thin air. To an aspiring scientist, the whole thing was absolutely fascinating.
Maxine, on the other hand, sat on the bed next to Victoria and, if prompted, would have needed a minute to remember her own name. She was acutely aware of the distance -- or lack thereof -- between them. She did her best to laser-guide her brain in the direction of the answers to Victoria’s questions, helped by Penny, who wasn’t much better off. Things were not going the way either of them had expected it to when they’d come over for dinner, and after the adrenalin high had worn off, they were both panicking softly in the back of Maxine’s brain.
“Y-yeah,” Max finally said. “With a burning sword, at some point.” She did her best to remember details but the heat of the moment, both past and present, made it hard to recall anything but the rough outlines. “They weren’t very sturdy, but they were strong and fast.” She recalled the way the sword had sunk into the concrete, as well as the slash on her arm. Penny had already taken care of it, and now the spot just sort of tingled, but it was still not a pleasant memory.
“But you say one of them knocked you off?” Victoria asked. Maxine shook her head. The summoned ‘Spite’ had been something different altogether. Still see-through and glowing blue, but more tangible. That much had been obvious from the right hook she’d received from the thing. She wondered again if she was able to hit that hard. A hit like that could put someone through a wall.
Or off a roof, Penny mused. Do you think it had our abilities? Maxine had wondered about that too.
“No,” she said, responding to Victoria. “He summoned a version of, uh, me.” Victoria turned her head to look at Maxine skeptically, but was interrupted by Maxine’s proximity. They were simply sitting closer together than she’d anticipated. Her face was very close to Max’s, and her eyebrows slowly lowered themselves to their resting position. She looked like she’d been about to say something, but now all either of them, any of them did was look in each other’s eyes. Maxine wondered quietly, her last brain cell working as hard as it could to formulate thoughts, if Victoria could see Penny in her eyes.
Gosh, I hope so, Penny said with a sigh, and Maxine smiled, a smile Victoria clearly noticed. She glanced down at Max’s lips and back up. Max returned the gesture. Their breaths were soft and shallow. Maxine’s heart was in her throat and her brain had decided to clock in early and gone home.
“What, uh…” Victoria said, her voice very soft, her wandering gaze like a gentle caress. Max resisted making a sound that she knew both Victoria and Penny would hold against her later. “What do you mean he summoned… you?” Maxine swallowed and she would have sooner caused herself ocular damage than look away.
“There was a… me, with Penny. Big scary monster. It hit really hard.” Her words were barely coming anymore. She wanted desperately to reach out, to take Victoria’s hand in her own, but it was all the way over on the keyboard and she worried that that would look awkward or weird. So instead she just sat motionless and stared, scared of blinking, like a normal person.
“Huh,” Victoria said, just as frozen as Maxine with the exception of her hands, which still fluttered across the keys, magically generating words as if out of thin air. Clearly she did not fear the blank page -- it probably feared her. But when she was done, her hands froze and now it was just the two of them, the gently humming fan of the laptop, and the low purring of the ball of fur at their feet.
“Yeah,” Maxine managed. Even Penny agreed it was a feat of skill and courage that she’d gotten that far. Sadly, it had come out as barely a whisper, but she was too scared to try again. Her new voice, which still felt alien to her own ears sometimes, was already fragile to begin with. Now she sounded positively demure. Victoria’s lips parted ever so slightly as if to say something. Maxine stared for a moment, until she realized what she was doing, then looked back up into Victoria’s eyes.
Please, Penny said. Do something. -Anything-. Max wanted to, deeply and desperately, but she had no idea what. Her limbs seemed unable to move. I can move them if you want, Penny offered, but Maxine rejected the offer.
“Maxi--” Victoria began.
“Vict--” Maxine said at the same time. They both stopped. They would have laughed in any other situation. But this wasn’t any other situation. This was this situation. Maxine’s brain was filling up with goopy emotions and she didn’t know which one to feel first. The first and most pressing one was the fact that her skin felt like it was on fire in a good way. The second was the overwhelming urge to lean just a few inches forward. The third stopped her. What if, it wondered, Victoria only liked her when she looked like this? In a few hours the monster underneath would be back, Victoria would see her for who she really was again, and be disappointed, just like Max was sure she’d been the first time.
You’re overthinking, Penny began, but Maxine’s self-destructive train of thought had picked up steam and was now blowing through any rational argument. She was fake, she thought. She knew. She wasn’t real, and in a few hours the clock would strike midnight and she’d turn back into a pumpkin. She didn’t get to be a princess and the hope that she could have been had been nothing but a deception. Max didn’t know what was worse, that she’d managed to convince herself that she was allowed to have this, or that she’d deceived Victoria into thinking she was a woman. She couldn’t be, could never be, because underneath sh--
“Max?” Victoria asked softly and the train derailed. “Are you okay?” Max looked Victoria in the eyes, not understanding. Had Victoria read her mind? V seemed to recognize her confusion. “You’re shaking. And crying. What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry,” Max said. “I ruined it. I didn’t mean to,” she stammered. She tried to pull away, now running on pure instinct, and her instincts were telling her to stop pushing herself on Victoria. She felt gross, disgusting, predatory. Her cheeks glowed hot, tears like boiling raindrops staining her shirt. Victoria, for her part, was having none of it. She calmly put the laptop away and then pulled Max into a hug.
