Chapter 22: Turnaround
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Victoria was kind. Incredibly so. Soft, kind, understanding, caring. The kiss was all of those and then some. Maxine’s breath was taken away the second Victoria’s lips had touched hers, as if she’d stolen it right out of her lungs. Victoria’s hands cupped Maxine’s face and Maxine really wished she knew what to do with her own hands. She was too scared to move forward, to take the next step, but didn’t want to just, well, be there. She wanted to participate in her own first kiss with this woman. 

She put her hands on Victoria’s hips and pulled her closer, falling backwards a bit and pulling the other woman on top of her. She was hit by no small wave of panic. This was faster than she’d anticipated. Now she was an accomplice in getting herself in this position, underneath Victoria, who had inadvertently pinned Maxine down with her hips. 

Relax, Penny said. She likes you. She won’t hurt you. Speak up if you’re scared. Speak up if you’re comfortable. Speak up regardless. Tell her where you are and she’ll come find you. Maxine took a deep breath. Penny was right. Always am. So Max communicated. She kissed Victoria back, pulled her in close, tried not to think about how good this woman was for fear of comparing herself, for fear of not measuring up. That kind of thinking was for later, when she was alone. And I’ll be there to tell you you’re wrong. But for now, she wanted her thoughts quiet. Good. And maybe Penny a bit, too, so she could focus on how incredibly soft Victoria was. Oh, right.

Victoria pulled away a little, panting. They looked each other in the eye. She looked as though she was going to ask Max something, but instead she went in for another hungry kiss. They rolled over a few times, kept finding new ways to express what had gone unexpressed. Their hands roamed and Max giggled softly a few times when Victoria touched her belly for the first time. It tickled, in a new and not-entirely-unpleasant way. Their breathing became laboured and short. Then there was a touch that sent a bolt of lightning all the way up Maxine’s spine and it dislodged a feeling. She pulled away slightly.

“You okay?” Victoria asked, worried. Max nodded but extricated her own hand from Victoria’s upper leg. Penny expressed a similar sentiment. They could tell something was up, but the feeling was messy and complicated. 

“Yeah,” Max told them both. “Just going a bit fast. I’m feeling… things that aren’t there, and not feeling things that should be.” It was the best she could do. It was hard to explain. In theory, she had the perfect body. In practice, some of its perfections were stark reminders of what had once been there. Beauty as scar tissue. She had to breathe deeply, and Victoria pulled her in closely, slowing her breathing. Maxine felt her own chest rise and fall slower as she subconsciously mimicked Victoria’s rhythm. 

“I know that feeling,” Victoria said, and she kissed Max’s forehead. “That part gets better too. It’s weird and gross and disgusting. But the memory of what was wrong will fade. You won’t always feel it.”

“I’m sorry,” Maxine said softly, and Victoria booped her forehead with her nose. 

“Don’t apologize for your pain, for setting boundaries. I’m glad you did. I’d rather we stop than have you be uncomfortable.”

“Okay.” Gosh. She didn’t deserve this woman. Not by a mile. Penny protested inside her. Max was too tired to argue. For now, they’d have to agree to disagree. Victoria was amazing and Maxine was a mess.

You’re a work in progress, Penny said. Stop expecting perfection from yourself. Nobody’s born perfect. 

‘Except you?’ Maxine thought playfully, but Penny shook their head.

Not even me. I was a dog for a while. Max had expected that surreal image to be elaborated on but apparently that was all she was getting. Penny the Puppy. I would have been -so good-, Penny mused idly. Anyway, point is, even I needed some work. 

They stayed like that for a while, in each other’s arms, breathing softly. Maxine tried to apologize a few more times. Neither of them had expected any part of the night to have gone the way it had, and she felt like she was letting Victoria down. Victoria nipped that in the bud very quickly. 

“I’m happy to be here with you, Max. To help you figure things out and to find out what this is and who you are.” With ‘this’, Max assumed, she meant what she and Max were. Not girlfriends, not yet, much too quick for that. But there might be something there. A kernel of something very nice, and kind, and soft, and caring. And gay, Penny said softly. Don’t forget gay. Like they’d ever let her forget. 

“I think,” Maxine whispered softly a little later, “I think I’m still going to turn back.” She ‘looked’ at Penny, shot them a glance of attention. Penny nodded solemnly. Yeah. I’m still getting pushback from you. Max sighed and curled up a little more in Victoria’s arms. Why did this have to be so hard? Why couldn’t she just be allowed to be?

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled again. 

“Don’t be,” Victoria said. 

Don’t be, Penumbra said. You’ve got time. We’ve got time. We’ll work through it. We’ve got time. 

“Okay,” Maxine said. Victoria and Penny hugged her again. She wondered how long she had left before she’d turn back. 

A few hours, still. I can wake you up, if you want to. Or I could do it in your sleep. Maxine shook her head. She wanted to be awake for it. She didn’t quite know or understand why, but it was important. As if she’d read her mind, Victoria kissed her on the forehead again, and then raised Max’s face to look her in the eyes.

“I’ll be right here with you, okay? You’re not alone. You don’t have to be.” Max sniffled a little bit, but she’d be damned if she was going to be crying again. She’d already stained Victoria’s clothing with her tears tonight, she wasn’t going to start all over again. 

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

Pause. “I just wish I was strong enough, you know?” Maxine mumbled, a little pouty. “I just… If I was better at this, I would be able to confront this stuff and come out the other side looking as -- well, almost as pretty as you.” She looked up at Victoria again, a little smug that she’d managed One Whole Flirt. It got her kissed on the nose. 

