Wo-Man luxuriated in Mark's arms, running a finger gently over his bare chest hair. She ran her eyes around his bedroom, appreciating it both from the grayscale aesthetics of her ultraviolet vision in the dim light, and from this new angle lying prone on his bed. He always kept his doors open; Steve had glanced into Mark's open bedroom more than once. The bathroom door off the hall was likewise always open. So was Mark's hall closet door, and even the closet door here in his bedroom. But, as she glanced out through the bedroom door into another angle on the hall, she could see the one exception. There was one door in this house, other than the locked back door to the garage, that Mark always kept closed. Steve had always had an idle curiosity about what lay beyond that door, but had never pursued it. Now, though, Wo-Man decided to ask. She motioned her head toward the hall, and said "You keep all the doors here open, except for that one. What's inside there?"
Mark furrowed his brow. "That room's personal. I don't show it to anybody, not even my closest friends."
Well, that didn't tell her anything she didn't already know.
Mark raised one eyebrow. "You know," he said, "If you want to stick around for a little while, you could meet two of my friends. They're coming over this evening. I'm sure they'd love to meet a real super-hero."
Ohhhhh, crud. That's right. Tonight was Game Night again, wasn't it. Steve was supposed to meet up with Georgina in . . . she glanced at the clock on Mark's nightstand . . . yikes! In less than twenty minutes!
"Believe me," she said, "I'd like nothing more than to lounge around in bed with you for the rest of the evening." She sat up. "But, I've got super-hero duties. My job's never done. Look, if you can give me your —"
Mark scribbled something down on a sticky note and whisked it into her hand in the space of a heartbeat.
"— phone number." She chuckled. His number was on the note. The same phone number Steve had called many times in the past. "Looks like we both want to see each other again."
"Can I have your number too?" Mark asked.
"Super-heroes don't have phone numbers," Wo-Man said as she got up and stepped out into the hall, still naked. "Well, I guess the League of 250 Point Characters might have an official phone number, even if it is unlisted. But I'm not in a . . . super-hero group." She stopped over the pile of armor pieces she'd shed in their earlier moments of passion, stepped into her armored shoes, and clipped the guards onto her arms and legs one-at-a-time. Finally, she picked up her main body-armor-and-rocket combo, and was just about to put her naked torso away when it occurred to her that she'd never seen the armor from the inside before. It looked surprisingly plain, and thin. She had no idea how their gravity nullification tech worked, but she figured it had to take up at least some space. Was it some thin mesh, sandwiched between the inner and outer layers of her armor? Was it housed somewhere in the rocket pack unit? Did it have to be next to the propulsion tech to work? Or vice-versa?
She shrugged, and sealed the armor shut around her with a reassuring clank. If she hadn't stopped to inspect this last piece, she'd have gotten all of her armor back on in the same twelve second span it had taken to remove it.
She opened the front door. Mark frantically threw on a bathrobe and stumbled out of his bedroom, but she'd already stepped across the threshold. "I will call you," she said, then clacked her elbows against her armored flanks and leapt into the sky. By the time Mark reached his front door, he could only watch her climb away into the distance.
She made a beeline for her — for Steve's — apartment. Even at a hundred miles an hour, it took some minutes. All the while, Mark loomed large in her thoughts. She savored the memory of every kiss, every caress, every . . . yes. Yes. She definitely wanted to be with him again. With her new . . . boyfriend again. Huh. The word would take some getting used to.
And . . . was he actually her boyfriend, though? Mark was her first man. All the attachments she was feeling toward him, maybe some of that was because he was her first man. She wasn't Mark's first woman, though. She knew that going in. But it meant that he might not . . . share all the same feelings of attachment with her. What if she called him tomorrow, and his feelings for her had waned? What if this beautiful romantic encounter they'd just shared only served to reawaken his confidence, and he went after another woman? Would she have the courage to say "If you love something, set it free," and walk away? Would she be able to handle the heartbreak? Whom would she even be able to confide in about it?
Best not to dwell on the worst-case scenario. Besides, her secret identity had a game night appointment to keep. She landed in an alleyway less than a block away from Steve's apartment, made sure no one was looking, said "I'm a man," and banged her fists together to trigger the transformation.
And the instant she became a he, all the new feelings for Mark . . . vanished.
She'd half expected, half hoped that Steve would discover he was bisexual. But . . . no. He wasn't romantically interested in Mark at all. Mark was just a good friend again, like before. And his old romantic feelings for Georgina all came flooding back, just like last time.
Great, he cursed to himself. I'm a heterosexual man, and a heterosexual woman, and the two of us will never agree on anyone.
Steve jogged the short distance back to his apartment, went inside, and heard his doorbell ring not five minutes later. He'd made it back just in time. He opened his front door and beamed at his girlfriend.
Georgina started to say, "Ready for game ni—"
Before she could finish the sentence, Steve took her in his arms and kissed her fervently. Then, gazing brightly into her eyes, he took a breath and said, "Hello, beautiful!"
"Well!" she said, delighted but a bit confused. "What's gotten you so frisky today?"
"You," he said, and kissed her again.
"C'mon," she giggled, "We're gonna miss game night if we stay here in your doorway."
They got in her car and drove off toward Echo Park. It was her turn to drive to game night this week. Steve fawned over her for the whole trip. "Dang," she said, not taking her eyes off the road, "You haven't paid this much attention to me since we first started dating."
"I," Steve began, searching for the words, "I just don't want to take you for granted."
She smiled at that and blushed slightly. It was the truth, but not the whole truth. He couldn't just come out and tell her, "I turned into a woman and cheated on you with our mutual game night friend, and now I feel guilty about it."
