AnimeCon Harem Ch. 01

AnimeCon Harem Ch. 01

    Half the drawers on the dresser hung open and empty, the bed was stripped bare of its sheets, and the mattress sat askew atop the box-spring frame. The shelves beside the desk had been rummaged through, and what remained was cluttered in small piles here and there. In this disheveled, half-furnished room, a young man slumped in his computer chair with a vacant expression, chin resting on his knuckle.
    A break-in? That would’ve been messy. But a break-up can turn out to be so much messier. Brian had lived together with Chloe for two years, so coming home from his shift to find all of her things gone from their apartment had been a little jarring. If he were to be honest, their relationship had taken a rather sour turn for the past… well, quite some time, now. Her Women’s Studies course had opened her eyes to just how oppressed and victimized women really were, and she had thrown herself into the post-modern feminist revolution with ardent enthusiasm.
    Things had become difficult between them. ‘Strained’ may be too lenient a word for the frustrating struggle that terminated in… this. Brian’s brow furrowed and he rubbed his face slowly, trying to will himself to feel nothing at all about this turn of events.
    He was generally a good looking guy. Brian had wide shoulders and a trim waist—despite his geeky interests, he had neither the stereotypical geek goatee, nor a chubby paunch forming along his midsection. Jogging wasn’t his first hobby, but it was among them, and though a far cry from athletic he was in fair shape.
    His brown hair was downy-soft, and usually kept styled in a side-parted taper cut that looked professional—if a bit old-fashioned. His eyebrows were dark, his eyes a mottled shade of green that made him look intelligent and engaging… well, at least they did under more forgiving circumstances.
    Where exactly had everything gone wrong, then? He’d always tried his best to treat her nice and to make her happy. Somehow along the way, she’d begun to classify his actions into his gender role, into a gender culture. Being attracted to her meant he was objectifying her. Disagreeing with her was oppression. Hurting her feelings was tantamount to abuse, whether or not it was intentional.
    He could more easily picture Chloe for her frowns and crossed arms rather than her sweet smiles. For her cold shoulder and her special coffee mug with the words “male tears” emblazoned across it. How had this distance crept between him and the cute geek girl  he’d fallen for, and how hadn’t he been able to do a thing about it?
    A knock on the apartment door woke him from his reverie. Swearing under his breath, Brian stumbled up out of his seat and into the small living room, overturning a small stack of old textbooks in the process.
    “Gimme a sec,” he called, looking around. His flat-screen was leaning against the wall, unplugged and trailing video cables across the floor. Indentations in the carpet and stray candy wrappers were all the remained of his missing couch, and a haphazard pile of his DVDs were heaped in front of the pillaged DVD rack. The giant bookcase stood empty, and those books that hadn’t ascended with Chloe in her great journey was strewn about the purgatorial malaise of Brian’s apartment.
    Nope. Total loss, no point in even trying to tidy anything. Sighing, he swung the front door open.
    A pale, dark-haired cutie of vaguely Hispanic descent stood, her fist poised to knock again. It was Emily, one of his best friends whom he’d known all the way back through high school. Her petite, somewhat underdeveloped body was often the subject of her self-depreciating humor, she dressed in stylish clothes containing anime references, and she usually sported an infectious, adorable grin. Today, she wore an uncharacteristic expression of concern that really drove home the gravity of his situation.
    “Heeey,” Emily said, stepping forward for one of her trademark exceptionally awkward hugs—she was short, the top of her tousled pixie-haircut only just reaching Brian’s shoulder. “How’re you doing? Are you okay?”
    “…I’ll be okay.”
    “You’d better,” she affirmed, squeezing him tightly.
    “Um. Oh, wow,” Emily muttered, looking past him into the ransacked and half-emptied apartment. “She sent me to make sure she didn’t miss anything. I kiiinda doubt that she did.”
    Ah. Here on Chloe’s behalf, then. Well, they did all share the same basic circle of friends. This was bound to get all kinds of awkward. He slowly stepped aside to let her into the apartment.
    “Is she okay?” he asked in a detached tone.
    “Yeah. Yeah, she’s doing… she’s doing great,” she said, nodding her head as she glanced around in awe at the aftermath of the once well-decorated apartment. “She’s doing really well.”
    Emily turned, and centered her brandy-brown eyes on Brian. “That’s what I was told to tell you; that she’s doing great. Buuut, she’s not. She’s a mess. Can’t stop crying. Freaking out. Mental breakdown, that whole deal.”
    Brian stared at her blankly.
    “That, uh,” he said, scratching his face, “kinda doesn’t sound like the Chloe I know at all.”
    “Haaaah,” Emily breathed, looking around nervously. “About that. It’s like, the part of her that got all… you know, crazy? With the turbo-feminist thing. Doesn’t accept that most of us are pissed at her, for the way she’s treated you. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some of the old Chloe in there, and I love her to death, but… she needs to chill for a while.”
    He couldn’t help but feel relieved at hearing that their mutual friends, especially Emily, acknowledged Chloe’s irrational behavior. And, if there really was some tiny part of the old Chloe still existed, maybe there might still be a chance after all.
    “What’s she going to do? Is she going to come back?”
    “Oooh, well, uh,” Emily said, trying to think of a nice way to phrase it. “A part of her wants to? Like, tiny part. Very tiny.” She used her fingers to show roughly how much, and it didn’t look promising.
    She paused, rubbing her arm and looking down at the carpet. “And, we told her not to.”
    “You told her not to.”
    “Yes. Leaving you is the only thing she’s done right, lately. Now, wait, hear me out. She really needs to sort her shit out, okay? Her coming back right now is not a good idea for you two.”
    Brian took a deep breath, nodding. “So, I wait for her.”
    “Brian…” Emily sighed, putting her hand on his shoulder. “…I don’t think that’s a great idea either, champ. You gotta move on. Here, lemme show you.” She tugged a dangling lanyard out of her open purse, revealing a laminated badge for the upcoming AnimeCon, and held it out for him. It was the one he had pre-ordered for Chloe.
    “She actually wanted to keep it, you know? Even though she wasn’t gonna go. We told her that was a fuckin’ waste of your sixty bucks, and she needed to either man up—er, excuse me, woman up and attend the con, sort shit out with you, or… give it back to you. And… so yeah, here it is.”
    “Her decision.” She dropped the convention pass into his hand. “Sorry.”
    The convention plans. Some of the best times Chloe and him had spent together were their yearly excursions to the giant anime convention across the state. This time, he’d booked the hotel room with his money, he’d bought their pre-registration passes.
    He’d also ordered a surprise for Chloe, a gorgeous gothic lolita costume commissioned in her measurements. Petticoat, corset, bloomers, an elegant layered dress decorated in bows and ribbons, stockings, shoes, the whole outfit. At the time he had ordered it, they’d been on much better terms. When it had arrived, months later, he even still hoped it could help reconcile their differences, and he’d stashed the package behind shoe boxes in the top of his closet. Now, it was just another painful reminder and waste of money.
    But, there was certainly no need to tell anyone about the outfit now. He swallowed, looking back up at her. “Well, I already have my pass. You want this one?”
    “I couldn’t get Friday and Saturday off… it’d be a waste to take a full pass for just Sunday. Give it to a cutie who didn’t pre-register, pick some hot little chica right outta the line for convention passes. They’ll be all over you.”
    “Yeah… right,” he said, rolling his eyes. “’Cause that’s just what I need right now.”
    “Maybe it is?” Emily said, pouting and jabbing his chest with her finger. “You’re a good-looking guy on the rebound. Hell, if we weren’t like brother and sister by now, I’d be into you. Don’t you remember back in high school? That night after Homecoming?”
    He grimaced at the memory. “You were drunk. Beyond drunk, it wasn’t even you anymore. Ninety-five pounds of Tequila disguised as you tried to make out with me. And possibly wet the couch.”
    “I did not wet the couch,” she said sharply, slapping his arm. “I spilled my drink.”
    “Yes. Spilled something you drank. Out of your body.” He was playfully slapped again, and it actually stung quite a bit. Apparently, her wiry little Latino arms were stronger than they looked. “And anyways, Emily, nothing happened between us.”
    “Uh yeah, ’cause you’re a fuckin’ gentleman, that respects women,” she retorted. “That’s why you and Chloe lasted so long. Waaay longer than you two should have. Well, jig’s up now.”
    She began to dig through her purse again, finally pulling out a familiar-looking Japanese charm. It was half the size of the convention pass, a thin slat of wood with strips of red and white thread woven around it in an intricate pattern. An ornate series of Japanese kanji had been carved into it.
    “Oh, no.”
    “Ohhh, yeaaah,” she mimed in her low-pitched fruit-drink pitcher bursting through a wall impression. The charm had been given to Emily by her cousin Samantha as a good luck charm, but when Brian had looked up the kanji—it had humorously turned out to read ‘harem charm,’ and became an inside joke around their circle of friends.
    “Here, take it. As you know, Sammie got this from Japan. From a shrine, or something. But, it’s legit from Japan, so you just know it’s the real deal.”
    “Emily, I heard Sam got that from a vending machine.”
    “Okay, she got it at a vending machine… in a shrine. Then, a forever-alone otaku neet lost his yen to the machine, and tried to tip it over. But, he was crushed under the machine. When the shrine priests righted the machine… his body was gone. Now, his vengeful spirit works in the charm, giving it mysterious power.”
    “That’s… did you just think all that up?”
    Emily rolled her eyes. “Sammie and me have been running with that gag for years, now, the story keeps snowballing. Something something devouring the minds of innocent women… and ends in tentacle rape, as it should. Would ya just take it?”
    She shoved the charm into his open hand atop the convention pass. As her fingers brushed against his, something like static electricity zapped her, and for a fleeting moment tiny blue sparkles danced through the back of her head. Felt… kinda nice.
    “Whoa, you zapped me, jerk.”
    “I what?”
     She absent-mindedly rubbed her fingertips together. “A-anyways, collect yourself a harem of sexy little things at AnimeCon, and forget about Chloe, ’kay? We’re gonna make sure she’s fine.”
    “Yeah… a little too soon for me to be forming my harem. I didn’t even realize I was single today, until I got home from work.”
    “…Really. When’s the last time you talked to Chloe? Wait, no, lemme rephrase that. When’s the last time you had a talk with her that didn’t end with a fight?” Emily leaned back, crossing her arms.
    “Okay, yeah. We have problems. Guilty. But—”
    “Had problems, past tense, champ,” Emily interrupted. “I realize this seems sudden for you, but you two haven’t actually really been together in… months? And, I’m not blaming you! She’s gotten weird as hell. But, really. It’s over, between you.”
    “Did she send you here to tell me that?”
    Emily looked agitated. “Fuck. No, she didn’t. She’s caught up in her own little oppressed feminist reality where you’re the bad guy, and I know most of it, fuck maybe all of that is bullshit. The things she told me to tell you… aren’t things I could ever say to you. I’m here stuck in the middle between you two, translating; It’s over between you and Chloe. I’m sorry.”
    Well, that’s not easy to digest. He stood with his jaw set for a long, tense moment before nodding. “No, thank you.” This was all too much to think about at once, and he honestly didn’t know what to say about any of it yet.
    “Totally not taking sides on all this, since you’re both my friends and all,” she said, enveloping him in another of her awkward hugs. “But, she’s being a cunt, and I hope you get yourself laid at the con just to spite her.” An errant blue spark flitted through her mind, and she wet her lips with her tongue.
    •     •     •
One week later
    “Sooo glad we pre-ordered our convention passes,” a heavy-set girl in her twenties said, a pair of plush panda ears bobbing excitedly where they were affixed in her dirty-blonde hair. “That line is just nuts.”
    “Oh, yes,” her companion said quietly, blue eyes fluttering behind her glasses. A similar pair of rabbit ears was poking up from her own light blonde hair. “It’s so crowded… I can’t believe you talked me into this.”
    Megan had become Stephanie’s boisterous big sister ever since they met in class, and she was always intent on including the reclusive, introverted Stephanie in on things, trying to get her to open up, and have fun. Convincing the girl to attend AnimeCon with her had been her greatest success so far.
    The AnimeCon pavilion was spacious and bright, lit by an enormous array of skylights. The convention proper centered around a large vendors room, with hallways then branching into adjoining conference rooms where panels, workshops, anime screenings, and events were held. Crowds of attendees, intermittently sprinkled with cosplayers, had begun to fill the area with the indecipherable blur of many individual conversations, and directly before them, a staggered and untidy line for the ticket booths stretched, several hundred people long. Excitement tingled in the air.
    “Talked you into a costume, you mean?” Megan laughed heartily and cuffed the slimmer girl on the shoulder, actually staggering her for a moment. Sometimes, the overly physical mannerisms of her big friend really bothered Stephanie. “Truuust me, as cosplay go, gijinka costumes are about as tame as they get. You’ ll see, Steph.”
    Gijinka was a term associated with the trend of making outfits as a personification of something, such as Japanese battleships illustrated in the form of cute young girls, or the conflicts of nations presented in the allegory of handsome young men squabbling with one another. Today, this pair of girls wore costumes loosely representing monsters from the titular Monster Battlers, a game where trainers battled their pet monsters against one another for glory and prestige.
    Megan had rather clumsily sewn a black and white Chinese traditional dress based on Pandape. Megan somewhat resembled the part ape, part panda monster, with her short legs and stocky, round figure. Stephanie’s outfit was patterned on Flamituff, a fast flame-element rabbit. She’d whipped up a pink and red scheme for a sleeveless sundress on her sewing machine, and glued rabbit-like ears onto a hidden headband. Matching pink elbow-length gloves and thigh-high costume boots completed her ensemble.
    Shy to a fault, Stephanie fidgeted with her Flamituff dress and did her best to hide in the wide shadow her friend cast. And, as usual, Megan’s toothy grin had an indecent feeling to it. Though Stephanie was a thin college girl with an unremarkable A-cup bust—her hips flared out to a rather generous behind, which was to her shame, quite a bit more than a handful. The ‘freshman fifteen’ was her mother’s favorite phrase for the pounds of derriere that had crept up on her. Determined to shed the weight, Steph had spent the whole summer break bicycling up and down the back roads of her home town.
    Her tummy had become trim, and her thighs were taut muscle, but to her dismay and frustration, her backside hadn’t reduced in size much at all. When she had returned to college, she hid her rear by wearing sweaters tied by their sleeves around her waist to class, long shirts, and a low-hanging backpack. She was oblivious to the fact that while her butt was the same size, the flab of last semester had become the tight curvature of a perfectly-shaped ass.
    “C’mon, aren’t you excited?” Megan asked, leafing through the AnimeCon schedule.
    “Oh, yes. Maybe this is all too much, in fact,” Steph replied with a timid smile, tugging her dress down in the back again and smoothing it against her legs.
    “Those guys would probably come up and ask for your picture, if you weren’t pretending to be so shy, you know.”
    “Yes. Pretending to be shy,” Stephanie echoed weakly, fidgeted with her outfit in embarrassment. Surely she’d made a mistake measuring the sizes of her dress. The swell of her bottom kept making her hemline ride up dangerously, and she imagined she was attracting stares. As usual, any attention felt humiliating.
    “Lesse, here… I really wanna explore the vendors room, but the first voice acting panel starts soon, ughhh,” Megan grumbled, completely engrossed in the convention booklet.
    “Which actor is the first panel for?”
    “It doesn’t say, that’s how they getcha. They have like, three A-listers, and then a bunch of chumps in their voice acting guests. So, they don’t list who’s gonna be where or when, so that you havta attend them all. Tricky bastards.”
    Stephanie nodded silently, only a little interested, and planted herself against a wall, clear of the constant traffic flow of anime fans and cosplayers. There were otaku and geeks of all shapes, sizes, genders, and ethnicities streaming by. Some dressed casually, others wore fedoras and trenchcoats. Several were pudgy-faced manchildren, while some others looked like they’d walked off the stage of a celebrity fashion show. There were small knots of friends who clung together and there were loners, lovers walking in pairs and stalkers trailing behind. Altogether, it was certainly interesting, so far.
    Her eyes were drawn to a guy who had paused to fix his costume in the hallway across from them. He wore a tasteful dress uniform from a space fantasy military, one she vaguely recognized from one of those Fantasy Wars titles. The young man’s brown hair was styled in artful disarray, and overall… he was pretty cute. He had his own pre-registration badge dangling from his necklace. No, wait. Two badges dangled from his single cord, along with something smaller, she realized as he lifted them up over his head. Odd.
    Tugging the right sleeve of his jacket back, he drew the lanyard around his wrist, doubled it around, and then slipped the badges through the loops and pulled the excess snug. Clever, Stephanie decided, watching the sleeve slide down to conceal the passes. It was a convenient trick cosplayers used to have an easily accessible badge to show the con staff, while not being obtrusive or noticeable for impromptu picture-taking.
    She was just letting her attention wander away from him when she noticed it—the small trinket that had been attached with his pair of convention badges fell out of his sleeve and onto the carpeted floor. Not noticing what he’d lost, Brian stepped away and continued onward through the hall, straightening his collar.
    “Uhm, hey,” Stephanie called quietly, glancing around to see if anyone else had noticed. The murmur of voices in the convention hall was too loud for him to hear her. She quickly ducked between a pair of passerby and snatched the item off the ground. It was a little carved and wrapped omamori charm, a Japanese amulet for luck or protection. She felt pleased with herself for recognizing what it was.
    “Ah! Excuse me,” she said, stepping after him and doing her best to raise her voice.
    “You dropped… your—Ahh!” A tiny, unseen bolt of energy arced from the charm into her palm, almost causing her to drop it. She examined it closely as the stinging sensation in her hand began to subside.
    What… in the world? For a moment her head spun with dizziness, pink motes of light swimming through her vision. She felt a little giddy… or maybe light-headed? Whoa. I really shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.
    “Steph! What’d ya run off for,” Megan huffed. “What’s that?”
    “It’s a… he dropped it,” Steph replied, her head clearing. The cute guy was just ahead, he’d been stopped for a photo.
    I need to catch up to him, she thought. And then, something’s going to happen? But, what? In the pit of her stomach, she was uneasy at the thought of showing Megan the omamori, almost as if… it wasn’t meant for her. Megan wasn’t shy, she’d return the charm to the boy without a second thought. While Stephanie stood helpless on the sidelines.
    She couldn’t let that happen, this was her chance. This amulet sitting in her palm was her ticket to… well, something. Pink powder drifted throughout her thoughts, obscuring what that something might be. Something big.
    “Well, ya gonna give it back to him?” Megan asked.
    “Uhm, well… yeah,” she answered in a distracted tone, clutching the charm to her chest protectively as she looked at the guy up ahead of them. He struck a dynamic pose for the next photo, drawing a pistol from a holster inside his jacket and leveling it at some unseen target far in the distance in one smooth movement. His steely eyes narrowed, and he clenched his teeth, looking like he’d stepped out of action film.
    Totally badass, Stephanie thought, selectively ignoring the fussy young mother ushering a pair of superhero-costumed toddlers around the guy’s pose. Wow. It was mildly warm in the convention center, but she felt a wave of goosebumps travel down her body.
    Damn, he looks… delicious. She looked him up and down, and every detail she took in lit a new fire inside of her. What’s gotten into me? His shoulders were broad but not bulky, and though he wasn’t particularly muscled, she could see the tone in his arms. Bright pink traces of light deep inside of her were becoming sparks and a warm feeling spread through her. Already in a daze again, her attention wandered down his…
    Stephanie’s face flushed and she studiously turned her head back towards Megan. A tingle trickled down from her chest to her stomach, almost like an electric current… A thrumming, excited energy that made her shift her legs uncomfortably.
    “You know how I told you I wasn’t really all that interested in guys?”
    “Yeah…?” Megan prompted, raising an eyebrow.
    Stephanie squirmed, scuffing her costume boots against the carpet. “It just hit. It just hit all at once,” she breathed, hiding her face.
    “Stephanie? You’re droolin’, hun,” her friend laughed.
    Surprised and ashamed at herself, Stephanie wiped her chin with the back of her glove. She hadn’t actually been drooling… although her mouth had certainly watered at the sight. Neon pink sparks popped and fizzled in her head. So, that’s what this feels like.
    “You gonna return that thing, or what?” Megan asked, staring pointedly.
    “Yes, I am,” Stephanie confirmed, still vacantly nodding.
    “Right… now…?” Megan wondered, prodding Stephanie’s bare shoulder with her finger.
    “Right now.” Stephanie echoed, her feet firmly planted and not budging.
    “Right now,” Megan cooed huskily, wrapping the girl in her meaty arms and smothering her in a motherly embrace. “Go on! Go on, you hussy. Give it to him.”
    “Not funny!” Stephanie awkwardly squirmed and pawed her way free, blushing brightly in embarrassment and not daring to check and see if the boy had noticed the commotion.
    “Ready? Steady… annnnnd go!” Megan shoved, pushing Stephanie forward suddenly. Flabbergasted and off-balance, Stephanie backpedaled and twisted, colliding into Brian spectacularly. For a moment pink bursts swam across her vision, and Stephanie toppled over in surprise, taking him with her to the ground.
