Book Smugglers Publishing Superheroes

Superior by Jessica Lack

Superior by Jessica Lack
Published 08/16/2016 | 16,757 Words

A superhero’s intern falls in love with a supervillain’s apprentice in this star-crossed LGBT YA story from The Book Smugglers.

Here’s the thing about being a superhero intern: there’s a lot less crime fighting than you think there will be, what with the whole liability issue and the administrative headache of constantly monitoring the Heroic Help Hotline. The most action that Jamie sees happens when he is kidnapped by the supervillain of the week–and then waits for his boss, Captain Superior, to show up and rescue him. Again.

On his most recent nabbing, Jamie gets to meet Tad, Terrorantula’s new villainous apprentice. Even though they are supposed to be on opposite sides (or are they?), sparks fly almost immediately. So, when Tad offers to give Jamie much-needed self-defense classes, how could Jamie pass the opportunity to hang out with the coolest (and hottest) guy he knows?

But Tad has a secret–one that threatens the budding relationship between the two teenage sidekicks, and could destroy Captain Superior forever.

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Superior

Here’s the thing about being Captain Superior’s intern: there’s a lot less crime fighting than you think there will be.

You’re not supposed to engage any criminals in combat; too much liability. You’re not allowed to ask the Captain how he got his powers, and there aren’t any heart-to-hearts where you share your tragic back stories and forge the bonds of brotherhood. Don’t even look at the Jetpack of Justice, or you’ll get a ten minute lecture about airspace responsibility. Instead, you spend a lot of time answering calls of distress on the Heroic Help Hotline, and washing the SuperJeep, and driving (your own crappy car) clear across town to this one shady dry cleaners that knows how to get bloodstains out of the Captain’s suit without stretching the Lycra.

You also get captured. A lot.

“—the concentrated cosmic power will mutate the population—” Terrorantula has been monologuing for a while, now; sometimes it’s hard to focus on his rants instead of the tingling in my tied-up hands.

The first time the whole “captured by a supervillain” thing happened, my mom kind of freaked. Understandable, I guess, when the Red Banshee busts into a high school calculus class and abducts your only kid with a freeze ray. I probably would have panicked, too, but I was a popsicle right up until Captain Superior saved me. Mom almost made me quit, but I convinced her that the whole thing was a fluke. She bought it for the two weeks until I was nabbed from the corner 7-Eleven mid-Slurpee. I spent an hour trying to escape while Mistress Panic told me, in detail, how she would use my eviscerated corpse to lure Captain Superior to his death. After Cap beat her without breaking a sweat, I realized that while inconvenient and likely to send my mother to an early grave, being abducted by supervillains is just another boring part of the job.

“—colossal chimpanzees will ravage the city—” Terrorantula is really getting into his speech now. He’s not even really speaking to me, anymore; just pacing around his lair and waving his six arms (four of which are robotic, and kind of clumsy) in the air. Fun fact: when he first got into the villain biz, Terrorantula had six extra arms. Then the people on Good Morning, Urbanopolis pointed out that this meant he actually had ten limbs, not eight, so the spider thing didn’t really work. The next time he showed up, Terrorantula only had the four extra arms; he claims that the abandoned ones were throwing off his balance, but nobody buys that.

Anyway. Terrorantula’s not paying attention to me, but as I roll my neck to work out the kinks from being shoved in a car trunk, I notice that someone else is. In the gloomy corner to my left, sort of behind one of the decorative “spider webs” made out of electric wires, there’s a guy watching me. He’s my age, maybe a little older. And attractive: curly blond hair, square jaw, huge biceps that sort of make my mouth water when he crosses his arms. He looks just a little bit like Captain Superior, actually, although the Cap wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a black jacket emblazoned with spider webs and Terrorantula’s ‘T’ logo. Or the Bon Jovi t-shirt underneath it.

Terrorantula is across the room now, fiddling with a bunch of monitors, so I crane my neck to look at the guy straight on and say, “Hey.”

He blinks, and looks briefly at Terrorantula’s back before focusing on me again. “Hey,” he says a bit quizzically.

“Are you, like, a new minion?”

“Apprentice,” he corrects pointedly. “And you’re Captain Superior’s sidekick, right?”

“Intern.” I say it in the same tone he used, but then I smile. “But yeah. Jamie. I’d shake your hand, but, you know…”

I think he frowns, but it’s hard to tell when he’s still lurking in the shadows. “I’m Tad,” he offers, and I barely keep from snorting; it seems like a weird name for a guy who can probably bench press me, along with the chair I’m tied to. After a moment he adds, “You seem pretty relaxed.”

Then I do snort. “Yeah, this isn’t the first time I’ve been used as leverage. Terrorantula actually hasn’t done the kidnapping thing in a while, but I’ve been tied to this chair before. We’re old buddies.”

Tad gives me a weird look, and yeah, maybe that was a dumb thing to say. “How old are you?” he asks.

“Um, sixteen. Why?”

“Kidnapping a minor seems pretty bad.”

“Um, dude, all kidnapping is bad,” I say. “So is creating killer chimps using the cosmic power of Neptune.”

“Jupiter.”

“Whatever.”

Tad is adamant. “I had to do four hours of research. It’s the power of Jupiter.”

“Okay, Jupiter. My point is that supervillains do a bunch of bad stuff. It’s kind of their whole deal.” I cock my head. “That seems like something a villain-in-training should know.”

“Oh, come on. These elaborate doomsday plots never work.” As soon as he’s said it, Tad stiffens and looks at Terrorantula, but the supervillain is oblivious to the mutiny. Tad continues furtively, “Nobody actually gets hurt.”

“Tell that to my wrists,” I say.

Tad takes a small step closer. He’s got light eyes, though he’s still too far away for me to tell exactly what color they are. All I can definitely make out in them is concern (what?) as he asks, “Are the ropes too tight?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him, even though I’d be able to pinpoint the color of his eyes if he came close enough to untie me.

“You sure? I could probably loosen them.”

Who is this guy? And why is he working for Terrorantula? “Really, I’m good. Captain Superior will be here soon, anyway.”

Something in Tad’s expression changes at that. It looks like his face hardens, but maybe that’s just the weird lighting. It’s more likely that he’s in awe; everybody loves the Captain.

“He’s definitely coming here?” Tad asks, so yeah, probably hero-worship. Maybe he’s even got a crush on Cap. I’m suddenly a little annoyed.

“He’ll eventually get around to it,” I say, purposefully dismissive. It’s sort of unfair, but sort of not; since we both know I’m not in real danger here, it’s totally possible that Captain Superior will wait to rescue me until tonight’s episode of his favorite show is done, or that he’ll stop for a burger on the way to the lair or something. Still, he does always show up, so I add, “He’s a busy guy.”

Tad makes a noncommittal noise in response. After a moment he asks, “You like working for him? Apart from the kidnappings, I mean?”

“Eh, it’s a living,” I say. He looks at me blankly. “It’s mostly busywork. But I occasionally feel like I’m making the world a better place. Or not making it worse, at least. Plus, you know, saying you work with Captain Superior is a great pick-up line.”

I leer a bit and wiggle my eyebrows, just to test the waters. Tad finally cracks a small smile. “Are you trying to pick me up?” he asks.

“Is it working?”

“You remember that I’m part of the reason you’re tied up, right?”

“Kinky.”

Tad’s expression is a little bit pained and a little bit amused; it’s a good look on him. “Your Stockholm Syndrome is worrying.”

I grin. “You still haven’t shot me down, though.”

Before Tad can respond, the door at the other end of the room crashes open. For the first and probably only time, I wish that Captain Superior had taken just a little bit longer to show.

“Your evil scheme ends here, Terrorantula!” the Captain declares, striding into the room. “You will relinquish my sidekick at once, and if you’ve harmed him—”

“I’m good!” I interrupt, and Cap finally notices me. He heads across the room and tears apart the ropes like they’re licorice whips, ignoring Terrorantula’s insistence that his arrival is all according to plan. Maybe I was zoning out when he explained what kidnapping me has to do with giving monkeys cosmic powers.

I stand up and stretch while Captain Superior and Terrorantula do their usual banter-and-brawl thing. My wrists are a bit red, but that’ll disappear soon enough. The Captain goes flying past me to crash into the far wall (those klutzy robot arms are also crazy strong) and I turn to continue what seemed like a promising conversation with Tad.

Tad… who is currently pointing the Bazooka of Oblivion straight at Captain Superior.

I’ve never seen it in action, but according to Terrorantula the Bazooka can vaporize tanks. Captain Superior might actually be in danger, here. One of Terrorantula’s schemes is actually working.

This has never happened before.

I don’t think any of us know what to do. The Captain is frozen in a half-crouch; he looks puzzled, like he’s not sure if there’s a real threat here or not. Terrorantula is floundering, too, so maybe he didn’t expect this. Any second now, though, he’ll get with the program and order Tad to finish off the hero.

From Captain Superior’s perspective, it probably looks brave and self-sacrificing when I step between him and the weapon in Tad’s hands. It isn’t, really. This guy offered to make my ropes more comfortable not five minutes ago; I’m pretty sure he’s not going to jump from that to straight-up murder. And I don’t think even Terrorantula would instruct his teenage apprentice to kill another kid. So it’s not bravery. If anything, I’m just saving Tad from disappointing his boss when he refuses to murder a national hero.

The Bazooka of Oblivion stays trained on my chest for a few seconds while Tad looks at me. I grin and wink at him, and his brow furrows as he finally lowers the weapon to point at the floor.

Before anything else can happen, Captain Superior uses his Superior Speed to get the two of us the hell out of dodge. I guess someone else will have to deal with the cosmic chimps.

On the way back to the Stronghold of Superiority, the Captain reads me the riot act for putting myself in danger. He mentions my mother, and lawsuits, and insurance premiums, but I’m not really paying attention.

Tad’s eyes were blue. Forget-me-not. I wonder if I’ll see him again.

 

Five days later, a couple of Mistress Panic’s goons corner me on my way home from school. I’m cutting through the alleyway between Soak’n’Suds Cleaners and the Indian grocery when these two hulking henchmen block my path. I recognize one of them from previous kidnappings: his name’s Carlos, his wife is working on a degree in hospital administration, and he has a German Shepherd named Panchito. The other guy, who I’ve never seen before, has really thick eyebrows and a jagged scar across his nose.

