The restaurant is fully under control. People have stopped screaming, anyway. Henchmen, posing as customers, visited earlier, sussed out the silent alarm system. They expertly disabled it with an EMP vortex rifle as Hot Mess began her own task. Up on the counter - check. Barry in the back, shutting off the sprinkler system - check. Gouts of flame to terrify the lunch crowd - check. Perfect angle to enhance the acoustics - check.
“TREMBLE AND OBEY!”
Like good hostages, they do.
Samir and his boys had the foresight to start collecting cell phones, just in case some hero decided they could send an emergency call. They’re getting a raise. Two guys with SMGs at the door, grabbing nosy new arrivals - check. Sign out front reading CLOSED FOR BUSINESS - drat. That would have been clever.
Now it’s time for my guests to appear.
Nono comes through the door and winds up staring at the point of a gun barrel, pointing straight at her nose. Her glasses slide down the bridge, and almost touch the weapon. She squeaks. Burly men with stubble and thousand-yard stares manhandle her into the corner, roughly grabbing away her phones, and brusquely order her into silence.
She looks up to see a familiar face.
She arrived, just as predicted! It just took a little wheedling: “Listen, can you… Come hang out at the restaurant, watch my back, just make sure I don’t screw up?” “Of course, sweetie!”
Hot Mess updates her mental file on Nono Rodriguez. A little too well-meaning, a little too predictable. Need to throw her into a pit of spiders once in awhile to test her skills at improvisation. Non-poisonous spiders, obviously. Who’d want to hurt a valuable and trusted minion?
She rises to her full height, or as full as she can get given the godawful interior design of this restaurant. Who thought that exposed ductwork, with ceiling tiles covering maybe half the ceiling, was a good idea? It looks unprofessional, god dammit! Anyway.
“Nono! So glad you could make it. For I am not the schoolgirl you befriended. I am… HOT MESS!”
Shit. You know, once you say it out loud like this, it doesn’t sound quite as cool. Hmm. Mental note for later.
“Too long have you been held down by convention! Too long have you been–”
“What are you doing, Emma?” the girl demands.
Did she just interrupt me? Oh, no, you don’t do that while I’m monologuing.
Hot Mess unleashes sheets of flame, and Nono shrieks and cowers. That’s better.
“–Too long have you been forced into conformity! Mediocrity! I will free you. Join me, Nono. Together we will conquer this city, this nation, this world! Your brilliance, my sheer dominating will. Rise! Rise, and become part of my organization!”
Shit. Oh shit, I almost said “conquer this restaurant” there. That would have been awkward. Hey, what kinda place is this anyway? Asian fusion. What the fuck? You don’t conquer Asian fusion. It just spreads everywhere. I shoulda done this at the Brazilian barbecue place. God, that stuff is to die for, but so freakin’ expensive.
She waits. Come on, rise already. I gave you permission.
Nono crouches down, not wanting to cry.
There’s gonna be a superhero soon, right? Kid Kelvin is supposed to come here. OH. Oh. This was a trap. She asked for a date, because she’s a villain, and she wanted to fight him here. Why here? Did he stand her up or something previously, and she turned evil and–?
No, don’t over-analyze this. Just wait. He’ll show up, and rescue everyone. That’s what heroes do.
She’s not rising.
Oooookay, plan B.
“While you consider my magnanimous offer, allow me to sweeten the deal….”
Hot Mess snaps her fingers. Honestly, it’s better this way. It’s really embarrassing to go back and tell someone “we didn’t need you after all, sorry for the trouble”.
Nono looks up in shock to hear a familiar voice. She sees a familiar face.
The uncomfortable young man is held by the shirt collar by two goons, both armed and pointing weapons if not exactly at him, close enough to make it clear that he’s very covered.
He’s alive and unharmed anyway. He’s a hostage. He’s Emma’s hostage. Why? What does she want?
She’s trying to recruit someone, a voice says in her heart.
Nono returns her attention to Emma. Or is it “Hot Mess”?
“Emma, what’s gotten into you? I want to be your friend, and go to school with you, and look at fire together. You’re an amazing person. Can’t we go back to that? Please?”
The other girl looks at her with a face Nono can’t explain. Her lip starts to quiver, and she looks ready to cry. The henchmen are distracted.
Nono sees Pietro quietly press a thumb down on his wristwatch.
Up in the helicopter, a support crew sees a blinking red light. “That’s the signal,” the leader says. This is what they’ve trained for, and get paid for, even if they’ve never done it for real before. But the kid’s money is good, and so is his heart. He’s a loon, but … there’s just something about him. Not helping him out would be like kicking a puppy. A loud, yappy puppy.
A hatch opens under the helicopter, and the armor drops silently toward the roof of the restaurant.
Nono, Hot Mess, and the guards are shocked by the tremendous crash from above. In a second, the ceiling gives way, kicking up clouds of dust and sprays of water. Nono is back on her knees, coughing and wiping her eyes.