    “Ahh!” She exclaimed sharply as something pressed up against her privates. She arched her back in surprise, the inside of her head swimming with small gouts of fluttering pink flames. Looking down in growing horror, she realized she was sitting atop him, no, straddling him, right in the middle of the convention hallway. Her creamy thighs enveloped his head and his face was snugly buried into her panties. Oh no. Oh no no no. This isn’t happening.
    “Whoaaa damn,” someone said. Everyone nearby had stopped what they were doing to look.
    “Stephanie are you okay?” Megan exclaimed, trying to contain her laughter. “I really didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, Steph!“
    “Oh, man, hot,” The nearest of a trio of teenage boys was already scrambling for his phone.
    Glasses askew and blushing furiously, she planted her hands on the ground above his head and lifted her unexpectedly sensitive bundle of nerves off of his face, not daring to peek at his expression. Her mind was so awash with bright pink flashes of light that she nearly lost hold of the charm.
    “Hey hold up, lemme get a shot of this first,” someone behind her said, snapping a shot of her compromising position. Stephanie’s dress had ridden up, and her gray striped panties strained to cover the curves of her plump bottom.
    “Niiiice,” a passing girl in a schoolgirl uniform said, her digital camera playing its shutter sound effect repeatedly. “Happens in like, every single anime ever.”
    “Classic,” her friend agreed. “Anime cliché number one, haha.”
    “I’m—so sorry,” Stephanie stammered, “I’m so sorry, I just—” Completely red-faced in embarrassment, she shakily pushed off her knees and stood, trying to pretend everyone wasn’t staring at her. Her eyes locked on Brian, too terrified to register what was going on outside of the horrifically intimate situation she’d entangled herself in. “Are you… okay?” she squeaked.
    Working his jaw tenderly, he looked at her with a bemused smile. “I’m alright, you okay?” His eyes flicked down for a split-second to glance at her panties.
    “I’m fine,” she blurted, simultaneously mortified and strangely… flattered with the quick look he had stolen. She struggled to pull her dress back over her exposed thighs as Megan pulled her back out of the way of people passing through.
    “Awesome man, wicked.” one of the teens interjected, offering Brian a hand and tugging him to his feet.
    “That was staged, right…?” An overweight neckbeard asked dubiously.
    “Uh, duh,” one of his peers retorted as traffic began to resume through the hallway.
    Brian took a moment to clear his head, standing out of the way across from Megan and Stephanie and straightening his costume.
    “Soooo, nice tackle, Flamituff! We’ll make it to the championship yet!” Megan yelled, pointing her rolled-up schedule into the air dramatically.
    “It was an accident! You—you pushed me, I only meant to g—” she sputtered in exasperation.
    “Okay, well at least he’s cute,” Megan said, giving Steph a playful shove. She wasn’t able to suppress a grin at seeing her friend flustered and blushing. “Next time, you do the pushing, and I’ll climb on top of him.”
    Stephanie gaped at her large friend, trying not to imagine the result.
     “C’mon, don’t look at me like that. Pssh, fine. Go give him back his whatever it was he dropped, so we can get going to the panel.”
    Oh no. Oh no no no I can’t face him after that.
    “I can’t. I really can’t, not now,” Stephanie said, hanging her head. “I’m too shy for this.”
    Megan frowned, putting her hands on her hips. “I thought you really meant it when you said you’re interested in this guy? Were you being serious?”
    “Yes? I think so,” Stephanie gulped. “I think I am.”
    “Then, forget the panel. There’s like, another three voice acting panels later anyways. Go talk to this guy. Chat him up about anime, eat lunch with him, rub your ladybits on his face again, whatever. You’re adorable, he’s cute, life’s short, and you only live once. You gotta buck up and be my brave little shounen hero, this is the summertime of your youth!” Megan recited, racking her brain for more advice clichés but coming up dry. She loved pretending to be wise.
    “Aren’t I more of a tragic shoujo heroine?” Stephanie asked with a grim smile.
    “No way, that’s me. Hence my starry eyes and impossibly slender legs,” Megan said sarcastically, flicking her hands out dramatically enough to shake her panda ears. “Now, get moving before I throw you into him again.”
    “I-I am kind of hungry. You want to just go get some lunch?” Stephanie found herself saying.
    “Okay, then! But ask him, not me. I’m on my way to a panel.” Megan said, speaking loudly and winking. “Remember—summertime of your youth.”
    “In Japan, I’d already be considered an old lady,” Stephanie said numbly.
    “Better hurry then, go and eat him up,” Megan said lecherously as she walked away. “I’ll meet up with you in the vendors room after this voice acting panel’s over, mm-kay? For all the delicious details.”
    I’m not ready for this, Stephanie thought as she watched her friend disappear into the throng of convention attendees filling the halls. I’ll never be ready for this. But, she composed herself as best she could and crossed the hall to him, fighting down her fear and embarrassment. Megan was right. She was in college now, it was ridiculous for her to still be afraid of talking to boys. Nearly jostled by people passing by because of how crowded it was getting, she ended up stopping rather closer to this boy than she’d planned on daring—well within arms reach of him.
    He looked up at her.
    And Stephanie’s mind went blank, proper line of thought swept away like driftwood in the surf and spray of a surging wave of attraction. His mottled green eyes seemed to smolder, and she felt a lifetime of her hasty preconceptions about the silliness of sappy romances melt away beneath the heat of his gaze. There was a deep, haunting beauty in his eyes, a hidden pain etched within that captivated her completely. Oh whoa. Oh no.
    Distracting pink bursts of sparks seemed to be colliding in her head and traveling down her body in jittery, electrifying currents and pulses, and it felt like parts of her body she’d never known about were warming up and turning on in response.
    “Hi,” she squeaked, terror and excitement grappling her senses. “You dropped you, uh, your omamori fell, and…” She held the charm out to him.
    “My what…?” He yanked back his sleeve where his badges still dangled from the lanyard around his wrist, and was surprised to see that it was indeed missing.
    “Thanks, coulda lost it for good.” He rewarded her with an endearing smile that sent a tingle of pink energy twitching down into her abdomen, and as she passed it to him, her hand lingered a moment longer than necessary.
    She wanted him. Wanted to know him, possess him, to run her fingers through the downy softness of his hair, to hold him in her arms, and be embraced in turn by him. She’d always been socially self-conscious and tried not to stare at people before, but with lips parted wordlessly, she was only thinking that she could examine and adore him forever. The strong line of his chin, the lines of his neck, the breadth of his shoulders…
    “Uhm, we got off on the wrong feet. Wrong foot, we got off on the wrong foot, so maybe we could… start over? Fresh start? I’m Stephanie.”
    “Brian,” he offered, smiling. “Would you want to have lunch? The convention center has a little café down the hall. Little less crowded than the concessions stands in the main lobby…”
    Did he read my mind?! Stephanie thought, eyes wide. She didn’t realize that Megan had been speaking loudly enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear, earlier. “That’d be great! I actually didn’t have breakfast, so I’m pretty famished,” she said with a nervous laugh.
    “Uhm…!” she managed as a tall nerd in a camouflage jacket backed into her side as he vied for a better angle of a nearby ninja cosplayer with his phone. Stephanie rebounded off of him, and into the back of an enormous hairy girl who had a fox-tail accessory dangling from the back of her spats.
    “Here,” Brian said, taking Stephanie’s hand and tugging her along as the hirsute girl wearing the fox-tail turned around. Stephanie was brimming with excitement, in more ways than one. Flickers and flashes of pink light became spurts of pink flame in her head and she realized in alarm that she was… wet.
    For Stephanie, it was a new feeling. Sexuality had always frightened her. To her, fornicating was something that would probably feel uncomfortable, and most likely hurt. She’d thought getting wet would feel gross, make her want to excuse herself to wipe clean. Now, in the moment, nothing could be further from the truth.
    Her sex was filled with liquid heat, and the sensual feeling of her lips sliding against one another with each step made her hips sway a little bit more. She wanted to touch herself. No wait, I want him to touch me. Without discretion, her eyes roamed freely across his butt as he walked. He was taller than her, and with his longer stride and slower steps his pace seemed more casual, like a saunter. Stephanie’s mouth was still watering, and she swallowed consciously, an erratic surge of pink energy thrumming up and down Stephanie’s core.
    Okay, calm way down, Steph, she imagined Megan’s voice. Being excited like this for the first time ever is okay. But, don’t go acting like a pervert.
    A group of sixteen-year-old girls dressed as a gang of anime-style juvenile delinquents was loitering in front of the café, squatting and pretending to smoke the sticks of pocki that dangled from their lips. For a moment she could hear their hushed whispers, but as they approached the entrance, the wannabe gang composed their young faces into exaggerated scowls and struck intimidating poses. Stephanie covered her mouth to hide her shy smile as they passed the spectacle.
    Although the convention hall itself was getting pretty packed, she was surprised to see the attached café was mostly unoccupied. Or rather, she was surprised until she saw the prices on the menu-board, which made her pale. Did they put those decimals in the right place? The small café was fashionably appointed in dark wood paneling and the dimmer lighting lent it a cozier atmosphere, with several rows of secluded booths along the back wall in addition to a scattering of tables throughout.
    Noticing her expression, Brian quirked an eyebrow. “On me?” he offered.
    “Oh no, I can pay for my own. But thank you,” she blurted, horrified at the thought of him spending sixteen dollars on her lunch. In fact, the thought of buying herself one was still daunting. Maybe just a salad. They ordered their overpriced meals and slipped into a booth across from one another, beginning their to eat in a somewhat tense silence.
    “Okay,” Brian said after a deep breath. “I wanted to talk to you, because I’m, well, curious. About you. You picking up my charm was just a coincidence, right?”
    “I saw you drop it when you were putting your necklace on your wrist,” she said timidly, “And, you were walking away…”
    “And you landing on me like that—that was an accident?”
    “I’m really very sorry about that,” She said with a quiet nod, her cheeks burning.
    “No, don’t be. And, if you’re having lunch with me out of some sense of guilt or obligation… then don’t worry about it, you don’t have to eat with me. To be honest, I’m not sorry about it,” he said finally. “It hurt, yeah. My head hit the ground pretty hard and everything, but it was… fun. Interesting. It’ll be a funny story, an anime cliche brought to life. The real reason I’m here at AnimeCon anyways is…”
    “Is what?” she asked carefully, eyes wide.
    “That’s… complicated,” he said slowly. “I thought I was going to come here and feel sorry for myself, dwell on some bad things that happened recently. But, a close friend of mine wanted me to come here to have fun, forget, move on from all of that. Thanks to you, I feel like I’m not letting my friend down now. So, thank you.”
    “You’re welcome, then,” She smiled brightly at him.
    She found herself intensely curious about him. Her whole body was filling up with frantic pink butterflies, anxious, interested, compelling feelings. As if there were a million things she wanted to ask him, but searching her mind for the words to pose to him, she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Each passing second as she sat across from him, delicately eating her salad, felt like another wasted opportunity. It was vexing her terribly. Say something, say something!
    “Ah! You know, I picked it up, but didn’t even look that closely at it. may I see your omamori?” she asked.
    “My—what?” He asked, giving her a quizzical look.
    “Your charm,” she said, pointing towards his sleeve.
    He pushed back the sleeve of his costume and his AnimeCon badges and the charm clinked against the table, still affixed to his wrist.
    “It’s neat,” she said, trying not to run out of conversation. “That isn’t the kanji for “luck,” but… I can’t tell what it says. Did you get it in the vendor’s room?”
    “No, a friend gave it to me. It says…” He nearly blurted out “harem,” but immediately thought better of it.
    “It says something dumb,” he admitted, flashing her a charming grin.
    Stephanie giggled, looking at him curiously but not pressing for a better answer. His grin was uncomfortably disarming, and the pink flickering flames and fluttering butterflies were going to overflow soon. She carefully set down her fork and took a deep breath.
    “There’s something I wanted to say. About when I fell for you. I mean! On you. When I fell on you,” she hastily corrected herself.
    “I, uh… well, I was so embarrassed I thought I would die. I’ve never been that embarrassed in my whole life.” She said bluntly. “But, at the same time…” She squeezed her hands into her lap, staring down at the remains of her salad.
    “But, at the same time…?” He prompted, looking puzzled.
    “At the same time. It kind of,” her eyes darted to him, biting her lip, and she fidgeted in her seat. “What I mean to say is, uhm. I’m glad that I fell on you?”
    “Oh,” He said, surprised. “Can I ask why?”
    “It was exciting,” she admitted, looking away. She could feel the blood rushing to her face again. “I don’t do things like that. I mean, things like that don’t happen to me. It was exciting. In… you know, that way.” She found that an idiotic smile had become plastered across her face and she didn’t dare look back at him.
    “I thought so, too,” he said, chuckled softly. “But, that kind of goes without saying.”
    “…It does?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Uhm, …why?” Her cute expression was almost painfully innocent.
    He considered how best to respond for several long moments. “I could tell you how attractive I find you. How hot it was to suddenly have you trying to sit on my face in the middle of the convention floor, and how much I want to further… excite you.”
    “R-really?!” Her whole body was lighting up, and she was intimately conscious of how wet she was and how close they were, just a small tabletop between them.
    “But,” he said, sounding tired now, “Even if you felt the same way right now, that wouldn’t make it a good idea to tell you those things. We just met earlier today, I just got out of a long relationship… You seem like a nice girl, and I don’t want to make anything awkward.”
    “Wait, wait,” She stammered. Her mind was a whirling pink kaleidoscope of spinning color. “Aren’t you already basically telling me all that? I don’t, uhm, I don’t mind hearing, I mean, it doesn’t bother me. You can say whatever you want.” Stop babbling!
    “Well, okay then. I’d better get this off my chest now,” he said, taking a sip from his drink.
    “To be honest, I never trained Flamituffs,” he continued, glancing at the rabbit-like ears perched atop her head. “The extra attacks they get make it seem like a great monster to pick, but their attacks don’t have any… you know, any oomph.”
    Her cautious smile waxed into a brilliant one again at the sudden detour he’d steered the topic onto, equal parts disappointed and relieved. Simply talking to a boy she was crushing on was unexpectedly thrilling, but she’d better not get in over her head. Maybe he liked her, and that was really great. But if he also shared her interest in Monster Battlers, well, that was fine, too. For now.
    “Hey, now,” she said in spite of herself. “When you train their speed the whole way up, they—uhm, they make so many attacks in one turn that it adds up to the same damage a Terrander could do, in a one-hit turn.”
    “Yeah, guess you could. If you totally maxxed out its speed. But, say you’re up against defensive types, like Turtusk. Instead of Turtusk’s damage reduction saving against whatever fixed damage of one attack, it saves against that damage on every separate attack that turn. So, your damage just isn’t going to add up in those cases.”
    “That’s, well. Yeah, that’s true,” she conceded. “But, since Flamituffs are so fast already, when you train them for speed, their chance to dodge attacks rises really high, too.” Her eyes were sparkling now. “So instead of focusing on attack and defense like most monsters, she’ll just attack more often and get hit less often,” she proclaimed proudly. “My Flamituff, against a Turtusk, would still be an even fight, since Turtusks don’t have really high accuracy.”
    He gave her a warm, thoughtful smile, and parts of her quivered. Had she really been geeking out in front of this cute guy? She should feel embarrassed, but instead he was into it, so it was kinda nice. She’d never really shared her interests with the opposite sex. It felt rather… engaging.
    “Kinda seems you’d have a flame element monster, that acts like an air element monster. Just, with the different set of weaknesses. I like it, it’d throw off most monster battlers.”
    “That’s what I can’t get Megan to understand! She tries to fight my Flamituff like you’d fight a Fierhog,” she exclaimed, feeling more at ease. “What monster do you fight with?”
    He finished his drink, tugging his sleeve back down over his wrist and giving her a cryptic smile. “You’d have to try me to find out.”
    “I can take you on,” she said. “I mean, I’ve already, kinda, knocked you down once already, so…” Her butt wriggled in her seat. Inwardly she was delighted with herself. Am I… flirting with him?
    “Yeah, that was… more effective than I thought it would be,” Brian admitted, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He let his gaze travel down her pink lips to the smooth white lines of her neck. “But, can you really still be confident, when you don’t know what I might have up my sleeve?”
    “Convention passes and a weird charm,” she answered smartly, pleased with herself, and leaned forward with growing confidence. “I’m ready for anything you can throw at me.”
    Now that was a challenge if he’d ever heard one.
    Before she could register what was happening, he leaned in and his lips were upon hers. A moist and sensual kiss swirled through the flotsam of arousal raging within her, and Stephanie grabbed his shoulders in surprise. The pink, fluid heat inside her boiled, bright sparks burst and streamers of light hissed and whizzed across her mind. Without thinking, she was kissing him back, licking his lips, tentatively slipping her tongue into his mouth, the sweet taste of—
    They broke apart reluctantly, and a spasm rippled through Stephanie’s body. The forgotten café around them seemed to swim back into existence.
    “That was, that, uuh,” Stephanie began, her unfocused, half-lidded eyes fluttering as she gasped for air.
    “Stephanie… your hair,” he interrupted.
    “My—what?” she asked in breathless confusion. “What about my hair?” A single streak of daring pink highlights had inexplicably appeared in her long blond tresses.
    •     •     •
    What the hell am I doing here? Kelly thought, scowling into the restroom mirror. It had been years since she’d attended an anime convention, and too much had changed. She didn’t recognize a single costume anymore, and everywhere she turned con-goers were enjoying some kind of inside joke that was part of their geeky little culture. Pathetic.
    Kelly considered herself a scene-girl goddess, her hair dyed a perfect shade of black and her artfully teased bangs cut along an angle to frame the flawless complexion of a fine-featured face. Skilled application of bold eyeliner and daring red-tinted eyeshadow complimented her brown eyes.
    Her last time at an anime con was three years ago, when she’d been a senior in high school. Back then she’d been so young and naive—her dazzling, mischievous smile regularly immortalized in dozens of exuberant selfies. Kelly had worn a borrowed costume, the spunky jester assistant of an evil clown, from some barely-remembered comic book thing. The outfit had been downright slutty, and Kelly had been a hit, basking in the radiance of adoration and jealousy from those around her. It had been fun, and although most geek and nerd stuff wasn’t really her thing, she’d had a blast, and planned on attending again.
    But, then she’d hooked up with Dale, and childish inclinations like anime conventions had been set aside and forgotten until now. Dale was a charming troublemaker, a bad boy with a band, The Ravaged Cassettes, that was going places. Dale you cheating asshole fucking piece of shit.
        Though still gorgeous, to Kelly now the fluorescent lighting seemed to cast a sickly pallor over her skin, and getting her makeup right seemed like more work every time. Being sober always makes me look older and shabbier in the mirror. Fuck.
    Scowling again, Kelly gave her boobs an experimental heft in the ladies’ room mirror. Generous C-cup breasts filled her simple black tank top, and dark skinny jeans fit snugly to the curves of her backside. She was without a bra, and it seemed like her puppies were going to slip free and give someone an eyeful if she wasn’t careful. She twisted and turned to see them from the side, pursing her lips. It would be alright… probably. Here, in the brilliant light of the ladies room, you could clearly see her areola outlined, but it wouldn’t be as noticeable out in the convention hall.
    I’m not an exhibitionist, I’m just using my assets pragmatically, she told herself. She’d brought her leftover cash to the con, but it wasn’t enough for nights at one of the hotels, or even a convention badge. A little bit of guile and a whole lot of cleavage would help… stimulate the charity of these helplessly geeky convention weebs. If I happen to have a rockin’ bod and love attention, well screw it, that’s just a bonus, she decided.
    “It’s… pink,” a girl in pink-and-red dress at the sink beside her abruptly said, snapping Kelly out of her reverie. A blonde, or rather mostly blonde girl was staring through glasses in disbelief at her own reflection in the ladies’ room mirror. She worked her fingertips through her tresses, as if unable to fathom how or why a vibrant streak of color now ran through her blond hair. A fluffy pair of rabbit ears wobbled from the headband she was wearing.
    “Pink.”
    “…Sure is,” Kelly replied snidely, a look of curious appraisal dissolving into a dismissive smirk as she returned to fixing her eyeliner.
    Startled, Stephanie turned to regard Kelly, feeling more than a little intimidated. The heady current of pink desire washing through that girl collided with her bafflement, creating swirling eddies of sensual confusion. Still stupidly holding her hair in front of her, Stephanie gulped. “Um, but w-why is it pink?”
    “…The hell you asking me for? It’s your hair,” Kelly sighed, shoving her eyeliner back into the depths of her purse.
    “I’m sorry, I’m j-just—” Stephanie was drawing back as if she’d been struck.    
    “Lemme guess,” Kelly smirked, “You put some cheap shit in for highlights? The generic shit washes out and fades right away, what’d you think was gonna happen? Or… is the color supposed to match that, uh… thing? You’re wearing?”
    “No, no,” a flustered Stephanie said, wetting her fingers under the faucet and dabbing at the errant pink locks. “I’ve never… put anything like that in my hair. I’ve never used dye or… anything, like that. It’s just, pink all of the sudden!”
    “Shit. Well, sorry,” Kelly said, feeling a genuine pang of sympathy for the shy girl. A year or two ago a friend had gotten wasted at a party and woken up with her head shaved. A prank like that’d never happened to Kelly personally, but that fear and wariness had always lingered.
