(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
A LOW RUMBLE THAT sounded like distant thunder shook the windows of the apartment, and Naomi looked up from her computer and glanced outside. She couldn’t see any clouds outside, but she took a moment to save the Photoshop document she was working on, then flipped over to her web browser, intending to check the weather, when an emergency broadcasting system tone sounded on her phone. She picked it up and frowned when she saw a Scarlet Alert pop up, telling her there was a Superhero fight in Midtown.
Just what she needed. She’d only been back from Sun City for two days, and she had a book cover that needed emergency revisions, a pack of twenty-five illustrations for a children’s book, and she needed to finish the last ten pages of the graphic novel she was working on, because freelancers didn’t get paid when they took two weeks off to have surgery.
She pulled up CNN in her web browser. One good thing about CNN having their headquarters in Atlanta was that they covered all the local Superhero punch ups that were big enough to get a Scarlet Alert. Sure enough, there was a live feed link on the front page. She clicked it and got a look at a couple of members of the Battalion, the local Tier Two Metahuman Emergency Response Team, throwing hands with a group of Metas in ski masks.
She shoved the browser window over to the left most of her three monitors and went back to changing the color of the main character’s shirt on the book cover she was working on. Again. Because the author couldn’t decide which color made their protagonist look more studly.
Sometimes working for indie authors could be just a tad bit annoying, but at least the client hadn’t complained about the revision fee or the rush fee, and Naomi could definitely use the extra money.
Once she was finished with the color swap, she saved the file, exported a sample, and fired it off to the client for approval, then pulled up the project document for the illustration package and started reading over the content the publisher wanted for the first illustration. She’d read through the project document before, and knew the publisher just wanted some nice charcoal and graphite work. She was actually a little tempted to get out some actual paper, charcoal, and graphite to do the project, but quickly dismissed the idea. Analog required things like art supplies and clean up, and corrections were a lot harder than the undo button. Digital kept things nice and profitable.
She opened a new Photoshop document and saved the file in the project folder, then got to work. She’d only got a few lines onto a layer when there was another boom outside, this one louder. She glanced over at CNN. According to the caption, the fighting had moved into Piedmont Park. She had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it was rough on the green space. On the other hand, it had moved away from Georgia Tech, so at least she didn’t need to worry about Dillon getting caught in the crossfire.
She turned back to Photoshop, but before she could do any more work, she heard raised voices coming from out in the hall. She frowned, because one of the few advantages of the building she and Dillon lived in was that the walls were thick. If she was hearing voices from the hall, whoever was arguing was doing it loudly.
She heard the voices again and got up and headed for the door. It was hard to tell, but she thought one of the voices belonged to Anika, which worried her. She’d known Anika for almost three years and had never heard her raise her voice. She opened the door and looked out into the hallway, and sure enough, Anika was standing there, arguing with someone.
“I don’t care,” Anika said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I know,” the man said. “No one is saying you have.”
“No one except Phanuel,” Anika snapped.
“Anika…” the man said in an annoyed tone.
“Everything okay out here?” Naomi asked.
Anika and the man both turned towards her, and for just a second, Naomi was stunned. The man was beautiful. It wasn’t something Naomi normally paid attention to – she was really gay – but she couldn’t remember ever seeing a man as beautiful as the one she was looking at.
“Naomi?” Anika asked, uncertainty in her voice. Naomi looked away from the man and smiled at Anika. She was just as breathtaking as she always was. Sometimes Naomi wanted to swear Anika was surrounded by a permanent fog filter. She was a sort of ethereal quality about her. Her warm, light brown skin seemed to almost glow with some inner light, her oval face was perfectly shaped with sharply arched eyebrows, large, soulful eyes, round cheeks, a narrow nose, and full lips that just begged to be kissed.
“Yeah,” Naomi said.
“Wow,” Anika said, taking a few steps towards her. “You look amazing.”
Naomi smiled, but she could feel her stomach doing backflips, and her cheeks started to burn. “You really think so?” she asked.
Anika looked her up and down, her smile getting bigger. “Yeah,” she said. “Wow. I knew you’d look different, but…wow.”
“You said that already.”
“I know,” Anika said. “But it bears repeating.”
“Anika,” the man said.
“Just a second, Raph,” Anika said.
Naomi frowned as she remembered why she came out into the hallway to begin with. “Is everything okay?” she asked, giving ‘Raph’ a pointed look.
“Yeah,” Anika said. She glanced back at Raph for a second, then turned back to Naomi. “Raph’s family.”
“Oh,” Naomi said, a little surprised. Anika never talked about her family, except for her mother.
