Who saves the superheroes?
|“Please, let go of me,” I ask stiffly, and he does. Immediately. Even scoots down the couch a little. Such meek compliance, that of a repeatedly kicked puppy, does the opposite of stoking the burning shame and rage remembering that night causes. It confuses and troubles me.
The Stranger watches me quietly, patiently, hopefully. So quietly and patiently and hopefully, it’s intolerable, and I look away. I focus on the flowers he brought. They have the most vividly red petals I’ve ever seen, maroon at their hearts, and lavishly fragrant. “What kinda flowers are those, anyway?”
“Crimson Caseys.” I glare over at him and he laughs a little, self-deprecatingly. “That is their name, petite. I know someone ‘oo ‘appen to be a fan of yours. ‘E also ‘appen to be a ‘orticulturalist of considairable talent. ‘E went to a lot of time and trouble to create these for you, so I bring them, and an’ ‘is warmest regards.”
Every sidekick and wannabe has at least one fan. Crimson Casey had had quite a few in her brief hey-day—mostly losers who got all excited at a bad-girl in crimson spandex and vinyl. A few tried to contact me care of Harkman, once I got out. But Harkman’s strict code of silence regarding prisoner identity took care of even the most persistent. Crimson Casey was an easily forgotten flash-in-the-pan among thousands of wannabe villains.
Or so I’d thought.
I take a flower. Hold it close enough to sniff without getting it too close to my face. The scent is simply intoxicating. “Is this friend of yours in the Coalition of Great Justice?”
“Not a member of the Coalition, no,” The Stranger says, and I relax. An eXtra-Norm, probably. But not on the Coalition’s rotating roster of the righteous. Interesting.
I return the flower to its bouquet with an eye for thorns. There are none. “Why did you really come here? I mean, I get it: you feel bad for being a jerk six years ago. Apology accepted; shit happens. Clearly you were going through something, and it didn’t help having someone like me yappin’ at your heels. As for what went down between Alban and me . . . that’s one of the hazards of fucking a supervillain. Hell, I’m glad you and your friends caught him, ‘cause . . . a lot of people would’ve died if you hadn’t, including me and . . . and my baby. But none of that tells me why you’re here, now.”
The Stranger’s eyes glitter like wet malachite and he takes a deep breath. “I’m ‘ere because I think you might need a friend—someone ‘oo understand exactly what you’re going through right now. I feel that way for ‘er, six years ago. When I ‘ad to put ‘er in preeson. . . .” a deep breath, taken quickly and released slowly. “I am sorry. Thees ees . . . ‘arder than I thought eet would be.”
But he doesn’t have to finish connecting the dots. I can see the picture pretty clearly. Six years ago, my own personal Jesus had, for reasons then unknown, had to restrain himself from murdering me. Granted, he’d never been anything other than coolly, politely impersonal to, or sometimes mildly annoyed with me, but after I went to him with the truth about Bitch-Monster Baxter, he . . . changed. Became callous, brooding, and cruel. Not just to me, but to everyone. Eventually, it became common knowledge that The Stranger’s impartial crusade for justice had turned into a vigilante violence spree bordering on repeated felonious assault of relatively petty criminals.
And now . . . I know why. Cherchez la femme.
I’m too shocked to be angry, though I can feel a slow burn building within me that doesn’t bode well for me keeping my cool. “La Estraga was your . . . what? Your lover? And you had the nerve to tell me I wasn’t the kind of protector this city needed?! You fucking hypocrite!”
“Miranda Baxter was my lover, not La Estraga.” Old, steely anger still makes his voice raw after so many years. And why wouldn’t it? Miranda Baxter screwed over a lot of people in her bid for total power: her sons, her investors and friends, her lover—lovers—most of whom bounced back:
Adrian Tiernan was recruited by the FBI not too long after his mother was neutralized. Last I heard, he was the Bureau’s Deputy Chief of eXtra-Norms Affairs. His twin brother Gabriel is the CEO of a very much diminished Baxter Publishing, long since rebranded the Tiernan-Eigler Group.
And Dominique Godineau . . . my ex-boss’s ex-fiancee had never chased the spotlight, but after the trial—she attended every day of it—she went back to micromanaging her businesses. In the six years since the La Estraga clusterfuck, GodTech Industries had increased its holdings and its worth exponentially.
