Maxine stuffed her hands into the pockets of the hoodie. It was much, much too large for her. She’d expected to be able to wear her old clothes, after… letting go of Penumbra, but they’d given her one last gift. Penny had given her her body back. The real one. It felt horrible, because it felt right, and she hated that there was even one part of their parting that felt even remotely okay. She didn’t want things to be okay, she didn’t deserve okay, but there wasn’t a lot she’d been able to do, not with how adamant they’d been. But wearing her new clothes had felt like stealing from Victoria, so she’d taken as little as possible and thrown on an old hoodie. At least it made her practically invisible. She looked like just another depressed almost-thirty-something, wearing an oversized sweater.
The house was coming up soon. She’d had some money for the cab fare, but walking the rest of the way seemed prudent. She needed time to think before she barged in there, and the fresh air was definitely helping. Not that she was prepared, not really. But whatever was going to happen in there, it was going to finish things, properly, once and for all. Whatever Andrew had been up to, it ended today.
She walked up the little stone path to the house and rang the bell. It took a moment for her to hear shuffling in the hall. Maxine clenched and unclenched her fists. She needed to be ready for anything, and she controlled her breathing. The door opened and Max was not even remotely ready.
“Hello, Mrs. Quilty,” she said softly. Andrew’s mother had seen… better days. She wore a colourful cap, and there was still some colour in her cheeks, but she was a lot skinnier than Maxine remembered her being. Her heart broke.
“Hello, dear,” Mrs. Quilty said. “How can I help you? If you’re lost, you’re more than welcome to use the phone inside.” Max smiled and shook her head. She’d forgotten how nice the woman was.
“No, thank you. I’m actually an old friend of Andrew’s, from college. I was in the neighbourhood and I wanted to stop by, see how he was doing.” Max took a deep breath, trying not to show how much it hurt to see Andrew’s mom like this. It definitely put some things in perspective. In turn, Mrs. Quilty smiled broadly, and it was good to see that there was still a lot of light in her eyes.
“I didn’t know Andrew… I’m so glad to hear that, dear. Do you want me to go fetch him? He’s usually in his room around now.” She looked at the stairs and Max could feel her hesitation to brave them. She looked so weak.
“If it’s all right with you, Mrs. Quilty, could I go up there? I promise I won’t be long, I just want to catch up, see how he’s doing? We haven’t really had a proper heart to heart in a long time, and if it ends up being a bit later, I promise to drag him out of the house.” She smiled to give her last statement some extra oomph.
“Thank you, dear, but what you kids get up to is really none of my business.” Even if the woman didn’t shoot her a wink, Max could still feel one hanging in the air. Moms, they never changed and existed only to embarrass their children, even when those children weren’t around. Max suppressed a giggle.
“Thank you, Mrs. Quilty,” she said. “I really do just want to talk, though.”
“Oh well,” she said as she stepped back to let Max in. “At least it’s company. He doesn’t really talk to people much these days. Well, just me. And call me Mary, dear. Everyone does. ‘Mrs. Quilty’ just makes me feel even older than I already do.” Max smiled at Mary and stepped inside. The house smelled the same it always had. There was that strange feeling of déja vu, of entering a place she hadn’t seen in years. Mary walked back towards the living room, where Maxine could see a bed set up. “It’s up the stairs, first door on the right. It’s the one with the ‘Do not enter’ sign.
“Yeah,” Max said as she went up. “I rem-- uh… I’ll remember that, thank you.” She briefly saw Mary frowning at that, but Max was out of sight before she could say anything. The door was easy to find, sign and all. There was even a sticker with a skull and some lightning bolts. It had been there for as long as Maxine had known him. She took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. It took Andrew a few seconds to open the door.
“Yeah? Hello?” He looked at her, not recognizing her. Maxine took another breath and tried to smile, getting the distinct feeling she probably looked more than a little sheepish. She’d been thinking of this part a lot, of how she was going to initiate this. She’d considered being coy about it, mysterious, or even trying to get to know him as a stranger. But that wasn’t why she was here, and she’d tossed the idea quickly.
“Heya, Andrew,” she said. “It’s Max.” He frowned and looked at her, and then behind her, as if looking for the director of this hilarious and elaborate prank.
“I don’t know a Max,” he said, and almost closed the door in her face.
