Masks, Robots, Coffee: A ZapBamPow Exclusive Interview
by Salma Rahman
It's been a busy week here in the Metropolis of Maxville - first 90% of the local Heroes 'secretly' ditched us for some kind of 'super-secret' summit in the Pacific, quickly followed by an attack by CANNIBAL ROBOTS on Maxville City Park, which took all eight members of the Knights two hours to put down (I guess they weren't invited to the summit). Everyone who didn't end up hospitalized gave a press conference, at which point Air Raid took some time out from the evil robots (and massive property destruction) to say hey, by the way, he's bisexual.
More than enough excitement for any self-respecting Hero blogger, right? Which is why, when Knights' sponsor Chen Industries contacted ZapBamPow to offer me an exclusive interview with Air Raid, well. The top almost came off my head.
You don't pass an opportunity like that up, so I packed up my trusty pen and notebook and headed out to talk to Air Raid about life, love, battling the forces of evil and Heroing While Queer.
And that's what happened. Mostly.
Will paced up and down the conference room, taking care to avoid the furniture and not touch anything. He was nervous enough to break something accidentally and he didn't need Peregrine more pissed off at him than she already was. He wondered where breaking her company's stuff would fall on her 'Ways Will Stronghold Has Made Life Difficult This Week' list. Pretty low, I think. It's been—
A warning flashed across the inside of his goggles, interrupting that cheery line of thought. Someone - probably the interviewer or whoever was escorting her - had approached the door and was keying in the access code. Which meant he needed to sit down and stop acting like this was more nerve-wracking than facing down a super villain even though it really, really was.
He'd barely sat down at the conference table, gloved hands folded in front of him and a smile on his face, when the door slid open and Warren walked into the room. Not the interviewer. Also, shit. He wasn't ready for this.
"Warren," he said in what was hopefully a normal, concerned sort of voice. "Are you—should you be out of bed?" Warren had his hair pulled back and was almost completely out of costume, his flame red domino mask the only concession to still being inside the Chen Industries tower. His tank top did nothing to hide the vivid bruising along his jaw and all down his left shoulder and arm. Or the cast on his right wrist. Or the white bandages around his chest.
"I'm fine," Warren said, very obviously lying. "Look, I've got two hours before my makeup pastry final so this needs to be quick, but we have to talk."
"Uh, sure, maybe this weekend? Pastry and finals wait for no man, and there's this interview—"
"No," Warren interrupted. "You've been avoiding me since Monday and been extra weird longer than that. We do this now."
"Okay. Well, I obviously owe you an apology. Many apologies. Should I start there?" For having his head up his ass the last couple of weeks, for getting caught being soppy on camera, for making a hash of the press conference... everything on Peregrine's list, basically.
An annoyed look crossed Warren's face but, before he had a chance to say anything, Will's alarm went off and the door slid open again. Much faster than the last time. Huh.
A short, curvy woman stepped in, smiling and saying something to someone over her shoulder. She wasn't much older than them, maybe twenty-five, and dressed in a blazer over a t-shirt and jeans. It was a relief—Will had imagined someone more like Peregrine (aka Suzanne Chen, aka CEO of Chen Industries, aka leader of the Knights and terrifying boss), all sharp suits and steely gazes. This might actually be okay.
"Air Raid and Heat?" the woman said, coming forward to shake Warren's hand. "Amazing. My name's Salma Rahman, it's a pleasure to meet you." Warren only paused for a moment before he took her hand, proving hours of PR training had had some effect. Salma grinned up at him and then turned to look at Will. "But I thought I was only getting you today?"
"You are," Will answered, trying to convey how much he wasn't trying to duck out of the conversation to Warren with his eyes. It'd probably be more effective if he wasn't wearing the goggles. "I'm sorry, W—Heat, Peregrine has me doing this thing for ZapBamPow. The Heroing blog? Maybe I could drop by tonight after your thing?"
"I've got some time," Warren said, and gave Salma his most charming smile. "I thought I'd sit in. If you don't mind?"