There was some sobbing. Maxine’s brain was white noise, now. Just bad feelings and garbled thoughts, occupying the same space but fighting for attention, both useless.
I’m sorry, Penny said. I should have seen this coming. I should have said, well, anything, really. They paused. Maxine took a breath, being pulled closer by Victoria who had perfected the art of the tight-but-not-too-tight hug. You had some thoughts on the roof. About being a knight. Do you still see yourself that way? Max said nothing. Her silence spoke for her. Try to remember what Victoria said, Penny insisted. Besides, it’s not fair to her either, is it? Maxine frowned; she didn’t know what they meant.
Well, Penny said, if you don’t see yourself as a real woman, doesn’t that mean you don’t see her as one either? Or is it presentation? Max chewed on that thought for a moment and rejected it. That wasn’t it at all. She had the ability to transform and wear the face and the body for a few hours, but after that she had to turn back. Says who? Apparently, Max figured, the universe had. Clearly, she didn’t deserve to be a woman, which meant that she was just a man in disguise.
Does that mean that Victoria wasn’t a woman until she transitioned?
The question cut through Maxine’s thoughts like a knife through glass, screeching and scratching at the walls of her mind. She didn’t have an answer. She wanted to say that no, of course she wasn’t, but there was a niggling feeling in the back of her head. Penny’s logic made sense, in a twisted way. If Max wasn’t really a woman, didn’t that imply...
You are drawing literally the opposite of the right conclusion, Penny said with more frustration than Max had ever heard from them. I’m trying to tell you that Victoria is obviously a woman, and always was. That means you can be too, no matter what you look like. Then why, Maxine balked, did she have to turn back? Clearly there was something bigger at play here, something outside of their control, something that was making her be the guy she was obviously supposed to be.
Penny sighed. They sounded weary, frustrated, and Max felt guilty for annoying them. She didn’t know what she was doing wrong. I think I know what’s been causing you to turn back, Max, Penny finally said. Max blinked a few times. Her eyelashes were pressed softly against Victoria’s skin, and she was mad at herself for almost forgetting Victoria was there. If the taller woman hadn’t occasionally squeezed her softly, she might have been lost in her own world altogether. What was it, then? Had some cosmic force followed Penny to earth and forced them out of their power? Penumbra scoffed. They’d never scoffed before. I think, Penny said, it’s you.
“What?” Max asked, and then realized she’d said it out loud. Victoria didn’t move. She’d probably realized Max had been talking to Penny and didn’t want to interrupt. There was no way Max was good enough for someone as thoughtful as this.
You have the power to change yourself, Penny said. You can do that -- use my powers -- even if I’m unconscious. I wouldn’t even feel it. You’re the one trying to force yourself back. Penny sounded tired. You’re the one I’ve been fighting every second from turning you back into your old shape. That was obviously nonsense. Why would she want to turn back if looking like this made her feel so much better? It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Victoria pulled away slightly and wiped away Maxine’s tears, pulling her back to reality with a gentleness that was completely alien to her. She tucked the stray strand of hair behind Maxine’s ear, and even with the way she was feeling, Maxine’s heart skipped a beat. Victoria’s caring expression bordered on the angelic.
“Please,” she said. “Talk to me.”
“I’m scared,” Max said, finally, and when she’d said the first few words, the rest came easy. Admitting it had been a hard step. “I’m scared I’m not good enough. I’m scared I’m not going to be, when I’m forced to go back.” She ignored Penny’s sigh in her hindbrain. “I’m scared you’ll see what I see,” she finally confessed. There was a pang of sympathy from Penny, and then she felt them mentally hug her. She gave them a hug back.
“Well,” Victoria said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” She sat upright, crossing her legs. She pulled Max up as well, who mirrored her pose anxiously. “I’m afraid not everyone in this room has a second perspective living in her head. All I can do is see things with my own eyes.” She gently cupped Maxine’s face in her hands. They were cool to the touch and Max tried not to lean into them too obviously. She looked down, avoiding Victoria’s gaze. “Hey,” Victoria said, and Max glanced up, and was immediately trapped again. “I see you, Maxine. You’re beautiful. And not just because Penny made you pretty.”
Max blushed. She wasn’t even aware she was biting her lip until Victoria’s gaze flitted across her face again. Max tried to mumble a small ‘thank you’, but no sound made it past her lips. Victoria lowered one hand, resting it between them. Max was acutely aware of how within reach it was, and how Victoria’s other hand was still on her face. Then, finally, throwing caution to the wind, she did the unthinkable. She moved her hand ever so slightly and touched the back of Victoria’s fingers with hers.
“Max?” Victoria asked.
“Can I kiss you?”
“Do you want me to?”