Z felt the bomb start to go off from eight blocks away as she was getting out of the shower. She grabbed the first clothes to hand as she left, then ducked back inside muttering, "Mask, mask, mask." She caught up the scrap of black material and dashed out of the window, tying it on.
She got to the nightclub in time to dive inside before it blew. Time slowed to treacle as she raced between moving bodies under the slow-sweeping club lights, to the bomb wired into the far wall. There was a boy just turning to look at it, his face registering surprise. Z pushed him down, throwing herself over the bomb.
The explosion rocked into her. Z gritted her teeth, absorbing the bulk of the force. She couldn't get all of it – the club shook to its foundations, and most of the people on the dance floor were knocked off their feet. The lights and the sound system flickered off, then low yellow house lights came on, illuminating turmoil as people started shouting and crying.
Z straightened, gingerly holding her stomach.
A second later the ceiling gave way. Z caught it a foot from her head with one hastily up flung hand.
The boy she'd saved – she supposed she'd saved everybody in the club, but the one she'd pushed down – was just starting to get back to his feet. His eyes were wide and shocked.
"You –" he said. His mouth opened and he made uncertain hand gestures as though to fill in what he was trying to say (Z had no idea). "Where did you – what was – was that a bomb?"
There was plaster dust settling in Z's hair and hair trailing into her eyes. She blew it away, shifting her hold on the ceiling as it creaked. "Uh huh," she said. She only sounded a little out of breath, which she was proud of. She'd absorbed a bomb. Hardly any superheroes could absorb a bomb – Z hadn't been completely sure that she could, either, beforehand.
The boy's mouth opened and closed again. "Where did you come from?" He looked from the door and back to her, taking in the chaos and sobbing and the smarter portion of the dance floor tripping over itself to get out onto the street. "You weren't here. And then you – was that really a bomb?" He had an oddly flat voice, as though he couldn't quite get at the emotions he was looking for, but his eyes were bright.
Z smiled, blowing the wayward hair out of her face again. "I would have gotten here earlier," she said, "but I didn't know about it till it had started to go off."
His mouth quirked, a smile that dropped away and came back. He had a pretty mouth, she noticed; there was a divot in his lower lip. His gaze fell, taking in her bare feet (because shower, okay, she hadn't had a lot of time), then back up, except that he wasn't looking at her face now. Z glanced down, wrinkling her nose as she registered that she'd forgotten a bra, too, and that the first top she'd scooped off the floor of her apartment had apparently been the sheer black one. It wasn't the most extreme thing she'd ever worn on a night out, but it was embarrassing to have done it by accident.
"Um," she said meaningfully. The boy jerked his eyes back to hers, which were probably glittering through the eyeholes of her mask; she was mad about the clothing mistake.
Colour rose on his cheeks. He, Z noticed, was wearing pinstriped pants and a paisley scarf, tied low around his hips. To a night club. That was weird.
He bit his lip. "You're The Letter, aren't you?" he said. His eyes had gone to the silver Z sewn onto her mask, almost hidden beneath the fall of hair at her temple.
"Z," she said. "I go by Z. I don't even know where – whatever, it doesn't matter. Can you see any emergency crew out there?" She shifted her hands again, the ceiling creaking alarmingly once more. "This is getting kind of heavy."
He glanced towards the door, making no move to actually leave her side to look in a helpful way. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe." He looked back at her. "Nobody knows anything about you." He hugged his arms. "You never give interviews. You're really The Letter, right?"
Z tipped her head back. "Z," she said. "How hard is that for people to remember? It's the one at the end of the alphabet, you can't lose it. Also it's sewn onto my costume." Mask, whatever. A mask was practically a costume. Z wasn't going to bind herself to wearing the same outfit on every job, that was crazy.
The boy grinned, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Yeah?" he said. Whatever else he was going to say was interrupted by a camera flash, and Z looked around. There was another flash, then a dozen, more and more, and familiar voices calling questions as familiar figures pushed their way to the front of the still panicked crowd. The press had beat the emergency crew to the scene again.
"Did you know about the bomb beforehand, Letter?" the girl from The Tribune called out. "Do you think this is the work of the Deadly Nine, Letter?" the one from The Daily Standard shouted. The Times interrupted with, "Will you be branching out into more daring sartorial choices in the future, Letter?" and Z stopped listening. She smiled and shook her head, No questions, turning away and lifting her chin a little. She had nothing against looking good in the papers, but superheroes who gave interviews always told all their enemies everything about them, and Z had a thing about not being fatally stupid if she could help it. Also the flashes were hurting her eyes, and that always put her in an uncooperative mood.
The emergency crew pushed through a couple of minutes later, barking orders through megaphones and pushing the jostling cameras back. The boy with the pretty mouth was pushed back too; Z saw him go up on his toes, trying to see her.
Her arms were aching, and there were still flashes going off. Z nodded absently to the emergency crew while they chatted, shifting her arms to ease the weight. She escaped as soon as they'd set up temporary props for the roof. She needed another shower.
Z called Tennessee, Charlotte, Laena, Annie, Alex and Reni in turn that night to tell them the story of how she'd absorbed the blast. Disappointingly, Alex was the only one who was jealous, and Charlotte gave her the So fucking stupid, Z lecture again. Otherwise Z didn't think anything more of the incident until the next morning.
Charlotte came around with coffee, all wrapped up in a coat and with dark circles under her eyes. It was a storm hangover; Z knew the signs. Charlotte must have gone out on a job last night sometime after Z spoke to her on the phone.
"Electrical storm in DC," Charlotte explained, hunching further into her coat. "I have a mother of a headache, do you mind if I drink your coffee too?"
Z waved a be-my-guest hand. "But you know caffeine isn't actually going to help your headache?"
Charlotte glared and flipped her off. "The girl who threw herself on a bomb last night without knowing what would happen doesn't get to lecture me about my health choices."
Z blew out a breath. "I was almost sure," she said. "I survived that lightning strike when you were going through puberty, didn't I?"
Charlotte took a long sip of Z's coffee, breathing in the steam. "Mm," she said. "Whatever, I was fourteen. It was a baby strike. Man, this is good coffee." She ran her fingers through her hair, wincing as static danced from the strands to her fingers, remnants of last night's lightning.
