Chapter 30: Picking up the Pieces
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Victoria sighed as she turned the key. She was worried. When she’d found Max, she’d originally assumed the wounds had been inflicted by the thief, but when she’d looked closer, there had been no damage to speak of. There had been blood everywhere, and Maxine’s skin was red, like she’d been in the sun for too long, but she didn’t seem actually hurt. It was worrying she’d reverted back to her previous form, though. Sure, it had been at the end of the few hours that Penny had talked about, but if it had happened during the fight. 

Then there was the fact that Penumbra didn’t seem to be awake either, or unresponsive. They were both completely knocked out, and Victoria was worried. She’d gone out to buy some things to help her take care of Maxine. Soup, some cream to maybe help with the painful-looking skin, multivitamins, toast and various painkillers. She didn’t know what had happened, but she wanted to be certain she could help. The apartment was a lot more quiet now. The new window had been installed and the glass had been taken care of. The couch and carpets would need to be replaced. 

Victoria put the groceries on the kitchen island and started unpacking. Maxine was in a bad place. She knew that, and she wished she could help. Sure, Max had her ideal body now, at least some of the time, but a part of her still still obviously felt like she didn’t deserve it, that she wasn’t good enough to be allowed anything. Victoria worried that this was related to what had happened at the school. There had been a lot of medical supplies, some of them thrown around like they’d been haphazardly grabbed. She’d first made sure to get Maxine to the car, and then sent an anonymous tip to the police. Some hospital or another would be wanting those back. Who would even steal medical supplies? Sure, they could probably be sold for a lot of money, but it just felt like such a dick move. 

Victoria put the food in the fridge and made a pot of tea, debating on whether or not to wake Maxine. She clearly needed sleep -- she’d been in bed for all of last night and the entire morning -- but it might not be the worst idea for her to get some food inside her, heal a little bit, and then maybe rest more. She sipped her tea and glanced at the bedroom door, then finally made a decision. 

Carefully, she pushed it open. The lights were still off. “Max?” she said softly. If Maxine was still asleep, then she didn’t want to wake her too suddenly. Maybe she’d wake up startled or unaware of where she was, and Victoria didn’t want to risk setting off some kind of fight-or-flight response. There was no answer, so she stepped into the room. “Maxine?” There was barely a shadow on the bed, and Victoria was feeling an overwhelming sense of trepidation. She really hoped it was a trick of the light. “Max, are you awake?” A little louder that time. She took another few steps into the room. There was nothing for it. She turned the light on. The bed was empty. Of course. The note she’d written was still on the bed, with some writing on it. She snatched it up. 

‘Victoria. I’m sorry. I messed up. I messed up bad. I hurt Penny, and I know it’s just a matter of time before I hurt you too. I think it’s better if I stay out of your life. I’m so sorry for doing all of this to you. You deserve better. I really wish I was good enough, but I’m only ever going to,’ some words were scratched out, ‘I don’t think I can I’m not good enough. I’m sorry. Goodbye. Take care of them.’

Veronica frowned. There was a part of her brain that wanted to panic, that wanted to cry. She shoved those parts aside. They were, at the moment, neither helpful nor particularly pleasant. She analysed the situation. Where did Max go, what did she do, what was she planning, and what did she mean by that last line? She paced back and forth on the soft carpet when she heard a soft bubbling noise coming from the side of the bed. 

She peeked her head over it, and saw what appeared to be about a bucket worth of black jello that had been haphazardly tossed onto the floor. It gurgled mournfully. There was no way, right? 

“Penny?” she asked. The black blob made a sound like somebody was blowing a straw into a particularly viscous milkshake. Victoria cocked her head and the puddle shifted a little bit. “Can you hear me?” Another bubbling noise from the pudding. She debated on what to do. Maxine had left them behind, in what was clearly kind of badly justified act of self-harm. Gosh, she was head over heels for that girl, but she could be really bad to herself. So Penumbra was a symbiote. That meant they had to bind to someone, right? And it seemed like they weren’t going to be very talkative in their current state. “This had better be you and not something from the fridge I forgot to clean out,” Victoria mumbled, “or I’m gonna feel really stupid for doing this.”

She reached out and, carefully, touched the outer layer of the softly trembling ooze. A sharp, terrible pain shot up her arm and for a brief moment she feared she’d made a terrible mistake. Something forced its way between her cells, cells that weren’t used to being moved or twisted. A warmth began to spread around her bones, weave itself into her muscles, bind itself to her sinews. When the warmth reached her brain, every part of her body tensed up, and her whole world went black and there was nothing left anymore. 

