Chapter 26: Behind Her Back
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“It’s going to be fine, Max,” Victoria said with the slightest of smirks after Daryl had taken both of their drink orders, and Maxine did what was in her power to keep from glaring or pouting, knowing she’d get teased about it from both sides. “They won’t even know it’s you.” She was right, of course, but that didn’t magically fix everything. Just made it a little harder to justify the anxiety. 

“If you say so,” Max whispered back, and looked at Remy, her French Canadian friend, who was sitting next to Simon and William -- though ‘Billy’ was preferred -- a couple she’d known way back in college. Simon was self-professed genderfucky, and Billy was bi as all hell. They were Good People, all three of them, who all had a tendency to go out of their way to help people even if there was nothing in it for them. Maxine had a lot of first-hand experience with their particularly kind brand of selflessness. Simon had a tendency to be a little reserved, which was balanced by Billy’s upbeat personality. Very much a “cat-and-golden-retriever” kind of relationship. They were very cute together. And Remy was, of course, a soul so gentle people tended to treat her like she was made of glass, even though there was a rumour she’d once decked someone for groping a friend of hers. 

The last one was Imogen, a tall trans gal she’d met through meetings with Remy and the others. For reasons that were only apparent now, Max had never really gotten close to her, despite her having a baby crush a few years ago. She’d been worried that her lack of queerness had been a problem, that it would’ve made her some kind of creep. Many of the same feelings she’d had with Victoria. 

Daryl came back with drinks, making it impossible for them to hover awkwardly at the edge of the room any longer. Victoria put a hand on the small of her back and for some reason, to Max, that small gesture was immensely comforting and intimate. She felt an explosion of Feelings shoot through her abdomen. A single look of adoration up at Victoria couldn’t hurt, could it? Goodness, Penny said, and even in thought, their voice quivered a little. Yeah, Max wasn’t the only one who’d caught it good. 

“Hey, everyone,” Victoria said, earning her a small chorus of acknowledgements and happy smile. It looked like a few people wanted to say more individual hellos, but they were waiting for an introduction to the smaller girl standing next to their friend. Maxine tried not to feel too awkward. Did her dress look okay? She’d never worn a dress before, was she wearing it right? Was it obvious that she’d never worn one before? Would they think she looked fake? Penumbra nudged her again, and she was shaken out of her self-conscious brain spiral. “This is Maxine.”

“Hi, Maxine,” came the almost comical chorus, although Remy’s smile and wave was heartbreakingly genuine. There were two people she didn’t know there, but other than that, these were Max’s friends. It was very strange to meet people she’d known for years again ‘for the first time’. She felt like she was deceiving them in some way. There was also the matter of introducing her as the person she was. If Victoria introduced her as a recently transitioned trans person, people would assume she was a guy. 

“She’s recently realized she’s queer, but she’s been friends with people in our community for a long time. Please be nice to her, I want her to stick around.” Max smiled, until she realized that Billy had raised an eyebrow. 

“You do, do you? You want to keep her for later?” Max immediately blushed and looked up at Victoria in panic. How was she supposed to respond to that? Victoria seemed to grin in embarrassment, but she didn’t seem particularly bothered. “It was about time,” Billy said, and leaned back in his chair, putting his arm around Simon. 

“Behave, dear,” Simon said. “She’s clearly still bashful. Don’t worry, Maxine. He’s actually quite nice once you get to know him.” They shot her a reassuring smile; she took a deep breath. It was very weird to be teased by her friends like this, people who didn’t know that they knew her. 

“You know,” Imogen said, chewing on some macadamias, “the whole ‘friends with queer people but only figuring it out late’ is definitely not uncommon, Maxine. Don’t worry about it. We have a friend who I think is a bit like that.” She looked at her glass and then back up. “Has a similar name, too. Heh.” Max froze.

“Hah, yeah,” Billy said. “I really hope the guy figures himself out one of these days. I miss him.” Victoria had kept her hand on Maxine’s back and gently nudged her forward to sit down, probably because it would look really awkward if she just stood there the entire time looking like a deer in headlights. 

“Me too,” Remy said, with a lot less humor. “I hope he’s okay. I haven’t heard from him much lately. I’m worried.” Simon rubbed her back and she sighed. Remy had always been incredibly empathetic. 

