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AnimeCon Harem pt. 04

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“No. No way,” Emily hissed through gritted teeth, glaring hatefully at the cell phone gripped in her trembling hand. It was a struggle not to hurl it at her bedroom wall. “No fucking way.”

Emily was short, standing five feet tall despite constant claims at being five foot one—and, to her frustration, had a slight frame that seemed scrawny rather than sexy. Even at twenty-three years old, her breasts were still just teacup-sized mounds, too small to form cleavage or even fill her tragic little bra. Her messy hair was worn in a tousled long pixie-cut, dark bangs falling down across her cheek.

On her phone’s display, an almost unrecognizable girl in a Magical Doll Himari cosplay was exaggerating a cute victory pose. Emily stared long and hard at the bright, chipper-looking young woman in the photo before accepting that it was, actually, in fact… Chloe. It was an admission that wrenched her insides into an angry knot. Chloe—you heinous bitch!


♡ at animecon figuring things out!! remember that each and every day is full of blessings!!! love you all!!! ♡

#cosplaycutie #excited #imsuchanerd #animecon #magicaldollhimari #relationship

“Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“Emily. Inside voices only, please,” her mother called out from the living room. “Are you almost ready to head out to work?”

Chloe’s at the convention. She’s at. The fucking. Convention! She wasn’t gonna go, because HE would be there. We even made her give back her goddamned badge! Emily fumed, before taking a deep breath and slowly deliberating. How’d she even fucking get there?

But, whatever. There she is… at the convention anyways, somehow. With a new cosplay she’s never shown anybody. That she’s only posting on her stupid secret account. She tapped on the photo in annoyance, and then pressed and spread her fingertips across the display, enlarging the picture for closer scrutiny.

“Emily?” her mother asked again. “Am I not dropping you off, then? Didn’t you trade someone for a morning shift so that you could be off for tonight?”

I don’t see either of those con badges anywhere on her, Emily observed, slowly lowering her phone and exhaling, trying to contain the fury threatening to bubble out. …Might mean Brian still has both of them? Maybe he hasn’t run afoul of her just yet?


“Change of plans,” Emily declared in a resolute voice, reaching behind herself to untie her pocketed server apron. “Mom! I need the car.”

“Hun… I have rehearsals to run all weekend, I couldn’t lend you the car even if I wanted to—which, really, I don’t. What’s going on with your morning shift?”

“I’m not going. I quit. I quit for real this time,” Emily responded. She wasn’t the least bit concerned about her job—with its lousy customers and even lousier tips, she’d been looking for an excuse to quit for weeks. She tossed her apron across her unmade bed and untucked her collared work blouse. “Something big’s come up.”

“Emily…” The rest of her mother’s protest went unheard as Emily paced restlessly back and forth amid her messy room, scrolling through the rest of Chloe’s recent posts.

Magical doll Himari? Really? REALLY? And of course, no one but me knows, Emily realized with a scowl.

Last year at AnimeCon, Emily had, by chance, caught a glimpse of Chloe taking some uncharacteristically… sultry selfie shots. Chloe had been all gussied up in her Hera Victoria cosplay, but she’d unbuttoned the dress shirt within her pantsuit to tease an alarming amount of cleavage, pursed her lips into a pout, and even fluttered bedroom eyes at her phone for dozens of pictures. Considering the condescending, prim and proper image Chloe maintained, such un-Chloe-like conduct was utterly baffling. Behavior so blatantly out-of-character that it was sure to make big waves among their community of friends.

Only—none of those pictures ever seemed to surface anywhere. Everyone seemed none the wiser regarding Chloe’s apparent lapse in disposition. That snotty girl’s Nibbler account, Chloe-Ravioli, was just that normal reblogging of radical feminist articles and social activist rhetoric.

“Does CHLOE take sexy pictures? Emily… are you high?” A few innocuous questions dancing around the issue had revealed that even Brian was still in the dark. None of them had any idea.

After all, who would’ve had the bitter tenacity to carefully browse through thousands of different selfies in the recent Nibbler feeds in search of that familiar Hera Victoria getup? Who could have possibly happened to finally find those pouty shots of Chloe, posted instead under an alias account, Miss-Anne-Dree? There, Emily found a gamut of downright sleazy cosplay and lingerie shots, subtly seductive smiles and attention-grabbing attire that had built Chloe an impressive base of nearly fifty thousand followers.

Although resisting the urge to expose Chloe for an outrageous hypocrite was a challenge, Emily’s patience was constantly rewarded with more and more sexual snapshots into this secret slice of Chloe’s life; more potential ammunition to use against her. What she really hoped was for Chloe to carelessly prove somehow that she was cheating on Brian. Something more than just risque, something decisive enough to really fuck the relationship over for good. Then, Emily could gleefully pile up all the evidence in front of Brian. But, suddenly getting a big ol’ heads up on what Chloe’s up to right now? That’s fine, too.

She pulled up Brian on her phone, but then hesitated, her thumb hovering over the call icon. Better not. He’ll be able to tell I’m upset… and I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to answer when he asks why. Instead, she tabbed over to their messenger thread. Back in the day, they’d messaged each other almost all the time, but over the recent months, conversation had flagged. His responses had become few and far between, and so Emily had reluctantly stopped bothering him.

Well, this is an emergency, Emily thought, biting her lip. Maybe. Besides, it’s not weird. I just called him last night. Or maybe that MAKES it weird? Ah, whatever… fuck it.

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: hey brian

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: u up n runnin?

“Emily? …Are you alright?” Her mother called over.

“Not really?” Emily let out a helpless laugh, tossing her phone towards her bedspread and storming out of her room to make her way towards their large, somewhat cluttered living room. The lighting in there was muted and comfy, a flat-screen hung above their fireplace and a long wrap-around couch hugged the corners of the room.

“Mom, I have somewhere I really need to be, right away… I really need the car.” Her spirit sank once again at the sight of her mother, Mrs. Rivera, sitting cozy on the couch with a book. They shared remarkably similar features—the same tiny nose, lips that looked like they were made for trouble, and large, expressive eyes. But, unlike Emily’s figure, which could be summed up politely with petite, or little, her mom possessed ample assets—a bust and behind that were the stuff of hopes and dreams. In fact, just how many hopes and dreams are crammed in there?!

Throughout her childhood she’d idolized her own beautiful mother… right up until Emily hit puberty. Then she realized that her well-proportioned mother had apparently gotten stingy with passing on all those good genes. Her mom being a stunning, gorgeous woman always made Emily feel that, at best, she would only ever be just a cute knock-off imitation.

It was infuriating. Of course, Mrs. Rivera wasn’t just some simple, unassuming housewife who was also unusually, even outrageously good-looking. She’d had a small acting career before settling down to teach, and magazine advertisements she’d modelled for in the past were still framed throughout their hallway.

“Is this about that boy?” her mother asked, and that all-too-familiar knowing smile spread across her lovely face once again.

“Very funny, ‘that boy,’ huh. You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” Emily snapped, inexplicably irritable and defensive.

“Of course I do,” her mother said without looking up from her page, calmly taking a sip from her coffee. “I’m afraid you’ve told me everything.”

“I didn’t tell you anything, ever. I never tell you anything. And you don’t ever know anything, either! You just act like you do,” Emily retorted in vexation. “Just like you’re not even a real teacher—you just act like one—you’re the drama teacher, for crying out loud.”

“It’s theater department director, not drama teacher,” Mrs. Rivera corrected, rolling her eyes. She lowered her book and flashed her daughter a glamorous smile. “And the way you’re acting has told me everything, li’l lady. There is no movement of yours that has not betrayed you! A pace, a glance, a turn of the head, the flash of your throat as you breathe—even your way of standing perfectly still—these were all my spies! My love, you only ever get this worked up over that boy…”

“Shouldn’t you be preparing for your rehearsals?” Emily growled through clenched teeth. “Don’t you have, like, equipment to check, stuff to prepare, or, uh… things to do? Work?”

“Well, yeah, I do… but it’s Saturday morning, hun. And I’ve got a good book!” her mother pouted. “Aren’t you the one who should be getting ready for work? Didn’t you beg and plead with that poor Karen girl to switch you her morning hours? And now, all of the sudden, you’re quitting? What’s she going to do now, work both shifts?”

“She’s, uh, she doesn’t claim all of her tips,” Emily tried weakly. “Bad things were coming her way. Karma. I’m just sayin’. Puh-leeease can I borrow the car?”

“Didn’t we already have this all planned out? I was going to drop you off at work, and after your shift Rebecca was going to pick you up from there?”

“Okay, well yeah, I was about to call her,” Emily admitted reluctantly. “It’s just, she works ‘till six. That’s like, the entire day. It’ll be too late by then!”

“What will be too late?”

“Everything!” Emily cried in exasperation, not daring to explain further. Her mom was so perceptive sometimes that it was scary.

“…Try calling Rebecca,” Mrs. Rivera suggested, shaking her head and returning her attention to her novel.

“You don’t understand. I need the car, right now. More than I’ve ever needed anything in my entire life!” Emily stamped her foot in a cute, exaggerated manner.

“My, doesn’t that sound desperate? Which is exactly why you’re going to wait for Rebecca to drive you. That girl has a good head on her shoulders, and she’ll keep you out of trouble. I mean… as much as anyone ever can.”

Emily opened her mouth to angrily retort, but nothing came out. She instead pursed her lips and whirled away, unbuttoning and angrily kicking her way out of her work slacks. Her uniform blouse followed, flung onto the tile of the corridor, and Emily stomped into her room, unconcerned with the trail of discarded clothing she left behind.

C’mon, c’mon… answer me, Brian. She strode her way through heaps of laundry, piles of comic books, and the discarded packaging from anime figurines to hop up onto her bed so she could check her phone.

There was this sense of urgency she just couldn’t shake, as if tiny blue bubbles were insistently working their way up her body towards this growing pressure she felt. This uncomfortable, unsettling feeling of impending crisis, as though her life was rapidly approaching some sort of pivotal turning point. She couldn’t even pinpoint what, exactly, was agitating her so much; it wasn’t just the Chloe thing that was bothering her. That whole situation just felt like it was forcing her to act before she was ready. But what am I even DOING? Am I going to—ah, fuck, he’s finally replying.

Oberon: Run is done.

Oberon: Whats up?

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: uhhhhh

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: just kinda checkin in on u

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: lol

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: u doin ok?

Oberon: Im not a little kid ya know.

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: yeah well

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: im alloud to worry bout you

Oberon: You definitely are a loud, lol.

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: •allowd

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: geez

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: lol

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: so ur ok?

Oberon: Yep. We are heading back over to the con now.

WE? Him and… Chloe?! Am I already too fucking late? Emily stared at his words, stunned, and felt her blood turn to ice water. She frantically thumbed letters into her digital keypad.

whos we? r u back with chloe

She almost even hit send before realizing how awkward and insensitive it was. Swearing loudly, she hurriedly tapped the backspace key before sending her response.

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: whos we?

Oberon: Didnt I tell you last night?

Oberon: Ive got all these girls with me.

Emily snorted, feeling the frigid tension in her veins start to melt away, and she fell back onto her bed with an exasperated exhalation. Brian, I love your little jokes, but no. Just no. You seriously ‘bout gave me a heart attack this time!

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: yea ok bro

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: have fun

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: have fun

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: me n rebeca will b there

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: soon as we can

Oberon: KK. Call me when youre close so I can meet you guys somewhere.

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: kk

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: thx

♥ iXi Cerulean iXi ♥: bai

Okay. He hasn’t run into Chloe. Obviously. We’re fine. We’re still fine. Let’s try Rebecca, now… Shady Oaks, Shady Oaks, Emily nervously swiped her way through the contacts in her phone for a moment before finding the correct entry and making a call.

“Hello, could I speak to a Rebecca Smith? She works in the—Oh? Oh, um, okay. Then, if you could leave a message for me? Please tell her that Emily Rivera called, that it’s an emergency, and… if she could get back to me as soon as possible, I’d, uh, I’d really appreciate it. Yes, well, thank you. Uh, yeah. Thank you. Bye.”

Ugh, if she can’t get off work, I’m getting nowhere! Emily pitching her phone into her pillow in frustration. …What the hell did Chloe even mean with ‘hashtag relationship?!’ Is she there for him, or isn’t she? Am I overreacting?

Hope he’s doing okay, she thought, beginning to gather up all of her scattered costume bits so she could try everything on again. Until she was satisfied with the way every single piece fit together, the ‘improvements’ she’d made to her cosplay since last year were only theoretical.

Some detached part of her blithely wondered just why she was so anxious, so hung up on this… situation? Whatever this was, this thing that seemed to be looming now over her friend Brian. After all, that’s all we are still, right? Good friends? Close friends? Some more of those tiny little bubbles wriggled their way up her entire body towards her brain, where they surfaced in a fizzing blue foam of half-forgotten memories and deeply buried secrets.

• • •

Nine years ago

Directly after her father’s funeral, Emily found herself riding in a battered red jeep driven by a near-total stranger. The girl at the wheel was in her late teens, a very pretty hispanic girl introduced to her at the funeral wake only as her cousin—Samantha. She’d never met any of that side of her family before, because of some unspoken taboo rift, or feud, or something equally dumb, and everything about this situation was making her uncomfortable.

This older girl seemed to abhor silence, as she kept both the windows down and the radio up, so every spoken word was a yell over the music and the roar of wind. The jeep smelled like cigarette smoke and beer, Samantha dressed in revealing clothing, and overall seemed to be situated on the opposite end of the teenage social stratum. Far enough apart from Emily to make her feel uneasy.

Of all the people her family could have picked to have the talk with her about grief and loss and opening up about her feelings, Samantha may have been the worst choice. Emily didn’t particularly feel any bond with some distant cousin, no matter how close their ages were. She felt no compunction to be nice or polite. Not now.

She saw no problem with shutting everyone out and being in no mood to chit-chat for the next few months. Maybe years. Isn’t that normal when your Dad dies? Can’t you all just fucking leave me be?

For most of Emily’s life, her father had just been this roguish handsome guy who loved fast cars and shamelessly flirted with her mother. Her parents never officially divorced, but they’d been separated for longer than she could remember. Despite that, there was no apparent enmity between them; her mother always seemed to brush off his charming nonsense with good humor.

And now he’s just… gone? Forever?

It had been a fatal wreck—they surmised he’d been driving over the speed limit out on a particular winding rural road. He’d been forced to suddenly swerve, likely to avoid hitting an animal, and lost control. The state troopers had followed black streaks of rubber across the pavement to a crumpled gap in the guardrail to find her father’s ‘71 Pantera wrapped around a tree at the bottom of the embankment.

Having picked up on her recent obsession with anime, her Dad had always gone out of his way to find amazing anime movies, ones she’d never even heard of, for her. She wasn’t able to visit him often, but whenever she spent time over at his apartment, new ones were waiting. They’d watch them together, and then he’d take her out for dinner somewhere to talk about it, valiantly weathering on through her relentless barrage of enthusiasm with a proud smile.

And now he’s gone. Bitter sadness and helpless anger struggled inside her at a deadlock, but the sheer sense of loss finally won out. Despite only seeing him now and then, living in a world without her dad felt off, wrong somehow. This just isn’t how it’s supposed to be. It’s not fair. It’s not. It’s just not!

“Heard you’re goin’ to Truliet in a few months here? You’re what, thirteen?” Samantha yelled, her dark ponytail whipping about in the wind. Truliet was purportedly the high school for snobby rich kids, and Emily would swear she heard disdain in the voice of everyone who’d mentioned its name.

“Fourteen,” Emily grunted. “All my friends are going to San Michaels. I don’t want to go to Truliet, but my Mom’s enrolling me anyways, ‘cause she works there.”

“I knew some kids from Truliet,” Samantha said loudly, glancing over at her attire. “You’re gonna have a rough time if you go in there wearin’, like… that Japanime cartoon crap on your shirts. Up there in Truliet, they’re gonna fuck with you for that. S’all status and hierarchy and shit, like, way more than a normal high school.”

Emily looked down at her top, emblazoned with an action spread of characters from Shinobi Souls. She shrugged, making a bitter face. “Dad bought it for me.” Watching the show used to be our thing together, alright? He always called me his little ninja. This is my favorite shirt. So just stop. Please. Stop. You’re just making it worse.

“Ahhh, shit,” Samantha cursed, nodding thoughtfully and smiling. “Well yeah, alright. You got a kid sister, yeah?”

“Katie,” Emily called over the noise. “She’s eleven.”

“Katie, huh. I’ll remember that. Katie,” Samantha said to herself, and pulled the wheel, making another turn. Emily was increasingly sure that they weren’t actually driving to somewhere, and that this cousin of hers was simply cruising around aimlessly so that they could have their talk. Emily wanted it to be over already.

Finally, Samantha seemed to relent somewhat. She shut off the radio, and then rolled up the windows, creating a prolonged silence that somehow seemed even worse. Shopping centers and outlet malls rolled by without a sound.

“Alright, here we go. I’m gonna talk at you for a while,” Samantha said with some difficulty, keeping her eyes on the road. “You don’t gotta say anything… and it’s gonna be a little weird, but like, I gotta tell you this, ‘cause I don’t think anyone else can, okay?”

“…Okay,” Emily agreed with a sigh, already familiar with the I know what you’re going through rhetoric she was surely about to hear.

“So… yeah, well a few years back I was snoopin’ around in my Mom’s closet—that’s Aunt Rachel to you—and I found a buncha porno. Not like, video tapes, or magazines, or that kinda shit. I mean, like… photos. Home-made photos, buncha polaroids, you get my drift?”

Uh… what. Emily blanched, crossing her arms and giving the girl in the driver’s seat a mortified look.

“Yeah, I know, right?” Samantha laughed. “So, worst of all, Mom was in them. I like, freaked out. She was like, makin’ out with this other girl in some of them, and they were both gettin—well, uh, there was a guy too, and you can, ahem, you can probably guess all of that, right? They were crazy. Turned my whole world-view like, upside-down. That’s when I really like, broke out on my own and got all independent.”

“Okay…?” Emily mumbled.

“Well, here’s the thing,” Samantha said slowly. “My Mom—again, Aunt Rachel to you—has this meltdown a few days ago, and drags me to this funeral today, for some part of the family I’ve never met. Lo and behold, I see some… familiar faces? Same ones from those polaroids.”

“Uh…” It took Emily a long, confused moment to realize what Samantha was actually implying. “You… don’t mean…?”

“Yeah, I do,” Samantha chuckled. “Your dad that passed away, my Mom, and her sister—your Mom, they were, uh… all a thing together. A sex thing? Apparently. And that isn’t even really the half of it.”

“No way,” Emily said, staring blankly. She was stunned, more than stunned. It was like she understood what this girl was saying— knew what her words meant, but actual recognition just wasn’t hitting her yet. Mom, Dad, and… this Aunt Rachel?

“Yes way,” Samantha insisted. “I guess back in the day, before whatever weird split or feud or whatever they had, your dad was—uh, well, known for being the lucky guy to land not just one of the Garcia sisters, but both of ‘em. Like, in a relationship. Both at the same time, like, he was goin’ everywhere with a girl on each arm and shit.”

