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“Who?” Dimple followed his gaze. “Who’s that?”

“He made this totally amazing character, Platinum Panic, for a series of graphic novels. I read them all when I was, like, ten. It’s sort of what got me started on comics. He has these amazing YouTube videos too.” He rubbed the back of his neck. It felt surreal, to see the man standing not ten yards away from him, after having hero-worshipped him from afar for nearly a decade, after having laughed at every YouTube joke. After having sent him embarrassing fan mail when he was eleven—not that he was about to divulge that piece of information to Dimple. Or the fact that he kept the postcard Leo had sent back, stapled to the last page of his sketch pad. It said, Semper pinge—Keep drawing always in Latin. Platinum Panic’s catchphrase was Semper sursum—Always upward.

“Well, come on, let’s go wait in line and meet the guy.” Dimple grabbed his hand again and started toward the line.

Rishi didn’t quite have time to process that (a) she’d grabbed his hand of her own accord and (b) how nice it felt, because he was beginning to freak out.

“Um, I don’t know,” Rishi said, pulling back.

All of this was happening too fast. It was too much. He’d said yes to Kevin Keo when he should’ve said no, now he was at this huge con, and his idol was right in front of him. He was slipping down some comic book rabbit hole. It was, he thought, like trying to stay away from the girl you desperately loved but who you knew was bad for you. You kept your distance, because that was the only way to save yourself. You kept your distance, because you knew if you didn’t, you’d be helplessly and hopelessly caught up in everything you loved about her. Distance was the promise of safety. Without distance, Rishi knew the inexorable love for his art, for creation, would suck him in and never let go.

Dimple turned to him, eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, you don’t know? You just said this guy’s your idol, right?” Something in his expression softened her. She put a hand on his arm. “What’s up?”

“I wasn’t expecting all this.” Rishi waved a hand in the general direction of Leo Tilden. “This was supposed to be small.” He pointed to the welcome banner that said LITTLE COMIC CON . “See? Little. It’s even in the name.” He smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Dimple studied him for a second. “Are you afraid that you don’t belong here? Or that you do?”

He looked at her, startled. How had she so quickly, so succinctly, verbalized everything he was feeling? “What are you, some kind of mind reader?”

Dimple smiled. “Look, we’ll just go meet Leo Tilden, and then we can leave. You don’t even have to let on that you draw or anything. You can pretend your costume is from some Indian comic they haven’t heard of.” She shrugged. “What do you have to lose?”

She was right. When he looked back on this in a year, when he was at MIT , he wouldn’t remember any of these feelings. He’d remember meeting Leo Tilden. He’d always have that.

He nodded. “All right, Daria. And maybe after that we can go get some gelato or something.”

Dimple grinned. “Let’s do it.”

CHAPTER 23

“Hi.” Leo Tilden’s distinctive voice, in real life. Wow.

Rishi smiled, but he wasn’t fully sure he was smiling in a socially appropriate way. Meaning, he was baring his teeth. But the tall muscular man next to Leo Tilden—his assistant, Sven, probably—looked fairly perturbed. Dimple elbowed him in the side. “Um, h-hi. I’m, I’m a big Rishi.” He heard Dimple snort. Oh my gods. Had he just said, I’m a big Rishi? “Fan,” he corrected, feeling like his entire face was about to burst into flames. “I’m a big fan. My name is—”

“Let me guess,” Leo said, grinning. “Rishi.” He held out his hand. Beside him, burly Sven relaxed. “Nice to meet you, my man.”

“You too,” Rishi said, feeling like he was in some sort of bizarre dream. He made sure to enunciate and face Leo the entire time. He knew from Leo’s YouTube videos that the artist was fitted with a cochlear implant, which allowed him to hear, but not quite at the level of a hearing person. “I read Platinum Panic when I was ten. It’s what got me into comics. I still remember finding out that you were the only deaf comic book artist to have ever made it so big. It felt . . .” He shook his head. “Momentous. Like it was okay to break the mold.”

Leo nodded. “Totally. It’s even necessary to break the mold. We need more people shaking things up. This is where I got my start, at SFSU . They’re pretty great about letting diverse voices be heard.” He pointed to Rishi’s outfit. “Who’re you dressed as?”

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