Cat saw an opening and pushed forward, squeezing between a very tall, very pregnant, costumed lady and someone in full-body futuristic space armor. The pregnant lady angled herself to the side to let Cat slide past.
“Thanks!” Cat said as she forged ahead. She loved comic book conventions. Loved them. But she didn’t love being late, and if her family would just hurry up, then maybe—
Her cape tightened around her neck and Cat was yanked backward, bouncing like a pinball off the space soldier’s flimsy plastic shell and the costumed lady’s thigh.
“Cool ricochet,” said Cat’s twin, Alex. He hadn’t even looked up from his handheld console, and now he was using their brand-new vocab word to tease her? Cat stuck her tongue out at him. Alex didn’t even seem to notice. He was similar to Cat in so many ways physically (dark hair, hazel eyes, typically Italian features like their dad, a love of graphic tees and jeans), but personality-wise they could really be total opposites.
“Slow down,” snapped Cat’s older and much stronger sister, Fi, dropping her hold on the back of Cat’s cape and returning to fidgeting with her coffee-stained, leopard-print blouse. Who knew being a varsity soccer player at fourteen could get your biceps that buff? Fi had definitely gotten all the height in the family. She was tall and muscular, her thick brown hair almost always pulled back with a scrunchie. Most days, she was in an oversized vintage tee, denim shorts, and sandals. Her favorite accessory was a refillable metal water bottle. She tried very hard to know as little about anime as she could. Today, though, Fi was at a nerd convention and had traded shirts with their mother during a last-minute hot beverage–related elevator disaster. Cat knew her sister was miserable.
Cat yanked her costume back into place. She’d been poring over screencaps of her favorite anime online for months to get the details just right for this convention, but honestly it was held together by a safety pin and a wish. Plus, they were still so, so running late. Didn’t Fi understand? Didn’t anyone understand? Why couldn’t everyone else just keep up?
GeekiCon, the largest comics convention in the world, had been a regular event in Cat’s life since she could remember—at least five years. Well, she’d been coming since birth, really, so the six years before that, too, but she couldn’t remember those ones. (She was a baby. Obviously.) Her parents, Anna and Luca Gallo, were famous for writing this comic called Ducky McFowl that had been turned into an animated series in the ’90s and now had this massive cult following that Cat didn’t really understand. Cat was used to people squeezing into sweaty, crowded rooms to hear her parents talk. Sometimes she even watched their recorded panels online afterward, so she could spot herself and Alex in the audience making faces at the camera.
Sorry, Cat mouthed, backing away from the lady in costume. In response, the woman bowed her head and brought her gold wrist cuffs together with a wink. Her way of saying Don’t worry about it without needing words.
“Mom,” Cat said, turning around to walk backward while getting her parents’ attention. “Your panel starts in five minutes!”
“These things, they never start on time, môj milácik,” her mom said in the thick accent Cat was way over being embarrassed by. Cat thought it was actually really cool that even though English was her mom’s second language, she managed to kick butt by writing one of the most successful comics of all time. It made her feel a little better when people made fun of how her cabbage noodles smelled when she brought them for lunch at school.
Cat’s mom pushed up her glasses as she scanned the crowd—a vantage point Cat didn’t have. Anna Gallo’s shoulder-length hair was tinted a dark burgundy, a color that set off her always-kind gray eyes. Her favorite silver necklace—the little Celtic knot she’d bought with Cat at Seattle Comic Expo—glinted on top of her black sweater. “We will be fashionably late,” she said decisively.
Cat almost rolled her eyes and then remembered her mom would dock a dollar off her allowance for attitude. Alex didn’t bother looking up from his console but he still smirked at Cat. She knew he knew how close she was to losing her chill.
“She’s right, kiddo—we’re almost there,” Cat’s dad agreed, squinting at the crowd through his glasses. Her dad hated crowds, but he loved talking in front of crowds, so he struggled through it for the fans.
“Exactly,” Julie, her parents’ publicist, called back from the head of their little pack. She was a very cool and very talented Korean American lady who always showed Cat pictures of her gigantic fuzzy dogs during convention weekends. And she could throw elbows to push through a crowd like no one else.
But please! What did “fashionably late” even mean anyway? Probably nothing. Probably just something her mom made up. Some weird phrase that didn’t translate right from Slovak. They weren’t even fashionable. The only one who cared about clothes was Fi, who had her arms crossed over her stomach and wore a scowl like that one Vigilante League member who had laser eye beams. Fi would decimate everyone in this con if she could.