“Can we not do this today, guys? I’ve got a physics test to cram for,” I say, playing it cool despite the fact that Scar Face scares me a little bit. “Rain check on the kidnapping?”

“Sorry, James,” Carlos says. “Boss’s orders.”

When they start toward me, I try to run. It’s an instinct, but it’s a stupid one; I never manage to get away, and this time is not the exception. I don’t even make it out of the alley before a giant hand clamps around my wrist and twists my arm up behind my back.

It hurts. “Jesus, man, lay off!” I gasp.

“Or what?” Scar Face sounds amused. He knows I’m not going anywhere but where he puts me. Probably the back of the Panic Van, which always smells like spoiled milk. “What’re you gonna do, princess?” He pulls my arm higher, and I yelp as lava-hot pain boils through my shoulder.

“Hey!” For a second, I think the figure at the end of the alleyway is Captain Superior. He takes a few steps closer and I realize it’s Tad. His backlit blond hair looks like a halo through my tear-hazed vision, and he’s holding some kind of bulbous, gun-ish gadget in both hands. “Put him down,” he instructs, loud and clipped.

Scar Face loosens his hold, but doesn’t release it. “And who’re you supposed to be?”

“He works for Terrorantula,” Carlos supplies. He sounds nervous, and I don’t blame him: Tad looks like a freakin’ avenging angel. Or maybe that’s just my hormones talking. “We don’t want any trouble,” he says to Tad. “Just business, you understand.”

Scar Face spits in Tad’s direction. “Who says we don’t want trouble?”

Tad hefts the gun. “Terrorantula does. You’re going to want to back off before I decide to use this.”

There’s a tense moment of silence before Scar Face grunts and shoves me to my knees. He doesn’t bother saying anything; just sneers at Tad and turns to stalk away.

Carlos hangs back for a moment. His eyes stay on the gun in Tad’s grip, but he asks me, “You okay, James?”

“Sure, Carlos,” I tell him. “See you around.” Carlos nods and hurries after his partner.

When they’re gone, Tad drops the weapon to his side and pulls me to my feet with his free hand. “That was badass,” I say, rotating my shoulder gingerly.

Tad grins self-consciously. “It would have been a lot less badass if they hadn’t gone for it. This thing only sprays mustard.”

I have to let that sink in for a second before I grin back. “You’re shitting me.” Tad pulls the trigger on the gun, and a glob of yellow mustard thwacks against the brick wall beside us. “Why would Terrorantula even invent that?”

“I don’t know,” Tad says, still grinning. “But it does look sort of threatening. I figured it might scare them off.”

“Yeah, thanks for that,” I say. My smile fades a bit. “But I don’t really want to be kidnapped by Terrorantula today, either.”

“I’m not here to kidnap you.”

“Oh.” That’s… surprising. Flattering? Creepy? Totally coincidental? “Why are you here, then?”

Tad doesn’t answer. Instead, he asks, “Why didn’t you try to get away? Hasn’t Captain Superior taught you how to take down low level guys like that?”

“Um, no.” I shift uncomfortably, studying the slowly dripping mustard splat. “We don’t really focus on the physical combat stuff.” Don’t even look at it sideways, actually.

When I glance back at Tad, he looks angry. “So you’re just supposed to get tossed around by any villain who decides to use you as leverage?”

“Um, I guess? Look, it’s not a big deal. That sort of thing usually doesn’t happen. Like, Carlos, he’s cool. He usually doesn’t even bother with the duct tape or anything.” Tad is not appeased. “You said it yourself the other day: I’m not in real danger from these crappy schemes.”

“That other guy wasn’t screwing around,” he says. I’m pretty sure my wrist and shoulder will be bruised by tomorrow, so I can’t really argue with that. We stare at each other silently for a few seconds, and then Tad asks, “Do you want me to teach you?”

“Huh?”

“Self-defense,” he clarifies. “I can show you how to get out of holds, what vulnerable body parts to go for…” I don’t know what my expression is conveying—confusion, wariness?—but Tad trails off and sticks his free hand in his pocket. “Or not,” he says, addressing the wall.

“No,” I say. “That sounds really great, actually. But I just—why?” Those too-blue eyes snap back to mine. “Teaching me how to defend myself isn’t very villainous.”

Tad rolls his eyes. “Look. The Terrorantula thing is just an after school job.”

“You’re getting paid?” I interject, scandalized.

Tad half-smiles. “I guess crime is more lucrative.” The smile fades. “I’m not planning to become the city’s next supervillain. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say. My own smile breaks free. “Okay, yeah. Self-defense. Teach me the ways of the Force, Obi Wan.” Tad’s smile is different now, warmer, and before I can get too caught up in that I make myself say, “But I really do have to study tonight. Are you free this weekend?”

“Sure. Saturday?”

“Saturday.”

 

I try to be casual, but it’s like my mom knows the second I walk into the apartment that something’s wrong. She glances up from the stir fry on the stove and immediately asks, “What happened? Are you hurt?”

“Are you psychic or something?” I demand, dropping my backpack on the floor and kicking my shoes off.

“Yes,” she says, deadpan. “Are. You. Hurt?” She flips the stir fry to punctuate each word.

I glance at the pan, see that she’s almost done, and start setting the table. “Barely, Mom, I swear. It’s just a little bruise.” I plunk some mismatched dishes down and try to appease her: “And anyway, a friend of mine is going to teach me some self-defense, so this kind of thing won’t happen anymore.”

“A friend?” She says it in that too-casual tone she uses when she’s trying to find out if I mean an actual, platonic, no-interest-in-your-naughty-bits “friend,” or someone I have a crush on. Since I’ve dated both guys and girls in the past, and I’m admittedly kind of a flirt, this tone comes out for pretty much every person I tell her about.

“Yeah. His name’s Tad.” I almost add, I haven’t seen his abs yet, but I bet I want to lick ‘em, just to help her nail it down. But I don’t.

Mom transfers a heap of sizzling stir fry to each plate while I retrieve chopsticks. She leaves the pan on the stove and kicks my shoes into the corner on her way to her seat. “And Tad knows self-defense, huh?”

“Um, yeah. Apparently.” I hadn’t thought to ask him about that. I guess I assumed it went along with working for a supervillain. “I’m going over to his place on Saturday for a lesson.”

Mom scoops a snap pea into her mouth, and I can see her trying to decide if “self-defense lesson” is code for “sex.” When she swallows, I half-expect her to say, “Use protection.” Instead, I get, “Don’t hurt yourself worse.”

“Yeah, I won’t.” I finish picking the mushrooms out of my stir fry and begin to transfer them to her plate. “Did you find out who was stealing those towels?” Mom’s the night manager of the Urbanopolis Suites Hotel, where it’s rumored that the swimming pool is filled with Himalayan spring water and that the penthouse suite has a chandelier made of pure diamond. Stealing one of their towels may actually be grand larceny.

“Not yet,” Mom says. She pops a mushroom between her lips and smiles frighteningly. “But I have a plan.”

A portrait of Sakura Jackson: five-foot-nothing, lover of well-tailored suits, and once referred to by my grandmother as “Satan’s prodigy.”

“I almost pity the towel thief,” I say. Mom just smirks.

When we’ve cleaned our plates, she tosses two mints into her mouth and tugs me down so she can kiss my forehead. “You’ve got that test tomorrow, right? So you’re studying tonight?”

“Yes, Mom,” I assure her. “Have a good night at work.”

“See you in the morning. Don’t stay up too late.” She pops one more mint for good measure, grabs her purse, and heads out.

When I was really little, I thought everyone’s parents went to work at night. I’d get home from kindergarten, Mom and I would eat dinner together, and then she’d go to work and I’d spend the night at one of several trusted neighbors’ houses. I thought it was weird when I found out that most adults were home at night. It was even weirder when I learned that some kids had one parent who worked, and one who stayed home with them all day. I just had the one parent, see.

A portrait of Daniel Jackson: tall, white, and crap at commitment. I know the first two because of the genetics he passed me. I know the last one because he ditched town, and us, when I was three.

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that he was like Captain Superior. That seems really weird to think about now.

Better to focus on physics.

 

Turns out, Tad knows self-defense because he lives in the shittiest part of the city. His apartment complex is next door to a strip club, and I think there’s a drug deal going down across the street when I pull up on my bike. The building has two different gates that I have to be buzzed through, and Tad helps me lug my bike up four flights of stairs to his apartment so it won’t be stolen.

“Sorry about…” He waves one hand to encompass the dingy hallway, the potential meth-head sitting in the stairwell, and the neighborhood in general.

“Don’t worry about it,” I reassure him. I hope he can tell I mean it. Mom and I never lived anywhere this sketchy, but we had a few craphole apartments of our own, especially when I was younger.

We get to Tad’s place, 5D, and he lets us in with two different keys. I awkwardly stash my bike in the space between the door and the refrigerator, and Tad leads the way further into the apartment. “Dad?” he calls as we enter the living room. The lights are off and the shades are drawn; in the light from the infomercial on the television I see an older man in sweats slumped down on the couch. “Dad, this is the guy I told you about. Jamie, remember?”

“Hey, Mr…” I trail off, suddenly realizing that I don’t know Tad’s last name.

“Hawking,” Tad supplies under his breath.

“Mr. Hawking. Nice to meet you.”

Mr. Hawking pushes himself upright on the couch, but doesn’t stand. He looks tired, maybe not all there, but he smiles when he says, “Nice to meet you, too. You boys have a nice time.”

“Thanks,” I say, and Tad guides me down the hall with a hand on my elbow. I’m curious what his dad’s deal is, but I don’t want to pry. And I’d rather focus on the warmth of Tad’s fingers on my skin.

He opens a door to what I assume is his bedroom (and maybe I’m a little too interested in that, so sue me) but it turns out to be mostly empty. The floor is covered with ratty foam exercise mats, patched here and there with duct tape. The few pieces of actual furniture—a dresser, a lamp, a scratched up filing cabinet—are shoved against one wall. “Saint Mary’s did a fundraiser and donated a bunch of new equipment to the local gym, so I got these for free,” Tad explains, gesturing at the mats. “They, uh, might not smell great.”

“Well, I’m not planning to sniff them,” I tell him, and he cracks a brittle-looking smile. “Seriously, dude, you can relax. I’m just grateful for the help.”