“Can I see the photos?” Emily asked.

“I was gonna bring some of the less, uh, raunchy ones, so that you’d believe me, but Mom’s been holed up in her room all week,” Samantha explained. “Can’t exactly ask to pull her private shit outta her closet right now.”


“‘Oh?’That’s all you’ve got? I mean, c’mon, whaddya really think about all of this?”

“I think… it’s dumb,” Emily said in a detached voice.

“Dumb? You don’t believe me?”

“No… no, it’s not that. Would explain the weird stupid family situation… I guess. That’s what’s dumb. We’re all family,” Emily muttered, uncrossing her arms and looking out the window with an aggravated expression. This strange news was just making her even more aware of her father’s sudden absence from her life. “Right? We should have known about each other. All of us could’ve been together.”

“Uhhh. Well, that’s like, polygamy?” Samantha said, choosing her words carefully. “From what I’ve figured, they were thinkin’ about us, so that us kids could have, y’know—somewhat normal lives. Modern society’s not real accepting of multiple wives, and well, weird stuff that’s kinda like incest?”

“Since when has what society thinks ever been more important than family?” Emily asked in a flat voice. “That’s dumb.”

“Hah! That’s good, I like that. Fuck what everyone else thinks, right? I’m the same way. And also—it’s like, I always wanted a little sister, you know? We’re only five years apart, I just thought it’d be cool. You seem like this cheeky brat, but like, you could be my bratty little sister. I like that.”

“…I’m not a brat, though.”

“Uh-huh. Well, listen. I never grabbed any photos at the time, ‘cause I was like, all weirded out, but I did snatch this.” Samantha leaned over across Emily to pop open the glove compartment of her jeep, pulling a strange wooden slat out from beneath what looked suspiciously like a glass pipe and a bag of weed. “Here, check it out.”

“Uhh,” Emily began, innocently flicking her eyes away from the drug paraphernalia as the glove box was closed again, and finally took at look at the object Samantha was handing her. “…What is this?”

“S’a little oriental charm, like for good luck, health and prosperity and all that,” Samantha explained. “This one, though, this was in my Mom’s little shoebox o’ treasures with those polaroids and everything.”

“It’s neat,” Emily said, turning it over in her hands. “Why’d you grab this, of all things?”

“Dunno,” Samantha answered honestly. “Just sorta spoke to me, I guess. I’m not superstitious or nothin’, but since it was with all that other weird stuff, it seems more… like it was, y’know, important, or significant or somethin’. Had it hanging there from my rear-view mirror, right up ‘till the funeral. Kiiinda don’t wanna risk Mom randomly recognizing it now and really flipping out on me. So, I want you to have it.”

“Are you sure?” Emily asked. “You’re not gonna… put it back where you found it?”

“Too late for that,” Samantha snorted. “She sure as hell went through all her little mementos soon as she heard the news. Fuck me, right? Had it just dangling out in the open there for forever. Damned lucky she never noticed it, that would not have been a fun conversation. I mean, she’s never in here, ‘cause she hates my driving, but still.”

“Well… it’s really cool,” Emily said. “Thank you.”

“No sweat, little sistah,” Samantha laughed.

“Wait, what if my Mom recognizes it?”

“Well don’t go wavin’ it around in her face,” Samantha said. “Anyone asks, then… I dunno, make up a story.”

“…Okay. I’ll say you got it from a shrine in Japan,” Emily felt a smile tugging at the corner of her lips.

“Japan? Yeah, like I’ve been overseas. You know I went to San Michaels, right?”

“Alright, fine then. I’ll tell everyone you got it from a vending machine.”

“Listen, do you gotta go into explainin’ details to people at all? Or bringing me into it?”

• • •

How can I NOT be bitter about this? Emily thought as she first stepped inside her morning class at Truliet. Sure, she hadn’t expected big posters with bright colors and cartoon frogs and kittens to be plastered everywhere like in middle school—but glancing around her classroom now, the only papers decorating the walls were uninteresting notices. Reminders, rules. Everything just seemed so bleak, bland and austere.

Her fellow students were arguably worse. Hardly anyone was making an effort to socialize, and it was all carefully styled appearances and posturing, putting on airs to make a ‘cool’ impression the first day of high school. All of the other girls in her grade level seemed to have sprouted up tall and blossomed into nubile young adults, graceful and mature, while Emily felt stunted in comparison, like puberty had given up before finishing the job.

She was short, she had boyish hips, and wearing her stupid bra at all felt like open deceit. Emily was already the miserable little punk who thought figuring out what to do with her hair was too much of a chore, and never applied more makeup than just some quick eyeliner. She’d simply worn her favorite clothes—jeans with holes in the knees and that gray Shinobi Souls T-shirt. It was comfy, and featured an action spread of the main characters leaping forward from the backdrop of an exploding blood splatter. As it turned out, however, wearing it was a mistake.

“Sooo, you must really be into that Japanime, huh? You’ve got your little ninjas on your shirt?” a tall blonde asked as they milled about inside the classroom, waiting for the first bell. Well, all the girls here were taller than her, so with an internal grumble Emily instead decided to simply classify this one as the stuck-uppest looking one.

“They’re shinobi, actually… Ever heard of Shinobi Souls?” Emily countered, not deigning to explain further. Japanime, seriously? Why are you talking to me?

“Nope,” Stuck-Uppest responded curtly. Her tone suggested that Emily had sealed her own fate for even admitting the name of an anime.

“So, you think you’re some kind of shinny-obi, huh?” the tall blonde girl using the purposefully mocking mispronunciation was already exchanging glances with the others. She was loud enough for everyone to hear, and it was increasingly clear the only reason she’d stooped so low as to speak to Emily at all was to clarify the classroom pecking order. To open a topic of conversation with the others, or rather, a topic of derision—it was Emily, of course, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Really? I think I’m a shinobi… because of a T-shirt I’m wearing? Because that’s so logical. Does that guy over there in the jersey think he’s a pro football player? Guess being the loner geek must just make me quite the ice-breaker around these parts. Easy pickings, at least.

“…Yep,” Emily finally said in a dry tone, rolling her eyes. “Sure do.” The damage was already done. She was bound to hear the other classmates, eager to fit in, talking down to her throughout the semester already. Why wouldn’t they? Stuck-Uppest was sociable and attractive. She’d quickly moved on and found some other people to talk to, strategically giggling and chatting easily with a small group of guys—and Emily? She was just the awkward little runt.

When the class began, their tired old man of a teacher outlined his expectations for them in the course in a bored, droning voice. His words were immediately evaporating out of Emily’s head, and she could only grimace at the thought of enduring a year of all of this. Not only was there assigned seating, but Emily was shunted to the very back corner of the class, next to the wall. It would have been that stereotypical anime protagonist seat—back of the class, next to the window—but this classroom was deep within the interior of the school complex, so there weren’t any windows. It was safer to say that Emily’s desk was hidden back in the corner by the cabinets.

Worse yet, the girl sitting right in front of her was Stuck-uppest; apparently her real name was Lauren. Neither were happy with their arrangement, although, in Lauren’s case, she just wanted to be placed in a more social position than against a wall. The uppity blonde seemed to light up when a cute guy was assigned next to her, however, which made Emily glower. Everyone near her now was tall. So, not only was she relegated off into this corner, but she couldn’t even really see past these Truliet cretins.

“Hi! I’m Lauren,” Stuck-Uppest introduced herself, presenting a winning smile to her cute new neighbor, a guy with short brown hair.

“Brian,” the guy offered, before giving her an uneasy smile. “Hey, uh, you got a pencil and paper I could borrow?”

“What, you didn’t bring anything with you on the first day?” Lauren laughed, opening the rings of her binder to offer him some sheets of notebook paper.

Yeah, oh boy, what a rebel, Emily thought sarcastically, not looking up from her desk.

“Well, um, I only have my one pencil, annnd, it’s for me,” the girl said coyly, before hitching a thumb back behind her to indicate Emily. “Maybe you can ask the little shinny-obi if she has one to spare.”

Pissed off, Emily looked up to meet the guy’s eyes with a glare. Yeah, just try fucking asking, prick. First fucking hour of the first fucking day, and I’m already saddled with a retarded nickname.

“…Nah,” The guy flicked his eyes down to the anime motif of her T-shirt for a split second, then held her stare for a long beat before looking back towards Lauren indifferently. “I ain’t askin’ her.”

“Pfft, yeah, why not?” Lauren goaded.

Emily glared back down at her desk, fingers tightening painfully on the edges of the worn laminate surface. Guess Sammie was right about everyone at Truliet after all. Of course she was. Fuck.

“You see what she’s wearing?” the guy scoffed lightly, a slight, almost secretive smile surfacing. “Shirt with those Tamashii clan creeps on it. More like the Tamashii traitors, s’what I call ‘em. They’re a disgrace to all shinobi, especially after all that nonsense they pulled up at Heavenly Peak Palace. Am I right?”

Emily felt her head snap up to catch Lauren giving the guy a nervous laugh, but that guy—Brian, was it?—had already turned away to ask the student on his other side for a pencil. Tamashii clan?! The cute guy watches Shinobi Souls. No wait, Heavenly Peak isn’t even in the Shinobi Souls anime yet… he’s been reading the fan translations of the manga online, like I am!

Lauren twisted back to give Emily a scowl as if Emily herself had snubbed her, and she replied with only an innocent smile. Brian, huh? Maybe this school year won’t be so shitty after all.

• • •

“So, what clan are you with, then?” Emily found herself asking Brian, forcibly quelling the nervous churn of her stomach. It was the next day—after she’d discreetly scoped out where he sat during lunch, a secluded patio table outside in the quad area. He was sitting with an Asian guy again, having already made a friend—yesterday she’d been too on-edge to approach them.

“Kokoro clan.”

“Kokoro clan?” That wasn’t one of the ‘big three’ shinobi factions, but it did sound familiar.

“You know, Kokoro clan,” the Chinese guy at the table wearing glasses emphasized with a leer, cupping his hands out in front of him.

“The one Akane’s from?” Emily asked in disbelief, turning towards Brian. “Akane Kurokawa… that stupid titty-ninja?”

“Hey, don’t call her that. She’s my favorite, she’s one of the best shinobi there is,” Brian laughed. “Akane the Sweet Silencer.”

“Your favorite?” Emily snorted. “She’s not even one of the clan elites. Big whoop. Akane’s lame as hell.”

“Yeah, but all the rest of ‘em aren’t elite at suckin’ dick. Ohhh, burn!” the Chinese guy interjected again.

“Here, sit with us,” Brian invited Emily, kicking his Asian friend’s backpack off the bench opposite him. “Mark here keeps scaring off all the girls with his Mana.”

“Shaddup,” Mark said, scowling, but she saw the Chinese guy pause from shuffling his deck of Mana cards to make space for her at the table.

“Sure, alright,” Emily said casually. On the inside, she was elated. I finally found some other geeks here! And this one’s super cute! “What, are you guys too cool to eat lunch?”

“Too poor, more like,” Brian shrugged.

“Yeah? You want my apple, then?” Emily blurted.

• • •

“There’s nothing in the world dumber than multiplying fractions,” Emily groaned in frustration, holding the cordless phone between her cheek and her shoulder. “No one uses fractions in real life.” Several months of their freshman year had passed by in a flash, and she was alone on the floor of her messy room, picking away at her algebra homework.

“What about, you know, in cooking? Measuring cups, tablespoons and stuff,” Brian pointed out, his voice tinny and distant through the phone’s speaker. “They always use fractions.”

“Well, they’re retarded, too,” Emily complained, flipping her pencil and smudging out her scribbled answer again with the eraser. “They should all be in proper decimal points.”

“With fractions, I’ve always had trouble telling the difference between the numerator and the denominator,” Brian paused. “I guess there’s a fine line between them.”

“Yeah, hah, hah.” Emily rolled her eyes. “Nice try, but I heard that one back in middle school.”

“Well, damn.”

Brian was in both her first period Algebra and her fifth period World History class, and he’d turned out to be her salvation. Emily was a fish out of water suddenly attending this high school full of rich pricks, and the only solace she’d been able to find so far was hanging out with him.

He’s cute, he’s into all the same things that I’m into, he introduced me to all his friends—I don’t even think of them as HIS friends anymore, they’re MY friends now, OUR friends. And, he’s cute… did I mention that he’s cute?

“Hey, uh… so I’ve actually been keeping a secret,” Emily said nervously, sliding her textbook and half-finished worksheet out of the way and leaning back heavily against her bed.

“A secret? What’s up?”

“Uh, well… you know I still read Shinobi Souls online, but… I actually, like, stopped watching anime completely a little while back.”

“Really?” He sounded surprised. “That’s weird. You seem all into it at school. Gettin’ sick of it already?”

“No, no, I want to watch, just, it is weird,” she mumbled, her mouth going dry. “I used to only ever really watch anime with my dad. We’d watch it together. So, now, watching it alone, it makes it…it’s…”

“Parents divorced?” He guessed.

“Ah… no. Car accident. Right before the school year started.”

“Shit. Sorry.”

“Yeah,” Emily said dumbly, cursing at herself in her head. Why why whhhhy am I dropping all of this on him now out of nowhere?!

“Well, hey,” Brian’s voice broke back in, “I’m not allowed to leave the house after school for like, the whole rest of this year, but if you want, I can hang with you on the phone while we each watch? Or would that be weird, watching and talking?”

“No, no, that’s not weird,” Emily said quickly, wetting her lips. “That sounds… that’s cool. It still comes on at four o’clock? Are you watching tomorrow?”

“O’course. We’re almost up to the tournament examination arc in the anime now. With Saburo and all that.”

“Cool! Cool, awesome. Sounds like a—uh, sounds like a plan,” Emily smiled. Did I almost slip and say ‘date?’ “Call you tomorrow around… three-thirty, then? Three-forty-five?”


“Hey, also, I’ve never really asked… why exactly do you like Akane, anyways?” Emily finally inquired. Isn’t she kinda just the obligatory scantily-clad character they throw in for sex-appeal? She’s totally lame.

“I guess just from the impression she made. Like, everything I’d seen before that—Monster Battlers and everything, that was still cartoons, but then seeing her, it was like, this is anime,” Brian explained.

“So, you’re into big tits, huh?” Emily snorted. “Typical.”

“No… s’not that,” Brian chuckled. “Up ‘til that point, I’d never seen an animated character who was supposed to be sexy in an adult way. Just ones that were, you know, supposed to be sexy in that watered-down sorta kiddy way. Like, in cartoons you can tell when a character’s supposed to be sexy, but it always feels more like a spoof, a placeholder or something, since they never put in something actually sexual.

“Sure, in Shinobi Souls they still don’t show explicit sex, but they don’t go out of their way to cover up anything, either. It just makes the situations seem so much more real to me, like, I can get invested in the characters and story and everything. Sorry… I’m rambling, aren’t I?”

“No, no, I totally get it!” Emily exclaimed, sitting up suddenly in excitement. “You’re right, that’s—that’s anime. It’s like everything in the States has this sorta fake layer to it, ‘cause they have to make it PG, or they know parents will complain, or think kids couldn’t handle it or whatever. But then, in anime, they’re just givin’ you the best, most interestingest story they can make.”

“Right?” Brian laughed.

“Right!” Emily agreed. All this time I thought he was just kidding around. Or trying to come off like a perv or something. But Akane really IS his favorite… it makes sense. She’s what separated anime from cartoons, for him. She kinda represents something to Brian. That’s actually cool.

“Ah, crap. I gotta go,” Brian said.

“Alright, cool. See ya in class.”

“Right. Later.”

“Later.” After exchanging their goodbyes, Emily turned—to realize her little sister was sneering at her through the bedroom doorway.

“Who was that?” Katie scoffed. “Making plans with your boyfriend?”

“None of your damn business,” Emily cried indignantly. “Don’t listen in on me, you creepy little twerp. We’re just gonna talk about anime. And that’s it.”

“Pffft! Nerd. I’m telling! I’m telling!” Katie disappeared from her doorway and Emily could hear her tiny feet running down the hall. “Mom! Mooom! Emily’s being a nerd! She can’t even get a boyfriend, ‘cause all she ever talks about is anime!”

“Mooom!” Emily began to yell out herself. “Katie’s lying! Beat her little face in!”

With an exaggerated sigh, Emily clambered up onto her bed and sprawled out across it.

“Still,” Emily chuckled to herself, “Akane’s outfit is just… too much.” A little too BLATANT with how much they sexualized her. No one—and I mean no one—would ever ACTUALLY wear that.

• • •

Present day

Emily quirked a lip at herself in the vertical mirror of her closet door, running fingers through her shaggy tangle of black hair. She was dressed in her Akane Kurokawa cosplay, the kunoichi from the massively popular Shinobi Souls anime. She’d ordered the cosplay as a complete set from an online retailer, simply making minor adjustments to it over time so that it better suited her each year.

The costume was simple—a red summer kimono called a yukata, that tied at the waist in a wide-belted obi. Unlike more traditional yukata, however, this one sported short sleeves and a scandalously high hemline that fluttered and swayed a bare six inches from her obi—practically a micro-skirt. The front of her yukata hung open in a loose way, as was appropriate for the character, exposing the fishnet body stocking she wore beneath.

She frowned, opening her yukata wider to expose her netting-covered breasts. They were way too small—tiny peach-sized bulges, her little pink nipples standing erect through the weave. She’d be wearing her flesh-toned pasties to cover her nips later on so that she didn’t stray from indecent to explicit, but… that wasn’t really the problem. Like most anime characters intended to lay on sex appeal, Akane Kurokawa had enormous double D-cup breasts. No matter how much Emily worked on improving the rest of the outfit… her meager A-cups were as good as it was going to get. On better-endowed cosplayers, the outfit formed a stunning, canyon-like crevasse of cleavage… but Emily was just nowhere near buxom enough for that, and never would be. In fact, her small breasts, that mere handful each, did little to help hold the garment in place. There’d even been occasional mishaps last year where the yukata opened up too far and slipped down her one shoulder.

Nothing more I can do about that. With a sigh, she mentally reviewed this year’s changes. The cheap fishnet originally packaged with the Akane Kurokawa cosplay hadn’t fit right at all, so she’d already found a new purpose for it—the old body-stocking still roughly approximated human shape when she completely filled it with the various stuffed animals and anime plush dolls she’d collected over the years. The eerie person-shaped assemblage was sitting on its knees in proper Japanese seiza in the corner of her room like a macabre mannequin.

The new body stocking for her Akane cosplay was ordered from a lingerie website, though it’d been designed for purposes… other than costuming and featured a hemmed slit open at the crotch. That was going to be covered by Akane’s trademark white fundoshi-style panties anyways, though, so no one would ever know. Probably. The fundoshi’s basically just a loincloth folded and tucked into itself, and the yukata really doesn’t go down very far… I’ll izmit escort have to watch that it doesn’t slip so I’m not flashin’ gash at everyone in every direction.

Red cloth bracers and leggings covered her forearms and shins, each with loops that held her fake throwing stars and tiny ninja daggers in place. Last year, they’d kept falling out every time she moved quickly or made an exaggerated gesture, so in the time since then, she’d hand-sewn the little props into place so they wouldn’t budge. A fluffy brown wig with an exaggerated ponytail and a pair of red split-toed ninja shoes finished out the ensemble.