“He means well. Really. It’s just that one of my uncles is being difficult.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Naomi said.
Anika shrugged. “It’s not like we’re close,” she said. “Dad’s side of the family have never really been my biggest fans.”
“Your dad’s side of the family must be a pack of idiots, then,” Naomi said. Anika laughed, and Naomi swore her heart skipped a beat. She always loved seeing Anika laugh, and a little voice in the back of her head told her now would be a perfect time to ask Anika out.
She opened her mouth to do just that, when another little voice spoke up, reminding her that she was a trans woman, and that she had no idea of Anika would be willing to date a trans woman. She knew Anika dated women. She’d mentioned an ex-girlfriend once, but that didn’t mean she’d be willing to date a trans woman. And there was a world of difference between Anika thinking she looked good after the surgery and Anika being attracted to her. After all, Naomi thought Raph was beautiful, but she wasn’t attracted to him.
She closed her mouth, swallowing the urge to ask her out, and fighting down the embarrassment and humiliation that went with it.
“I’ll…um…I’ll let you finish talking to Raph,” Naomi said.
The smile on Anika’s face vanished, replaced by a concerned look. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
“No,” Naomi said. “I just have a ton of work to do. You know how it is. Us freelancers don’t get paid medical leave, so I have to make up for lost time.”
“Okay,” Anika said.
Naomi looked past Anika to Raph. “You…Don’t make me come back out here.”
“I’m just trying to look out for her,” he said.
Naomi pointed at him, then looked at Anika. “See you around.”
“Okay,” Anika said. “I’m off rotation next weekend if you guys want to do a game night.”
“That sounds great,” Naomi said.
“Great. It’s a date,” Anika said, and Naomi felt her heart drop a little further.
“It is,” she said. “See you.”
“See you then.”
She ducked back into the apartment. Once the door was closed, she let herself have a couple of minutes for the self-loathing to pass, and for her to finish calling herself a coward before she went over to her desk and got back to work.
Naomi was stretched out on the couch and ten chapters deep into a coffee shop AU on Archive of Our Own when Dillon got home. She looked up for a moment, making sure he still had all his limbs, then went back to the mutual pining.
“Not even a hello?” Dillon asked.
“Hello,” Naomi said without looking away from her phone. “Nice to see you still have all your limbs. I take it The Battalion managed to keep the Superhero shenanigans away from Georgia Tech?”
“They did,” Dillon said. “But half of Piedmont Park is going to need a fresh layer of sod.”
“Figures,” Naomi said. “What were they fighting about, anyway?”
“Not sure,” Dillon said. “They hit 100 Colony Square, so people are assuming they were going for one of the diplomatic offices.”
Naomi looked up from her phone. “The what?”
“You are aware that there are a number of Consulates and other Diplomatic Missions in Midtown, right?” Dillon asked.
“Well, I am now,” Naomi said, before going back to her phone.
“You don’t even care, do you?”
“Not really,” Naomi said. “I mean, it’s not like we have any of the cool Superheroes. Except for Quickstep.”
“You just like Quickstep because you think she’s hot,” Dillon said.
“I don’t like Quickstep because I think she’s hot,” Naomi said. “I like Quickstep because I know she’s hot.”
Dillon dropped down onto the loveseat. “And who are the cool superheroes?”
“Airheart, Ice Dragon, Focus, Scatter, Element, Industry, Nexus, Cinderella, Delta V, Quickstep, Speed Freak, Gizmo, Rowen…”
“Why am I not surprised that everyone on that list is a lesbian?”
“Excuse you. Quickstep, Element, and Industry are not lesbians. They’re bisexual.”
“Oh, well, I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” Naomi said.
“So, I heard you saw Anika today,” Dillon said.
Naomi looked over at him. “How did you hear that?”
“She texted me,” Dillon said. “She’s worried about you.”
“Worried about me?”
“Yeah,” Dillon said. “She said the two of you were talking, and then you seemed to get upset about something.”
“Oh,” Naomi said.
“You want to talk about it?” Dillon asked.
“Not really,” Naomi said.
Dillon frowned. “Come on,” he said. “You know you’ll feel better if you do.”
“No, I won’t,” Naomi said.
Dillon sighed. “You know I’m not going to leave this alone,” he said. “I’ll sit here and nag you, and you’ll get more and more annoyed until you yell at me, then you’ll feel guilty, and finally spill your guts, and then we’ll talk it out and you’ll feel better. So, why don’t you save us both a lot of time, and yourself the guilt of yelling at me, and just spill it?”