The smile gets a little more real. “Okay.” We grin at each other for a few seconds, like a couple of idiots, before Tad repeats, “Okay. Let’s start with weak points. Got any guesses where they might be?”

“The knees?” If I’d meant to say it, I probably could’ve made it sound suave, turned it into a solid come-on. Instead, it just sounds breathy and idiotic.

But Tad just nods and says, “Yeah, very good. If someone’s restraining your arms, like that asshole the other day, you can kick their knees to injure them or knock them down. And the knees are good ‘cause you can go at them from any angle, really. What else?”

We go over the other easily-damaged body parts: instep, neck, groin, pretty much every part of the face. Tad explains the best ways to cause injury and has me mime smashing the heel of my hand into his nose and jamming an elbow into his throat. “Have you ever had to use this stuff?” I ask him while I fake-gouge his eyes with my thumbs.

“Yes,” he says. I wait for him to elaborate, but he doesn’t. “Now, for the groin, it can actually be better to use your hands instead of your knee. That way they can’t grab your leg and knock you off balance. Just put your fists together and swing up—like you’re serving a volleyball.”

Now I’m thinking hands and groin and Tad together, which is dangerous. I clear my throat and, instead of mimicking the motion, I ask, “Could I get some water?”

“Oh, sure.” Tad leaves the room, and I take a moment to deliver a firm lecture to my dick: an old standby titled “There Is A Time And Place, You Useless Horndog.” Once my libido is slightly more under control, I wander around the room.

There’s a framed photo on the dresser: a family of four holding ice cream cones and smiling on a beach. Mr. Hawking is there, looking much happier than he did out in the living room. He’s holding hands with a willowy blond in a pale pink sundress, who’s smiling down at the two children in front of her. I decide that the older kid is probably Tad. He looks around seven or eight, and he has an arm slung around the shoulders of a younger blond boy. Both have chocolate ice cream smeared around their mouths, and mini-Tad’s cheesy smile is missing its two front teeth.

The sound of a throat being cleared has me turning away from the photo, feeling guilty without really knowing why. Tad’s leaning against the doorframe, a bottled water in one hand; he tosses it to me, his expression unreadable.

“I didn’t mean to pry,” I say, cracking the seal on the bottle but then closing the lid again without drinking.

Tad just shrugs. “It’s okay. You can ask, if you want.”

I hesitate before nodding toward the photo. “That’s your family?”

“Yeah. Dad, Mom, and my kid brother. Benjy.”

I glance over my shoulder at the picture, then at the empty feet of mat between us. “So… your mom and Benjy…”

“Died,” he says. His voice is flat, but not harsh. “Six years ago.”

“Shit, man, I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.” He looks past me, I assume at the photo. His blue eyes are shuttered. “They were hit by a car. Mom died at the scene. Benjy had two surgeries and died anyway.”

I can’t even imagine. “Did they ever catch the guy who—”

“Let’s get back to practicing,” he cuts me off. “Hands like you’re serving a volleyball, remember?”

It says something that he’d rather be punched in the balls than have this conversation, so I let it go.

 

For all his fearlessness up against Scar Face or Cap, Tad is weirdly freaked out the first time he meets my mom. He shows up with flowers and stays quiet and stiffly smiling all through dinner.

When I ask him about it the next day, he says, “I was trying to make a good impression. Your mom’s got no reason to like me.”

I frown. “Uh. She’s got no reason to dislike you.” Tad sort of shakes his head and swings a halfhearted punch toward my ribs; I block the blow and say, “Hey, come to dinner again this weekend. Shoot for a normal impression this time.”

Tad makes a face and punches me again.

The second time Tad has dinner with my mom, I almost have to use the Heimlich Maneuver on him.

“I do some of the paperwork, some of the heavy lifting,” Tad is explaining about his job. “But to be honest, I don’t really know why Terrorantula needs me around.”

For the eye candy, I think, and Tad starts choking on his lasagna because I apparently thought it out loud. I pat his back uselessly while Mom retrieves a glass of water.

“Uh. Sorry about that,” Tad mumbles at last, eyes watering and face red. He takes a sip of water. Glances at me.

“Guess I really took your breath away,” I say.

There’s a beat of silence, and then Tad’s laughing. “Wow, Jamie, that was terrible.” His laughter makes me feel kind of tingly. I forget for a minute that Mom is even there.

Later, when Tad is gone and the two of us are doing the dishes, she announces, “I like him.”

Which means that the third time we all have dinner, Mom and Tad gang up on me.

“Remember when we were talking about Tad’s job instead of mine?” I ask. “Can we go back to that?”

“You don’t even get paid,” Tad reminds me. I scowl, and he shrugs. “I just don’t really see the appeal of the unpaid sidekick thing.”

“It’s valuable experience!” I say. “It’ll look great on my resume!”

“I’ve heard all the talking points already,” Mom says, sipping her tea. “I’m still allowed to worry that you’ll get in over your head.”

“You don’t even have any powers,” Tad points out.

“You don’t need to be able to melt metal with your eyeballs to want to help people,” I snap, annoyed. When I look up from my salad, though, they’re both smiling at me. “What?”

“You really care about this stuff, huh?” Tad asks.

Mom says, “He does.” Her smile turns nefarious. “I have visual aids.”

And out come the Halloween photos where I’m dressed as Heroman, and The Swarm, and Whiplash. The eighth grade science fair project about the ratio of heroes to villains in the city’s mutant population. Mom even herds us into the living room to turn on the video of my elementary school Career Day presentation.

“Superheroing is the biggest industry in Urbanopolis,” seven-year-old Jamie says on the screen, over-enunciating the word ‘industry.’

“Is this necessary?” I ask. They both ignore me.

“This next part is my favorite,” Mom confides, and mimics baby-me as he props his hands on his hips and shouts, “Anyone can be a hero if they try!”

“Oh, God,” I groan, sinking further down on the couch.

“It’s cute,” Tad says, and he’s not even teasing. His knee knocks against mine, and he doesn’t move it away.

I pretend not to notice when Mom winks at me.

 

We’ve been doing the self-defense thing for about three weeks when Tad fails to answer the apartment buzzer. I try it three times, shifting my weight uneasily and trying to act like I don’t know the guys across the street are eyeing me. I finally pull out my cell phone and call Tad, and he answers on the last ring.

“Shit,” he says, which isn’t a good sign. “It’s Thursday.”

“Yup,” I say, popping the ‘P’ as I side-eye the gangbangers across the street.

“I’m not home. Sorry, Jamie, I should’ve called you. I didn’t think about it. Sorry.”

“Hey, it’s fine,” I tell him. There’s something in his voice, in the way he says that second ‘sorry,’ that I don’t like. “Is everything okay?”

Tad is quiet for a second before he says, “My dad’s in the hospital again.”

I file away that ‘again’ and swing my left leg over my bike. “And you’re there with him? Which one?”

“Yeah, but, Jamie, you don’t have to—”

“Which one?”

Another pause, then, “Dash Memorial.”

When I get to Tad, he’s sitting weirdly straight in the corner of the emergency waiting room. He’s filling out a form on a clipboard, barely seeming to read each question before marking in the answers. I sit down silently in the chair next to him, not wanting to interrupt. After a few minutes, he gets up and returns the clipboard and form to the nurse at the front desk, then returns to his seat. He’s staring straight ahead, not looking at me, when he bluntly says, “He overdosed on pills. I don’t know where he keeps getting them. I thought I’d gotten rid of them all.” The words start to trip over one another, spilling out fast. “I don’t even know anymore if he’s trying to kill himself, or if he genuinely doesn’t realize how many he’s had. He’s been getting worse and worse ever since—”

Tad cuts off abruptly, with a hitched noise in the back of his throat, and I can fill in what he hasn’t said. He slumps, his elbows on his knees and his head bowed. I put a hand on the back of his neck, and when he doesn’t shrug it off, give what I hope is a comforting squeeze. “He’s gonna be okay,” I say.

“No, he’s not,” Tad says. He sounds exhausted. I wonder how many times he’s been through this. Unsure of what to say, I just squeeze his neck again.

When the doctor comes out, I stay quietly in my seat while she explains to Tad that his dad will be kept overnight for observation, and that tomorrow they’ll discuss options for long-term rehabilitation. Tad is stiffly polite throughout the conversation, and I don’t think the doctor notices that his hands are shaking. When she walks away, I stand up and nudge his shoulder with my own. “Do you want to stick around, see your dad? Or we can get out of here. You can stay at my place tonight, if you want.”

Tad looks at me full-on for the first time since I showed up here. Also for the first time, he looks like he might cry. “Yeah,” he says, voice soft. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

 

Mom is already at work when we get home. I shoot her a text letting her know that Tad’s spending the night and briefly explaining why; I know she’ll be okay with it. “Are you hungry?” I call over my shoulder to Tad as I head into the kitchen. “We’ve got leftover broccoli casserole. Or there’s a kind of crappy Chinese place we could order from, but they always take forever to deliver.” I realize that I’m rambling a bit, but decide it’s better than letting Tad stew in silence. “Plus one time I swear they tried to pass off a fried chunk of tire as chicken. But we can risk it, if you want. Or we can do the junk-food-for-dinner thing. Go full-on sleepover, pajamas and a movie marathon.” Tad finally smiles at that, which is how we end up sitting on the living room floor with our backs against the couch, a bowl of popcorn and pack of Oreos on the floor between us.

“You’re a heathen,” Tad tells me as I pry apart an Oreo and lick off the filling.

“Oh, man. Don’t tell me you’ve been eating Oreos wrong your whole life. That’s just sad.”

Tad just raises an eyebrow and pointedly takes a bite of his whole, untouched cookie.

We’re about halfway through the first Indiana Jones movie when Tad says, “Thanks for doing this, Jamie.” His voice is soft, hard to hear over the fight scene, and I shift closer.

“It’s not a big deal,” I tell him. “It’s what anybody would do, you know?”

The look Tad gives me at that—it’s hard to define, incredulous and intent. He shakes his head once, murmurs, “It’s really not.”

Then he kisses me.

There’s barely any space between us, now, so he just has to lean further on his elbow to close the distance. His lips are salty from the popcorn, and just as soft as I’d guessed (fantasized) they’d be. Then, just when I’m starting to kiss back, he pulls away, putting several new inches between us. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he says, quiet enough that I wonder if he’s speaking to me or to himself.

