I didn’t know the name of my entree. Some sort of odd twisty shell with alternating fillings of cheese and sauce. I think different shells were supposed to be different cheeses based solely on variations in color; the flavors were muted compared to the pockets of sauce and I couldn’t really distinguish them. Still, it was the sort of hardy dish I really sunk my teeth into, with vibrant flavors leaking out of each bite. I conveyed my highest praise to the kitchen. I paired it with a California red.
Kimberly loved her buttery white sauce over capellini. I had a couple of bites and it was quite good. TJ had roasted radishes, as well as capers and spinach, and tossed them all into the thin noodles; steam came off Kimberly’s plate every time she dug a fork in. My suggestion of a chilled riesling (off the dessert menu) got a negative reaction from Inez, but Kimberly agreed it was a good pairing.
While Kim and I chatted brightly about the food, most of my mind was still on TJ. I really wanted to just dismiss the idea that she was ‘into’ me, but my date’s assessment had been distressingly accurate on all counts. Which meant I was, what, making friends around Detroit under false pretenses? It’s not as though I was that good looking; short, thin, and black isn’t at the top of many women’s wish lists.
Okay, I wasn’t particularly short. Or scrawny. Just sort of average.
“… tuned me out almost a minute ago,” Kimberly finished. She still sported a half smile, but her eyes were piercing.
“Sorry! Sorry.” I stabbed at a morsel on my plate and stirred it around. “I’m having a great time, it’s just -”
“You can’t get your mind off TJ. And she’s not coming back to the table.” She watched my reaction over the rim of her glass as she sipped her wine.
Kim’s pronouncements were starting to worry me. How did she so consistently know what I was thinking? I let myself stare at her as I considered if there was any way for me to ask politely, without inviting a similar query in response. I knew that, thanks to Sienna, my powers were an issue I’d have to tackle soon, but it wasn’t a bridge I wanted to cross quite yet.
Her makeup was more understated than it had been on Friday, her lipstick a more natural color with less eyeliner. But she was still clearly made up, and very attractive. I liked the way the fabric of her top shifted across her curves when she moved.
“That’s better,” she murmured softly, one side of her mouth quirking up. “I like having your attention. Look,” the word was said as an exhalation, “I promise that these girls seeing you with an attractive date is not going to hurt your chances with them.”
I blinked. “That wasn’t my concern at all.”
“No, but you would have thought of it eventually.” She carefully cut and forked a mouthful of angel hair. “Expect two different reactions: folds, and double-downs.”
“Poker, really?” I gave her a wry smile of my own.
“Blackjack, I think. Not my terms.” Kim shrugged. “Anyway, some of your ‘friends’ will back off. Others will ramp the flirting up higher.” She grinned. “Those are the fun ones.”
That didn’t sound fun to me, and she apparently saw that on my face.
“Fun for me, because I get to play off of it. Her doing that means she’s fair game.”
I frowned. “Fair game for what?”
She shook her head. “You’ll see when it happens.”
That sounded sinister to me. “Kimberly, can I ask you a question?”
“That depends.” Her look at me was sharp. “Are you ready to tell me yet?”
My stomach sank. More empty talk? Playing with me? “What do you mean?”
She laughed softly. “It’s okay, Hector. Take your time. I already spoke with Sienna and straightened her out.”
“I don’t know; that’s the point.” She broke eye contact to take another bite; her plate was nearly empty. “You have a secret. She knows. And she threatened you, that she would tell me unless you do.” Kimberly gauged my reaction and nodded, satisfied at what she saw. She scraped her fork against her plate, collecting the final bits of mushroom and noodle.
“How did you know that?” I asked. It seemed time to be direct. “Why do you seem to know what I’m thinking?”
“I’m very, very good at reading people. A natural talent,” she insisted. “I knew Sienna and you had talked about a secret because you were both concealing it from me when you came out of her room. So I…” her eyes shifted away from mine “… made a couple of educated guesses, and got her to admit what she did. Roommate stuff.” Her tone was deliberately flippant – more so than she actually felt about this.
“Could we wait and talk about this in the car?” I didn’t see anyone else around, but it was far too sensitive a topic to risk.
“Sure. So… dessert?”
We shared a piece of tiramisu, and I had hot tea because I was driving. Neither Kimberly nor I were impressed by the dessert. It had some detectable grittiness in it, most likely from not mixing one of the layers well enough.
She tried a couple of times to engage me in lighter conversation over the shared confection, but my worry over the secrecy issues stopped them from taking off. I realized I might be rapidly approaching a decision point whether I liked it or not.
