Thursday, 04 Nov 2027
Drew’s apartment, Alamy Falls
8:00 PM, local time
Denny rode Rosie until she was a few blocks away from Drew’s. It was a risk but she was already late and couldn’t afford to wait for the bus. She slid off behind a closed repairs garage and dismissed her dragon with an affectionate pat. Tucking the origami into her pocket, she checked her duds—civilian all the way. Nothing to betray her role as Artisan.
How long are you going to keep this up? Sooner or later, you’re gonna slip and he’s gonna know. And find out you’ve been keeping it a secret from him. What’s gonna happen then?
Denny frowned as she walked the final blocks to Drew’s apartment, boot heels clacking on the pavement. Nothing in their cadence provided her with an answer and when she got to his door, she had to shrug it off.
I’ll play it by ear, I guess.
Excitement zipped through her as she knocked, her pulse going a little faster. It had been some time since she’d been able to catch more than a few words with Drew. The monoliths and the Angel had prevented anything more. But tonight?
So she knocked and waited, listening for his footsteps behind the door.
Drew opened the door, dressed in his best looking casual clothes. Don’t want to overdress, but gotta make sure I don’t look like a hobo. As he opened the door and saw Denny, a big smile broke out on his face.
“Hi!” The excitement in his voice matched the excitement on his face. “Feels like it’s been forever. Come on in.” He made an overly dramatic sweeping gesture of welcome.
Denny stepped inside and turned to take in the room. She’d been over only once or twice and Drew’s apartment still had the feeling of new. It felt exciting, adventurous, and a little dangerous to be here. A year ago, it wouldn’t have felt that way. It would just be an apartment and she and Drew would have just been friends hanging out over their favorite fandoms. Now? Standing in the personal space of someone she felt feelings for that, strong though they were, she couldn’t even name? Someone she’d kissed but hadn’t done much more with, because she didn’t dare? Someone she’d been keeping secrets from, secrets that would ambush her if she weren’t careful? Maintaining a double life from? Someone who could so very easily convince her to throw everything aside and do something wild and stupid if he just asked? And if he knew the truth …?
If he knew, what would he do? Walk away? Shut her out? Or stay? If he stayed, could she protect him from the damage sure to come his way? If he ran, could she protect herself from the secret she’d given him? A year ago, it wouldn’t have been this way. She would have been just another kid with kid obligations and kid dreams, hanging out with other kids who had the same.
“Whole different world, isn’t it?” she whispered into the room.
Drew tilted his head in a look that was half confusion and half amusement. “I guess?” he ventured with a smile on his face. “Just an apartment, after all…” Suddenly understanding crossed his face and he nodded.
“You mean the real world. Yeah, it’s craziness, like living inside a comic book. I wonder, every now and again, whether someone is reading an issue of The Vanguard.”
He walked over by his slightly ragged couch and made a gesture towards the left side. “Wanna a drink or something?”
“I’d love one, thanks. My usual suspect if you have it,” Denny sighed gratefully, sinking onto the couch. “As for the comic, you mean to say anyone besides you?” She grinned at him to let him know she was joking. He knew her pull list as well as she knew his. She religiously bought each issue as it came out for the thrill of seeing herself and her teammates in print but also for the glee gained from spotting where artistic license had been taken. It wasn’t something she could share with Drew, however, and it was one of the things that had begun to grate on her. Why couldn’t she share everything with the one guy who understood her and the interests that drove her?
“No, you goose,” Drew said as he reached into the fridge and pulled out a cold soda. “I didn’t mean the actual comic, I meant like a comic from another dimension. Strange aliens reading their version of comics starring human beings with powers.” He shook his head as he leaned down and handed the drink to her. “It just seems so surreal. And I’m convinced we’re all going to come out of it okay, like we were really in a four color comic.”
Drew sat down next to her and tried to be casual as he slipped his arm around Denny. “I don’t have a single logical reason for believing it, but somehow I do. Tell me that’s not crazy.”
“It’s not crazy.” Denny slipped her arm around him and hugged him. “Not anymore. Not when we’ve got monoliths sprouting like mushrooms and people waking up with powers they didn’t ask for. All we need are invaders from Mars and Nazis flying on dinosaurs. Can you imagine?” She laughed, shook her head, popped open her soda and sipped it. “The Pterodactyl Luftwaffe vs. The Martian Invasion? Who do you think would win?”
“Martians.” The answer was quick and sure. “Dinosaurs are cool, but intelligence wins out every time. Besides, Nazis are losers. I think that has been proven over time.” He looked over at her and smiled softly. “You’re really pretty, you know that?”
“Yeah?” Denny bit her lip, suddenly not sure what to do with the compliment or herself. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, unnerving but not unpleasant. He really did have a nice face and the coolest pair of eyes, all interesting angles and a stunning blue. The rest of him ain’t too shabby either, the devil inside whispered. Denny had a flash of what he’d look like naked and for an instant she wanted to see for herself if she were right … before she did more than just look to see if she were right. Dammit, Drew did that to her. “Um … thanks.”
A case of the instant dumb. That’s her.
“Yeah. Just wanted to make sure you knew.” Drew ran a hand through her hair. “So, I didn’t have any real dedicated plans for tonight. Was just happy to see you and hang out. You wanna do anything specific?” He grinned that slightly goofy grin of his.
“I … uh. We could … " Give in, the devil inside whispered. Go on. You know you wanna. His grin, his hands—they felt good and she wanted more. Hamsters. Crazoid hamsters on caffeinated crack. That was her internal state right that second and it took a moment for her head to catch up and lock it all down. Party pooper. “Watch a movie? Or I could … well … draw. You. Without your … um …Shirt?”