Cat should just accept lateness was kind of their family’s thing—Mikaeyla Xu’s family had their nightly sit-down dinner and Amelia Wilson’s family had their weekly argument over something trivial. But Cat’s family was just … late, all the time, and when the five of them finally managed to make their way into a room, people always noticed.
“Coming through!” a guy in a giant suit of foam armor called as he nearly slammed an oversized elbow pad into Cat’s head. She dodged, barely, and felt Alex grab her hand, tugging her in the opposite direction of the cosplayer.
“You should really be paying more attention,” Alex said. It was the first time she’d seen him look up.
“Me? You’re the one with your eyes glued to your screen,” she said, pointing to his console. “I was paying attention, I was almost through when—”
“Cat! Left to the escalators!” Fi barked. Everyone near them turned to look, including the three people dressed as full animals. Cat waved Alex forward and grinned at Fi. Her older sister might hate it here, but she knew her way around this convention center better than any of them.
“You heard her, Mom, let’s go!” Cat called, Alex following behind her, ahead of the rest of their family.
They squeezed onto the big escalator in the convention center’s atrium and Cat finally got to take it all in. You know that look people get on their face when they talk about their favorite place in the world? Like when Cat’s dad talked about growing up in the woods of Minnesota and the crisp air and smell of pine and the way the colors of the leaves change? That look was Cat’s entire brain at GeekiCon.
It was three whole days wandering the convention’s main floor full of booths and stalls, checking out everything from the smallest Artist Alley table to the massive anime setups to all the amazing costumes people had spent hours and hours making themselves. Sure it was hectic, but it was a place where people got to be their geekiest selves, where obsessions didn’t get you teased … where you just got to be.
Cat looked up with awe at the gigantic WELCOME TO GEEKICON banner hanging over the convention center’s atrium. She held up her phone and snapped a selfie with her and Alex just visible beneath the logo. This was the best con in the world, and they were finally back.
And this year, it’s going to be the best con ever, Cat thought, smiling at her perfect framing on the WELCOME TO GEEKICON selfie.
Because this year, she was going to win the Quest.
So many people.
Not that people were a bad thing, generally, but they were everywhere. That was the thing about GeekiCon: thousands of people. In costumes, in character, all brushing past him.
And it wasn’t just inside the convention center. Alex had been to a few other cons around the country with his folks and the thing about those cons is that when you leave those cons, well … you’ve left the con. You go outside and after you walk a block or two it’s just normal, really. Just normal Seattle or New York or Chicago or wherever you happen to be for the two or three weekend hours when you’re not inside the gray concrete walls of the convention.
Which means fewer people.
But this con was not like that. Alex swatted at Cat’s hand so she’d stop interrupting his game.
Adventure of Zenia took some serious concentration. It was a single-player game where your character wandered through the wilderness in search of ancient temples. Getting through the temples took a lot of tough puzzle-solving and it wasn’t for the faint of heart. This was something like the fifteenth AoZ game, and Alex loved each one more than the last.
Alex clutched his console in sweaty hands and stared down harder into it, trying desperately not to think about the number of people around them, watching Cat’s feet go one in front of the other just out of the corner of his eye. He couldn’t lose her.
He almost tripped trying to avoid touching someone. The first of many times this weekend, he knew.
Earlier this morning, after Alex had finally located his favorite pencil (which he couldn’t find anywhere until Fi discovered it behind the couch, and he went nowhere without his sketchbook and pencils, so this was very important), he left his hotel room and crowded into an elevator with his whole family and a guy dressed in a red spandex unitard. (He pulled the look off, in Alex’s opinion.) Before Alex knew it, his family was in a lobby decorated with bright Vigilante League decals, and the front desk guy was wearing a Captain Patriot T-shirt under his uniform blazer, and when Alex walked out onto the street, every restaurant had a GeekiCon–themed menu and every person was wearing a costume and most of them hadn’t even bought them at a Hot Topic. Yes, to most geeky kids, this is what the center of the universe would feel like—if the center of the universe was actually cool and not just a gigantic ever-expanding void, which is a thing Alex had just read about on Wikipedia—but he already had a hard enough time processing the everyday world. Processing the everyday world—the words his therapist used to explain the challenge of being autistic. When Alex got worked up, he felt like he had to just … close up inside himself and definitely not touch anything. That’s when sometimes his dad’s voice would get soft, just like it did now.
“Buddy,” he said, crouching down next to Alex. “Need a minute? Just a little sensory overload, right?” Alex wasn’t looking at him, but he knew that his dad’s eyes would be all crinkled up behind his glasses. At this distance, Alex could have seen all the little gray bits in his dad’s short black hair and beard. Alex liked those bits. He concentrated on them sometimes while having conversations.
