Where There's Fire (Panopolis, #2)
Making a name for myself as a Villain in Panopolis is hard work. Six months ago, my boyfriend broke me out of jail. Now he’s spending most of his time defending our turf against other Villains he accidentally freed along with me. And my new psychic powers are not only impossible to control, but they’re also giving me migraines.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. My skills are improving every day, and Raul—aka the Mad Bombardier—and I have never been happier. That is, until my first solo job is interrupted by a mysterious woman who tells me that Raul has been kidnapped by a ruthless new Villain. The only way to free him is to do a job for Maggot, a man with scary ideas and an even scarier superpower.
I can’t go to the cops or a Hero for help. Odds are they wouldn’t listen to me anyway. If I fail, Raul will be killed. If I succeed, we’ll both be bound to a man who’ll stop at nothing to put Panopolis on the path to civil war.
It looks like the only way to win is to take out the competition.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: action / adventure, alternate world / alternate universe, dystopian, romance, sci-fi, superhero, suspense / thriller
Tone: dark, exciting, gritty, humorous, intense
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, angst, anxiety, disability / disfigurement, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, mental illness, politics / power struggle, PTSD, self-discovery / self-reflection
Kinks: dirty talk, face-fucking, frottage
Settings: America, city, slums
Careers: criminal / outlaw, professional (finance)
SuperTruther here, bringing you the down and dirty on Heroes, Villains, and the people who love them. That last one would be us, guys, your humble blogger included. We’re the gaping maw that gobbles down everything we can get on our Super people. We’re the pushy paparazzi, we’re the Super fans, we’re the ones who buy anything with a pretty girl in a bulletproof leotard on the cover. We’re the fuel that keeps the powers that be churning out Supers, be they Hero or Villain. We aren’t the grist, maybe, and we’re not the guiding hands, but we sure as hell are powering that endless persona mill.
Are you happy, knowing that your conspicuous consumption makes people like the Nightmare? Or the Mad Bombardier? Or hell, look at Edward Dinges, so lately one of us, so quickly one of them. Think about your impact for a moment, people. Think really hard.
I’m not your standard, run-of-the-mill, evil-genius Villain.
By many standards I wasn’t a Villain at all, not yet. I didn’t have a pithy crowd-sourced nickname that made people shudder with fear when they heard it in the news—the reporters just called me Edward Dinges. I didn’t have a big, flashy power-slash-mutation-slash-disfigurement that made kids stare and adults avert their eyes. I didn’t carry a weapon. I didn’t run my mouth at the cops and intimidate crowds of people with a single word, or run the heists of the century and not get caught, and I didn’t—I especially didn’t—get into fights with Heroes. That would be asking for more trouble than I could handle, at this point.
But even though I was no Big Bad Villain like my boyfriend didn’t mean I was passive in the face of a problem. And being stalked, to my mind, certainly counted as problematic. This wasn’t the first time I’d been followed in the six months since I’d been broken out of Abbott’s Penitentiary—otherwise known as the Abattoir—in rather dramatic style, but it was certainly one of the most blatant. Fortunately, I wasn’t unprepared for this eventuality. You couldn’t live in this part of Panopolis, far from the glitz and cleanliness and heavily policed presence of downtown, without learning a few tricks.
This was my first stalking without having Raul with me, though, and for all my preparations, I was still nervous. My hands bunched in my pockets, fisting and relaxing as I tried to control my breathing, act casual, act natural. I could do this. I could take care of myself; I didn’t need Raul to rescue me. More importantly, I didn’t have a choice—there was no turning around at this point, no running back home where I could lock myself away. I had a meeting to get to that I couldn’t afford to miss. Not if I wanted to stay sane.
I walked a little farther along the broken sidewalk, head mostly covered by my hoodie as I listened for my stalker’s position. Only three or four meters back, he slowed down, then stopped and ducked aside altogether when I bent over to feign retying my shoe. Yep, he was the real deal. Fortunately, there was nobody else out on the sidewalk at one in the afternoon, all the people who lived in these tenement houses either at work, at school, or inside where it was marginally safer.