“Look at you,” Mrs. Rivera said dryly, leaning in through the doorway of her daughter’s bedroom. “Your nipples are showing, Emily, honestly… You aren’t planning on using that awful tape again, are you?”

“It was band-aids back then, and no. I bought a pair of pasties this time,” Emily growled, tugging the loose yukata closed over her meager chest. “And I’m not gonna waste ‘em before I get to the convention.”

“If they came as a single pair, they’re reusable ones,” her mom pointed out. “But really, Emily. If you’d just talk to me every once in a while… I have a whole bunch of disposable breast petals I could have given you, if you’d just asked.”

“What. What. Why do you even have pasties? You’re old. Old!”

“Honey… I’m not that old. Do you remember the dress I wore to that last big recital?” Her mother asked, unfazed.

“Uh, the one I made you promise to never wear again? That slutty, inappropriate-for-school, tramp dress that your stupid udders were practically hanging out of? The one all the other teachers were gawking over?”

“Mm, that’s the dress, you remembered,” her mother smiled teasingly. “Well, I definitely needed petals for that one.”

“Well, I don’t ever need to hear about weird things you stick to your nipples, thanks,” Emily said, making a face.

“Some twenty-three years ago, you were just this weird thing I stuck to my nipples, you know,” her mother retorted, gesturing with her mug of coffee.

“Mom. Mom. If you really love me as your only daughter—”

“You’re not my only daughter.”

“—As your favorite daughter—”

“Hmph. Well, fair enough.”

“—You’ll stop tormenting me and just let me have the car, just this once. Puh-leeeease.”

“Can’t help you, kiddo—I need to go. Mr. Daniels called, he’s coming in late today. So, now I need to head over, unlock all the doors for everyone, and corral all of the stagehands. Why don’t you try and call Rebecca?”

“I did call Rebecca,” Emily muttered. “She’s still at work, though.”

“Well, I can’t help you there,” her mother pointed out, shaking her head. “I’ll get you the adhesive out from my cabinet before I leave.”

“I don’t need adhesive, Mom. I need the car! Can’t they just wait for Mr. Daniels? Just this once.”

“Reusable breast petals aren’t always very self-adhering, love. Did you check them?”

“…Please let me borrow your adhesive. And the car. And, um… maybe, like, fifty bucks?”

“Sorry, kiddo. You still owe me money—and you’re not going anywhere without Rebecca,” her mother insisted firmly, sighing in exasperation and gesturing her daughter forward for a hug. “I need to go get ready. Do you want me to get you the glue, or do you just want to use my disposable ones?”

“…The glue, please,” Emily answered meekly, stepping forward to embrace her mother. “And… Sorry for calling you old. You’re not really old, and you did look great in that dress.”

“I know, hun,” her mother said, patting her head. “It was such a slutty dress, though, and I did just wear it to get a rise out of everyone.”

Emily backed off, snatching up the nearest stuffed animal—a Solar Bear plushie from Monster Battlers—and threw it, but Mrs. Rivera blew her a kiss and ducked behind the door frame just in time.

She wasn’t actually angry at her mother, even about the car. She knew she couldn’t take her mom’s only means of transportation for her busy weekend, although it was fun to make a fuss about it. For all of their verbal spats and play-fighting, she really did feel lucky, because she did have the best mom in the world.

• • •

Seven Years Ago

“Aww, Brian, are you sure you won’t stay with us for dinner?” Mrs. Rivera asked. “Call your folks, if you need to.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Rivera, but no—I really can’t,” Brian said stiffly. “Thank you again so much for allowing me over, though.”

“Oh, stop,” Mrs. Rivera laughed, stepping over and opening her arms wide for a hug. “Come over any time, you’re always welcome.”

A slouching sixteen-year-old Emily rolled her eyes and sighed melodramatically, picking through her piled plate of spaghetti. Katie, now thirteen, sat on the other end of the table, minding her careful posture and graceful manners—while Brian was present, at least. That wretched little pit fiend had already sprouted up taller than Emily already, going from scrawny to tall and thin in just a few years.

“Thank you, but, I couldn’t impose,” Brian allowed himself to be awkwardly hugged, tensing up at the contact.

“You’re fine, you’re fine, stop that.” Mrs. Rivera scolded, tousling his hair affectionately as she sent him on his way. “Drive safely, young man. Have a good night.”

“Thank you. See you at school, Emmie,” he called.

“Yeah. Bye,” She said nonchalantly around her mouthful of food, waving.

The door closed, and Mrs. Rivera expectantly hurried back towards the kitchen table, looking from daughter to daughter in anticipation.


“No,” Emily insisted. “We’re not discussing this. You two are not a committee, and neither of you get to sit here and judge my life. Or my friends.”

Completely unfazed, her mother’s expectant smile didn’t falter, and she instead simply turned it towards Katie. “Well?”

“He’s definitely okay,” Katie appraised seriously. “Maybe even, like, a nine.”

“I thought so too,” Mrs. Rivera agreed with a cheerful voice, leaning over to scoop spaghetti onto her plate. “He wasn’t at all like I expected.”

“Both of you, I am so serious. Stop. He’s just a friend,” Emily growled. “And that’s it.”

“Just a friend?” Mrs. Rivera frowned, slipping into her seat. “Oh, c’mon, he’s cute.”

“No, Emily’s right this time,” Katie said sweetly, carefully twirling spaghetti strands around her fork. “Definitely just a friend—he’s way out of her league.”

“Aww, honey. He’s not out of her league,” Mrs. Rivera chided playfully. “Emily just needs a little more… fighting spirit.”

“I’m not playing those stupid little games with Brian,” Emily growled. “He deserves better than that.”

“Well, I do think he’s very nice,” Mrs. Rivera said, trying to be diplomatic. “It’s just…”

“…Yeah, just what?” Emily retorted. I warned you. Just try and criticize my choice of—

“Emmie, does Brian come from… a bad home?” Emily’s mother asked carefully.

“What.” Emily dropped her fork onto her plate loudly in surprise, failing to suppress a flash of anger. “…Why would you even say that.”

“I’m just worried, honey. Something was wrong, he seemed a little… off.”

She was right. This had been his first time hanging out over at her house, and it was… weird. He was polite, but in a well-mannered, stiff, and robotic sort of way. Nothing like the casual and laid-back buddy she thought she knew. Something about the whole visit, in fact, had somehow seemed… strained. Distant.

“Well… maybe he was. A little,” Emily conceded, “But like, how would you even know? This was the first time you even met him.”

“Because I’m your mother. I pay close attention to body language, and the way he acts—acting being my other speciality, you remember? For instance, as he was leaving, when I gave him that hug right then—he just kind of, well… He froze. Flinched back this tiniest bit? I don’t know, maybe it was just my imagination?”

“He’s a teenage boy, Mom,” Emily reminded her, gesturing at her mother in aggravation. “And you’re… you know. You’re you. Probably getting a crush on you or something… ugh, that’s so gross.”

“Hardly,” her mother said, smirking. “You’re the one he has a crush on. How does he react when you hug him?”

“As if,” Katie snorted.

“I don’t. We don’t hug,” Emily insisted, quickly trying to gloss over her mother’s casual remark. “We’re not a thing, mother. We’re just friends, and we don’t hug. That’s weird.”

“You can’t even get a hug?” Katie’s eyes went wide. “Wow, I knew you were an embarrassment, but… wow.”

“Mom, I can hit her for that, right?”

“Yes, honey,” her mother sighed, rolling her eyes as a smack sounded out, followed by an aggrieved Ow, sheesh. “Has he ever said anything about his home life? Or his parents?”

Emily paused in uncertainty as she racked her memory. He… really hasn’t, has he?

• • •

“So… when’re we ever gonna hang out at your house?” Emily asked, absentmindedly plucking another dry leaf from the grass and picking it apart in her hands. It was several weeks after he’d visited her place, and they were at Aunt Mattie’s place, a big, somewhat rundown estate with a dash of rural charm on the outskirts of town. Their friend Mike had been raised here by his Aunt Matilda—who everyone called Aunt Mattie.

The social dynamic among the local group of geeks in their little city was interesting—at Truliet, the private school, all their pals seemed to naturally gravitate towards Brian, while at the public school, San Michaels, Mike seemed to be the guy everyone knew, the axis upon which geeky circles of friends spun. Emily didn’t dislike Mike—he was a funny loudmouth, but otherwise, in her eyes, he wasn’t worthy of comparison to Brian in the slightest.

“Hopefully never,” Brian responded without hesitation, not looking up from the scribbling he was doing in his notebook. He didn’t elaborate further.

Across the yard, seven or so teens were playing a rather heated game, ducking throughout the trees and shrubs in a constant crunch of dead leaves and occasional terrified yelps. Should they really be using basketballs to play dodgeball?

“Um. Well, why not? Got something to hide?”

“…Yep, pretty much,” he answered indifferently. She could see he was cross-hatching shading lines around his drawing, and she was surprised by how much it made the look pop out. And why bother? Draw me sometime, at least.

“You, uh… you wanna talk about it?” She asked, not sure if she was joking with him or not.

“Nope,” he replied curtly. Nothing else he could have said would have made her want answers more.

He’d stopped shading; his mechanical pencil frozen at the end of the line he’d been drawing. Although he was looking thoughtfully at the scribble, he didn’t continue. Emily awkwardly looked away, a sense of unease settling deep in the pit of her stomach, followed by anger.

Fuck. Mom was right, there really is something weird up with Brian and his parents. Something wrong. Why didn’t I… how the hell did I never notice anything ‘till now? She tore apart the next crumbling leaf in frustration, but it was another month before the topic was brought up again.

• • •

“Okay, well, if you ever did do a cosplay thing, who would you wanna be?” Emily asked. They were amidst a small stream of fellow students traversing the school corridors on their way to their respective classes.

“You know, I’d kinda want to be Lance, from Fantasy Wars,” Brian answered, looking thoughtful.

“Yeah? That’d be cool. So, why don’t you?”

“Hah, definitely not now,” Brian said. “Maybe sometime after I’m out on my own.”

“What, ‘fraid your dad’ll beat the shit out of you if he finds out?” Emily wise-cracked, a split second before realizing she shouldn’t have.

She was discovering that whenever his parents, his house, or even his childhood came up, it felt like she was talking to another person. The Brian she thought she knew, that she joked about anime with and bickered about music with for hours, became some Brian she barely knew at all. A Brian who clammed up and replied in brief, short sentences that left no room for further conversation. The Brian that kept shutting her out.

“Something like that,” he said casually, adjusting the straps of his backpack with his thumbs.

Uh… she shot him a glance and held it for a moment. The hell kind of response is that?

“I was joking, you know?” She teased, facing forward again.

“Yep,” he acknowledged.

“It’s not actually funny, though,” she said, getting annoyed. “Does your dad ever really… you know, hit you or anything?”

“It’s…” he began, before shaking his head evasively. “Ah, you wouldn’t understand.”

“What the fuck, dude?” Emily said, surprised at how quickly her temper was flaring up. “The fuck’s there to understand? Does he hit you or not? Yes, or no.”

When he didn’t answer her after a few long moments she stopped, planting her feet firmly in the hallway and glaring at him. The flow of teenagers who’d been walking behind her were stalled by her sudden stop and forced to slowly squeezed their way around her.

“C’mon, Emily,” Brian said in exasperation. “Let’s go.”

“Answer me,” she insisted, her eyes radiating seriousness.

“Talking doesn’t change anything,” he said, getting annoyed himself. “Can we just go? Walking with you always makes me late.”

“Well, sorry for not having freakish long legs, Salty McStilt-Strider. So, he hits you,” Emily decided. “‘Till you’re eighteen, that’s child abuse. Hell, even after eighteen, that’s what, domestic violence? We can call the cops.”

“I didn’t say he did anything. And I’m not randomly getting cops involved.”

“So… you’re just cool with playin’ the victim, then, huh?”

“I’m not a victim. I’m just being realistic.”

“You’re a victim.”

“Fuck off,” Brian said defensively. They walked on together in silence, and Emily was struggling not to show how uncomfortable she’d become. Brian didn’t swear much, and never at her. Playfully arguing back and forth with Brian over the past few years had become so typical for her, so natural, she could forget that there were still times where she really couldn’t just thoughtlessly run her mouth.

“…Look, sorry,” he finally said, reluctance evident in his voice. He’d spoken up just as she was about to apologize herself, which irritated her even more. “I know you’re just—”

“Does he ever hit you?” Emily interrupted. If you won’t do something about your problems, then I will. “Yes, or fuckin’ no?”

“Just… back off, alright?” He grumbled, turning and walking on without her.

“Why don’t you make me back off, huh, punk?” She called, chasing after him. “Whose side are you on, anyways?”

“There aren’t any sides here.”

“Yeah? Good. I’m coming over this weekend.”

“And what’s that gonna accomplish?” Brian griped, shaking his head. “What, if my Dad doesn’t throw a punch at me while you’re there, then everything’s fine and in the clear? Just let it go. None of it actually matters, ‘cause this lease is up once I turn eighteen. Just two more years, and I’m outta there.”

“I just… fuck, I don’t know, man. Help me understand, alright? Tell me that you’re really okay, and I’ll drop it. I don’t want to go over there, anyways. It sounds boring and weird.”

“I’m fine, Emily.”

She searched his features carefully and then began to scowl. Fuck. You think I can’t tell when you’re lying? Fuck. What the fuck. Fuck.

“I’m coming over this weekend,” she insisted.

• • •

“C’mon in,” Brian sighed. “Shoes here.” He kicked off his shoes in the entryway, and Emily did the same, toeing the heel of her sneakers off and putting them next to the neat row of shoes there.

“Uh, okay… Brian, you never told me you were like, filthy rich?” Emily pointed out accusingly. For some reason, she’d always pictured him living in low-income housing, maybe something just a step up from a run-down mobile home, one in a bad area. She’d even felt guilty about it, figuring there was a distinct income gap between her family and his. Guess I just wasn’t on the side of the gap that I thought I was…

She’d known the name of the area he lived in—but she never connected it in her mind to this gated community of veritable mansions, each on their own sprawling lot of tidily manicured lawns, hedges, and flowerbeds. She was already uncomfortable, and she’d always thought of her own family as pretty well-off.

“I’m not rich,” he denied, beckoning her further inside. Past the coat room, he was standing the next room over in the laundry room, and past that room was possibly an enormous kitchen. And we came in through this side door, what’s the freakin’ main entrance like?

“Well, uh, you seem pretty rich to me,” she rebuked, following him further inside. “I mean, what the hell? Two washers and two dryers—you’re practically your own little laundromat.”

“I’m not rich… they are,” he muttered. “I’ve got five bucks to my name, since I’m not allowed to keep my paychecks—and I’m not even allowed to spend it. It’s only for emergencies, I’m told.”

“Do you have a butler and maids?” Emily teased.

“We have a cleaning lady that comes every Wednesday,” Brian said with a scowl, a dark look crossing his face.

“Gee, yeah, sure sounds rough,” Emily arched an eyebrow at him.

“No, it’s… we’re not on good terms. My stepmother told her that anything that I’ve left on the floor of my room while I’m at school gets thrown away; no exceptions.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. Lost quite a few things that way before they told me about that rule. It’s annoying that I had to, like, double-check and clean my room before the cleaning lady came, every time,” Brian grumbled. “Not that it matters anymore.”

He led her through a kitchen, which she grimly realized was more spacious than the kitchen inside the fast-food joint where she was currently working. Off to one side, it even had the same familiar enormous stainless steel triple-compartment sink her workplace did, in addition to a more normal kitchen sink. There were two ovens, making her wonder if all of it was necessitated by the family throwing huge parties.

“This must be the girlfriend,” Brian’s dad called from where he sat in the living room recliner. “Well come here, let’s have a look at you.”

There were two couches positioned around an enormous, expensive-looking television, as well as a large recliner that Brian’s dad sat in. The end-tables had doilies beneath expensive-looking lamps, antique knick-knacks were carefully positioned on shelves. Overall, it looked more like the cover of an interior design magazine rather than a place people actually occupied and lived in.

“This is Emily, she’s a friend. Just a friend,” Brian explained.

“I said, let’s have a look at you,” Brian’s father repeated, a little less politely.

She stepped closer into the living room, pausing awkwardly beside Brian. Her discomfort seemed to intensify under the man’s scrutiny and she found the situation eerily familiar. Why does it feel like I’m being brought before the dias of a gangster space slug?

…Ah, that’s why. Brian’s father was big. Huge. A head taller than Brian at the least, and perhaps another three hundred pounds heavier, his massive bulk intimidating even while sitting in the recliner. The actual resemblance to her friend Brian started at hair color… and stopped there as well, with no other similar features she could discern. He wore a mustache and large, aviator-style eyeglasses, which she haplessly categorized as rapist glasses, from which he regarded her with narrowed, beady eyes.

Emily disliked him immediately. In her head she’d simply been visualizing something like an older, gruffer version of Brian—maybe looking like Brian but also having a beard or something, but reality fell far from her expectations.

“Hello,” she attempted weakly, trying not to stare at the bulging, stubbled fat making up his chins, to show revulsion, to show this thing anything at all.

“Nice to meet… you?” Emily tried, but she saw he’d already turned his attention back to the television.

“She looks a little young,” Brian’s dad admonished, glancing in disapproval at Brian as though Emily wasn’t present. “Go watch TV in the other room, and stay where I can see you.”

“Thank you,” Brian replied, nodding, and gestured for Emily to follow him.

Thank you? What part of… any of that fucking warranted a thank you? Emily wondered, disoriented but relieved to at least be shuffling away from that thing in the recliner. This… isn’t right. This isn’t Brian. He’s acting the same weird… mechanical way he was back when he was over at my place.

She followed Brian into what looked like another whole living room, adjacent to the one where his father was reclining, appointed with similar decor. Living room number two? Family room? Or, maybe this is the den? Like the previous room, it was large and well-furnished, but in the same sterile, superficial sort of way that gave off the vibe of a realtor’s real estate showroom, rather than a real room.

Brian turned on the TV set and immediately muted it with the remote, the MUTE dialogue appearing on-screen before the channel first even swam into view.

“And keep the volume down,” his dad called in from the adjacent room.

Is this a fucking staged joke? Emily thought to herself with a strained smile, but Brian seemed to be pretending everything was normal. Closed captioning text was already appearing on the screen from the get-go, as if it was always set that way. …Is his dad watching the other TV, or is he watching me? With the reflected glow of the other screen shining off of those glasses, it was impossible for her to tell. She stifled her urge to shiver, and gave Brian a look.

Brian mustered a nervous smile for her.

A long half-hour later, Brian’s dad heaved the bulk of his body out of his recliner to receive a phone call, shooting the teens a stern look before he shuffled over to the home office. Taking the opportunity, they scurried away to Brian’s room. Seeing it, however, didn’t help her feel any better. There was nothing in his bedroom but a neatly-made bed, a dresser, and a desk, even more austere than the previous rooms. Even a hotel room would have a painting or SOMETHING for decoration.

