Cinder stepped out of the bakery and into chaos.
A robot head sailed over the curb and into the bakery's display window in a shower of glass and sparks. Cinder yanked the hood of her jacket up over head to protect herself from any further shrapnel and darted a few yards away, clutching the straps of her backpack more tightly. Car alarms wailed up and down the street, and other bystanders shrieked with each earth-shaking crash. The very concrete under her feet trembled with the force of the battle raging a few hundred feet away. Her breath hitched in her throat, her nose prickling with every inhale of the acrid smoke that billowed from the flaming shell of a car down the street. She'd never seen anything like this up close before. Splashed across front page headlines and scrolling across Adri's TV screen maybe, but she'd never seen them in the flesh.
"Get back!" The man in the black suit with the blue emblem stamped across his chest was doing more yelling than fighting at the moment, dodging strike after strike of the robot's lasers in between shepherding civilians out of the line of fire. "C'mon, guys, get inside, stay away from the windows, and—Ahh!"
Cinder flinched as she watched a shot skim across the man's shoulder and drive into the pavement beyond him with a hiss, leaving behind a scorched, gaping crater. He leapt out of the way of the next one, gritting his teeth and rubbing furiously at the wound.
"Watch it!" The only woman of the infamous trio hollered from where she was wrestling with one of the horde of robots that had swarmed the neighborhood, the red curls that spilled from beneath her hood tangling in the automaton's fingers. Three already lay in mangled heaps of twisted metal and sparking wires, while the woman in the hoodie grappled with another, her fingers digging into the plating of its head as she slammed it into the asphalt over and over again. The man in black and blue distracted the second, and the last of them—an enormous man with brawny arms and gloved fists—effortlessly tossed the third into the nearest brick wall head-first.
Instinct told Cinder to stop gawking and power-walk her way out of the danger zone and all the way home, where she could watch the rest of the fight on YouTube like any other civilized city-dweller would. That was certainly what the stream of people stampeding past her seemed intent on doing, shoving and jostling past her in a frantic stream. But she couldn't seem to tear herself away. Even if the robots themselves—more escapees from the research facility outside of town, if she wasn't mistaken—hadn't fascinated her mechanically-inclined mind, the heroes did.
"I am watching it!" The wounded man shouted back, drawing a silver disc from the utility belt strapped around his waist and chucking it at the nearest robot as he twisted out of its reach. He grinned smugly-if a little tiredly-at the burst of light and smoke that erupted upon contact and his target fell to its knees. The other man let out a snort, his voice a low rumble when it came.
"Don't get cocky, Luna Man."
"Captain. It's Captain Luna! Honestly, Wolf, we've had this discussion how many times?" There was a long-suffering sigh from behind the mask, followed by an even louder snort from Wolf.
"You've read too many comic books." The redhead broke in, grinding out the words between punches. "No one's ever going to call you that."
A knowing look passed between Wolf and the redhead over their respective foes, and the redhead smirked. "I'm sure she does."
The Captain's response was lost beneath the thunderous noise of Wolf pounding his opponent into the asphalt. Cinder took a step back, the noise just a little too close for comfort. She glanced at the digital watch embedded in her prosthetic arm's control panel. Adri would notice her absence soon. As tempting as it was to stay, it would be safer to go. In more ways than one.
She turned to go, but a flash of movement in her peripheral vision caught her eye. Cinder's breath caught as a lanky boy with a camera in his hands and a press ID dangling from a lanyard around his neck stepped closer to the fray. A bolt of laser fire cut across the air an inch beyond his nose, but he didn't move, his mouth thinning with determination as he adjusted the lens to get a better shot of the robot in front of him. He was fearless. Another bolt shrieked by, slicing past his ear and sizzling into the brickwork near Cinder's elbow, but still the boy didn't move. Cinder wrinkled her nose. Fearless, or possibly oblivious.
The robot nearest him raised a bulky arm and swung at him, its heavy fist stirring his shaggy black hair as he ducked away, an exhilarated grin stealing across his face as he pressed the shutter. Cinder started to smile, but the grin turned to a gasp as the robot's arm popped up again in a vicious upswing, slamming into the boy and knocking him into the air…and directly at her. He sailed across the gap between them in tangle of flailing limbs and manly yells and slammed into her like a battering ram. They crumpled to the concrete in an undignified heap, his weight crushing Cinder against the sidewalk. She froze, unsure of what exactly she was supposed to do when squashed by an attractive idiot in the middle of a fire fight. He shifted then, starting to blurt out harried apologies, but abruptly halting as a shadow fell across them and the scent of hot metal pricked at Cinder's nose.