“Yes, you do, asshole,” Maxine said and pushed the door back open with a bit more force than she intended to. He looked at her with confusion. The question hung on his lips. She cut it off before he could get a chance. “We’ve known each other since high school… fuck, has it been that long? Uh, yeah. Last time we saw each other was last week, in front of the bookshop I work at. You were a dickhead to the woman I was talking to.” Andrew’s frown was deepening. “You… tried to gas yourself in your car once. At school you said it was an accident but you told me what actually happened a month later when you were crying. I can keep fucking going, dude.”
“Wh-- Jay?” Max slapped him. Softly. Just enough to shut him up. Well, enough to make his head snap aside, but it felt good at the very least.
“What did I just tell you? It’s Max. Maxine. It’s always been Max. Since we were kids.” She glared up at him and started raking up more old memories of them to weaponize.
“But… wh-- how?” He shook his head, as if trying to etch-a-sketch reality back into a shape that made more sense. Sadly for him, Maxine was here to stay. “Nu-uh,” he said. I don’t know a Max. I know a Jay, and he’s--”
“No,” Max said, and pushed him. He stumbled backwards. How easy that had been was almost comical. Right now, it was just enough, she hoped, to get him to lash out at her. That’s all she needed. Just… an excuse. To do what, she didn’t know yet. She just wanted him to either say something or do something. And there it was. The blue shimmer in the air, of something faintly angelic, and the decision was made. She took another two steps towards him, and he started to get scared. Good. Maybe he’d do what she needed him to.
There was a sword, barely visible in the air, glowing with infinite, impossible sharpness. All she had to do was close her eyes. It’d be easy. A deep breath and she took another step forward. He’d panic, any second now, and her story would be over.
Perfect, right up until that asshat opened his mouth.
“Wait, the wom-- the chick from the bookshop, did she do this to you?” Maxine’s eyes shot open. Not okay. The angel was gone again, and so was the sword, and there was just Andrew, stammering. “Did the TRAs get to you, man? I warned you they’d--”
“Okay,” Max said, and decked him full on the nose. His head flew back and he stood there for a moment. When he looked back down, his eyes were rolling up into his head and he fell backwards next to his bed. She only barely caught him before he hit the ground, grabbing him by the shirt. She sighed and tossed him onto the bed, then closed the door behind her. She rubbed the bridge of her nose and sat down on the desk chair, spinning softly. She really hoped she hadn’t given him permanent brain damage. He was already groaning as he was starting to wake up again. Good. Great.
“Huh? Whzf?” he said, eloquent as ever.
“Wake up, shitheel,” Max said, and sat down on the bed next to him. “It’s Max. You start talking like that again and I’m breaking your nose next time.” He propped himself up on his arms and shook his head a few times, then moved his jaw.
“Ow. You hit harder than you used to.”
Max smirked despite herself. Her hand didn’t even sting. Another little parting gift from Penny. She was never going to have to go back to the gym. They’d tweaked her body way past physical perfection. “You deserve it more than you used to. Yeah, we were both kinda… shitty back then, but come on, man. You were better than this. Like, we were alone against the world but never against, like… people who also had it bad.”
“What the fuck happened?” he asked, and he was looking at her directly. He wasn’t asking about the punch anymore, then. Max, rubbing her face fell backwards onto the bed.
“That is such a long story and I don’t even know where to start.” She sighed. It had been… what? A week? Two? It felt like a lifetime ago. It was, in a sense. She’d become Maxine since then, after all. That counted as a new life. Sort of.
“Why are you here?” Andrew asked. That was the real question. Max groaned.
“I don’t know. I thought I was coming to confront you or something. I don’t know what I was hoping for. Something bad, maybe. Maybe something good. Redemption, if we want to put a big dramatic word on it. Proof that there’s someone out there who’s worse at this than I am. At life, I mean.” Andrew started to protest, but shut up quickly. “I just… needed to talk to you about… all this, I guess. You know what we used to talk about, Rue.”
Andrew shook his head. “That’s not… don’t use that name, man.” Max shot him a glance, and rolled her eyes.
“Why? You picked it. You picked it over a decade ago because the other one made you sad. You told me yourself,” she said. “Right around the time I picked Max.”
“Because it’s not real, man. It was never going to be real, and we moved on.” Max barked a laugh and hopped up, did a little spin.