The morning paper thunked through the slot in Z's door, and Charlotte walked over still combing static out of her hair. She scooped the rolled cylinder up and wandered over to Z's couch, curling up next to her. She tucked her feet up and ripped the plastic open. Z propped her chin on Charlotte's shoulder. "Am I in there?"
She was on the front page, when Charlotte unfurled it.
"Oh!" Z smiled, delighted. "That's such a great photo. Look how sexy I am."
Charlotte tilted her head back against Z, lifting the paper up so that they could both read it. CLUB BOMB PLOT FOILED BY THE LETTER, the headline read. Z was halfway through the third paragraph, reading a description of her trademark black mask with the silver Z, when she hit the first quote.
"I go by Z," she tells me. "Not just The Letter. How hard is that to remember? It's the one at the end of the alphabet."
There was another quote a little further down.
The Letter is famous for her superhuman speed in the air almost more than for her strength. "I would have gotten here earlier," she says with a grin, "but I didn't know about the bomb until it had started to go off."
Charlotte twisted to look at her, her forehead furrowed. "You gave someone an interview?"
Z's eyes slid to the by-line, to the Ryan Ross printed in neat lettering. He hadn't told her his name, but she'd only spoken to one person last night.
"I – three sentences!" she said. "Maybe! Not an interview. And he didn't tell me was a fucking journalist. Damnit."
Ryan Ross wrote a continuing series of articles on Z, all based on that one meeting. CLUB BOMB PLOT FOILED was followed by SAVING THE CITY WITH THE LETTER Z and then by the profile piece Z IS FOR... and the double-page spread THE LETTER Z: A RETROSPECTIVE OF HER CAREER.
Z didn't actually meet Ryan again until two months after the night club bomb, though.
She was on her lunch break, sitting up on the roof of her office building and sipping a smoothie, when Annie teleported onto the roof next to her. Her eyes were wide. She looked around, fixing on Z. "The bridge," she started. Then she frowned. "What are you wearing?"
"I – work clothes," Z said. "This is my civ– whatever, what's happening?'
Annie looked confused. "Yes, but it's a business suit," she said. "A grey one. I don't think I can talk to you seriously if you're wearing a business suit." Then she shook her head. "No, never mind, you need to go, Z! The Spire Bridge is collapsing!"
Z was off the roof before she'd finished tying her mask in place.
Annie hadn't been exaggerating. Z banked as she came in on the south side of the bridge, treading air and staring. Two of the huge support pylons at the centre of the bridge had crumpled, huge sheets of metal sliding against each other at the hinges. The road sagged inwards, a deadly split in the road leaving a chasm directly underneath the spire. The spire itself was tilting to the side, putting even more stress on the straining bridge supports. Cars had zigzagged over the road, trying to avoid the chasm, but at least two had plunged into the river – Z could see the bright colours floundering in the water, a rescue boat already heading towards them. Another three cars teetered on the edge even now.
In the quick scan she allowed herself, Z didn't see any sign of explosives or other tampering. It looked as though the bridge itself had failed. It had only been open to the public a few months, and Z had vague memories of an architect's report claiming that there had been shortcuts taken in the construction. There was no time to think about it, anyway, and it would be sorted out in the aftermath, by other people. Z's job was to look out for the three hundred people who were going to die on this bridge if she didn't save them.
Another glance confirmed that the two cars in the river were being taken care of. The people inside might be drowned or dead from the fall, but if they weren't, they'd be fine now as long as the bridge didn't fall on them. Z flew lower, scanning the three cars on the edge. One of them was empty, its occupants leaving the back doors swinging wide as they scrambled free. The second was only a foot over the edge, the single driver staring with blank eyes into the drop. Z dove, seizing hold of the back bumper, and towed it with a screech of wheels up the sloping tarmac. She gave the driver a cheerful wave through the window and left the car with its wheels locked at an angle to the slope; it wouldn't fall now unless all the other cars did too. Then she turned her attention to the third car.
It was way out over the drop, actually rocking up and off its wheels in the high wind. The bridge creaked and groaned as it tipped ever further inward, and the car slid another foot on its undercarriage. Far above, the great metal spire swayed with an agonised screech and part of it broke off, crashing and sliding down the network of pylons and finally bouncing away into the water below.
There was only one person in the car. The door had bent in, Z supposed when the bridge shifted and the car went into a spin, but the driver had managed to squirm halfway out of his window. Then the car had slid further out over the drop, balancing on the undercarriage, and he'd frozen, frightened to move in case he jolted the balance in the wrong direction. He was staring down through the jagged gap at the river, a newsboy cap crooked on his head and his hair all in his face, his fingers white where they gripped the window.
"Don't move!" Z called and he turned his head to look up at her. Z felt recognition and dismay hit her at the same second.
"Fuck," she said. And louder, "Don't you know that you're supposed to stay saved?"
"Um," Ryan said. His voice was shaky. "Hi. Sorry. Hi."
Z flew lower, hovering by the car.
The problem wasn't just that he was afraid to move; he was also stuck, his hips snagged in the half-open window. It looked as though the glass must have got halfway down before it came up against the twisted part of the door and refused to go any further. Z could pick up the entire car, of course, and get him off the bridge that way – but in the time it took her to land it somewhere that she knew it would be safe even if the bridge came down, the bridge probably would have come down, and three hundred people would be dead.
Ryan gave her an uncertain smile from under the cap. "I'm, um," he said. "I'm really glad to see you."
Z nodded. "I'm going to shatter the window."
Ryan's eyes widened and he clenched his fingers around the top of the glass. "Wait, what?"
Z had already moved back, raising one black patent office heel. Ryan squeezed his eyes shut and Z delivered a precision kick to the centre of the glass. It shattered, and the car slid back three feet and began tumbling over the edge. Z flipped over, diving and grabbing Ryan under the arms as the car fell away from him. His cap tumbled after, fluttering in the wind.
"HOLY FUCKING SHIT," Ryan shouted an inch from her ear. Z kicked them higher.
"You interviewed me without me knowing it!" she said. "That's why I hate journalists!"
Ryan carried on looking shocked, except that now he looked confused as well. "I said nice things about you! I said ... holy fuck, oh." He was staring down now.
Z grinned, enjoying herself. "You don't need to hold onto me like this," she said. "Just..." she took his hand, gently pushing him away.