(And in one of those odd twists of fate, I wound up being one of the nearly half million workers bees it employs—have been for just over three years. Alban knew this but was, of course, too circumspect to pump me for information even after he must’ve surely begun planning his attack. He’d obviously had someone on the inside, but it wasn’t me.)
Not one of them is made of sterner stuff than Norm. All of them had handled Miranda Baxter’s betrayal much better than The Stranger did. Better than I handled The Stranger’s betrayal, and much better than I’ve been not-handling Alban’s.
“The way I treated you was awful—I won’t make excuses for my behavior. For the things I’ve said. But I feel as if I owe you my reasons. The truth. All of it,” he says, and pauses for the few seconds it takes me to process the sudden lack of—in retrospect—cheesy French accent. “Putting Miranda in prison was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and for a long time, I didn’t know who I hated more: her, myself, or you. The result of that was . . . I behaved inexcusably to you. For that, I’m sorrier than I can—”
“Shut up,” I say quietly and he does, looking mournful somehow, despite the half-mask.
Okay. So, he’s not really French. At least not French enough to have an accent that over-the-top thick. So what? It’s pretty B.F.D., in the face of the fact that he was fucking around with the worst supervillain since Cosmosis, but had no idea till I, little old naive me, laid the truth on him.
Happens to everyone, I suppose.
I lean back on the armrest of my couch and cross my arms. I manage a smirk even Codename: LoKee would be proud of. “All this time, I thought you were going through some heroic angst. Something that us mere Norms couldn’t begin to understand. But it was a hell of a lot more petty and common than that. You got your heart broken, and you took it out on an entire city.” Had I thought Alban too cynical? Not for a long time—time which had only proved him right. In their own cack-handed way, Heroes can be worse than villains, sometimes. “You wanna hear some real truth? Not you, or any of your eX-Norm friends give a damn about us Norms. Not really. To you, we’re just convenient pawns and scape-goats. We don’t have feelings, or hopes, or any worth beyond that. We’re just a goddamn hobby to you all, just a way for you to entertain yourselves!”
I don’t even realize I’ve stood up and am backing away from The Stranger till I knock over my cheap, crappy end table. The lamp is made of some weird GodTech polymer that bounces easier than it breaks. The thud of it startles me, and The Stranger doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything but watch me miserably.
“I didn’t say they’d be noble reasons, just that they’d be my own.” He exhales hard. “I’m Human, Cassandra, eXtras aside. Sometimes I make poor choices. Very poor, unfortunately. Miranda wasn’t the first; she won’t be the last.”
“Do you have any idea what it’s like in there?” I ask, ducking my head to hide tears. I could tell stories about being one of the only Norms in Harkman Max-Sec. About how it was when they found out I wasn’t unbreakable. About how horrific those first months were, with no one but Mentalo to look to for protection. Granted, the inhibitor implant made it nearly impossible for her to rally her powers—would double her over with severe cramps and migraines if she tried. But if she was bored enough during lock-down, or long nights—if Harkman’s transmitter experienced even a brief hiccup. . . .
A nice game of make-the-Norm-injure-herself was worth the debilitating discomfort of the Agonizers the guards used liberally on her, when they got tired of my screams. . . .
Oh, yes. I could tell stories about each and every scar that no one but the Harkman sawbones and Alban have ever seen.
“I loved her, Cassandra,” The Stranger goes on as if I hadn’t spoken, seemingly apropos of nothing, too lost in his own story to really notice mine. Such is the way of the world, and so help me, I think I preferred him calling me Crimson. “That doesn’t mitigate the awful things she did, and tried to do, just as the awful things Alban Efros did don’t mitigate your feelings for him. If not for the Coalition, thousands of people would have died, including you. He would’ve killed someone who loved him, and not out of spite, not because he didn’t love you back, but because he couldn’t afford tipping anyone off about his plan beforehand. Nothing was more important than The Plan. Not even the woman he loved—”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think I do,” The Stranger says and it’s enough to put foundation cracks in the wall of numb, non-feeling I’ve kept around myself since the day my lover nearly blew me, and three hundred thousand other people straight to Hell. “Even when I found out she was worse than your Green Knight ever dreamed of being, I would have let myself be subverted. I would’ve let her kill the world to keep her . . . but for you being there, by my side. Willing me to do the right thing—the good thing. I couldn’t let her escape—couldn’t go with her because of you. In that moment, you were everyone I swore to look after. Every person that stood naked and powerless against evil they couldn’t hope to defeat … but stood against it, nonetheless, trusting that I, and others like me, would be there to aid them. You were my only tangible link with the people I wanted to protect.”
“Let me get this straight—” I laugh incredulously, pinching the bridge of my nose to stave off what feels like the mother of all screaming-crying jags. I’ve weathered worse than this. My mother’s death; The Stranger’s hatred; my father turning his back on me after I got caught and convicted; and Alban’s willingness to kill me for his dreams.
This baby that I can’t come to grips with, but who I already love, and would do anything to protect compared to all that, The Stranger’s little revelation just doesn’t stack up. “You’re blaming me for your attack of decency? Am I supposed to say I’m sorry, or say you’re welcome?”
The Stranger laces his gloved fingers in his lap. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was fighting the urge to fidget. “I know the pain of having the purest, strongest feeling you’ve ever felt be twisted against you, used to manipulate you till you don’t even know who you are. Twice, now, this has happened to you, and both times were, directly and indirectly, due to my actions. I understand, now, and I apologize from the bottom of what little heart I have left. I don’t know if I can ever make things right between us, but if you let me, I’ll try.”
“Is that so? Where the Hell was this apology six years ago? Or four? Or two? Why do you only care now that it’s too late to make a difference? When it doesn’t even matter?” I demand, and The Stranger hangs his head, but doesn’t answer. Suddenly, I’m so tired, again. Exhausted, and I feel like thirty going on eighty-five.
This is the way of the world, I tell myself. “What the hell do you want from me, Stranger? Forgiveness? Catharsis? Another hug?”
He stands up slowly, takes another deep, quick breath, and removes his left glove, then his right. The hands they reveal are pale, square, and work-rough, with long, blunt fingers and neatly trimmed nails.
“I would like very much to unmask for you,” he says simply, stepping back. His hands go to the infamous utility belts, and a second later they drop to the floor with a heavy clunk. I nearly dive for the damn things, forget water under the bridge. I just want to see what’s in them. But The Stranger’s hands are on the cloak fastenings, now, and I restrain myself. It’s not every day a hero unmasks to a civilian—or to anyone. “May I show you who I am?”
Soft, soft voice, like nothing I’ve ever heard from him . . . I shouldn’t be standing here, gaping. I should be putting a stop to this—as if I could. As if I could stop The Stranger from revealing himself if he’s really of a mind to do it. . . .
Ah, who am I kidding? The truth is, even after all these years, all the anger and blame and regret, I’d still give my right arm to be in the know. About everything. “Tell me why, first: why me, and why now?”
“There are only three people in the world I would trust with this secret, and the other two already know. I . . . want you to know, at last, who I am, and for there to be no more lies between us.”
Gobsmacked, and faking a sang froi I’ve never had, I nod once, half-certain this is all a trick, and I’m about to be sent to Harkman again—this time for life, and then some. But I hold my peace, and the grey wool tunic is unbuttoned and cast off, revealing a stiff, lightweight armored shirt underneath. It’s a form-fitting thing, and the form it reveals is nothing like the one the tunic always hinted at.
I’m gaping. I must be. I’m prone to it when shocked out of my certainties. The Stranger glances down at his—at her armor-flattened breasts, then back up me, smiling nervously. “Pretty good disguise, eh?”
“Omigod, you’re a girl!” The screaming-crying jag that had been welling up within me punctures, and a laugh comes out, followed by giggles and snorts. Till there are tears streaming down my face and I can’t catch my breath. Every time I think I’m about to stop, I find myself staring at her boobs and I’m off to the races again.
“All this t-time, you’ve been in d-drag!” It sneaks out between gasps and snickers. I was always good at reading the facial expressions of the masked, this one in particular. But it doesn’t take an empath to read the snooty irritation and bemusement written on her face.
“Well, I suppose this is an improvement. The last woman I unmasked for tried to kill me.” A wry, almost familiar laugh, and after a few seconds of hesitation, the silk headscarf lands on my carpet; chin-length auburn hair falls free around his—her still-masked face, and the laughter stops like my throat’s been cut. Clues suddenly start adding up and pieces fall into place. All the half-familiar bits of him—of her, goddamnit—finally make sense.