The particle cloud has a light at the center. Several lights. As it clears, everyone can see the source. Pietro is now encased in a suit of weird-looking armor. It’s got running lights, exhaust tips of some sort, decals - it looks like a street racing car built for the body.
Pietro laughs, and laughs. “Hot Mess, huh? You face Pietro - the Plasma Prince!” He stabs a finger down on one of the vambraces, looking confident. That look falters when nothing happens. He pushes his activation button again, and again, and again, going from confusion to panic to anger.
Okay, fine. That was unexpected, but at least I’m not bored. Adapt, improvise, overcome, right?
Hot Mess rallies herself. The henchmen have scattered to avoid being crushed by debris, but she’s not so fragile or fearful. Her face is placid. In a way, this simplifies matters considerably.
“Very well, Plasma Prince. If you’ve cast yourself as the hero, I’ll have to destroy you. I’m sorry, Nono. Your grief at your boyfriend’s destruction–”
“He’s not my boyfriend!”
“–will be short-lived, once I show you the wonders that await us both.”
Hot Mess winds up the biggest concentration of fire she can manage, and flings it with a sudden heated anger at the doomed fool in metal armor.
There’s a whining sound. Magnetic clamps engage to stabilize the suit. The fire is siphoned into the exhaust tips on the shoulders, and there neutralized. All that fire, for nothing.
Hot Mess looks dully frustrated. She sees Nono looking tearfully grateful. Worst, she sees Pietro looking surprised. Don’t you dare be an amateur. That better have been deliberate.
She readies another blast. Another whine, another conflagration neutralized by that infernal nuisance of a suit.
He’s not even moving. Can he even move in that thing?
She builds up for a third try. Through the aura of fire around her, she glances at Nono. The girl looks sad, and … angry? She decides to try her last bit of persuasion, bare her heart, say what she feels.
“Nono, please! I’m not just a friend at school, I need to be something more! I really want you with me! Come with me. Be part of what I’m doing. Be part of my life! This guy can’t give you the fire I can! Please! Please!”
Nono’s not swayed.
She unloads with everything she has, at everyone who’s making her angry, which right now is everyone - Pietro, some nearby patrons, probably some unlucky henchmen too. And Nono. And herself.
The machine eats it all with not even a belch. But Pietro still can’t move a muscle.
Nono remembers Leo’s promise at the Ponies AMA. He was going to teach her how to fight.
Emma, if you’re not gonna be reasonable, Pietro, if you can’t do something about this, someone has to.
Nono rises to her feet. She feels her fist curling up.
Leo’s voice echoes in her mind. His lessons, his reassurances. His confidence in her as a student.
He believed in me.
I believe in me.
She walks forward - runs forward - leaps upward onto the counter - pulls her fist back - relaxes - draws breath. It’s like everything Leo said, at those times in the gym with her and Taz and a couple other curious girls. There’s a rhythm to it. Your breath, your body, all working together. Relax, let the power well up, then move everything at once. Look at who you’re hitting. Exhale. Connect.
She understands something else Leo said, that didn’t make sense at the time. “Your fists carry your intent.”
Stop this. Stop it right now.
Nono punches Hot Mess in the face, harder than anyone has ever been punched by anybody.
The girl, surprised, dazed, unbelieving, falls off the counter and hits the ground.
The police responded after someone called in the roof collapse. They’re on the scene. One of the henchmen was knocked unconscious by rubble. The rest made their escape, with their boss slung over one goon’s shoulder. A few of the restaurant patrons suffered mild injuries, but nobody needs an ambulance.
Pietro is being pulled out of his armor by a squad of people who landed in a helicopter earlier. Reporters are already on the way to talk to him. Nono leaves him alone.
She wanders outside, with a question on her mind. She finds the answer outside.
Kid Kelvin waves. “Hey, where’s that hot girl you promised?” he asks.
“Where the hell were you?” Nono demands.
“I was over there, where you said.” The super points. Nono realizes what happened.
“No. Listen. I meant Joss Udon, this place.”
“I thought this was some candy store. Snack Snyder or something.”
“No, that closed down. Joss opened in its place.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Kelvin shrugs it off. “What happened?”
“Supervillain attack.” Nono shrugs, and walks away.
Behind her, Kid Kelvin is yelling. “So like, is this chick gonna call me, or what?”
Hot Mess has recovered physically. The henchmen got raises. She’s gonna need to do some jobs soon to cover expenses.
She looks across the lair, at the shiny new chemistry equipment on the brand new table, with a big red ribbon tied around it. She wants to cry.
She picks up the paper. The tears stop when the headline hits her eyes.
PLASMA PRINCE STIR FRIES PYROKINETIC VILLAIN.
No. No no no no.
She keeps reading.
“It seems that Halcyon City has a new hero, and that he has a new nemesis.”
Their photos are printed together.
Nemesis. Nemesis. No. No. NO NO NO. NOOOOOOOOOOO GOD NO.
author: Bill G.