Maxine poked her head through the hole. The next room over seemed to be a storage room, for the most part. Once upon a time it had been a games-and-exercise room, before most of those things had been sold. Now it mostly held cardboard boxes with old clothes and shoes. Some stacks of books, here and there. And now, also, Andrew-slash-Rue getting up while coughing, opposite…
“Penny?” The figure turned their head towards her. It looked like her, and also didn’t. The eyes were a little rounder, a little less aggressive. They were also a little less tall, maybe a little more muscular than she’d been.
“Yes,” Penny said. Then there was a shift in their body language as they stood upright. Maxine recognized it, largely by process of elimination.
“Yup,” Victoria said. “Are you okay? We saw h-- them attacking you. We got here just in time, but we’re not going to let you hurt yourself by proxy.”
“What do you mean, ‘them’?” Andrew said, dusting himself off and getting into a half-hearted fighting stance. Clearly the hit had knocked the wind out of him.
“Not now, Rue,” Maxine said, which earned her a withering glance from her old friend. “All of you, relax. Victoria, Penny, they’re not going to hurt us. We just… talked. Things got a little heated, but nobody got hurt.” She remembered slapping and hitting Andrew. “Much. They’ve been helping me figure some stuff out, and I’ve been returning the favour. That’s all.”
“Seriously, what’s with the ‘theys’ and the ‘thems’? Just because I don’t want… wait, hold on.” Maxine smirked as Andrew looked at her, and she cocked her head. “Listen, I need to think about this,” The armor dissipated, and Andrew raised a slightly trembling finger. “But none of this they-them stuff, alright? One or the other.”
Penny and Victoria shrugged and looked at Max. “If she says so.” More indignant sputtering, but no actual denial. Well, definitely still some denial, but none verbal. Max just turned back to Andrew.
“Does that work for you?” Maxine couldn’t help but smile.
Andrew threw her hands up. “I guess!”
“Still Andrew or are we going back to Rue, too?”
“Hey, fuck you.”
“Is that a no?”
“...no,” Rue said.
There was a sound coming from the stairs, and the mood shifted again. Rue’s mom was coming up the stairs, clearly having some trouble with each step. “Andrew?” God, her voice was weak. Fuck.
“I don’t know what to do,” Rue said, panicking. Maxine pushed her towards the door. “Just… say anything. We’ll figure something out.” She made eye contact with Penny and Victoria, hoping for dear life that the other two would come up with something, because she was coming up blank. Penny was already retreating again, until it was just Victoria. Her Victoria, Maxine thought with a little bit of smugness. That’s when she remembered the note she’d written. Maybe not her Victoria anymore. She frowned softly.
“Are we okay?” she whispered. Victoria closed the distance between them quickly, then grabbed her head. For a second, Maxine was half-bracing, expecting to be on the receiving end of a headbutt. V pulled her close, and planted the softest kiss on her forehead.
“Yes, we are. But you’re a dumbass and we’re talking about this. All of this.” Maxine nodded, smiling a little bit. “Now, Rue, whatever that thing you can do is, make a bunch of small angels or whatever and clean this up. Just make it look like you’re not the one doing it.” She looked back to Max and the smile on her face was so kind and genuine she almost cried. “I’m going to talk to your mom.”
Rue frowned. “She doesn’t even know you’re here. How would that--”
“Hush, you. You still had my girlfriend by the collar, so you’re on thin ice, missy.”
“Missy?” Rue said, and the recent realizations seemed to have breached some kind of dam, because she was quickly turning beet red. Maxine, meanwhile, was in her own little world. She was still Victoria’s girlfriend. Wait, she was Victoria’s girlfriend. They’d never actually talked about that.