Ryan went white, squeezing his eyes shut. A second later he opened them, cautiously, and looked around. They were both hovering in mid-air. Ryan drifted to one side.
"What," he said faintly.
Z shrugged, rolling her neck. "It's a thing," she said. "Part of the flying thing, I don't know. I can let you fly as long as you're touching me. Just. Don't let go."
Ryan wriggled his free hand, experimentally, tilting backwards in the air. "Oh," he said. "Oh, that's. I didn't know that was something you could do." He had his gaze fixed on his feet, but he turned it back up to Z's face a moment later. His eyes were huge and amazed.
Z gave herself a second more to enjoy it, then had to turn her attention to the problem at hand. She could set him down on the bridge, but she hadn't saved the bridge yet, and it was leaning ever further into the abyss. She couldn't keep tying up one hand like this, though – she needed both of them to save anybody. She bit her lip. "You're going to have to hold onto my foot." She fumbled one handed with her belt.
"Um," Ryan said.
Z got the belt free. It looped six times around her waist, and it was made of a titanium-enhanced fibre that Reni had designed especially for lightweight strength and flexibility. The belt looked like a delicate grey silk scarf, the loops didn't bulk out or clash with most of her civ clothes, and it had saved other people's lives more often than Z could count. She left one loop around her belt, securing it firmly, and tugged Ryan in, threading it around his waist. "Here, it's a safety rope. If your hands slip, I'm going to be holding other things and I won't be able to catch you."
She let go of his hand. All the air escaped his lungs in a pained gasp as he fell, swinging from her belt. She tugged on the cord, pulling him up, and he grabbed hold of her foot. He seemed to remember how to breathe as weightlessness came back.
"You're okay, right?" she asked anxiously.
Ryan opened and closed his mouth, his eyes still dark and enormous. That would have to do.
The bridge creaked again, settling lower still, and the gap widened. Several zigzagging snakes of interlocking cars slid further towards the edge.
Z could support the bridge from below, but too much of the road had broken away: there was no way Z could reach both sides of the gap with her arms. She craned her neck to look up at the spire, swaying in slow dangerous arcs against the sky, and kicked up again. Ryan mimicked the motion, managing to fly in time with her at foot level. Z was impressed.
Up at the spire, Z scanned the structure, identifying a part that was probably about to come down. She seized one huge support beam hanging out over empty space, her arms straining as she twisted it. It came free with a screech of metal. The spire shuddered but settled back more securely, some of the weight relieved. Z hefted the iron beam in her hands and headed down, ending up underneath the bridge. She twirled the beam so that it rested horizontally on her palms and rose, positioning it across both shattered ends of the road. Then she flexed her biceps, straining as she pushed both parts of the road back up into the level. Somewhere there were screams and a ragged cheer, whipped away by the wind.
Z broke into a sweat. It was novel and not very comfortable.
"That was," Ryan said shakily. "That was pretty amazing."
Z let her breath out, testing her arms. She grinned down at him, feeling euphoric. "Didn't you hear?" she asked. "I'm a superhero. There were a bunch of stories in the paper about me, actually."
"Can I write about this?" Ryan asked quickly.
Z rolled her eyes. "Get my name right, at least."
The smile she got in return was sweet and delighted, and probably mostly composed of adrenalin because, Z reminded herself, most people didn't get used to hovering in mid-air underneath a falling bridge. For good measure she also reminded herself that getting too close to accident-prone boys from the mundane world was a bad (a bad) idea, although she had a feeling that it might be too late.
The police helicopters finally reached them. The sergeant leaned out of the open door, shouting across to Z, "What do you need?"
"Get everyone off the bridge and away from the river!" Z shouted back. "I can't save the bridge, so I'm going to have to bring it down in a controlled fall!"
The sergeant saluted back.
"Oh!" Z called. "And take Ross, please!"
Ryan gave a shaky laugh.
It took a few minutes, but then the helicopter was producing a cable with a harness clip. The chopper rose, swinging the cable out, and Ryan caught it against his chest, fumbling and not quite dropping it. He clipped himself in and Z unhooked the belt from her waist. Ryan swung away with a choking sound. The helicopter reeled him in, and Z breathed out.
It took almost an hour to get the bridge cleared. Z was shaking with exhaustion by the end, but she got the bridge down without any loss of lives or any further property damage. The city council was going to have one hell of a time clearing it out of the river, but that wasn't Z's problem. They were lucky she didn't drop it on parliament house, after that shoddy construction permit. Charlotte would have.
Z was smiling through her exhaustion as she flew home, imagining that.
Ryan worked for The Metro Star. All the papers ran the bridge and Z's rescue effort as their first page the next day, but The Star was the only one to also include a feature in the Fashion & Lifestyle pull-out about The Letter Z's grey silk belt, with a design featuring enhanced tensile strength along with retro-chic accents.
The third time Z saved Ryan, it wasn't a surprise. Ryan had been writing about Z, but other writers at The Star had been covering villains rather than heroes, and apparently somebody there had written one thing too many about the black heartedness of the Deadly Nine.
Z had come to Reni for a new belt. Now she was sitting on the bench in Reni's workshop, holding a coil of copper wire for her while Reni teased it spool by spool into her newest gadget. It looked like a sort of hourglass with wide Mickey Mouse ears. Reni had been telling Z about it for twenty minutes now, but Z still had no idea what it did.
"... which will minimise the sparking problem I was having with the first prototype," Reni was saying. "Which is..." she stopped, peering into the workings of Mickey Mouse. "Wow," she said. "That is so screwed up. Do you remember me going crazy sometimes last week? Because I don't think I can explain the mess I made of this node without a psychotic break."
Z tilted her head. "There was that period around Tuesday and Wednesday where you were wearing your underwear on the outside," she said thoughtfully.
Reni looked up and grinned. "Nah, that was product testing for that dude with the snake thing. I don't know, he wanted, like –" she waved a hand, although Z didn't know what she could be trying to convey other than purple underpants worn on the outside.
She was about to reply when she became aware of the radio piping a news broadcast in the back of the workshop. Reni kept it on all the time, a kind of brainless chatter almost too low to hear, but Z had just caught the words Metro Star. She jumped off the bench, setting the coil down where she'd been sitting and heading back to the radio to turn the volume up.