“Uh… where’s all your stuff? Like, where do you actually live?” She was still waiting for the punchline—for him to tell her just kidding, that this was actually just a vacant guest room or something.

“Well, you have my console and my games, right?” he explained. “I have stuff in my locker at school, I have some things my backpack… I think Mark has a couple of my books… probably. That’s where my stuff is, if that’s what you mean. I don’t really, like, live here, this is just where I have to come home and sleep every day.”

“You don’t have like, uh… I dunno…” She glanced around the empty room in confusion, trying to pinpoint what was wrong. Despite the room’s size, it was so stark and bare that the only thing it brought to mind was her mental image of what the bunk at a boot camp might look like. “Posters, action figures? Toys and shit? Thought you were all into collecting anime, like I am. Stuff from growing up? Anything… sentimental, anything you? Where’s all the Brian?”

“No… that’s, uh. Complicated. They buy me things, like normal parents do, I guess, just… they decide what things I own, what’s appropriate for me, and they choose when to get rid of them. I don’t think I was ever really able to treat that stuff like it was mine, like it belonged to me. So, after those cleaning lady incidents, it eventually just kinda dwindled down into this, what you see here. Kinda boring, huh?”

“So where’s, like… your personal space? This is… creepy. Where do you go to just be you? Where do you actually live, Brian?” She asked, feeling even more weirded out. She’d always been interested in what his room might look like, what his unique, personal space might say about him. But, what the hell is this?

“Well, not here, obviously. I, uh, I guess for now I live when I’m with you guys at school,” Brian admitted, giving her an uncomfortable shrug. “When I’m with my friends, you know. People I can trust. Like, when I’m around you, Emily—I don’t ever have to worry about appearances, or what I’m supposed to be; I can just be myself. Or at least, free to figure out what that is, you know? That’s where I live.”

“…Aww, thanks, Brian,” she said with sarcasm, only having paused for one horrifyingly long moment, frantic to cover up the surge of emotion she’d felt. “I uh, I live you, too? It’s just, uh, Brian. Brian. This all… whatever it is that’s going on here, this is a problem.”


“Does he hit you, too?”

“Sure, sometimes, yeah. But hitting me is just… discipline. Y’know, corporal punishment, their right to enact as parents, whenever they think I’m not being respectful enough—or not meeting their expectations. It’s whatever, I can deal with it. That’s like, the least of my problems.”

“So… they’re abusive. Controlling and abusive,” Emily prompted, watching Brian warily.

“It’s… hard to explain,” he struggled.

“You… uh, you wanna give it a shot anyways? ‘Cause I’m like, freaking out here a bit?”

“Well, I’ve seen you with your Mom. You both argue and like, even playfully kind of insult each other? I feel like you can do that, because there’s this line between you, that neither of you’ll cross, neither of you want to cross, ‘cause you don’t actually ever intend to hurt each other. You’re family. Like you see in sitcoms and TV shows. I was fucked up for like a whole week after first visiting your place that one time.”

“What do you mean?” Emily asked.

“I was—you know. Angry. Jealous,” Brian admitted, looking embarrassed. “Really jealous. I hate to say that. Really jealous, and just kinda pissed off. At my luck in life, I guess. My parents don’t have a line they’re afraid to cross with me, they’ll go right for the throat at the first inkling of disobedience. Whereas you guys, you were just being, well, a family. I don’t have that—people who care about each other like that. So, my normal, the stuff I was used to up ‘till that point, felt… less and less normal. And more like, I don’t know, like I’m just forced to cohabitate with some unreasonably strict people in charge of me. Who don’t seem to particularly like me.”

“So, what, your parents don’t… love you?” Emily said, a little aghast after actually saying it out loud.

“I’m sure they do… in their own way. They’re just, you know, different. Not like ‘normal’ parents, I guess,” he replied.

“Brian. I’m not okay with any of this,” Emily said with difficulty, feeling anger trembling within her fists. It’s not funny. And I can’t just fucking go along with it being like that. Of all the people who really deserve…

“Well, you’ve had it worse than me,” Brian countered. “You had a great dad, and you lost him. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with that. I mean, all I have to do is live with some difficult people for a while longer.”

“Shut up, Brian. Please, just… shut up,” Emily breathed.

“I just—”

“Shut up. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

• • •

Fuck, fuck-fuck-fuck, fuuuuuck! Emily swore at herself, hunching over and awkwardly clutching her backpack in a bear-hug in front of her. The bell signalling the conclusion of lunch had sounded, and Truliet’s hallways were a densely packed shuffle of students making their way back to class. Fuuuuuuck!

Just a minute ago, Emily’d been taking a swig from her sports drink when one of the dickwads at the table behind her got in a playful shoving match and bumped her. The bright cherry-red drink had spilled down her cheek and all the way down the cute white nyan-cat T-shirt she was wearing.

She’d cussed loudly, thrown the sports drink aside, and was prepared to sink her fists deep into the comically scattering jackasses behind her, when Brian had crossed around their patio table in a flash and restrained her, grabbing her wrists. She knew he’d likely saved her from a suspension, or at the very least a written warning and a stern talking-to—but at this moment she was still just too furious. The dean who kept an eye on the dozens of clustered patio tables in the back quad had followed the commotion over and had a word with the two rough-housers, letting Emily off with just a deep frown.

Brian, you… you jerkface. After holding her back from committing what would have been unspeakably satisfying acts of violence, Brian had promptly passed her off to Becky to fuss over and then he disappeared, right before the bell. Emily was cold, she was wet, and the spill had soaked through in an enormous pink blot down her entire front. She swore she could still feel a sticky syrupy feeling on her neck, no matter how much she’d dabbed and wiped with the shitty school bathroom paper towels. Could’ve at least stuck around.

While over the years at Truliet their cabal of geeky friends had grown, lunch-times congregating together at a pair of tables, the fact remained that the majority of the school consisted of stuck-up snobs who looked down on them. Worst of all, this year her class after lunch was Chemistry, and not a one of those friends was in it with her. Just some of those tittering upper-class wannabe-sorority girls who seemed to have a vendetta against her… including Lauren.

Just fucking great, Emily glowered. They already call me the little kiddie, and now I have a big ol’ pink stain to match.

She slowed as she neared the Chemistry lab, letting some of the other high schoolers bump into her as they hurried through the halls. Her anger was fading, steadily being replaced with a sense of dread. There were a few costume blouses in the stage wardrobe her mom could let her borrow, but at the same time… Emily didn’t have any patience for her mother’s inevitable teasing either, right now. If I hug my backpack the whole class, will that just make those bitches more curious as to what it is I’m hiding…? Should I just head for the theater department after all?

“Ohmigawd, look at l’il Miss Daddy Issues today,” Lauren whispered loudly to her friends. The bell hadn’t rung yet, but lunch was basically over, and Lauren—Stuck-Uppest, had been idling near the door with a few other girls and chatting. “Should we congratulate her?”

Emily froze, clenching her teeth as she stepped past them to sit in her usual seat. She knew they were referring to her, but she could manage.

“Congratulate her?”

“Yeah, she’s finally starting to grow up. Can’t you see? She obviously just got her first period. Ew, and she got it all over her little shirt?”

Lauren’s other blond friend guffawed loudly, repeating the words all over her little shirt, and the brunette friend beside them broke into that obnoxious tittering she always did.

They’re just being retarded, Emily grimaced, desperately trying to shore up something—anything against her temper that was still about to explode out. Being humiliated with a stain down her shirt was bad enough, and Brian vanishing on her had really put her in a bad mood. I can endure.

A tampon sailed across the classroom, nailing Emily in the back of the head before bouncing onto the floor between desks. There was a handful of snickering around the classroom, Lauren’s friend broke back into her guffaws—and something inside Emily snapped. Before she even realized what she was doing, she’d shoved off from her desk and crossed the room.

“Hey, whoa, whoa, easy—here,” One of the douchebag guys who orbited Lauren and her friends intercepted Emily by pelting her with another tampon. She’d been ready to tackle Lauren to the ground, but now this grinning dickhead was imposing himself between them, warding off the much shorter girl with one arm. Of course. Of course. She’s never had to lift a finger herself to do anything here.

“Emily Rivera,” the teacher across the room called over, standing up from his desk. “What’s going on?”

“Jesus Christ,” Lauren’s brunette friend spat. “What a psycho.”

“What the hell is your problem?! God!” Lauren cried out in an aggrieved voice, as she shrunk back behind her friends, acting the part of the victim.

That was almost enough to have Emily damn the consequences and fight her way through so she could tackle that bitch to the ground. She was tired of the casual bullying, tired of being looked down on and mocked. Tired of taking her backpack off after a trip between classes to discover that someone walking behind it had spit on it.

Glaring hatefully at Lauren through a blur of tears, Emily angrily pushed past everyone, ignoring the yells of her teacher, and stalked back outside the chemistry lab. Her breath choked up in her throat and she paced aimlessly on down the empty hallway a ways before stopping and slouching against the wall. The bell for the start of class finally rang, and the long hallway of the sciences building had emptied out but for a few last stragglers.

“—mily!” A distant voice sounded, almost like someone was calling her name, and she paused. That sounded almost like—

“Emily!” Brian called out, running towards her at a jog.

“Brian?” What’s he doing over here in the science building?

She was still giving him a perplexed look when he tossed a balled-up bundle of dark red fabric towards her. She caught it, and then carefully unfolded it to reveal a collared polo shirt.

“Sorry,” he panted, finally plodding the rest of the way towards her. “Locker’s all the way over on the other side of campus.”

“Your… gym shirt?” Emily held up the shirt—it looked familiar. Wait, wasn’t he just wearing this during lunch? She wanted to be angry at Brian for arriving too late to salvage her situation, but as she watched him attempting to catch his breath after sprinting across the entire school, there just wasn’t any anger for him in her.

“Nah, this is my gym shirt,” Brian panted, tugging the plain white tee he now wore. “Couldn’t give you somethin’ all musty and sweaty-smelling. Changed while I ran, already in trouble with Mr. Stevens. Gotta run, backpack’s still in the quad. Go change!”

She squeezed the garment in her hands. It was still warm.

“Emily?” Brian asked, but she refused to look up at him. “…You okay?”

Emily didn’t respond.



“You alright? You’re gonna be late for class,” he pointed out.

“No, you are,” Emily retorted, a bit more harshly than she’d intended. “Why’d… why’d you even bother?”

“I dunno,” Brian shrugged, misunderstanding her question. “Shouldn’t have stopped you in the first place, really. Selfish of me.”


“Well—yeah,” Brian admitted, ruffling her hair. “If you get suspended, then I’m stuck in there all alone with those jackasses. Who am I going to talk to, then?”

A moment ago, anyone trying to ruffle her hair, or touch her at all, would’ve been viciously slapped. It would’ve broken the frail mask of composure she was affecting and sent her right back into a furious rage. For some reason, right now she just felt… surprised.

“You’re such a jerk,” she said, abruptly latching onto him in a fierce hug. He stiffened up for a moment, but didn’t push her away. That… wasn’t what I meant to say.

“I guess,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. “I won’t stop you next time—next time I’ll throw the first punch for you, how’s that?”

Why did I hug him all the sudden? Emily wondered, bewildered by her own actions. The impulsive things she did when her temper got the better of her were usually very straightforward and easy to understand. But this…?

Emily didn’t know what to say. She was still angry at him, and also grateful, she wanted to apologize, and thank him, and swear at him all at the same time.

“Sorry, Chief. I really kinda lost it back there,” she finally said in a distant voice. Chief was one of dozens of nicknames she’d started assigning Brian, although this time for once she wasn’t mimicking the spunky AI companion from Grail, that shooter game he’d lent her.

“Lost it? At those guys back there at lunch?”

“…For starters,” Emily admitted, finally letting go of him. They were alone in the hallway now, but for some reason that was making her even more self-conscious. “I’m gonna… I’m gonna go change. Get to your class, before you get written up or something.”

“Yeah, alright. You’re okay?”

“I’m—yeah. Fine,” she nodded, wiping her face awkwardly with the edge of her hand. “Thanks.”

She watched him disappear down the corridor of the science building and out of sight, and then immediately peeled off her stained shirt. She changed into the dark red polo right there in the empty hall, rubbed her eyes, and walked over to pull open the door to the chemistry lab.

“Oh good, she didn’t try to kill herself,” Lauren’s brunette friend remarked, eliciting a handful of chuckles around the room.

“Emily… I’ll have to write you up,” the Chemistry teacher sighed. “Tardy slip.”

“Pfft, nice shirt,” Lauren muttered under her breath as Emily passed, giving a smirk at the oversized polo she was wearing.

“Thanks,” Emily replied sweetly, pausing on her way to her seat so that she could give the taller girl a small but wicked smile.

“It’s Brian’s.”

• • •

Present day

“Is this ‘bout the color of my skin?” The elderly black man growled, shaking his head and glaring up from his wheelchair. “‘Cause if this Jim fella’s some kinda racist, you just go on and put me in a room with him and I’ll sort his sorry behind out my own self.”

“Charles, no,” Rebecca protested weakly, looking distressed. She wore a simple set of navy blue scrubs patterned with light blue pawprints, and her disorderly auburn hair had been tied up into a braid for her shift. “Jim has… well he’s a little racist, but that’s not why—”

“Only my momma call me Charles, an’ she been up in heaven forty years now,” the man interrupted. “You call me Charlie jus’ like everybody else, and you don’t be ‘fraid to set me up in a room with some racist Jim, Charlie can handle hisself just fine, li’l miss.” The old man’s dark skin was deeply furrowed by a lifetime of wrinkles, but Rebecca found his stubborn, provoking smile quite charming.

She was leisurely pushing his wheelchair along one of the bright, sterile-looking walkways of Shady Oaks Assisted Living Center. Being a nurse’s aide wasn’t particularly rewarding work, but taking care of people had always been intuitive for Rebecca. She was a dependable worker, and oddly cheerful, in her own quiet and reserved little way.

“Uh, well, I’m sure you can, Charles! Buuut, we can’t assign you a room if there’s going to be any, ah, issues that—”

“Hah! You call me Charlie now, ya hear?”

“Rebecca?” Another aide, Trisha, trotted towards her down the community hallway at a brisk pace. “Rebecca, there was a call for you, some kind of emergency? You’re supposed to call an Emily Rivera back, as soon as you can.”

An emergency, huh? Rebecca feigned a cute frown, as if considering what could have possibly happened. There was, of course, nothing Emily would consider such an emergency that she would call her at work for. “Thanks, Trish. I’ll stop by the office in a sec, okay?”

Something must have happened with Brian, She deduced. Maybe Chloe finally called him and really chewed him out? While Rebecca liked to seem only half-aware of her surroundings and generally oblivious, what was going on between Emily and Brian was obvious to her. Emily never openly admitted to it, and would likely fervently deny it, but Rebecca could tell. She could always tell.

“Everythin’ gon be all right, li’l miss?” Charlie asked.

“…I’ll make sure it’s fine,” Rebecca answered calmly. “But, I may have to leave you shortly.”

“Oh you go on then, I’ll be jus’ fine wit Jim,” he laughed. “Knock his ass out if I have to.”

“Listen, Charles. You seem really nice, so—”

“Charlie,” the old man corrected.

“—You seem really nice, and this is your first day here, so I’m going to warn you.” Rebecca stepped around and crouched in front of his wheelchair, placing her hands firmly atop his own dark, weathered hands. “Do you see what Linda’s doing, how she’s greeting the residents?”

Opposite the hall from them, another attendant in scrubs was doing her rounds checking on the rooms, and they could hear her jovial voice calling out to the occupants inside.

“We call on each and every one of our residents by their first names,” Rebecca explained. “Because you’re not just… patients, or wards, here at Shady Oaks, you’re part of our community. Our family.”

“That so?” he grunted, not buying into her sales pitch at all.

“It is. Now the man you’d be rooming with, Jim, he is a racist, kinda, but not at all in the way you’d think, not towards people of your… color.” Her voice drifting further away from the soft-spoken, somewhat sleepy tone she was used to using at work, and a bit of Mara’s no-nonsense tone beginning to creep in. “Jim only has problems with Charlie.”

“Say what now?”

“I want you to know that the problem isn’t with the color of your skin—it’s the name Charlie that would be a problem. There’s demons that Jim has to deal with, demons named Victor Charlie. After what happened in Vietnam, Jim had some… recurring episodes, and his family felt it was better for him to stay someplace quiet, where he could feel safe all the time.”

“Victor Charlie,” Charlie repeated back to her in disbelief. “Victor Charlie as in, Viet Cong?”

“Not everyone here in assisted living is here just because they’re a miserable old cuss,” Rebecca chuckled, dropping completely out of her normal sweet and serene, sing-song voice entirely. The Mara audible now in her manner of speech was blunt and direct. “Now, imagine you’re sharing Jim’s room and one of the girls has to come in and check on you, for any reason. What trigger words are going to jolt him awake? How is Charlie this morning? Is Charlie awake and alert? There’s going to be hamloaf in the dining hall today, but you’ll have to skidaddle, because Victor Charlie is moving in, and you won’t have any support?”

The balding old black man in the wheelchair paused for a long moment as he considered the implications. “Bull—shit. You think some l’il thing like someone sayin’ Charlie gon’ set him off?”

“…Little things setting him off is the reason he’s with us in assisted living, yes,” Rebecca nodded. “He has good days… and he has bad days. Now, I’m not saying a flip will switch and he’ll turn into some crazed maniac—”

“A switch will flip,” Charles corrected absentmindedly.

“Yes, that’s what I said? He won’t turn into some crazed maniac, and it isn’t dangerous for you, but it’s very distressing for him. It takes a toll on him, he’ll shake, have fits. You can see him shut everything and everyone out, he’s off far away somewhere in the past, I suppose.

“He’s vulnerable to these… certain kinds of stimuli, certain reminders we try to help him avoid. Otherwise, he’d be enjoying a normal life with his niece and her children. So, if you’re comfortable with it, before I leave for the weekend, I’d like to make sure they assign you a different room… Charlie.”

“Well, hell…” he mused with a dry, earnest chuckle. “Call me Charles. You’ve gone and said all that, now I’ve gotta meet him my own self. C’mon, now.”

As it turned out, Jim was napping when yahya kaptan escort they arrived, but Charlie—or rather, Charles insisted not to wake him and promised with a rasping laugh to be on his best behavior when his roommate awoke. Rebecca helped him get settled and situated, quietly explained the room’s amenities, and then took her leave, promising that someone would whisk him away to their lavish dining hall later on.

“Glenda, I need to take the rest of the day off, if that’s possible,” Rebecca said, stepping over to the administrative office. “Am I able to use one of my personal days?”

“I’m sure that’s fine,” Glenda mumbled. “How many do you have left for the year?”

“All of them? I’ve never used one.”

“Hmm,” Glenda frowned, swiveling in her chair to dig through the folder of leave slips. It was packed full—the staff was notorious for call-offs and sudden absences. The grouchy older woman was genuinely surprised to find Rebecca was telling the truth about her impeccable attendance. “Looks like this is a first for you, I guess. Everything all right?”

“Something the matter?” Carla, one of the middle-aged busybodies among the staff, chimed in, leaning over the office counter. “Trish said there was an emergency. Is your grandpa alright, Rebecca?”

“I don’t know,” Rebecca replied in her sleepy, subdued voice with a helpless shrug. “I only heard that someone called—and that there was an emergency.”

“Hold on,” Glenda sighed. “Let me see the schedule.”

“Rebecca spends all day here taking care of folk, then she gets home and takes care of her grandparents, too. Her grandpa just had hip surgery, I sure hope nothin’ happened,” Carla sighed. “You tell your grandpa to send me a line sometime, okay, honey?”

“Yes, I will,” Rebecca nodded obediently.

“Alright, fine,” Glenda grumbled, reluctantly passing Rebecca a paper. “Fill yourself out a slip, and make sure you tell Trish wherever you left off on your checklist.”

A few minutes later, Rebecca’d retrieved her phone from her locker and was dialing Emily.

“Emily… what’s going on?” Rebecca asked immediately. “Are you alright?”

“I’m, um—” Emily choked back her own words. “Uh, well, is there any chance at all that you can get out of your shift early? Something big’s about to happen. Unless we can stop it. Maybe.”

“Is Brian not answering his phone?” Rebecca wondered out loud.

“Brian? How’d you—um. That’s not, um, well, that’s a little complicated,” Emily managed. “Is there any way you can call off? I can explain everything.”

“I’m already off,” Rebecca assured her quickly, before a slight pause. “Is there an emergency?”

“Um…” Emily swallowed nervously. “Yes. Kinda. It’s not like a… well, uh, it is a bit of a crisis. So, yes?”

“Okay,” Rebecca simply said. “I need to change, and then I’ll be on my way over. Forty-five minutes? You’ll be ready to go?”

“Yes! Yes. Thank you so much, Rebecca. I mean it.”

“See you soon, then.”

“Thank you again! Muah!” Emily made a kissing noise just before the call ended.

Crisis, huh? Rebecca shook her head with a wry smile.

Unlike Emily, Rebecca’d never had much of an interest in video games or anime series, and never bothered keeping up with modern geek culture. Rebecca wasn’t cute, and she didn’t have Emily’s sharp wit. They were unusual friends, with very little in common, yet never seemed awkward or uncomfortable around each other. But, there were times like now, where Emily completely lost herself in her friends’ problems, a fiercely loyal side to her little friend that Rebecca always found moving.

After all, this isn’t the first time Emily’s gotten herself involved in a BRIAN crisis…

• • •

Five years ago

“What’cha need, little girl?” Aunt Mattie asked, a cigarette dangling from her lip. The old woman was sitting in her cluttered den. The TV was on, but she as usual, Aunt Mattie wasn’t watching it—I don’t like the noise, but I hate the quiet, she was known for saying.

“I, uh, well, I wanted to talk…” Emily said carefully.

“Yer pregnant,” Aunt Mattie guessed in her raspy voice.

“Ew, no. It’s about Brian.”

“Yer pregnant, and it’s Brian’s,” Aunt Mattie tried again, blowing out a mouthful of smoke and lazily dispersing it with her hand.

“Uhh, well actually, he’s turning eighteen… and I wanted to see if he could live with you,” Emily said. “His parents are bad. He had these plans about moving out sometime right after his birthday, but… well, they were all really shitty.”

“And how’s that?”

“He doesn’t—um. He can’t just, I don’t know… ask people for help. I dunno, psychologically or whatever, I guess. None of the plans I get out of him have him relying on anyone. They’re all kinda… well, they just take too long.”

“Well, I don’t mind, o’course,” Aunt Mattie rasped. “Any’ve ya are always free to come and go, you know that. Brian seems like a good kid. Little quiet. That Will seems ta jus ‘bout already live here already anyways.”

“Really? You mean it?” Emily lit up. “Uh, he can help out around here. And probably pay rent. Or, or if not, I could help out, maybe.”

• • •

HWONK! Emily leaned across Will and angrily bashed the bottom of her fist into the car horn in the steering wheel again. HWOOOONK!

“Christ, cut it out,” Will griped. He was squished into the middle seat of the cab bench of Michael’s truck, despite Emily having a much smaller frame than him. “You’re gonna get us in trouble.”

Several months into their senior year of high school, they were parked in the driveway outside Brian’s house, ready to whisk him away from there for good. He was supposed to come outside with all of his stuff at the first blare of the horn they’d, some made five minutes ago. Each passing second saw Emily growing more and more agitated.

“Maybe nobody’s home?” Michael guessed, an arm hanging out his window and fingers idly drumming on the driver’s side door. “You sure Brian turns eighteen today?”

“Yes, I’m fucking sure,” Emily shot both of her friends a glare and clawed the latch, shoving her door open. She couldn’t explain how anxious and worked up she was getting; she didn’t have the right words right now. Instead, trembling raw violence was starting to accumulate just beneath her skin. The plan to move Brian out the moment he was of age had been kept a secret from his parents. Obviously, something went wrong.

Doesn’t fucking matter. Doesn’t fucking matter! They can’t try to stop us. He’s eighteen today. He’s legally fucking free of their bullshit. They can’t do anything, they can’t say anything. She rang the doorbell and waited impatiently, tempted to immediately ring it again and again, or press it and hold it down until those doors opened and released Brian.

“Can I help you.” When the door opened, Brian’s dad filled the doorway, looming impossibly large over her. It was immediately clear that her arrival had interrupted a heated argument going on within the house, because he already looked furious. A duffel bag, one of the ones she presumed contained Brian’s packed clothing, was clutched in a quashing grip in his enormous hand—he wasn’t holding it by the handles. With his broad, fat body and impressive height, six foot ten at the least, he seemed like an ogre brandishing an oblong rock.

A flash of fear crept into the righteous anger she’d been building up, and she was able to look past the giant figure in the entranceway and saw Brian. He was tense, a drawstring bag tucked under one arm and a small round hamper of clothes in the other. The sight of him in that moment was heartbreaking, but made her feel more resolute than ever.

“It’s time to go,” she called, pretending Brian’s father wasn’t there.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Brian’s father said dismissively. “You can leave now. This doesn’t have anything to do with you. Don’t come back.”

This has everything to do with me. She bit back her words and composed herself, continuing to ignore the huge figure standing between them. “Brian? It’s time to go.”

There was an impossibly tense silence to the standoff they were locked in the the entranceway, and then finally, Brian spoke up.

“I’m going.”

“No, you’re not,” his father insisted loudly, displeased that his son had even considered disobeying him. “Go to your room. I’ll deal with you in a minute.”

“Leave. Now,” Brian’s dad turned his attention to Emily, raising his voice.

She took a step back, not daring to glance towards Brian—who was quietly creeping up towards where his father was blocking the doorway—for fear that she’d give him away.

“Stop. Stop!” Mr. Douglas demanded, dropping the duffel and lunging for Brian the moment he tried to push past him. His hasty grab clipped Brian’s arm and knocked the small laundry basket tumbling across the front steps… but he’d failed to catch him.

“You get back here, right now. Or there’s going to be consequences,” his father warned, face livid with anger. “You leave here today, that’s it. You’re done. You won’t ever be welcome back here again. Ever.”

“Yeah,” Brian said, making an expression Emily was unable to understand. “I know.” When she regaled others with the story later on, she’d describe Brian as a stoic badass, because the bitter resignation and disappointment she actually saw made her feel sick to her stomach.

And then they were walking at a brisk pace towards Mike and Will in the waiting truck, not daring to look back. They didn’t try to reclaim the hamper that’d spilled Brian’s clothes across the front steps, or the duffel his father had thrown into the nearby hedge. Brian tossed his lone drawstring bag into the bed of the truck and then climbed in after it.

“Go. Go.” Emily returned to the cab as quickly as she could, ignoring their friends’ questioning looks.

Brian’s father remained standing in the doorway of the enormous house as they pulled out of the driveway, with a stare that made Emily’s blood run cold, but that was that. Brian was free.

• • •

“I’m not in love with Brian,” Emily repeated, annoyed. “Why do people keep thinking that?”

“Prooobably ‘cause you’re so in love with Brian,” Sammie pointed out, smirking. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Uh, because I’m totally not,” Emily retorted, rolling her eyes.

“How come you’re always talking ‘bout him, then?” Samantha teased. “Like, you bring him up a billion times a day.”

“I mentioned him twice,” Emily refuted. “I’m just worried about him, that’s all. He’s goin’ through a lot.”

“Yeah? Well, who isn’t, these days? What’s his problems gotta do with you?”

Despite Brian’s newfound freedom, Emily was seeing less and less of him. Within the first week settling into one of Aunt Mattie’s spare bedrooms, he’d picked up a part-time job for after school. He was a cook at the Marino’s Pizza, where Will worked as a delivery driver. She loved knowing he was safe from his parents and doing alright on his own, but, at the same time, seeing him tired and frazzled after a day at high school and a night at Marino’s gave her pangs of guilt.

“He’s my friend,” Emily insisted, huffing. “Can’t a guy and a girl just be friends without it having to be some big weird, sexual or romantic thing?”

“Sure they can,” Samantha nodded. “Not you, though. Definitely not. You’ve got it bad.”

“There’s a billion reasons why I’m not in love with Brian, though,” Emily lied. “I don’t go all ga-ga when I’m around him. It’s not like I can’t take my eyes off him or anything. I don’t fantasize about him, or think of him in that sorta way, that’d be fuckin’ weird. He’s my friend. I think I know what love feels like, thanks.”

“Y’know, for like, this little split-second I thought you were actually in denial,” Samantha laughed. “And then I remember—that you’re so full of shit. I can never believe a word you say.”

“Okay, whatever, then. Did you, you know… did you bring that thing I asked you for?”

Samantha answered with a broad, teasing smile, and she slipped a bottle of tequila off the top of her dresser.

“Nice! Awesome! You’re the best,” Emily praised, hugging her cousin and then examining the bottle closely.

“I know I can’t talk, ‘cause I was drinking underage like, waaay younger than you are now, but you get caught doing somethin’ real stupid with that—you didn’t get it from me,” Sammie warned, before letting out an exasperated sigh. “But who am I kidding? Of course you’re gonna do somethin’ stupid.”

“I am,” Emily admitted with a grin. “But I’m not driving, or going anywhere or anything. I’m gonna be doing it, y’know, in private. Mostly.”

“Uh-huh. Bet it’s got nothin’ to do with Brian, huh?” Samantha guessed, voice dripping with sarcasm. “You’re such a dork.”

Emily didn’t have a comeback for that one, because she was already blushing fiercely.

• • •

“Hey. Hey. Heeey. We’re both eighteen now. Wanna know somethin’ funny?” Emily teased, leaning in closer to her companion for the night.

“Dunno how much more funny I can handle tonight,” Brian said with a bitter laugh.

“Aw, c’mon. C’mon, this one’s good. No, this one’s great,” she giggled, feeling a warm glow of satisfaction. She wasn’t anywhere near as drunk as she wanted to appear, but those few swigs of tequila she’d taken sure helped those giggles come out. Much better, more natural-sounding, than the ones she’d rehearsed earlier. This was a brilliant plan after all.

It was just after the San Michaels Homecoming dance, which neither Brian nor Emily had attended, and all the friends they had in town had gathered for the raucous party Mike was throwing at Aunt Mattie’s place. For the twenty-some odd seniors gathered at her place, Aunt Mattie’s rules were simple; if you were going to drink, you either gave up your car keys, or you were staying the night. Anyone ‘up to no good’ got squirted with the spray bottle she normally kept to keep the cat off the furniture. So far, that was only her own nephew Mike and his girlfriend Tanya—now those two weren’t allowed to leave the wrap-around porch where everyone could see them.

Most of the high-school seniors were out there as well, while a number were also having a LAN party of the shooter game Grail 2, an activity resounding with gunfire, explosions, and swearing in equal measure. Claiming the racket was going to give her a headache, Emily’d convinced Brian to sit with her over in the living room. Where we can be alone, and the mood’s just right.

“Emmie, I’m feelin’ pretty torn right about now actually,” Brian mused, his words snapping her out of her reverie. “On the one hand, I want to be able to hold this night over your head for years… but on the other hand, as your friend, I’ve also gotta stop you from embarrassing yourself too much, you know? How ‘bout you call it a night?”

“Noooooo. Noooooo. I’ve only had this much,” she laughed, raising the bottle of Tequila to show him how little of it she’d actually had. The amber liquid inside was barely down to the neck of the bottle—no wait, it was down several inches lower than that now. When did that happen? Another giggle slipped out, this time unintentionally. Whoopsie.

“Yep, time for me to drive you home,” Brian decided, starting to rise off the sofa.

“No no no no,” Emily said, forcibly pulling him back down next to her. “Not yet, c’mon. I didn’t even tell you the big secret yet.”

“You said you were gonna tell me something funny, not something secret,” Brian pointed out.

“No—no I didn’t,” Emily replied, scrunching up her face like she was trying to remember. “But anyways, like, if it’s funny, it has to be a secret, right? If it’s not a secret, then the punch-line’s not funny, ‘cause you already know it?”

“Motor-mouth don’t have any secrets,” Aunt Mattie laughed in her raspy smoker’s voice as she passed through their room, collecting dirty plates in each hand.

“I do so have a secret!” Emily insisted, struggling to sit up straight and making sure neither of her hands were on Brian.

“Uh-huh,” Aunt Mattie laughed, rolling her eyes at the bottle of tequila. “You want a glass for that, honey?”

“I’m okay,” Emily said. “Don’t wanna dirty more dishes for you.”

“For me?” Aunt Mattie laughed, continuing on into the kitchen. “First one of you sprouts that throws up is doin’ all the dishes in the morning. Probably gonna be you.”

“Your punchline better not be you puking all over me,” Brian muttered, just barely loud enough for her to hear.

“Yeah, real funny,” Emily griped, slapping his arm a little harder than she’d intended. “You’re just a sissy crybaby who’s too scared to drink.”

“Well… Fair enough, I guess I am,” Brian said, giving her a rare serious look.

“Uh…what?” Emily asked, surprised. She almost forgot to look drunk for a moment, so she hurriedly scrunched up her face to look confused, slapping his arm a little more gently this time. “What are you talking about? You don’t ever wanna drink?”

“I dunno. Maybe someday,” Brian said.

“Today’s a someday,” Emily pointed out, pushing the bottle towards his face. You just put your lips right there, straight on the bottle I’m drinking from. Ooh, that’d be an ‘indirect kiss!’

Another fit of unseemly giggles slipped out before she could stop them. Fuck. Wait a minute. I’m just pretending to be tipsy… right? Fuck. Fuuuuck.

“I’m just… you know, I’m holding a lot in. All the time. So the idea of drinking scares the hell outta me. Letting my control loosen up any, letting anything slip out… that’d be, uh, bad. My inhibitions, my, uh, my pretending that I’m okay and can deal with everything is like, all that keeps me together, you know? One little slip of my real feelings could put me in a world of hurt. In a lot of ways.”

“Brian…” Emily blurted out, and as she gazed at his serious countenance, she felt the giddiness from the alcohol burning off, leaving behind only that sluggish, muddled feeling. Fuck. Fuck, he’s being serious here, and I really am drunk. Okay, I am definitely a little drunk, but I’m not TOO drunk. C’mon, Emily, think of the right thing to say here.

“Me too,” Emily slurred. “That’s… that’s totally me with that. Too. The same as like you.” No wait, don’t say that, idiot. Fuck. It already came out, I already said it.

Brian gave her a half-hearted smile and ruffled her hair.

“No, fer real,” she insisted, clumsily slapping away his hand. “I mean, not the same things exactly, but it’s the same, like, same problem. That I can’t say what I want, or like, I’m scared to. That’s why I brought this shtuff in the first place. Hah, this shtuff! This stuff. So I can let out the things that need said.”


“What’re you tryin’ ta hold everything in for?” Emily demanded. “Aren’t we best friends?”

“What are you trying to let out?” He countered. “When’s there ever been anything you had trouble telling me?”

“That’s the secret,” Emily said in exasperation, taking another healthy swig of the Tequila. The stuff tasted like it smelled, acrid and pungent enough that she hated it. But at the same time, there was something magical about that buttery warmth that was coursing through her as a result.

“Emily, I’m not your mother…”

She sputtered with laughter at that, even attempted to repeat him, all without realizing that his words weren’t actually quite as hysterical as they seemed to her.

“Emily, I’m not your mother, but seriously… you weigh like ninety pounds, and you’ve had enough to drink. More than enough to drink. You realize you’re going to pay for this tomorrow, right?”

“Nuh-uh, no I don’t,” Emily laughed triumphantly, jabbing him with a finger. “Sammie already bought it for me, so HAH!”

“Uh-huh,” Brian nodded, hefting his own bottle of tequila in his hands.

Awesome! Now we each have a bottle. Finally! Emily stupidly looked down at her hands to find them empty, her own tequila having vanished, bottle and all. It wasn’t anywhere in her lap, or in the sofa cushions. The… fuck? Brian, are you a wizard?

“Jesus, Emily—this stuff’s fifty percent alcohol. I hope you gave out a bunch of shots to everyone else first. Tell me you didn’t drink all of this,” he muttered, examining the label for another moment before swishing the amber liquid back and forth. Only like, half of the bottle’s gone. Are you making fun of me?

“H-hey, that’s mine!” Emily exclaimed, her thought process having finally caught up. “Gimme it back!”

“Can I have some?” he asked, raising the bottle up out of her reach.

“Uhhh, well yeah.”

“Okay. I’m gonna go drink the rest of this, alright? And I’m going to bring you back some water. Here, keep this little trash can handy. Just in case. You hold onto the couch here with both hands and try not to let go.”

“I’m not a little fuckin’ kid you know,” Emily breathed in a cute voice, leaning in closer.

“I know, I know,” he said, patting her shoulder in a way she found extremely patronizing. “Now you just hang on and concentrate on not dying ‘till I get back, alright?”

“Wait, wait,” Emily stopped him, scrunched up her eyebrows. “Are you… really gonna drink?” Her plan to confess to Brian was going tits up in a hurry. Maybe if he drank too, some of this situation could be overlooked, things could still be salvaged.

“I can’t, actually. Then I’d have to give Aunt Mattie my keys,” he laughed.

“Hurr hurr, very funny,” she said sarcastically, quickly snatching back the bottle. “You live here now, jackass.”

“Okay, if I drank, then who’d look after you?” He asked.

“Brian. Brian. I don’t want you to look after me,” Emily said, unsteadily crawling closer towards him on the sofa. “I want you to look at me.”

“I’m… uh, I am—I’m lookin’ right at you,” he said slowly.

Is he… Emily wondered, blinking rapidly. Nervous? Does he like me after all? Maybe?

“Wh-what do you see?” She asked.

“Emily…” Brian quirked his head, giving her an amused look. “Are you fishing for compliments?”

“Why, is that what you see?” She laughed, her voice slightly slurring. “Compliments? I mean, when you see me. Tell me! You have to.”

“Well… I guess you’re kinda cute.”

“Uh-huh,” she smiled, gesturing impatiently for him to continue. “Go on.”

“You’re really… putting me on the spot, here,” Brian chuckled uneasily. “I don’t wanna make anything weird. Not between us.”

“Nothing’s weird here,” Emily insisted, shaking her head. “And nothing’s gonna get weird. It’s you and me. It’s just, I dunno, I wanna know, okay?”

“So… drinking makes you self-conscious?”

“What? No. No,” Emily denied in a fluster. All this drinking was supposed to do the exact opposite of that. C’mon, Brian. I’m not looking for insights into my psyche… just give me somethin’ here. A little bit more confidence. ANYTHING.

“Tell me your secret first, then,” Brian challenged.

This is it.

“O-okay. Alright, then. But, um, it’s the big secret, so you gotta c’mere,” Emily whispered. “I don’t want anyone, y’know, overhearing or nothing.”

A grin was plastered on her face, but despite the sips of Tequila, her insides seemed to have twisted themselves dry and sober in dreadful anticipation of this moment. Brian gave her a compliant nod and chuckled, leaning in so that they were sitting in a huddle together on that couch.

This is it.She let her forehead knock lightly against his. Took a deep breath. Raised her hands to cradle his face, and tilted her head up to kiss him.

His shock was brief, but in that fleeting moment she managed to register a slight wetness on the inside of his lips. The kiss wasn’t as soft as she’d fantasized… but it was better. Because it was real, it was Brian she was kissing, his hands that were drawing up to tightly grip her shoulders—

To shove her back away from him.

Her clouded eyes blinked at him in surprise and confusion, making her look in that moment every bit as drunk as she was. Emily had almost tasted her dreams in that kiss. Brian, while obviously surprised, was only able to notice the overwhelming taste of tequila from her.

“The fuck was that, Emily?!” Brian growled, rising out of his seat. “That’s not fucking funny. You’re… you’re completely smashed. Aren’t you?” He angrily grabbed the half-empty tequila bottle from between them and tossed it into the waste bin next to their feet with a thunk, knocking the bin over and spilling crumpled napkins onto the floor.

“Ha, aha, haha,” Emily laughed from where she’d slumped over on the armrest of the couch, hiding her face. She’d intended that laugh to sound like a drunken giggle, but something like a self-deprecating chuckle came out instead. Her eyes were full of tears, and she didn’t dare to let Brian see them.

Wh-what do I do now? Do I tell him I’m not really THAT drunk? That I like him? The moment’s all—it’s all ruined! How’d this go so completely wrong? Even if, if he thought it was a joke, or me being drunk, I never thought he’d get upset. Why’s he upset?! This wasn’t in the plan. They were supposed to drink just enough to loosen them up and ease their nerves, and then she would tell him the big secret; how she’d always felt about him. With all of their friends here, with everyone having a good time, there couldn’t have been a more perfect time or place for her to do this. Or so she thought.

Even hammered as she was, understanding what went wrong made her even more furious at herself. Because fuck! I WAS pretending to be drunk, so there’d wiggle room for this fucking misunderstanding—just had to play it safe. Emily, you fucking coward. Just had to leave yourself a way out, just in fucking case. Stupid. Fucking STUPID!

Now I STILL don’t know how he feels. Came off looking like a drunken fucking whore. And, now we’re both sitting here across a couch from each other in awkward fucking silence. Even though this guy’s my closest friend, and the only guy I really trust in the whole god-damned world. FUCK! Emily quickly discovered that the alcohol that brought out the bubbly, uninhibited enthusiasm from earlier just as easily magnified her negative feelings, her anger and a quickly growing sense of bitter contempt for herself.

Jesus Christ, drinking’s fucking dangerous. They sat in agitated silence on the sofa in the side room together, not crossing lines of sight. Despite how dumb she knew it was, she pulled the tequila out of the waste basket and continued taking stubborn swigs from the bottle. Fuck it, that’s why—why the hell not?

Less than ten minutes later, Emily felt extremely sick.

“I don’t… feel so great,” she reluctantly admitted. All of the tequila she’d been drinking seemed to catch up to her in a hurry, that brave, buttery warmth from before having expanded into a nauseating, sludgy sensation. A painful pressure that permeated out from her stomach towards every sluggish part of her body. The room she and Brian were in had been quiet and still, but her sense of balance persisted in telling her that her surroundings were steadily spinning around her like a carousel. Brian made a quick trip to the kitchen and returned with some water for her.

“Emily, drink,” Brian tried to hand her the cup first.

“I can’t.”

“It’s water.”

“I—I can’t drink anymore. I can’t drink anymore anything,” she explained. She refused the glass with a clumsy hand, feeling so sloshy and bloated that the thought of trying to swallow anything else made her want to hurl.

“Okay,” Brian frowned. “Do you want to lie down? Or do you have to throw up?”

“I think so.”

“To which? Lying down, or throwing up?”


She tried throwing up into the offered waste can, making a gluh noise every time and then laughing pitiably at herself. Nothing was coming out, but that urge to vomit wasn’t really leaving, either. Brian eventually set the waste basket aside and helped her situate herself to lay down flat on her back across the sofa. Emily honestly felt like he was exaggeratedly fussing over her—until she realized she’d pinned one of her legs under herself and was actually just embarrassing herself, too drunk to lay down properly? Great—fucking job, Emily. Great job… legs. Stupid lag. Nothing’s working right.

“You—you don’t have to stay here,” Emily blustered. The night of the party had been winding down, but she could still hear plenty of people talking and laughing in the next room over playing Grail 2. He’s probably… pissed at me anyways. Her mind felt as sluggish as molasses, her thoughts often stalling halfway and sometimes not seeming to continue again.

“Yeah, I do.” Brian actually did sound a little annoyed, and it stung. “You’re my Emily, and you’re drunk. And, James, Conner, and a bunch of other creeps got invited tonight. You’d be pissed at me tomorrow if you hear I didn’t try to stop you from making out with a whole bunch of random assholes.”

“I’ll barf on ‘em,” Emily groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. His words hurt, but she didn’t have the courage to refute them. You think I’m… just not. Dis…discerning? Because I’m a little… drunk? Kissing you was… always the plan. You. And only you. And no one else! No one else. I’m sorry I wasn’t… brave enough. To kiss you without being drinking. Without? Being. Drunk.

“I’m saawrry,” she slurred out loud. Before she even realized it, she’d started to softly sob. The stupid way her words sounded only made her more ashamed and crushed. I’m sorry, Brian. I’m so sorry, for messing this up. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

“For what?” Brian had been leaning back against her sofa, but now twisted in surprise. “Emily—why are you crying?!”

“I’m… s-sorry,” she sniffled weakly. “Don’t leave… please.”

“I said I’m not going anywhere,” he assured her, turning around. He pressed one hand on her forehead and clamped the other on her arm. His presence and attention seemed to steady her, and the dizzying spin the room had been doing started to subside somewhat.

“I’m right here. You’re gonna be alright—you just drank way, way too much. Way too much. It’s okay. You’re gonna be fine.”

Her eyes watered again, turning her last look at his confused expression into a blur as she started crying again. Several minutes later, she passed out.

• • •

“Oh good, you survived,” Aunt Mattie laughed, and Emily flinched, recoiling back from the sheer volume of the old lady’s voice—seemingly a full hundred decibels louder than normal. “Hah, aren’t you a sorry sight.”

Emily had already been awake—sorta, staring blearily in a stupor at the tiled wall beside the bathtub she was in. Aunt Mattie’s arrival snapped her into full awareness, and she jerked, curling into a painful ball. She didn’t understand where she was—this wasn’t the downstairs bathroom or the upstairs bathroom she was familiar with. Making a wretched face, all she could do was clutch the sides of her head. What. The fuck. Happened?! Did I fall and crack my fucking skull?

“Brian carried you up here so no one’d come ‘cross you by accident,” Aunt Mattie chuckled as she squeezed toothpaste onto a brush, having noticing Emily’s disorientation. “This’s my bathroom, one that’s attached to my bedroom. Yer pants’re washed and dried, he ran ‘em through late last night.” The old woman patted a familiar-looking pair of folded jeans on the countertop for emphasis.

“He took care o’ the sofa cushion as well, so nobody’ll know any better. You’re on yer own with your undies, he didn’t think it was his place to take ‘em off.” Seeing Emily simply staring at her with a scrunched-up face, uncomprehending, Aunt Mattie snorted and started brushing her teeth.

The intense headache she’d woken with throbbed, a phantom hand that was physically gripping her brain and squeezing to the rhythm of her heartbeat. It was so painful that she didn’t even try to process what was going on, let alone what any of Aunt Mattie’s words meant.

She felt awful. Her head was splitting, and her neck ached from being canted at an awkward angle sleeping in a tub—despite the rolled-up bath towel someone had tucked beneath her head as a makeshift pillow. The inside of her mouth reeked of tequila, and her entire body felt sticky with foul-smelling sweat. She was cold, damp like she’d been sitting in a puddle, and absolutely mortified to discover she wasn’t wearing her pants. Aunt Mattie had taken care to point out that they were washed, folded, and sitting on the counter, but the girl’s thought processes were still struggling weakly through boot-up this morning.

I… wet myself?! I FUCKING WET MYSELF. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK. Emily started swearing inwardly at herself and didn’t stop for several minutes, cradling her pounding head and fighting for the willpower to sit up. It’s over. It’s all over. I tried to kiss him. And then I passed out and fucking wet myself?! How the fucking fuck stupid fucking was I? Fuck! FUCK!

Emily groaned horribly, finally managing to right herself—at the expense of knocking the side of her head against the tiled wall. She did remember drinking and talking with Brian. Remembered trying to kiss him, and being rejected. She even recalled, somewhat loosely, the alcohol catching up with her, and Brian… helping take care of her? She’d woken up several times after that throughout the night, but those memories were so fuzzy they were indistinct. Fever dreams soaked through with nasty fucking tequila? Why would Brian look after me right after he turns me down?

Emily didn’t want to believe all of this was real, and before she could even climb out of the tub she was crying.

“Oh, you’ll be alright. Get yerself all cleaned up now,” Aunt Mattie instructed after gargling and spitting into the sink. “You’re going to help me make everyone a big breakfast, an’ ya need somethin’ in your stomach even more’n them. Asprin’s here in the medicine cabinet.”

“Does… does Brian know?” Emily asked weakly, clutching both hands on her face.

“I said he carried ya up here, didn’t I?” Aunt Mattie laughed in her raspy voice. “I ain’t gonna say anything about it. You kids havta get into these messes or you’ll never learn nothin’ by ‘em. You learn yourself yer lesson?”

Emily bowed her head and nodded obediently, not daring to raise it until Aunt Mattie’d left, closing the door behind her. What the fuck’s even fucking worse? Everyone else knowing, or Brian knowing? Fuuuck!

• • •

“Emily!” Brian still sounded groggy, even after being one of the last to wake up from last night’s party. “You’re awake?!”

“…Brian,” Emily acknowledged him in a grave voice. She was wearing a large apron atop her clothes and was serving the long dining table of survivors from the night’s festivities. French toast was heaped in a basket, a large glass dish of scrambled eggs was half-gone, and the plate of bacon was empty. Several different boxes of cereal stood around the table, where nine teens sat looking too tired and morose to do much more than chew.

“You okay? I thought for sure you were gonna be up puking all night long, but you never—”

“Brian,” Emily warned, wincing at his voice. “Shhhhh.”

“Shhhhhh,” Mike agreed, wearing the same pained face. The next seat over, Mike’s girlfriend Tanya had her brows furrowed in displeasure as she slowly ate spoon-fulls of cereal with her eyes tightly closed.

“Hangovers all around,” Will muttered, flipping idly through pictures on his phone. “Aw, man, Brian, you missed a flippin’ awesome game of truth or dare last night. You’ve gotta come see these.”

“Shhhhhh,” Mike shushed again, and this time three of the others seated at the table joined in.

“…Brian, can I see you for a sec?” Emily mumbled, pulling him over onto the porch.

“Are you okay?” Brian asked.

Am I okay? She crossed her arms and paced uncomfortably beside the porch railing. Before, she’d been just another nervous teen with a crush, ready to timidly poke her toes in, to test the waters. One mistake, and she was plunging into the depths and in way over her head, drowning in shame. Horrifying shame and regret, so overwhelming that it physically stung. Am I okay, are you fucking serious?

“Brian, last night didn’t happen. Okay? You can’t tell anyone, and you can’t remember it, either—ever. It didn’t happen.”

“Uh, alright. But do you know what you did last night? You—”

“No,” Emily interrupted, not meeting his eyes. “No, I don’t want to know, and I don’t want to talk about it, and—I don’t want you to know. So… it didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. Okay? Please?”

“You’re the boss,” Brian shrugged. “You alright?”

“Okay. Thank you. I’m glad we didn’t have to turn this into yet another murder-suicide,” she joked, brushing past him back into the kitchen, where she was supposed to be looking after the next batch of bacon. Fuck, just… fuck. Last night wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. FUCK. I just wanted to kiss you.

Emily stood over the skillet with a pair of tongs and watched on with a distant expression as the bacon burned completely black.

• • •

Present day

Emily’s room was a mess, laundry scattered across the floor amidst discarded packaging and the tangled cords from various electronics. Action figures from Shinobi Souls, dvd cases, and parts of old cosplays were strewn about as well as she hurriedly packed a bag for an overnight stay at the hotel near the convention.

“Ugh, this is so… it’s so fucking stupid!” Emily spat in frustration, pushing her toothbrush and toothpaste into a travel pouch for toiletries. What do I even care for, rushing off to the damn convention? What’s even gonna happen? Even if we DO get to him before Chloe does… what then? S’not gonna fucking change anything. Yeah, maybe we cheer him up a bit, but—so what? Chloe’s just going to come along and get her way in the end. Always does.

She was tired of endlessly revising her plans around what Chloe was doing.

Emily had always wanted to be the outgoing one among her peers. An attractive, stylish punk girl, someone like Samantha—someone who didn’t shy away from speaking openly about her sex life. She didn’t want characterized as a slut, per se—she wanted to be completely out of reach for everyone but her lover. When she did finally settle down with that perfect guy, she’d want everyone in their group of friends to know what they were getting up to. To the point where it would go without saying that when Emily pulled her man away for the night, everyone they left behind knew why—it was because she was gonna fuck his brains out.

There was just one problem—Emily had never let any of the guys she’d dated get very far, each of them being tagged out right around second base. As the cute little geek girl, she’d had no problem finding willing boyfriends—but they all lacked the absolute trustworthiness she’d subconsciously developed for only a certain someone. Each and every one of them had a varying level of… not-Brian-ness about them that eventually stalled their relationships. After all, Emily’s cute, punkish appeal, her sly sense of humor, and her spunky confidence… was all a facade, and the idea of being intimate with someone, let alone letting anyone see her completely naked, with still too terrifying. And so, to her frustration, there wasn’t much in the way of a sex life for her to be open about.

In the week since Chloe and Brian had broken up, that frustration, that certain sense of simmering dissatisfaction had only continued to build, her thoughts thrown into constant disarray. For the most part, it was a rather specific sort of dissatisfaction, too—she’d been feeling so damned horny.

In the past—back before she’d humiliated herself—she’d fostered dozens of lurid masturbation fantasies that revolved around Brian. Ever since Chloe and Brian’s break-up, those long-suppressed old fantasies were all pouring out of the woodworks. Gushing out, like her brain was a sopping wet sponge that’d been given a staunch squeeze. Aside from moments of clarity where her tempestuous rage brought things to a complete boil, she was feeling positively swamped with sex thoughts, swirling and sloshing about the inside of her head in a frantic flood of blue. It had been a long, distracting week.

How differently that night back then could’ve gone. What if… all those years ago, instead of pushing me away… he’d pushed me down onto that couch? She bit her lip, remembering the surprise she’d felt as he’d gripped her shoulders. Brian was always so gentle—no, so careful normally, that it’d been the first time Emily realized that he was actually hella strong. What would I have even been able to do? Well, s’not like I woulda really been resisting…

Lacking a lover never kept Emily from exploring her own sexuality. Rather, she found herself delving into dozens of strange fetishes because of the conflicting difference between the pretense she affected and her actual crippling lack of confidence had deviated her path and. In one fantasy, Brian’d been adopted into the Rivera family—they became siblings, where over time raw attraction and sexual tension led to physical.

Of course, not all of her fantasies that were normal—some of them were fairly unusual. Like imagining that Brian transformed into a hentai tentacle monster, who fed on pleasure for sustenance, had to keep making her cum just to survive. She would be the only one who knew his secret, and reluctantly allowed him to violate her in the most intimate ways Although sometimes then the real Brian would arrive to rescue her from the monster, who had actually just been brainwashing her with magic tentacle lights to think that it had been Brian. Rescuing her from it, just as she was losing her sanity from the endless spiral of pleasure it was sucking her into. Perfectly normal. All girls imagine things like that… right?

Last night, she’d even flicked herself off… to Chloe. While, like other girls, she could objectively assess how ‘hot’ a girl like Chloe was, there was no attraction whatsoever. On the contrary, even imagining Brian and Chloe making love had always been detestably repugnant to her.

However, Emily fantasized that her mind had been swapped into Brian, taking full control and piloting his body around. She’d lure Chloe into meeting up to talk, then mercilessly berate and abuse her in all the ways she longed to. Wouldn’t Chloe be stunned by such vicious and unrelenting words coming for once from Brian, of all people? Eventually overpower her, rip open her clothing and push that righteous cunt down on all fours. To be fucked, doggystyle, like the dumb animal she was. A relentless, overpowering pounding, Brian’s dick thrusting deep inside that bitch, again and again and again… well, that was just too fucking hot.

That one was fucking great. Emily had worked herself up to a feverish pitch and an incredibly intense, satisfying orgasm. The senselessly whimpering, legs-quivering and toes-curling kind or orgasm, followed by a bunch of shuddering smaller ones as she imagined being swapped instead into Chloe’s head, using that bitch’s body to humiliate and degrade herself before Brian while the real Chloe watched on somehow, completely helpless.

Fucking great.

• • •

Three Years Ago

“Hey, didja hear about Brian?” Becky asked with a toothy grin, practically leering at Emily. “He got his self a girlfriend!”

“A girlfriend?” Emily frowned, wondering how much stock she could put into Becky the tramp’s words. “Who?”

“Some girl he works with asked him out, I guess,” Becky shrugged. “Alyssa. Alicia? Something like that. She seems kinda plain.”

“That’s cool,” Emily said, not daring to show much interest gebze escort in front of Becky. This tramp was notorious for exaggerating gossip to stir up drama, and was currently eyeing her with suspicion.

“Yeah?” Becky asked, surprised. “Thought you’d go all, I dunno, overprotective big sister on him when you found out.

“Why, is she some awful hussy like you?” Emily snorted. “Then I’d be worried. He’d probably catch the herpe-gonnarrhea-syphil-AIDS?”

“Hur hur,” Becky laughed. “Brian’s not my type.”

“Yeah, okay,” Emily snorted sarcastically. You think I haven’t noticed you trying to flirt with him?

“What? He’s totally not,” Becky insisted.