Better, purred the devil inside.
“You want me to model for you?” The sound of surprise in his voice echoed what had been in Denny’s voice not just a few seconds before. “I mean, sure I guess. Just right here?”
“Sure,” she echoed, pulling one of her ever-present pencils and a small paper pad from her pockets. Maybe she would get to see him naked. Her insides jumped at the thought and doubt jumped in. “Unless … you don’t want to? I promise I won’t take advantage of you or anything. It’s just …” She bit her lip again, wishing she dared say everything that she felt. She met his gaze and said softly, hating the quiver in her voice but damned if she could get enough air to make it go away. “You’ve got the most beautiful … nose and cheekbones and… eyes and … mouth and … I can’t stop wondering if … the rest of you is the same all the way down.”
If she gripped her pencil any harder it would snap in two but she didn’t look away. She couldn’t. Those of eyes of his had her skewered.
He took off his shirt quickly. His arm was shaking just a tiny bit as he laid it on the arm of the couch. Drew laughed nervously as he looked over at where Denny was getting her drawing materials ready. “Ummm, if you want me naked, Denny, I’m not going to be able to say no. The totally hot artist girl tells me that she’s dying to look at my body? I’d have to be an idiot to say no, right?”
“Would I be an idiot if I said yes?” she blurted out before she could censor herself. “I mean … if I were you?”
Oh god, did she say that out loud? Yes, boys and girls, she did. Denny, you idiot. Just shut up and draw.
Drew sat there, trying to remain still as Denny began her sketching, but it was clear to Denny’s eyes that he was having a hard time staying focused on being still…or not being nervous.
“Well,” he said, “there’s something to be said either way, right? I mean, you’re an artist and nude models are perfectly normal. But on the other hand, I kind of thought we might be kissing or making out before you saw me completely in the buff.”
He seemed completely torn about which option he preferred. It was then that Denny’s phone started vibrating. With the pattern that Denny instantly recognized as a Vanguard call to action.
The pad from her pocket wasn’t as big as she’d liked, being only about 5″ × 7″ or so. Still, she’d managed to turn out good results with less. She put her pencil to the paper and put her eyes on Drew and got sucked in.
Texture. Planes. Light. Dark.…
Her disquiet melted away. Time disappeared. It was just her and her pencil. Eyes darting, measuring, her hand and fingers moving with assured strokes, Denny became nothing but a medium for what she saw, transferring three dimensions onto the flat surface of her paper. Drew’s lips moved, disturbing the plane she followed. Her ears caught up with her eyes and she finally heard what he said. She blinked and came back into her body with a rush so sharp it made her flinch.
“Um, what?” A deep breath. Another blink. The creeping beginnings of a blush. Did she hear him right? “Oh. Well, I … I suppose we could do the other thing, too. If you wan—. Dammit!”
She snatched her phone from her pocket and saw the words and her insides clenched.
“Shit,” she whispered with feeling. “I, uh ….” Another deep breath taken, Denny firmly switched gears and packed up that mental box that held Drew. She looked up from her phone with genuine regret. “Work’s calling. Something’s come up. I have to go.”
“Um, sure?” Drew looked over at Denny, allowing a bit of the disappointment that he was feeling cross his face. “I guess if they’re calling you at night during your time off, it must be important.”
Denny put her pad and pencil aside, gathered her courage and went right over to Drew, cupped his face in her hands, and kissed him. As hard and thoroughly as she knew how, hoping to tell him everything she couldn’t say.
After the kiss, Drew looked somewhat dazed but very happy. He reached for his shirt and started putting it on. With his voice still a little muffled from the fabric of the shirt, Denny could hear him say, “You definitely need to come over more often…”
Or maybe just come? Oooh, that devil inside just would not shut up. Denny kept the thought behind her teeth and said instead, “I’d like that. If you’ll have me.” She stroked his face, wishing she could stay and do more, scared to death of what she’d do if she actually gave in. “See you Saturday?”
He grinned. “Definitely Saturday. I wouldn’t miss it. And good luck with whatever emergency your work has managed to think up for you.”
Drew walked Denny to his apartment door and stood watching as she walked away.
“Thank you. For more than just the luck.” Denny hugged him hard and gathered herself to go. She put her pad and pencil in his hands. “Keep this til then?” She darted in and kissed him again and got moving. If she lingered, if she gave in …
The street was empty and dark as she walked back to the garage. She was alone. She didn’t have to be, the devil inside said. You’ve got a red-blooded male just hot for you back there… just waiting for you to say yes.
I can’t. Not with so much up in the air. It isn’t safe. I can’t.
But you want to.
Yeah…. I want to.
It galled her to admit it, but she wanted the comfort of having Drew with her. She could still feel the weight of his arms around her and somehow, despite the excitement and fear of the unknown they promised, she felt it infinitely preferable to the uncertainty she was currently rushing toward: the Red Monolith was opening. Their survey of the monolith during the mole mission was hardly thorough. God only knew what would emerge from it. As much as curiosity propelled her forward, a craven corner of her wanted nothing more than to have her turn back. Knowing Drew waited for her made it easier to consider throwing over the traces, even as her sense of duty made her keep on walking.
Should she have stayed with Drew? Pretended she hadn’t gotten that message? Stayed the night necking on the couch … or whatever it was they were working toward? And if they both went there, would she have given him her secret along with her innocence? Would he be … fine … with that? Keep the secret with her? Or would he be angry she’d waited so long to tell him? And if he were angry, what would he do? What would she do? Especially if she’d gone to bed with him first?
Her boot heels clacked on the pavement and as before, their cadence held no answers. Her head whirling with the what ifs, Denny got herself behind the garage and summoned Rosie to take her back to the team.