... event was the newspaper's Thirty Third Anniversary celebration, held on a cruise ship on the bay. The organisers must be wishing they'd rented a quiet hall somewhere, as celebration turns to terror on board the luxury boat.
"What's up?" Reni asked.
... believe the hijackers to be members of the notorious criminal gang known as the Deadly Nine. Their motive is as yet unknown, and no ordinary law enforcer has been able to come close to the ship. Police say they hope for the intervention of a superhero at this stage.
"The Star's anniversary bash," Z said. She looked at Reni, wide eyed. "Ryan will be there."
"Who?" Reni asked, but Z was already gone.
The harbour was packed with spectators all along its length. The cruise ship was strung with fairy lights, a glowing celebration out on the harbour. Screams and the clash of violence carried thinly across the water and police searchlights played across the scene from the helicopters above. As Z came closer she saw a stark white laser sweep out from the deck of the ship, scorching the propeller of one helicopter that swept too close.
Z looked for a place she could land. She wanted to scope out the situation a little more before she went in. People's lives (Ryan's) could be at stake.
Her eye was caught by a flash of scarlet and silver up on the seawall. Oh. Somebody was already here.
Z bit her lip.
Laena looked around as Z landed, lightly on the balls of her feet. Laena was already unspooling the lasso in her hands, ready to swing down to the ship. She raised her eyebrows at Z.
"Can I take this one?" Z asked quickly.
Laena turned around fully, wrapping the end of her lasso around her wrist. Her eyes moved between Z and the ship. "What?"
Z took a step closer, tucking a stray lock of hair up behind her mask. "I have a ... there's somebody I know on that ship."
Laena hesitated. "A hero?" she asked. "Or...?"
Z shook her head. "Not."
Laena made a dismayed face. "Oh, bad idea," she said. "Bad, bad idea, Z."
Z spread her hands, trying to plead without looking desperate. Laena took a breath, then let it out in a smile. She pushed her gold headband up so that it held back more of her tangle of hair. Then she stepped back and spread her arms, the smile widening into a cowgirl grin. "Your job, babe."
Laena took two running steps and jumped off the inside of the wall, lassoing the railing of a balcony as she fell and swinging up and out into the street, a gleam of colour.
"Thanks!" Z called. "Really!"
She spent another three minutes watching the ship, tracking the movements of the black-clad hijackers and the coordinates of the laser still sweeping the sky. Satisfied, she raised her arms and hopped off the wall, arrowing towards the ship.
There was only one laser, set up in the bow of the ship. One of the Nine would be manning it. That one wouldn't dare leave his post, and once Z was on the ship he'd be no threat to her; he'd never turn the laser on the decks while his own were on there.
They didn't even see her coming.
Z took out the first hijacker with a roundhouse kick before she reached the deck. The second had time to send a volley of poison darts at her, which she whipped into the water with the snaking length of her new belt. He disappeared before she could take him down, but for the moment, Z didn't care. She brushed off the sobbing couple trying to cling to her shoulder and rose a few feet in the air. She couldn't go so high that the lasers could target her, but she needed to find Ryan, and she couldn't see him from the deck.
The entire ship was chaos. The crew had been strapped to the mast and the railing; Z could see the captain shouting obscenities and struggling. Some of the passengers had been herded into groups by the hijackers, their wrists tied together, but most were milling and terrified on the decks. Except, Z, noticed, for a few who had squeezed themselves into corners and were scribbling notes. She supposed that was inevitable if you took a ship full of journalists hostage.
She could only count five of the Nine. That made sense: they almost never sent out their full complement, and to teach a lesson to the passengers of an undefended cruise ship? Z was surprised they'd even stretched to five.
As she watched, one of the Nine cornered a couple against the mast, smiling a predatory grin as he played with the three blades in his hands. They tried to scramble up the rigging and he leapt, leaving a long red cut on the taller girl's cheek.
Z punched him in the back of the neck.
"Do you know Ryan Ross?" she asked the shivering girls as he crumpled. "Journalist? Writes superhero features?"
They stared at her, clinging to one another. The shorter girl freed an arm, pointing down along one railing.
Z turned to look, and there, yes. He was standing up on the railing, unsteady on his feet, attempting to get away from the long waving cutlass of the grinning black-clad Niner. The blade swung at his feet and he jumped, grabbing at a rope to keep from falling.
Z narrowed her eyes at the Niner, rage coursing through her. Then with a blink she registered that Ryan had failed to catch his balance and was falling backwards through the air.
She knocked the Niner over the railing as she dove. Ryan was already tumbling towards the choppy waves below. Z put on an extra burst of speed and caught him a few feet from the water, clutching his thin frame against her.
His arms tightened around her, his breath releasing in a shuddery burst against her neck. Then he fumbled for her hand, curling away and flying with her into the wind and up and over to the seawall.
Ryan's legs gave out as she set him down on the wall. He slumped to his knees, leaning back on his hands as he stared up at her.
"Hey," Z said. She grinned, giving him a small wave.
The smile he gave her back was crooked and amazing.
"I still – still have your belt," he said, out of breath.
Z grinned again and dropped into a cross-legged position opposite him. "I noticed."
Ryan leaned forward. "You know it's strong enough to work as a tightrope?" he said. He frowned. "Or, like, if you can walk a tightrope, it is. I set it up in my den to test it, but I fell off."
"I can't walk a rope without cheating," Z admitted. "I keep trying, and I promise myself, this time I'll put all my weight on my feet, I won't fly at all. But I suck at it."
Stuttering gunfire carried across the water, and Z jumped, rising a couple of inches in the air on her crossed legs. "Fuck," she said, "the cruise ship."
She looked back at Ryan, who was getting to his feet. He looked wistful. "You can get down from here, right?"
He nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets. Z turned back to the ship, slitting her eyes.
Now that he was safe, she could concentrate on the fact that in waving cutlasses in Ryan's face the Deadly Nine had pissed her off.
Z slept late the next morning, so she didn't get a chance to see The Star until she was on the subway after work. She was getting out in a couple of stops to meet Alex, and she knew for a fact that he read his own media mentions, but she didn't want to still be reading when she got there. She wasn't sure what her face would show.
She unfolded the paper.
the headline blared, in possibly the largest type font Z had ever seen.