I reached into my pocket and then laid a tiny, weblike array of wires with a tiny battery in the center on the ground, before getting up and resuming my steady pace. I waited until I was almost positive my stalker was in the radius of the trap before I triggered it with a button on my key fob.
“Hkt—” There was the telltale sound of someone’s throat closing up, followed closely by a noisy thud. I sighed, then turned around and walked back to where my erstwhile stalker had fallen, his body still convulsing from the effects of the static taser. It was one of Raul’s inventions, notable because he’d worked out a way to get the shock to travel through the insulated sole of a person’s shoe, and because it could be remotely operated. I waited for the shocker’s battery to run out to grab the little taser and put it away. Once I’d made sure the guy was breathing okay, I rolled him onto his stomach and zip-tied his hands together.
“Hey.” I turned him back onto his side so we could see each other’s faces. “Well, this is an awkward way to meet someone for the first time.” My voice shook from the nerves I couldn’t quite get over, but hopefully he was too out of it to notice.
“Give it a second; sometimes the charge can make fine-motor control a bit wonky.” I could spare a few minutes to figure out who this guy was and whether I should call the cops to take care of him. Not that they’d make it down here in less than an hour: this was a red zone, hot with Villainous activity and too poor to merit rapid attention. And honestly, I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of leaving another Villain trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey for the cops to come grab. We were bad to each other, but they were worse to us.
As for Villainous activity . . . I considered the guy as he tried to catch his breath. He was way bigger than me, with bulky muscles that looked sculpted and scars all over his exposed forearms. There were heavy ones around his wrists stretching out from under the zip-tie, and my stomach rolled over when I realized that I’d seen those marks before. A lot of Villains, both big-time and small-fry, had escaped from the Abattoir when I did. A lot of them had been experimented on, like me, and the scars around his wrists were exactly the width of the manacles I remembered.
When my stalker finally glared up at me, his eyes glowed pink. I glanced away. The last thing I needed today was a dose of mind control, or whatever it was that the glow indicated.
“Fuck you,” he spat. “Fucking let me go.”
“Mmm, no,” I replied. “Not until you tell me why you were following me.”
“I wasn’t following shit!”
“Why’d I want to follow you anyway?” I could hear the sneer in his voice. “You’re nothin’ special.”
I might not be very special, but the fact remained. “You can either tell me why you were following me, or I can make things really uncomfortable for you and force you to tell me.”
“You know what? I don’t believe you.” The guy flexed and, in one smooth movement, broke right through my zip tie. I had a second to curse the fact that I’d been dumb enough to rely on something made out of plastic before he had his hands around my neck, and had stood up to lift me clear off my feet. Stupid, stupid! I fumbled with my thin leather gloves.
“I don’t believe you’re anythin’ at all.” The guy was smiling now. The pink glow built up in his eyes until it was almost blinding. Nothing good was going to happen when it spilled over, I was sure of that. “I told Maggot followin’ you was gonna be a waste of time, but he insisted. Maybe he’ll believe me when I bring him your—”
Then he stopped talking, and stopped smiling, because I had my bare hands on his wrist. Sparks swam across my vision like Christmas lights, but I was frightened enough that my fear tore down the carefully constructed mental wall between Inside Me and Outside Me.
Outside Me was the part of myself I kept in the forefront of my mind, cool and collected at all times. It kept me from using my power to transmit any of my more traumatizing feelings unintentionally to someone I was touching. Inside Me, however, was a tidal wave of panic and bone-shattering terror right now that surged through my body and into my attacker.
Pinky screamed, the light in his eyes blinking out completely as he doubled over. He let go of my throat, and I coughed and coughed but didn’t drop his wrist, letting the fear well and crest instead of trying to control it. My Villainous power might not be flashy, but it was extremely effective one-on-one. By the time I finally let go of Pinky’s wrist, he was a shivering mess on the pavement. His pants were wet, and he didn’t open his eyes as I bent down next to him. Shit, shit.