She parked in Mark's driveway, and they walked to his front door. Mark opened the door before they'd even knocked. He looked happy and excited. "Come on in, guys!"
Steve let himself take up the rear behind Georgina as they entered. Just glimpsing Mark felt eerie. The memories of what his feminine alter-ego had been doing with Mark just an hour ago crashed unpleasantly through his mind. It had felt so right when Wo-Man had been doing it, but now as Steve, the thought of those . . . intimate acts with Mark nauseated him. Looking at him over and over during the games tonight might be a challenge.
They sat down at the table, and as Mark opened the poker chip rack, he said, "Guys, you're not going to believe what happened to me today."
Georgina raised her eyebrows. "You finally got a date?"
Steve maintained his staunchest poker face. Her guess was a little too close to home. He got a date, all right, he thought.
"I got laid," Mark said, "With a super-hero!"
Georgina's mouth fell open in astonishment. Steve raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise. "Really!" he said. "So which super-hero was he?"
Mark glowered at him, as if to say "Come on, you know me better than that." "It wasn't a he," he growled. Then he perked back up. "It's a new super-hero who just came to L.A.. She goes by the name of Wo-Man."
"Oh!" Georgina said. "I think I heard about her on the news today. There was a flying guy tearing up the pavement, and she swooped in and punched him. Took him out single-handedly."
Odd, thought Steve. The news didn't mention Octoplex's thrown rock?
Georgina went on, "It's about time L.A. got a super-heroine." She stared at Mark and cradled her chin in her hands. "And you slick dog, you managed to break you dry spell with her. Congratu-fracking-lations! It's about time!"
"I'm surprised I got a woman at all," Mark said, "Let alone L.A.'s only woman super-hero. Man! I still can't believe it!"
"Oh, come on," Georgina said. "I never could buy that whole 'there's no social life after college' excuse of yours. A gorgeous hunk like you would have to live in a cave to avoid the attentions of women."
"Well . . ." Mark seemed uncharacteristically nervous. "Okay, well, maybe I . . ." He changed the subject. "Um, who's up for good old-fashioned Five Card Stud?" He quickly handed out stacks of chips, then started shuffling the deck.
Steve leaned close to Georgina and asked in a hushed voice, "You really think he's gorgeous?"
"Honey," she rested the side of her face on one hand, "If I wasn't your girlfriend, I'd have gone after Mark a long time ago."
Steve blinked, then looked at his cards. 7 of hearts up, King of hearts down. Possible flush, if he got very lucky. He plunked down an opening bid of two white chips, then waited for Georgina and Mark to decide on their bets. He felt distracted the whole time. But not just because he was sitting with both his lover and his alter-ego's lover. Something else was picking at the back of his mind. Something he couldn't put his finger on.
Steve's next upcard was a King of spades. That dashed any hope for a flush, but he still had a hidden pair. Good enough. Neither Georgina nor Mark had anything interesting showing, so he picked up a red chip between his fingers and . . . he hesitated. There was that nagging in the back of his mind again. He shook his head to clear it, and placed the chip in the betting pile. The nagging didn't stop, though. It almost felt like it came from the outside, like someone was whispering something to him that he couldn't make out.
"You okay, Steve?" Mark asked.
"Oh," Steve said, still distracted. "Yeah, it's just that . . . I don't know, something's bugging me, like I left the stove on and forgot about it."
Georgina glanced sidelong at him. "Your stove's not on, is it?"
"No no," Steve said, "Of course not." How could it be, he thought, When I got home just five minutes before you?
They played out the rest of the hand — Steve folded when Mark had a pair of aces showing — then the deal continued around the table. Seven card stud, plain old draw poker, that new "Texas hold-'em" variant that seemed to be getting popular . . . all the while, there was that nagging feeling keeping Steve from the top of his game.
After Steve's third distracted loss in a row, Mark quipped, "You didn't forget somebody's birthday, didja?"
"No . . ." Steve trailed off, brow furrowed. "Not, not exactly . . . I'm not, I'm not sure." It was something big, like someone was trying to get his atten. . .
Wait. What about . . .
"You know," Steve said, pushing his chair back from the table, "Maybe I do need to clear my head here. Sorry Mark, sorry sweetie, I think it's time for me to do my old night trek."
"Dang," Mark said, "You haven't done that in a long while."
Georgina just glared at him. "You're gonna walk all the way back to your apartment? Alone? At night?"
Steve took a deep breath. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I need to."
Georgina pinched the bridge of her nose between the fingers of her right hand. "Good thing it was my turn to drive tonight, I guess."
"Yeah," Steve agreed. "And, and I'm sorry, but I think I really need this."
"Well," Georgina sighed, "You always did have that obsession with your freedom. We'll — maybe I'll try to see you tomorrow."
"Thanks," Steve said as he got up to leave. "Thanks for understanding."
The grimace she gave him didn't look very understanding, though.
He made his way out onto Kellam Avenue, walked to the end, and kept turning corners until he was out of the suburbs. Between his fawning affections on the way there, and his distant I-want-to-be-alone air of mystery when he'd left, he must have given Georgina emotional whiplash. God, he hoped she'd never find out that Wo-Man was him. It would break her heart, and his. He wasn't too keen on the idea of Mark finding out, either. But this nagging sense of some unknown something being off might just be related to his secret identity.
Only one way to be sure. He glanced around to ensure that no one was nearby to see him — and that he hadn't been followed — and sang the words and clapped the hands that turned him into a her.
And the instant the transformation was complete, the sense that had merely been a nagging itch in Steve's mind became a cacophonous roar in Wo-Man's. No mere whispering, the voices in her head were screaming at her. It was a directive, an unmistakable command.
The aliens had returned.
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