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the hero that never seemed to show up

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if things don't work out/quite the way you planned (...)
smile, I'll brave it/while you wave your hand

—"Three Hopeful Thoughts" by Rilo Kiley

 

Ruby starts making the news the year Lucy starts university. It only strikes her as odd in that she'd always dreamed of this, back in school in the northern suburbs of London. Many heroes have made their rounds loudly and retired quietly in the years Lucy's been alive, and a great many were based in London; Lucy's friends all had a favourite hero or two that they pasted over their folders, in their early teens, and discussed in depth when they were older any time the subject came up. Until Ruby, Lucy'd never thought oh, this one, this one is amazing, and felt the need to follow someone's career in anonymous crime-fighting.

It doesn't matter where she is, obviously; she wouldn't have a chance, and the odds of running across Ruby and actually knowing it is Ruby are slim, even if Lucy were back in London. All the same, she's in Scotland now, and there's something just that extra hopeless about being in Scotland while hopelessly pining for a superhero with a gorgeous smile to come take her away.

*

It hardly ever happens that her schoolwork is boring now she's chosen a field that fascinates her, but when it is, or when Lucy's feeling just that bit inclined to distract herself from a disappointing grade or a regulation she's having trouble committing to memory, she fantasises about going home for Christmas and walking through the bookshops on Charing Cross when, suddenly, a supervillain flies over the road, and she is literally swept off her feet by Ruby, flying Ruby with her red hood and her odd half smile, and deposited on a rooftop.

Well, she didn't get the chance when she was the age people usually daydream about this stuff. It's only fair she does now.

*

She starts dating a girl her second year, Anna, with gorgeous black hair and a contagious laugh and the sort of witty and clever that makes Lucy's breath catch. They're together a year, and in the end, what does them in is an old friend of Lucy's coming to visit.

Mel will never want Lucy, either, and Lucy's made her peace with it, but it turns out there are still feelings there, sharp and painful and unnaturally easy to hide, and it seems unfair to lead Anna on when Lucy's never felt about her the way she used to feel about Mel.

*

When she finishes uni and her first training contract falls through, she renews the lease on her apartment for another month, and walks aimlessly along the coast with a camera in her bag. She never takes it out, too busy trying not to think about new applications and how long it will take to find an open spot and seize it. She's got her studies; nobody can take that from her. She's got parents who love her, former roommates who won't really stay in touch, a best friend she hasn't seen in a year two countries over, and the certainty that the bakery she used to work in before university will hire her back.

She misses London, and she has good memories of working at Joanne's. If she has to work anywhere for a year or two, working there again won't be so bad. And she hears the Royal Opera House has become a hot spot of sorts for supervillains.

Of course she won't mention in her interview that she's hoping Ruby will maybe sneak into her shop through the chimney, all decked in red like an attractive version of Santa Claus. She's not sure they even have a chimney. That's just—a little motivational tool to make the process more pleasant. Not that one is needed, as it turns out; her apartment hunt is surprisingly painless, and there's something cozy about rushing through Covent Garden in the early morning, something that feels a little bit like home.

*

It's two months before the first fight breaks out near the shop, and two months later Lucy's stopped hoping for more. Ruby's got a job, obviously, no time for home visits or apple crumb pie, and every time something happens, the shop is filled with tourists and passersby who believe it is their given right to take up space lest a piano fall on their heads outside.

It's good for business, because many of them have the decency to queue up and order something, but it is a headache, and honestly Lucy can't understand why they won't go home rather than put themselves in danger's way. At least Lucy's got an excuse; she's paid to mind the counter.

The shop always clears out after a couple of hours, all the cheapest muffins and cupcakes gone from the display and the coffeemakers on overdrive. There's always a few people who linger, finishing their orders, some looking happier than others, but none of them ever seem to come back.

*

One evening, someone comes in through the backdoor, which is always closed the second they're notified of an attack nearby. It must be an accident—nothing wrong with the lock—and Andrew quickly locks it afterward. The woman who came in is in her early twenties, and she looks eerily familiar as she sits on a stool at the bar.

Later that night, she introduces herself as Amara, Amara Malik, and Lucy realises she's seen her on TV before, talking about software and electronics and dodging offensive questions about how it feels to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. There's something that always reminds Lucy of Ruby about that, about the way Amara doesn't dignify those questions with an answer, just points out there are much more interesting things she could talk about.

Lucy remembers being twenty, before the interest in Ruby lowered and began to match the press coverage of other heroes. She kept wondering why everyone was so surprised by Ruby—a young woman of color defending the country from evil; what a concept—that they never bothered to speculate about her identity.

When she mentions that, Amara lights up, goes on a rant that Lucy nods along with until Amara's tone shifts from righteous disappointment to a confident, delightful sort of sheer arrogance that makes Lucy grin wide and bright.

For once, Lucy's happy someone sticks around.

*

(Three months later, Ruby lands on Lucy's balcony. That's not when Lucy finds out the girl she's been dating is a superhero—that happens earlier, when she's kidnapped by an anarchistic supervillain, and Ruby—Amara—drops everything to get her out. All other details are foggy in Lucy's memory. But after a while, she tells Amara she's always had a crush on Ruby, and she hopes Amara won't be jealous of that. Amara says, "Is it odd that I kind of am?" and then, with a smirk, "Maybe I'll have to do something about that."

When Lucy fingers Ruby's red cloak, she's more aware of Amara than she ever has; when the first kiss comes, the fantasy bursts, and Lucy realises she's maybe a little in love with the person behind the mask.)