“Who’s Maggot?” I asked, not really expecting an answer at this point. It was worth a try, though. I shut my eyes and did my best to clear my head, then focused on the feeling of honesty. The closest I could come to describing it was the pure relaxation you experienced when you finally told someone the truth about something; the load off of your shoulders, the acceptance. I tried to pass that promise of relief on to Pinky, to get him to speak to me. Occasionally with my power I could make a person do what I wanted them to do, but usually not. I wasn’t sure what dictated the difference yet, but maybe this time . . .
“Who is Maggot?” I asked again, filling myself with persuasive promise. “Who is he?”
Pinky just whimpered. I opened my eyes and huffed. It wasn’t going to happen, not today. “Is he your boss?” Still nothing. Maybe Pinky couldn’t hear me over the sound of his own sobs. I bit my lip with frustration as I stared down at him. My control was supposed to be better by now, damn it. I raised my voice. “I’m going to assume so. If you make it back to him in one piece, I want you to tell him that he needs to leave me and mine alone. Otherwise bad things are going to happen. Got it?” At last Pinky responded, nodding weakly. “Excellent.”
I wasn’t comfortable abandoning him like this on the sidewalk; I was a Villain but not a complete asshole. However, I had a very short window to meet my contact in, and could already feel the outskirts of a massive headache in the space right behind my eyes. If I didn’t get dosed up soon I’d be the one lying prostrate, thanks to one of the shittier side effects bequeathed on me when I got my power. Still, a little bit of nice wouldn’t hurt me much more now. Too nice for your own good, I could hear Raul saying. And maybe he was right, but that didn’t make me happy about the situation.
I took a moment to rebuild my mental wall, layering the bricks until the remnants of my frantic, adrenaline-fueled fear were tucked back into Inside Me. Then I put my hand on Pinky’s wrist once more. Calm, I thought, and breathed deeply as the feeling flowed from sanguine Outside Me into him. After a few moments his heartbeat slowed down, his panting turned into something deliberate, and as the tears started to dry up, I let go.
“Be more careful in the future,” I said as I stood up and turned away, shoving my hands into their gloves to help hide the tremors. “I’d hate to have to do this again.”
Leticia’s apartment was a few blocks south, in that strange area between the red zone and the commercial districts where the powers that be started to give a damn again. Instead of heading in through the front door where anyone would be able to see me, I went around to the alley side, where someone in the know could lift up a grate and get into the tunnel that had been installed sometime during Prohibition. It led to a staircase with a thoroughly modern metal door, complete with alarm system, built-in defenses that would be set off if I tried to force it, and an intercom. I pressed the button. “Hey Lettie, it’s Edward.”
“You’re running late, Edward.” The sound quality was as clear as glass, which meant I could hear the edge of suspicion in Leticia’s voice.
“I’m sorry about that. I got waylaid on Z Street.” I pulled my hood down and looked straight at the camera above the door. There I was: thin and unremarkable face, pallid skin, crazy dark hair that I’d done my best with that morning—who would want to pretend to be me? I smiled a little uncertainly, and a moment later the door opened with a clunk.
“Come on, then.”
I nodded and headed up the stairs. I exited through a closet in the hall and walked to the living room. Kami was there on the couch, staring at the television, where the indomitable Cantrip Crew were battling their way across an animated plain, fighting for truth, justice, and good magic. It was a children’s program, and the only thing that Kami would watch. She was twenty, but thanks to a drug mix-up in the hospital during her unfortunately complicated birth, she had yet to speak an intelligible word as far as I knew.
She glanced over at me when I got close. She didn’t smile, but there was an air of expectation about her that I wasn’t about to disappoint.
“Hi.” I sat down on the couch, reached into my pocket and handed her a fresh sheet of stickers. These sported glittery flowers and glowing metallic rainbows. Kami immediately pulled one off and stuck it on my cheek. “Oh, thank you.” She put the next on her cheek, and I smiled. “Now we match. It’s like we’ve got our own club.”