“We’re talkin’ about this girl, not about you,” Emily warned. “I hear enough about you from everyone else as it is, little Miss Handjobs. So, is she cool?”

“I dunno, I guess?” Becky said. “Skinny… about my height, pretty face. Dark hair, doesn’t pluck her eyebrows. Couple acne scars. Big ol’ dick-suckin’ lips. She seems cool, I guess.”

Emily rolled her eyes.

“I mean, is she into anime and games and stuff? How’d you find out about this?”

“Mike. Said she’d went over to their place a couple times to hang out with them after work and it seemed like she was getting into him. They seem cute together.”

“Who asked out who?”

“I think she asked him out,” Becky shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“Not really,” Emily said indifferently. “So long as he likes her. I’ll probably meet her sometime when I stop out at Aunt Mattie’s.”

“Huh,” Becky said, watching Emily carefully.


“Guess Will was wrong about you. He was like, totally sure that you had some big secret crush on Brian. He kept going on about it the other night.”

Emily felt a childish spike of fear and paranoia course through her, but she managed to not let any of it show. She chuckled and turned away from Becky.

“Will just has to make everything he sees into some kinda conspiracy theory,” Emily brushed the matter off with a careless wave of her hand. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Brian—but like a brother, you know?” A brother I want to fuck. She wasn’t lying, after all. They had indeed been siblings engaged in some incestual trysts the last time she spent a night fantasizing beneath the sheets, slick fingers busying themselves.

• • •

“So… what all actually happened?” Emily asked three months later. “I mean, ‘tween you and Alyssa. Why’d you guys break up? She seemed cool.”

“She is cool,” Brian said. After a long moment of expectant silence, Emily realized that he wasn’t planning to continue.

“Well?! What happened, then?” She cried in exasperation.

“Ah, that’s… well,” Brian struggled, giving her a look.

“What?” Emily blinked.

“It was… it was me. I was the problem, I mean,” Brian admitted. “I have some problems, like… I dunno, really letting people in. I guess.”

“Is that what she said?” Emily asked, already getting angry on his behalf.

“No, no. She was very cool about it, kept trying to give me space to… you know, open up.”

“Did you get, um… intimate, though?” Emily asked, sounding embarrassed. In actuality, she’d already squeezed all the juicy details out of Alyssa herself.

“Yeah,” Brian sighed. “And that just makes me feel like even more of a creep.”

“You’re not a creep,” Emily rebutted. “Why would you think that?”

“Getting into… you know, that stuff, without opening up to her all the way, kinda does make me a creep.”

That’s not your fault, Emily wanted to insist. Alyssa was the one who led you into it. But, she couldn’t say a word about that without revealing how much she already knew about the situation, so all she could do was pout.

“Well, I still like ya,” Emily said finally, cuffing him on the shoulder, “…ya big creep.”

• • •

“Emily, oh my god, it’s so good to see you!” Chloe squealed, rushing forward to give Emily a quick hug.

“Uhh, yeah, you too?” Emily managed, a little bewildered. She’d thought of the tall hipster girl as barely an acquaintance.

After high school, their local cast of familiar miscreants had undergone enormous changes. Most of their friends left town for universities out of state, leaving Brian and Emily behind. Michael, Will, and one of the Beccas remained local, enrolling in the community college in town. There, they’d in turn brought some newcomer geeks into the fold, such as this Chloe girl. Apparently I made a bigger impression on her than I thought?

Their group was browsing through the aisles of a fabric and crafts specialty store, Jody-Annes together, in preparation for their debut trip checking out an anime convention on the other side of the state. Though it would be a first for all of them, most of them were already set on cosplaying.

Tanya disdained pre-made cosplays, instead sourcing fabrics and altering patterns to make a Kimika costume from Kuma-yasha from scratch. Her boyfriend Mike and his best friend Will had long since agreed to make awesome giant mecha costumes out of cardboard, hot glue, and spray-paint—but were waiting until the weekend before the convention to attempt putting them together.

Emily was more or less set—Mrs. Rivera had tasked her stagecraft class with sewing a cosplay for her for extra credit—the Reliance Guild uniform from Sword Hack Online. It turned out amazingly authentic… but consisted of many layers of strangely starchy, stiff and heavy cloth that had her sweating buckets when she tried it on.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you!” Chloe said, keeping her hand on Emily’s shoulder. “I’ve got this little… thing to take care of. I’ve been asking around a little, and, well, everyone keeps pointing me your way. Do you have a minute?”

“Yeah,” Emily nodded, brightening. Oh-ho, my reputation precedes me once again! She either needs help finding an anime, or help fucking with someone. Both are my speciality! Excited, Emily and Chloe drifted away from the rest of the group for a moment so they could talk.

“I want Brian to ask me out,” Chloe confided with a girlish giggle, and all at once Emily’s blood ran cold. She managed to keep her smile from twitching, but only just barely.

“I see, I see, well then,” Emily nodded quickly, swallowing. “…And you don’t want to ask him out?”

“Ew, no,” Chloe said, making a quick face. “He needs to be the one to ask me out—girls should never have to ask guys out. Everyone said you’ve known him longest, so I thought you might have some ideas…?”

If I had any more bright ideas to spare, do you think I’d share them with you? Emily thought, quickly suppressing a pang of guilt. Okay, no. That’s not really fair. Let’s see about this.

“Well, alright, well… what exactly do you like about him?” Emily began, looking at Chloe thoughtfully.

“He seems so much more mature than the other guys,” Chloe answered promptly. “Like, most of the guys here are all… you know? Pervy and goofy. Obnoxious cretins.” She pointedly stared towards Mike and Will and wrinkled her nose in disgust. The two were having a mock gunfight with the hot-glue guns they’d picked out, complete with cliched one-liners and overly dramatic deaths.

“Okay, yeah, Brian’s mature, that’s true,” Emily agreed hesitantly. Something about Chloe was rubbing her the wrong way. “What else do you like about him?”

“What else?” Chloe frowned. “Well, he’s pretty good-looking. But… rumor has it he’s only really dated once before, so I figure there must be some story there. Some reason, or problem or something… you know?”

“He’s just been through a lot,” Emily replied, getting defensive. “He had a rough time, getting away from a bad family.”

“Couldn’t have been all that rough. He seems to be doing pretty alright?”

“…Look,” Emily said bluntly, “I just don’t think he’s going to be ready to ask out anyone for a while still, okay? He needs some more time to get to know you on his own.”

“Alright, alright—chill out. I was complimenting him, you know?” Chloe laughed, shaking her head. “He’s been through stuff and still seems alright. Let’s talk again soon, okay?”

• • •

Their first trip to AnimeCon was incredible, with Tanya’s incredible Kimika and Emily’s Reliance Guild Uniform stealing the show—at times it felt like they could barely walk in any direction without getting stopped and asked for photos.

Brian and Chloe had ordered their cosplays off the internet—and after the initial excitement wore off, they both realized that they were awful, fit poorly, and looked cheap. The Hera Victoria wig that Chloe was struggling with was the wrong shade and looked unapologetically fake, a mess of shiny, obviously synthetic strands. Brian’s cosplay appeared baggy and oversized, and he’d given up on styling his own hair to resemble Lance after several failed attempts. Both Mike and Will had failed disastrously at costume construction and immediately decided to not bother with costumes at all, while Becca had always been content to wear normal clothes and take as many photos as she could with her new camera. They’d also run into a few of their friends attending separately from them—such as Mark, who was there for the Mana: the Mastery tournament.

“Hey, d’you hear the big news?” Mark asked with a sneer, glancing from Emily to Will.

“About the Fantasy Wars movie?” Emily rolled her eyes. “I dunno, man… it honestly looks really bad. Like, why would—”

“No, no. About Chloe and Brian.”

“Fuck, man,” Will cut in, “don’t tell her that.” The rest of their group—Mike, Tanya, Brian, Chloe, and Becca, were further behind, forming an uneven line down the aisle.

“What? Don’t tell me what?” Emily demanded, “What about Chloe and Brian?”

“There’s nothing to tell, s’none of our business,” Will insisted, smacking the back of Mark’s head. “Christ, Mark, have some fuckin’ tact for once.”

“…You’d both better start talkin’,” Emily warned, fidgeting with her warm Reliance Guild uniform.

“Fuck man, what the fuck?” Mark protested, shoving Will back. “She probably knows already anyways.”

“Talk.” Emily growled.

“Don’t do it,” Will said. “Keep to the code, man.”

“Brian asked Chloe out,” Mark revealed anyways, and Emily felt her stomach seem to sink. That’s impossible. Brian asked HER out? WHY?!

“We’re all here at the convention as like, a group,” Mark continued, “but now they’re a couple now. Isn’t that, you know, weird?”

“How’s that weird?” Will asked. “Tanya and Mike’ve been dating for years, and they’re part of the group.”

“You’re too naive,” Mark griped. “Chloe’s this random hot chick from out of the blue. An outsider. Soon as she worms her way into the group, then BAM! Someone wants to date her. This time, it’s Brian. Then the party’s split all weird and there’s drama. Then when there’s drama, there’s a breakup, and it breaks apart like, the whole goddamn party.”

“Uhhh,” Emily joined in with a pout, pointing towards her own cheeks with both of her slender fingers, “There’s always been a hot chick in the group, though?”

“What do you mean, party? Correct me if I’m wrong Mark, but you’re like, the forever-alone perma-virgin of perma-virgins,” Will snorted. “What do you know about relationships anyways?”

“Uhhh, ‘cause that’s why I can’t play All-Quest with the tabletop group anymore,” Mark replied bitterly. “Soon as the dungeon master started bringing his girlfriend to the table to play, everything got fucked all to hell.”

“Like I said, there’s always been a hot chick in the group, though?” Emily repeated, waved her arms in exasperation. “Hello?”

“Your joke was lame the first time, pint-size,” Mark rolled his eyes.

“What he means to say is, we know you. You’ve always been one of us,” Will explained. “A hot chick is, like, an outsider.”

“An outsider,” Mark agreed solemnly. “She could be a normie, for all we know.”

“Thanks…I think…?” Emily said, looking confused. “So long as you recognize that I’m also, at the same time, still a hot chick.”

“Hah!” Mark laughed loudly, earning a handful of looks from the other as he pretended to wipe tears from his eyes. “Pint-size, you’re not serious, are you? How the hell would you ever qualify as a hottie? Whew man, that’s rich.”

“Uhhh, once again, that’s coming from Mark, the perma-virgin wizard,” Will chuckled awkwardly.

“You wanna eat some pint-sized fists, perma-verge?” Emily scoffed. “I’ll bash yer fookin’ head in, I swear on me mum!”

“If I thought of Emily as a hot chick, no way would I ever hang out with her,” Mark insisted. “Hotties only get their claws into someone, and then leech them for everything they’ve got, and ruin everything. Have you even met my sister? This is gonna turn into a disaster, just you watch. I’ll burn incense for Brian tonight, poor fucking unfortunate soul. He was a good guy. Damn shame.”

“Wait a minute, what about Tanya, then?” Emily argued, tactfully not bothering to bring up Becca the tramp. Though she was a bit stand-offish, Tanya was very good-looking, and had long transcended her outsider status to become one of the fixture personalities of their circle of friends. “Are you saying Tanya’s like that too, then?”

“Tanya doesn’t count, she’s a foreigner,” Mark replied. “Russian girl. Completely different.”

“Yeah, okay, she’s a foreigner, says squint-eyes Mc-Ching-chang-chong.”

“That’s racist!” Mark cried in mock outrage. “I don’t know why I even hang out with you guys anymore.”

“Jesus, quiet down, you two. You’re gonna get us kicked out,” Will said. “What were you saying about the Fantasy Wars movie?”

“It’s gonna suck,” Emily made a face.

“Suck? It’s gonna be fucking terrible,” Mark complained loudly as they made its way out of the vendor’s room and into the convention’s main lobby. “The fuck are they even thinking? They’re ignoring every single goddamn game mechanic about how attacks work in Fantasy Wars. All of it, right into the trash.”

“I don’t mind that,” Emily mused, stepping out of the traffic flow to an opening in the flocks of AnimeCon attendees where they could wait for the group of friends trailing behind them. “It’s their new outfits, the stupid Ordinal uniforms. Changing looks for no reason other than it being a movie bugs the hell outta me. What’s wrong with the classic Cardinal uniforms?”

“Fantasy Wars?” Tanya asked as she caught up with them. “I have to wait and see, but I think I’m going to sew up Sophia cosplays for both styles next year. Cardinal and Ordinal. She’s a badass.”

“Nobody cares what they’re goddamned wearing,” Mark looked at them incredulously.

“I’m kinda with Mark on this one,” Will sighed dejectedly. “When it’s like a long, stretched-out cutscene, it doesn’t even feel like Fantasy Wars anymore.”

“Well, they had to follow the game’s story, rather than adhere to the battle mechanics,” Brian jumped in, stepping through the crowds with Chloe in tow. “No one wants to sit there watching techniques charge up over several battle turns. That wouldn’t work for a movie.”

“I think it’s cute,” Chloe shrugged.

“Oh my God, there’s another Kuma-yasha cosplayer!” Tanya squealed, pointing across the lobby toward a shirtless young man in hakama pants with fake oversized bear arms. “Chloe, can you get a picture of me and him together?”

“Um, can’t Michael—” Chloe frowned, watching as Tanya trotted quickly away from them.

“I ain’t doin’ it,” Mike snorted, glaring with obvious jealousy at the Kuma-yasha cosplayer.

“Right,” Chloe said, injecting false cheer into her voice and pulling out her phone to follow after Tanya.

“So… Brian, are you gonna do a movie-version Lance cosplay?” Emily asked, stepping forward quickly to fall in step at his side.

“Hah, I can’t even do the normal one justice,” he chuckled, glancing around the lobby in appreciation, taking in the different costumes among the excited gathering of fellow fans. Mike and Will were not-so-discreetly ogling a voluptuous girl cosplaying the demon Lamastu, her privates covered by skulls bound together with knotted string and little else.

“Hey—check it out,” Brian nodded his head towards a pair of girls wearing skin-tight jester outfits posing together for a photo. “Jessie Terr and Follis Fool, right?”

“Yeah… they’re fuckin’ awesome!” Emily’s eyes lit up at the sight. The vixen twins were the jester-like assistants of one of the most well-recognized comic book arch-villains of all time, the Jokester, and had become fan-favorites for their outrageously sexy figures and sociopathic behavior.

The two cosplayers were incredible, the seemingly haphazard stitching of the many scraps of black and red fabric that made up their bodysuits left little to the imagination, there wasn’t a single ill-fit piece or loose wrinkle—the girls might as well have been sewn into them. The pieces of fabric were mirrored across the girls—sections of stitched-together costume that were ‘missing’ on Jessie were the portions that Follis wore, and vice versa; as if a single complete jester costume had been strategically cut apart, and then the pieces divided between two women. Their faces were painted up in exquisite mime-like fashion, and every inch of their exposed skin was colored in that same ghastly unnatural white.

“Get a picture of me with them, before they get away!” Emily quickly pushed her phone into Brian’s hand and dashed over towards them. As she arrived, however, the Follis Fool was already ducking away through the crowd. The Jessie Terr had been turning to leave as well, but caught sight of Emily rushing over and paused.

“Sarah, wait—” But her Follis Fool was already gone, and the girl in the Jessie Terr costume gave Emily an apologetic smile.

“It’s okay,” Emily grinned. “You look amazing! Could I get my picture with you?”

“By your order,” the girl teased in an impressive Jessie Terr imitation, sliding an arm around behind Emily. They each flashed gorgeous smiles for Brian as he took their picture.

“Thank you! You really look just… perfect,” Emily admitted earnestly to the taller girl. “Uh, I was planning on doing a Grimoire Saint cosplay next year, would you have any advice on the—”

“Oh, my friend Sarah—that Follis Fool, she made our costumes, I don’t know much of anything about sewing or any of that.”

“Ah! I see, sorry,” Emily apologized, seeming to deflate a little. “Do you maybe know what kind of body paint she used?”

“Oh! The body paint,” the Jessie Terr’s eyes lit up. “Well, I did those parts—I’m the makeup pro. I used a fifty-fifty mixture of prosthetic adhesive and liquidex acrylic paint, and then set it with talcum powder. But if your grimmy…?”

“Grimoire?” Emily supplied helpfully.

“If your Grimoire thing needs some color other than white, you’re gonna havta use something like a rice powder to set it instead, ‘cause talcum or baby powder’ll lighten your final color, like, a lot.”

“Wow,” Emily said appreciatively. “Thank you so much!”

“No sweat,” Kelly smirked, heading off through the crowd in the direction her friend had escaped. “See ya.”

Emily turned back towards Brian, eagerly gesturing for her phone so that she could see how the picture he’d taken came out.

“Nice,” Emily nodded in satisfaction. “Damn, she was hot. Right?”

Brian only gave an awkward, noncommittal shrug.

“Oh, is that how it is, now?” Emily gave him a dry chuckle and glanced back pointedly towards Chloe. “…Now that you’ve got a girlfriend, I mean.”

“You heard already?”

“Yeah, jerk,” Emily grumbled, cuffing him on the shoulder with her fist. “Just a minute ago, in fact. Almost didn’t even believe it. I mean, Brian, you’re my best friend. And yet, here I am gettin’ the news second-hand, after the fact, and from Mark and Will, of all people. You and me, we talk all the time, but you’ve—you’ve never even brought her up. What gives?”

“I… wasn’t ready. To ask her out, yet,” Brian admitted sheepishly.

“And you were worried I’d talk you out of it?” Emily guessed.

“What? No, I thought if we really got to talking, you’d really push me into it,” Brian said, surprised. “Chloe told me what you said to her—that you thought her and I’d be a really great couple, that you thought we were good for each other. But… I just wasn’t ready yet, I… well, I needed like, just the right moment.”

“Wait. I said… what?” Emily gave him a blank stare, completely stunned.

“Yeah,” Brian laughed. “Word has it you were getting frustrated that I wasn’t, y’know… just manning up and asking her out. I guess you were—”

“No! No, no, no,” Emily held up her hands to stop him. “I never—”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Brian assured her. “You didn’t end up saying anything to me—didn’t try to push me or pressure me or anything. I do appreciate that. You know how hard it is for me to… you know, actually open up and let people get close. So thank you.”

He stepped closer to her and hugged her, and Emily froze up in shock. Is this… the first time he’s actually hugging me, instead of me just kinda forcing one on him? Why does this feel like… a goodbye hug?

She was still in a confused daze as he tousled her hair playfully and headed back over to rejoin Chloe. Chloe, pretty and perfect in her Hera Victoria costume, gave Emily a bright, beautiful smile before she turned and led her friend away.

No. Not a goodbye hug, Emily glowered, feeling her hands tremble with rage. This isn’t over. This isn’t over. Maybe I did drop the ball on… sorting out all my feelings for Brian, that’s fair. Okay, yeah, I literally pissed away my chance. But her pissing all over me to get Brian? No. Just, no. Bitch’s gonna get stitches.

• • •

Present day

Brian’s FINALLY free from her evil clutches for one moment, so that things could maybe start to turn around. I can’t STAND to just let her keep hurting him anymore. Or WORSE, decide to try to get back together with him. No. Just, no.