The robot had followed them.
The boy squared his shoulders and spread his arms, making himself a bigger target for the glowing muzzle of the laser gun. Cinder's pulse hitched in her chest and suddenly she was moving out of pure panic. She shoved the boy aside and rolled onto her side, pressing a finger to one of the switches at the base of her prosthetic arm and flattened her palm flush against the robot's leg. The air crackled with the sharp buzz of her taser firing. The robot froze, its limbs seizing and rattling against its sides for an instant before it stiffened and toppled over with a tremendous crash.
Cinder sagged away, a heavy breath leaking out of her like air from a deflating balloon. The taser she'd rigged up in her free hours at the machine shop had been originally intended to fend off muggers on her walk to and from school, but apparently, it worked just as well on homicidal robots. Iko would be thrilled.
She realized then that people were staring. Other bystanders huddled along the street in uneasy little clumps, some just pointing and chattering and others drawing phones to record the carnage. The rest of the fight was dying down. Captain Whatever was helping sift survivors out of the rubble while the Wolf and the redhead were dragging what remained of the robots out of the street. All three had stopped to look at the source of crash. And the boy was getting up.
"Hey…um…thanks for that." He smiled a little sheepishly as he dusted off his shirt and picked up his battered camera, but his eyes were sharp as they scanned curiously over her worn jeans and oversized hoodie, coming to rest on her face. Or at least what was visible of it beneath the shadows of her hood. A jolt of panic ran through her and she yanked the hood further down. The last thing she needed was to get dragged into the media circus that surrounded any sort of good Samaritans. Especially ones who could beat up giant robots. The boy's brow furrowed with concern and he lifted both hands as if to show he meant no harm, but Cinder was already turning to sprint off down the nearest alley.
It was quiet when Cinder crept up the musty stairwell to the second floor apartment she shared with Adri and Adri's daughters, Pearl and Peony. As far as she knew, both girls would be away for piano and dance lessons respectively for at least another hour, leaving only Adri to slip past. The muted hum of the TV rose and fell on the other side of the door as Cinder unlocked it and stepped inside, pausing a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light of the single lamp Adri had left on to save electricity while she watched her shows. Cinder was grateful for it tonight. Her pulse had skyrocketed the instant she fled the scene of the battle, her legs trembling with adrenaline as she ran. Her mind raced as the reality of what happened sank in. She had nearly been killed. The boy with the camera had nearly been killed. And her taser had saved them both. The feelings roiling in the pit of her stomach shifted back and forth between giddy exhilaration and the sudden urge to throw up. As jittery as she was, the less Ari saw, the better.
"You're late." Adri called from her position on the couch, clearly struggling to muster up sufficient irritation in her voice without looking away from the screen. Cinder rolled her eyes. It was safe to do so now, with her foster guardian's attention safely focused on anything but Cinder.
"There was a fight on the street. I got delayed." Cinder didn't stop striding towards her room. Adri's gaze flicked over her, her eyes narrowing at the debris ground into her jeans from the fall and the greasy splotches of mud at her ankles from her mad dash through the alley. Cinder swallowed drily, but kept her face neutral. It wasn't as if she'd never come home from the machine shop she worked at in grungy clothes before. As long as Adri didn't pay too much attention to her or to the news, then all would be well. And Adri had never paid Cinder any unnecessary attention. Why should she start now?
"You'd better wash that out. I'm not buying you new jeans."
"What a shock." Cinder murmured as she passed out of Adri's line of sight and into the cramped hallway that branched off the living area and funneled into the trio of bedrooms. Once inside her own—a narrow slot of a room wedged between the bathroom and the more spacious room that Pearl and Peony shared—she sagged against the door. Her eyes fell shut and she released a long, shuddery breath as the last of her waning adrenaline drained away. It was over. She'd gotten away with it.
"Ahem." A tinny computerized voice prodded at Cinder from the alcove by the window. After a few silent seconds, it came again, more forcefully. "Ahem!"
Cinder cracked one eye open, a faint smile tugging at her lips. "Can I help you, Iko?"