“You don’t need to be spoiling her,” Leticia said from the attached kitchen. “She can live without getting stickers from you every time.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I mind. I swear I spend half an hour every morning peeling those off the mirror in her bathroom.” She didn’t sound too bothered, though. “Come here; let’s get you what you need.”
I joined her in the kitchen. Tired eyes looked at me from an equally exhausted face. Leticia Clark was a pretty woman, with mahogany skin and short, naturally curly hair, but there were strands of gray here and there, and lines beside her eyes.
She held out a hand and I gave her five grand in a tight roll of hundreds in exchange for an old gray film canister that rattled reassuringly. The price was steep, but worth it for the relief that the pills gave me from my migraines. The medication was still in clinical trials, apparently, and wouldn’t go onto the wider market for months if not years. Working at a pharmacy wasn’t incredibly lucrative for Lettie, but working in one of the few pharmacies to stock GenCorp’s trial medications certainly was. Especially when she could sell them on the black market for ten times the price.
I opened the canister. “May I have some water?”
“Sure.” She got me a glass and watched as I downed one of the tiny green pills, a frown on her face. “You say you ran into trouble on Z Street?”
“Yeah. Some creep was following me. I took care of it though. I wouldn’t bring trouble here.”
“I know you wouldn’t mean to, Edward.”
“I promise you, I didn’t let anything slip.” Behind me I heard Kami get up and head over to her easel, cartoons and stickers apparently forgotten. “If I hadn’t been able to shake him, I wouldn’t have come.”
“That’s the best I can expect, I suppose.” She sighed and glanced down at the money in her hand. “Least now I can make the next payment for Kami’s therapy.”
“How’s that going?”
“Like all the rest, which is to say that its full of promises and equally full of shit.” Leticia laughed, but it had a hopeless undertone to it. Things had to be worse than usual—Leticia was generally good about putting up a strong face. “But who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky this time.”
“You know . . . I’m still willing to try and help.” Leticia was one of the few people who knew that I was a reverse empath, and at first my ability to share my emotions had excited her, made her think I might be able to do something for Kami; help her express herself, or keep her calm so she could go outside without screaming. Then she’d learned what a novice I was and changed her mind.
“Nah, we’re not quite that desperate yet,” she said, and now her smile was real. “There’s enough in there to last you a few months, I think. I’ll try to get more as soon as I can, but you know I’ve got to siphon them off quietly. We’re coming under a lot of scrutiny from the press now.” She gestured toward the paper on the tiny kitchen table.
GenCorp Caught Falsifying Research Results! the headline screamed. Oh yeah, that was becoming a big scandal. Normally the companies powering the machine that was the city of Panopolis were immune to bad press, but in this case a shipment of GenCorp’s latest anti-cancer drug had killed three of its recipients, one of them the seven-year-old son of a district attorney. The doctor in charge of their care had been brutal in lambasting the company, and public opinion was on his side for once. No one cared if the doctor at the Abattoir had killed scores of prisoners with faulty drugs, but when it happened to regular, everyday citizens, people started to get angry.
Freight Train Stands Up for GenCorp, the article to the side said. It showed a picture of Freight Train, one of Panopolis’s most popular Heroes, standing outside the corporation’s headquarters looking stern and square. Naturally he’s standing with them, I thought sourly. They make the stuff that keeps him alive.
“I don’t get it.” Leticia’s eyes were on the paper as well. “How does he . . . you know. How does the man take care of business?”
An accident six years ago had left Freight Train surrounded by a force field that was impenetrable to most things. Back when we’d been friends—well, sort of friends—he’d even explained how it worked to me.
“More force fields,” I said absently. “They don’t last, though. They only adhere to organic materials, and they break them down too quickly to be useful for the long term.”
Leticia stared at me in surprise. “How do you know that?”
Oh, because underneath his force field Freight Train is actually a dorky guy named Craig who used to hit on me even though I was already taken. “Oh . . . gossip.” Not gossip I needed to be spreading around, though. “I should go, Lettie.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to get to work soon.” She nodded at the canister in my hand. “Make ’em last, okay?”
“I’ll do my best.” I waved to Kami, put up my hood, and headed for the exit.
It was drizzling when I got back onto the streets. I sighed and shoved my hands deeper in my pockets. It would be a dismal walk home, but at least in this weather I was less likely to be stalked. I put my head down and turned toward Z Street. Only twenty blocks to go.
Segregation is alive and well in Panopolis, folks. Not necessarily due to the color of your skin, although if you’re blue there had better be some red and white mixed in with that. No, this is segregation via class warfare, segregation of those who can afford safety and those who can’t: a city divided into haves and have-nots.
People blame Villains for the red zones. I say, go find a map. Find all the police stations built since 1950, when the first pro-Hero legislation passed in the City Council. Watch those stations cluster like ants around City Hall, while the ones on the outer edges get decommissioned. Then tell me who gave up on the red zones before they even became “red” to begin with.
Panopolis is a city with a history of dark creation: Nuclear experiments during World War II led to the creation of the Spartan, who became America’s ultimate wartime hero. He died during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945, but the image of the real-life Super Hero had already been burned into the brains of your average American. They wanted more. They wanted someone to believe in, someone bigger and better, a new Hero for every Villain that sprang up from the ashes of war.
So, Panopolis made them, one way or another. Most superpowers were the result of accidents, but turning an accident into an advantage was all about promotion, and Panopolis’s city council had a great PR department. Other cities might have a resident Hero, but none of them had made a name for themselves the way Panopolis’s Heroes did.
And the best way to make a name for yourself? Fight off a Villain. There were plenty of those too: the rejects, the mistakes, the people who were never supposed to survive whatever had happened to them. Some of them were equally powerful, and way more motivated by revenge than glory.
My boyfriend was a villain with a capital V, who went by the name of the Mad Bombardier. Raul was unique in Panopolis’s expansive pantheon of Villains in that he had no actual superpower. He was just really, really good with explosives and had a sense of drama. The black clothes he wore for his robberies were body armor, the face mask was a smart precaution, and the red numbers that scrolled across his forehead? Pi, continuously calculated. The only person I knew for sure that Raul had ever killed was another Villain by the name of Pinball, who’d almost killed me last year. Raul had taken that rather personally. Apart from that, he was a snuggly puppy.
A puppy that lived in a custom warehouse with reinforced walls that even Raul’s explosive experiments couldn’t blast through. Our actual apartment was underground, which was a pretty reasonable precaution, all things considered. I missed the sunshine, but I preferred keeping all of my limbs.
I headed downstairs into our apartment, flipped the lights, and turned on the television as I went to put the pills away in our medicine cabinet. My head felt okay, only a little achy, which meant that I’d gotten things under control in time.
There was food waiting for me on the stove in a covered pan. It smelled like chicken piccata, one of my favorites. I dished it out onto a plate and carried it over to the sofa, where Jean Parks droned on about the latest Hollywood scandal. It was no more than white noise until I heard—
“Gerald and Melissa Dinges have agreed to the tell-all interview that we’ve been waiting for, folks. That’s right, yours truly sat down with the Dingeses to ask them about their only son, Edward, and what might have driven him to mastermind the most massive and damaging Villain exodus from Abbott’s Penitentiary that Panopolis has ever seen. Tune in tomorrow night to learn the shocking truth about Edward Dinges’s fall from grace!”
Me, a mastermind? That was a new one. I rolled my eyes at the television. In the space of one fateful evening I’d gone from a nobody bank manager who was maybe, possibly dating Freight Train, to the virago who had broken a Hero’s heart by illegally harboring a Villainous boyfriend on the side, and then apparently engineering my own escape from Abbott’s Penitentiary. None of which was true, but being lied about on television was nothing new to me. What was new was that my parents had agreed at last to do an interview. They’d resisted for months, insisting that they had nothing to say, and my heart had warmed a bit every time my dad had glowered at some insistent reporter, or my mom had chided the trolls on her Facebook page.
A shot of my mom went up on the screen, her hands fluttering in her lap. Her mouth was twisted in a little grimace that I recognized all too well from when I’d done something that had disappointed her.
“I don’t understand,” she said, and it was so honest that I wanted to cover my face. “I don’t understand how this could have happened with our Edward. He was such a good child. He made good grades, he didn’t get into trouble, he was . . . so normal. I don’t . . .”
The picture changed back to Jean, and I finally let myself look away from the screen. I tried not to think too much about my parents these days. We’d never been particularly close once I was big enough to take care of myself. Neither of them were the nurturing type, and moving to Panopolis had seemed like a great idea as I got older. It was somewhere exciting and new, somewhere not Kansas, where everyone knew my name and no one cared. But seeing my mother’s confusion now, her genuine distress, it . . . Well, I hoped she was getting a lot of money for this interview, that was all. Plenty of other people were making bank off of me, it was only fair that my parents did too.
Speaking of banks . . . I picked up the blueprint laid out on the coffee table. It contained the specs for First National, the bank I used to manage, and it was basically useless. I already knew the layout of the bank, and I probably wasn’t going to be doing anything to it that I needed blueprints for, but Raul had offered them as a sort of security blanket and I’d said yes, because this . . . this was going to be an actual, real job. It was my public outing as a Villain.
Most of my experimentation with my power had been within the careful confines of investigation with Raul, or the not-at-all careful instances of fighting Heroes and Villains off like what had happened today. It had been tempting for a while to let Raul do the heavy lifting in our relationship, since I’d been prostrated by migraines every time I tried to use my ability. We’d even thought about leaving Panopolis and heading back overseas where Raul had connections in France, but my face was too well-known. Besides, neither of us really wanted to leave this place: it might be kind of shitty, but it was still the place we’d both chosen to make our home in.
Which was why I needed to get over my uncertainties and actually do something. I needed to be forced out of my comfort zone; I needed to earn my keep. And I had to get over the fear I felt whenever I used my power, and become accustomed to controlling it.
My fear—that of doing irreparable damage to someone—was a continual stumbling block, but we’d mostly worked past it, because Raul had the patience of a saint and there was no way I was going through life without being able to touch the man I loved. There was still plenty of work to do before my control was where I needed it to be, though. Lettie was probably right to turn down my help right now.
“If you grip that any harder, you’ll tear it,” Raul said from behind me. I started a little.
“I won’t tear it.” I relaxed my hands anyway as I glanced back at him. He bypassed dinner to flop down next to me on the couch, freshly showered and still slightly damp, his dark hair curling over his forehead and the nape of his neck. Raul was meticulous about leaving the chemicals he experimented with where they belonged, in the warehouse. He’d changed out of his hazmat suit into a comfy pair of sweatpants and the bright-blue Freight Train T-shirt I’d given him as a joke. His smile was warm and confident, and my heartbeat sped up accordingly. I was such a goner.
“You know what you need to do now,” Raul said. “Who you need to get to, how long you have, what your objective is. This is the perfect job for you to test your abilities on, all reliant on face-to-face contact and speed. You’re as prepared as you can be, and I’ll be right outside in case you need me.”
“You’ll be well down the street at a café, safely out of sight,” I corrected him. “And I’m sure I won’t need the help.” I really wanted that to be true, but I couldn’t repress the warm glow in my stomach, or the twist of guilt and irritation that followed it. Six months since my old life had ended, and I didn’t feel much closer to being truly independent now than I was when Raul had rescued me. He didn’t care, but I did. Adored but unequal was still unequal.
“Of course not,” Raul agreed. “But in case you do need something, I’ll be there. And you can take this as well.” He handed me a plain white Chap stick tube. “Open it.” I popped the cap. The tube was filled with a clear jellylike substance. “It’s completely inert before ignition; you could eat it and get nothing more than a stomachache. Set it on fire, though, and it burns fast and hot. Especially good on organics, but it will get through a lock if you use enough of it.”
“Wow.” This had been Raul’s special project for the past few weeks: finding an explosive that I would be comfortable using. Anything that could blow up if I dropped it or pushed the wrong button was out. Not all of us had grown up running bombs for our parents’ militia. I smiled back at him. “My own custom incendiary compound. This is amazing.” Though I still hoped I’d never have to use it, especially not on this job. I didn’t want to risk hurting any of my old coworkers.
“I thought you’d like it,” Raul said, and there was nothing but honest pleasure in his voice. No smugness, no annoyance at my pickiness. Just hundreds of hours’ worth of work in order to ease my mind. What had I done to deserve him?
“Thank you. Oh, and before I forget,” I added as he reached for me, “the spiderweb taser worked great in a pinch.”
Raul frowned and pulled his hand back. Uh-oh. That meant he was going to ask upsetting questions. That was the hardest thing about this damn power of mine, accepting that there were times when it wasn’t wise for Raul and I to be in contact. If I was upset, he’d get upset. If I was afraid, so was he—he couldn’t control his emotions when I was the one generating them. “You used the taser today?”
“Yeah, on Z Street, a few blocks away from Lettie’s place.”
“Some random stalker with glowy eyes. It was nothing,” I assured him. “Next time I’ll take the scooter.” I didn’t like to drive Raul’s motorcycle, always worried it would be vandalized given our neighborhood, so he’d bought me an innocuous little scooter more my size that we stored a few blocks from home. I preferred not to drive it on Z Street, because the odds of it being defaced or stolen were high, but it didn’t make sense to walk anymore if the consequence was me getting attacked.
Raul stared at me, his eyes narrowing. “You have bruises on your neck.”
Naturally he’d notice those. “They’re not bad.”
“Edward . . .”
“They’re not bad! I managed it fine; I just relied too much on the zip ties. I’ll do better next time.”
“There shouldn’t be a next time.” Raul’s hands clenched into fists. “How many Villains do I have to scare off before they stop coming after you?”
“I think you answered your own question there, babe.” I shrugged with a sigh. “They’re Villains. It comes with the territory. And part of the reason I’m doing the bank job is to show them that I’m one of them. It’s a rite of passage for proper bad guys, isn’t it? My coming out.”
“They already think you’re a proper Villain.”
“They do now, but won’t for long if I don’t prove that I can handle myself. No one’s going to believe I’m a major player if I never . . . play.” It wasn’t as though I’d done anything to earn that reputation, anyway. That had mostly been Raul.
“You shouldn’t be forced to prove anything on anyone else’s timetable.”
“Maybe not, but I have to get started sometime. I’m not going to hide behind you while you keep the world at bay for me—that’s not fair to you.”
“I don’t mind.”
“It’s not fair to me either.” I shrugged and spread my hands. I knew Raul didn’t like to hear this part, but . . . “You’ve got to trust me to start taking care of myself.”
“I do trust you,” he insisted. “I know you’re prepared, I just don’t think there should be any rush. There must be some way of keeping Villains away from you, something better than blowing them up.”
“There’s leaving Panopolis, but that’s a last resort.” Steeling myself, I took his hand, relieved when he didn’t flinch. I felt calm and sure, but sometimes my subconscious wasn’t completely honest with the rest of me. I snuggled against him and set my head down on his shoulder. He turned into me and wrapped his free arm around my waist, pulling me close. The contact made me want to purr. “Or you could declare yourself their leader. Take on all challengers, beat them to a bloody pulp, and institute some law and order in this here town.”
Raul snorted. “It would take more brutality than I have time to accomplish, and you’re too innocent for me to put you through that anyway.”
“I’m not innocent,” I objected. Raul raised an eyebrow. “It’s relative, okay? By most people’s standards I’m not innocent at all. I’m a bad guy sleeping with a bigger bad guy, even if you aren’t the king. Which is fine by me; I like you as you are.” I grinned. “Even if you’re a hopeless Luddite.”
“I’m brilliant with technology,” Raul huffed. “It’s only the money stuff that’s a problem. How could anyone be expected to know all that about compounding interest rates?”<
Or, check your local library.