Just…um, just one more time, before I have to go, Emily decided sheepishly, locking and tugging on her doorknob for good measure. As she slowly spread her thighs, feeling the fishnet body stocking of her cosplay stretching and shifting against her bare skin, the hemmed opening between her legs gaped open, exposing her blushing pink labia. To help clear my head. Yeah.

Her carefully fingertips glided easily into those gleaming wet folds, and a shudder went through her. Emily had been unusually soaked down there lately. She didn’t even feel wet just down there—it was as if that same slippery, slick sensation, that sexual need was seeping throughout every nook and cranny of her cerebrum, lubricating her thoughts into a certain sexual direction.

A finger slipped deep inside—but she imagined right now that it was Brian pushing himself into her, Brian wrapping his arms around her. Emily felt a silly smile of satisfaction spread across her face. A weird feeling flowed through her, and her eyes dazed going blank, seeing something like a pattern of light refraction upon a pool of disturbed water. Mesmerizing, almost hypnotic.

She pretended Brian had his strong arms trapping her in a tight embrace, that her small breasts were squashed up against his bare chest, and that her face was nestled perfectly into his neck. Maybe he would whisper an apology for the things he was about to do to her—for the primitive, violent ways he was going to use her to vent out his lust. A helpless growl, already lost to desire.

Do ittt, Emily might urge him, her lips just beneath his ear. F-fuck me. Break me if you have to. Fuck me with everything you have, even if it’s more than my brain can handle, even if it turns me stupid. J-just FUCK ME. She squeezed, nearly pushing her own finger out of herself as she clenched and flexed, and almost toppled over backwards.

Fuuuck. Emily scrambled over to withdraw the small bullet-shaped vibrator hidden in the jewelry box beneath her bed, and hopped up onto the mattress to straddle one of her pillows with her knees. Wetting her lips in anticipation, she rose up and pointed the gently buzzing tool at her slippery slit, breathing heavily.

There isn’t much time before Rebecca gets here… I really shouldn’t. But, well—fuck, I’ve gotta do SOMETHING, or I’m going to… to overflow. The tiny silver bullet wasn’t technically meant for insertion, as it didn’t have a safety ‘tail’ for withdrawal, and in fact wasn’t able to vibrate as powerfully when trapped inside… but that never mattered to Emily.

After the horrifying experience wetting herself when she’d passed out at that homecoming party, she’d started several different kegel routines to ensure it never, ever happened again. At this point, she was proficient enough controlling the different sets of muscles along her pelvic floor that she could almost draw the vibrator completely inside herself without using her fingers, and she naturally had no worries about expelling it. That the only exercises she’d ever been able to keep up with were only because she’d intrinsically linked them to her masturbation habits… was an irony not lost on her.

Blue droplets of light shimmered across her vision in a dazzling slosh of surf and spray, and she let the vibrator sink deep inside of her, capsizing rational thought. It wasn’t warm like she wanted it—it wasn’t Brian like she wanted it, but it was something.

The loose cosplay yukata had been hanging open, but now she shrugged it off her shoulders and let it fall down to reveal a prominent pair of nipples, straining against the netting of her body stocking. She tightened, and the vibrator halfway emerged, forced out of her. She stopped it with her middle finger and slid it back in, exhaling a shaky breath and biting down on her lower lip as she watched herself in the vertical mirror hung on her closet door with interest. This fishnet really is badass. Snug sorta texture really outlines my contours, makes ’em stand out. Looks fuckin’ erotic.

She let the vibrator bob in and out of her a few times, revelling at the dazed, sexy face reflected back at her, and then closed a hand over herself, holding the humming vibrator bullet inside. Clamping down in sequence, letting it pulsate back and forth within her as she toyed with her clit.

OoOoh, fuck me. FUCK ME. Her hips shook, a twitching, involuntary shudder dry-humping against her pillow. Fuuuck me. Emily’s breath hitched, and, finally—she fell just shy of climaxing.

“Oh, c’mon,” she panted in frustration, gripping her messy bedsheets as she rocked and grinded against her pillow. Dropping down into position on all fours, she wriggled and twisted, delighting in the feel of the fishnet hugging tight to every inch of nubile flesh. “C’mon…”

Don’tcha wanna fuck me, Brian? I betcha do, Emily taunted, turning so she could smile mischievously over her own shoulder at herself in the mirror and wiggling her bottom in the air. She loved the idea of tantalizing him with her cute butt—presenting herself to him, goading him on. Sometimes she spent quite a while like this, playing out her little scenario and pretending he was there in the room with her. She could practically see him, struggling with indecision, attempting to maintain his composure in that adorable Brian way.

What would be going through his head, if he saw me like this? Emily wondered. Would he really like, realize the drinking way back then was an act, this stupid charade to mask those old too-fragile fucking feelings? Realize that I was hot for him? Or would he be disappointed? Over their years of friendship, only that one incident had become the rift that put a distance between them. In a perverse way, however, even that could be a major turn-on for her, though.

Your little Emily had a bit to drink and became just another stupid horny teenage girl. Coming on to whatever guy was nearby, tequila rolling off her breath and EASY written in her eyes. The shameful feeling washing over her only aroused her even more.

That’s right, be disappointed. USE me, s’all I’m good for, right? She fantasized that they were sharing that sofa again, back during the party at Aunt Mattie’s place. In no time at all she was frigging herself again with the vibrating bullet in a steady series of wet sounds, allowing her imagination to grow more and more brutally pornographic.

Think of me with contempt, rip the button off my jeans. Shove your hand down into my panties. Yank them down, tear them, I don’t care. You don’t have to be gentle with some stupid fuckin’ whore like me, anymore. But please, just fuck me. Fuck me, fuck me, FUCK ME!

That’s it, Brian. I’m your SLUT. Take it all out. Take all your frustrations out on me, Emily imagined his fingers twining into her hair and pulling her forcibly to crush her mouth against his in a violent exchange of tongues. Senselessly swapping spit and saliva, her shaking fingers would explore down the firm lines of his abdominal muscles, gripping hold of his dick.

His THICK dick. She remembered giddily pestering his first girlfriend Alyssa for all sorts of juicy details—the girl had, in a husky, shy whisper, described it as thick. Brian suddenly on top of her, his weight pinning her down into the cushioning of that couch from back then, pushing the breath out of her. Imagining him breathing in her ear, his voice ragged and dangerous as he teetered out of control.

Sometimes, imagining Brian as a gentle lover did it for her, sweet words and loving kisses… but just as often, picturing Brian like this, that jaded Brian, the one that was disappointed, disgusted with what an easy lay his longtime friend had become really got her off. Emily quivered, eyes dazed and buried her goofy grin into her pillow. If Brian had actually been there, he would have found her unbelievably wet.

Emily wanted manhandled by him. It was common knowledge among their circle of friends that while Emily didn’t really like being touched, and she hated being picked up—but with Brian, it was different. She wanted him to position her. Wanted him to shove her down upon her back and pull her ankles up into the air, to nearly fold her in half as he pressed down onto her—into her. Her cute feet raised up together to rest on his shoulders as he pushed deep, deep inside of her… a position that featured vividly in many of her idle fantasies.

“C’mon… c-c’mon…” However, as she’d feared, release was lingering just out of reach. The vibrator just wasn’t cutting it today, and the dull buzzing of the slender bullet-shaped tool fell silent and was nudged aside in the folds of the covers.

And why would Brian have all sorts of stress and frustration in the first place? Ugh, I can’t stand it. I CAN’T STAND IT. Chloe, couldn’t you just leave him be? Haven’t you done enough damage? Chloe, with your stupid superior little smile. You think it’s okay to just drop my Brian whenever it suits you and then pick him right back up wherever you left off?! What about what that fucking does to him? What about his feelings?! What about MY…

She stared in silent, dumbfounded disbelief, eyes beginning to water at the revelation. Her trembling hands clutched about her chest, which was rising and falling in quick succession with her breath.

—feelings? Emily’s breath hitched, overcome with emotion. My fucking FEELINGS?! N-no way. I’m over him, right? I’m WAY over him by now, it’s been… it’s been so many years, there’s no way. This… this is just some fantasy to flick myself to. I’m not REALLY in love with him!

Something in the forbidden recesses of Emily’s mind, some last stubborn pocket of resistance was uncorked with an odd pwoop sound, and the most deeply repressed feelings gushed out all at once in a burst of bubbles and flickering flashes of blue light. A violent surge of glimmering emotions and memories swilled and swirled throughout her head, pushing away the last vestiges of the stagnant and muddy waters clouding her thoughts.

—I’m completely in fucking love with him. The one truth, the one secret buried within herself in depths so deep she’d never, ever been able to admit it. Several friends had speculated along the way, and even more probably guessed. Yet, she’d always remained adamant in denying it. At what point did I even start telling myself I was ever over him?!

Fuck me, I’m so stupid, Emily thought to herself, shaking her head. She’d been at such a loss, so completely unable to figure out what to do with Brian’s situation, and why? Because I was deliberately… not going there. Because I don’t go there. I never go there, not since what happened, that one… STUPID fucking night. But… now, what if I actually DO go there?

“Brian, I—” She snapped her mouth closed, intensely embarrassed. Without realizing it, her fingers had delved back inside her insatiable slit, working with newfound enthusiasm. Sh-shit, what if someone’d overheard me? But… I guess it really is the truth, isn’t it? “I… love you.”

Fuck me, I said it. Out loud. It’s already out now. I can’t take it back. The words are like, in the air now. It’s all going to spill out.

“I love you, Brian. I love you,” she found herself saying, before she could clamp her free hand over her mouth. Fuck. Fuck, fuck. She was surprised to feel an enormous smile of relief and happiness hidden beneath. Her other hand continued on in an unbidden frenzy, stirring succulent sensations that sent pure streams of blue coursing throughout her body. Warily, as if unsure of what words were going to come out, she took a deep breath, as one would before plunging themselves deep underwater.

“I love you. Okay? I’ve always fuckin’ loved you. I’m so in fucking love with you that I don’t know what to do. I never did. But I love you. I love you. You don’t need Chloe back—y-you never fucking needed her. Ever. You’re worth so much more than that. You’re—y-y-you’re fucking everything to me.” All the words she’d been holding in for years erupted out like a clear spring, an immensely satisfying blue current, undiluted and powerful enough to wash away all of her worries.


And then she creamed herself, cumming and cumming and cumming in an enormous rolling wave like she’d never experienced before. Eyelashes fluttering and mouth puckering open in surprise, she felt herself undulate, her breasts quivering as each muscle down her abdomen flexed in a succulent ripple. Emily’s cute little bottom lifted up off the bed once, twice, altogether three times, and her eager snatch, sopping wet with her unchecked arousal, spasmed wildly all the while. Her past orgasms now all seemed petty, tense little pleasures, completely without compare to this unstoppable crest that swept through her entire body.

Sh-shit, this is. Is. Bad. Now it won’t—this won’t, like, stop pouring out. This um, these—these FEELINGS. How am I ever going to be able to hide anything from him now?

Hurriedly checking the time on her phone, she realized that not only had more than forty-five minutes gone by, but there were several missed messages from Rebecca.

Mara Thorferra: Here in ur driveway

Mara Thorferra: Emily im here

Mara Thorferra: Emilyyyy

“Sssh—it!” Emily’s faced flushed red, bashfully pulling the rest of her cosplay back on as quickly as she could. A last tiny tremor shivered down the inside of her legs. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” Emily didn’t find herself feeling exhausted as her luxuriant tremors subsided, and to her surprise, she rose up easily in a smooth, languid motion off the bed and onto her feet. She’d always thought that a really great orgasm was like being hit by a typhoon, and it was—only, this time, she was the typhoon.

That wasn’t my fault, I HAD to take care of that, she told herself. Her wig was stored inside-out in its protective sleeve and tucked under an arm with her ninja shoes. A spare change of clothes and her overnight pouch of toiletries, along with what remained of her savings, were already crammed into the backpack she slung haphazardly over one shoulder. Flitting frantically around her bedroom for anything she might have missed, she grimaced and finally snatched the heavy bottle half-hidden behind her nightstand, and then broke into a run down the hallway for the front door.

It really WASN’T my fault! She felt that uncontrollable torrent just had to be poured out somehow, or she’d have been in trouble. Now, it was nothing but a strange smile she couldn’t conceal, a euphoric light-headedness. It would have been a struggle for her thoughts to even stay afloat, save for the fact that the beautiful blue coursing through her head now swirled and circled around this one particular person firmly anchored in her heart.

• • •

“Oh, Emmie…” Rebecca murmured, stepping out of her car as she noticed what her friend was carrying in her free hand. “I don’t think… that’s really a good idea?”

“This?” Emily snorted, hefting the bottle up with a grin. “This isn’t an idea at all, this is straight bourbon. S’like, what, the opposite of having good ideas, right?”

“Emily… no,” Rebecca frowned. “You’re not going to drink. You don’t drink.”

“I’m old enough, and I can drink whenever I want,” Emily said defensively. “I drink sometimes, every now and then. I bet I drink way more than you.”

Releasing a long, exasperated sigh, Rebecca took the neck of the bottle in her hand as though she was going to have to take it away from her smaller friend. Indignantly, Emily tried to yank it back. Only to discover that Rebecca’s grip didn’t budge a millimeter, the taller girl firmly planted there holding the neck of the bottle, solid and unmoving as a giant tree.

“C’mon, this isn’t funny—”

“Emily, please, you’re one of my best friends,” Rebecca interrupted in a stern tone, “And I love you. We’ve all heard the story about the time you drank only a hundred times by now.”

“I didn’t wet myself, you can’t believe anything Brian—”

“Oh… well, I never heard that part. I heard you tried to kiss him?” Rebecca cut in, a sly smile appearing across her sleepy features.

“Yeah? Well, uh, I was drunk, alright? I thought it’d be funny,” Emily retorted, tugging at the unmoving bottle again. “It was, kinda.”

“You know what?” Rebecca continued. “That’s what he thinks, too. But… I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Rebecca? You weren’t even there,” Emily growled. “You don’t know any—”

“Bourbon’s not going to do you any favors, Emmie.” Rebecca pointed out. “You know, he pushed you away ‘cause he actually thought you were drunk for real?”

Shocked, Emily abruptly let go of the bottle and tumbled backwards spectacularly onto her ass.

“Besides, this is awful… it’s the cheapest, most vile, absolute garbage you could’ve possibly bought,” Rebecca muttered with a sigh, shaking her head in dismay and squeezing the bourbon. “This bottle’s made out of plastic, Emily.”

“C’mon, I was just actually hammered that night,” Emily laughed nervously, clambering back up. “You weren’t there. Don’t go making all of it into some kinda weird—”

“You’re doing that thing you do every time when you fib, Emmie.”

“Yeah? Thing, what thing?”

“Your mouth moves, and all these words come out.”

“Ha-hah, very funny. Why don’t—”

“This is a good chance for you, Emily. Things can work out. But you don’t need this stuff, it’s garbage. You’re so much better than that.”

“No, I’m not,” Emily realized, aghast to find that her eyes were stinging with shame and disappointment. “No, I’m not—”

“Sshh-sh-sh-shhh,” Rebecca shushed, and wrapped her arms protectively around Emily. “Emily, it’s fine, you’re fine, everything’s going to be just fine.”

“…You knew?” Emily sniffled in a quiet voice. “Since when? Why didn’t you ever say something?”

“What would I say?” Rebecca chuckled helplessly. “I wasn’t completely sure. And how could I speak out and cheer you on while you’re so determined to keep everything all a big stupid secret? Brian doesn’t know… but Chloe probably does. I think Will has it figured it out, too.”

“How would Will know anything?” Emily asked, making a face. “He’s practically—”

“Because Will’s always had a crush on you.”


“Yeah. But, enough about that,” Rebecca said, squeezing Emily tight. “What’s going on? What’s such a big crisis that it has you breaking out the bourbon?”

“Chloe’s there,” Emily murmured into Rebecca’s shoulder.

“Chloe’s there?” Rebecca echoed, giving her a look of confusion.

“At the convention. She’s there now,” Emily explained, pulling away and wiping her nose into her sleeve.

“…Ah. Ahhhh.. That’s the emergency?” Rebecca realized, making a face. “But… really? She insisted she wasn’t going, like, a bazillion times? Made such a fuss over it. I know she can be a little… flighty, but—”

“No, no. She planned this, somehow,” Emily insisted, shaking her head. “Whenever anyone brought up AnimeCon, she was the one shooting it down, making excuses, or saying like Brian wasn’t gonna go. But then, whenever you’d talk to Brian himself about it, you’d get this totally different story.”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“She had a costume ready, that she kept secret from everyone. I mean, there’s nothing on her Chloe Ravioli account, and then she goes and posts…” Emily paused to swipe through photos on her phone before turning the display towards her friend, “…this on her other account.”

“Other account? Magical Doll Himari!” Rebecca exclaimed in recognition, before narrowing her eyes and taking a closer look. “Oh, my—that’s really… Chloe, isn’t it? Oh my God! She has a Himari cosplay?!”

“Not something she picked up on a whim, either,” Emily insisted. “Scroll back further through her posts—she made all of that stuff, there’s progress pictures. She was always planning on going to AnimeCon. Just, the rest of us didn’t fit into her plans. This is all about her and Brian, somehow.”

“Now that’s, uh, well…” Rebecca frowned, shaking her head. “That seems like… a bit of a stretch? She—”

“No, you don’t understand,” Emily breathed. “She told me things. Things I was supposed to say to Brian. When I offered to be the one to give him back his apartment key that day, and, you know, make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything there, you remember that? She told me this whole spiel, all of these specific things I had to say when I ran into him.”

“What did you say to him?” Rebecca’s eyes went wide.

“I didn’t say shit,” Emily snorted. “Hah, yeah right, like I was going to put all that on Brian, right then when he was at his worst.”

“Why?” Rebecca asked, tilting her head quizzically.

“Why? Whaddya mean, why?” Emily blustered.

“It’s just, I thought… isn’t her rejecting Brian like that, um, good news for you?”

“Nothing that would hurt Brian is good news,” Emily stated with finality, looking uncharacteristically serious. “This… isn’t about me right now, okay?”

“But maybe it can be?” Rebecca teased, sticking out her tongue. “What did she want you to say? Do you remember?”

“What she wanted me to say to him…” Emily let out a bitter laugh. “I’m never gonna forget it. But, can we get going? I can tell you on the way. I, y’know, I really want to get there, soon as we can.”

“Yeah—of course,” Rebecca said with giddy smile of anticipation, pulling open the driver’s side door of the old station wagon and then… adjusting the seat all the way forward. “C’mon, let’s go!”

“Uhh,” Emily remarked in surprise, “What? Yeah? You’re gonna let me drive?”

“S’not a stick shift or anything,” Rebecca laughed, tossing her keys to her friend as she crossed over to the passenger’s side. “I trust you. We wanna get there fast, right?”

“I, uh, we… yes,” Emily said quickly, deftly snatching the keys out of the air. “We god-damned do want to get there fast. Thank you, Rebecca… thank you. Brian, Chloe… AnimeCon. Here we come.”

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