    “You didn’t notice before you left for the con?” Kelly asked, arching an eyebrow as she leaned against the counter with her hip to face the other girl.
    “No, it was fine then,” Stephanie said meekly, shoving paper towels into her now damp hair. They were soaking up water but not coming away with any color. “It was normal when I left, I would have noticed because I, uh, put on my… cosplay ears. No one noticed anything at all, until I…”
    The slim girl she was facing had been pale as a sheet, but now she blushed and looked away, deliberately avoiding the other girl’s eyes. Okay, this has gotta be good.
    “Yeah, ’till you what?” Kelly urged her on.
    “I, uh, kissed. Kissed a boy,” Stephanie said, eliciting a peal of laughter from the scene girl beside her.
    “Oh my, dearie me, I kissed a boy. Heavens to betsy, whatever shall I do?” Kelly mocked, unable to contain herself. “Well, if he’ll rub crap in your hair while you’re makin’ out, he’s a real scumbag.”
    “No, no… he didn’t touch my hair. It just… happened when we kissed?” Stephanie frowned, isolating the pink locks again.
    “Just ’happened’ when you kissed, huh? Truuust me, if I lit up in technicolor every time I kissed someone, I’d look like a pride parade by now. Are you for serious? …Just what are you supposed to be, anyways?”
    “Uh,” Stephanie sputtered, flooding with embarrassment. She had never made a habit of talking to strangers in restrooms, this was turning into a particularly odd day. “Flamituff. From Monster Battlers.”
    Kelly looked at her in disbelief. “Isn’t that a kiddie game?”
    “Uhm, yes. It’s from a game,” Stephanie replied reluctantly, adjusting her glasses. This encounter had cooled the blaze heating her body down to smoldering pink embers.
    “Well, uh, yeah… good luck with your hair then,” Kelly said, chuckling as she shouldered her purse. Almost as an afterthought, she gave Stephanie one last, assessing look. “Hey, you wouldn’t be able to spare me ten bucks, would ya? I’m like, juuust a bit short of enough for my con badge.”
    Stephanie blinked at her with wide eyes for a moment. “Ah, yeah, I… guess I could?” Ten dollars isn’t a big deal after spending eight on a salad, she thought gloomily. Stephanie’s neatly folded bill was quickly crumpled into Kelly’s fist as they headed out of the restroom.
    “Hey, thanks, really. You’re not such a weeb after all,” Kelly laughed as they exited together.
    “…Weeb?” Stephanie asked, blanching.
    “Uh, weeaboo. You know, anime geeks? Anime geek people,” Kelly said. “Weeaboo.”
    There was a cosplayer waiting for them outside, and the downcast bunny-girl she’d met seemed to perk up right away at the sight of him. He was wearing a Fantasy Wars uniform jacket, not an uncommon sight in the convention lobby. But while most of the other cosplayers looked rather shapeless in them, this guy’s solid build filled out the shoulders snugly while the coat sides tapered into a tailored ‘v’ shape on his trim waist.
    The foppishly oversized shoulder epaulettes and exaggerated insignias on many of the other jackets were minimalistic and well-proportioned on this one, making his uniform look rather clean-cut and smart, more like actual military attire. With his sexily tousled brown hair, he was pretty spot-on for the character Lance from the series, in fact… not that Kelly would ever admit to recognizing anyone from that nerdy old game.
    “Weeaboo? Did somebody just say ‘Weeaboo?’” Brian asked them in a conspiratorial voice.
    “Awww, yeah! Wee-a-boo! Wee-a-boo!” a passing pair of nerds on their way to the mens’ room called out in a frat-boy chant.        
    “I, uh, guess I’m a weeaboo, then…?” Stephanie said, sporting a hesitant smile.
    Brian grinned, and began to explain. “‘Weeaboo’ is pretty much a derogatory term specifically for us western anime fans. Since Japanese otaku are already considered scum by their own culture, fans outside Japan are naturally regarded as even lower trash.”
    “Uh, wow, just fulla facts, aren’tcha?” Kelly said, giving him a glib smile. Is this bunny-girl’s mysterious romancer? Well… he’s not too bad looking. For a weeaboo.
    “Why attend the con if you’re not a ‘weeb’ yourself, though?” He asked, glancing from Stephanie to Kelly curiously.
    Kelly snorted. “Long story. Lots of drama,” she answered. “Might not attend anything but the lobby anyways, I don’t have enough cash for my pass! Flammyfluff here just lent me ten bucks, maybe you could spare some too?” She surreptitiously tugged at the hem of her tank top, and the barely-clothed globes of her breasts shifting against one another enticingly. Gawd, these weebs are so fun to tease, she thought, her mood having brightened for some untraceable reason.
    “Flamituff,” Stephanie corrected weakly.
    “Well… why not? But, tell you what,” Brian said thoughtfully, “Give her that ten bucks back, I can just lend you my spare pass.” He flicked his wrist out to reveal his pair of convention passes and a charm dangling out from his sleeve.
    “For reals?” Kelly giggled, eyes lighting up. “Sweeeet!” She eagerly passed the crumpled ten back to Stephanie and grabbed for the offered pass from Brian’s wrist. As she did so, a tiny energy current sparked against her index finger, and Kelly yanked her hand back in surprise.
    “Ah, shit, your little pin jabbed me,” she laughed, easily brushing aside the dangling harem charm to see the convention badge more clearly. For a moment the scene girl swayed unsteadily on her feet, a whirling sense of vertigo gripping her. The tilting, off-balance sensation subsided, but burning red stardust blew on an unseen wind through her thoughts, and she felt warm…  breathless.
    Holy eff, this is a three-day pass! She realized giddily. Am I lucky, or is this guy just…?
    Pin? Stephanie wondered as she watched Kelly remove the spare pass. Had that charm been on a pin? She stared at her palm. She’d also felt… something, upon first touching the omamori, and for a pervasive moment it felt like she was overlooking an important clue. The thought passed, her suspicion swallowed up in a pink froth of flame and momentarily forgotten.
    “Hey, really, thanks,” Kelly chimed, untangling the badge’s lanyard and slinging it around her smooth neck so that the laminated badge slapped across the bare expanse of her exposed cleavage. “But, what’d ya have a spare for?”
    When she finally looked up from the convention pass to Brian, something in her chest tightened. A closer look at her new benefactor revealed the mesmerizing sharp green of his eyes, that seemed both playful and a little cold. Kelly blinked, a little startled. Yeah, uh-oh. This guy looks like trouble. He looks like my kinda trouble, in fact. She felt herself wanting to put her hands on him.
    “Pre-ordered passes for me and my girlfriend,” he admitted, “But, she dumped me right before the con.”
    “So, you’re single now, huh?” Kelly blurted, looking from him to Stephanie. The blond bunny-girl blushed and looked down, but no one offered Kelly a contradiction. So, this girl’s trying to grab him while he’s on the rebound? …Interesting. The dark clouds of accumulated frustration that had been gathering over the months seemed to roll away for a moment, revealing the open expanses of a night sky, glittering with red starlight.
    “Well that’s… really her loss, then. I’m Kelly, also single!” she introduced herself, letting her hand slide up his arm.
    “Brian,” he offered, not seeming as fazed as she’d like. He casually slipped his arm around her. “And you’ve already met my Flamituff, Stephanie.”
    “Uh… I have!” Kelly admitted, disarmed—but not displeased by his proximity. The presumption that ‘all geeks are desperate virgins’ collided with the notion of ‘a cute guy with his arm around her’ in a jarring flash of red sparks. Huh. She was oblivious to those red pinpricks of light as they began to descend through her mind like burning fallout.
    “So, is this the guy who, you know…?” Kelly asked, flashing a predatory grin at Stephanie and laying a hand on Brian’s chest possessively. Hey, not scrawny at all, either, she discovered.
    “What’d I do?” Brian asked.
    “Ah! Uhm, yeah, he and… uh,” Stephanie glanced between them, as if looking for permission.
    “Oh, it’s nothin’, we were just having a bit of girl talk earlier,” Kelly said soothingly, looking the girl up and down. Reevaluating her.
    Cute face, slim figure, she thought. Enough self-confidence to fill a matchbox… without taking out the matches first. Probably some shy, bookwormy-type who’ll have cobwebs forming in her cleavage before she ever actually learns to show it off. What a waste. But, wait, that big ol’ butt of hers… A mischievous spark of red color traced through her mind, as if someone had flicked a lit cigarette into the darkness. Well, let’s get a better look.
     “I just love your… Flamituff, was it? Love your Flamituff outfit, do you mind…?” Kelly motioned with her finger for the shy girl to spin so that she could get a better look at her ensemble.
    “Ah, yeah, sure,” Stephanie said meekly, eyes flitting to Brian again. Slowly, the shy girl began to pirouette.
    The gijinka cosplay she’d sewn was impressively well-tailored to her body. Her narrow waist widened out into broad hips, and as she presented her side profile the small of her back flared out provocatively into the curve of her bottom. The plump swell of her butt caused the hem of her pink and red sundress to rise up in a tantalizing fashion.
    Damn, the cutie has some booty, Kelly realized enthusiastically.
    “Now, stop there a sec,” Kelly asked, flicking her bangs out of her eyes and leaning towards Brian. “What do you think? Is her ass amazing, or what?”
    “Hey!” Stephanie yelped, covering her rear with her hands. “That’s not funny!”
    “C’mon, I’m just playin’,” Kelly said calmly. “Your costume actually looks good on you. Really emphasizes your… charm.”
    “I wasn’t trying to emph—I wasn’t trying to do that,” Stephanie said defensively, tugging the hem of her dress down again. The bottom edge shot right back to where it had been, her bottom jiggling entrancingly for a second.
    Yeah, not bad at all, Kelly thought, feeling warm. Usually, it took some drinking before she would check out another chick, but something about the plush derriere on this sweet little thing in front of her was making her want to just grab it. The urge to squeeze that ample flesh in her fingertips as she pleased, make this bunny-girl squirm. Before she could get a handful, Stephanie spun back around and covered her butt protectively.
      “Geez, sensitive much?” Kelly said delightedly. “C’mon, Brian… what do you think about it?”
    “I’m… bad with words, so I’ll just have to show her what I think of it later,” Brian remarked playfully.
    Not a bad answer, Kelly thought. She’d been hoping to bait him into a comical display of geeky stuttering and stumbling over his words, and he’d disappointed her soundly.     
    “You’ll, uh, what?!” Stephanie stammered.
    “Awesome, be sure to show her good and hard, then.” Kelly said, punching his shoulder lightly. Damn, he probably will, too. She’s totally into him.
    “I wouldn’t be a good Monster Battlers trainer if I didn’t,” he agreed, nodding his head with sagely wisdom.
    “Wait, you’re going to do what?” Stephanie asked again.
    He’s gonna fuck you silly, Kelly thought to herself in amusement. You’re gonna get bent over, and spanked right across that fat little ass. Then, when you can’t take anymore, and you’re blushing and panting for it like a dog in heat… he’s gonna give it to you. You’re the shy little cutesy weeb right now, but I can tell you’re getting yourself all soaked ‘cause of this guy…  Kelly stifled a silly grin and felt the blood rush to her face. Or, maybe I’m the one getting soaked…?
    “Well, yeah, thanks again for the pass, Brian, seriously,” Kelly said as she broke away from the pair, feeling… heated and antsy. “Now that I have one, I’m gonna check out the vendor’s room. Flammyfluff,” she waved towards Stephanie. “Smell ya later!”
    “D-did she just…?” Stephanie looked at him quizzically.
    “Quote the rival character from Monster Battler? I dunno… probably a coincidence?” He said, as they watched her recede into the stream of convention-goers entering the vendor’s room.
    Kelly prowled into the bustling aisles of the vendor’s room with a sexy sway to her hips,  grapefruit-sized breasts bobbing gently with her every stride. She felt good. More than good, she was practically lit. Her dark tank top was already tight and low-cut enough to be risque, and without a bra she should be turning heads with the entrancingly pendulous motion of her bust alone. She’d initially thought it would take hours for her to scrape up enough cash for a badge, but here she was with all access and the convention was only halfway through the first day.
    I want to flirt now, she thought to herself, pouting. Where did all the good-looking geeks run off to?
    The brightly-colored merchandise heaped on the vendor’s booths and hung from their racks were easy enough to ignore for now, at least. The table fronts were crowded with shoppers and squeezing in to see the wares would necessitate sweaty body-contact with the overweight neckbearded collector-types. An excited, frenetic energy was rippling through her, and in her mind red-hot meteors were screaming down through the night. Parts of her already quavered in anticipation of some good, hard impacts.
    Oh, yeah, Kelly thought, biting her lip and scanning the vendor’s room with a heated gaze. I’m gettin’ laid this weekend. No harm in scoping out a lucky romeo now.
    After a full circuit around the spacious room and its dozen rows of vendors tables however, she was getting anxious and annoyed. No one was biting. She was even high-beaming, her nipples tenting the thin fabric of her top in eye-catching beads that preceded her wherever she sauntered, and still, not a single dweeb had risen to take the bait.
    Kelly huffed, searching through the crowd of convention-goers in vexation. She’d never had trouble luring in guys at bars or concerts. She was getting plenty of attention, guys checking her out—or even staring, but when she made eye-contact they looked away, studiously avoiding her gaze. Whatever, she thought dismissively, small fry aren’t worth my time, anyways. In the end, only a single one of them approached her. A greasy creep.
    “Hey babe, can I get a picture?” the chubby older guy in a white navy admiral costume uniform asked, unabashed. His long dark locks were tied back in a ponytail, but his receding hairline simply gave the impression that his hair was abandoning ship. His lecherous half-grin was framed by an unkempt goatee of what could have possibly been pubic hair.
    Seriously, I’m not even in a costume? She gave the creep an uncertain smile and flashed two fingers in an awkward victory sign for the shot. That used to be a trendy thing in anime, hope it still passes…? He seemed satisfied with just a photo, thankfully, and left, disappearing back into the swarm of anime fans. The gaggle of short girls in cat-eared hats walking behind her giggled, and she shot them a dirty look.
    “Okay, that was gross,” she said aloud, hunching into a more reclusive posture and crossing her arms over her breasts. No need to really fish for guys, I can just scope them out for now. There were geeky guys wandering around aplenty, and so, she began mentally tagging and discarding them by their individual deficiencies.
    Wash your face, ugh. She shouldered past a nerd sporting a leather trenchcoat and a bowler hat. And, why are so many guys wearing those stupid ‘Caring is Magic,’ My Friendly Pony shirts?! Her cursory search revealed that there weren’t many guys here who would satisfy her tastes, at least in the vendor’s room. Ugh, wispy mustache, either shave it all or grow in real facial hair.
    “Che,” Kelly spat in aggravation. Aren’t there more guys like Brian around here?
    •     •     •
    By late afternoon on Friday, AnimeCon was simmering with excitement—a soup of colorful costumes and eager, chattering geeks. Pockets of empty space opened and closed in the packed multitude of people like bubbles on boiling broth as cosplayers were stopped for impromptu photo-shoots. Incredibly large, elaborate costumes towered over the press of people, and there were entire groups of cosplayers representing large casts from different animes. Intricately detailed monsters, gorgeous couples in splendid raiments, grizzled fantasy swordsmen, sarcastic robots and everything in between wandered about freely.
    “I wasn’t sure if I owed you an apology or not,” Brian said to Stephanie as they continued down one of the hallways.
    “An apology?” Stephanie asked, perplexed. “Wh-what would, I mean, why would you owe me an apology?”
    “Er… for stealing a kiss back then, in the café,” he admitted, looking at her cautiously. “I’ll admit, when you took off in a hurry, I was kinda worried.”
    “Oh, no! The kiss was fine! Uh, more than fine, the kiss was amazing. It was just—the thing with my hair, I was really surprised and… The kiss though, the kiss was amazing,” she emphasized clearly.
    “Definitely, um, it was definitely a more effective attack than I was prepared for. I guess you really do have a lot more up your sleeves than I thought,” she admitted playfully, feeling her face redden.
    “Arms, even,” he joked, tugging his sleeve back to expose a forearm. The charm dangling from his wrist bobbed and twisted in the light.
    “Haha, uh, yeah,” she said weakly, momentarily enthralled by the glimpse.
    Mmm… His forearm was nothing like her slender, feminine arms. It was thicker… rougher, with the subtle curves of muscle that gave them a deliciously shapely appearance. Even his hands look strong, she thought heatedly. What would… what would those hands feel like on me?
    She imagined them tightly gripping her shoulders, tugging open her flimsy costume with ease, and exposing her pale skin to the air. Would she feel heat rise to the surface wherever his rough fingertips roamed? Something deep in her tummy twitched reflexively at the thought. She could hold tight onto the corded muscle of those arms… or let his hands slide down her back towards her rear. Would those hands squeeze, his fingers press deeper into the soft, pert curves of her buttocks? Another series of hot pink sparks seemed to sputter in her brain.
    “So, any clue what happened?”
    “W-with what?” she asked, blinking rapidly as her daydream evaporated.
    “Your hair, the pink in it. I meant to ask, but we got kinda sidetracked by that Kelly girl.”
    “Oh! Uh, no,” she answered sheepishly, “No clue. I mean, ah, it wouldn’t come out with water at all, a-at least. Kelly, uhm, she was sure you rubbed dye in my hair or something. How bad is it?”
    Gently, he reached up past her rabbit ear headband and ran his fingers through her hair, separating the aberrant pink strands with his fingertips. She found the gesture surprisingly… intimate, and gradually leaned into him. Her heart beat the excited doki doki of a pure young girl, but other parts of her were heating up in a much less innocent way.
    “It’s not bad,” he said, making eye contact with her. “Actually, it looks nice.”
    “Really?” Hearing those words from him, it was as if the warmth within was beginning to radiate out through her smile.
    “Excuse me, would it be okay if I got a picture of you two?” A petite Asian girl in a hoodie asked from behind an expensive camera.
    “Of… us…?” Stephanie asked, flabbergasted. “Together?” Though too embarrassed to admit she’d never played a Fantasy Wars title, it was pretty clear their costumes were from entirely different genres.
    “Of course,” Brian agreed readily, drawing his fantasy pistol from his shoulder holster in a smooth motion. His other hand slipped around the small of Stephanie’s back, delicately pulling her against him. Deep inside of Stephanie, a furnace was trembling into motion, small pink flames sputtering from glowing coals. With his feet squared, chest raised, and an arm around her, he looked—heroic.
    Caught off guard by the camera already pointed their way, Stephanie realized how stiff her posture was, and nearly panicked. She put her arm awkwardly around Brian—but was too self-conscious to put her hand on him. Instead it hovered, not touching, a bare inch off of his side.
    It’ll look like I’m actually holding him in the picture, though, she tried to assure herself. She stared vacantly at the camera lense for a moment until finally something in the kindling pink fire within her popped, and a warm, safe feeling seemed to spread throughout her. She relaxed into a soft smile just in time for the flash of the camera.
    “Thanks! I love your costumes!” The Asian girl said, smiling.
    My first picture taken at a convention, Stephanie thought, disoriented with excitement. And, it’s with him. A picture of us. This is all really happening, and now there’s actual proof! I want to see, I want a copy! She followed the thin Asian girl with her eyes.
    “You know, Steph,” he said in a low voice, “you can put your hand on me for photos, if you want to.”
    Stephanie gulped, feeling her cheeks burn red in a hasty blush. “You, you noticed, huh?”
    “Yeah,” He chuckled, looking at her. “You seemed… tense.”
    “Yeah! I’m good, uh, great. Was just a little nervous. That was the first time someone’s, um, taken a photo. Of me, I mean. At a convention like this. In costume…” she trailed off meekly.
    “You’re joking,” he said, eyeing her carefully. “You’re a virgin?!”
    “What?!” she sputtered, eyes wide. “W-well yes, but—” Is it that obvious? Wait, where did that come from?!
    “A convention virgin, I mean. This is your first time cosplaying?” he asked playfully, gesturing to her Flamituff gijinka.
    “Um, yes,” she said, exhaling slowly. “That. This is my first anime convention.”
    “Oh, wow, I just assumed…” he said, chuckling, “I mean, your costume doesn’t look like a first-time cosplay. You made it yourself?”
    “…I did.” She said, pleased with herself.
    “Now I feel bad,” he said, shaking his head. “Here I’ve been taking up all your time, and you must be excited to go around and see everything.”
    Her gaze flicked across the breadth of his chest as he held open his jacket to re-holster his prop pistol. Everything, huh…
    “Uh, yes! I mean, no! That is, I am excited, but you’re not taking up my time. Or it’s ok-okay if you do. I like you. Like taking up time with you, I meant to say! Er, s-spending time with you,” she corrected herself. Stop stammering!
    “…Me too,” he said. “But, did you need to meet back up with your friend? The Pandape girl?”
    “Ah! Right. Her,” Stephanie remembered. “She, told—ah, she asked me to meet her in the vendor’s room, but… I mean, I’m sure she’s shopping, and, well. I can hang out for a little bit longer. With you. If-if you want to.”
    “Cool! Let’s walk for a bit, then.” Brian proposed, offering his hand, and Stephanie giddily took it, relieved. I have him to myself. For a bit longer, at least.