Victoria sat on a beach of black sand. After a few years, slowly, she’d started going to the beach again. It had taken a lot of courage at first. She used to hate swimsuits, but after she’d gotten more and more comfortable with herself, she found herself enjoying the warmth, the smells, the sounds. This beach wasn’t like that. It was colourless, odorless. Quiet. She looked down at herself, at her skin, and then back up. There was a woman standing in the surf. Tall. Skin made of black oil in stark contrast to the white foam around her. She was too far away to recognize, but Victoria knew who she was. She sighed and woke up as the figure was washed away into the ocean. She felt a presence in her head.

“Hello, Penny,” Victoria said. She’d recognized the voice immediately, like a cat with a secret. Like red velvet with a shot of vodka. Like the cracking of ice in a drink. Like a knife being slowly sharpened. Like a loved one. “Are you okay?”

I am. I think. I will be. Victoria heard how tired they sounded. She really wished she could give them the rest they needed, but she also got the feeling that this was a pain and an exhaustion that wasn’t necessarily physical. You’re not wrong. I hurt Max. 

“Oh, don’t you start. What happened?” She felt something touch the side of her brain, carefully, almost like… “Are you asking for permission?”

Yes. Maxine and I talked about consent. A lot. It’s very important to both of us. Victoria nodded. That was good to hear, at least. I agree. Max is… a good person. But she’s fragile. Maybe too fragile for me. Can I show you? Victoria nodded again, and felt the touch of Penumbra against her brain again. Feeling the memories of Maxine waking up earlier that morning, she winced. She couldn’t help but feel the sympathetic pain of what Max had done to herself, to both of them. The pain of their separation and the wild blindness of Penny’s loneliness. They had been sitting there in the dark, waiting for something, anything, their mind having trouble comprehending much of anything the longer they were away from a host. It was… bad, they said. It was getting harder to think. I’m sorry. 

“Well, don’t worry about it. I’ve got you now,” Victoria said. “It’s going to be okay.”

I couldn’t convince her, Penny said. I gave her the tools to hurt herself. I did what I could, putting her back together, but I can’t be with her. She can hurt herself through me and I can’t let that happen again and--

“Shh,” Victoria said, and stood up. “You’re a great person, Penny, but you’re like, two weeks old. Yeah, Max hurt herself. No, it wasn’t your fault. And no, I’m not going to let her self-sabotage like this. I know what she’s up to and I’m not going to let her do it. But I’m going to need your help, is that understood?” 

I… But… oh… 

“Maxine was right about one thing,” Victoria said as she stepped back out into the living room. She was determined, and she wasn’t in the mood to waste any time. “You did need a difference in perspective.” She felt Penny in her head. It was strange, she could feel what they felt and she knew instinctively that this went both ways. Right now, they were mostly curious. “Maxine, apparently,” she said, grimacing at the memory of Maxine’s downward spiral, “has a tendency to think in black and white. And I think you did catch some of that. You’re not some force for evil and giving that woman the ability to be happy isn’t what caused her to hurt herself. Her complete lack of self-respect did that.” She grabbed her coat. “Now, I need your help, Penny. You know where she went.”

I… yes. Of course. Yes. Penny squirmed a little bit, and then Victoria felt the memories flooding into her mind. The obnoxious friend of Maxine’s she’d met outside the bookshop was the thief. Okay. Max had visited… them, a lot, once upon a time. Okay. It wasn’t that hard to figure out where to go. She just hoped she was going to get there in time. 

“Tell me again,” she said, “why Max decided to go see Andrew now that she doesn’t have powers and doesn’t have you?” She stepped out the door and into the elevator, stretching her arms and legs. There was something very strange about having Penny in her system, but she definitely didn’t hate it. Penumbra was her lover as much as Maxine was, and there was an inherent sense of closeness and trust to the kind of connection she shared with Penny now. She finally understood why Maxine had trusted them so fully when they’d first met. They couldn’t not be close, minds and emotions linked. 

She wants to end this, I think. She’s projected a lot of herself onto Andrew and I’m worried she’s going to hurt herself. Or maybe she’s hoping Andrew is going to hurt her. Penny grew very small in her head. I’m sorry. 

“Penny, I love you. Please stop apologizing for not taking on someone else’s entire emotional baggage when you’re literally younger than the yoghurt in my fridge.”

Well, I am ba-- wait, you love me?

“I swear to god, you and Max are both useless as hell,” Victoria said with a smile in her voice. “Yeah, I do. Once you’re bonded to Maxine again, I’ll give you a kiss to prove my point. Now, are you going to help me or not?”

The elevator doors opened and Victoria walked around out back towards the parking lot, but then crossed a street into a small alleyway. 

What do you want me to do? I want to help, in any way I can.

“Well,” Victoria said, looking up, “I can think of a couple things.” The two brick walls on either side of her rose up to the sky. She was going to get there a lot faster if she could ignore traffic, and she’d seen how fast Maxine moved. “Why don’t we start by suiting up?”

Victoria chappy! \o/

For those interested in finding out where this goes right away: The story is already finished and available for Patrons

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 17 chapters are already available for Patrons.

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.