“Is this who I think it is?” Victoria said, crossing her legs with feigned ignorance. Max’s internal panic went into overdrive. If Victoria knew her friends and they talked about her -- the old her -- regularly like this, then V would have heard about her. She gulped and hid behind her glass, putting it to her lips without actually drinking anything. “The mysterious friend I’ve never had a chance to see? They sound… interesting.”

“He,” Billy corrected. “Trust me, we’ve asked him a lot about his gender and he is con-vinced he’s cishet.” The shit-eating grin on Billy’s face would be infuriating if he wasn’t so likeable. He had managed to make it into his thirties with youthful, boyish charm intact, and he knew it. That didn’t change how weird it was for Maxine to hear someone correct her pronouns in the wrong direction.

You okay? Penumbra asked, and she nodded internally. It was weird, but it didn’t hurt. It was almost like they were talking about someone else. Okay. Be honest when this is getting to be too much, okay? If we have to find a way to tell them who you are, we’ll figure something out. Penny was too good, Max felt, and gave them a little mental hug, which was responded to with satisfied purring.

“I’m sorry you’ve never met him, honestly,” Imogen said. “He’s very sweet, once you get him out of his shell. Shit parents, but he’s… I don’t usually feel this safe around allies, you know? Just… a good guy.” She put her glass to her lips. “Cute, too,” she mumbled into her drink. Billy’s head swiveled like he was laser-guided. 

“Do tell.”

“Nooope. Said too much already,” she said, and laughed. “Anyway, let’s do some quick introductions so Maxine knows who we are, yeah?” Max was grateful for the introduction, because of the realization that not only did her friends actually say nice things about her behind her back, but there was more? 

“Simon,” Simon said, raising their hand. “I’m a software engineer, I’m engaged to this walking scandal and I love him very much.” They nudged Billy with their shoulder. “They-them pronouns, please and thank you.” 

Billy raised his hand next. “Billy, William to my enemies. Audio tech for a small studio downtown. He-him, occasional streamer and doing what I can to make my better half happy in my free time.” There were some soft laughs around the room, which Billy waved away with a confidence Max could only dream of. “It’s a living.”

“It literally isn’t, though,” Imogen said.

“Hush.”

“My name is Remy. I am a teacher, originally from Montreal. I teach mostly French and Painting. I use she and her pronouns. I hope you feel welcome here, Maxine.” She smiled warmly, and Max had to keep from aww-ing. Remy was precious. 

She must be protected, Penumbra agreed solemnly. Max looked at the next person, one of the people she didn’t know. She was tall and tan, with gorgeous hair that seemed to roll down her shoulders like a waterfall, and she wore glasses that reminded Maxine of a librarian. She looked at Max over her glasses, and it was only by the grace of Penny that she didn’t blush furiously. You’re welcome.

“I’m Marcie. I work for a dentist just up the road. She-her pronouns.” She smiled ever so slightly. “If you hurt Victoria I will find you. I have access to lots of sharp objects.” Maxine screamed internally. Penny was right there with her, the woman was intimidating as hell, and her smile splitting into a grin didn’t help.

“Marsh,” Victoria said. “Don’t be mean.” Maxine almost squeaked in surprise when she felt Victoria’s arm around her shoulders. “Besides, I’m a grown-ass woman. I’ll be fine.” Marcie sighed melodramatically, and took off her glasses. 

“Fine,” she said, but then looked at Max again. Immediately, she seemed a lot less stern, and she shot Maxine a much more genuine smile. “I’m kidding, Maxine. Of course. Just that our Vickie has been hurt before. I’d hate to see that happen again.” Her voice was a lot softer, and she looked at Victoria. Max got the feeling there was a history there, which would explain the knee-jerk protective response. She was still uncomfortable, of course.

“I’m Imogen,” Imogen said, sitting on the sofa next to Marcie. “Trans, and loud about it. I’m a freelance journalist, which means I’m always stressed out about current affairs and then people pay me for that.” She smiled happily, round cheeks blushing. “Any pronouns, but I prefer feminine ones.” 

“Jake,” the last person said. They seemed a little quiet and reserved. “Still figuring things out. I’m, uh, a friend of Daryl’s.” Jake was huddled up on a recliner, wearing an oversized hoodie, looking a little skittish. Max empathised with that level of discomfort. 

“Do you want to share your pronouns, or nah?” Imogen asked, tucking her legs underneath herself. “It’s okay if you’re not comfortable.”