“Look. Look at me. It’s real. It’s real, and I’m proof.” She lowered her voice and looked at her friend. “You could be Rue if you wanted to be. Especially considering you have actual superpowers. If that’s real, then why wouldn’t the other stuff be real? Or do you want me to keep calling you Andrew? Because I saw you dress up like a priestess, and I get the very distinct feeling you didn’t process those feelings as well as you’re pretending you did.”
“Wait,” he said, “how did you know I was dressed up like a priestess? How do you know about my… abilities?!”
“Oh. Uh. Oops,” Maxine responded and plopped down on the desk chair again. “That’s what I was gonna do here, y’know, at first.” She made jazz hands. “I’m the one you’ve been fighting. Ta-daah.”
“Excuse me? What? Wait? What?” He seemed agitated. Maxine could hardly blame him. She’d hit him with the one-two punch of Gender and Superhero. It was a lot to deal with, she knew that better than most.
“Rooftop first, then the school.” She paused, trying to find the words. Maybe to justify herself? “I only recently got to be… well, this. Like, all of this. But it seemed to make sense. See a thief, stop a thief. You took things that weren’t yours, and it made sense to do the right thing. You know how things are, everyone’s struggling. I thought you were stealing from little people. So I was gonna come here to end this, one way or the other.” Andrew jumped up; she saw some kind of armor starting to manifest around him, and he seemed completely on guard. She didn’t get up. She’d been so ready to fight. “The equipment you stole yesterday,” she said softly, “that’s not to sell, is it?” Andrew froze. Maxine looked to the door. She’d seen it when she came in. It didn’t need to be said.
“No.” Fuck, his voice was so quiet all of a sudden. He’d never seemed so small.
“I figured. I’m sorry.” Another sigh. “I understand.”
“It’s getting too expensive, and we can’t afford both the medication and the bills anymore. I had to do something.”
“I get it.”
“So what are you going to do? What are you doing here?”
“Like I said, I came here to confront you, or something. To fight, maybe. Catch a thief. Kick his ass. Or her ass.” There was a stammered disagreement, but it stopped with a single look. “That’s something for you to figure out, Rue or Andrew or whatever you end up going with. I’m here if you want to talk about this seriously, because I think I know what you might be going through.”
“I’m just… I got what I wanted. I’m strong, I’m really cute, I don’t look anything like I used to. I could just kinda… start over. Maybe be a hero or something stupid like that. Jump tall buildings and all that jazz.” She looked at her hands. “I just don’t deserve any of it.”
“What does that even mean?” Maxine looked at him. Andrew threw his hands up in frustration and paced around the room, translucent blue armor glimmering softly. “I can summon jet fighters and angels and magical swords, and it’s not like I’m sitting here debating on whether or not I deserve it!”
“Yeah, but you used it to help y… oh.” She stopped as Andrew stopped in front of her with his hands on his hips. Sure, he’d used it to help his mom. That was an objectively good thing, the right thing to do. It was also selfish. The two weren’t mutually exclusive. Max looked up. “How do you know if you’re good enough?”
“I don’t. I don’t think about being good enough by some arbitrary standard because that’s how you go crazy. I just…” He deflated a little. “I’m trying to do right by my mom. And I’m grateful she’s still here. Not ‘deserve this’ or ‘good enough for that’. Just doing my best.”
It was hard to think it was that simple. Was it, really? If Andrew, ‘Rue’ could do it, could she, too? Was being good enough just a matter of doing your best? She shook her head slightly. The thought of just accepting value seemed almost absurd. But Rue was managing it, and he seemed to know better than most what she was going through. Besides… she knew he was good enough. She’d seen it… in his actions. Well, fuck.
Max smiled a little bit. “There you are,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Rue. Before you became such a chud. It’s okay, you know. To give a shit.” He cocked his head. “You care. About this conversation, at least. If not about me. Or you wouldn’t still be talking.” She was almost taunting him, now. “You’re a good person and you care. But you’re also still a chud, Rue.”
Andrew grabbed her by the collar and pulled her upright almost casually and lifted her off the ground with one hand. For a second, Maxine was worried she’d pushed him too hard. “Fuck you.”
“To what part?” she asked, almost casually.
“The chud part.”
“So you don’t mind Rue?”
“You and your head games,” he said, and let her go. Her feet softly touched the carpet. She opened her mouth for a witty retort.
The window exploded, as they seemed to be doing with alarming regularity around her these days, and a shadow moved through the room almost faster than she could follow, slammed into the armored Andrew, and both of them crashed into and through the large closet.