Kimberly was great, no doubt. But I had known her for less than a week; I’d not yet spent even 24 full hours in her presence. So, while I was excited to continue to spend time with her – to pursue a romance with her – if the price for that was entrusting her with my career and future, it wasn’t one I was willing to pay. Not this soon.
I met her eyes shortly after deciding this, just as she finished the last forkful of dessert. The smile completely dropped off her face, both eyes and mouth, as she read my resolve and reflected it as fatalism.
Her smile didn’t return as I escorted her swiftly to the car and into her seat, nor when I turned the ignition and backed us out of the lot. It was clear from her tone that the smile had not returned as she broke the silence.
“So what made you decide that you can’t trust me?” Kimberly asked, and the embers of my suspicions reignited, blossoming into a hot roar. Her question left no place for uncertainty. She wasn’t making guesses; she knew what I was thinking.
“What you did, just now, for one thing.” An unimposing, neutral tone had always come naturally to me, and I leaned on it now.
My eyes still fixed on the road, I heard rather than saw her exasperation by means of a sigh. “Hector, I mean no offense by what I’m about to say. It’s something I really like about you,” she insisted. “But you are really easy to read. You wear your thoughts and emotions on your face, your hands, your smallest movements. When you’re an open book, it’s hardly my fault that I take a peek in the pages.”
I gave a nod; she could look at me even as I focused on getting us back to her place. “Okay.” I didn’t sound convincing even to myself, but I really didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m still hoping you’ll change your mind and tell me, whatever it us,” she said. “I think you’ll be surprised at how well I handle it. But I can wait, and earn your trust.”
Curiosity got the better of me, so I asked, “What do you think the secret is?”
Kimberly’s answer sounded more like she was smiling again. “You’re a super. Sienna found out and… because of what happened with Starsword, she wouldn’t leave it alone. Threatened you if you didn’t tell me.”
I fought down the panic at her guess and zeroed in on a tangent. “Starsword? A hero?”
“North Carolina Super Team. We dated for the better part of three years. Or rather, I dated the fake identity he used to attend college. I was another part of his cover. Telling me the truth never crossed his mind.”
The easy way she spoke of it increased my unease. “Doesn’t talking about Starsword’s identity risk endangering him?”
“It’s not his identity anymore.” Kimberly spoke in a strained monotone, as though she was forcing herself to express less emotion than she felt. “He was outed senior year – a car full of drunk freshmen flipped over practically in front of him. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t sneak off to go change into a costume. He just dove right in. Very heroic.” The last was said with a mocking scoff.
“You don’t think what he did was heroic?”
“No, that part was.” She was harder to hear as she faced her window. “When the story hit the school paper, tying him to NCST… he vanished. Flat out. Not a word, not an explanation. Thoroughly ghosted.” Another deep sigh, with a self-deprecating chuckle built in.
“After three years?” I couldn’t imagine treating someone that way. I carefully turned onto a side street cutting past her apartment building.
“I think…” another sigh. “I don’t think it ever was real for him, the way it was for me. ‘Keenan’ was always just a role, something to pull on and wear for as long as it was needed. And so the rest of us – not just me as his girlfriend, but the fraternity he joined, his intramural teams and study partners, his roommates – weren’t real connections. We were disposable. Part of the mask.”
I found a spot to pull into, as the silence stretched. I was mulling over her story, considering it in the context of other supers with civilian identities. The majority considered their civilian lives to be, in one way or another, who they ‘really were.’ The hero costume and name were a persona, to be used to carry out missions. Then they took off the colorful disguise and lived their ‘real’ life as a normal person.
But this Starsword wasn’t my first exposure to the idea of a hero who saw his superhero name and personality as his true self. Peregrine clearly saw himself this way – he bothered with his constructed civilian self only as much as the DOJ insisted he do so. And while I didn’t know him all that well yet, I got the impression that Spinner might be the same. I had peeked into his civilian life to know that he didn’t have a family or a day job; most of his waking hours were spent in costume, supporting NEST or lending his talents out to other Teams.
Even so, I couldn’t imagine Peregrine or Spinner cutting ties so abruptly and callously with a civilian contact. Whatever Starsword’s motives, it had left Kimberly with a deep wound.
“Nothing to say?” I caught the tremor in her voice, at odds with her forced flippancy. “Oh! This is my place. I guess that’s… an answer.” I had pulled into an open curb space just down the road from her building.
I shook my head as I turned to give her my visual attention now that we were parked. “If you took something from me coming here, it was not intentional. Had you thought we were going somewhere else?”
She cocked her head, then pulled her messenger bag up from between her feet. “I packed for overnight. I was… pretty sure…” she blushed.
“My place?” I asked, and she gave a small nod. “Do you… still…?” She nodded again.
I did my best to conceal a grin as I put the car in gear and headed out of town.