The first clue that something big is going down is the basso profundo clatter-growl that tickles our ears, just on the human-side of hearing. It shakes the pastry case’s glass shelves. The pies shiver and the lamps overhead swing ever so slightly in a slow, unnatural circle. Dust from the crown molding falls like grey snow.
Everyone in the café goes quiet, tense; prey, suddenly realizing that nearby there is a danger, a predator in the shadows and unseen places of their small world. They wait for a sign, for the next clue, for an indication in which direction they should run, or where they should burrow, or, if it comes to it, who they should push out for the danger to pick off. They wait to see where death will come from. And hope that said clue, when it arrives, does not do so in the form of an unstoppable streak of teeth and blood – too quick, too fierce, too late.
Another heavy boom. The café shivers again, a distinct ca-chunk lurch for all that it is subtle.
Heads turn to the window.
Whatever is making our small world shake isn’t close enough to spy on this street. But perhaps, judging by the sound of things, it might be tall enough, big enough to see around other buildings. To see how close the danger has stalked.
If it is, indeed, some creature or mechanical in motion. And not, say, a series of explosions getting closer.
Hands tense on the arms of their chairs. The patrons ready to press up into a run. Heads swivel and thigh muscles tense.
I put the coffee carafe down on the polished countertop and slowly, deliberately, inhale to a count of five, exhale to ten.
He had said that it would help with the anxiety attacks, the panic, the… worry.
Because, of course, if there are creatures, or mechanicals, or explosions, then that’s where he will be. Has to be. Right in the middle of it. Always.
I asked him, once, a few months ago, as the sweat cooled in the dips of our spines, the hollows of our throats, in the intimate pink shells of our ears, why it had to be him. Why he didn’t hang up the tights, the cape, the gauntlets. Why he didn’t put away the gadgets and the goggles, and let someone else do it.
“Who else?” he’d asked. He had gotten out of bed to fetch us a refreshment, and been pouring red wine. He didn’t stop to look up. He just kept on, as if he already knew what my expression would reveal: my concern for him. Certain. “There is no one else. No one half so powerful.”
“Surely there’s… other professionals.”
“Not anybody who can do what I do. And civilians… they’d get killed on the first punch.”
He finished pouring, set the bottle on his bedside table, and crawled back between the sheets. We toasted. We didn’t talk about it again.
Several months later, on the day he gave me a copy of his apartment key, he came home to find me clutching one of his sofa cushions and staring, goggle-eyed, at the television. I was doing my best to stiffen my chin, to keep it from wobbling. I thought if I didn’t blink, then I wouldn’t cry. His sudden appearance at the door – soot-stained, smelling of burnt leather and plastic, singed hair, costume covered only haphazardly by a pea jacket – startled the tears out of me.
“I–! I thought–!” I’d sobbed, sudden and embarrassed, as I shot to my feet. My cheeks burned with relieved shame at my overwhelming emotional breakdown, and were cooled by my tears. But they also burned with anger. I was so damned furious that he had nearly died, right in front of my eyes, live on national television. “I saw–!”
He’d tried, at first, to shrug it off. He was smirking in that lopsided, superior little way that first caught my eye across the café where I waited tables. But when he saw how genuine my distress was he came over, sat on the sofa, and folded me against the embossed emblem on his chest. He petted my hair until all the embarrassment, all the relief, all the anger had been sobbed out.
“I was careful,” he had whispered into my ear. Tugged lightly on my little earring with his teeth. “I’m fine.”
“You didn’t look fine,” I had said.
“Take a deep breath. In through your nose. One, two, three, four, five. Good, and out for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Good, again, sweetheart. Very good. Just like that. Do you feel calmer?”
“It’s a good trick.”
“Do you use it?”
“All the time.”
I inhale and exhale again, and the café rumbles me back into the present. A woman with a stroller is strapping her child into a carrier on her chest, getting ready to abandon the contraption and hoof it if need be. An older man is carefully counting out change to leave on the table. I wonder if he thinks that if we all run, I’ll stay behind to bus the tables and collect my tips from the candy dish by the front door. The boom is louder, closer, and this time I can hear the stacks of plates and chipped, coffee-stained cups rattle against one another.
A couple slips out the door without paying, but I don’t care. I go to the window, not at all concerned that I’m blocking the view of others, and press my hands against the morning-cool plate glass. Look up. Look around. Crane my head, press each cheek in turn to the glass, straining, searching…
Across the street, on the other side of the brownstones, just tall enough that I can see it through the chimney stacks. A flash of deep blue plated armor, steam rising from turrets.
Oh, that’s definitely a mechanical he’s never shown me before. I wonder briefly if it’s new, or if it’s so old that it was crammed in the back of the workshop where I wouldn’t have been able to see it through the other detritus, the piles of scrapped vehicles and junked parts.