I feel deficient for not having put it together before now, and betrayed all over again.
“You,” I croak, nausea once again tickling the edges of my shock. My legs feel like they’re made of bread-pudding, and I don’t need to see behind the mask to know who this is. Who it’s always been. That hair, the sharp, stubborn jaw and those dark, watchful eyes … I know who her Alter is. I should know. I’ve been seeing that face in and out of my lowly corner of the GodTower regularly for nearly two years, and in and out of the news for much longer than that.
This is the face that I’ve grown accustomed to, and even trusting of, frequent visits to Human Resources—way too frequent, even for a micromanaging, workaholic captain of industry to whom “delegate” means next to nothing—notwithstanding. But those visits suddenly don’t seem so work-related, anymore. Nor do the casual, but vaguely probing conversations she almost always instigates. The tentative, almost deferential, extra-professional interest in me she seemed to suffer from doesn’t seem so innocent, anymore.
Seemed to suffer until—seven or eight weeks ago, I guess. Till around the time the Coalition killed Alban. From what I’ve heard, she’s been running around for weeks, smoothing the ruffled feathers of investors and personally overseeing the overhaul of Plaza security.
I’ve been so steeped in confusion and grief—and yes, anger, that I haven’t even missed her. Then, on my way out the GodTower this evening, I’d nearly knocked her down in a headlong rush to get out of my cubicle and home. All I’d wanted was to deal with results of this morning’s ObGyn appointment alone.
I had completely blown off her vaguely awkward, unprecedented request to take me to dinner so we could discuss “certain matters of importance.” Ignored the grave—even for her—look in her eyes that said the invite wasn’t personal. At least not merely personal. Whatever bomb she’d wanted to drop, I hadn’t wanted to know, yet. I had wanted time to come to grips with my pregnancy, and the realization that I’d not be terminating it, despite what I’d decided before having actual proof. . . .
But now, I want to know. Now, I’m stepping forward on rubbery legs, reaching up for the mask anyway. My fingers brush cool, soft skin that’s warm where the mask covers it. Covered it, since it’s off and on the floor, and I’m backing away. Sitting down on my secondhand sofa, again.
“I’ve been wondering why a busy, powerful CEO would even notice, let alone talk to an ex-con paper-pusher. Some of HR thought that you had the hots for me, or something, but that didn’t feel right. Because why on Earth would the hermit-queen of cutting edge biotech be interested in someone with a rap-sheet like mine? Even just to fuck me, right?” I can’t seem to control my mouth. Finding out my once-hero is really my boss—not to mention my ex-boss’s ex-fiance—seems to have smacked discretion right out of me. “Frankly, I’d assumed that, like so many other super-rich people with consciences, you were indulging in a misplaced sense of guilt over the plight of the little guy. Or that maybe you just wanted to commiserate with someone else who got burned, even if it was to a much lesser extent, by Bitch-monster Baxter. But this. . . .”
I laugh and run my hands through my hair. Tug on it, till the roots of my teeth sting and ache.
Dominique Godineau watches me with The Stranger’s expressive eyes, and I don’t see how I could’ve missed this. Granted, people see only what they want or expect to see, but . . . well, I suppose it was a very good disguise.
“At first, I wasn’t sure why I kept pestering you, other than guilt and worry,” she admits with a sigh. She’s a tallish, strong-featured woman with killer biceps, broad, exhaustion-slumped shoulders and hi-tech body armor. A surrealist dream made flesh. “I don’t know when or how . . . but you became real to me. A person who’d had several life-shattering upsets, but somehow kept on going. Who stood up no matter how many times you were knocked down. You became . . . my hero, Crimson Casey.”
I’m beginning to think there’s nothing she could call me that wouldn’t have me in tears or seeing, well, crimson. “Get it through your head, okay? I’m not her anymore. And if there was a time I was sidekick material . . . that time has passed!”
She kneels in front of me, like a nervous boyfriend about to propose, picks up the sealed beaker, and squeezes it till there’s a crunch of breaking glass and crumpling metal. Her eyes never leave mine, and she holds out a palm full of blood, glass, and meteorite. “I don’t want you to be my sidekick. I want you to be my partner.”