"No, no, of course not." She opened her purse and pulled out a small notebook, pen, and voice recorder, setting them in a neat line on the table. "Heat, if you could go sit next to Air Raid we'll get this interview started. I'll try to make it quick, okay?"
"Thanks," Warren answered, circling the table and dropping into the chair next to Will.
"What are you doing?" Will leaned over to hiss, keeping one eye on Salma while she fiddled with the recorder. "You're going to miss your final!"
"I'm interacting with the media in a constructive fashion," Warren said, because he was a jerk. "Chill, Air Raid. I know what I'm doing."
Will groaned under his breath. It was going to be a long interview.
Salma Rahman: Heat, it's great to have you here with us. It looks like you're still a little banged up - how are you feeling?
Heat: Sore. Tired of being fussed over and tired of this cast, but otherwise okay.
SB: I'm glad to hear it. There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about how the battle in Maxville Park might have been worse than reported, especially with the way you and Machina were injured. Can you tell us anything about it?
Will had never thought of Maxville Park as having too many trees before, but between the park service's efforts and Layla's more recent contributions he was having trouble seeing anything useful. The long stretch of Maxville lake on the east side of the park was easier, its expanse iced over and dotted with frozen robots glittering in the summer sun. Mercury, check. So was the northern plaza. Which was on fire. Warren, check.
A crumpled giant robot sat at the center of everything. Fallen onto its side, it was overgrown with ivy and climbing hydrangeas. Smaller robots crawled over it like a really weird anthill, hacking through the vines and tearing out metal plate and wiring to carry back down somewhere. He could hear a hissing noise and the screech of tortured metal from beneath the canopy.
Will angled slightly until he was hovering directly over the wreckage and tapped his comm.
"I've completed my circuit," he said. "They're definitely dismantling the original body, but I can't see what they're doing with it. Sounds like welding, maybe, but I can't be sure. There's at least seventy-five percent remaining. I don't think we can wait them out."
-Got it- Peregrine said over the line. -Looks like our best shot is going to be hacking into their network. I'm working on that with Machina now. In the meantime, I need you to get to the northern sector and help Heat hold the line-
"Yes, ma'am," Will answered, because arguing with his team leader never got him anywhere. He'd been...twitchy around Warren lately, in what Layla had described as a cute, but a little sad sort of way. He was a professional, though. He could work through it.
"New channel: Heat," he commanded, climbing a couple hundred feet and heading north. The smoke and heat from whatever Warren was doing was intense even this far up, and he resisted the urge to flinch or climb higher. He'd been partners with Warren for years; after a few mishaps his suit had been rebuilt to handle it. "Heat, I'm incoming, but I'm having a hard time seeing through this mess. Can you send me your location?"
-About damn time- Warren replied -Keep flying north. The fire wall's thin. You should pass over it in a moment. I'm in the plaza-
"Got it." He put on a burst of speed and landed in the center of the plaza a minute later, skidding to a stop next to the monstrosity of a central fountain. Landing at speed was a pain in the ass; he didn't know how his mom made it look so graceful.
A quick look around confirmed what he remembered from previous visits with Layla and his parents: ugly fountain with an abstract sculpture on top, a rose garden with some bathrooms on the far side. The wall of fire was new, though. Across the street was City Hall. It'd been evacuated half an hour ago, but cars were still in the underground parking structure there were dozens of computers inside. Way too easy to get to.
On the near side, Warren stood with his back to the fountain and his arms elbow deep in flames. Will moved to stand behind him, a corner of his mind filing the scene away—pissed off and on fire was one of his favorite Warren-looks.
"Heat," he said, mostly ignoring the way the flickering light blacked out everything but Warren's hair and the line of his shoulders. "What's the situation?"
"Got a bunch of angry robots on the other side of this wall, which I'll have to have to drop soon." Warren's voice was strained. "Once it goes down we'll have to cover a stretch about fifteen hundred feet long. And there are at least a dozen citizens hiding on the other side of the men's bathroom."
"What? What are they doing here?"
"Maybe they want to watch the pretty lights," Warren said wryly. "Don't ask me. Best I could do was get them to take cover."
"Idiots," Will muttered.
