Saturday, 10 Jul 2027
GOTEL capsule hotel, Denver
“So what do you wanna watch first? Spirited Away, Steamboy, or Aliens?” Flushed with excitement from the day’s events—anticipated and unanticipated—Denny tapped the keycard to her door jamb and the door opened with a soft click. She’d scored big at one of the dealer’s tables as things were getting packed up for the night and had wrangled a discount on a third with a purchase of two. She and Drew grabbed a hot snack at the hotel’s lounge on the top floor before changing out of their costumes. With Drew currently holding a giant bowl of popcorn they’d just microwaved in the convenience galley, Denny cast a warning over her shoulder as she walked in, “Don’t look. It’s a mess.”
Totally untrue. It was neat as a pin with clean minimalist lines. It was, she thought as she stepped clear to give Drew room to come in, rather like a cabin on a ship. Small, exquisitely fitted, everything built in. The tiny bedside desk had a console that controlled all the lights and features of the room. The futon bed itself took up most of the floor space and opposite it sat the media wall—the crown jewel of which was an oversized flat screen with discreet but powerful speakers. Denny kicked off her boots and threw herself onto the comforter, making it fluff and flutter. She held up the three flash sticks, and gave Drew a wide-eyed lopsided grin.
“Do you want a shoot-em-up with gratuitous gore and gunplay? Or Victorian pseudoscience or… hm, looks like an allegorical fairy tale. But then again, aren’t all fairy tales allegorical anyway?”
Drew looked around the small room, giving the tight confines an eye with the popcorn bowl in hand. He always forgot how small the rooms were in these hotels. He was pretty sure he had more space in his dorm room. But he mentally shrugged and got settled next to her on the bed. Next to her. On the bed. Dude, get it under control, he admonished himself. “I’ve seen Aliens, but I haven’t seen the other two. As an engineer and geek, I can get on board with Victorian pseudoscience. Better than what tries to pass for science in most movies anyway.” And he grinned at her and swiped a bite of popcorn from the bowl.
“Steampunk it is. Cool. I haven’t seen this one.” Denny crawled over the covers to plug the stick into the flat screen and hit play. She flopped back against the padded headboard and snagged some popcorn and waited for the movie to start. “Thanks for this, by the way. It didn’t occur to me that I could have just gone on my own. Still thinking like a kid living at home, I guess.” Too late, she realized that the sordid matter of coin had entered the room. Geez, Den. Total buzz-kill. Denny hid behind her popcorn and hoped Drew didn’t notice her gaffe.
Honestly, Drew would’ve been happy if they had been watching someone read their grocery list for two hours. He was doing a private midnight showing with the girl he had been crushing on for months. And she was pretty much as cool as he had imagined her to be. Maybe we should’ve watched the fairy tale, he thought giddily. Because right now, I’m feeling like the fairy godmother hit me over the head with her wishing wand. He brought his mind back around to actually, you know, pay attention to the girl that he was so excited about. Geez, Drew, let’s just ignore your date.
“Yeah, most of my freshman year, I was that way. Every time someone asked me if I wanted to do something, I had this irrational urge to call my folks and make sure it was ok. "
“But not so much now, though. Right?” Denny grinned and tried to go for nonchalant, crossing her ankles and leaning back as if she did this sort of thing all the time. If Mom knew I was alone with a boy, in a hotel room, on a bed, fer Chrissake, she’d have a heart attack. Hm. Best not mention it the next time I see her.
He shrugged. “I guess not. There’s still that weird feeling of unreality, like it’s all cardboard set decoration and someone’s going to come take it away.” He looked over at the beautiful geek girl sitting next to him and smiled sheepishly. “Sort of like this date feels, I guess, like you’re going to turn into a pumpkin or something.” He was pretty sure he was getting his metaphors mixed or something, but she’d get the idea.
That was too close to the truth on too many levels and Denny couldn’t resist hugging her knees to her chest. To cover her unease, she breathed a laugh and grinned. “I guess we’ll find out in about twenty minutes if I turn into anything. Oh, hey, movie sign!”
And sure enough, the previews started rolling.
Once the movie started going, some of the nervous tension kind of faded away a little for Drew. Now it was just a movie and someone sitting beside him. Which is why he surprised himself a little at the twenty minute mark when he reached over and intertwined his free hand with hers. Hand holding is pretty acceptable, right? I mean, she likes me, I think, so it’s not like I’m trying to slobber all over her or anything. He somehow managed to not let that inner voice tense up his arm though.