There is a great squealing shriek of tires on pavement, a crinkling crunch not dissimilar to the sound of a candy wrapper being opened, and then suddenly an armored van is smashing into the asphalt directly in front of me.
The whole café jumps: me, the people around me, the tables and the chairs and the very foundations of the building. A laugh burbles and bubbles up my throat, but it is nervous and tinged with hysteria. The woman with the baby swings around the counter, tears through the kitchen, and I can hear the fire alarm wail and snarl as she forces open the emergency exit. A stream of patrons follow her out like lemmings, like fish in a school.
I should go. I should go with them. I should run.
I could be hurt. The glass of the window that I’m pressed up against could shatter, shards flying into my eyes, my mouth. The armored van could explode. The café could come down on my head or the foundation crumble under my feet. But I stand, motionless, waiting. Because he is here, dressed as his alter ego, and I trust him to save me.
Witless. Naïve. Possibly even stupid.
But I trust him to save me if I need it. And until that time, I want to see. I want to watch him in action, brave and fearless. I want to see that inner beauty of his shine out of his face, light up the underside of his cloak, spark along his gauntlets.
I want to see him dazzling in the sunlight, bright and wonderful, and heroic.
In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
See, even the driver of the armored van has gathered his wits enough to scramble out of the window of the cab. He draws his gun, turns back towards the brownstones he was thrown over, and I can’t help my snicker. A gun. A very small gun. Against powered people. Ridiculous.
The night-blue vehicle climbs over the brownstones, drops onto the street right beside the van, and I can see that it is accented in brass. It is dented, and worn, and parts of it are smoking that probably shouldn’t be, and parts of it are sparking that definitely shouldn’t be, but it is…
It is the product of his imagination, his blueprints and hard work, and so, for all that the mechanical is crab-like and squat, it is gorgeous.
A pincer waves at me, and though I cannot see his familiar smirk though the viewscreen, I know his mouth well enough that I can tell that he is smiling, just like that, for me. I wave back, though the glass, excited.
And then the pinchers jerk up. A roundel that I mistook for a crab eye on a swaying stalk orients itself on something high above it, and then the crab jerks and leaps. It’s gone from my sight in an instant, and the security guard looks around, looks up, bewildered and white-knuckled. He raises his gun and fires – one, two, three, four shots. Nothing falls from the sky.
The whole café lurches under my feet.
Ah, he landed on our roof!
More dust and this time ceiling plaster rains down on me. Right. Now is probably a good time to leave. I take the street exit, scrambling up to the back of the armored van. The guard sees me, waves me over into the lee of the chassis, head still raised to the sky and one hand still tight around his gun.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Incrediman, and Skye High…” he starts, and then swallows. “I don’t know what Vertego wants, no one told me what was in my truck, but he sure as hell ain’t gettin’ it!”
The roar of a flamethrower above us drags my attention upwards. The flame coming from the pincher is so hot that it warps the fire escape and singes my eyebrows. The guard curses and ducks into the safe, cool shadow of his cab. I keep watching as the mechanical crab vomits fire.
The battle is hypnotic, a ballet in the air before me of ducking bodies and close misses and I cannot look away. A small, cold fear grows in me that if I look away, if I stop murmuring endearments and half-articulated prayers for his safety, then his luck will change and he will lose. He will die. And so I watch, my fingers balled tight, painful in my apron. The fabric twists and tears under the strain of my anxiety.
In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Be safe. Be careful. Oh! No, behind you! In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Be faster. Be better. Come home to me. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Come home to me. Come home to me alive.
As the fight weaves back and forth across the rooftops, lurching, drunken, the security guard turns away. The motion catches my attention and I watch as he jams his gun back into his holster and uses both hands to wrench at the twisted lever of the back door. He manages to lift a panel, and fumbles for the oversized, elaborate key handcuffed to his wrist.
His hands are shaking so badly that the key slips between his fingers, dangling, impotent, no less than four times. He gives a snarl of frustration.
“Let me help,” I say, go over, lift the key, slot it into place. It is big, unwieldy, and takes both of us to turn it.
I look down. He hasn’t snapped the strap back over his gun, so when he throws open the heavy door and overextends his step to hoist his bulk into the back of the truck, his gun slips down his leg and clatters against the pavement. It’s a quiet sound, barely audible above the wailing sirens that are creeping closer, the crush and crashes above us, the roar of the crab’s flamethrower. But we both hear it, tense. Wait.
The gun doesn’t go off.
I bend down to scoop it up.
“Careful,” the guard says as I extend it towards him.
“You really don’t know what’s in your truck?” I ask.
“No, only that mine’s the real one. It’s not one of the decoys. Gimmie the gun, help me get this out of here. Vertego can’t get at it. We’ll hide it.”