"No fucking kidding. Okay, I'm dropping the wall in five, four, three..."
Will automatically shifted into an upright stance, balancing his weight and bringing up his fists.
"...two, one, down!"
Will surged towards the closest robot, feinting to the left and then ducking under its grasping appendages—one of which was glowing white hot. Why was that even necessary?—to deliver an uppercut that tore into its chest. Twin fireballs slammed into it a moment later and he grinned as it went down with a crash, spinning to meet the next one. And the next, and the next.
Air Raid: It was bad. I mean, I'm sure the media has had other things to focus on this week—
H: And a massive hate-on for Chen Industries.
AR: That too. The whole thing was definitely under-reported - if the villain had picked a location with more machinery or if Machina hadn't been able to hack the main robot brain... I don't know if we would have been able to stop it. There were a couple points where I thought they were going to break through for sure.
H: Don't borrow trouble, Air Raid. Yeah, it was bad, and I don't know if any of the Heroes away at the WHAM Summit could have done any better. But we did it and we didn't lose anyone.
AR: Just a couple of cars. And some Segways. And the carousel.
H: I was counting that as a win, actually.
SR: I wasn't planning on asking this with you in the room, Heat, but. Air Raid, we've all seen the video of the hand kiss by now - it was a pretty intimate gesture, especially when you're not dating. Can you tell me what was going through your head?
-...that's it, Machina's done it! The 'bots are down, our girl has taken the fucking 'bots down. I repeat...-
It took a moment for Penny's voice to sink in, long seconds that Will spent punching the suddenly unresponsive robot in front of him. His last punch sent it flying, landing on its back a hundred feet away with its tires spinning and its mechanical guts split open to the sky. Will stared after it, absently trying to rub feeling back into his hands, and thought about stomping and stomping until there was nothing left but slag.
The steady yellow blink of Warren's life signs in the corner of his eye distracted him, heartbeat and brain activity and unconscious but stable scrolling across the inside of his goggles. All the worry and fear he'd shoved away for later came flooding back and he turned and flung himself across the plaza, landing with a crash next to the ruined fountain. Oh, God. Warren.
A couple of the citizens had started trying to clear away the rubble and he managed a grateful smile while waving them the fuck back. Did they have any idea what they were doing?
"Thank you, but I've got this," he said, eying the pile of broken concrete. "Emergency services should be here in—Facet, ETA on emergency services to my location?" Warren had smashed into it from this direction and the whole thing had toppled over on him, which meant if he started there...Will cautiously lifted a large chunk of concrete and hurled it across the plaza at the pile of dead robots, where it made a satisfying crash.
-...north end of the park. Air Raid, ETA is ten minutes- Penny answered. He could barely hear her over the clamor of her other selves in the background, coordinating the cleanup effort. -I'm feeding them Heat's vitals now. You have any other injured they should know about?
"Ten minutes, folks. Are there any injuries in your group?" The citizens—two girls and a guy, teenagers really—shook their heads, eyes wide. Will wondered if they'd gotten what they'd wanted out of their little thrill seeking venture. "They say no, Facet. Okay, I need you to all step away; this next bit is tricky."
He waved them back again and started excavating in earnest, being careful not to collapse the pile. It slowed him down, but the last thing he needed was to bust a pipe or bring the whole thing down on Warren. More then it already was. The fountain had been turned off with nothing but a shallow pool of water in the lowest basin—that was probably all the luck they were going to get.
A small eternity and a ton of concrete later he shifted the last piece, a weird curved triangle that had fallen diagonally and shielded Warren from the worst of it. Warren himself was laying in an inch of water, his suit soaked through and his hair a cloud around his pale face. Will knelt and reached for him with shaking hands, checking for head trauma and blood and broken bones. His right wrist was crushed badly enough that they'd need a healer to fix it and he was bleeding from a dozen small cuts, but otherwise he seemed okay. Well, for a yay, not dying! definition of okay.
Picking Warren up and carrying him out of the rubble was a bad idea, one the approaching paramedics would yell at him for, but water and Warren were not a good mix and Will just did not care. He settled a couple feet away, lowering them both to the ground and shifting so Warren's head was in his lap. To keep his neck braced and because Will desperately needed to stay close.
"Hey, we won," he whispered down to Warren, smoothing his hair out of his face. "And the paramedics are pulling up now, lucky you."
Warren's eyes cracked open at his touch and Will took a deep breath, the day suddenly overwhelming. The trembling in his hands spread to his shoulders and he hunched them, trying to keep it from going any further.
"...hell," Warren managed after a moment, reaching up with his good arm to swipe ineffectually at Will's cheek.
"You said it." Will whispered and without really thinking about it he turned his face into Warren's hand, lips brushing against his palm.
AR: Well. Like I was saying, things got bad. I was teamed up with Heat at the north end of the park, protecting a group of citizens and blocking the way to City Hall. We were maybe an hour and a half in when one robot got Heat across the head with some kind of—
H: It was a bike tire.
AR: —with a bike tire and he went flying and smashed into a fountain. And he didn't get back up. He's got limited invulnerability, you know? From, uh, well. Um. I've never seen him stay down.
SR: So you were worried.
AR: Yeah. I had his vitals displayed inside my goggles so I knew it wasn't life threatening, but the robots kept coming and I couldn't check. I kept thinking, what if something's wrong? What if I never get to...all sorts of things.' So yes. After the fight was over and I had dug him out of the rubble and he woke up and wasn't dying, I kissed his hand.
SR: Your coming out at the press conference took everybody by surprise. What made you decide to do it?
AR: It wasn't something I planned – we were all exhausted and kind of in a panic because Machina had collapsed. She's doing fine, by the way, just waiting out a killer migraine.
SR: Well, she did hack into and destroy a rogue robot network with her brain.
AR: Exactly. So at the end of the end of the conference this guy raises his hand and asks—I guess the video had already made the rounds—and he asks what kind of relationship I had with Heat. When everyone else was talking about damages and the tech involved and repair efforts, can you believe it? So I tell him we're friends and he asks if I'm sure we're not homosexual lovers, just like that, with this look on his face... I say no, we're friends, and me being bisexual doesn't excuse him prying into my sex life. You can watch the clip on Youtube, the silence afterward is amazing. And then I got hustled inside the building and was lectured on the 'correct way to handle the press' for a while.
SR: How's your team taking all this? Your parents?
Will shut the door to his apartment and collapsed back against it, listening to the multitude of hidden locks slide into place. It was...he had no idea what time it was. Past midnight, maybe even past one am, and he needed to not drop his bag of gear by the coat rack and go to sleep in the entryway. There was light flickering from the living room at the end of the hall, which meant that Mercury was still up and would be put out with him if ze found him snoring on the door mat. That was incentive, right?
He pushed himself to his feet and headed up to his room to stow his things properly. Downstairs the phone rang and Em's low voice answered it, which meant it was someone they knew. Calling at, maybe, one in the morning after he'd outed himself live on the evening news. Shit.
Em was on hir beanbag chair when Will made it back down the stairs, contorted into a position he couldn't read as comfortable even after a year as roommates, and watching one of hir Garavan dramas on the TV. Ze only pulled out the stuff from home when ze was homesick or humanity was being particularly confusing, no guess as to which this was.
"Your mother called," Em said, picking up the phone from the floor and holding it out with one clawed hand.
"She said she would be here to talk to you in five minutes," ze added. There was a knock at the door. "The call was five minutes ago."
"Thanks, Em." Will sighed and headed back out to the entryway.
"Oh, honey," his mom said when he opened the door. She pulled him into a hug, her hair smelling of wind and rain, and he found himself clinging to her. "You don't make things easy for yourself, do you?"
"No," he admitted. "Is—did Dad come with you?"
"He said he needed to do some thinking," she answered, voice sad and a little angry. "Don't worry, he'll come around."
AR: My parents have been great - they've always been very supportive of me. The Knights are fine—I've been out with them for a while. Peregrine's a little upset that I created a very small PR mess without her permission and Mercury's kinda confused—ze doesn't get the fuss about human sexuality—but otherwise we're good.