Z FOILS DEADLY NINE PLOT ABOARD CRUISE SHIP
came beneath, in only slightly smaller text, and Z took a moment to do a victory fist pump, because finally somebody had printed her name correctly. The last headline was:
Grateful Editors Shake Superhero's Hand
Z didn't remember that happening, but maybe. A lot of people had tried to talk to her after the hijackers fled, but most of them had been looking for a sound bite.
There wasn't actually any room for a story after all the headline text, so Z flipped the paper open. She'd just found Ryan's by-line when somebody sat down next to her.
"That's my story," he said, beaming.
Z froze. Her eyes darted to the side. "Um," she said in a small, trapped voice.
She wasn't recognisable, she knew she wasn't. She wasn't wearing a mask, and these civ clothes weren't the same as the ones she'd been wearing when she saved the bridge. She darted another panicky look sideways.
Ryan looked a little beaten up, which Z hadn't noticed last night. There was a bruise coming up on his cheek, and a cut on his lip. He looked delighted, though.
"Is it?" Z asked, staring at the page once more.
Z completely failed to be surprised that Ryan, apparently, wasn't awesome at reading people's tone. He grinned, encouraged.
"Do you know much about Z?" he asked. "The superhero?"
Z's life was more ridiculous than anybody else's in the world. "Um," she said again.
"She's awesome," Ryan said. "You wouldn't believe – well, no," he checked himself, "obviously you'd believe, she saved a cruise ship full of people, yeah? But most people don't know that she's also really funny. The witty kind of funny, I mean."
Z shot him another look. "Really?" she asked. She couldn't help the pleased edge to her voice.
Ryan beamed again. "She doesn't talk to the press much," he said, "so people don't know what she sounds like. She has the sexiest voice, you have no idea."
Z choked, going into a coughing fit. "Mm hm," she said, making her voice as hoarse as possible.
"And she's really – up close she has this mouth," Ryan said, his gaze distant. "It's kind of..." He touched his fingers to his own mouth.
Z tugged the newspaper up higher, hiding the lower half of her face. "Oh?" she managed.
Ryan blinked and smiled at her again, warm and pleased. "What did you say?"
The train pulled into the station. "I have to go," Z got out in a strangled voice.
Alex was leaning against a pillar on the platform. He started to greet her, stopping when Z ploughed into him and hid her face in the front of his jacket.
"Oh my god," she said, pressing the words into his chest.
"Uh." He patted her shoulder. "I can see ... some businessmen? And a girl with a baby?"
She punched his shoulder without moving her face away from his chest. "Stop using x-ray vision on the train carriage," she mumbled, "it's creepy."
He patted her shoulder again.
The fourth time Z saved Ryan was two days after the train incident, and it shouldn't have been a surprise. She'd been careless, stupidly and desperately careless at this stage, and she should have seen something like this coming. That she didn't was just one more thing in an already crappy day.
She slept badly and woke up to find the power out in her entire building. Even superspeed didn't get her out of the cold shower fast enough to avoid chilled skin and a shiver. Her hair was stupid and frizzy, and wanted to flop into her eyes. The subway was more crowded than usual, and when she got out she stepped in something she didn't want to look at. None of the nice girls were around at work, and she wound up spending the entire morning faxing half a Brazilian rainforest worth of forms with the guy from Accounts with the bad breath.
At lunchtime it was raining, and she couldn't go up to the roof. When she tried to go to the cafe across the street, she found a dead squirrel curled up in the gutter, and she ended up standing huddled just out of the rain trying not to tear up.
In the afternoon a customer called up with a complaint about incomplete paperwork, which turned out, after some investigation by her superior, to be Z's fault.
Z hated the world and everything in it.
She couldn't face the thought of the subway again after work, so she ducked around a corner into a back alley. She looked around quickly and slipped her mask on. She let her hair out of its corporate knot and wrapped her arms around herself, flying straight up out of the alley.
She was flying over the tangle of backstreets behind the business quarter when she heard the muffled shout from below. She turned on her heel in the air, hovering as she tried to work out where it had come from.
The shout came again, and this time Z knew the voice. She felt herself go cold. Ryan was shouting, and he sounded furious – and panicked.
She flew lower, dropping beneath the level of the roofs. Ryan's shouts were muffled now, but they were coming from around the corner up ahead. It sounded as though someone had pressed a hand over his mouth. Z edged forward, careful not to even disturb the air currents if she could avoid it.
Her feet were inches from the ground. She touched down, gentle as a cat, and rounded the corner.
Z had a moment to register a blind alley and, against the far end, Ryan with bound wrists attached to a rope that a black-clad figure had also wound around his chest, holding him in place. There was a swoosh of air behind her and another black-clad figure landed in the open alleyway, blocking the only street exit. A second later a net dropped over the square of sky above, cutting off airborne escape.
Z took a step back, into the cul-de-sac, and another four figures landed soft-footed on the pavement, moving to circle her. Four and two, and that was six. As Z watched another three stepped forward from the shadows. Nine. Light played over the sleek weaponry they were toying with.
All of the Deadly Nine, a baited trap, and Z unable to fly.
This day could officially not get any worse.
Ryan met her eyes. I'm sorry, he mouthed. Z bit her lip.
The official line was that the Nine had no leader, but there were rumours that there were Nine, and within their number, One – the First. Z was betting it was the First who stepped forward now. He had a sheen of silver-blond hair above his black collar, and he was flicking a knife over his knuckles.
He flashed her a sharp grin. "The Letter," he drawled. "We have business with you, I think."
Z shifted on the balls of her feet. "Nope," she said. "No, I don't think so. Maybe you're mixing me up with someone else."
The First grinned again. "You're cute," he said. "The papers didn't mention cute." He flicked the knife over his shoulder and the Niner behind him caught it, a steady finger to either side of the blade. "You're also dead," the First said. "Partly because you seem as though you'll be pesky." He raised one hand, sweeping a panorama in the air. "This city wakes every morning, and you know what we see? In the morning glow, over the Millennium Spire, over that awful Diana statue that blocks the Cyan Bridge, down the avenues where the sunbeams catch before anywhere else – over that? We see a city that belongs to us."
Z made a tiny yawning motion.
The First shrugged, his eyes hard. "More importantly," he said, "you pushed your nose into an operation of ours, and you tried to embarrass us."