“I’m not complaining,” I point out. I lick my lips, trying and failing to get a taste of Tad through the salt and artificial butter.

He watches the motion, and I can see his jaw clench. Then he looks at my eyes, instead, and says, “It’s a bad idea, Jamie. Just… trust me on that, please?”

I stop leaning toward him, flopping back against the couch and trying not to feel rejected. I remind myself that he kissed me, so it’s probably not that he finds me repulsive. I pull apart another Oreo and the thought occurs to me: “Does this have to do with our jobs? The whole good guy, bad guy thing?” I think Tad’s trying to keep a poker face, but he grimaces a bit. I want to tell him that that’s a bullshit reason, but he’s had a tough day. “You’re the one who said before, they’re just jobs. It’s not like we’re Romeo and Juliet, here.”

“I know that.” Tad sighs. “Can we not talk about this right now?”

“Depends. Do you really mean ‘right now,’ or do you actually mean ‘can we not talk about this ever again?’ Cause I’m not a fan of the second one. I like talking.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Tad says dryly. His crooked grin makes me feel a little better, but I flick him in the bicep in retaliation. “Some of us are trying to watch the movie, you know.”

He’s asking me to let it go. Maybe it’s because of his dad, or maybe I’m just a total sucker for pleading, forget-me-not eyes. Either way, I let the subject drop.

The rest of the movie passes in relative silence. Maybe Tad really is watching it; on my end, I’m mostly just replaying the kiss over and over.

I don’t know when I fall asleep—sometime during the stupid Crystal Skull movie—but the phone in my pocket vibrates and wakes me when its alarm goes off. I shift a bit, turning it off, and realize that 1) I’m on the living room floor in my clothes from yesterday, and 2) my right arm is asleep, because 3) Tad is laying on top of it. He’s still asleep, his face wedged in the space between my shoulder and neck, one hand loosely clutching my shirt. His breath is warm, and his hair is soft against my cheek.

I stay just like that, as still as I can, for as long as I can. I lay there so long, I end up late for school. Totally worth it, though.

 

According to the last census, our city has a superbeing-to-civilian ratio of 1:312, which is just a crazy number of heroes and villains. With numbers like those, people in Urbanopolis are used to dealing with weird stuff. When half the population gets turned into farm animals, or the shopping mall starts levitating and firing laser cannons, that’s just, like, a typical Thursday.

When a plain old natural disaster hits, though, for some reason, everyone loses their shit.

The earthquake happens on the Saturday before Halloween. I’m riding my bike to the good gelato place in the old part of downtown when it hits. Turns out it’s a 6.6 on the Richter scale, but I’m not thinking of numbers when buildings start coming down; mostly I’m thinking a lot of curse words. Another tremor hits and I drop my bike, tripping when my foot gets caught on the handlebars.

A building a bit down the street—Heroman Recreation Center, which most people just call ‘the old rec center’ because it’s so ancient—is, unsurprisingly, starting to crumble. There’s a steady stream of people flooding out the double doors, flinching as concrete debris rains down on them. A woman runs past me, trying to push against the fleeing crowd, and someone grabs her arm. “Lady, the building’s coming down!” he shouts in her face.

“My kid is in there!” she shouts back. There’s a dark brown stain on the front of her pink shirt, and an empty coffee cup in her hand that she’s crumpling as her fingers sporadically clench and relax. “He had karate. I haven’t seen him come out!”

The guy sort of glances around, but I don’t know what he’s really looking for. The woman tries to tug out of his grip, and he says, “You can’t go in there. Someone else will be here soon to help, right? The fire department, or a super.” He gives her a brief look, then lets go of her arm and joins the fleeing mob.

The woman throws the empty cup at the guy’s back. And then she just crumples in on herself, like a popped inflatable, and makes a little keening sound that’s soft but somehow carries through the panicked noise of the crowd.

Up until then, I was just watching, trying to keep out of the way. It’s not like I have a death wish, or anything. But that noise burrows into my gut, and I find myself leaving the bike behind and pushing toward her.

“Where’s the karate class?” I ask her. She looks down at me, her eyes a little glazed. “Where in the building?”

“S-second floor,” she says. “Room 203.”

“Room 203,” I repeat. Someone elbows me in the shoulder in their mad dash, and I stumble a step forward. “And what’s your kid’s name?”

“Aidan,” she says, her eyes more focused now. “Why?”

“Okay.” I start to move toward the rec center.

“Wait,” she says, and I pause. “How old are you? You shouldn’t…” Her eyes drift toward the collapsing building and she trails off. Altruism only stretches so far when your kid’s in trouble, I guess.

“I work with Captain Superior,” I tell her. She seems appeased by that, even a little hopeful. “Aidan. Room 203. I’ll go check it out.” She lets me go this time, and I maneuver through the few stragglers still leaving the building.

Right away, I see that half of the ceiling in the front room has collapsed. It makes me feel kind of sick, and I have to tell myself that there’s no one trapped under there (and God, I hope it’s true) to move beyond the rubble into the rest of the building. There’s a wall of elevators, but I’m not stupid enough to use one. Eventually, after passing another room where one of the walls has tumbled, I find a wide staircase and head up to the next floor.

I’m passing Room 211 when an aftershock hits. I stagger into the wall, banging the side of my head into a motivational poster emblazoned with an eagle and the words DREAM BIG. There’s a loud crashing sound somewhere behind me as more of the building collapses, and for a few seconds I just hold my cheek and think about how stupid it was to come in here.

When I get to Room 203, my stomach feels like it drops to my feet. The door is open, and even from a few feet away I can see that the room has collapsed down to the floor below. I’m too damn scared to look, and that guy outside was right: this is something for the fire department, for Captain Superior, for someone else to handle.

Then I hear a kid crying, and then another one. An adult’s voice says, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” and I move forward.

The floor of the room is tilted at a steep diagonal, with one end up near me and the far end crushed into the floor below. There’s a pile of rubble, blue foam mats, and plastic chairs at the bottom, and I’m relieved to see that there’s also people: an older man with a bald head and scruffy red goatee, and five kids around seven or eight years old. Their white karate uniforms are smeared with dust, and one girl has a splash of bright red staining one arm.

“Are you all okay?” I call down; five heads snap up to look at me, though one of the kids just keeps crying with his face buried in his knees.

“We’re all… I mean, sure, we’re all okay,” the instructor says. He rubs a hand over his head, leaving a streak of grime across the skin there. “We’re all, you know, accounted for. But, I mean, we could be better.” He releases a stuttering exhale, mumbles, “Jesus.”

“Are you here to save us?” the girl with the hurt arm asks. She’s got pigtails and two thin scratches across the bridge of her nose.

“That’s the plan,” I assure her, even if I’m not totally sure how I’ll do it, yet.

“You?” the man barks out. “You’re just another fucking kid.”

“That’s a bad word, Sensei Rob!” the little girl gasps.

I shrug. “Sorry, I’m all you’ve got right now.” The guy grunts, whatever that means. “There’s no way out down there?”

Rob gestures toward one wall, blocked by rubble. “There’s a door back there, but we can’t get to it.” He pauses for a moment, then turns to the huddled kid and says, “C’mon, God, Aidan, please stop crying.”

“Aidan,” I say. “Hey, buddy, your mom’s outside waiting for you.” Which is a mistake to bring up, because while Aidan stops sobbing, all the other kids start asking about their own parents. “Sorry, guys,” I call over the hubbub of their questions. “I don’t know. Let’s get you all out of here, and we can look for them together, okay?”

I tell them to hang tight for a minute—not that there’s anywhere else for them to go—and look around in the nearby rooms. Finally, I hit pay-dirt: a closet full of aerobics equipment, including a dozen thick jump ropes. I haul them all back to the doorway and call down, “If I throw down a rope, do you think you can all climb out?” There’s a chorus of hesitant agreement. The floor is a steep slope, but it’s not vertical; with the rope, they should be able to walk up.

I tie eight of the jump ropes together, testing each knot multiple times to make sure they’ll all hold. I tie the end to an old radiator in the hall—and give that a couple good tugs, too—and drop the other end down to where the karate class is waiting.

Rob looks at the rope, then at the kids. “I’ll go first,” he says. I start to scowl, looking at the freaked kids that he’s planning to leave, but he continues, “If it can hold me, we know it’ll hold the kids. Better that I test it first, right?”

Rob gives the makeshift rope a few experimental tugs, then starts to climb. It’s not long before he’s standing next to me on the second floor. “Okay,” he calls down. “Did you all see how I did that?” The kids nod. “Who wants to try next?”

I’m a little surprised at how well the kids handle it; instead of panicking, or fighting over who’ll go next, they just line up and climb out, one after another. Finally, it’s just the girl with the bloody shoulder down there. Her little face is determined when she grabs the rope, but her injured arm can’t really hold her weight. She drops back down, and I pick up the rope as soon as she releases it.

“What are you doing?” Rob asks as I step through the doorway and onto the sloped floor. I just give him a look (cause, really?) and he hunches his shoulders in a chagrined way.

“Look out below!” I call out. My tone is too goofy, trying to overcompensate for the fear that’s making my hands shake. Rappelling down is even faster than going up, and it’s not long before I’m balancing next to the kid on the precarious heap of debris.

I give her an once-over, cataloging the dried tear tracks on her face and the long gash in her arm. When I look up, I realize that she’s been studying me, too. “Are you a superhero?” she asks me, sounding kind of skeptical.

“I’m sort of in training,” I say.

“You’re a sidekick?”

I don’t make a face at the word, just say, “Sure. My name’s Jamie. What’s yours?”

“Priya.”

“Okay, Priya. Ready to get out of here?” She nods, but looks uncertainly at the rope. “We’ll do this piggy-back style, all right? You just have to hold on to me, and I’ll do the climbing.” She nods again, and I turn and crouch down to let her wrap her skinny arms around my neck.

We’re halfway up, and things are going good, when there’s another aftershock. I freeze, and grunt a little when Priya tightens her grip and presses her face into my back. The kids upstairs start screaming. I figure I’ll just hold on, wait it out, but then Rob shouts, “Shit! You’ve got to move, man!” and I look up.

The classroom wall above me is covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, like you find in any dance class or dojo. One of them—a huge sheet of glass, probably ten by ten feet—is starting to come off the wall with the rattling. If it falls, there’s no way it’ll miss us; it’ll knock us down, or shatter and pelt us with shards of glass. Probably both.