“Hey, Max,” Victoria said, and reality fell back into focus. “I’m going to need you to look like you’re the one doing the summoning thing. Raise your hands or something.” There was a soft knock on the door, and Victoria opened as Maxine hurriedly did as she was asked, awkwardly waving her hands back and forth like she had any idea what she was doing. Rue just sat on the bed. “Hello, Mrs…” she paused for a moment as Penny supplied the necessary information, “Quilty.” The destruction behind her was already being cleaned up in short order. There were little swarms of angels, each no bigger than, say, a medium-sized frog, picking up splinters. Slightly larger ones were using big glowing dustpans and tiny, silent vacuums to get rid of dust. They were repairing everything. Well, everything except the window. Mary looked shocked. “I’m sure you’re aware of recent… events on the news,” Victoria said with an air of authority. “I just want you to know that there was an accident and there was some damage to your house. As far as we can tell, most of your belongings are intact, and the structural damage is being repaired as we speak.” Victoria was overwhelming her with information, which Maxine figured was the intended effect. “Would you like to wait downstairs? You’ll be reimbursed for any trouble and damages, of course.”
Mary nodded slowly and started going downstairs. She looked dazed and more than a little confused, but also willing to accept whatever explanation Victoria was weaving out of nothing but thin air and nonsense. Victoria began helping her down the stairs but turned around to blow Maxine a kiss, causing her to blush furiously.
When Rue’s mom was downstairs, Maxine turned to Rue. “Just… try to finish cleaning this stuff up. We’ll figure something out about the window. I… uh… Victoria knows what she’s doing.”
“She’s the monster, though. Not you.” Rue seemed more than a little dazed. There had been a lot of realizations and conflicting information in the past few minutes, and Maxine could hardly blame her. Even shifting pronouns on a dime was a huge step.
“The ‘Monster’, as you call it, is an alien sym-- God, it sounds so silly when you say it out loud. The monster is an alien and that alien is like a suit. She’s currently ‘wearing’ it, but it’s usually mine. Does that make sense?”
“Okay, cool. Well, I’m gonna head downstairs, see how Victoria is doing with Mrs. Quilty. Uh… Mary.” Rue nodded. “We’re gonna keep up this schtick that you know two superheroes or something, so try to play along, alright?” More nodding. “Cool.”
Maxine made her way downstairs, Rue close behind her. Gosh, things had changed so much since they were kids, and yet some things just hadn’t. The fourth step on the stairs still creaked. The pictures were still in the same spot. The little table in the hall had been moved, and there were scuff marks on the walls from what she realized was probably a bed or a stretcher. Fuck. She felt an unpleasant knot in her stomach. She resisted looking over her shoulder at Rue. She knew how much pity like that could suck. Victoria’s crystal clear voice was already audible as they approached the living room.
“...’s actually been helping us out in secret for some time. We came to your child for help again today, and it has been invaluable. Your son is a valuable asset to the community, Mrs. Quilty.” Mary sat on the sofa, clutching a cup of something hot like she was hanging on for dear life, but the look in her eyes was one that wavered between confusion and pride, and her face lit up when Rue walked in.
“Is that true, Andy?” she asked. “I had no idea you were out helping people all that time…” Rue looked completely out of her element -- and about as uncomfortable as could be expected -- but she nodded when her mom asked her the question. Max could see her picking at her fingers behind her back, and stepped a little closer. She whispered quietly, making sure Mary couldn’t hear.
“It’s only lying if you don’t actually do the right thing from now on,” she said, smiling sweetly, and got another semi-angry glance. “Smile, you’re a superhero now.” Rue’s face forced itself into a smile until a coin seemed to drop and a genuine expression slowly exposed itself underneath the fake one.
“Uh… yeah, Mom. I’ve been trying to do what I have to, y’know?” Rue sat down next to her mom, who immediately took her hand. Maxine turned away a little so she could pretend like her eyes weren’t stinging. “I just want to do more to help,” Rue said quietly.
“Oh, honey,” Mary said and just wrapped an arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “So… I’ve got a hero in my house… anything else you’ve been keeping from me?” Mary laughed softly, and Maxine walked up to Victoria, who’d taken a few steps back, looking for some kind of comfort. Without Max intending for it to happen, Victoria had interlaced her fingers with Maxine’s, who looked up at her in surprise.
“Uh…” Rue said, “could you call me Rue from now on?” Maxine and Victoria’s eyes grew wide, and they both looked at Rue, who seemed more than a little panicked. She probably hadn’t intended to come out until she had apparently been overcome by a wave of well-intentioned heroics and bravery.