“Good idea,” I say.
Then I flip the gun around and shoot him in the foot.
The guard screams and falls back into the far corner of the box, swearing and grunting. The air smells of warm copper and gunpowder. I can’t believe I just did that. I never thought I’d be able to do something like that.
But then, he always said that I could. That he believed in me.
In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
He believed in me, and I did it.
I did it!
I pick up the briefcase. It’s light. It feels empty. Is it empty?
The guard’s face is white with agony, and I hope, for his sake, that he passes out soon. I turn back, jump out, toss the gun into the café. The air is still and silent. I breathe in, deep, two, three, four, parse the scents of grit, dust, fire, fear, and the great swelling sense of pride and wonder. Alone in a city, the buildings empty, the windows drawn, or dark.
The crab mechanical swings down to street level and then, with a pneumatic hiss, the spindly legs fold under it, lowering the carapace to the asphalt. The mechanical’s mouth opens.
I look up, around, but he is alone. No one is waiting to drop down on us. No ambush in wait. The world is silent, waiting, waiting.
He steps onto the gangplank and I hold up the case, waggling it at him, overjoyed.
“Come and get it, if you want it!” I tease.
He laughs. I try out his smirk.
He rushes at me, sweeps me up, and then his mouth is on mine, hot, wonderful, wet.
“God, you’re perfect. Absolutely perfect, sweetheart,” he says, his breath puffing straight into my lips. When he puts me back onto my feet, I offer him the case. He pulls it open easily, snapping the locks with the strength of his fingers, and digs in. As he’s fishing around, I reach up, tug his goggles away, smooth back sweat and mechanical-oil-slicked hair.
“Thanks sweetheart,” he says and gifts me with one of those lovely lopsided smirks. “Whew, that was close, eh? Nearly squashed the café! Wouldn’t want to destroy such important memories, eh?”
“Yes, then where will I work?” I ask, laughter in each syllable, too joyful, to relieved, too flush on his kisses and his successes and my love, pure and deep and ridiculous, for the spandex-clad man pressed against me.
“Work? Oh, sweetheart, you’re never going to have to work again.”
Then he holds it up. It’s a diamond.
The diamond that I read about in the paper that morning. The one cut by one of the most powerful magical mystics the powered community has seen in the last three hundred years. The diamond that is said to have been cut so perfectly that any focused beam of light through its prisms emerges as a laser powerful enough to burn through any material, and whose refracted rainbows are said to grant any that they fall upon an immeasurable increase to their own powers, whatever they may be. The diamond that was supposed to be travelling via an unknown route in armoured transport, while a dozen other decoys travelled with it along all sorts of strange side streets from the airport to the museum where the it was meant to go on display.
Oh, my man is so clever.
Already, he looks quicker, happier, fresher. Under the concrete dust and the blood, his skin glows with returned youth. And I, I feel marvelous. The repetitive strain in my wrist is draining away as the rainbows thrown up from the jewel skitter across my face, my headache pulsing away to nothingness, the soreness of my feet after the non-stop work of the morning shift nearly gone.
“Sweetheart,” he murmurs again, and then he turns us back to his machine. “Wanna go for a ride?”
I cast around for a seatbelt and he just laughs. “It’s safe, believe me, it’s safe.”
Safe. Such a liminal word. He sees the worry flit through my eyes. “Hey, I have an idea,” he says, and that smirk licks back up into his mouth, curling, sensual, into the dimple there. “How would you like to never have to worry about me ever again?”
“I’d like that a lot.”
“Great, sweetheart. Then I have a gift for you. Under the seat.”
I curve low, reach, and retrieve a case. On my knees – unlatched—oh. Oh. “It’s a … gun?”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
The smirk stretches across, catlike, to take up the other corner of his lip. “I left Incrediman in the bottom of a crater. He’s probably still alive.”
“What about Skye High?”
The smirk flickers and flirts. Delicious.
“Really?” I ask.
“Really – she’s as dead as a body can be. And if Incrediman still lives, then you can do the honours with that, sweetheart.”
Now that is a gift. Never having to worry about his capture, his death, his whole life rotting in jail, or his turn on the electric chair. Never having to worry about him being abused on the inside, or intimidated, never having to worry about him being hurt in street brawls or defeated in battle ever again.
He will be safe. Safe. Safe.
“Let’s go!” I say, and clutch the gun tightly, anticipation crawling like a delicious shiver down my spine, spreading out to the tips of each tingling digit. I peel off my apron and toss it out the window, followed quickly by my name badge. That’s not who I am anymore.
Now I am his. And he is mine.
Oh, to have him safe. And free. And powerful. Young. Hale. Whole.
And mine. With me. Always.
This is going to be good.
How lucky I am that he smirked at me across the cafe. I am so excited, so excited, that I need to breathe. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten…