Context: Part of a story designed to be read in multi-part installments.
Peerless was the man of the hour. The savior of the city. The darling of the media. The only one who stood between us and unspeakable evil.
He was the cause of my twin sister’s closed-casket burial.
And he was breaking and entering.
“Get out of my house!” I grabbed the nearest object – a vase full of flowers – and lobbed it at him. The vase shattered against his massive chest, but he was unfazed. Flowers fell at his feet, and he tiptoed over them, careful not to crush the blooms underfoot.
The irony was not lost on me. Nor was the fact that I might be in big trouble.
Sure, the lawsuit against Peerless was class-action, but I was the face of it – the girl they’d photographed weeping into her sister’s cold, dark-skinned hand. I was the girl who rose from the ashes of her personal tragedy, got close to Peerless and turned my thirst for revenge into the exposé read round the world. In short, I was the keystone of their entire character assassination.
If I disappeared, this lawsuit might fizzle. It had already stretched on for two years, so long that onlookers were starting to tire of the news blurbs. Lawyers and lobbyists needed a focal point to huddle around, and I was it. People might suspect him of foul play if I vanished, but they’d never dare accuse him.
My cell phone was behind him on the table. I didn’t stand a chance at dodging past him to pick it up, and I certainly wouldn’t have time to dial.
“Jaina, I’m not going to hurt you.” His hands rose as he spoke, palms forward, in the Universal Gesture of peace. Peerless always stuck to the Codebook. Even now, with everything between us, the sincere tilt of his head made my pulse beat double-time. I shook my head to clear it of the memories.
“Right,” I spat, “We’re so safe around you.” The hurt showed in his blue eyes, but I didn’t care any more now than I did that day he showed up at the funeral, his perfect hair and charming butt chin turning what should have been a quiet time of grief into a media circus.
He planted his fists on his hips in a stance I’d seen on far too many book covers, but this time it looked like frustrated concern rather than heroism. It was a good look for him. “Look, I’m just going to tell you. I need your help.”
I barked a laugh, but it seemed he was serious. An awkward pause stretched between us. “Fine. Hand me that broom, then tell me what you want.”
Peerless obediently handed me the broom. His fingers brushed mine, and the little flutter in my belly started up again. I cursed myself and glowered at him. He stepped aside while I swept up the mess of flowers and shattered glass. His powerful form towered above me, radiating his good-boy sensuality. The way he watched me made something inside me prickle, so I shoved him further away with my broomstick.
He was still way closer than I’d like, given that he could snap me in half if he wanted.
“Silvertongue is in trouble,” he said simply, shrugging as if this was an embarrassing, but normal occurrence. Like getting toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
Maybe it was. I tried to ignore the stab of terror at the thought of what could threaten our planet’s most powerful defenders, now that the Manon were gone. It wouldn’t do to faint at the feet of the man I hated. Playing it cool, I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Can’t keep your own sidekick out of trouble, eh?”
Peerless turned red. “He’s not my–” He took a deep breath, then exhaled. My pixie-cut black hair ruffled in the breeze he created, and goosebumps rose on my neck. I tried to hide a smile; he noticed. “Silvertongue is powerful enough in his own right, you know that.”
“Right,” I nodded as I dumped the full dustbin into the wastebasket. “He just follows you around and calls you for help whenever he’s in trouble because he likes the sound of your rugged voice.”
I reached to pull the liner out of the basket, but he batted my hands away. “Let me get that for you.”
I continued double-bagging the shards of glass. “You are not here to save me from housework. You are here to ask for my help. Now ask.” I tied the last knot with a jerk, and brushed past him to pick up my phone. Peerless could scare me, he could break into my house and ask for favors at nearly midnight, but he wasn’t going to distract me from my Twitter feed a moment longer.
“He was kidnapped by some organization, one that calls itself Peer Review.”
I paused in the middle of the snarky message I was sending about heroes who broke into houses. Vague enough so it wasn’t directly incriminating, but obvious enough to point a finger if I went missing. I set my phone down without posting the status.
“Peer Review,” I repeated. The name of the book I’d written two years ago, the book which started this whole mess. The book I’d chosen over him, in those last desperate hours. I could still see his agony as he pleaded with the once-anonymous author who’d smeared his name.
Let it be just an anonymous book by an angry citizen. Stay with me, we’re more than this.
I waved the memories away. “Surely you don’t think I have something to do with it?” Of course he did. They’d named themselves after my work.
Peerless shrugged and looked miserable. Even the stupid curl in the middle of his forehead drooped. “I had wondered, but I’m not here to accuse you.” He took a deep breath. “If I don’t bring you to them, they’ll kill him.”
Peerless, bargaining with the crazed demands of some splinter group. What did they have to stop him from just walking in there and taking Silvertongue back? I put my own hands on my hips, not wanting to imagine. “You can’t fight these guys? What, they finally discovered you Supers actually have secret weaknesses after all, like the comic books?”
The sheepish look on his face made me even more wary. “They have Supers on their side. Wrecker, Typhoon, Violix, a few others. Someone made a pretty good case for control of Superhumans before starting up this lawsuit, or so I’m told.”
The grudging admiration in his voice pleased me, but I crossed my arms. I didn’t want to be pleased. Not with this man. “You just show up with me, and they let him go?” I clarified. “That’s it?” I liked Silvertongue. He wasn’t the most popular Super, but I liked him better than even most of the Baseline I met.
Peerless shrugged. His jaw was set, lips pursed like he didn’t like the taste of his words. “I don’t know. They wouldn’t tell me their plan. I’m beginning to wonder if they have any, but,” he reached for my hand. I stepped back. His mere presence was like lightning over my skin. I didn’t want to find out what it would feel like to touch him. “Jaina, I wouldn’t drag you into this if I thought there was another way. Please, you’re the only chance I’ve got.”
Not just no. Hell no. But Silvertongue’s kind face appeared in my mind. The man had become closer than blood to me. Even after I came out as the author of that stupid book.
“Alright. Let’s go.” I scooped up my keys, and he walked to the open window without looking back. He assumed I’d just follow him and take my place, ready to cling to his beefy arms as we catapulted over the city. When he reached for me and came up empty, Peerless finally looked around.
I jingled my keys from the doorway. “Nope, guess again. We’re taking the scooter.”
His long sigh was the only response. I barely managed to hold back a smile.
I dialed down the dampener field around the scooter as we drove, just enough to feel the breeze riffle through my hair. Peerless fidgeted behind me, his thighs nudging mine as he moved. I turned the dampener back up so he could hear me.
“Don’t distract the driver,” I told him without taking my eyes from the road. Not that moving around behind me was any more distracting than just existing. The solid chest behind me, those strong arms wrapped around my waist, were more distracting than I cared to admit. But still. It was the principle of the thing.
“Someone concerned with safety shouldn’t turn down the dampener field,” he shot back, and I rolled my eyes. Same old Peerless. He wriggled again, the undulations of his body against mine igniting fires I’d buried years ago. “This seat seems smaller than I remember.”
“Maybe you’re just getting fat.” To distract myself from his big hands around my waist, I surveyed the city. Most of the damage from the Supers’ battle against the Manon was cleaned up, but many buildings were still crumbling. New Tokyo had taken the most damage in the attack, but Grava City was a close second and reconstruction was slow. Scaffolding lined most streets, and the only way across the river was the emergency pontoon bridge they’d erected after the attack.
Our traffic problem was solved, though. Despite assurances that the Manon were gone forever, everyone who could move away, did. Business had boomed for moving companies, and the skies had filled with ugly grey transport ships for months.
I zipped through traffic in my little scooter, melting in and out of groups of other scooters and dodging the occasional small car. I swung wide around the Rockerfeller crater and took a few more turns before my auto-nav beeped in my ear. The scooter screeched to a halt in a giant, painted blue square, and I dismounted and pushed the button to return my credits.
“Alright, where to?”
Peerless pointed straight up at the tallest building. Most of Grava’s architecture was tall, but this one seemed to fade to a pinpoint as she stared up at it. Fantastic. “Rooftop garden.”
I stalked to the building entrance. “Of course. We can’t just meet in a regular old garden. No no! Only the very highest will do.”
Before I reached the door, Peerless grabbed my hand. I glared, ignoring the itch he caused deep under my skin. He didn’t let go, but his eyes softened in silent apology. “They could ambush us in the elevator,” he told me. “It’s safer if you let me bring you up.” One arm extended out to the side, beckoning me into his embrace.
Just. Frikken. Wonderful.
I grit my teeth, hard. Silvertongue was going to owe me for this. I stepped close to Peerless, letting my hands rest on his chest. They looked like little brown ships on the blue ocean of his suit. His arm wrapped around me, a solid bar pressing me forward until I was plastered against him, and I chafed and fidgeted in his grip until I was comfortable. Memories of how we used to fit together threatened, and I blinked them away. I wrapped one arm around his neck at the last minute, just in case. One thick eyebrow quirked up as he looked down at me.
“Ready?” His breath smelled like a romantic campfire by the seaside. I reminded myself I’d hated that night, but a louder part of my mind pointed out that I’d hated it because I was going to betray him the next day. Unconsciously I pressed closer, and a hint of uncertainty showed in his blue eyes. He looked away and took off the instant I nodded.
My head snapped back, and I tucked my forehead into the hollow of his neck, cursing myself for forgetting about that part of the takeoff. We accelerated like a rocket, but with both of his arms tight around me, I wasn’t worried about falling.
The building windows whizzed past, and I nuzzled into his neck to combat the cold. That was all it was. People forget how chilly it can get when wind whips around you. His suit gapped at the neck, and I caught a glimpse of silver. Wind roared in my ears as I used one thumb to pull the collar of his suit away.
Peerless glanced down at the same time I found it. A little wooden fox pendant on a silver chain. The creature was sitting on its haunches, staring straight forward, with its little tail curled around its back paws. I looked up from the polished dark wood to meet his eyes, but he’d already looked away.
The day I’d given it to him, he’d looked worried. Maybe you should wear it instead. His broad shoulders had been tense, like they were now. It looks sort of – his hesitation had brought me back to my senses, and I had wondered what I was thinking. The intelligent, searching gaze of the fox had seemed so perfect for him, and lost in the moment I’d bought a real, heartfelt gift for my fake boyfriend.
Fragile, he’d finished, with a mournful look like everything not indestructible would one day crumble around him and leave him alone forever. In that moment, I forgot my plans for revenge, my sister, everything. I’d insisted he wear it, and if it broke, I’d buy him another. And another.
That’s the beauty of the modern age, I’d said. Everything is replaceable.
But it hadn’t broken. Even now, it seemed.
My feet hit concrete. We landed without a whisper of sound, as usual. An enormous rooftop garden stretched out around me. I turned fully toward it, putting my back both to Peerless and the view of model-sized city streets and landscape at the edge of the building.
A young man approached us, wearing a too-clean tuxedo. The dark freckles stood out on his terracotta skin as he looked at Peerless. I couldn’t blame him. “This way, sir.” He didn’t stutter, but his voice was strained, and he turned away quickly.
Peerless raised his eyebrows at me, and I waved him forward. Still wearing the pendant or not, he would be the first to approach whatever it was we were walking into. I followed behind them both, my eyes on the sharp fringe of his dark hair against the pale smoothness of his neck.