    Holding hands, they carefully traversed their own convoluted route across the packed main lobby. Convention staff bottlenecked traffic into the vendor’s room, talent show auditions stage, viewing theaters, and gaming tournament with badge checks, and haphazard lines had begun to criss-cross the area. Troupes of fans milled about, squatted, or sprawled out on the floor in the lobby, creating an ever-changing topography of areas to navigate.
    “So, we’ve established that you’re a Monster Battlers fan,” he began, “Are you real into anime too, or just games?”
    “I’ve only seen the… ‘mainstream’ anime, so I don’t feel like I’m a very serious fan,” she admitted shyly. “Just stuff that’s been dubbed into English and aired here in America.”
    “So, things like Shinobi Souls, and Magi Hunter?”
    “Yeah, pretty much,” she said, feeling lame. “But I read a lot of shoujo manga comics online… which, uh, you’re probably not into… Obviously. Hah, sorry.”
    Although there were compendiums of comics focusing on specific genres such as sports, horror, or science fiction, Japanese comics were also often categorized simply by their target demographic. The latest shounen, meaning comics for boys, might be collected into a thick monthly magazine such as Shounen Leap on convenience store shelves all over Japan. Likewise, the newest shoujo comics, for girls, could be found in a release such as Shoujo Anthology, emphasizing romance and drama rather than action and heroics.
    “No, that’s normal. I think the only shoujo I’ve really read was Key Catcher Sakuro.”
    “Ah! That’s a good one. I was really into it when I was in high school. But, still. Good series.” She said, nodding her approval.
    “Oh!” Brian exclaimed as he remembered, “Actually, I read about half of Vampire Crusader—that’s about as shoujo as they get. I quit following it, though, seemed like they were all drawn with the same face. I couldn’t tell anybody apart, even their hairstyles were too similar.”
    “Oh, I know, right?” Stephanie laughed in agreement. “It just gets harder to follow the further in the series you get. “Like, you can’t tell the vampires apart to begin with except for their hair color, and then they do that dramatic style thing, and the colors invert. Then there’s Akuma’s long-lost twin and a longer-lost triplet! And then that incubus guy is always using his magic to disguise himself as other characters…” she trailed off in embarrassment, realizing she was rambling.
    “A triplet, too? Geez, that’s awful,” he said, chuckling. “There’s a Vampire Crusader cosplayer over there, past those girls. Did you see him?” Brian gestured towards a distant young man in an overly posh white-and-black school uniform.
    Stephanie laughed abruptly, and quickly covered her mouth, glancing sheepishly back to Brian. “I was wondering how often he gets asked which vampire he is.”
    Smiling knowingly, Brian sighed. “A couple years ago, I had this uniform right, but couldn’t get the hair perfect. So, people couldn’t tell if I was Lance, or Leonus from Fantasy Wars.
    “I think you’re perfect.” Stephanie said, blushing. And I don’t know who Lance or Leonus even are.
    “Thanks,” he said with a chuckle. You know, my friend who gave me the charm’s been trying to get me to do a Shinobi Souls cosplay, but I can’t figure out who I’d be.”
    “Shinobi Souls? You’d be a great Sousuke!” Stephanie exclaimed.
    “Sousuke Salladin? No way, he’s a badass, but I don’t have the body to pull it off. Love the character, though.”
    “But you’re, um. Well I think you definitely could. Probably. Yeah.”
    Brian would be perfect as Sousuke! The pink flames licking through her imagination seemed to conjure Brian in the ninja assassin’s outfit. An almost completely bare upper-body, toned muscle criss-crossed with long scars and the leather straps for ornate armor plates protecting his arms. A middle-eastern keffiyeh worn around his neck like a scarf hid his face from enemies when necessary and occasionally revealed glimpses of chiseled, gorgeous features. Almost TOO sexy… I would love to see him in that! Or out of it…
    “Well, she cosplays Akane Kurokawa from Shinobi Souls, maybe you’ll see her on Sunday.”
    Stephanie did a double-take. “Ah, y-your friend that gave you the charm is a—a girl?” And, bold enough to cosplay something as risqué as Akane Kurokawa?! Akane was widely considered a ‘fan-service’ character, recognized more for her bodacious body nearly spilling out of her skimpy outfit, than her skill as a ninja.
    “Yeah, that’s Emily. She’s that friend I told you about, who was pushing for me attend, forget my ex, quit dwelling on things. Emily gave me that charm and told me to meet some girls here, start building myself a harem.” he laughed.
    “Harem, haha—wait, that’s it! Harem!” Stephanie lit up, flashing him a smile. “Er, uh, may I?” she asked, reaching into his sleeve for the dangling charm. She adjusted her glasses and took another look at the complex character carefully carved onto its face.
    Modern Japanese was written in a simple alphabet called hiragana, but they also used the roughly three-thousand symbols of kanji when writing something old-fashioned and traditional, like a family nameplate… or an omamori charm. While Stephanie had taught herself many of them, even kanji like these that she understood were difficult for her to recognize without a context to place them in.
    “I knew it looked familiar—I do recognize this! The symbol for ’inner,’ together with the symbol for ’palace’. When you put these two kanji together, it means ’harem’! It’s a harem charm!” she exclaimed proudly, giggling. Huh… this omamori isn’t on a pin after all. What was that feeling earlier?
    “That’s amazing, you can read kanji? We had to look it up and we could still barely believe it. Emily’s sister bought it from a shrine somewhere in Japan.”
    “W-well, I can only read some kanji. And, uh, usually I have to use my reference book all the time… hah. They sold something like this at a shrine?!” Stephanie laughed, turning it over in her hands. “Do you know which shrine it was?”
    He shook his head. “If they told me, I don’t remember it.”
    “It’s hilarious,” she decided, “And clever. And…” Sporting a shy smile, she looked past the omamori and up into his eyes. “H-hey, do you, uh, do you think it works? The charm, I mean.”
    “…It just might,” he said, sharing a grin. “But, I don’t believe in magic or charms. Luck is just being ready for the right moments when they come, right?”
    “That’s, ah, from Seneca!” Stephanie recalled. “He was a Roman philosopher. ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’”
    “You have a sharp memory,” he said, impressed. “I always seem to butcher famous quotes when I try to remember them.”
    “N-no, you got the idea of it, what was important,” Stephanie insisted, “Philosophers explored ideas, it was, um, only those who followed after that turned their work into neat little aphorisms like that. What Seneca actually wrote wasn’t something easy to fit into a bumper sticker or fortune cookie.”
    “Guess that puts things in perspective,” Brian chuckled. “But, what I mean to say is, rather than put my faith in a magic charm, or even get full of myself, I’ll thank Emily and you.”
    “What do you mean?” Stephanie asked, cocking her head.
    “Emily could’ve kept her hands out of my problems, but she didn’t. She helped me realize that things were really over with my ex, she… well, prepared me. To move on. She gave me this silly little token to remind me of that, and then you gave me an opportunity. You two are why I feel so lucky right now. I’d rather believe in the people who’ve helped me rather than… abstracts, like luck, fate… fortune, or whatever.”
    “What?” She asked, tilting her head. “How did I give you an opportunity?”
    “Well, pinning me to the ground and planting your panties on my face wasn’t an opportunity I was gonna miss,” he remarked playfully.
    “H-hey, that’s not, um, exactly—”
    “What I mean is, even if someone else had seen me drop that charm, they probably would’ve just pocketed it. You returned it to me, which means a lot. And, it means even more to me that you had the courage to talk to me after that, ah… that little accident we had. I can tell how hard it was for you. Well… or was that really an accident?” He wondered aloud.
    “It was. So much. So much accident. Such,” she blurted. “I never would have… uh, well. Accidentally—”
    “Of course. If you’d just wanted me to go down on you, you could’ve just asked,” he teased.
    “W-what!? I d-don’t want you to, ah, I mean I didn’t want y-you to, uh, that’s not something that I—” she cried, flushing scarlet and hiding her face.
    “Sorry, kidding.” he said. “Truce?”
    “…Truce,” was all she could manage, too flustered to say anything else. Is it even possible for a guy to go down on a girl…?
    For a girl who loved to read and prided herself on her knowledge, she was finding her own understanding of sex disappointingly… rudimentary. Well, going down on a guy is when his… um, his thing is in her mouth. So, maybe…? The warm pink flames she’d felt in her belly rose up and spread out into a scorching conflagration as she pictured his lovely jawline nuzzling between her naked thighs… perhaps playfully nibbling the insides, in delightful sensitive places where even the slight exhalations of his breath would be enough to make her quiver. Perhaps he would make his way towards her labia with soft, puckered kisses and then spread her—
    “But, uh, t-that aside, I like the way you think,” she decided, gulping. “That you believe in your friends, and in, uh, you know, people, rather than random happenstance. I like that.”
    He shrugged his shoulders and raised his other hand in an empty gesture as if to say, well, it can’t be helped. “That’s what I’m like after watching too many shounen animes.”
    “Uh… I’ve been meaning to ask…” Stephanie began as they passed one of the gaming rooms. In this one, a dozen players were carefully setting up miniature armies atop a tabletop covered in the labyrinthine ruins of a tiny city.
    “What did you mean earlier, exactly?” She asked, feeling her face redden. “Right before Kelly left, when you were going to—when you said you were going to show me something later,” she said with difficulty.
    “Oh, no, I’d really have to show you. I can’t just tell you about it,” he said playfully. “Why, are you… curious?”
    “Um, yes. A little. How… how would… you show me…?” Stephanie asked meekly.
    “Actually, I think it’s your turn,” Brian said. “I attacked last, right?”
    “R-right,” Stephanie laughed, suddenly nervous. Nervous but willing. “Okay. What would, erm, if I did, what sort of… what do you want me to do? To, ah, ‘attack.’”
    He deliberated for a long moment as they wandered past the darkened LAN gaming room, where two dozen glowing computer monitors outlined the silhouettes of gamers competing in a cacophony of gunfire sound effects and explosions.
    “When I kissed you back in the café, it was ’cause it felt like you were daring me to, and also just… well, me expressing my feelings at the moment,” he decided. “I don’t want to pressure you into expressing something you may not really feel, you know?”
    “I want you… to want to ‘attack’ me, sure,” he explained. “But, I won’t tell you to. Having someone simply follow direction isn’t nearly as… well, exciting, as seeing someone express their feelings in their own way, you know? Telling you what to do would be more like I was… using you.”
    Of course it wouldn’t be that simple, Stephanie chided herself, uneasily swallowing down her own naiveté on the complex nuances of courtship. Her keen mind bravely tumbled on through the blur of this unfamiliar terrain.
    This isn’t a campus administrator telling me, ‘this and this and this much, and you’ve passed.’ It’s the prospective employer casually brushing aside those… quantifiable expectations, and simply daring me to impress them. Can I impress Brian? She realized that she wanted to, more than anything. With her feelings, and her courage in expressing them.
    Express my feelings. In my own way, she thought to herself, not disappointed with his reasoning in the slightest. I love that. Her stomach suffused into a nervous pink firestorm. But, what… exactly… should I do? She’d always rolled her eyes at magazine headlines at the supermarket like Ten Tricks to Drive Your Man WILD.
    Not something like that. I want to do something honest, and meaningful… not just some kinky gimmick to catch his attention for a moment, she decided. Hundreds of the novels she’d read had gleanings of romantic knowledge in them, and in her head they slowly began to coalesce into an answer, fuel feeding into the voracious combustion of emotion throbbing through her.
    I need to… I need to surrender myself. To my feelings. To him. Let go of propriety and… the fear for a moment and… just let my body act. ‘Heart of mine, do as you will,’ she commanded resolutely.
    “Although…” Brian mused, rubbing his jaw. “I guess you were the one boasting to me that Flamituffs attack more, and get hit less?” he quipped, “You’re not exactl—”
    Stephanie interrupted, placing her gloved hands on Brian’s chest and leaning in, her lips hovering bare inches from his. She hesitated there for a single moment, soft blue eyes peeking shyly up over the rim of her glasses, and savored his surprised expression. Lovely. Frantic energy shuddered up and down her body for that brief second, the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and her whole body prickled with anticipation. She closed the remaining distance, and kissed him.
    As their lips met, the raw current anxiously weaving through her began to ignite in a chaotic explosion of spinning and roiling pink fire. The crowds around them momentarily forgotten, she felt herself rising onto her tiptoes, pressing herself hungrily up into the kiss. Whatever this is between us… attraction, a crush, some infatuation, or even… love, I need more. I need so much more. She was too lost in the sensation of their lips sliding against one another to realize that her hands were tugging on his coat, pulling him closer as they kissed, open-mouthed, feeding on one another’s affection.
    “Wow, you defini—” Brian began breathlessly, before being cut off again.
    All at once she pushed her tongue into his mouth, felt it slide against his. The bursting explosion of fire and energy inside her was too bright to be called pink, and she felt a fluid heat sliding down her body towards her sex that made her abdomen clench and jerk. Her whole body wriggled against his, and she shivered. Her molten core, hidden beneath her increasingly damp panties, ached for attention.
    As if the whirling cloud of erotic thoughts couldn’t be contained in Stephanie’s head anymore, bright color bled out from the roots of her hair, seeping and spreading slowly across her blond tufts and turning them a brilliant shade of cotton-candy pink. Before it could overtake her whole head, the passion and heat of their kiss grew too intense, and the couple broke apart, gasping for breath.
    Her senses slowly returning to her to scattered applause, she realized that a handful of people around her were actually clapping and cheering. Did something…? Oh. It’s. It’s us. Then she realized they were all looking in her direction. Cheeks burning, Stephanie stared down at her feet bashfully.
    Well, that did go pretty far… she thought, proudly.
    Pulling away reluctantly, Brian did a double-take, zeroing in on her newly colored locks with a stare.
    “Wha… what is it?” Stephanie panted, giving him a shaky smile as she brought her fingertips to her lips. “…My hair, isn’t it? What, uh, what’s it like now?”
    With a slow, considerate movement he gathered some of her once golden tresses in his fingers and pulled them into her view. Oh. Oh, my. The single strand of pink highlights in her hair had spread out into a wide swath of pink on her left, and several individual strands of pink now streaked through the blond on her right. Stephanie giggled.
    “…Steph? Are you alright?” Brian said, lowering his voice.
    “You’re turning me pink,” she said, attempting to stifle her smile. “I don’t know why, or how… but you—you’re turning me pink, Brian.”
    “It, well… yeah, it does seems that way,” He admitted. “But, that isn’t normal, I’ve never heard of anything like this happening.” His face of concern for her was captivating, an expression she wanted etched deep into her memory.
    “Does it look bad… this time?” With her head canted and her bunny ears jutting up from her pink and gold tresses, she looked painfully adorable.
    “No, it’s cute,” looking it over again, he shook his head. “It suits you. It’s pretty… But—”
    “Then, I don’t care,” she said, beaming at him. So much more is happening to me when we kiss then just something with my hair.
    “Hey, how’d you do that hair effect thang?” A grinning brunette girl wearing a skimpy stage magician’s outfit asked in a southern drawl. “That was amazing! What is it, some kinda fiber-optic wig?”
    “This is seeming more and more like some kind of anime story,” Brian observed dryly.
    “Can we get your picture?” a heavy-set girl in an anime T-shirt asked. Brian looked at Stephanie with an expectant grin.
    “Yeah!” she affirmed cheerfully, determined to be ready this time.
    Brian drew his fantasy pistol with a flourish this time, gun-spinning it around his trigger finger and snapping it to a stop perfectly aimed for his action pose. Again, he reached around her and planted a hand on her hip, pulling her against him.
    But, this time, her tentative reaching fingertips were sliding under his jacket as well. Sliding across his chest, torn between eagerly exploring and slowly savoring every touch. Finally, they fell firmly in place at his side and she was fully embracing him. She felt… great. Amazing. I love this. The camera flashed, followed by another camera, and then another.
    “Thanks! I really love your hair!” the heavyset girl chirped. “I have a pin of you on my backpack!” The girl turned to show a row of Monster Battler badges, where a Flamituff was settled in between an Oaknaut and a Solar Bear. And then, there at the end of the row, was the familiar silhouette of a rotund Pandape.
    Pandape. Megan! Oh crap! A surge of alarm spiked through the cloud of pink in Stephanie’s brain. What am I going to tell her? About what happened? About Brian? About my hair?!
    “I, uh, should probably go, to meet up with my friend in the vendor’s room, she was… uh, there was her panel, and now, um…” Stephanie mumbled reluctantly. Her lips were still tingling from their kiss. No, not just her lips but her whole body was alight with sensation, and every touch of her pink-and-red Flamituff sundress against her skin was palpable.
    “Right, it’s okay,” Brian chuckled. “Thanks for hanging out with me for a bit longer.”
    “Um, if we could… meet again? Later? If you’re interested! I mean, I’ve had fun, getting to know you…”
    “I’d love to,” Brian said flashing her another charming smile. “I’m gonna hit up a couple panels, but in case I can’t find you later—do you want to exchange numbers?”
    “Yes!” she said excitedly. His number. Brian’s number, in my phone. Currently, her digital address book consisted simply of her mother, grandmother, an old Sunday school teacher, her student advisor, and Megan.
    He recited his number to her and she hurriedly thumbed them into her phone, head blurring with pink flames.
    “I had fun,” Stephanie blurted out, suddenly wanting to say a dozen things but lacking courage to voice most of them. And, I’ve only known him for what, an hour and a half?
    “Really. Even just, uh, just talking to you. But everything else too. Especially everything else. I’ll call you,” she promised, turning away from him as quickly as she could and scurrying through the mass of people towards the vendor’s room. He watched her well-shaped bottom wiggling away appreciatively.
    Just a few minutes later, his phone throbbed in his pocket, and then began to play the Fantasy Wars victory theme. Pulling it out with a smile, he swiped his screen. His pace faltered and his smile abruptly drained away at what he saw, and the con-goers walking behind him jostled into him for a moment.
    “Sorry,” Brian muttered distractedly, looking back at his phone in confusion. It was a text. From his ex-girlfriend.
    Chloe-Ravioli: We need to talk.
    •     •     •
    “Hey, s’your foot actually on the gas, Rebecca? Or… are we just idling forward?” Emily grumbled, rhythmically tapping the armrest of her friend’s station wagon in irritation. “‘Cause we’re movin’ a little slow.”
    “Really?” Rebecca asked sleepily, squinting through her unruly tangle of auburn curls. “No one’s going faster than us, though.”
    “Maybe ’cause they’re all stuck behind us? Like, right behind us. That huge line of cars breathing down our exhaust pipe. See all the angry little faces in your rear-view mirror?” Emily pointed, exasperated.
    “Then, that means we’re allll going a safe speed,” Rebecca concluded, smiling contentedly and nodding to herself. She was a hazel-eyed, freckled, unkempt, and drowsy-looking girl with a rather plain figure hidden beneath a baggy blue sweater with kittens knitted onto it.  She seemed like an awkward but affable girl in her twenties, one who’d spent half of every year of her life raised by her grandparents, a serene and old-fashioned elderly couple.
    Few knew, but the other half of every year was spent travelling with her parents, prominent medieval and renaissance-fair enthusiasts active in every reenactment and historical combat organization in the country. There Rebecca was known instead as Mara, old Russian for ‘Nightmare,’ and since the age of seven she’d participated in field combat with sword and shield and spear. Of course, no one but her closest friends and the geeks in their local LARP group suspected her to be anything but some harmless, frumpy, crazy cat lady in the making.
    “Seriously? Safe? If we don’t drop off the Package by four-thirty, I’m gonna be late for work. That pedal needs to hit the floor and I need to see all this,” Emily gestured towards the parking lots slowly crawling along outside her window, “turn into a hellish blur. Please, Rebecca? A little faster?”
    “Oh-kay, here we go!” Rebecca said, twisting her grip on the steering wheel and accelerating. The sedate hum of her car’s engine rose to a sleepy grumble.
    “Aaaaaaaah,” Emily croaked in mock terror as she watched the speedometer needle climb from fifteen all the way up to hold at nineteen miles per hour. She slumped down in defeat.
    “Um, could you try not referring to me as the ‘Package?’ It’s kind of demeaning?” a voice chided from the seat behind them in the station wagon.
    Repressing a grimace, Emily slowly craned her neck towards the back seats, and the third occupant of Rebecca’s car, the ‘Package.’
    Chloe. Brian’s now ex-girlfriend, currently couch-hopping between the apartments of all of her friends. She was tall and well-proportioned, with a dancer’s figure and graceful, doe-eyed features. Yoga pants clung tightly to her slender, coltish legs, and a stylish blouse was fastened snugly around her with an equally fashionable leather belt. She wore her long brown hair in a sexy, loose tousle down one shoulder, and, as usual, wore her typical disapproving frown.
    Everything a girl wants to have, in one sexy… package, Emily thought, feeling an envious pang. And she’s such a rotten bitch. It really isn’t fair.
    “You’d better step on it, Rebecca. the Package is getting hostile, I repeat—the Package is getting hostile,” Emily said bitterly. Rebecca let out an unlady-like snort, but it had always been easy to make her laugh.
    “This is a really important text,” Chloe snapped, shooting a cold glare up at Emily. “Could you both just… not?”
    “If it’s that important, should you really be texting it instead of, oh I dunno, calling them?” Somehow lately every little thing Chloe did was getting under Emily’s skin, and she hadn’t been able to keep herself from antagonizing the girl.