“Sure, honey. Is that your superhero name?” Max suppressed a laugh. Rue’s face was a mask of epic neutrality. Her poker-face was a sight to behold.
“Okay,” Rue said. “Uh, yes. Sure. I mean yes. For now. I think.” Victoria turned around and Maxine saw her facade cracking as she tried not to burst out laughing. Rue had obviously seen it, and she was frowning.
“You know what, no? I don’t know what I’m going through right now,” Rue said, almost in defiance of Max and Victoria’s amusement, “but no, it’s not a superhero name or anything like that. I like it better than I like m-- than A-- than the old one.” Her mom’s eyebrows went all the way up.
“Oh! You mean you want to have a girl name?” Rue groaned, her face in her hands, and fell backwards onto the sofa. “Didn’t you explicitly ask us not to bring that stuff up from when you were a kid?” Maxine so, so desperately wanted to ask what stuff, but it wasn’t her place, even remotely.
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” Rue groaned from behind her hands. “This is such bullshit,” she said. “You talk to one trans person and it all goes sideways.”
“Are you… a trans person?” her mom asked. Rue screamed quietly into a pillow.
“I think we should leave,” Maxine said out loud. “This feels like a private family conversation.” Mary looked up, as if she’d forgotten the two of them were there, and nodded. “Thank you again for your hospitality, Mrs. Mary. We’ll make sure to reimburse you for the window. We’re going to fix things.” She waved as she made her way to the door, Victoria close behind her. Mary just waved back and then turned her attention back to her panicking daughter.
Once they were outside, Victoria led the way to the car. They walked in silence. Now that the immediate crisis had been handled, the situation got a bit more serious again. There was stuff they needed to talk about, wasn’t there? Maxine had messed up so bad and she had no idea how to fix things. She didn’t know what to do. She’d been so sure she’d burned the bridges, but here she was, here they both were, ready to help her again. Was it out of a sense of obligation?
“Oy,” she heard Penny’s voice come out of Victoria’s mouth. Well, that was unsettling. “I know that look. Stop that. You’re spiralling.” Maxine nodded sheepishly and got into the car.
“First things first,” Victoria said, “There’s someone who missed you.” She reached over and pulled Maxine in for an unexpected kiss. Max didn’t feel even remotely like resisting, and let her girlfriend pull her in close. When their lips touched, she felt a tingling sensation, before the warmth of Penny began to spread through her head, then through her entire body. It was like her skin, her bones themselves were on fire. When they pulled away, they were both panting. Victoria checked her hair in the rear-view mirror.
Hey, Penny said quietly.
“Hey.” Another moment of quiet as they just sat in the car for a moment. Penny was there, but not nearly as present as they’d been before, still hesitant to come out, to do harm. “I don’t know what to do,” Max said softly. “I don’t know what to say.”
“How about,” Victoria said as she started the car, “you start with apologizing to Penny, and we’ll take it from there.” She gave Max an encouraging smile.
Maxine took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for… hurting you, both of you, by hurting myself. I’m sorry I made you feel like you were responsible, and for pushing you away.” She felt her eyes sting again and she rubbed away a tear. “I’m sorry.”
I just… Penny said, quietly, I don’t want this to happen again, Maxine. I don’t know what I can do to make that not happen, to keep you from hurting yourself. I don’t know if I can keep fixing you if you do.
“I think,” Max said thoughtfully, trying to get her thoughts in order, “I think I don’t…” She paused and wiped away her tears. “I think I don’t need you to… like… fix me,” she said. “I need you to be here, to be… a part of me.” She looked at her hand and Penny very briefly enveloped it, feeling her need to see them. “If… if I get to look like I want to and have the powers I want to, but I have to do it without you, then I’d rather not have either of them. I’d rather transition slowly and take as long as I have to if I can do it with you there.”
And if you don’t feel like you deserve it? I don’t want you to push me away again, Max. I don’t think I can go through that again.
“Then I’ll… I don’t think I need to talk to you for that. I don’t think I need you to help me with that.” She looked at Victoria and smiled sheepishly. “I think I need therapy.”