“I’m a pregnant ex-con!” I remind her, putting one hand on my stomach. The headache’s gathering steam, but least the nausea’s passed. “I’m mourning the loss of my baby-daddy, who happened to be a supervillain, and you want me to be your partner-in-crime-fighting? Have you suffered a traumatic head injury in the recent past?”
An ironic half-smile quirks her mouth. “I assure you, I have not. I just . . . would like you to be a part of my life—lives. As my friend, or my partner, or both, if you wished. This—” she indicates her bloody gift “—is simply a good faith gesture.”
“You mean a bribe?”
“I mean a good faith gesture. There are no strings attached. If you wish it, it’s yours, whether or not you want anything else to do with me. I know you’re a balls-to-the-wall fighter, and you’ve got a lot of heart. The latter is something in short supply among the CGJ,” she adds with a hell of a lot of composure for someone who, in the meantime, is bleeding all over her costume and my carpet.
Sometimes, I reflect with sudden and suspicious Zen, my life takes very odd turns. So much for the cleaning deposit.
I shake my head and reach out for the sliver, a dull silvery glimmer in a nest of rent flesh, blood, and glass. . . .
Before my fingers can touch it, I draw back a little, and close her hand around the sliver. It’s both the hardest and the easiest thing I’ve ever done, and she nods once, frowning at her hand as if she’s never seen it before.
“Shall I go, then?”
“Go? Go where? The emergency room? Probably. Christ—look, I’ve got Bactine and some clean bandages. Will you heal up alright with just that?” I ask exasperatedly, for the moment ignoring the desperate, hopeful look on her face. It’s nothing I want to decipher or deal with, not on top of everything else.
I stand up and she just kneels there, dripping more blood, gazing up at me like maybe she really does think I’m her hero. Ridiculous. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’. C’mon, get up, Stranger.” I tug on her good arm till she stands up, and steer her down the brief hall, past my bedroom and to the bathroom. To my industrial first aid kit, the one I bought expressly for taking care of Alban, just in case. . . .
I tip down the toilet lid, sit The Stranger—my boss—on it, grab the first aid kit from under the bath towels then park myself on the clothes hamper. I hold her palm up at eye level. Yeesh, does it look grisly. “Alright, I’m thinking the first thing to come out is the ginormous piece of meteor lodged in your palm, okay?”
No response. I take that as agreement and remove it carefully. It’s large enough that the tweezers aren’t necessary, but I use them, anyway. Even minimal exposure to meteor radiation can play hobble-de-hoy with your DNA, and past dreams of hero-dom aside, there’s the baby to consider. Though with Alban as his father, who knows what eXtras he’ll be born with?
The meteorite fragment goes on the sink, next to my water glass; a bloody, dangerous sleeping aid. Then I’m sneaking glances at The Stranger as I tweeze first metal, then glass out of her palm. There’s a rapt, weirdly avid expression on her face as she watches me work.
“You were a strange child, weren’t you? No pun intended,” I add. Her eyes tick to mine for a moment and she smiles. It’s Dominique’s wry, not-quite-at-ease smile, and I look away. I wish . . . it’s upsetting, to me, you know. not knowing that The Stranger is Dominique Godineau, but knowing that Dominique Godineau is The Stranger. It feels like I lost a friend and got a hero in her place.
“You must again excuse me, I’m not used to . . . having a wound bad enough to bleed,” she says breathlessly, and laughs a little. “Nor anyone to treat it.”
“So I gathered. Um. Maybe we should get you into some civvies and go to the emergency room. If this closes with glass and metal in it—”
“I’ll be fine.” I look up to find her watching the tweezers once more. I’ve never seen anyone be so interested in their own blood. It’s funny, in a disturbing sort of way. “My body will . . . eventually break down whatever foreign objects remain.”
“That sounds painful.”
“Oh.” I’m flustered for no reason I can name. My face feels like it’s on fire and I accidentally jab The Stranger’s wound. She inhales a little more deeply than usual, but doesn’t make a sound—and still with that avid, frying-ants-with-a-magnifying-glass face. It’s eerie. “So, do you want me to stop and just bandage it up, then?”
She snorts and looks up at me. Almost smiles again, and some of that eerie look goes away. “This way is much more civilized, and much quicker. Please, continue.”