The heat from Drew’s hand sent a warm spark shooting all the way up to her chest and it took her breath away. It felt good and in that instant, Denny understood everything. All the drama her friends suffered in high school. All the looks and glances. All the songs on the radio made sense. The warmth settled under her breastbone and she carefully explored it as if she held a newborn baby bird. It fluttered and made her heart race. It’ll be okay, she thought. She dared give Drew’s hand a squeeze. Hi there. Back at ya. Nothing more than that, but she didn’t pull away either. She kept her eyes glued to the screen, kept a tight lid on the giddy wonder of it all, and waited for his next move.
So Operation Hand Holding had gone well. But now what? Denny probably thought he was some sort of suave Romeo type. If he did nothing, then she might think he wasn’t that interested. So he had to do something. But what?
Drew wasn’t exactly sure what was going on in the movie. True to description, it did seem to involve Victorian steampunk stuff, but if Drew was going to be quizzed on the contents, he would fail miserably. It took him another twenty some minutes of staring at the screen, watching but not really absorbing the movie to both decide what he was going to do and get up the nerve to do it. He then cuddled up tight to her and then swapped hands and bowl and arms in one kind of crazy awkward motion until he ended up with his arm around her shoulders and the bowl of popcorn half full, resting on their legs. “This is nice,” he said softly, not wanting to sound like too much of a dork about how happy this was making him.
And what a move it was. Shock made Denny pliant and she didn’t resist as Drew made himself more comfortable. As for her? That glow in her chest gave a sudden lurch and a sizzle zipped through her from head to toe where Drew’s body touched hers. His breath tickled her face and made everything hotter. Um …. o-KAY, then. Her skin tingling deliciously, Denny desperately tried to think of what to do next. Don’t just sit there. Say something.
“Yeah. It is. You wanna soda?” Oh please God, just kill me now.
“Um, sure? If you don’t have to move much.” Drew was kind of thirsty, but if she had to move to get a soda, he didn’t know if he’d have the nerve to do all this again.
“Okay, back in two shakes.” And Denny had to climb over him to get to the door. Awkward! Arms, legs, hands, and feet all a tangle and she was searingly aware of the placement of each one. At least she managed to dodge the popcorn. It wasn’t unpleasant, which gave the back of her head something to chew on as she got herself to the convenience galley. Just … intense. Five minutes and two dollars later, Denny returned with a soda in each hand, grateful that they hid her fingers’ trembling as she held one out to Drew. “Hope you like sugared. They were flat out of diet.”
“Sugar and caffeine are two of my major food groups.” He smiled, trying to hide his disappointment that she had been forced to get up. He took the soda and then scooted across the bed so that she wouldn’t have to climb over him. “Thanks. I guess I owe you a lot today.” Where a lot equals my life, he thought but didn’t say. Drew wasn’t good at this whole dating thing but he was pretty sure she wasn’t going to want him to fawn all over her and look like a total wuss.
“What do you mean?” Denny froze with one knee on the bed, literally caught flatfooted by his comment. Does he know I’m Artisan? Oh, geez, what do I do now? Besides give myself away like a freakin’ idiot? Move. She climbed back on and tapped her bottle to his in a salute. And for good measure, she stretched out next to him and gave him a nudge with her elbow. "You don’t owe me anything. Friends don’t keep score. We’re good. "
They were really. She just had to watch herself whenever he got close to her secret identity. She liked Drew. A lot. More than a lot, if the electricity between them was an indication of how much. Even so, the reality of it all sank in, toning down the hormone-driven sizzle, and she could think again.
Friends, huh? He had pushed it too far with the arm around the shoulder thing. Damn it. He tried to maintain a smile. “I just meant that you were the one that triggered the Vanguard getting called. That weirdo might have gotten away if you hadn’t been so on the ball. So, thanks, friend.” His tone was light but the word friend tasted horrible coming out of his mouth. Drew covered it over with a mouthful of popcorn. The smell of it also helped distract him from how nice she had smelled when they were up close. Ok, this was going to suck.
“You’re welcome. I know you’d have done the same for me.” She smiled and ducked her head, a bit embarrassed at being complimented for doing what anyone would have done. Anyone would have, really. “Friends don’t let friends get kidnapped, you know.”