“You’re precious,” Victoria said, and with that, Max was a useless mess again. “It’s not about being strong enough. It’s about giving yourself time.” Maxine disagreed with a little “blegh,” and cuddled up closer to Victoria again, who was warm and soft. “Turn around,” Victoria said. Maxine shot her an uncomprehending glance. Victoria just nodded in encouragement. Max shrugged and did as she was asked, turning away from Victoria. She didn’t see the appeal in not being able to look at the woman she was in bed with but she felt she would just have to trust her. 

As Victoria’s arms wrapped around her, her mouth formed a perfect ‘o’ of understanding. She suddenly became very small and the world became very big and full of Victoria as she was wrapped up and safe, the littlest spoon. She’d never been held like this before. Is this what it was like to be held? It was amazing! Sure, the whole kissing thing had been mind-blowing and phenomenal and all that, but this was something else. She’d never felt so safe before. She snuggled backwards a little bit, making small happy noises, and Victoria -- and Penny -- giggled at her. 

“Hush, both of you,” she mumbled happily, and neither of them obliged. She didn’t mind. She was safe and comfortable and right where she needed to be. If only it didn’t have to end at some point. She tried not to think about it. 

Good. Enjoy this moment, Max. You’re allowed to have it. Blegh. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. Double blegh. 

Eventually, Victoria fell asleep, her arms still wrapped around Max. Maxine listened to her soft breathing for a while and felt a pang of something, an aggressive gust of butterflies, every time she felt a whisper of a breath against her ear, or Victoria’s chest rise and fall against her back. Listening to her, she slowly drifted off too. 

She was on a beach. It was the same beach. The same white-tipped waves, the woman standing in the surf. Too far, too good to be true. Penny or Victoria, or both. Or maybe herself. She couldn’t stand up. She tried to crawl and found herself weighed down by herself, her body its own prison. She wasn’t strong enough to make the distance, too weak, to feeble, Not Good Enough. Penny woke her up. She was hiccupping silently in her sleep, still crying. 

Hey, Penny said. It was a dream. Just a dream. It’s not real. Felt real, though. I know. That’s why I’m reminding you it wasn’t. Fair enough, Max figured. She turned around and looked at Victoria. We’ve got a few minutes. You should wake her up. She wants you to. Max nodded. She didn’t want to disturb Victoria’s sleep yet. She was too beautiful, too good to disturb with Maxine’s pain. Wrong, Penny sighed. Maxine finally relented, and kissed Victoria on the forehead, then whispered her name. 

Victoria’s eyes fluttered open. Even while sleepy and tired she was gorgeous, Maxine noted. How was that even possible? When she was tired, she felt like someone had carved a face in a potato and then left it in the sun for a week. “Max?” Victoria mumbled. “Time yet?” Maxine nodded and kissed Victoria on the forehead again. That got her a smile, and Max sighed gayly. Penny gently nudged her and she stepped aside. 

“Are you both ready?” Penny asked in that voice that was and also distinctly wasn’t Maxine’s. Both of them nodded, Victoria with a little yawn and a stretch that got another sigh from Max. Then Penny began to envelop Maxine, like a suit of living black liquid, until every inch of her skin was covered. She looked out through Penny’s eyes and saw the world like they did again, the darkness just another colour, a world of half-dark tones that no painter would ever be able to put on canvas. Maxine felt the strange tingling sensation of her body changing underneath the suit and she wondered about the possibilities again. What were the limits? Was it her imagination? Or were the limits her own fears, her desires? Don’t know, Penny said. Kinda busy. 

Max smiled behind the mask and looked at Victoria. The woman was worried, clearly, and she wished she could say it was all going to be okay, but she was far too scared herself. She didn’t know if she was going to be okay. She hoped she would be. 

Done, Penny said. I can stay as the suit, if you want. If that would help. Maxine shook her head. Penumbra acknowledged her and slowly retreated. When they retreated from Maxine’s face, exposing her skin to the open air, she saw Victoria’s gaze wander over her visage and tried not to wince. She knew what she looked like now. Was she going to be good enough?

Victoria just smiled. “Still you,” she said, finally. “Still Maxine.” It was all she had to say, and Max cried. She laid in Victoria’s arms like that, much bigger than before, but somehow still small. She still fit. They scooted up a little bit -- neither of them was getting much sleep -- and listened to each other breathing for a while. Maxine felt like her skin was going to burst at the seams. 

You’re going to be okay, Penny said. We’ll work through this together. You’re doing great. I’m proud of you. 

“Thank you.”

You’re welcome.

“Of course,” Victoria said. Maxine was going to have to learn to use her insidest voice when talking to Penny, she realized, or there were going to be a lot of misunderstandings. Penny just grinned. 

Nah, they said. This is fun. Can only lead to wacky hijinks.

Victoria’s phone buzzed. And then again. And again. She finally picked it up off the nightstand. 

“Everything okay?” Maxine asked. 

“I don’t know. Mom is freaking out about something. Hold on.” She tapped a link her mom had sent her. It was a grainy video of the outside of an apartment building. Going up the building was a creature, wrapped in a suit of black oil, climbing inhumanly fast, chasing after a magical floating car, pulled by giant cats. The title of the video said ‘Downtown superhero battle?! Not clickbait!!’

“Oh,” Victoria said. “I think you’re famous, Max.”

Oops.

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