Alex kept his eyes glued to his console and nodded. All that—the pencil and the elevator and his mom’s coffee spill and the people—had happened even before they got to the convention center. Which is where they were now. No escape. But Alex knew he was here for a greater purpose. The greatest purpose of all, really. So he lifted his head and looked his dad square in the eyes.
“I’ll be okay,” Alex said, projecting a false confidence he didn’t even know he could fake. “I just need to get into the panel room and take out my sketchbook. Or play more AoZ.”
“You got it, kiddo.” His dad smiled and stood up, knowing better than to touch Alex in moments like this. “Let’s rock and roll.”
Alex took a deep breath as he hopped off the escalator. Doodling always managed to chill him out. Soon.
GeekiCon staffers ushered their family forward through the convention center’s second floor. Long hallways lined with doors upon doors, all leading to their own gigantic panel rooms. Suddenly, Alex felt he was deep in the belly of the whale. He’d read that happened to a guy once in a really old story. (Gross.) That’s what it felt like here, shoved into a big belly of a hot, sweaty, stinky animal and jostled around with the rest of its stomach contents.
Alex knew he wasn’t making this sound pleasant. He’d watch the way his mom’s face would change when he described things this way, so he tried not to. He tried not to even think about any of it.
Think nicer things. Try to make eye contact. Here for a good reason.
Alex was a little spoiled, and he knew it; with his parents’ PROFESSIONAL badges and Julie, their publicist, he and his sisters never had to wait in line to get into cons. But what with the losing-the-pencil fiasco this morning, and then Fi changing her outfit nine times, and Dad misplacing the hotel key, and Mom spilling her latte on her blouse and having to swap shirts with Fi in the elevator, they were cutting it pretty close on making it to their parents’ panel.
“Hey, Alex,” Cat said suddenly. Alex looked up to find Cat’s phone was being shoved into his face. “I’m uploading the cosplay video. Thirteen points, here we come!” Alex watched the time-lapse video they’d shot of Cat getting into her costume this morning. Faster than life, she snapped a black-and-purple cape around her neck, quickly freeing her bouncy, blue-tipped curls from under its confines. Alex watched her jump into her loafers, painstakingly hand decorated with comic-book pages. Onto Cat’s back, gingerly, went a backpack made entirely of vegetables. Their mom had driven them to the twenty-four-hour grocery at two in the morning to create that monstrosity as stealthily as possible. Their mom was pretty cool, sometimes.
And the video actually looked good. But then, Cat always did have a good eye for those kinds of shots.
“Nice one.” Alex managed a smile. “Do you have the Hall M passes?”
“Yes, I have the Hall M passes, Alex; stop asking!” Cat sounded exasperated, probably because Alex had already asked her that same question at least twenty-five times before they’d even reached the con. But he figured it couldn’t hurt to check again. The passes were worth their weight in gold, and they’d only gotten them because their parents knew someone who knew someone who owed them a favor. (They were basically impossible to come by.) The passes would allow them to skip the legendarily epic Hall M line. Cat and Alex would’ve had to get into that line days ago without them. With the passes, they were good to go.
“Okay.” Alex shrugged. “Just checking—”
“Holy bananas.” Cat cut him off. “Alex, it’s them. It’s them. It’s Team Dangermaker.”
That got Alex to stare out into the crowd. Sure enough, Cat was right (she is that, very occasionally). Standing semi-concealed by a big group of Star-Troopers were Team Dangermaker, the four-person team who’d won the Quest the last three years running. Dahlia, Fox, Rey, and Malik were as close to internet royalty as a person could come without being an actual movie star. They were the very definition of BNFs—Big Name Fans. Everyone wanted to be friends with Team Dangermaker online, but they were notoriously cliquey. Almost no one was good enough to make it to their level of nerd cool and even fewer people had ever seen them IRL. Alex creeped their page with equal amounts of admiration and jealousy. There weren’t many photos of them online, but Alex had managed to piece together that they were teens: a girl, a guy, and two enbys (which Alex knew was Dahlia and Fox’s way of saying “nonbinary,” or someone who fell into their own category outside or somewhere between “boy” and “girl.”). But they were the superstars of the Quest world, and looking at the crowd gathered around them, Alex knew that had to be Team Dangermaker. Like Cat, he just knew. And he and Cat would do their absolute best to dethrone them this year.
… But they were still really, really cool.
His family kept moving forward and Alex lost sight of Team Dangermaker. He looked back down at his console. One more escalator and crowded hallway to go. More people he’d have to touch. And then … well then, at least, he could focus on the Quest.
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