H: 'Out for a while,' huh? To who, exactly?
AR: What? To everybody!
H: You never told me.
AR: Gaia knew! Facet knew, Mercury knew, and Peregrine knows everything. Everybody else knew, I thought you knew! I wasn't—I didn't think I was hiding it from anybody. From you.
SR: ...So those rumors about the two of you dating can be firmly put to rest?
AR: Yeah. I mean no, we're not.
H: Yeah, because you're an idiot.
SR: And—wait, what?
H: Are you physically incapable of just telling someone you're interested and asking them out for coffee?
H: Ask me out for coffee, Air Raid.
AR: But you don't drink coffoooooh.
AR: Uh, Heat, so I was thinking. Do you want to go out for a drink sometime?
SR: Wow, this is not how I was expecting this to go. I mean, not that I'm complaining! So, Heat—
H: I'm gay.
SR: I was going to work up to that, actually, but great! Air Raid, you don't look surprised - I take it this is old news?
AR: What? Oh, yeah.
H: I was up front about it when they asked me to join the Knights.
SR: Okay, last question. Very few superheroes come out and even fewer do it while active. How do you think being openly queer will effect your Heroing?
AR: It's not going to be easy, that's for sure. There's a lot of hate out there. I've been trying to stay away from TV and the internet, but it's hard to avoid everything. It's not just my, um. My relationship with Heat—people have said that it's a shame, that I used to be such a role-model. That I shouldn't talk about it, that I'll corrupt kids, that I'm confused, that no one wants a queer superhero. And that's the tame stuff.
H: Air Raid...
AR: Yeah. But at the same time I think it's important and I'm glad I did it. I'm happy with who I am and I'm proud of what I do—saving the world from the forces of evil is an important job and I'm proof that you can be different, be queer, and still do it. I want—I hope I can be an inspiration to other. I wouldn't give that up for anything.
"Thank you again," Salma said, slinging her purse over her shoulder. "And...good luck out there. A bunch of us are rooting for you, don't let the assholes get you down."
"Yes. I mean, no, I won't," Will replied, shaking her hand. "And good luck to you, with the article."
"You have no idea." She grinned at him, her smile a little wicked around the edges. "The internet is going to explode. It'll be beautiful. But don't Google yourselves for a while." She paused. "Or ever."
"I'll keep that in mind," Warren said, extending his own hand to shake. "Thanks. It's been interesting."
"Ha, yes. It has. Enjoy your coffee, you guys." She turned and left the room, the door sliding shut and leaving the two of them alone.
"That went better than I expected," Will said after a moment, moving to sit on the edge of the table and taking his goggles off with a sigh of relief. They'd started to pinch.
"Yeah? How so?" Warren settled next to him, close enough that their shoulders bumped, and reached out to poke a warm finger at Will's forehead. "You've got goggle marks."
"Spare pair," Will said, mouth dry. "Doesn't have the new adhesive. And...I thought I'd permanently screwed things up with us and the interview would make it worse. I was sure—"
"You really are an idiot," Warren sighed, dropping his hand. "An idiot who can't start a relationship without massive amounts of drama."
"...that's fair," Will admitted. "But what about you, huh? I've been driving myself crazy thinking there was no way you'd. Like me back."
"I've had more practice hiding it," Warren said, casually, and Will felt his stomach twist. How long has he...? "And then you picked dead week to start your half-assed pigtail pulling. Dead week. I was a little preoccupied."
"Oh, shit, your final," Will breathed. "The interview was over an hour long, there's no way you're going to—"
"I told you I've got it under control, Stronghold," Warren said, rolling his eyes. "You see, it turns out there's this guy who's crazy about me. And can fly. At supersonic speeds."
"I should have thought of that," Will admitted, and hopped off the table. He spun to face Warren and held out his hand, not even trying to fight the ridiculous grin spreading across his face. "Shall we?"
"Sure," Warren said, lips quirked. He took Will's hand and pulled himself to his feet, squeezing once before letting it go. "Let's get out of here."
"Yeah," Will replied. I think I'm ready for this after all. "Watch out, world. Here we come."