I start climbing again, adrenaline making it easier to ignore Priya’s wrist digging into my windpipe and the occasional shower of gravel that falls on us from the floor above. The mirror up ahead moves, now hanging onto the wall at just one corner, and I know: it’s definitely coming down, and we’re definitely not going to make it out before it does.

“Priya?” I say; I know I sound panicked, but there’s nothing I can do about it. “Hey, you gotta keep your head down, okay? Stay behind me, as much as you can.” She pushes her face harder between my shoulder blades. Having her behind me will be a different problem when we fall, but I don’t want her getting glass shrapnel to the face.

I manage to climb another foot—pointless, since we’re still too far from the doorway—when the mirror finally judders free. I wrap the rope around one wrist and throw my other arm up in front of my face, though I know it’ll do jack shit to protect me.

There’s a loud crash, but nothing hits us. I lower my hand to the rope again and look up to find the mirror, still intact, held overhead by two mechanical arms. I trace them back to where Terrorantula is leaning through the door, his other two robot arms keeping him anchored while he stretches over open air to reach the mirror. “Hurry up,” he tells me when he sees me staring. I don’t argue.

When Priya and I get to the second floor, Terrorantula lets the mirror fall; I feel Priya flinch when it shatters on the floor below, but then she lets go of me and settles on her own feet. She pats my elbow almost perfunctorily, and says, “Thanks, Jamie,” in a casual tone. It’s obviously false bravado, and when I ruffle her hair, she slips her hand around my wrist and holds on.

I turn toward Terrorantula, feeling confused, wary, and really damn grateful. “Thank you,” I tell him. “You saved our lives.” He shrugs, the gesture bizarrely echoed by the false arms hovering over his shoulders. “But why… I mean, why are you in here?”

“They said there were people trapped in here.”

“Right, but you’re…” I falter for a second. “Isn’t saving people kind of… not your M.O.?”

“They’re children,” Terrorantula says pointedly. He gives me a look that makes me feel like shit for judging him.

“Can we get the hell out of here?” Rob pipes up. I turn around, and my response dies when I discover that Tad is also part of the group. He’s holding one of the kids in his arms, and staring right at me with a look that makes my mouth go dry. He looks like he wants to punch me, or maybe kiss me. He’s not going to do either surrounded by kids in a collapsing building, though, so he just keeps staring.

As much as I like his eyes, it’s too hard to face that intensity. I look away, abruptly enough that it’s almost a flinch, and tell Rob, “Hell, yes we can.”

“More bad words,” Aidan observes. I smile at him, and do a double-take when I realize he’s hand-in-hand with one of Terrorantula’s metal claws. Even counting all of the crazy supervillain schemes, this is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.

We head back down the stairs—which are, thankfully, still intact—and back out onto the street. Immediately, we’re swarmed by worried parents. Aidan’s mom kisses me on both cheeks, sobbing the whole time. Priya’s dad gives me the address of his coffee shop and tells me I’ve got free drinks for life, and just shakes his head when I tell him that’s not necessary. Rob claps me once on the shoulder, a little too hard, and hurries away.

Eventually the kids and their parents all disperse, leaving Terrorantula, Tad, and me standing in the street. The two of them exchange a look, and Terrorantula tells Tad, “I’ll see you back at headquarters.”

“Thanks again,” I blurt out as he starts to walk away. “I really mean it. Thank you.” He nods and actually smiles at me, just a little, before leaving. I wonder how this will affect our working relationship.

And then it’s just me and Tad, and Tad’s tension. I start to turn toward him, and before our eyes even meet he’s pushing into my space, grabbing my shirt in both hands and gripping hard enough that the sleeves cut into my armpits.

“You’re an idiot,” he snaps, voice brittle and cold.

“Someone had to—

Tad’s not in a listening mood. “You would have died in there. Not ‘could have.’ Would have.” He tightens his grip on my shirt, until I have to take a mini-step closer. “You’re not indestructible, Jamie. Why do you keep doing this?”

“Wh-what do you mean, ‘keep?’” I ask, a little overwhelmed. “I haven’t—”

“Bullshit,” he interrupts, and now his voice is scalding. “The very first time we met, you stepped in front of a fucking bazooka.”

I make a face. “Well, technically. But you were the one holding it, and it’s not like you were gonna shoot me.”

Tad’s face twitches, a wince, a flinch, and his eyes finally jerk away from mine for a split second before returning. “You didn’t know that.”

I don’t roll my eyes, but it’s a near thing. “Come on, Tad. Yeah, I did.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I really did.”

Tad stares at me another moment and abruptly sags, like all of his adrenaline has disappeared. His grip on my shirt slackens, but he doesn’t let go and doesn’t move away. “Damn it, Jamie,” he murmurs. “You’re so…” He doesn’t finish.

When Tad leans forward, I think he’s going to kiss me, but he doesn’t. Instead he presses his forehead against mine and closes his eyes. Our noses brush as we breathe the same air, and it feels more intimate than the kiss would have.

“I thought you were going to die,” Tad mumbles eventually.

I finally bring my own hands up to smooth over his sides. “I’m fine,” I say, though the truth is that I’ll probably freak out when the reality of what could have happened sinks in. “Not a scratch on me.”

Tad pulls his head back. “Not a… Jamie, you’re covered in scratches.”

I frown. “What?”

He looks torn between exasperation and sympathy. “The building was coming down on you.” He turns one of my arms over, and I realize that it’s sporting a dozen new scrapes. They’re all small, nothing to worry about, but I’m surprised I didn’t notice them before. “There are some on your face, too,” Tad informs me. “And it looks like you’re getting a bruise.” His thumb ghosts over my cheekbone.

“Oh, yeah,” I recall. “That was from the eagle.”

Tad’s thumb pauses in its trail, and he looks at me carefully. “Do you have a concussion?”

I laugh a little. “No.” Then groan when I realize, “Oh, my mom is going to freak out. Crap.”

The look on Tad’s face says that he’s on Mom’s side of the issue. But he leans down and kisses my bruised cheek, so I decide to forgive him for that.

 

You’d think Captain Superior would be happy to hear that his intern was out saving lives and being heroic. Apparently, you’d be wrong. For the next week I’m stuck manning the Heroic Help Hotline after school. He claims it’s not a punishment, but that’s a load of shit. Covering the hotline is the worst. Half the time you’re fielding calls from people who don’t even have an emergency, who get pissed at you when you tell them that the supers are too busy saving lives to come install their satellite dish, or whatever. And when you do have a real cry for help to forward, it can be a nightmare to figure out which hero is free, or which one can’t deal with the magic spaghetti monster because he has a gluten allergy. And while half of the heroes have email addresses and cell phones like normal people, the other half make you use overly-complicated “secret” signals that you have to look up in this disorganized hardcopy binder. Normally, the interns of all the heroes who are members of the Urbanopolis Heroic Union take turns on hotline duty, so that no one’s stuck with it for too long. So yeah, a full week of this torture is definitely a punishment. By Wednesday afternoon, I’ve decided that this whole internship is a load of crap.

I’ve just finished sending a goddamn smoke signal to The Ancestral Warrior when my own phone rings and Tad’s picture pops up on the screen. I answer as I head back to the phone desk and say, “Hey, home-fry.”

“Hi, Jamie.” Tad sounds like he’s smiling. “You busy right now?”

“Yes and no.” I drop into the office chair and kick off from the desk with one foot, spinning it around in circles. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, really. My dad’s at one of his therapy sessions, and I’m… I was just wondering if you were free.”

“I’m working for Cap right now, sort of. Babysitting the emergency hotline,” I tell him. Before he can respond, I kick my chair around again and say, “But you should come here.”

There’s a pause before Tad asks, “Here?”

“The Stronghold of Superiority. You know that big, blue building uptown next to the Dave & Buster’s? With those weird angel-gargoyle things on the roof? It’s on the top floor.”

“I really don’t think you’re supposed to tell me that,” Tad says.

“Screw it,” I respond. “If it makes you feel better, we can say that I kidnapped you and forced you here. Turnabout, and everything.”

“Kidnapping isn’t very heroic,” he says. I can tell from his tone that he’s teasing me, but I’m not in the right mood for this joke.

“Yeah, well, apparently I’m not supposed to try to be heroic. S’why I’m stuck here in the first place.” Tad doesn’t reply right away, so I try to edit the bitterness out of my voice when I say, “Seriously, man. Please come?”

He does. I barely have time to let him in and say hello before another call comes through the hotline. While I try to convince the lady who’s dropped her wedding ring down the sink that she needs to call a plumber, not The Amazing Elastica, Tad wanders around the Stronghold. He spends a while studying the mannequins displaying the Captain’s older suits, and the cabinet of high-tech gadgets that Cap rarely actually uses. He passes the wall of press clippings and fan mail with just a cursory glance and disappears down the hallway.

When I finally get off the phone, I follow after him and find him in the gym. Most of the equipment has been upgraded to handle Captain Superior’s super-muscles, and Tad looks up from a puzzled inspection of the supersonic treadmill when I poke my head in the door.

“Do you ever use this stuff?” he asks me, gesturing toward a chin-up bar that’s more suitable for mortal use.

“Oh, sure. Sometimes.” Nope. Not once.

Tad smiles. “I was thinking that we could do some more self-defense training. Practice how to fall, or teach you some throws.” He lifts the corner of one of the floor mats with his toe. “Since we don’t need to be as terrified of catching a disease if we get a face full of these mats.”

I open my mouth and the phone in the other room rings again. “Excellent idea, but I, ah, kind of have to answer that. Rain check?” I say, backing slowly out of the room. “In the meantime, feel free to use the gym. Or entertain yourself some other way. And there’s a kitchen down the hall, we have… um, crackers, I think?” The phone’s still ringing, but I pause in my retreat. “Wow, I’m a terrible host.”

Luckily, Tad’s still smiling. “I knew you were working. It’s fine. Go answer the phone.”

For the next half hour, I field three triple-H calls in a row. One is from a little girl whose cat is stuck behind the washing machine; it’s the kind of dumb call I’d take care of myself if I wasn’t on lockdown, and I get a certain amount of retaliatory satisfaction out of forwarding it to Captain Superior.