    “Uh-huh… cute,” Chloe said dismissively, not looking up from her phone.
    “Annnyways,” Emily said, “Rebecca, I was thinking. Do you want to head down to the convention early, like, Saturday night maybe?”
    “But, we both work Saturday? And you work Saturday night?”
    “Yeah, but if I switch my night shift tomorrow and take Karen’s morning shift, we could head out early, like as soon as you’re off work. Which is what, like, six-ish? I’m sure Brian’d let us room with him that night.”
    “So, we’d have an earlier start Sunday morning? I’m cool with that, yeah. I can just ask Grandpa to feed Prince for me that night, too. I guess just… call me soon as you find out if you and Karen can switch shifts,” Rebecca affirmed, giving a thumbs-up.
    “You two are still going to that con?” Chloe mumbled, not sharing their enthusiasm.
    “Well yeah… why wouldn’t we?” Emily challenged. “Single-day passes are only twenty-five bucks, and we both have all of Sunday off for sure.”
    “Uh, ’cause you both made me fork over my pass to Brian,” Chloe muttered, crossing her arms.
    “We made you make a decision,” Emily corrected. “You can’t honestly say you’d be okay with breaking up with him, and then having him pay for your pass and your hotel stay.”
    “Why not? Why should I have to pay for either of those things?” Chloe retorted, twisting her lovely brown hair in her fingertips distractedly without taking her eyes off her phone.
    “…Uh-huh,” Emily grumbled, trying to stay composed. Her tongue was getting slick with nasty words that were hard to bite back. “Well, all of that’s between you two, it doesn’t mean me and Rebecca aren’t going to hang out with him,” Emily said decisively. “He’s still our friend, okay?”
    “Yeah… well, whatever.” Chloe replied, disgusted, and tossed her phone across the seat. “Let me guess, you’re dressing up as the titty ninja again?”
    Rebecca and Emily exchanged glances, and Emily comically pantomimed looking at her own meager chest in surprise.
    “Guess not, I’ll just have to be the itty bitty ninja instead,” Emily said dryly, prompting a giggle from Rebecca.
    “Funny. But, kinda sad that you feel the need to dress so provocatively. You don’t need to slut yourself up to please those nerds, you don’t need that kind of… dehumanizing attention,” Chloe decided. “You don’t need to please anyone, you’re not a slab of meat for them to gawk at and drool over.”
    “Dehumanizing…?” Emily made a face.
    “You do realize Akane Kurokawa was obviously written and drawn by a man? And, because of that, she’s not a real character, with real choices. She’s a caricature, a commodity, a checklist collection of sexual traits that exist to be desired, obtained, and then… ew, used.”
    “Whoa, champ. Easy on the feminist buzzwords… you’re not on your blog. Besides, what happened to feeling empowered by wearing whatever I please? Who doesn’t want to be a sexy badass? Akane was my hero all throughout high school, and I wanna cosplay her,” Emily said resolutely, batting her eyelashes innocently.
    “And—I’ve been single for a while now. So what if a little of that kind of attention is just what I’m lookin’ for?” I always wanted Brian to see me that way, Emily thought, her mood darkening. I didn’t ask my body to stop fucking developing at fourteen, you know.
    “Hah, that kind of attention,” Rebecca chuckled.
    “Emily, seriously now. Don’t you think the Akane Kurokawa outfit is a little too… well, revealing to wear, in public?” Chloe chided.
    “What’s to reveal?” Emily snorted, grabbing her tiny breasts in her palms. “You think someone’ll notice mah bumps?”
    “Haha, mah bumps,” Rebecca echoed.
    “So, that’s it, you think it’s okay that women get objectified like that? This is an important issue, and you’re just gonna brush it off with your little jokes, like you do with everything else that matters.”
    “Well, you know how it goes. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Akane Kurokawa, master kunoichi, well, she’s definitely got it.”
    “But, we don’t got it,” Rebecca said in mock disappointment, pouting. Although taller and more athletic, she had a pair of tiny breasts as well.
    “I know. But, we still wanna flaunt it,” Emily said, her own pout breaking into a grin. “I think Chloe’s just bothered by Akane being a strong, independent woman, who also happens to feel confident wearing outfits that are… well, a little revealing.”
    Rebecca snorted. “Yeah, just a little revealing.”
    “Doesn’t she get raped by tentacles, like, four times? And rescued, by the male characters?” Chloe asked.
    “That was… only one or two times,” Emily rolled her eyes. “And, she didn’t actually get raped. Just tied up, groped, and maaaybe had a tentacle shoved in her mouth. They always save her just before the real penetration starts. Frikkin’ teases. Those episodes were hot.”
    “That’s… absolutely disgusting, Emily. Even if you’re joking, that’s really, just… absolutely the worst. The fact that they could even air that in an anime is degrading to women everywhere.” The look of pure revulsion on Chloe’s face cheered Emily up a bit.
    Oh, of course. Sex and fetishes are just for deviant male scumbags. Chloe, you’d blow out a vein if you saw some of the folders on my hard drive, Emily thought, hiding a smirk.
    “Rebecca, did I tell you about all the progress I made improving last year’s Kurokawa cosplay?” Emily asked. “So, last year I got the basic yukata from that online retailer with measurements to my size—but the body fishnet that came with it was positively enormous, their customer service guy said they only had it in a ‘one-size-fits-most’ sorta thing.”
    “Hmm,” Rebecca nodded. “I do remember the body stocking thing you wore underneath last year was kinda… weird and baggy.”
    “Exactly! And, that netting was some cheap, wiry plastic shit. Big square weaves. Felt awful on my bare skin. This year, I got a fishnet body stocking from this lingerie website, and it’s perfect. It’s this tight little nylon diamond-weave pattern that fits snug everywhere, and it’s comfy as hell. Looks just like it should, too, like in the anime. Well, except that I don’t have her double D’s, o’course.”
    “…Lingerie website?” Rebecca wondered aloud, theatrically giggling into her hand. “Oooh.”
    “And, you’re really wearing it for your costume? Chloe deadpanned, glancing over. “Some fetish-wear fishnet thing from a lingerie site?”
    “Yeppers!” Emily answered with a wolfish grin.
    “Disgusting.” Chloe declared, rolling her eyes. “I wouldn’t trust anything from a website that sells lingerie in children’s sizes.”
    That stung. Inwardly seething, Emily instead turned back to Rebecca. “Anyways, last year I covered up my nips with band-aids. This year I’ll have actual flesh-tone pasties. They’ll help keep me going from indecent to… well, explicit. Hopefully. I mean, it’s in case some kinda accident happens, since the yukata I wear over it’s so loose.”
    “Pasties? That’s like, professional,” Rebecca said appreciatively. “Like, professional cosplayers would wear those. Well, not professional. Uh… famous cosplayers? The good ones. Like models.”
    Chloe rolled her eyes. “Are you going to dress up this year, Rebecca?”
    “Mmm-hmm!” Rebecca hummed, nodding sagaciously. “Just my normal summer soft-kit, though, and my fancy new sword and board.”
    “Your—what?” Chloe said, already lost.
    “Well, my soft kit is fighting garb,” Rebecca said, a slow smile spreading across her features. “My summer fighting garb. Viking stuff; boots, winnigas, kirtle, a linen undertunic. None o’ my armor, we’d call that hard kit, and none of my lovely wool stuff, this time of year.”
    “And, ‘sword and board,’meaning ‘sword and shield,’” Emily added. “Rebecca has the most gorgeous viking round shield I’ve ever seen at a LARP.”
    “You’re doing a… LARP roleplay thing, then?” Chloe asked.
    “No, no, I can’t do much in-character stuff this time. Pretty much all that’s on Sunday is the tournament. Still, there should be some worthwhile fights.”
    “Wait, you’re fighting at the convention?” Chloe asked, aghast. “I thought that wasn’t allowed?”
    “Well, it was some kind of big legal or liability issue that didn’t mesh well with the convention’s safety standards. So, instead we created a new group specifically for AnimeCon this year, called the Order of the Sovereign Swords. There’s gonna be a lot of problems and drama, for sure. Fantasy geeks who don’t know a halberd from a hauberk, stick-jocks complaining about using padded weapons, you know, yadda yadda yadda,” Rebecca murmured, a dreamy look in her eyes.
    “It’s… well, it’s hard to picture you fighting with people, even if it’s just pretend.” Chloe stated. Emily and Rebecca turned to each other and burst out laughing.
    “What’s so funny?” Chloe demanded, giving them both a pout.
    “Chloe… calling what Rebecca does with padded weapons ‘pretend’ doesn’t quite cover it,” Emily said, grinning widely. “I mean, you’re talking about Mara, the Nightmare. Daughter of Thorferra the Tall?”
    The last time Emily had seen Rebecca get serious was at a medieval LARPing campout. She’d stormed a formation of five enemy soldiers, and in a flurry of surgically accurate sword-strikes, ‘killed’ all of them. Two of them didn’t take her strikes, however, ‘brushing off’ the hits. It was a way of bending the game’s rules to claim that hits weren’t ‘solid’ enough to count.
    The girl’s cheerful, lethargic look had given way in that moment and the cold, terrifying face of Mara was revealed. So, she had struck them again. And again, and again, and again, too fast and fierce for them to block or counterattack, a terrifying clockwork frenzy of slashes. Even though the weapons were thoroughly padded with safety foam, Rebecca had the skill and leverage with a sword to use the kind of devastating force of a pro boxer wearing boxing gloves. Those two players were too bruised to crawl out of their sleeping bags the next day.
    “You’re joking.” Chloe said, grabbing her phone and checking it again. “Really. I can’t picture Rebecca even swatting at her cat.”
    “That’s ‘cause I wouldn’t, he’s my little fluffeh angel!” Rebecca gushed.
    “…By the way, Chloe, I ran into Brian when I stopped by the apartment to check for your stuff,” Emily said snidely.
    “And, I would care… why?” Chloe asked flatly. “What did he say?”
    Emily answered only with a teasing grin. He asked if you were okay, because he still cared about you. But you don’t deserve to know that.
    “Did he say anything about me, or not?”
    “Nah, I gave him the con badge and he was pretty blasé about the whole breakup. Ugh, and he’s having fun at the convention right now… that jerk.” Emily said glibly. “While I’m stuck here, about to be late for my hellish job.” As if to punctuate her statement, one of the cars trapped behind them honked its horn.
    “Blasé?” Rebecca asked, arching an eyebrow.
    “Yeah, I coulda just said ‘he was all like whateva,’ like you guys expected, but sometimes I gotta remind you simpletons that I’m also hellishly smart,” Emily declared, winking and flashing her infectiously cute smile into the mirror of the passenger-side sun visor.
    “Who cares what he’s doing? And, what’s with you saying hellish all the time?” Chloe griped, tapping at her phone absentmindedly.
    “Shove off, I relish my ’hellish’,” Emily grumbled.  
    “Uh, Is ’heckish’ a word, then?” Rebecca wondered out loud.
    “Of course, Rebecca,” Emily cried in exasperation. “It describes the special rated-PG hell for children and little old ladies, where the fires are only lukewarm, nobody swears, and the blood is censored. People who drive too slowly miss out on heaven and wind up there, in heck.”
    “Oh, dear.” Rebecca slipped Emily a sly smile and the passing scenery outside their windows seemed to perceptibly slow again.
    Emily struggled to resist the urge to strangle her friend with her seat belt.
    “Hmph. You gave Brian my apartment key back too, right?” Chloe grunted.
    Eyes widening, Emily jammed her hand into the tiny front pocket of her jeans, feeling the cold metal of the key. Shit.
    “…Of course,” Emily lied, fuming at her mistake. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rebecca’s sly smile reappear. Shiiiiit. “Oh! And, I gave him Sammie’s harem charm too.”
    “Oh no, the harem chaaaa—” Rebecca’s sentence was overtaken by a yawn.
    “Yep, you said it. He’s probably neck-deep in fine chicas by now,” Emily sighed with a smile.
    “That’s not what I said,” Rebecca protested weakly.
    “Harem charm…” Chloe muttered in vexation. “The mentality behind the whole harem thing is disgusting. It’s the same male power fantasy they cram into everything to pander to these horny losers. Gives them these expectations of women that are horribly skewed, and reduces the women to… things, empty stereotypes. I can’t stand it. That’s why the birthrates in Japan are so bad. Instead of going out and meeting women, the men stay in their tiny little rooms and whack off to sexist cartoon pornography.”
    “Uh… hey, I’m going to have a harem of kitties someday,” Rebecca chimed in, trying to diffuse what she knew was going to become yet another argument between her friends. No one was listening. “A calico, for sure, a siamese and—”
    “What’s so wrong with harems?” Emily said. “It’s pretty standard sorta wish-fulfillment kind of romantic drama. Weren’t you all into those awful teen drama Dusk books back in the day? And didn’t you force us all to watch your Vampire Crusader anime?”
    “It’s not the same, at all,” Chloe said icily. “Harems perpetuate this rotten culture that teaches men that it’s okay to collect women. It shows women that their lives center around impressing and servicing a man, or being discarded on that man’s whim. It implies that one man is worth many women, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
    Chloe clapped her hands together in amusement, chuckling. “In fact, you think Brian is talking to girls right now? Hah! A hundred bucks says Brian holes himself up in his hotel room the whole weekend, whacking off to cartoon porn. Alone.”
    A blue mist rolled through Emily’s mind for a moment, clouding her thoughts with salacious ideas. Brian alone in that hotel room, sensually stroking himself… I’d love to catch him like that. Tried to, a couple times back in high school. I want to see him, out of breath and eyes glazed with lust, Emily imagined. I want to catch him in that unguarded moment, want to see his cock, rigid and huge. Would he stop, embarrassed… or maybe he’ll just keep pumping away, working that dick with his eyes locked on me…
    Back in high school, she’d sometimes gotten off on simply imagining that Brian masturbated to the thought of her. What better way was there to wipe away the insecurities she felt in her short stature and petite, underdeveloped body? Yeah, count on me to have the most perverse sense of validation, she thought with a sigh.
    “Haha, would Brian actually, you know… whack off?” Rebecca asked doubtfully. Both Chloe and Emily gave her a blank look. Sometimes, it was easy to forget how sheltered in some ways their friend was.
    “You know what, Chloe?” Emily insisted, shifting her tiny butt against the cushion of her seat. “I’ll take that bet of yours. You don’t know Brian like you think you do. Never did. And, it’s called ‘hentai,’ not ‘cartoon porn.’”
    “Same thing, doesn’t matter,” Chloe said indifferently. “Besides, do you even have a hundred bucks, Emily?”
    “Weellll, I will when you lose the bet and pay up,” Emily said with confidence. “He has the harem charm, and besides, he’s single now. You’ve forgotten what he was like when he was single.”
    “Well, I’ll never forget now, since I’m sure he’ll be single for the rest of his sad life,” Chloe said, laughing airily. “You don’t know how awkward and weird he was when he was dating. Let me put it this way—he’s the kind of guy who thinks it’s romantic to quote nerdy movies.”
    “Welllll, that’d depend on the quote. And the movie,” Emily argued. “The right reference at the right time would be really sweet. Besides, he’s at an anime convention. If that’ll work anywhere, it’ll work there.”
    “Something from a kid’s movie, though? Like Goblin Labyrinth?” Chloe scoffed. “How do you even—”
    “Which line?” Rebecca interrupted immediately.
    “What?” Chloe asked, surprised.
    “I’m asking, which line did he quote?” Rebecca enunciated carefully, her smile fading and her soporific expression draining away.
    “Uh,” Chloe struggled to remember. “It was stupid. Something like, ‘I’m not asking for much’… or no wait, ‘I’m asking for so little—’”
    “—I ask for so little… just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave,” Rebecca recited breathlessly.
    “Yeah, that.” Chloe affirmed, irritated. “So, what? It never made any sense.”
    Rebecca slumped down in the driver’s seat, giving out a long sigh. “If a guy ever said that to me, I’d melt. I never knew he said that to you, why didn’t you tell us?! Haven’t you seen Goblin Labyrinth?! The meaning behind that moment, what was going on? What he was offering her?!”
    “And how hot the Faerie King was?” Emily added excitedly. “I mean, he was played by David B—”
    “Yeah yeah, Brian made me watch it, once.” Chloe said with disdain. “It didn’t exactl—”
    “I’ve seen it hundreds of times,” Rebecca said proudly. “It’s my absolute favorite fantasy movie, of all time. In fact, we’re watching it tonight after work.”
    “Sweet!” Emily said, smiling brilliantly. “Seems like Goblin Labyrinth lines didn’t work on his lady, but we still gotta give him points for trying it, at least, right?”
    “Yeah, ‘his lady,’ great,” Chloe said, scowling and turning to glance at the column of cars backed up behind them. “Because, obviously, I belonged to him. I was only there to satisfy his urges, fulfill his sense of male superiority, and stroke his ego. Guess I forgot for a moment how brainwashed you two still are. No wonder nobody’s on my side anymore.”
    Little blue droplets danced across Emily’s vision for a moment, and she blinked quickly. The thought of Brian using Chloe for satisfaction was, well—kinda hot. Taking this haughty bitch down a peg or two, and wiping the damn smug superior look off her face… with his dick, of course.
    Humiliating her… degrading her. Pulling an indignant Chloe over his knee and spanking her across that pert bottom of hers in steady, deliberate strokes that she’s helpless to struggle against. Teasing and stroking her to the edge of desire, leaving her panting with lust like a simple bitch in heat. Until she’s absolutely begging for it… Condensation was forming on the inside of Emily’s mind, and when the blue beads of moisture began to run down the panes of her thoughts Emily jerked, shifting her thighs against one another. D-damn. I know what tune my vibrator’s gonna be humming to tonight. Have I developed a new fetish?
    “Satisfying urges, superiority, and ego… that sounds just like the relationship I have with Prince,” Rebecca interjected, trying to lighten the mood.
    “Except, Prince Charming isn’t a boyfriend, or a man. He’s your cat. There’s a little bit of a difference,” Chloe reminded her friend.
    “…Is there, though?” Rebecca wondered aloud, tapping her lip. “Is there?”
    “She’s got a point,” Emily said. “Prince Charming is the textbook example of an oppressive patriarchal male.“
    “Prince Charming,” Rebecca sighed, “My little butterstuff fluffylumpkin.”
    “Well, whatever. Did I tell either of you about the new guy I’ve been talking to?” Chloe asked casually.
    “What? …Who?” Emily said, taken aback.
    “Ryan, at Seabrooks, that little indie coffee place. He’s the one with the pink hair?”
    “Hipster mister!” Rebecca exclaimed, remembering him. “But, isn’t he…?”
    “Turns out he’s bisexual, not just gay,” Chloe said defensively. “It’d be nice to experience someone with that kind of open mindset. Someone who isn’t… well, trapped up in prehistoric ideas of what genders should be. I really need to get away from all of that casual misogyny.”
    “…And, who’s a misogynist, then?” Emily asked through her teeth.
    “You know who I mean,” Chloe scoffed. “A certain cis-gendered assho—well, guy we all know,” glancing guiltily at Rebecca, who didn’t like her friends using bad language in her car.
    “Brian actually cared about you, you know? He really tried to… make you happy. And, he tried so hard to put up with your… well, you. ” Emily managed, trying not to raise her voice.
    “Yeah, okay.” Chloe snorted. “He tried to put up with us actually becoming progressive. He tolerated my little game of fighting for equality, in a culture of oppression. But caring? He didn’t care, couldn’t care. Because, he’s a man, so everything’s just fine as it is in his little world at the top, living in privilege.”
    “Alright, now you’re bullshitting me.” Emily laughed, not caring what swears slipped out.
    “Excuse me?” Chloe asked.
    “Privilege? Did you forget every fuckin’ thing you know about Brian? How rough he had it with his parents? His dad trying to beat the shit out of him all the time? How he had to stash his games and anime at my place, so that his stepmom wouldn’t throw them out while he was at school?”
    “Wow, so terrible, his mommy took away his video games…”
    “Games he paid for, with money from his job! Chloe, your parents paid your tuition and bought your car for you. Brian left home when he turned eighteen with nothing but the clothes on his back. He got a job, an apartment, supported himself, supported you—”
    “So, you’re making Brian out to be some kind of hero for being abused, and leaving home, but when I leave Brian for the same reasons and circumstances, everyone jumps down my throat with criticism? What, because I’m a woman? How’s that fair? I did pity him for the way they treated him, at first. I think he learned a lot of his abusive behaviors from them. But, I can’t be expect-”
    “Abusive behaviors? So, what? Brian abused you?”
    “…Yeah, he did. He abused me.” An awkward silence filled the car for a few long moments.
    “What, he hit you? What did he do?” Emily demanded in disbelief.
    “…No. He didn’t physically hurt me. He didn’t have the guts,” Chloe declared proudly. “Deep down men are all cowards. They always talk big and then lose their head when a woman challenges the status quo.”
    “So, he’s abusive, but he never hurt you?” Emily asked incredulously. “But, he’s a coward, for not abusing you? How can—”
    “Real abuse isn’t bruises or a black eye anymore,” Chloe interrupted. “It’s not being able to speak your mind because he’s too eager to shut me down. To pick apart every little thing I say and… twist the meanings around. Having him always going against me, opposing—no, oppressing me. When you don’t feel safe in an apartment with your boyfriend, then, hello? You are being abused. Psychological abuse leaves trauma that lasts—”
    “Wow, so terrible, he tried to politely reason with his entitled feminist girlfriend,” Emily mocked. “Always seemed to me like you were the one oppressing him.”