Z raised her eyebrows. "Tried?" she said. "I threw you all overboard. If you weren't embarrassed I'm not sure what else I can do. I could pants you, maybe."
Ryan was giving her an incredulous look, and Z remembered the rule about not antagonising enemies with an advantage over you. She always forgot that one. Ryan pulled his bound hands up, pressing them over his mouth as he shook his head at her.
The First was still smiling, but there was a fiercer edge to his gaze. "We don't," he said, "take embarrassment easily. It's a character flaw, if you like."
"I've heard of those," Z said, distracted. The Nine were moving around her, closing in. There had to be a mechanism for the sky net, but she couldn't see it. She could only see Ryan working with his teeth on the knot at his wrists. "I don't think I have any. People say perfect girls are boring, but I think it looks good on me."
The First grinned. Z ducked as one of the Niners behind her threw another blade, this one whistling over her head to another on the other side of the circle, who caught it with a flick of his wrist. "Oh, I think I could find a flaw. Your judgement, Letter Z, it's not what it could be." He reached behind him, tangling his hand in the rope and tugging Ryan forward.
"Fuck you," Ryan gasped.
The First patted his cheek. "We saw you on the ship," he said to Z. "Did you think you were being stealthy? Heroes are supposed to save everybody, but we saw you swoop in and ... find this boy."
Ryan looked uncertain. "I'm ... actually twenty three," he said. His gaze darted to Z.
Z narrowed her eyes. "He has nothing to do with anything. Let him go if you don't want to lose your hand."
The First picked up Ryan's bound hands, tracing a finger across one of his wrists. "Maybe we'll take his," he said softly.
Z reached behind her just as the Niner there was slipping his knife from one hand to the other. She grabbed his wrist and pulled him in front of her, using his own knife to slice through the rope at Ryan's wrists. The First jerked back, avoiding the slicing knife, and Ryan ducked and rolled out of the way. One of the Niners made a grab for him and Z kicked out, sending the Niner ploughing into the wall. He crumpled to the pavement. His flail and fall tripped another of the Niners, and Z took advantage of the confusion to target a second Niner going for Ryan. She grabbed his head, knocking it against the elbow of the Niner next to him. The blow knocked one out and made the other hiss in pain, cradling his arm. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ryan scuttle out of the way, pressing himself into a corner.
She turned to the next man, and the Niner behind her leapt onto her back, pressing a stunner against her neck. The pain immobilised her long enough for another two Niners to punch her in the stomach and temple, their knuckles studded with brass. She folded.
Another Niner kicked at her and she gasped and threw out a hand, twisting his ankle and throwing him. She put one hand to her stomach and pressed the other against the ground, supporting herself with it as she kicked out low, knocking another Niner's feet out from under him. She rolled to avoid a swinging knife.
Her reflexes were off and she didn't avoid the second knife.
It sliced into her thigh, a clean pain, and her knee gave out. She crashed back against the wall, supporting herself against the bricks, and threw another punch. It glanced off a Niner's shoulder, but with barely any strength behind it he only flew a few yards. He hit his head as he went down, though. Z squeezed her eyes shut for a second, trying to take stock.
There were five Niners down, unconscious at best. It wasn't enough.
She opened her eyes. The First pulled out a sleek ray gun, a soundless technology Z knew to be illegal. She supposed that that was fairly irrelevant to the situation. Her head was pounding. He sighted down the gun.
The stab wound slowed her down, but Z managed to dodge the burst from the ray gun, sliding underneath it. Her leg folded and she fell sideways. The gun shifted to follow, the First giving a slow smile as his hands moved through the air.
A boot kicked out at his head, knocking him sideways and jolting the gun out of his hands; Z threw herself sideways and grabbed it. Ryan let go his hold on the net overhead and dropped to the pavement, unsteady on his feet. Z scrambled to her feet and grabbed his hand, turning the gun to cover the remaining Niners.
She kept them covered as they backed out of the cul-de-sac, hands clasped. Then Z lifted them up, at last, keeping low beneath the roofs for cover.
She didn't take them far. Her head was aching and she was disoriented; she wasn't sure she could actually remember how to navigate. She landed badly, in another alley, and slid down a warehouse wall to sit against the gutter. She dropped her head into her hands.
"Hey," Ryan said quietly. She felt him sit down next to her. He touched her shoulder, gingerly. "Hey, you were awesome. Really."
Z groaned and pushed her face into her knees. "I was terrible," she mumbled. "I let them trap me. And I couldn't even – I needed help just to get away."
Ryan patted her shoulder again. After a moment Z shifted her head to the side, leaning on his shoulder. He put one hand on the back of her head, carefully, holding her in place. "You were awesome," he repeated, his voice low and fervent. Z closed her eyes and concentrated on just breathing.
Eventually she lifted her head again. The stab wound was already healing; she could feel the itch. Her head was still pounding, though. She rubbed at dry and prickly eyes. "Sorry," she said. "It's. Today was the worst day."
Ryan bit his lip, not looking at her. "Mine wasn't so bad."
Z gave him an incredulous look. He looked at her and away. "Just. At least you didn't leave right after this time."
Then his cheeks flushed. "I mean," he said. "Not that kind of – leaving, I mean. Not that I think of you like –" He took his hand back. "That would be – I wouldn't presume anything like –" He pushed his hand over his mouth, apparently in an attempt to make himself stop talking.
Z maybe felt a little bit better.
But the Nine and the First had been right. She'd made a mistake, with Ryan. She'd got close to someone in the mundane world, and she'd let him be used as bait. And she'd let herself get trapped.
That was more kinds of not okay than Z could actually deal with.
She got to her feet, not looking at Ryan. "I have to – there are things to do," she said. "You should be careful in the streets."
Ryan hugged his arms. "Oh," he said. "Okay. Yeah. Thank you. For. You know. Thank you."
Z hunched her shoulders. "Okay," she whispered.
That was a shitty goodbye but she couldn't think of anything else. She turned and walked away. She'd take the subway home.
Z was still edgy about confined spaces the next day – getting trapped wasn't a feeling she liked, or intended to get used to – so she insisted on meeting Tennessee on the roof of Tenn's apartment rather than inside, or in a cafe. She'd forgotten how difficult it was to try to have a conversation with Tennessee outdoors, though.