I finally hang up the phone on the last distress call and email the relevant information (rampaging land-sharks in the financial district) to Jetspeed, calling to Tad, “Okay, I’m off the phone! Just give me a sec…”

I hear him come back into the room behind me. His voice is weirdly muffled when he says, “That treadmill is crazy.” I hum in agreement, hit the ‘Enter’ key with a flourish, and spin the chair around to face Tad.

It’s like getting punched in the face by guerrilla hormones. Tad’s tugging up the bottom of his Guns N’ Roses t-shirt to wipe sweat off his face, so I’m ambushed by the sudden six-pack in front of me. I let out this little whimper, totally involuntarily, and Tad asks, “What?” in a baffled way. In response (and also because I can’t help it) I stare at his abs. And when I look back up, Tad is actually blushing. He lowers his shirt, fingers still tangled up in them hem, and says, “Seriously? I’m all gross and sweaty.”

I blink once, exaggeratedly slow, and deadpan, “Yeah, you’re disgusting. For the love of God, keep that body contained.” Tad chuckles, the pink on his cheeks darkening even further. It makes my chest feel tight, for a different reason than my jeans do. “You’re killing me with the blushing right now.”

Tad runs a hand through curls that have gone half a shade darker with sweat. “You’re ridiculous,” he says, and it’s that partly-pained, partly-pleased tone that I’m starting to love.

“You’re adorable.”

The hotline phone rings. I fumble for it without breaking our eye contact, my fingers stumbling painfully into the stapler before they find their goal.

It’s wedding ring lady again; turns out the plumber can’t come until tomorrow, and since she needs her ring retrieved immediately, this now qualifies as an emergency fit for a superhero. I’ve got no patience for her, for multiple reasons, so—though it’s completely unprofessional—I tell her I’ll see if I can help, and then hang up with zero intention of doing anything for her.

Tad’s on to me, though. With a wry little smile, he prompts, “Aren’t you going to pass that case to someone?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be on the side of villainy?” I counter. Feeling a little disgruntled, I stand up and lean across the desk to grab the stupid Union binder of signals. It takes a few minutes of flipping to find Elastica’s entry, and then another few to figure out her needlessly complex rubber band message system. I call up her intern, pass on the address and the stupid code, and hang up with a little more force than necessary.

“Are you happy now?” I snark. When I turn around, though, Tad is right there, crowding me against the desk, and whatever irritability I was feeling immediately dissolves.

“Yeah.” The way he says it, I think he’s talking about more than just the phone call. It makes me feel warm all over. And he’s so close…

“Where did we land on the whole kissing thing?” I ask. “Did we decide it was a no-go?” I’m staring pretty exclusively at his mouth, but I can’t help it. “Because I’m picking up some pretty clear signals here, but I thought you didn’t want to do this.”

“The problem was never that I don’t want to,” Tad says quietly. My eyes flick up to meet his, and we stare at each other for a moment before I decide, what the hell, and dart forward for a quick kiss. It’s just a brief press of lips before I fall back again, leaning against the edge of the desk and waiting for Tad to claim that this is a mistake.

He doesn’t, though; doesn’t say anything, or back away. Instead he lifts one hand to trail his fingers lightly over my cheek, along my jaw, and around to the back of my neck, where they linger hesitantly at my hairline. He doesn’t make any move to kiss me, though, and I finally think, double or nothing, and surge back up to claim his mouth again.

This time, Tad doesn’t let me pull away. He cups the nape of my neck firmly and fists my shirt in his other hand, hauling me across the scant inches between us. When we’re pressed together shoulder to hip, he groans deep in his throat; the sound goes straight south. I scramble to get my hands under his hem, tracing those unbelievable abs until Tad shudders and tugs the shirt off over his head. When my fingers drift lower to the zipper on his pants, he groans again, but not in the good way. “You’re gonna… Jamie.” He pulls away, takes a step back. “You’re gonna regret this.”

I just stare at him for a second. He’s kiss-bitten and flushed, and I want.

“That’s it. That’s the most ludicrous thing anyone’s ever said.” Tad’s mouth twitches a little, and I know he’s holding back a smile, but he resists when I try to reel him back in. “Look,” I sigh. “Are you dating anyone else? Got a secret spouse I don’t know about?”

Tad makes a face. “No…?”

“Then I don’t see why I would end up regretting this,” I say. “If you don’t want to, that’s totally fine. But if we’re worried about my feelings here, I’ve got to tell you, I am full steam ahead, enthusiastically consenting, thumbs and penis up.”

Tad chokes on a laugh. “Oh my God, Jamie,” he says, before walking forward to pin me between the desk and his sweat-slicked body again.

Tad’s got one leg pressed between mine, and I’ve got my hand down his pants, when he gasps out, “Jamie. Hey, Jamie.” It takes me a second to realize that he’s saying my name to get my attention. “Jamie, the phone’s ringing. It could… could be an emergency.”

I still my movements, let my forehead drop onto his shoulder with a groan. “I don’t care.”

“Yes you do,” he counters, and his voice is warm.

“Yeah,” I concede sullenly. “But I don’t want to.”

Tad chuckles. He kisses my temple, two quick pecks, and pulls away, ignoring my half-hearted protests. “Answer the phone.”

Tad’s gaze feels like a physical thing on my back as I walk away, and I’m sure some inappropriate mixture of annoyance and lust comes through in my voice when I answer the phone. There’s a pause, and then it’s Captain freaking Superior’s voice asking, “Are you all right, Jamie?”

I sort of choke on my own spit, and hope he doesn’t hear it. “Yeah, of course, Cap. Why, um, why’re you calling this line?”

“I tried your cell phone first, but it went to voicemail.”

Ah. “Oh, sorry. Must’ve been on a hotline call.”

I can hear something shatter in the background on his end of the phone, and the Captain says, “Well, Blue Moon’s sidekick is going to take over on the hotline for now. I haven’t got the time to save a cat from a dishwasher—”

“Washing machine,” I correct unnecessarily.

“I need you to handle it. Can I entrust this duty to you, my young friend?”

“Sure, I’ll take care of it,” I tell him. There’s a loud crash, some static, and the line goes dead before he responds, but I’m not worried about him.

I hang up and turn back to Tad, and discover that he’s put his clothes back in order. He smiles at me when I meet his gaze, but it’s not quite reaching his eyes. “Got a heroic mission?” he asks, the teasing tone falling just a little flat.

“Saving a cat,” I explain. Tad just nods, and I blurt, “Are we good? I thought… it seems like we’re not.”

“We’re good,” Tad says, but the way he’s standing, with his hands shoved into his back pockets and his head tilted just a little away from me, kind of says the opposite. “You should go. Got to save the day, right? And I should get back home.”

I want to ask more questions, but my throat is too tight for them to get through. Instead I just sneak furtive glances at Tad as we leave the Stronghold and silently ride the elevator to the ground floor. On the sidewalk outside, I start to go for a hug but abort halfway there, patting his shoulder awkwardly instead. “See you around, then,” I say, not quite looking at him.

When I start to walk to my bike, Tad makes a noise that might be the beginning of my name. He cuts himself off, though, so I don’t turn around, and he doesn’t try to stop me again.

 

It’s an easy enough job, so my brain is free to obsess over Tad’s behavior while I rescue Tiger from the washing machine menace. I also think about it during my bike ride home. And all through dinner with Mom, who doesn’t pry but pets my hair the way she does whenever I’m sick or upset.

It’s only after she leaves for work that I realize I don’t have my cell phone. I think back through the day—lingering unhelpfully on all the parts that involved Tad’s bare skin against mine—and decide that I must have left it on the desk back at the Stronghold of Superiority. I’ve never been there this late, but I don’t think Cap will mind if I pop in to grab it.

When I get to the Stronghold, I hear voices coming from the main room. I waver, but I’ve already biked across town; I’ll just run in, apologize for interrupting, and run back out with cell phone in hand. I push the door open and the voice resolves itself into words: “—never had to pay for what you did. You deserve to die!”

Great; I’m walking into another super-standoff. But I’m already in the room, now, so I’ll just make this fast and hope I don’t get caught up in the middle of it.

I start toward the desk where my phone is waiting, glancing around to identify which villain I’m potentially pissing off. “Sorry to interrupt the evil monologue, just have to grab…”

It’s Tad.

It’s Tad, pointing the Bazooka of Oblivion at Captain Superior, and talking about how he deserves to die.

I stop moving without consciously deciding to. “I think I’m missing something, here.”

“Jamie,” Tad says, his voice raw. He turns his head to look at me, but doesn’t lower the weapon pointed at the Captain. “You weren’t supposed to… you shouldn’t be here.”

“Um, okay,” I say. “But I am. So do you wanna tell me what’s going on?”

I don’t know what I’m expecting him to say—maybe a classic, “It’s not what it looks like!”—but it definitely isn’t a matter-of-fact, “I’m going to kill him.”

“Kill Captain Superior?” I ask, as if that wasn’t obvious. I glance at the Captain, who’s staring at the Bazooka, and ask, “Why?”

“It’s all his fault.” Tad’s voice is wavering between tears and fury, and he refocuses his glare on the Captain. “Our shitty apartment. The shitty stuff that’s happened there. My dad’s depression. He’s the reason my mom and brother are dead!”

I take a step toward him. “You said they were hit by a car.”

The fury is winning now, and Tad’s voice is ice cold. “They were. This piece of shit threw a minivan at Shark Woman during a fight, and it crashed through our apartment. My kid brother was watching cartoons on the living room floor, and then suddenly his chest was caved in and his arm was halfway across the room.”

“Jesus,” I can’t help but say.

“He killed them both, and no one did anything about it. There wasn’t a trial. The cops refused to file a report. They told my dad that a few casualties were sometimes necessary when a ‘national treasure’ was saving the city.” He raises the Bazooka of Oblivion a fraction higher.

I move forward again; one more step, and I’ll be close enough to touch him. “Come on, Tad,” I say. “You’re not a killer.”

His face is hard, his eyes glued to Captain Superior’s motionless form across the room. “Back off, Jamie. If you step in the way again, I’ll shoot you this time,” he tells me.

“Bullshit you will.” I don’t know if it’s the words or the tone, but Tad’s head snaps around to look at me again. “You didn’t shoot me the first time, and you didn’t even know me then. You’re sure as shit not gonna do it now that you…” I trail off, totally derailed; I was about to say, “Now that you care about me,” but I’m suddenly realizing that Tad’s cornered the Captain here in the Stronghold, which he only knows about because I told him where to find it. And I trusted him enough to tell him because he’s kissed me, and taught me the right way to punch someone, and saved me from Mistress Panic’s goons all those weeks ago—but he never did explain why he did all those things, or why was there to save me in the first place.