    “He can’t be oppressed, retard,” Chloe interrupted. “He’s a man, and we live in his culture, a patriarchal culture. He’s the one in power, and the one that’s oppressing. And, if he ever really is abused, then he should appreciate the goddamn experience, because then he’ll understand what women everywhere go through every single day.”
    “Are you fucking out of your—”
    “AHEM.” Rebecca exclaimed rigidly, her soporific expression draining away. “Both of you, just chill down, okay? Seriously, you guys? We’re all friends here. Friends.”
    Chill out, Emily had almost corrected her, but instead, she blanched sheepishly and held her tongue. Besides, she’s right. Arguing with Chloe never gets anyone anywhere. How long did my poor Brian put up with that?
    As the oncoming traffic finally dwindled, the long line of cars behind them now accelerated and began to pass them on the two-lane stretch of blacktop. A little ashamed, Emily sunk down further in her seat as withering stares were directed at them by the passing cars. Rebecca stuck her tongue out at them, and her station wagon continued ponderously puttering along at the same tepid pace.
    •     •     •
     The last strips of daylight crawled up the high-rise hotels as the sun sank beneath the silhouette of the distant cityscape, painting the horizon brilliant shades of orange and pink. The downtown area surrounding the convention center had become a gala of convention-goers and cosplayers. They trickled out from beneath the gigantic AnimeCon banner and spread through the streets to seek out restaurants or the comfort of their nearby hotel rooms.
    Otaku were chatting with animated expressions, collectors showed off their purchases, and photographers paused for a few last photos. Ordinary pedestrians looked on with curiosity at the procession of unexpected costumes and unusual pageantry, and drivers honked their horns across the crosswalks. Fully armored space troopers strode casually, the stifling helmets they’d worn all day now tucked under their arms, and tired but smiling magical girls began to remove their brightly-colored wigs and let down their real hair.
    As the streetlights began to flicker on, still more latecomers were just arriving at the convention, pulling into the empty spaces and piling out of their vehicles. Although the vendor’s room had already closed and AnimeCon’s major Friday events had concluded, smaller events, meetups, and viewing rooms would continue on through the night and into the next morning.
    Since the big nighttime events, such as the rave, the J-rock concert, and the eighteen-and-older hentai panels weren’t until Saturday, the dwindling Friday-night volunteer staff relaxed their badge-checking discipline. Unofficial policy was to simply wave people through the few checkpoints that were still manned, after all, most of the arrivals this late in the evening were simply fans coming to the convention for the weekend who hadn’t been able to finagle their way out of Friday work shifts, or couldn’t afford to skip out on classes.
    A scant three city blocks away from the convention, a slim cutie with blond-and-pink hair plodded out of the fifth floor elevator within one of the towering hotel buildings. She wore a strange pink-and-red sundress, long pink gloves and matching pink vinyl costume boots that rose all the way up to the middle of her thighs. A pair rabbit ears hung, slightly askew now, from a hidden headband.
    Almost there, Stephanie thought as she wobbled, exhausted, on aching feet down the silent hotel corridor towards the welcome refuge of the room she shared with Megan. Though she appeared weary and frazzled, inwardly, her heart was racing with excitement. After all, she’d been wrestling back and forth with a dilemma for the latter half of the day and finally arrived at a big decision.
    I’m going to really do it tonight. I’m going to try—masturbating. It seemed silly and embarrassing to be excited over such a… thing. Her familiarity with her own private parts, after all, was somewhat equivalent to the interest she’d previously had in sex itself. Once or twice she’d… inspected herself to affirm that everything down there appeared normal, and she slipped a fingertip delicately inside herself every time she washed, but that was it, and it was always strictly platonic. She’d never played upon her own womanhood in that direct and intimate manner that seemed so… fascinating to her now.
    She was now certainly intent on changing that, and in a bold way. Brilliant pink wildfire had burned away the last vestiges of that shroud of ignorant indifference which had somehow prevented her from delving into her own pandora’s box. Her sex, glistening with heat and arousal, was about to make its debut into a new world of stimulation and pleasure. Blood was rushing to these new places, endorphins filled her with that nervous pink energy, she felt positively soaked down there, and her recollection of the day was becoming a fiery pink blur.
    Stephanie grinned weakly and smoothed her outfit against her legs with shaking hands. What will it feel like to actually… masturbate? She wondered giddily, as she now scanned the hotel room doors for her room’s number. I’m going to… play with myself. I’m gonna frig myself. Finger-fuck. Even just thinking lewd phrases she would never dare to utter out loud was… fun, in a positively titillating way she’d never imagined.
    Megan will probably be in the room, though, Stephanie realized with trepidation. After all, where else could she be? She’d never found Megan in the convention hall after parting ways with Brian, having slightly underestimated the size of the con and number of attendees.
    AnimeCon is the fourteenth-largest anime convention in the nation, with an average attendance of over sixteen thousand fans, Stephanie had read from the booklet while reviewing the scheduled events for places she might encounter her friend. …Great.
    After she’d spent two frustrating hours searching for the familiar shape of her friend’s Pandape cosplay in the immense crowds, and even staked out the last voice acting panel in hopes of catching her, Stephanie had given up. Of course, she hadn’t spotted Brian again either, although she did seem to run into every single other guy that was wearing a similar Fantasy Wars costume.
    In the end, Stephanie had gone ronin and wandered the convention alone, slightly mollified, but remaining cautiously optimistic about experiencing AnimeCon on her own. So, Stephanie had squeezed through crowds, explored the convention center and even retraced the path she’d taken with Brian. She had peeked into viewing rooms, sat through a panel on Japanese street fashion, and even perused the vendor’s room for a while. There was a booth with an amazing selection of Monster Battlers plush dolls she feared she might start collecting, as well as some fabric wall-scrolls that would look amazing in her little dorm room. She did enjoy herself, to her own surprise… but her heart just wasn’t really in it. The real fun she’d had was with Brian, and so her thoughts wandered unchecked, occasionally melting into whimsical, sensual fantasies. Some were innocent and naive; others bold enough to bring color to her face.
    What does Brian look like… out of that jacket, that costume? Or out of his clothes entirely… She wanted to undress him, drink in the sight of his naked skin. To splay her hands out across the breadth of his chest and discover how sexily solid and masculine his body was. She needed to grip his bare shoulders, taste them, trace her lips down every rugged bit of manly musculature that was foreign to her. Well, foreign to me for now, at least.
    When her imagination began to dare… lower, she abruptly aborted her daydreams, grinning idiotically. She knew—roughly, the anatomy he must have down there, but simply couldn’t picture it. Like all girls, she’d looked with curiosity at the diagram of a flaccid penis in her Health Studies textbook. She’d seen crudely drawn cocks-and-balls scribbled with sharpie on bathroom stalls, and even run into pictures of erect ones accidentally on the internet once or twice. They seem kind of grotesque, she’d thought at the time, wondering how couples were able to overcome such an obstacle and still become intimate.
    Wouldn’t it be different with Brian, though? She felt that all of those barely remembered abstracts, and any concept she could dream up independently, for that matter, would fall short of Brian’s actual… reality.
    If I ever do become… acquainted with his… you-know-what, there’ll be no going back. I won’t be able to… UNSEE it then, stop picturing it, thinking about it, that it’s his, that it physically represents his lust, and oh my, what it can DO to me, what it’s made to do to me… That’ll be the point of no return. She bit her lip in anticipation. Because then, I will have to suppose Brian’s THING will be on my mind all the time.
    Pale skin blushing scarlet, Stephanie shivered. He promised he’d show me what he thinks of my butt, she remembered. I wouldn’t mind. I want him to show me a lot of things, I want him to show me everything.
    She envisioned Brian standing behind her, strong arms enveloping her in an affectionate embrace. His face nuzzling against hers, then slowly planting a line of warm kisses down her neck. Somehow each kiss will be a little wet, somehow each kiss will be an explosion upon her senses, and her body will quake against him in need. The sound of his lips gently suckling and the sensation of his breath on her skin would drive her mad. Her chest would rise and fall with her every quickening breath as his hands slide down her sides, and in her passionate haze she wouldn’t be able to tell if those fingers were squeezing down on her—or if she was pressing up desperately into them. Hot pink sparks sputtered somewhere deep in her abdomen, and something clenched reflexively.
    When they reach her hips, his hands would clamp down tightly and he would pull, tugging the plush curve of her bottom roughly against him. Stephanie’s lips could part in surprise and allow an inarticulate, breathless cry to escape. Her hips would buck back against him at the sensation against her bare cheeks, that curious but somehow unfathomable male part pressing insistently against them—
    She shook her head to clear the fantasies threatening to spiral out of her control, that dizzying distraction of fluttering flame that was burning trails deeper and deeper down inside of her.
    Almost there, Steph, hold that thought. Hah… haha, I’ve never been this HORNY before. She couldn’t wait to get inside, exchange the fewest possible pleasantries with Megan—and then excuse herself, seclude herself in the hotel bathroom to draw a warm, relaxing bath. Peel off her costume, shuck off these painful boots, and ease her naked body into tub, where she would… finally let loose.
     502. This was it, her room number! She slid her keycard through the slot, heard the mechanical clack of the lock disengaging, swung the heavy door open, and—
    The dazed, happy expression on her face drained away, and Stephanie’s hopes began to fall.
    …What is that?
    The room was dimly lit by the warm hues of the bedside lamps, and the TV was running commercials. The air conditioning unit built into the wall below the window was steadily blowing air across the room.
    …What IS that?
    A putrid stench, drifting from out of the room and into the hallway. Old sweat. Nasty sweat. Sweat, so strong and pungent that a dry pain crept from the back of her throat all the way up her nasal cavity, and Stephanie covered her face with the back of her gloved hand in disgust. It’s Megan. Dear god… that’s Megan.
    She’d smelled Megan before occasionally, but it had always been just a faint, unpleasant fragrance of body odor. Not this. Never like this. Forcing herself to uncover her nose and compose her face, she stepped the rest of the way into the room, a little terrified at just what it was she might find.
    Megan, still wearing her Pandape cosplay, was sprawled out on one of the beds. An open bag of chips had scattered across the comforter, and crumbs were everywhere. Megan’s hair was a greasy tangle, and the overripe, sour smell of perspiration wafting off of her twisted Stephanie’s stomach into a knot.
    “Hiii…” Stephanie said weakly, waving.
    “Steph!” Megan exclaimed, bounced up off the mattress. “Where the hell were ya?! I looked everywhere for you! I was so worried!” She advanced forward, moving to envelope her friend in one of her usual bear-like hugs.
    “No no,” Stephanie called out in sudden alarm, retreating a step and raising her hands, “I, uh. I probably smell. You know. I was down at the convention this whole time.” She thought she’d get used to the stink, but it was stronger now, fumes seeming to drift off of Megan in waves. It was overpowering, and Stephanie felt her eyes water and her throat close, choking her up with nausea.
    “Oh, pssh, I don’t worry about stuff like that,” Megan said, waving her hand dismissively. A line of sweat was clearly visible down the inside of her arm. “You disappeared for forever! Did you hang out with that cute guy? How’d it go? What, were you two off makin’ out, or what?”
    “I tried texting you,” Stephanie explained in a wavering voice, “And then, I tried to call you…”
    “Oh, haha! Yeah, sorry Steph—turns out I forgot to pack my phone charger.” Megan tugged her phone out of her bra to show her, and the smeared screen was indeed dark and lifeless. “So, tell me, c’mon, spill! What happened?!”
    “I-I’ll tell you after I… shower real quick. Or maybe a bath. A long soak. Sorry, I’m real self-conscious sometimes. About this, uh, I mean, my smell. I m-must be sweaty. I’ll tell you all about what happened right afterwards though, I promise. I’m not used to being on my feet all day, so—”
    “Oh, no, you really don’t wanna go into the bathroom right now, if ya know what I mean? I was just in there,” Megan said, chuckling.
    Stephanie paled as her imagined sanctuary in the hotel room’s bathtub evaporated, just another mirage. I am not going in there. At all. Ever. The taste of bile rose in her throat for a moment, and she let out a sputtering cough, trying not to vomit.
    “But, c’mon, tell me about that guy! You gotta gimme all the raunchy details!” Megan called, waggling her eyebrows and advancing forward a pace. “…Did you do something with your hair?”
    “He, uhm. I’m.” Stephanie began, trying to keep her composure. The stench of body odor seemed to be intensifying, as if Megan’s excitement was literally bleeding into the air. Is this what bad hygiene is really like? Is she always like this… is that even possible?!
    I can’t do this, Stephanie thought in horror, stifling the urge to gag. She was mortified to have walked face-first into this situation, and now she couldn’t muster the courage to tell her only friend how terrible she smelled. Like she was fermenting in her own sweat. She fought back the urge to gag again.
    “I—I have to go,” she murmured, terrified, and hid her face in shame as she haphazardly tossed the few items she’d unpacked back into her travel bag.
    “Go? You’re going?” Megan said in confusion, her attention dividing as the Shinobi Souls anime returned from commercial. “Where are you going? Are you… going to see that guy?”
    “…Y-yes!” Stephanie lied, “I don’t feel so good, so he invited, uh, invited me to stay with him. Just for the night. Nights. The rest of the nights. I’ll b-be okay. I’ll tell you about all of it later. I just came to take a quick shower and uhm, g-grab my stuff. But, I should really just get going. I-I have to go.”
    “Hey, hold on, are you really sure?” Megan said, glancing between Stephanie zipping her bag and Sousuke beheading zombies on the television with his ninja arts. “Wait, …did you color your hair today?! Steph—”
    Her voice was cut off as the heavy hotel room door slammed closed behind Stephanie, and as before, the hallway was as quiet as a tomb. Walking briskly towards the elevators, the reek of sweat faded, and finally… disappeared. Stephanie gasped in deep gulps of clean air, clutching her big travel bag awkwardly. It was heavy, the soles of her feet ached, and now she wanted a shower in earnest. A scrub, honestly. Vigorous and scathing, with lots of soap and lather. She had to consciously work at slowing her breathing back down, pacing herself, to stop from hyperventilating.
    …I shouldn’t have done that, Stephanie berated herself, scrunching up her cute features. But… just how do I tell her that she smells so terribly? Stephanie had led a meek and quiet life, and the prospect of offending Megan, of raising an argument or inviting trouble, was frightfully intimidating. Avoiding the situation, however, put her in a new predicament.
    What am I going to do now? she realized, slapping a hand against her forehead. It’s not like I’ll just be able to get a new room. We had to buy our room so far in advance because all the hotels gets completely booked for the convention…
    “I should go back,” she whispered. I can’t just run out on her like this. So what if she smells? I’ll have gotten used to it before I know it.
    No wait, what if I DO get used to it, and I run into Brian tomorrow, and he smells it on ME? Stephanie frowned, recalling the malignant miasma she’d just escaped, and imagined simmering in it all night. That sharp, acrid scent of sweat permeating into her costume outfit and the rest of her clothes like campfire smoke. …It’s possible. I can’t go back into that.
    Trudging slowly back towards the elevator with her bulging travel bag, she tried to determine what she could do. I could sleep in the car? No, Megan’s got the keys. And her car’s kind of… well… not too much better. The battered little car Megan had brought them here in was a junkheap of the worst kind. Stephanie remembered holding her legs carefully back from the mountain of discarded fast food wrappers, cartons, cups, and soiled napkins that were heaped on the passenger side floor, and not daring to touch the syrupy spatter stains of spilled soda that decorated the molded plastic of her door’s armrest.
    Yet another in what now seems to be an obvious series of warning flags regarding my friend, Stephanie thought to herself with a bitter smile. Though her thoughts were growing darker by the moment, a dancing pink flame intruded, illuminating a consideration she’d overlooked.
    I could call Brian, she realized suddenly. In fact, I told him that I would. Maybe he could… no, no, what am I thinking?! I’m not imposing on him. That’s… that’s moving too fast with things, anyways. I’d be alone in his hotel room with him…
    Her face turned red, and she frowned, shaking her head. No no no no, not going there. Besides, I haven’t showered, what if I smell, even a little bit? She worried self-consciously. Fantasizing is one thing… and this is completely another. I really do want to see him again. But, not like this, under these circumstances. If I ever do, erm, VISIT HIS ROOM, I want the… encounter to be on equal terms. To show him that I WANT and CHOOSE to be with him, not simply because I’m out of places to stay. I want to impress him, I want him to really like me…
    Impress him? Just how would I impress him? her mind rebuked grimly. As she stepped heavily back into the elevator and thumbed the button for the ground floor, rabbit-ears wilting and shoulders sagging, she didn’t feel very impressive at all.
    I… could call Mom, she realized, with a grimace. But, she’s on the other side of the state… she’ll be heading to bed by now—and she didn’t even know I was going to an anime convention. And, of course, nothing would make her feel like more of a helpless child than crying to her mother for help. The idea sat unpleasantly in the pit of her stomach as the elevator descended, and she couldn’t help but reject it, for better or worse.
    “Excuse me?” Stephanie asked timidly, thinking the eerily quiet lobby was empty until she spotted a receptionist half-hidden behind the counter. “I was wondering if there were any rooms still available…?”
    The night receptionist, a dour-looking young woman in a uniform blazer, looked up from a book she held in her lap and stared blankly at Stephanie’s costume dress for a moment before responding. “I don’t think we do, but I can check?”
    “Please,” Stephanie asked, embarrassed. If I spend the money I set aside for souvenirs, and… yeah, maybe run up my card a little bit, I should be able to get a room for two nights… I think? If there is any, Stephanie hoped, biting her lip and twisting the travel bag’s strap in her grip. It would be expensive, but she convinced herself that the cost was be just what she deserved for being unable to speak up to Megan about her deficit hygiene.
    “…We have openings next on the twenty-third,” the receptionist said unapologetically.
    The twenty-third… Monday. The day after the whole convention ends, Stephanie thought, forcing a weak smile. “Ah, uh, thank you for checking for me.”
    As expected. I guess there isn’t anything to do but head back to the convention? That was one more plan, but it was even less palatable. I’ll stay up as late as I can, occupy myself with the little overnight events until Saturday morning. When I’m fairly sure Megan has woken up tomorrow and left the room, I’ll head back there and… uh… air the room out, somehow. I still have my keycard, after all. And, then I’ll sleep. The obvious downside to the plan was that if she forced herself to stay awake all the way until mid-morning tomorrow, she was almost sure to sleep through the rest of the convention for the day. I’ll miss out seeing Brian again, probably… she realized, disheartened.
    When she’d entered the hotel some fifteen minutes ago, beneath the warm glow of a sunset, Stephanie had been fatigued, but still bubbling with enthusiasm and anticipation. Fittingly, when she now trudged out through lobby’s automatic doors with her bag in tow, defeated and subdued, night had fallen in earnest. And the night was chilly.
    The fresh air has finally gotten that cloying smell out of my nose, at least, Stephanie decided, struggling to remain optimistic. The convention center was three city blocks away, her bag was heavy, and the soles of her feet were swollen and angry.
    Thankfully, there were still scattered groups of what she thought of as convention people coming and going, or she would have been too scared to make the trip by herself after dark. And, who knows, maybe I won’t be that sleepy, even after staying up all night. Caffeine could keep me going? Or, maybe I’ll just have a short nap tomorrow and still catch him at the convention?
    Though reduced to the barest embers, something pink inside her was still smoldering, and as her boots tapped a somber rhythm along the city sidewalks, Stephanie’s mind began to lazily drift towards Brian again.
    He said that if I’d wanted him to go down on me, I should have just… asked…? He was only joking, right? What would that entail, exactly…? Stephanie’s uncertain grasp of the idea was somewhere between an assumption and a misunderstanding. Going down on someone means putting their… stuff in your mouth.
    I’m a girl. Without, um, external genitalia, there isn’t any way to ‘go down on’ me, is there? There isn’t anything down there. Just my—you know, my um. My vagina. So, he can’t go down on me… right? It really was only a joke, I shouldn’t be dwelling on it, she decided.
    “Maybe he’ll be able to explain it,” Stephanie mumbled out loud, to no one in particular. “Or, maybe he’ll be able to show me…?”
    •     •     •
    Outta luck after all, huh. Raven locks of hair swept down over one of the scene girl’s eyes, and Kelly blew that fringe of her bangs up with an annoyed puff of her lip. Fuck.
    She resentfully kicked at one of the discarded pamphlets littering the main lobby as she surveyed the aftermath of AnimeCon’s first day. The skylights had long since fallen dark and the tempestuous sea of convention attendees, once hundreds thick, had since dwindled down to bare dregs. Scattered groups still wandered about, and a handful of dedicated fans could be found in many of the panel rooms, but that unique, bustling and excited energy from before was gone. Voices that had earlier been lost in the harsh, discordant hum of innumerable conversations now echoed individually down the halls, giving the enormous open space that eerie after-hours quality.
    S’gonna be a looong night, Kelly thought as she squeezed a little plush ball she’d found. It was a stuffed sphere stitched in bright fabric someone had left behind, fashioned to resemble one of the iconic capture traps from Monster Battlers.