She smiled again and glad that she’d dodged the secret identity bullet, she settled against the pillows to watch the rest of the movie. The story was interesting and the soundtrack appropriately action-y but something felt off. What was it? It took her a few moments to realize Drew hadn’t put his arm around her again. Why not? She hadn’t slapped him for it or anything. So, why …? Denny was a keen observer of things around her, but observation was no substitute for experience. She’d never had a boyfriend before. Never been kissed. Wasn’t sure what should be going on, only what shouldn’t. Snippets of conversation overheard in high school came floating back to her and they started drawing a picture she didn’t much like. Biting her lip, Denny looked at Drew. Really looked at Drew.
Four inches of dead space separated them. His elbows tucked in. His hand clearly staying on his side of the popcorn bowl, his side of the bed. Eyes forward. So not looking at her.
Oh no …
“Drew?” Denny slipped her fingers around his hand. “Everything okay? What’s wrong?”
“Everything’s fine,” he said, putting some cheer into his voice. It wasn’t the end of the world after all, if they just ended up being friends. She’d be a really good friend. They had a lot in common. “Just was reflecting on everything. How cool it was to meet the Vanguard, even if I didn’t get to meet Artisan. But maybe they’ll get me her autograph. She’s so hot.” There. Talking so brazenly about another woman should make sure she’s doesn’t think I’m the sad puppy. It sounded much more manly in his head than he felt in the here and now.
“Oh.” Stung by the implied comparison, Denny let go his hand and flopped back against the headboard. All the things she’d been about to say evaporated and the shine went right out of the evening. “Maybe they will.”
She stared sightlessly at the screen, doing her best to keep her feelings hidden. She’d liked holding his hand and his arm around her had been nice. And while she didn’t think Drew was the sort to take unfair advantage, she had thought he’d at least have resumed their cuddle once she’d gotten back. Maybe he’d decided he’d gone too fast and wanted to slow down to a more gentlemanly pace. And maybe she’d decided she’d rather Drew hadn’t decided to be so darned polite. It was like being promised something only to have it snatched back at the last minute. While she was aware of the trouble teens could get into with each other and wasn’t desirous of getting into it, dammit, she would have liked to have had the chance to decide for herself if she wanted to. Disappointment spiked through her and Denny was surprised by it. She snuck a glance at Drew. Yup. Still sitting there on his side of the bed. No hand holding now, nope. Now what? She’d been too level-headed to be boy-crazy in high school and damned if she’d use the typical female tactics to keep a boy interested in her. If Drew was too lame to like her for herself, his loss.
That’s not exactly fair, Den. It’s not like he knows you’re Artisan. It’s not like you can actually tell him it’s rude to geek out about the other woman in front of his date when the other woman is his date. Because she can’t tell him the truth. Face it, Den. You’re Clark Kent and he’s in love with Superman. Um … whoa. Ew. That went somewhere unintentional.
To get that picture out of her head, Denny focused on the movie and tried to play it cool. Nobody needed a mopey female crying into her popcorn.
Well, that had worked. Unfortunately, even better than he had expected. Even if she didn’t like him the way he thought she had, Drew didn’t want to completely drive her away. She was totally fun to hang with and she was the first person he had known that got as excited about things as he did. So he watched the movie for a little while longer before scooting a little closer. “For what it’s worth, I’d like Artisan’s autograph, but I’d rather hang with you. You’re cooler.”
Denny’s resolve wavered. Maybe she’d misunderstood. What’s to misunderstand about ’She’s so hot’, Den? snarked her inner cynic. Shut up, she snarled internally and let herself smile at him. “Thanks. I don’t think I ever had anyone say I trumped a superhero before. I kinda like it. I more than kinda like you,” she dared add, hoping it wasn’t rushing things.
Drew beamed a little as she said that, but didn’t make a move to get any closer or do anything that might be interpreted as suave. He had learned his lesson from the Friend Zone Incident™. “That’s cool. After the movie, do you maybe wanna play some Frantic Fantasy? I’ve got a couple extra decks if you don’t have any. I’m not that good, you’d probably squash me, if you’re worried about that.”
And that’s the end of that, girl, Denny thought. Hang it up. Maybe it’s better this way.
“Well …,” Denny drawled, determined to make the best of it. “It’s bad form to squash your date, so I’ll go easy on ya.” So when the movie ended, that’s what she did.