So I do, wondering at this turn of events. At me, patching up this larger-than-life person who was, and in some ways, different ways, is still the ruin of my life. But I can feel her gaze on me, and it’s . . . Dominique. Dominique bleeding in my bathroom. Dominique, who hangs around my cubicle. Dominique, who my coworkers are probably right about, at least a little. Dominique who asked me out to dinner. . . .
Dominique’s chilly fingers ghosting briefly across my cheek.
I freeze, nearly dropping the tweezers.
“What are you doing?”
“I . . . were you in love with The Stranger?” she asks quietly, her fingers pausing near my mouth before dropping away.
“Once upon a time, yes. But he was kind of a jackass. And so’re you, incidentally.” I jab her with the tweezers on purpose this time, and she hisses, but doesn’t jerk her hand away. I keep digging out bits of metal and glass, bits of flesh, occasionally swabbing at the blood that wells up. The Stranger doesn’t say anything more after that, and removing pieces of beaker goes a lot faster.
Finally, I remove a thin sliver of glass with more care than I’d like to admit feeling, and can see some sort of artery—probably the one that was leaking all the blood—seal before my eyes. Goddamn eXtra-Norms.
“Of course, I was in love with him. A mysterious, troubled hero . . . what girl wouldn’t go gaga over him?” I’ve gotten out as much glass as I can, so I mercurochrome the living Christ out of her palm—which is practically already whole. But I figure I should use some of this stuff before it goes bad. I’m bandaging her hand before I can speak again. “He was smart. And strong, and brave, and . . . he always did what was right. He was so certain of everything, and I was certain of . . . nothing. Nothing except for the way I felt about him. Of course I . . . fuck, I wanted to be him. I wanted to stand by him. But he didn’t want that—which was his prerogative. I really couldn’t blame him, could I? Who’d want a bumbling, naïve, powerless fangirl dogging their every step?”
“I’m sorry,” The Stranger—Dominique—whoever she is says again and this time, it does make me angry.
“Stop saying that! It doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t fix anything, doesn’t make any of it better—-just makes me feel worse!” I tape the trailer of bandage down and stand. It’s time to start cleaning up and putting away.
The tweezers go in the sink till I can wash them off properly. The glass and metal and bloody gauze goes there, too, till I can flush it. Till my boss gets the hell off my crapper, and the hell out of my life. “You think I don’t understand how fucked my life is? Well, I do. But some days, if I’m lucky, I can pretend it isn’t. Pretend that I’m happy, and that the one person I trusted didn’t try to murder me, and tens of thousands of other people. Pretend that this whole new person I’ve got growing inside me is something I planned, or that I’m even remotely qualified to care for—”
“Cassandra,” she says, placing her hand—the bandaged one—on mine, and I stare at my reflection in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. I look tired and harried, like I’m about to cry. I look like that a lot, these days. So does Dominique, when I see her, mostly on television or from a distance.
She still looks that way now, as she comes to stand behind me, but a little less so. More at peace, or less haunted, or—something. Something I envy, because I can’t remember the last time I felt it.
Her fingers brush lightly up my arm, to my shoulder. Her other hand does the same and our eyes meet in the mirror. She smiles at me and I’m torn between laughter and tears. “What, no inspired words of wisdom to talk me off my bell-tower?”
“Unfortunately not. I doubt anything I could say would make you feel better about any of the issues you’re dealing with. But if you like . . . I can listen. For as long as you want, whenever you want.” She squeezes my shoulders a little. Not hard, but I can feel the strength in her hands. She could literally snap me like a twig, if she wanted. Could shatter and pulverize me like I was made of wicker and gelatin.
I shiver, and her arms slide around me in a loose embrace, eyes closed, face buried in my hair again. The only other time she’s held me was in La Estraga’s lair—and that only because I was half-conscious and unable to run. So she’d carried me out. Everything was echoes, and explosions and tears soaking into The Stranger’s half mask. He—she had been muttering something as she ran, but I hadn’t been able to make it out.
I’d simply known I was safe. The Stranger had me, and I was safe. . . .
I imagine that’d feel pretty good, right about now, that safety and certainty, wrapping me up in a cocoon. It’d be so easy to turn my head, up and to the side. My nose would brush her chin and she’d look down at me, questioning. I’d hesitate, rehabilitated girl that I am, but only for a moment, then kiss her lower lip.