Naomi glared at him for a minute, mostly because she knew he was right about what would happen, even if she didn’t want to admit it. The thing was, even though he was actually a month younger than her, Dillon was pretty good at playing big brother when he needed to. But then, that had always been the core of their relationship. Neither of them had fit in when they were in school, or anywhere, really, so they stuck together and took care of each other, and when they couldn’t, Donna had taken care of both of them.
Naomi sat up and put her phone on the coffee table. Dillon took that as his cue. He got up and moved over to the couch, sitting next to her and wrapping an arm around her shoulder. She leaned against him and rested her head on his shoulder.
“I almost asked Anika out today,” she said.
“That’s good,” Dillon said. “Except for the almost part, but we can work on that.”
“No, it’s not,” Naomi said.
“What happened?” Dillon asked.
“I was working, and I heard yelling out in the hall. I went out to see what was going on, and Anika was there, fighting with some guy. I asked if everything was okay, and she said it was. But when she recognized me, she kind of got…I don’t know. She kept saying ‘wow,’ and that I looked really good.”
“See,” Dillon said. “She’s totally into you.”
“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “I mean, there’s a difference between thinking I look good, and being attracted to me.”
“There is, but I think Anika is into you.”
“You want to hear the rest of this or not?”
“I’m shutting up.”
“Good,” Naomi said. “So, I said something that made her laugh, and I don’t know. I just thought that would be the perfect moment to ask her out, and I was going to do it. I opened my mouth to do it, but then I didn’t.”
“Because I was afraid,” Naomi said. “What if she doesn’t want to go out with me because I’m trans? What if I ask and she says she only goes out with women?”
“You are a woman,” Dillon said.
“I know,” Naomi said. “But a lot of lesbians don’t feel that way.”
“I don’t think Anika’s one of them,” Dillon said. “She’s been our friend for years.”
“I know. But I just…I mean, before, I didn’t want to ask her because I was pre-op and I was afraid she wouldn’t want to go out with me because of that. I thought this feeling would go away once I had my surgery, you know. But it’s still there. I still…God, I still feel like a fake. Like I’m not a real woman.”
Dillon squeezed her tightly. “You are a woman,” he said. “You always have been. What you’re feeling…It’s just the things your parents said to you getting into your head.”
“Not just my parents.”
“I know,” Dillon said. “I know it’s a lot of people. A lot of small, bigoted, closed-minded little people who don’t understand. But you are a woman, and you are beautiful, and you always have been. Anika would be lucky to have you. Anyone would.”
Naomi wrapped her arms around Dillon and hugged him tightly. “You’re a good brother, you know that?”
“I’m the best brother,” Dillon said.
“Not sure I would go that far,” Naomi said.
“You suck,” Dillon said.
Naomi laughed and squeezed a little harder. “You love me.”
“Yeah,” Dillon said. “But only cause I’m a glutton for punishment.”
Naomi sighed and closed her eyes. “What if I always feel like this?” she asked. “What if it never gets better?”
Dillon rubbed her shoulder. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I still walk into school sometimes and expect everyone to laugh at me and call me a freak, so maybe you will always feel like this. Maybe you just have to learn how to ignore it and get on with your life.”
“Is that what you do?” Naomi asked.
“Most days,” Dillon said. “I know you don’t interact as much with people. The whole working from home thing. But I’m still scared every day, and sometimes, I walk into a room, and I’m right back in Ms. Tindal’s Kindergarten class, expecting everyone to make fun of me.”
“What do you do?”
“I think about how I met you that first day. I think about how much fun we had. I think about you showing me all the things you’d drawn.”
“Yeah,” Dillon said. “Because every time I’m afraid that everyone will make fun of me and that no one will ever like me, I have that memory that proves it isn’t true. You didn’t make fun of me, and you liked me. That memory is my shield.”
“I don’t have a memory like that,” Naomi said. “At least, not one for this.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Dillon said. “But maybe, now that you’re not worried about getting your surgery letter anymore, you could be a bit more honest with your therapist about what you’re feeling.”
“Yeah,” Naomi said. “I guess that means I have to keep going to therapy.”
“It’s probably a good idea,” Dillon said. “At least until you’ve got all of this worked out.”
“I liked it better when I could ignore my problems and hope they went away,” Naomi said.
“Well, if you want, we could go to the Vortex and eat our feelings,” Dillon said.
“As long as it’s the one in Little Five,” Naomi said.
“Hot waitress?” Dillon asked.
“Hot waitress,” Naomi confirmed.
“Go get dressed,” Dillon said. “I’ll get us an Uber.”