"It's just so stupid," Z said. She nudged a squirrel away with her knee. "And I knew it was stupid, but it was like I forgot the rules, or –" A sparrow landed on her shoulder and hopped down to her knee and from there to her foot. Z shook her shoe to get rid of it. "I nearly got him killed. For nothing, just because I liked – just because of who he was."
Tennessee tilted her head to the side. The squirrel on her shoulder nuzzled at her neck, pushing her hair into her face. She lifted it down, disarranging the stray kitten curled in her lap. "Because of who he was?" she asked.
Z twisted her mouth. A lizard ran over her ankle, stopping to stare up at Tennessee. There were already two sunning themselves next to her foot. "I just really like him," she admitted.
It was cold on the roof, the sky overcast, and even with Snow White next to her attracting cute animals from four blocks around, it felt sharp and grey. Z wrapped her arms around herself. "But he's a civilian. He's an ordinary boy. There are reasons we're not supposed to – there are reasons. I just forgot them for a while, and it was a disaster."
Tennessee looked thoughtful. "Z," she said. "It's – the way you tell it, this boy has survived a bomb blast, a falling bridge, a hijacking and a knife fight." The kingfisher on her shoulder nipped at her hair, teasing strands between its beak, and Tennessee winced. She closed her eyes, concentrating, and after a few seconds the kingfisher flew away. The squirrels seemed to wake from a daze, darting off, and the lizards scuttled away. The kitten only purred louder. Tennessee glanced down at it and made a wry face. "I'm just saying," she said, looking back at Z, "that kind of luck, it's not that ordinary."
Z hunched her shoulders. "You could say he's unlucky. Most people wouldn't call getting caught up in all those things a good time." She let her breath out and leaned over, curling into Tennessee's side. "I suck," she whispered.
"Absolutely," Tennessee agreed, squeezing her back. "I wasn't sure how to tell you, all these years."
Z laughed, then wished she hadn't; it was a pathetic sound. She took a breath and straightened, pushing her hair back. "Okay," she said, coming to a conclusion. "I don't know what to do about Ryan, other than leave him alone. But I do need to do something about the Deadly Nine. They're a threat to me and still a threat to Ryan. I need to take them out, Tenn."
The thing was, the First had slipped up yesterday. When he'd waxed poetic before the fighting, he'd talked about the morning sun over the Millennium Spire, with the Diana statue in that park on the east side blocking their view of the Cyan Bridge, facing the long avenues alongside the park. Z was pretty sure that view was only visible from one particular distance and angle.
It might have been deliberate, another trap, but Z didn't think so. She hadn't been supposed to walk out of that blind alley alive.
The Deadly Nine's secret headquarters didn't look much from the outside. It was a tall, apparently abandoned factory, rundown and with graffiti plastered all along the facade at street level. If you knew what to look for there were heavy, sophisticated locks on all the doors, and lines of disturbance indicating electrical fields, also at street level. But it was amazing how often even paranoid villains didn't guard their roof entrances properly.
Z found a skylight that was barely alarmed. She smashed the mechanism and slipped inside.
There were security cameras to avoid, but Z found that moving at the speed of light got around them. Down at the bottom of the building she found the HQ itself. There was a balcony all around an open space below. Stacks of crates were spaced irregularly along the balcony railing; Z eased a plank back and found it full of carefully packed weapons. In the room below were banks of computers, strategy tables, and some half-assembled gadgetry that Z didn't really want to know the purpose of.
She crept forward, using the crates as cover. She could count six of the Niners, ranged about the room. Three were at the computers, one of which was projecting shadowy holographic images a few feet into the air. Another two were perched on tables across the room, tossing a knife back and forth. The last was sitting at a table beyond the banks of computers, making notations on a series of city maps spread out before him. Z was pretty sure that was the First, but she couldn't see his face clearly from here.
Six, and only two on their feet. That was perfect. Z reached up, sliding the silver headband out of her hair. It was a flexible metal ring, comfortable in her hands, new from Reni. She tested it with her fingers, pressing the metal against her cheek for a moment, then settled it against the heel of her hand. She was winding her arm back when there was a crash from below, an inner door slamming back against the wall. A Niner pushed through manhandling a struggling figure before him.
Z wanted to smack her forehead against the wall.
The First leapt up from his maps, striding forward.
"I found him skulking outside," the Niner holding Ryan said. He pushed him forward and Ryan stumbled. He straightened, staring straight at the First. His expression was deadpan, and Z was conscious of a little zip of pride in him. There weren't many people who could be captured in the lair of the Deadly Nine and keep their cool.
The First walked around Ryan. Ryan shifted to keep him in sight.
"You," the First said. "You're not actually important. What are you doing here?"
Ryan shrugged. Z could see the tiny tremble in his shoulders. "I was passing," he said. "You have a pretty place, here. I really like the condemned factory look, it's kind of grunge chic."
Z remembered the fashion piece about her belt and bit back a laugh. She slipped the headband back into her hair, sliding it behind her ears.
The First stepped forward, gripping Ryan's chin in his hands. "Not good enough, boy. How did you know to come here?"
Ryan pulled away, rubbing his jaw. His mouth quirked in a smile. "You told me."
The First reached out and took hold of Ryan's collar, pulling him forward. His eyes were cold. "I don't think so."
His grip must have been cutting off some of Ryan's air. His eyes teared up. "The morning sun," he gasped. "The statue and the bridge. You told me exactly where to come."
The First let go of him in a jerk, spinning to look at the others. The three at the computers had got to their feet, the knife throwing pair stilled. One of the knife throwers took half a step forward. "If he worked it out," he said, "then –"
Z aimed a flying kick at the nearest stack of boxes, sending them crashing into the room below. They knocked into the two Niners who had been throwing knives – one was slammed back against the far wall, and the other was buried beneath boxes.
Z strode out along the balcony. "Too late," she called with a grin.
The First reacted with a curse, shoving Ryan to one side. The Niner who'd brought him in grabbed him as Ryan stumbled, hands clamping tight on Ryan's arms.
Ryan grinned up at Z, relief spilling into his smile. "You're late," he called. "I thought you were going to make me handle it on my own."
"You mean you can't?" Z called back. "I was just going to watch and catcall, actually."