    Seems like dumb high schoolers are the only ones left in the lobby…  just a buncha little bitches, all excited to be out late with their friends unsupervised, she thought, frowning.
    Her plan had been to tease, flirt, and finagle her way into the hotel room of some agreeable convention chump, because otherwise—she didn’t have a place to stay. There should have been any number of dorks eager to play white knight and rescue her from her predicament, and finding and sweet-talking some naive nerd should’ve been all too easy for Kelly… but the rising temperatures of her own libido were their own source of consternation.
    She was horny as hell, but lowering her standards that far just wasn’t something she was capable of without some substantial alcoholic assistance. After all, her mental representations of ‘weeaboo suckers I can fleece,’ and ‘attractive guys I wanna fuck,’ formed a venn diagram without much overlapping area, and it seemed like the last of her opportunities had slipped through her fingers.
    It didn’t help that appearances weren’t her only criteria in a place like this. She needed a guy with some teeth; someone who could prove himself, set himself apart from the tepid herd of beta-male herbivores. And of course, as soon as she found a suitable one, wouldn’t raunchy sex be a great way to show appreciation towards her chivalrous benefactor? To her dismay, the few decent-looking ones she’d spotted today in AnimeCon’s wilderness of horrors either hadn’t had the guts to approach her, or had surprisingly vigilant cosplayer girlfriends.
    Shoulda stuck with Brian and the weird little weeb girl after all, Kelly realized in exasperation. If some of those other guys would’ve just put in a trifling, token amount of fuckin’ effort… Ugh. A quick fix, that’s all I need—a quick fuck to clear my mind a bit. Some rough, hard sex.
    She’d been unbearably turned most of the day, squeezing her thighs together in a vain attempt to suppress an aching emptiness that demanded some serious attention. She’d caught her hands drifting south of their own accord a few times already, and only her own sense of righteous indignation had so far stopped her from retreating to a restroom stall and finger-banging some of that sexual tension right out of herself. I’m like a fuckin’ goddess here! Having to frig myself, here of all places, would be… pathetic.
    There was definitely an alluring charm to the beautiful scene girl. Fluffy black hair flowed down her head in luxurious layers beside her lovely neck, choppy razored ends tracing along her collarbones. Thick black liner, long lashes, and red-hued eyeshadow emphasized her amber-brown eyes, and that slight, exquisite curve of her cheekbones seemed to naturally provoke her face into a sassy smile.
    The smooth, pale skin of her bare shoulders and neck was inviting, and the soft line of her cleavage captivating, disappearing deep into the low cut of her tank top between the indulgent bulges of her breasts. Unfettered by the likes of a bra, these full, rounded shapes subtly nodded and swayed as she walked. Even her stride was erotic, an unhurried, languid rolling of her hips and clap of her skate shoes across the convention center’s carpeting.
    …On the other hand, can I really blame them? They’re convention nerds, and well, I guess they know their place. I’m way outta their league, She decided, and her self-assured smile seemed positively villainous. After all, everyone knows most geeks are like, awkward primitives when it comes to social interaction—let alone with someone stellar like me.
    So… what now? She wondered in vexation. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl as Kelly explored the nearly deserted halls. She’d tried sitting in on one of the animes playing all night in the viewing room, but the shrill cries of a blushing Japanese schoolgirl scolding her faceless older brother were too creepy. Who gets into this kind of stuff? Apparently the dozen viewers did, as they were positively riveted in their seats, watching the projection with rapt attention as she ducked back out.
    There was also a late-night cabal of tabletop gamers, a suspiciously quiet bunch hunched over the remains of a miniature city dotted with miniature plastic soldiers. The alarmed, somehow desperate look in their beady eyes when she’d stepped in the door was almost threatening, and their silence devolved into a flurry of conspiratorial whispers as she backed right back out of the room with a blank face.
    She finally curtailed her wanderings and hunkered down alone, slumping her back against the wall in one of the corridors off the main lobby, wiling away the minutes by tossing the stuffed capture sphere lightly in the air and turning it over in her bored fingertips.
    I shoulda been gettin’ laid right now. The convention center isn’t far from downtown, Kelly thought in annoyance. There were bars nearby, even some of them that she knew well. I could get a drink, I could get picked up. She scowled, suppressing the rebellious thoughts. If she hit up a bar now and inevitably wound up bedding some handsome guy, she probably wouldn’t find a reason to come back to the convention.
    Focus. Remember why you’re even fucking here at the convention in the first place, Kelly chided herself. It’d be so easy, though… A hazy red corona of arousal had been enveloping her mind all day for some untraceable reason, making it difficult for her to think clearly. There so many randy nerds around the convention today that I soaked up their pent-up pheromones, or something?
    I just really need fucked, she thought in exasperation. Some vacant corner of the convention center, up against car out beneath the dim overhead lights of the parking lots, a restroom stall—anywhere would do, she just needed to get some. Some easy-on-the-eyes stranger could be bending her over right now. She could be standing atop her own discarded skinny jeans, panties twisted around one thigh, as some guy she’d never met plowed her. She could be moaning with pleasure, jaw hanging slack as he pumped her cunt with savage, vicious strokes, their bodies moving in heated rhythm. Fuck.
    She was still casually lounging on the carpeted convention floor beside her purse, debating the merit of letting a restless hand wander down into her pants, when she caught a flash of pink in her peripheral vision. Can’t be…
    A mottled-blonde cosplayer was trudging past, a familiar-looking girl in tall red boots, long gloves, and a bright pink-and-red sundress that just barely concealed the delightful hemispheres of an incredible butt. It is, it’s that Flamituff, the weird little weeb girl! With more pink shit in her hair, too!
    In a flash of inspiration, Kelly gauged the distance between them, leaned forward, and hurled the stuffed plush at the girl. The capture sphere sailed in a high arc before smacking beautifully into back of Stephanie’s head, eliciting a satisfying flinch of surprise. Nice, caught’cha!
    “Uwah…!?” Stephanie let out a breath, glancing around as the ball rolled to a stop several feet away.
    “Hey there, Flammy-fluff,” Kelly gave a small, innocent wave. “Whatever happened with the pink in your hair, it happened again. Or, happened harder…? Have you seen yourself?” Where’s the guy you were with, slut?
    “…It’s Flamituff. I, uh. Yeah,” Stephanie said weakly, having momentarily forgotten about her hair. “Hi.”
    “Sorry, what was your actual name again? Stacy? Something like Stacy?”
    “It’s… I’m Stephanie,” the blond-and-pink-haired girl answered in a detached tone, lurching to an awkward halt and not bothering to pick up the plush ball.
    And, what’s your problem? Kelly thought snidely, eyeing the weary-looking cosplayer for a moment before reconsidering. Stephanie didn’t just look tired—she looked totally defeated. Her expression was empty and fatigued, her posture bent beneath the weight of the heavy travel bag hanging on her shoulder, and even the rabbit ears attached to her headband were dejectedly drooping. Something’s off… something’s wrong?
    “You okay, hun?” Kelly finally asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
    “…Yeah. I, uhm,” Stephanie mumbled, looking dispirited. “Can I ask a… uh, do I… smell? I mean, do I smell badly?”
    “Well then, c’mere,” Kelly replied, unperturbed by the unusual question, and beckoned the girl forward. Awkwardly, Stephanie stepped into the hallway Kelly was sitting in and leaned down while the dark-haired beauty propped herself up and sniffed around her neck.
    “Nope, you’re good, can’t smell a thing,” Kelly approved, quirking her lip and flashing a slightly sarcastic thumbs-up. And, just what am I supposed to smell? Booze breath? Sweat and sex? Kelly idly wondered. “What’s up? Somethin’ goin’ on?”
    “No, it’s, uh,” Stephanie said nervously, “I mean, I’d hate to bother you…”
    “Fuck that, bother away,” Kelly pleaded, eyes dancing up and down Stephanie’s figure. She’s distracting enough. “Bored outta my mind. I heard the con went on all night, but soon as the sun went down and the vendor’s room closed, seems like everyone took off. It’s all just little panels and shit now and I don’t know anyone here, this time.”
    “But, ah, why… why stay here at the con this late, then?” Stephanie asked, perplexed.
    “Hah—well I shoulda found someone to shack up with, but…” Kelly trailed off listlessly and shrugged. “Haven’t had any luck. I was thinking about just chillin’ overnight in the viewing room across the hall, ‘cause they’ve got chairs at least, but the creepy little high-pitched Japanese voices got super obnoxious. Why, you got space in your room?”
    Stephanie sighed, shifting uncomfortably on tired feet. “Aha. Hah. Well, I, uh. I had a room with my friend, but…”
    “Ah. Well, here, siddown then,” Kelly interrupted, a little disappointed, and casually slapped the carpeted floor beside her. “Seems like you’ve gotta story to tell.”
    “Oh, uh, thank you,” Stephanie replied reflexively, blinking. The blond-and-pink-haired girl took a seat on the hard carpeted floor next to Kelly, awkwardly sliding her legs beside her, and exhaled slowly in relief.
    “So’d your friend lock you out?” Kelly inquired, Sock on the doorknob? Some kind of interesting drama in the weird little weeb world you folk live in? Anything to do with that Brian guy?
    “Not… quite,” Stephanie laughed sadly, “I… ran away. When I got to the room, she was, uh, Megan, my friend was already there, and it, uh, well… she smelled. She smelled so badly. The whole room smelled.”
    “Con funk, huh.” Kelly guessed, amused. “That’s hilarious.”
    “Con… funk?” Stephanie echoed dismally.
    “You know,” Kelly laughed, lifting an arm and pantomimed wriggling fingers at the hollow of her armpit. “Con funk, s’what my friend called it a couple years back. Conventions attract all these… social misfit types, and some of ‘em have like, no hygiene. A lotta the time when you’re passin’ by the crowds you can get a whiff of it, of these like… creepy, sweaty motherfuckers who don’t do the whole washing or deodorant thing, you know? Uh, no offense to your friend, I guess?”
    “I-I suppose so. I just never realized how bad it could… I mean I’ve never smelled anything that… well—atrocious, in my whole life. I don’t understand how she doesn’t realize…”
    “Lost cause, trust me, they’re always a lost cause—and you made the right call bailin’ on her. And, hey, that makes us roomless buddies now!” Kelly decided. “Unless you’ve got somewhere else to be…?”
    “Is that… is that okay?” Stephanie asked. “Spending the whole night at the convention, I mean? Do they just let attendees sprawl out in the hallways, like… um, vagrants?”
    “Okay? S’way better than okay,” Kelly retorted, “It’s great, safety in numbers and all that. You’re on your own here, and drift off to sleep, who knows what some convention creep could do to you, right?”
    “Ah, uh, yeah,” Stephanie agreed, swallowing and fidgeting closer to the wall. “Right.” The wide hallways were sparsely populated, but somehow that was a far cry from a sense of security right now.
    “We can keep an eye out for each other,” Kelly said, nudging Stephanie with her shoulder. “You catch some guy pawing at me or taking weird pictures, you’ll yell or scream or somethin’, wouldn’tcha?”
    “W-would it be safer in the, i-in one of the viewing rooms?” Stephanie stammered, stiffening.
    “Chill, I’m just fuckin’ with ya,” Kelly said, chuckling. “We’ll be fine.”
    Sudden shrieks and peals of laughter from a flock of girls playing around out in the main lobby echoed down the corridor with enough volume to spook Stephanie, and Kelly examined her new companion.
    She hadn’t really been able to look past the weeb girl’s silly outfit in her first impression earlier today, but now that she looked closer, she was cute. In fact, this girl was really cute, enough that Kelly was struck by the disparity between the aesthetic attractiveness of this girl and the apparent utter vacuum of self-confidence.
    The timid way the girl struggled to maintain eye-contact when she spoke, the slightly stiff rise of her shoulders, ready to flinch at a moment’s notice, and of course, her stuttering, uncertain way of speaking. Disregarding the outlandish nerd costume, the only thing that actually seemed geeky about this girl was her mousy demeanor.
    “So, can I ask you something?” Kelly asked, giving Stephanie a trepidatious look.
    “Ah, uhm, w-what is it?” Stephanie asked, blinking cutely in surprise.
    “Why are you a weeaboo? And I don’t mean like, why you’re into whatever you’ve gotten all into,” Kelly clarified, “What I mean is like, why are you a weeaboo?”
    “Uhh…?” Stephanie uttered, at a loss and unsure of what to say.
    “You don’t have the looks of a geek,” Kelly pointed out, sizing the pink-and-blond-haired girl up once again, “Wouldn’t even say you’re average-looking, either. You’re actually pretty hot. I’ve made out with girls nowhere near as good-looking as you.” Her eyes began to wander in a way that made Stephanie implicitly uncomfortable.
    “I’m not—um, you what?” Stephanie denied as she struggled to follow the incomprehensible statements thrown her way. “I’m not hot. You, you’re just, you’re making fun of me…”
    “Yeah, uh, okay?” Kelly snorted, sneaking a furtive glance at the soft thighs peeking out of those tall costume boots… “That wouldn’t be hard, ‘cause you’ve dressed yourself up as an animal from a children’s game. Why do you think you’re not hot?”
    “Oh, ah… well, I’m just—not.” Stephanie explained, as though stating common sense. “My looks. My weight. My everything. My face. You know.”
    “Bullshit,” Kelly argued. “You’re thin, have a great ass, and you’ve got a real cute face.”
    “I, I do not. I… don’t have a cute face,” Stephanie protested meekly.
    “Uh, I’m staring at it right now?” Kelly retorted, inching herself closer. Red flecks of starlight were careening through the back of her thoughts, and Kelly blinked, feeling lightheaded and spacy.
    Sure looks cute enough to me, Kelly thought, feeling a silly smile waft across her face. Wonder what she’d do if I just started kissing her? Hah, I could go a lot further than that. Maybe if she’s down for makin’ out I can try gettin’ my fingers under that dress and into her panties—whoa, where’d that come from?
    “You, uh… well, you have a clear complexion, and a small nose,” Kelly continued. “Your features are symmetrical and well-proportioned. Your eyebrows are blond enough that people won’t notice you haven’t been contouring them. I can tell you aren’t using eyeliner or shadow, but your glasses kinda, like, help frame your face, and bring your eyes out a bit. Christ. You’re not wearing any makeup, are you?”
    “I’m not very good with makeup…” Stephanie explained, embarrassed. “Last time I tried to—”
    “Ugghh!” Aghast, Kelly dramatically yanked her purse from where it leaned against the wall and plopped it between them, opening it wide and beginning to dig for appropriate beauty products.
    “Uh… you’re not going to…?”
    “Shhh,” Kelly huffed dismissively, raising a palette of foundation to match shades against Stephanie’s pale skin. “So, you’re telling me guys aren’t hitting on you like, all the time?”
    “N-no. I’m not around them o-often, and when I am, well, sometimes they say things.” Stephanie protested, “But, it’s more like they’re… like they’re making fun of me.”
    “So, you’ve somehow totally misread obvious signals your whole life?” Kelly asked incredulously, abruptly removing Stephanie’s glasses and waggling them up to the light, “Can you see without these?”
    “Hey…! Uh, y-yes,” Stephanie explained, blinking rapidly and looking even more vulnerable. “I’ll just, uh, yes I can see, but I’ll get headaches if I go without them for very long.”
    “Okay, well, close your eyes, then. What about that guy you were with, whats-his-name,” Kelly asked, feigning indifference. “Didja get any vibes from him?”
    “Th-that’s was, uh,” Stephanie choked, “That is, um, has been, different. It’s never like this. Like that. Like that has been with him. Today. Was.” The girl cutely clamped her mouth shut to curb the flood of words spilling out of her.
    “Christ, you’re a mess,” Kelly paused, a dab of foundation already smeared onto a cosmetics sponge. “Calm down already. Are you like, autistic or something, ‘cause when you get all flustered you can, like, barely talk, you know? That how you wound up like a weeaboo? Stay still.”
    The soft strokes of her cosmetics sponge began to canvas Stephanie’s face. Kelly was working roughly, more playing around than actually intent on transforming this cute geek girl, but she possessed quite a bit of skill, and her well-practiced ministrations blended a lovely foundation in no time at all. The real problem’s concealer. She’s got those slight circles under her eyes, makes her look all tired.
    “It’s… it’s social anxiety,” Stephanie confessed, trying to speak slowly. “It’s not, well, it isn’t all the time. I’m fine in normal situations, ones that I’m… used to, and it isn’t bad then. But, outside of my, uh, my comfort zone, ah, it’s… uh…”
    “Well, chill out, I’m playin’ nice here,” Kelly rebuked, shoving the errata within her purse around in frustration. She’d packed light for the convention, and the only concealer she had with her was a touch too dark for Stephanie’s face.
    “Somethin’ happen to like, make you like that, or have you always been this way?” Kelly asked offhandedly.
    “…Something happened. A long time ago,” Stephanie answered quietly, staring off towards the corridor entrance where the forgotten plush capture ball sat.
    “Huh,” Kelly paused, and something in Stephanie’s tone made her decide not to press further. “Must’ve been funny earlier with that guy, though. Were you this awkward around him, like, how bad were you?”
    “I don’t even know,” Stephanie realized. “Probably bad. He… he didn’t seem like he was getting annoyed with me, though. He was teasing me, uh, a little, but it actually seemed like—flirting-teasing?”
    “And, so, you’re hot after all, like I said. Congratulations.” Kelly said, making a frustrated face. Okay, time to improvise, I guess. She hadn’t had to lighten a concealer since high school, but she expertly squeezed a droplet of her concealer next to a bead of moisturizer on the back of her hand, and swirled them together with a fingertip until she had some better shades to work with.
    “So, what’s the deal between you and him?” Kelly asked innocuously. “You’re not his girl, I gather? You making out with him and getting yourself all pink like, an audition for the role, or what?”
    “Oh, no,” Stephanie said quickly, waving her hands. “We uh, just met today, earlier today, I mean, for the first time.”
    “Quit moving. But, he was the one you were making out with, right? Didja ever solve the mysterious case of the pink-ening hair? You definitely went from just the one little streak to a whole mess here since I saw you, ya know.”
    “I… um. He and I kissed, yes… it was my first kiss.” Stephanie confided in a small voice. “And then, when we kissed again, uh, it—”
    “Hooold up,” Kelly cut in, dumbfounded. “Your first kiss? That was your first kiss? Today?”
    “…Yes?” Stephanie answered, tilting her head in confusion.
    “Okay then, what? Literally, what? You needta take your story waaay back further. Anxiety or not, you’re still a little hottie. How had you never been kissed by anyone? And, like, why today, why would your first kiss be with this guy you just met?”
    “I’ve, uh, never had a boyfriend or anything…” Stephanie admitted, embarrassed.
    “…Okay, how old are you?”
    “Twenty-two,” Stephanie shyly stated.
    “And you never thought about, you know, trying one on? A boyfriend? Or a lover? Friend-with-benefits? Maybe just a plain ol’ fuck-buddy? Getting male attention is way easier than learning self-confidence.”
    “…Is that? Is that, uh, how you…?” Stephanie asked, eyelashes fluttering in surprise as a powder brush descended on her cheeks and nose.
    “For confidence? No,” Kelly snorted. “I’m above and past needing confidence. I just use what I have, to get what I want,” Kelly gave her a sly smile, finishing the setting powder on Stephanie’s cheeks with a flourish of her fluffy brush. “‘Cause what we have is what they want. You’ll learn.”
    “Well, uhm, thank you,” Stephanie said hesitantly. “I think?”
    “I’m not done yet, Flami-stuff. Just hiding flaws is the same as breaking even in the beauty world, everything after that gets… tricky, and this is where amateurs always fuck it up.” Kelly pondered for a moment, glancing at Stephanie’s lips. “Ever thought about kissing another girl?”
    “I… haven’t?” Stephanie scrunched her brow cutely. “It never really occurred to me, I mean. I’m not… uh… you know?”
    “Not gay?” Kelly said. “Do you really know for sure though, ‘til you’ve experimented a bit? I mean, like how do you know either way without experiencing a little?”
    “W-well, if it’s kissing, th-then I’ve kissed Brian,” Stephanie said, “So, I’ve experienced a little…”
    “Do you want to experience a little more?” Kelly asked in a low voice, almost a whisper.
    “Um…” Stephanie managed, her expression going blank.
    “…I’m just fuckin’ with ya,” Kelly laughed, casually flashing the girl a winning smile as she scrounged for eyeliner. For now.
    The dark-haired beauty paused to think for a moment. Her eyes need brought out for her look to really… pop, ‘specially with those glasses. And, I can’t put my sexy scene-girl action flick cover on this rated-G kiddie movie. Wouldn’t fit her li’l miss innocent look, and she doesn’t have an ounce of actual attitude…
    She started in with mascara, choking her thumb and index fingers up high on the applicator and gently pressing her middle fingertip against Stephanie’s brow to perfectly steady her hand. Eyelashes were tricky business, if you weren’t an expert.
    “Too bad you didn’t get the guy’s number,” Kelly muttered. “Bet he has plenty of space in his hotel room. And, I’m sure he’s awful lonely now that he’s all single, huh?” Focused on Stephanie’s face, just bare inches away, it was impossible to miss the subtle reaction.