My train of thought must be visible on my face, because Tad looks pained when I refocus on him. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not right,” he vows.

“That’s good,” I say, and I don’t know how my voice sounds so casual. “Because I was thinking that that handjob earlier must’ve been a nice perk of the job for you.”

Tad flinches hard at that. “That’s not… you have to know I…”

He can’t seem to finish, but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the thing I do know about Tad: whatever I am to him, he’s not going to shoot me. So I take that last step that puts me between him and Captain Superior, and move closer until the end of the weapon is pressed against my sternum.

“James.” The wavering warning is the first thing the Captain’s said since I got here.

“I think you should super-speed out of here, Cap,” I say, raising my voice a bit but keeping my eyes locked on Tad’s. The Captain doesn’t respond. “I got this, Cap. I promise.”

I don’t know if he really does trust me to handle this, if he’s having a crisis over what Tad’s said, or if the nearly-immortal hero is actually that much of a coward when it’s a real life-or-death situation, but there’s a brief gust of wind and then Tad and I are alone in the Stronghold.

“Do you wanna put that thing down now?” I ask quietly.

Tad looks down. Stares at the Bazooka for a long moment like he’s confused by what he’s seeing. Finally, frantically, exclaims, “Fuck!” and throws the thing across the room. The silence that follows is suffocating.

All of a sudden, I can’t handle being there anymore. I feel jittery and loose, like my muscles aren’t attached right to my bones. I take one jerky step backward, then another. “Right. I’m gonna go.”

Tad starts to reach toward me, but aborts and drops his hand again before I actually flinch. “Can we talk about this?” he asks.

“I don’t know how,” I tell him. My voice breaks on the last word, and I think it’s the most freaked out I’ve sounded since I walked in the door.

I watch Tad’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “The ‘perk’ was that you worked for Captain Superior,” he says in a rush. “Not the other way around. I wasn’t using you.”

“If you say so.”

Jamie.” His voice is just wrecked. It sounds close to the way he choked out my name when I sucked a hickey onto his collar bone earlier. My body doesn’t know what to do with that similarity; lust hits me low in the gut, but I also feel like I might vomit.

It makes me even more eager to get away. “Look, we’re not doing this now,” I bite out.

But Tad still presses. “Now, or ever?” The echo of my own words makes my teeth clench.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Please, just—” This time, he doesn’t stop himself from reaching out and grabbing my wrist.

I think about using one of the maneuvers Tad’s taught me. Instead, I just say, “Didn’t realize I’d have to use those self-defense moves on you.” The implication alone is just as brutal, and just as effective. Tad releases me like I’ve gone acidic and staggers backward.

“I’m sorry,” he calls as I walk to the door. I almost flip him off, but I just shove my hands into my pockets and book it out of there.

 

After that, Cap is… weird. The next day, he suddenly gives me clearance to use his gear and tells me I can tag along on his patrols. “If you can save me, you can save the city,” he says. “You’ve got the right stuff, pal.” The words are right, but the tone falls flat, and when he goes to pat me on the shoulder he stops halfway through the motion.

We don’t actually go on many patrols. When he’s not dealing with a big-league supervillain, the Captain mostly just hangs around in his Stronghold, looking troubled and pacing a lot. He takes down his wall of press clippings, and has a long conversation with the mayor’s office one afternoon. One day, I’m pretty sure I catch him Googling Tad’s family.

Apart from all that, the whole week I’m in this big debate with myself over whether I should call Tad, and whether I should be pissed or relieved that he hasn’t tried to call me. And having a separate self-argument over whether I’m glad things with him didn’t go any further, or if I wish we’d been able to finish what felt like a very promising start that day in the Stronghold. I think about it (his sweat on my tongue, his thigh between mine, his blue eyes dark with lust) more than once while jerking off, and after each time I wonder if I should feel gross about it. (I don’t.)

And then he shows up on the six o’clock news. Or, well, the ‘Arachnid Kid’ does, which A) might be the most stupid super name I’ve heard yet, and B) is definitely Tad wearing his Terrorantula jacket and a black mask/hood combo. The getup covers his hair and the top part of his face, but does nothing to hide the giveaway eyes.

“The masked man has been seen breaking and entering into the homes of Urbanopolis’ finest,” the anchor reports, and my fingers go a little cold. “At least three police officers’ homes have been burgled in the last week.”

So, not trying to Bazooka the cops who (I’m guessing) refused to prosecute Captain Superior; just stealing from them. (‘Just’ stealing, right. I really know how to pick ‘em.) The anchorwoman continues, “The stolen goods, which include mens’ winter coats, a laptop computer, and a high-end mountain bike, have been traced to several homeless shelters in the city, where we’re told they were donated anonymously. With no known motives for this criminalistic generosity, some are calling for this ‘villain-in-training’ to be brought to justice, while others have praised his unorthodox altruism.”

He’s stealing coats to give to homeless people. Damn it, what am I supposed to do with that? At least it’s better than his first revenge scheme.

I almost call him, then. I pull him up on my phone and stare at the ‘Call’ button for a while. But I still don’t know what to say.

 

It’s Tad who finally makes first contact. Instead of texting or calling, though, he shows up at my front door spurting blood from a fucking bullet wound.

I’d back up, give more context, but I don’t get any: it’s one a.m., I’m deciding if I should binge-watch another episode of Community or go to sleep, and then there’s a knock at the door and it’s Tad and blood and the fucking bullet wound.

He’s wearing his ‘Arachnid Kid’ (ugh) getup, and it’s a little hard to get a read on his expression behind the mask. It’s not a happy one, clearly, but that’s about as far as I get before I notice the bloodstain spreading under the hand he’s got pressed to his side.

I think I intend to ask, “Are you okay?” but I choke on the words and a weird splutter comes out instead.

“I know I have no right to show up here,” Tad says. The words sound rehearsed. “But they’re required to report gunshot wounds at the hospital, and I—”

“Gunshot wounds,” I interrupt to echo.

Tad makes a face. “Um, yes. It’s really just a graze. But I don’t think I can reach it myself, and if I go to the hospital, I’ll probably be arrested.” He tries to take a deep breath, but stutters over a wince at the motion. “I was hoping… um…” Tad’s eyes are flickering all over my face. I’m sure it’s not warm and welcoming. He takes a half-step backward. “Sorry, this was… I shouldn’t have…”

Before he can backtrack any further, my hand shoots out to snag the shoulder of his jacket and pull him inside. “Just…” I still don’t know the words to say, apparently, but for now that’s fine; I can just focus on patching up the bloody hole in his side. (Jesus.)

I drag Tad to the bathroom and push him to sit on the toilet seat. He slowly removes the mask, hood, and Terrorantula jacket while I scoop basically everything out of our first aid drawer and scatter it across the counter. When I notice that Tad’s having trouble getting his T-shirt off without pulling on the wound, I automatically step closer to help pull it over his head. Halfway through the act I realize how fucking awkward it is for me to help undress the guy, and my muscles actually lock up for a split-second before I tug the shirt the rest of the way off and toss it in the bathtub. Tad’s face says he feels it, too, but then something in his expression shifts—I don’t even know what—that makes my shoulders feel a little less tight. “Better or worse if I don’t say anything?” he asks me evenly.

I take a second to answer, even though I don’t need to think about it. “Better,” I tell him. He nods, and turns sideways on the toilet so I can squeeze around to sit on the edge of the tub behind him.

The injury really isn’t as bad as I was picturing when Tad said ‘gunshot wound’—it looks like the bullet really did just graze him, leaving a long, bloody furrow across half of his back. I don’t think I need to stitch him up or, like, make a tourniquet or whatever (thank God.)

Still, there’s a lot of blood, and it’s not like I have any experience with this sort of thing.

“If I google ‘how to dress a bullet wound at home,’ do you think I’ll be put on a watch list?” I ask, trying for casual and missing by a mile. I can hear my voice shake.

Tad swivels around and barely winces at the motion before fixing me with a steady look. “You don’t have to do this, Jamie,” he says.

“I don’t want to fuck it up.”

His hand twitches, and I wonder if he was going to touch me. He grips the toilet seat instead, and says, “I’ll talk you through it. I’d do it myself if I could reach it.”

I hesitate, but decide to voice my theory: “You’ve done this before.”

Tad turns back around, and I assume he’s not going to answer. But then he taps his bicep and says, “Yeah. Right here.” I lean around until I can see the raised scar that arches diagonally over his upper arm. “Had to take care of that one myself, and it turned out fine.” After a pause, he seems to feel the need to add, “We didn’t have health insurance.”

I kind of want to touch the scar, but instead I busy my hands with opening a sterile alcohol wipe packet. “Why’d you get shot that time?”

“You’ve seen my neighborhood,” is Tad’s only explanation.

After that, the only conversation is Tad’s instructions as I patch up the gash. I clean him up, check the wound for stray threads from his shirt, slather on antibacterial gel and get a little over-exuberant with the bandages. I find some aspirin for him and go to the kitchen for a glass of water; when I come back, Tad’s got his clothes in his arms and is heading toward the front door.

“Where are you going?” I blurt out before thinking about it.

Tad freezes. “I figured I should…” He points one thumb toward the door. “I don’t want you to think this was some kind of trick to get you to talk to me.”

“You think I’d think you got yourself shot to force me to talk to you?”

Tad looks a little aggrieved. “Okay, it sounds stupid when you say it like that. But…” But when there’s a history of manipulation in a relationship, maybe it’s better to be safe than sorry. There’s a sour taste at the back of my throat. I think it might only get worse if Tad walks out the door.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” I say decisively. “You’re going to sit on the sofa and try not to bleed all over it. I’m going to go find something sugary to eat.” I lose my momentum and conclude, “And that’s as far as I’ve decided so far. That okay with you?”

Tad looks like he’s trying so hard to look nonchalant, but the disbelief is practically glowing off of him. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s okay.”

Three minutes later we’re on the couch. Tad’s got an old Snoopy beach towel behind him just in case my explosion of bandages somehow fails, and I’ve got a plastic bowl of leftover candy corn in my lap. I’m not looking at him, and I don’t think he’s looking at me, either. Things are clearly going well.