"Letter Z," the First growled, reaching into his jacket pocket. Z was already running when he started shooting. She kicked another stack of crates, sending them crashing through the air. The third pile she kicked got caught in the path of the ray gun. Flaming boxes of guns exploded against the wall, setting alight yet another bank of computer screens. The Niner holding Ryan let go of him to clamp his hands over his ears. Z vaulted over the railing and dropped light-footed next to Ryan. He seized her hand and they kicked into the air. Z tugged them sharply to the side to avoid blades thrown by two of the Niners who had been at the computers, and they landed behind the last stack of crates.
Z let go of Ryan's hand, pushing her hair back.
"Hi," Ryan said.
Z grinned. "Hi." She shook her head. "No, that's not what I meant to say. What are you doing here?"
Ryan hesitated. He looked happy and apprehensive at the same time, riding a wave of adrenaline. "I thought I might find you here," he said.
There was another explosion and Z craned around the packing crates. One of the computers had blown up. Three Niners were occupied with the flames, black cloth hastily tied around their faces. The last two Niners ran in as Z watched, attracted by the noise. That left four free and aware, but Z could only see three. A beam from the ray gun singed Z's eyebrows and she ducked back behind the crates. Ryan grabbed her elbow.
There were two steep staircases from the balcony to the floor below, one on either side of the room. The reason Z hadn't seen the last Niner below was that he'd climbed the stairs and was advancing towards them, gun in hands – a regular gun, with bullets. Z maybe hated those the most.
Z pulled Ryan back behind the shelter of the crates. What she was thinking was against all of the rules there were. She opened her mouth anyway.
"Can you distract the one with the ray gun long enough to let me fight this one in the open without getting lasered?
Ryan's eyes widened. He nodded. Then he drew a breath, taking off from a crouching start and racing along the balcony to the second staircase. Z pulled her headband out of her hair again, flinging it discus style and knocking away the two throwing knives that had tracked Ryan as soon as he left cover. The silver circlet shuddered into the post at the top of the staircase. Ryan stared at it for a second, frozen, then tugged it free and launched himself down the banister.
Z didn't get to see him do anything after that because the Niner with the gun shot into the packing crates, sending a whiff of smoke snaking up between the boxes. Z vaulted over the crates, kicking the top one at the Niner and forcing him to duck. She ran towards him, rising as the crates exploding behind her, and kicked him in the chest and then the chin. She ducked her head to avoid a throwing star from below, but no ray tracked her, so Ryan was filling his end of the bargain.
The Niner rolled on his stomach, sighting down the gun again, and Z stamped on his trigger hand. She reached down, taking the gun away from him, and folded it in half with a screech of metal. Then she used her belt to truss him up against the wall.
Two Niners were already halfway up the stairs, knives spinning in their hands. The blades left their grips at the same moment. Z kicked them back into their wielders'' faces. The Niners ducked and she jumped down, knocking their heads together. They tumbled down the stairs.
Z turned to the room below.
Ryan had got behind the computer bank that wasn't on fire. He was pelting the First's legs with – Z squinted – what looked like heavy-duty ink cartridges. The First kept trying to sight down the ray gun and breaking off in irritation, swinging his aim around to Ryan instead.
Z smiled. Good call. None of them were going to shoot into their own computers.
The other three had got the fire extinguished and were looking to the First.
"Deal with the boy," the First said, his voice tight.
"Twenty three," Ryan interrupted. "Really, I'm twenty three."
Z laughed. "Hey, Ross," she called. She made a little circle shape with her hand. He blinked, got it, and threw the hair circlet back to her. It wasn't an amazing throw, but Z caught it, sent it spinning towards the First, and took off from the balcony with a burst of speed.
The First began to dive out of the way. The gleaming silver circlet caught on the ray gun, catching it up and ripping it from the First's hands. It went off in a burst that burned into his foot as it spun away.
Z landed atop the computer bank in time to catch it out of the air. The First collapsed to his knees.
Z reached one hand behind her, tugging Ryan up to stand at her side, and turned to the three remaining Niners. They were soot blackened and reaching uncertainly towards weapons in pockets. Z swept the ray gun in a careful swerve, covering them all.
"So," she said. "I'm going to need you to drop all of your weapons, guys."
The sirens sounded just as Z and Ryan were tying the hands of the last Niner. Z looked at her watch, surprised and pleased. "Exactly when I told them to come. They almost never do that."
Ryan got to his feet, dusting off his knees. "So ... we just leave them for the police, now?"
"Uh huh," Z said brightly. She looked at her hands. "You can ... probably if you stay one of the cops will give you a lift home. If you want."
"Oh," Ryan said. "That would be good, yeah."
Z hated this.
"Okay," she said. "I'm just – I'm going to – okay, then." She raised her hand in a dumb little wave. Ryan's mouth quirked, not quite happily, and he waved back.
Z really hated this. She rolled her eyes at herself and pushed off with her heels. There was a window above the balcony on the east side. She kicked out the glass, shards raining onto the pavement below, and flew through.
It was a clear, breezy morning outside. She flew higher, perching on an upper windowsill, out of the way of the alarm tripwire woven into the glass.
She thought about Ryan's wide, shocked eyes at the club, his crooked smile, his newspaper articles. She thought about how he'd tested her reinforced belt as a tightrope, and how he'd found the Deadly Nine's headquarters using the same clues she had. How he'd stared coolly into the First's eyes, how he'd helped her twice now, how he'd flown at her side. She thought about Tennessee saying, That kind of luck, it's not ordinary.
Z slipped off the window ledge.
Ryan had climbed the stairs up to the balcony, Z supposed to be out of the way of the police when they came. He was sitting on the edge, swinging his legs, a journalist's notebook sitting blank in his lap. He scrambled to his feet when Z dropped back through the broken window. The notebook fell face down at his feet; he took a step towards Z, treading on it.
Z wound her arms around his neck, going up on her toes. When she kissed him it was hard, and sweet, and she didn't want to let go. She finally eased away, a bubbly feeling welling up inside her.
Ryan looked dazed. "Oh," he said. His arms tightened around her and he tugged her up, kissing her again. Z was okay with that.
After a moment she dropped back onto her heels, moving back. She took two steps away, then looked around, holding her hand out. "Are you coming?"
Ryan looked at her as if she was offering him the sun. He nodded and took her hand. Z grinned and tugged them up, up, through the window and out into the morning.
Now with art by clarityhiding! The Letter Z.