    Kelly laughed, arching an eyebrow. “What, do you have his number?”
    “…I do, actually,” Stephanie conceded reluctantly, “But, I-I can’t. I can’t call him when things are like this. I can’t impose on him with my probl—”
    “That’s dumb,” Kelly interrupted. “Here I thought you were all into him.”
    “I am… I really am! But, I’m… I’m t-terrified. To be honest, I… I didn’t even want to come to the convention,” Stephanie revealed. “If Megan hadn’t really pressur—uh, pestered me to come, I’d never have left my, uh, my normal routine. I didn’t want to meet people, d-deal with new situations. Because, I can’t. I’m not an amazing… an amazing cool kind of girl, like… like you are. I really wish I could be.”
    “Okay,” Kelly said, oddly touched by the awkward compliment. This geek girl was without guile, and her words weren’t the usual smokescreen of ingratiating, facetious flattery. She found she actually… liked this girl, in spite of herself, and a thoughtful smile crept across her face. “Go on.”
    “I am all into him,” Stephanie continued, “It’s this incredible, amazing, crazy, kind of… attraction. Just like I’d always read about, but, um, never really believed in, I guess. Until now? And, well, it’s also complicated, something more… something scary, I can’t even put into words.”
    “Scary? Scary how?” Kelly prompted. Just don’t you dare drop the L-word about a guy you just met, fuckin’ spare me.
    Stephanie seemed to gather her thoughts for a few moments before replying.
    “He makes me feel… like I’m finally in a story, um, part of a story instead of just reading from outside of it, from a… a distance, if that makes any sense? But… I feel like if I get myself any deeper into this, I won’t be able to go back, won’t be satisfied with the safe, uh, withdrawn kind of life that I know, th-that I thought I knew anymore?”
    “My future expectations, this secure and tidy little rest of my life after college I’ve been planning and cultivating… he’s going to make it… no, he already does make me realize it all feels empty, just like going through the motions and watching all the real stories pass by. It’s terrifying, terrifying maybe having something to lose that I didn’t even know about, know I could have before and might never have again and… I—I really have no earthly idea what I should do?”
    “Well, I’d say, go for it. Do you like this guy, or not?” Kelly answered without much hesitation, bringing a small smile to the corners of Stephanie’s lips.
    “I… I do. I like him,” Stephanie admitted, face flushing red.
    “Where the hell’s your phone, then?”
    “I… I can’t,” Stephanie said evasively, turning her face away. “I’ve probably come so close to blowing it j-just by, just by being mys—being me, so many times. I can’t ask him for any more, to do anything for me. I can’t uh, I don’t want him to think any less of me. And, I, uh, I was too shy to even say anything at all to my roommate about, um, and that’s, so… I can’t just—”
    “Listen to me,” Kelly interrupted, putting her hands on Stephanie’s shoulders, “‘Cause this is all actually like, stupid simple, and you’ve over-thought it all to hell. If he likes you, then he isn’t gonna say no, or get annoyed, or think less of you, or any of that bullshit goin’ on in your head right now. He’s gonna see this as an opportunity, and if you weren’t the biggest mess of awkward-sauce, you’d both be gettin’ laid tonight.”
    Stephanie froze, and the shy girl blinked rapidly, as if having an epiphany. “…Opportunity?”
    “Yeah,” Kelly said. “Remember back to me tellin’ you that you’re actually kinda hot? Well with a little effort—” she wiggled the applicator brush towards Stephanie for emphasis, “You can—”
    “I’m his opportunity…” Stephanie uttered. “I am. He did say that I was his… uh, of course. That’s, uh, this was different then. I didn’t realize… maybe you’re right? Absolutely right. I really should call him. You think?”
    “Yeah? You’re gonna call him now?” Kelly dared, arching an eyebrow. Sure changed her mind on that quick, what the hell?
    “I am. I’m going to call him.” Stephanie decided, nodding. She withdrew her phone from her travel bag, staring at it blankly in her hand. A long moment passed, the girl in the pink-and-red sundress sitting on the floor beside Kelly simply gazing at the phone, as if in a trance.
    “Uh… were you gonna do it now?” Kelly asked impatiently.
    “I am. I’m going to. I’m calling him now.” Stephanie replied, rigidly looking at the phone cradled in her hands like a rabbit caught in oncoming headlights.
    “…Gimme the fuckin’phone,” Kelly grumbled, plucking the cellphone out of Stephanie’s hand.
    “Wah—uh, w-wait, I wasn’t ready! I was, I’m th-thinking what to say! What can I say?!” Stephanie protested meekly.
    “Yeah, got it covered, don’t worry ‘bout it,” Kelly retorted, easily blocking the weakly floundering girl with an outstretched arm. The fuck? Her address book is like, practically empty. She tapped Brian’s entry and began dialing, while shooting Stephanie a strange look.
    “N-no-no-no-no you can’t just—” Stephanie squeaked, but it was too late.
    “Hello?”
    Although she’d only met him once, Kelly immediately recognized his crisp voice, and a fleeting glint of red light, like a distant shooting star, traced through her thoughts. It felt good.
    “Heeey. It’s Kelly, we met today? You gave me a convention pass earlier?” She blurted, before she’d managed to collect her thoughts.
    “Kelly?” he sounded baffled.
    “Yeah, uh, Kelly. You gave me a convention pass,” she repeated, feeling like an idiot. He’s just a convention weeb, why does this seem hard?
    “How’d you get my number?”
    “Yeah, about that… Uh… listen, I’m actually callin’ from Stephanie’s phone. The… the Flamituff Stephanie,” she clarified, wondering if it mattered.
    “She needs help, she sorta got kicked out of her hotel room and doesn’t have a place to stay,” she said, somewhat stretching the truth. Stephanie, having risen up onto her knees in anticipation, was hovering near Kelly’s shoulder with bated breath. “She was… too shy to call you herself?”
    “She’s with you? Is she okay? What happened?”
    “Yeah, she’s fine—just, look, she’d never want to impose on you or anything, but… I don’t have a room to lend her and I don’t want her sleeping in the hallway overnight at the convention, ya know? There anything you can do?”
    “Can I talk to her?”
    Quickly suppressing a surprising flash of jealousy, Kelly pushed the phone towards Stephanie.
    “…Hi,” Stephanie managed to choke out, her back stiffening upright in apprehension. “Brian?”
    Brian said something, but Kelly couldn’t quite discern what, so she watched the fidgeting girl with a look of curious expectation.
    “I’m fine,” Stephanie chirped, a nervous smile beginning to bubble up. “Well, uh, th-that is, not fine, but okay—I’m okay. I did have a hotel room, uh, with my friend? My friend Megan. But—”
    Brian was speaking again, a nearly inaudible, sexy sort of murmur that Kelly couldn’t quite make out. Regardless, the effect his words were having on this girl were plainly visible.
    Stephanie’s tense posture relaxed and she sank down, knees slightly apart, the look of fear and anxiety evaporating off of her as a smile of relief spread beautifully across her features. The formerly forlorn and downcast eyes of the awkwardly introverted geek girl were dreaming off into the distance, bright and full of fire. It was a dramatic transformation, considering moments ago Kelly had thought of her as a slightly helpless pity-case. …It’s the makeup. Has to be my amazing makeup skills, for sure.
    “…Of-of course! Thank you! Ah, well, then, here she is again,” Stephanie breathed, and proudly passed the phone back to Kelly.
    “‘Ello?” Kelly grunted.
    “Right, where can I find you guys?” Brian asked.
    “Uh…” Kelly glanced around dumbly for a second, a little annoyed. Not like the damned halls have street-signs. “It’s a hallway. We’re still at the convention center, one of the hallways right off of the main lobby. Can she like, meet you somewhere?”
    “Nah, hang tight, I’m on my way to you guys. I’m just across the street from the convention center, be there in a few.”
    “Uh… ‘kay,” Kelly said automatically. “Thanks.” The call ending, she let out a slow breath and extended the phone back towards Stephanie, who was clutching at her cheeks.
    This… this wasn’t how this was supposed to go, Kelly realized, quirking her lip in a lopsided pout. She’d intended to be aloof, annoyed, and above these convention dorks. Why the hell am I playing matchmaker for them all the sudden? I’m the one who needs laid, you little fuckers. She was actually getting interested, even involved in this weird girl and guy. It was upsetting a precarious balance, and somewhere within her, the stable orbit of her detached scorn was beginning to deteriorate.
    “Well, whatever, it’s on now. So, are you two gonna bang?” Kelly asked, chuckling, and she shook her head.
    “What?!” Stephanie sputtered, “No, we’re not going to b-! You mean sex? Th-that’s not gonna happen. Pr-probably not even, uh, ever any chance of that at all.”
    “Uh-huh, well, just in case, I’d better give you one of these,” Kelly chuckled sadly, rolling her eyes. Reaching into side pocket of her purse, she withdrew a small row of condom packets and tore one off.
    Only gonna have three left. But… well, fuck. This girl’s probably not even on the pill. Turning the sealed packet over in her fingers thoughtfully for a few moments, she reluctantly handed it to Stephanie.
    “This is…” Stephanie said in quiet fascination, accepting it carefully.
    “You know how to use one of those, right?” Kelly asked, a little dubious.
    “Um…” Stephanie said, staring at the condom in her hands as if imagining its implications. She’s blushing. What the fuck is she, a grade-schooler?
    “…Okay, well, he’ll know what to do with it,” Kelly griped, rolling her eyes. “Make sure he uses it, ‘kay?” She leaned back against the wall, trying to force herself to relax.
    “Thank—thank you,” Stephanie said quickly, as if not wanting to sound ungrateful, “But, I don’t think… I mean pr-probably things won’t…”
    “Uh-huh,” Kelly muttered in frustration, cutting her off, “Whatever. I need to get some so bad right now, but hell, you’ve probably never gotten any at all, like… ever, so it’s cool. It’s cool.”
    “N-no, what, uh, what I mean is, I really don’t think I can,” Stephanie said.
    “…Ah. Yikes,” Kelly exclaimed, nodding to herself as if realizing something. “I get it. That’s some tough luck, having the days for the convention fall right on that time.”
    “Uh… that time?” Stephanie asked.
    “Yeah, that time of the month. You’re on the rag, huh?”
    “On the rag?” Stephanie repeated, appalled. “No, it isn’t… uhm, it isn’t that time of the month for me. I’m not on my period. Not menstruating.”
    “What’s the holdup then, this guy not gettin’ your juices goin’?” Kelly asked.
    “He… no, um,” Stephanie protested awkwardly, blood rushing to her face, “It’s, well, he is getting my jui… uh, he does make me—um. It-it’s not him. Him ah, h-he isn’t the problem. I am.”
    “…Oh? Be still my little monster girl, almost done,” Kelly chided as she carefully finished applying eyeliner on the floundering girl. She realized her efforts had pushed this shy little geek girl far out of the realm where a simple descriptor like ‘cute’ was going to cut it.
    The makeup enhanced and exaggerated her innocent charm, an already cute face becoming distinctive and glamorous, the sort of flawless visage one would expect to see gazing out of a magazine cover or amidst the set of a romantic drama movie. She proudly returned the pair of glasses to Stephanie with exaggerated care, as though crowning a tiara on a princess.
    “I don’t know what I’m doing,” Stephanie breathed, “With him. With myself, my, uh, the situation… the whole… sex… thing. I’m not prepared, I never thought th-that, uh…”
    “In over your head, huh?” Kelly observed, trying not to smirk. And to think, when I talk shop with other girls, it’s usually us trying to one-up each other. “You ever like, you know—finger yourself or anything?”
    “No, no,” Stephanie answered without much hesitation, “I’ve… I was going to, but… um… ”
    “You’re a real trip, you know that?” Kelly chuckled, giving the girl a reassuring smile as she shuffled her cosmetics back into the depths of her purse.
    “I’m actually ah, a little curious also, about… about you,” Stephanie said awkwardly, “You don’t seem to be interested in things like anime, why—uh, why did you come to AnimeCon?”
    Yeah, reeealll smooth change o’ subject there, Kelly thought to herself in amusement. But whatever, s’your funeral. Hope you at least get him to wear the condom.
    “I was interested once,” Kelly answered, a teasing look in her eyes, “I was actually here at this very convention three years ago, wore a costume and everything.”
    “Er… really?” Stephanie asked, baffled. “You did? You cosplayed?”
    “Things were different then,” Kelly shrugged, “My friends were different. Since then so much has happened… fell in with a different crowd, lost a buncha people over some stupid shit, you know. The only reason I’m even back here is…”
    The abrupt scuffling sound of approaching footfalls at the end of the hall caught their attention, and with a light kick, the forgotten stuffed capture sphere tumbled into their corridor.
    It was Brian. A strange feeling of satisfaction washed over her, and she exhaled slowly at the sight of him. Whoa… yeeeah, uh… whoa, Kelly thought.
    He’d left the costume military jacket behind, exposing his shoulder-holster rig, and the neatly buttoned-up dress shirt from before was now partially unbuttoned, open at his throat and exposing a sliver of his chest. The mottled green of his eyes made him seem particularly charming, and that slight glint of mischievousness was irresistible. His short hair was slightly tousled, and the overall disheveled, sexy look immediately peppered the night skies of Kelly’s mind with slivers of red heat.
    Fuck. Her thoughts tumbled, lost in a haze of solar wind and radiation. She wanted to play with the remaining buttons of his shirt. Yeah, this ain’t good.
    It wasn’t so easy anymore to think of him as just another nerd, now that he was here. More than simply attracted, she felt drawn to him, as though by a terrible force of sexual gravity. She desired him. She wanted to slip into his personal space and cling to him intimately, to caress him with the familiarity of an old lover. She felt herself slipping into a sultry, sensual mood as he approached, and distant warning bells went off in her head. Fuck, no, fuck. This is gonna be Stephanie’s guy. S’gonna be her first time, I gotta at least let her have that, right?
    “Brian!” the weeb girl beside her exclaimed, struggling back up onto her feet.
    “Hey,” he said, stepping closer and catching Stephanie in an embrace. He looked at her with interest. “So, what happened? Are you alright?”
    “Uhm…” Stephanie began, to embarrassed to speak.
    “She’ll be fine now,” Kelly chimed in, keeping her distance and remaining on the floor while the two hugged. Her gaze however lingered reluctantly on Brian’s hands, settled comfortably just above Stephanie’s exquisite derriere. Not jealous. Nope, not gonna get jealous. “There was just a… problem that came up, ‘tween her and her roomie.”
    “I… well, yeah,” Stephanie affirmed, flushing red and turning her eyes down to the floor. “Would it… be alright, if, if it’s okay with you I mean, and if you have any space, maybe—”
    ‘The wild Flamituff wants to join your party,’ Kelly thought to herself, rolling her eyes. It’s okay, it’s cool. Not gonna get competitive, after I dolled her up. Fuck.
    “You don’t even have to ask,” he answered offhandedly. “Stay with me. I don’t want you spending the night here in the hallway. You… you look different. You look great, Stephanie,” He said, holding her at arm’s length and appreciating the expertly applied makeup now adorning her soft features.
    “…Thank you,” Stephanie breathed nervously, looking up at him with moist eyes. “Really. Thank you so much. It was Kelly, Kelly is… she’s really good with, uh…”
    “Did you need a place to stay?” he asked.
    Uh, duh, she just asked…? It took a moment and a somewhat awkward, dumbfounded look for Kelly to realize Brian was actually addressing her, now. OH. What.
    “Me? Oh, no way, no, I’m good,” Kelly lied, raising her palms and finding herself unexpectedly conflicted. Yeah, that’s probably a terrible idea. Or, no, maybe a pretty good one? Wait, fuck, uh…
    “I don’t have a room anywhere or anything, but I’m cool like, toughing it, totally used to it,” Kelly said. “You gave me the badge, that’s already helped me out way more than you should’ve. So, don’t worry about me, you know? You don’t have to.”
    “You sure?” Brian asked as Stephanie looked on with a bright smile.
    Exasperated, Kelly shot Stephanie a quick look of reproval. Don’t look at me like that, idiot! I was tryin’ to help set you up! If I get into that hotel room with him, all those bets are off, he’s way too hot, and I’m way too fuckin’ horny.
    “C’mon, here,” he said, extending her a hand, “Stay with us.”
    “You really don’t have to…” Kelly reiterated defensively, though she realized her fingers were sliding into his offered hand all on their own. Damn, he is good-looking… is this guy really one of the convention geeks?
    He gently pulled her up and onto her feet in the slow, steady motion of just his one arm, not heaving back or yanking her jarringly. Stronger than he looks, too. Kelly realized, casting an admiring glance. Something in that distant and isolated void within Kelly was falling, and this guy seemed to be tweaking her trajectory in all the right directions. Yeeeah, uh. Fuck it. All bets are off.
    “Means a lot to me, you calling, you know, looking out for Steph like that. I don’t really want you to have to spend the night in a hallway either, not when I’ve got plenty of room to spare,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “Or… would that be weird, like, do you prefer it out here on your own?”
    “Wellll, uh,” Kelly said, a little ruffled, “When you put it that way… I guess I could tag along. If you’re sure you don’t mind?”
    “I don’t mind at all,” Brian laughed, dismissively waving his hand. “Actually, having some company’d be really helpful, you know, keep my mind off of things, get my head outta the past. And I’m sure Steph’d feel better with you there too, rather than being all alone in a room with some random guy.”
    “You’re not some rand, uh, th-this isn’t just some random encounter,” Stephanie rebuked cutely as she blushed fiercely, “We, we have our battle to finish, after all.”
    Kelly was impressed. Stephanie’s bearing seemed a little more bold around Brian, and midway through that outburst of a protest, the girl had even managed to turn it into some sort of weird Monster Battlers reference.
    They’ve obviously already got some chemistry, if they’re left alone tonight, they’ll bang for sure, Kelly thought. With me playing third wheel here, it probably won’t happen, ‘cause she’s the shy little sperg. But, if I keep… kinda… helping her along into it, I could MAKE SURE it happens. And then, if I were to join in a li’l bit here and there and see where things lead, it’s not like she can really complain, right?
    And, then… Kelly realized, her mind whirling and her imagination seeming to assail her in a scintillating red flare of starfire…
    Stephanie would be on her hands and knees, arching her back to submissively present that prodigious ass of hers to them, and Kelly would tug that pair of sopping wet panties down over those lush thighs. Stephanie’s shy little snatch would already be oozing with lubricant, eager to be split open by Brian’s thick shaft—but Kelly would remain between them.
    Kelly would take Brian’s rigid dick in hand and steadily jerk it, occasionally slap it on Stephanie’s offered butt, and she would draw the lovers close, alternately lapping greedily at the nectar of Stephanie’s blushing honeypot, and switching to sloppily blow the meaty cock she worked in her hand.
    One moment, she would be fervently french-kissing the wet folds of that quivering girl’s pink twat, and then a moment later cramming as much of Brian’s cock into her mouth as she could, slobbering Stephanie’s secretions and her own saliva up and down that shaft.
    Pursing her lips, with each bob of her head she would release inch after inch with a slow, messy slurp until his engorged cockhead popped free of her mouth. The heady smell of sex would pervade the air, and in no time at all their room would fill with lewd squelching sounds and moans of ecstasy, punctuated only by the occasional slap of flesh as Kelly spanked Brian’s meat against Stephanie’s bottom so that she could gasp for breath.
    When she finally felt Stephanie’s petite body shaking involuntarily with desire, and could feel imminent need pulsing in Brian’s tremendous cock, she would then point the head of Brian’s dick right at the slippery cleft of Stephanie’s slit and withdraw, lean back with a wicked smile, oblivious to the fluid dripping down her chin.
    As she would begin to frig herself, she wanted to let this desperately panting pair imagine they had been given back control, let them dream that their own desires hadn’t already totally enslaved them. Fingertips frantically flickering over her own reddened clit, Kelly would watch, waiting in heated anticipation for that first momentous stroke that would push all the breath out of that adorable little geek girl.
    Would he hesitate? COULD he hesitate? Would a single glance down at that glistening pussy, dangling a string of wetness in front of that poised penis, push him forward? And Stephanie, would she be trembling with need, just a tiny twitch away from spasming into uncontrolled orgasm? Is her geeky little mind still capable of putting up resistance, or is she just helplessly longing for that incredible thing to plunge deep into—
    “Kell? You okay?” Brian interrupted.
    “Kelly?” Stephanie asked softly, a brief look of concern crossing her smiling face. “Are you… uh, are you alright?”
    “Y-yeah. Yeah,” Kelly replied hastily, swallowing suddenly and feeling absolutely indecent as she lapsed out of the lurid waking dream. What… what the fuck was that?!
    “You kinda spaced out there for a second,” Brian observed, looking a little worried. “C’mon, we’ll get you back to the hotel room, it’s not far.”
    “Y-yeah,” Kelly uttered. Her nipples had become pugnacious protrusions in the thin fabric of her tank top, her panties were drenched, and her mind was a hot mess. There was an anxious feeling, a free-falling, weightless sort of sensation deep inside her, and she found herself frantically excited to see where this would lead.
     It felt like her entire body was shimmering red with the re-entry heat as she descended down into an exciting new world with these two new friends of hers. I can make it happen, that innocent little ménage à trois…

0