Far from pulling away or stopping me, she’d tilt her head closer.
I imagine it’s nothing like I’d once thought it would be, kissing The Stranger. It’d probably be like . . . like kissing anybody. The same fizz and tingle (or lack thereof), the same sort of give and take. A dizzying combination of tickle and tease, interspersed with long slow exploration. Neither slobbery, nor dry, and she’d taste like bourbon. The expensive kind that probably costs more per liter than all my monthly utilities combined.
She’d probably taste like kissing Dominique might have. . . .
It’s then that I realize I’m not just imagining the scent of expensive hooch, I’m smelling it.
“Are you drunk?” I ask, though I don’t really care. The Stranger turns me around so I’m facing her, looking up into her eyes. Her hands are gentle and warm on my upper arms.
“It would take more alcohol than I keep at hand, and more time than I’m willing to spend drinking to get me that way,” she says, and it sounds like an apology. For not being human enough, I guess. “But it does calm my nerves, somewhat.”
“Huh. Feature this: The Stranger, nervous about braving the lair of the infamous Crimson Casey.” That’s good for a full smile—a grin, even, with teeth and everything. I can still smell my namesakes blooming in the living-room.
Dominique closes her eyes for a moment, and when she opens them, I can see that—whatever it is in them. The thing I so don’t need to have to deal with or acknowledge right now. “I’ve been wanting to say something to you for the past year. To come clean about . . . everything. Then after what happened six weeks ago, it seemed like it’d never be the right time to say, ‘Hello, I’m actually The Stranger, and maybe we could go out to dinner sometime?’ Anyway I was sure once I told you the former, you’d say no to the latter.”
“Probably. But thank you for coming clean to me. It means a lot,” I say quietly. Without hesitation, without looking away, because I may be wrong about what I’ve been seeing and sensing, but I don’t think I am. And I don’t want to break a superhero’s heart. Especially this superhero. Not just after finding out she actually has one.
“I’m not—I’m not asking you for anything, petite, but I promised you no more lies,” she says slowly, as if she’s searching for exactly the right words. And she’s the one to look away. At her right hand on my left arm. She seems defeated and tired. “I don’t expect love, or even like, I just want, so badly. I need. . . .”
This’d be the part where I shut her up by kissing her till she sees stars, and before she starts looking haunted and guilty again. Where I’d tell her Yes. I need, too.
Then I’d be kissing her again, and letting her kiss me back. I’d slide my arms around her neck and she’d pull me tight against her. It’d be weird not to feel hardness pressing against my stomach, but then, all of her would be hard. She’s all muscle and armored clothing, and it feels like I’ve never wanted anyone—even The Stranger in “his” heyday—so badly. And—
—her hair would be heavy and soft, just like I’d imagined. Her hands would be everywhere I need them to be. As if she couldn’t decide which was the more prime real estate: tits or ass. And I’d feel each and every moan through her body armor And that’d be all that mattered. For tonight, anyway, because I don’t know if it’s some slutty stage of my grief or if those pregnancy hormones are making me so damn horny, but I suddenly want her. Dominique, The Stranger, and any other Alter Egos floating around in this pile of muscle, armor, and borderline personality disorder. I want her with everything in me, and that’s all that matters. . . .
I blink at my not terribly distant living room window. It’s closed now, and I hadn’t closed it.
I’m alone in my bathroom, my fantasy still soft on my lips, urgent on my body, and molten and sweet in places deep and low down. Who knows how long I’d been standing there wishing for the impossible?
Had The Stranger—Dominique—The Stranger realized what I was wool-gathering about? Had she left to spare me the embarrassment of her knowledge?
Mortified, suddenly all I want is to reintroduce my tired body to my bed and try to pretend this strange new-old feeling isn’t happening to me. But instead, I open my medicine cabinet and start shoving gauze away with choppy motions and shaking hands. I keep knocking things over or into the sink, and finally slam the cabinet door shut hard enough that the mirror on the front cracks.
My reflection is riven in two, one glittering line drawn down the center of me.
“God, we are so fucking damaged,” I whisper to the empty space between the woman staring out of my mirror and myself—to the empty spaces within us. There are many.
Looking away from the woman’s dark, wounded eyes, I leave the rest of the mess for the morning and drag myself to bed. Sleep is a long time coming.