“No, I’m good,” Jake said. “I want to try out girl pronouns. I know that’s kinda weird, cause I still don’t have a name…” 

“You’re fine,” Simon said. “If there’s a place to try this kind of stuff out, it’s here. We’re not going to judge you.” Jake just nodded in gratitude and hid behind her glass in much the same way Maxine had, making her more aware of how defensive she was being. Daryl and Sue walked in, having been busy in the kitchen and carting snacks in and out of the room. “I’m Daryl,” Daryl said, and then nodded to his other half, “and Sue. He and she, respectively. It’s good to have you, Maxine.” Max nodded gratefully. “How do you know Victoria?”

“Uh,” Maxine said. “So yeah, I’m, uh, Maxine.” She ignored Penny giggling softly in her head. She was well aware she’d already been introduced by name, thank you very much. “I work in a…” She interrupted herself right before she could reveal her bookshop. The coincidence would be too uncanny. Someone would figure it out. “I work in a shop, just a ways uptown. Victoria just kinda wandered in, we got to talking and she asked me for coffee. And, uh… here I am.” She paused. “She-her pronouns.”

Everyone smiled warmly at her, and she relaxed a little when Imogen, Billy and Marcie immediately picked up a conversation they’d been having before Victoria and Max arrived. All three of them were very animated, and it allowed Max to release some of the tension she’d been keeping in. 

“You did great babe,” Victoria whispered in her ear, and Max couldn’t help but shudder and look back gratefully. V hadn’t pulled away, so their faces were almost touching. She gently nudged Victoria’s nose with her own. 

“Thank you,” she whispered back, and then relaxed in her chair a bit, listening to the others, to their conversation. It was fun to see them all have a good time, the comfort of people who like each other enjoying each other’s company. Right up until they started talking about their friend ‘Maxim’ again. 

“We mentioned Maxim earlier,” Imogen said, turning to Maxine. “And I just want to say that you remind me of him. You’re not, like, related to someone with that name, are you?” Max clenched her jaw and shook her head no. She hoped her dress, side-shave and difference in facial structure was enough. “Weird,” Imogen said, taking a sip of her drink. “But yeah, I really hope he shows up more often. He always says no to our larger queer get-togethers because he’s scared he ‘won’t belong’.” She sighed. 

Remy nodded. “Scared of invading queer spaces, I think he said. I get it, and I appreciate it, but he’s been invited. Maybe I should send him a message again, let him know he’s wanted around here.” Max quietly reached into her bag and quietly set her phone to vibrate. This would be a terrible time for a loud ‘ding’.

“Think he’d believe you?” Simon asked. “He seems like he’d just wave you off. I don’t meet a lot of people with a self-esteem in the negative.” Max was feeling increasingly called out, but she couldn’t say anything. Billy was the one to respond. 

“I think he needs to figure himself out, first,” Billy said. “Therapy, maybe. You offered to contact your therapist, right?” Remy nodded. “I don’t know what’s up with him, but I hope he’s doing okay.” Bill snuggled up against Simon. “He deserves good things.”

Victoria turned to Max and smiled. There was a lot of caring there. And a lot of smug. Max blushed. Penny grinned, too. The smug was coming from inside the brain! 

Your friends seem to like you, Maxine. If only somebody had told you so.

Gosh. It's her worst best nightmare. Best worst?

There's another chapter done, and I'll be posting it soon. We should be getting back to a chapter every other day soon. 

In short: 
I'm working on a new story, called "We're Not So Different, You and I". It's a Sci-Fi Fantasy Romance. When I hit 30 chapters or the end (whichever comes first), I'll start publishing it on Scribble. The first 14 chapters are already available for Patrons. 
I'm also working on the sequel for Horns In The Library, which I'll start publishing on Friday if all goes well.

Lots of excitement in the future, and I hope you'll stick around and consider donating to my patreon to get access to the large backlog of stories! Additionally, Horns in the Library one is now available as an ebook

I also want to point people at the discord server of the ever-prolific QuietValerie (right here) where you can find her wonderful stories, like Ryn of Avonside, Falling Over and The Trouble With Horns, as well as other authors' works, and talk about them with fellow fans, and even the authors themselves! I heartily recommend joining it and reading their works! (Also check out Walls of Anamoor. It's rad as heck.) 

Thanks again for reading, and I'll see you all in the next one. 

<3

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