Finally, I say, “So. Breaking and entering, huh?”

I hear Tad’s breath leave him in a whoosh. “Yeah. I just felt like I had to do something. I… you were right. About me, not being able to, you know.” Kill someone. “You were right. But I had all this adrenaline, and half the time I was angry at the world and the other half I was just pissed at myself for… everything that happened with you.”

I decide to gloss over that for now. “So you rob from the corrupt to give to the poor. Very Robin Hood of you.”

Tad makes another huffing noise. “I figured someone should benefit from the whole thing.”

You could have benefitted, you know. I’m sure in your neck of the woods you could find someone who’d buy a stolen laptop, and whatever else.”

“No,” Tad says. “I mean, yeah, I could’ve sold the stuff myself. But that would’ve felt wrong.” He pauses, then shifts positions. “Well, obviously, the whole thing is wrong. I know that, I’m not so fucked up that I…” He shifts again, obviously uncomfortable. “Anyway. I got the home addresses for the cops from this sort-of hacker who lives in my building. At first I figured even just tee-peeing their houses, that would at least be something. But then the first guy’s garage was wide open, no one there, and… well.”

I wait a bit, but it seems Tad’s done. “And it all went fine until you showed up here gushing blood,” I say, sort of spikily.

Tad’s voice is more subdued when he says, “Sorry. I knew I shouldn’t come here, but I didn’t—”

“I don’t care that you came here,” I interrupt, and I realize that it’s true. I finally look at him, really look, and I’m surprised by how okay it is. “Tad,” (first time saying his name in a while, and that feels surprisingly okay, too), “you could have died.”

Tad finally looks at me, too, and he seems uncertain. “I didn’t think you’d care about that, after everything.”

And just like that, I’m nowhere close to okay; I’m furious. “Fuck you,” I say, shooting to my feet and actually throwing the bowl at Tad; he catches it one-handed against his chest, looking aghast, as candy corn scatters in his lap. “I’m not the revenge junkie here.” Tad doesn’t even wince at the jab, just goes on looking lost. “If you think I wouldn’t care if you got shot to fucking death… If you think I’m that kind of person, you know where the fucking door is.”

I storm into the kitchen, not for any reason other than to move. Tad eventually follows. He hangs back by the door, looking chagrined. “I’m sorry. I know there’s probably a limited number of times I can say that and have it mean anything, but I am.” His expression shifts into something impossibly earnest. “You’re the best person I know, Jamie. I think you’re probably the best person I have ever known.” Before I can respond to that, he does this determined little nod and says, “Which is why I’m going to leave now, before I screw up any more. You deserve a hell of a lot better than all this.”

I’m not prepared for this turn in the conversation, and I don’t think I like it. “It’s not about what people deserve,” I contradict. “Things just happen, and sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re shit, and you just make the best of them.” Immediately after I’ve said it, I realize it might have been a stupid thing to tell someone whose life has consisted of as much shit as Tad’s has.

But Tad smiles in response, though it’s not a happy one. “That’s what I’m trying to do.” He takes a deep breath and pulls his ruined jacket on. “So… I’ll see you around, yeah?” I don’t know if he really means it or not. “And thank you, Jamie. For everything.”

We stare across the kitchen at each other for a stretching moment before he turns and leaves. I don’t stop him, and I spend the rest of the night wondering if I should have.

 

Of all of Captain Superior’s nemeses (nemesises? nemesi?) Mistress Panic is the worst. Unlike most of the supervillains in town, who focus on ridiculous schemes to turn the moon magenta or whatever, Panic just likes to destroy things and generally mess with peoples’ lives. I don’t know the point of this particular scheme—maybe there isn’t a point—but it involves a demolished concert hall, a lot of unhappy cellists, and a dozen of Panic’s minions armed with spiky green guns.

I’m up to my ankles in rubble, using a music stand as an improvised shield. Captain Superior is super-jumping his way from balcony to teetering balcony in pursuit of Mistress Panic, so on the ground it’s currently me versus the goons. I figure I just need to stall them long enough for Cap to get back and finish them off.

To be fair, my method of stalling is basically running away. The dust in the air cuts down on visibility in the half-collapsed building, so I’m mostly darting from one debris pile to another, avoiding direct confrontation with anybody with a gun.

I’m running for an overturned grand piano when one of the goons grabs my arm and flings me to the floor. Thanks to Tad’s training, I roll on my shoulder and jump up in time to avoid the kick that the guy levels at me. It’s Scar Face, because great, of course it is.

He recognizes me, too. “Look who it is,” he says. He’s not holding one of the spiky weapons—small mercies—but the look in his eyes is scary enough. “Let’s say we finish what we started the other day, hmm?”

“You mean the time you ran away from a gun that only shoots mustard?” I can’t help but snark back. Scar Face looks confused for a second, and then he just looks doubly pissed.

I’m anticipating the first punch he throws, but that doesn’t mean I’m fast enough to avoid it. It slams into my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. Struggling to breathe, I dodge his next swing. “You little prick,” he says. I bring my foot down hard on his instep, and he curses and grabs the collar of my shirt.

His grip releases almost immediately, though. I stagger backward as Scar Face spins to deal with some new threat. Through the dust I can tell that the newcomer isn’t wearing Captain Superior’s uniform, but I can’t recognize them beyond that. Maybe it’s another member of the Union; I don’t really care. Anyone fighting Panic’s minions is an ally in my book.

The two of them exchange blows for a while before Scar Face loses his footing on the rubble. It’s a small opening in his guard, but it’s all the new guy needs to drop him with a solid punch to the jaw. Scar Face groans a little but doesn’t get up. Thank goodness.

When I look up, the newcomer is already moving away. “Hey, hold up a sec,” I call, and he pauses. “Thanks for the assist. I’m…” My hand is halfway extended for an introductory handshake when I meet wide, familiar blue eyes. “Oh.”

Tad’s wearing the hood and mask, but the Terrorantula jacket has been replaced with a plain brown one. “Sorry,” he says after a beat of silence.

“For what?”

That seems to throw him a little. “For… being here?”

I find myself grinning. “And for saving my ass, again? Well, I’m not sorry.” I push my sweaty hair off my forehead. “A little surprised, though. Is Terrorantula a big supporter of the arts or something?”

“No,” Tad says. “I’m… sort of freelance, at the moment.”

“Are you a big supporter of the arts?”

Tad ignores me. “I heard that Mistress Panic was causing trouble over here, and, I don’t know. Figured I could help. I didn’t know you were already here, or I wouldn’t have come.”

He says it like that’s meant to be reassuring to me, and I roll my eyes. Before I can verbally respond, though, another one of Mistress Panic’s goons pops up from behind a pile of trashed theater seats. She’s got her gun pointed in our direction, and I immediately shove Tad’s chest to get him out of danger.

But Tad doesn’t budge; he’s too busy grabbing my shoulders and trying to push me to safety. We end up at a standstill, both in the line of fire; when the gun releases a cloud of thick blue smoke in our direction, Tad and I glare at each other until we pass out.

 

I wake up with my hands and feet tied together and my butt on a cold concrete floor. It’s suddenly strikes me as a little depressing, how familiar this feels. What’s not familiar, though, is the warm back against my own, propping me up.

“Jamie?”

“Present.”

Tad’s voice breaks when he says, “Thank God. You okay?”

I do a cursory check. “All body parts accounted for. You?”

“Um, yeah. Same. Kind of got a headache, though.”

“Yeah, knockout gas will do that.” I test the knots around my wrists, but they don’t give at all. When I lean forward to check out the rope around my ankles, I realize that Tad and I aren’t just sitting back to back; we’re tied together that way. I relax back again, and feel Tad’s hair tickle the back of my own neck. “They got rid of your hood and mask, huh?”

“Oh. I guess so.” Tad sounds surprised. “I hadn’t really noticed. I was mostly… you took a while to wake up.”

“Guess you’ve got a faster metabolism,” I say distractedly, more focused on the unfamiliar shakiness in Tad’s voice, the tightness I feel in his muscles. “I take it this is your first kidnapping?”

“Obviously.”

“Okay. Well, I’ve got bad news, and good news, and more bad news.” I feel Tad take a big breath. “Bad news: I don’t see a way for the two of us to get out of this on our own. Concrete cell, plenty of rope, solid knots. Not ideal for your first kidnapping experience, sorry about that. Next time we’ll have to shoot for ritzier accommodations.” Tad releases the breath in a whoosh; it just might be a laugh, so I count that as a win. “Good news: help is almost definitely on the way. Bad news is that it’s, uh, Captain Superior.” I pause, considering, and continue, “Or maybe Cap’s coming for me, and Terrorantula’s coming for you, and they’ll both show up and this day will get even more interesting.”

Tad doesn’t respond right away. “Do you think… will Captain Superior even…”

“He’s not just gonna leave you here, Tad,” I say. “And if he wants to, I’m not just gonna leave you here, so, same thing.”

Tad doesn’t answer, and I can feel the doubt and the self-flagellation radiating off of him. Fed up, I turn my head enough to blow a sloppy raspberry on his neck.

He jumps—his butt actually leaves the ground—and cries, “What the heck was that?”

“Can we just get over everything?” I say. I leave my head leaning back against his shoulder, but Tad cranes his own head away. “I mean, we basically both tried to take a bullet for the other. That’s what happened back there, right? So can we please just get over all of it?”

Tad is skeptical. “Like, ‘Hi, I’m Tad, nice to meet you for the first time?’” he asks the wall.

“No, that’s stupid.” He snorts. “Just, it’s a thing that happened, and now we’re moving on with our lives. I, for one, would like it if moving on included hanging out with you.” After a moment of thought, I add, “It could also involve getting naked with you.” Tad makes a noise like he’s choking on his own spit, and I conclude, “But it doesn’t have to. I can do fully-clothed, platonic moving on, too.”

Tad is quiet for a while, but that’s okay; I can feel him relaxing, until all the brittleness is gone and he’s a warm weight against my back. “You’re something else,” he murmurs at last.

From beyond our cell, there’s a muted crash of breaking concrete, followed by several laser blasts. “So, do you want to get burgers after this?” I ask.

Something heavy crashes into the cell door, and it starts to warp around the hinges. “Sounds good,” Tad says. He turns his head toward mine, and it’s a ridiculously uncomfortable position, but we’re grinning at each other like idiots when the door bursts open.

The End

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