"Is there maybe something you'd like to tell me?" The screen of Cinder's laptop flared to life as she hauled herself to her feet and crossed the room to slump into the window seat turned computer alcove that housed her best friend. Iko's program took up the entire desktop, the background behind the generic feminine silhouette of her avatar glowing a soft, pleased pink. Cinder opened her mouth to reply, but was abruptly cut off. "I can't believe you did that! It was you, wasn't it? I mean, it had to be you, I recognized your hoodie on the video feed, but I just can't believe you did that!" There was a pause. "Why did you do that?"
"Because I didn't want to get vaporized," Cinder said casually, kicking off her muddy shoes and drawing her legs up into the window seat to sit more comfortably. She scrubbed at a smudge of mud on the prosthetic leg with the hem of her sleeve.
"Not that! Though I'm really glad you didn't get vaporized..."The image on the screen wavered in Iko's best imitation of a shudder. Cinder laughed. "But why did you run away after? They're already calling you a hero on the news."
Cinder paused in reaching for the backpack she'd shrugged off a moment earlier and frowned. "What?"
"They're calling you a hero, Cinder," Iko repeated, pulling up a page littered with grainy phone pictures, shaky videos looped to display her brief tussle with the robot over and over, and dozens of posts speculating about the powers of "Luna City's newest guardian." Cinder gaped.
"It happened twenty minutes ago! How did they-"
"Everybody loves a hero." Iko said cheerfully.
"But I'm not a hero." Cinder said, turning her attention back to the backpack a little wistfully. Perhaps if she were, things would be different. The people she'd watched on the street seemed so close. There were inside jokes and dumb nicknames and a comfortable sense of camaraderie that hung around them like a fog. As much as she love Iko, the idea of having a friend who didn't live in a hard drive was appealing. Beyond that, they were helping people. Taking down robots. Bringing down criminals. Saving people. Stopping tragedies, even tragedies like the one that had made her. That was appealing, too.
"But you could be."
"Maybe." Cinder didn't look up from rifling through her bag, her metal fingers catching on the soft fabric of her hoodie. She'd stripped it off on the way home and crammed it in her bag just in case someone recognized it. She tugged it free and tossed it on the bed where she could decide what to do with it later. Her hand finally closed around the dented cardboard of the bakery box and she pulled it into the light. The trip to the bakery was a once a year splurge, a clandestine mission to get at least a taste of a normal life. And if she wanted to actually get a chance to enjoy it before the others got home, she had to enjoy it now.
The cupcake in the box hadn't fared well; most bakeries didn't take super-battles into account when designing their packaging, after all. The once-pristine swirls of rich buttercream icing were now smushed, the delicate lettering over them bleeding into an indistinguishable glob. The box had tilted sometime during the fight and the cake itself had been wedged against the side of the crumpled box, turning into something that more closely resembled a waffle than a cupcake. Cinder shrugged to herself. Either way, it was still a cupcake.
"Wait, wait, wait, don't eat it yet! I have to sing!" Iko cried out. Cinder grinned and popped open the box, lifting the treat out with a flourish for the benefit of Iko's webcam. Iko let out a soft, sympathetic noise at its sorry state, but started her yearly attempt at karaoke anyway.
"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Cinder…"
Cinder leaned back to rest against the wall of her window seat. Adri barely acknowledged her existence most days and she certainly never put out the extra money for petty celebrations, so Cinder threw her own. Her own quiet little party, complete with a cake and a friend to sing…so long as she sang quietly enough to keep Adri from banging on the wall in protest. Cinder let her eyes fall shut and sank her teeth into the cake, savoring the rare sweetness as it rolled over her tongue. "Happy birthday to you!"
"Thanks, Iko," Cinder said around a mouthful of cake. Iko's screen glowed more brightly in acknowledgement.
"You're so welcome. How's the cake?"
"Not bad for all it's been through." She paused thoughtfully, running a thumb over her lips to swipe away her icing mustache, then licking it off. "What did you mean a minute ago? When you said I could be a hero."
"Well, you've already saved one person and beaten up one bad guy, so you've got a little experience. And you've already got a weapon to use, so if you got a costume and a codename, it wouldn't be that hard...right?"
"All I've got is a taser...that only works if I can touch whoever I'm up against. What if I ran into someone with a gun? I'd need more long-range options, plus a really, really good costume to keep Adri off my back in the long term."
"Weelllll..."Cinder wasn't sure how Iko managed to make such a generic voice sound so smug, but somehow she did. "I took the liberty of doing a little research."
The screen shifted again, dozens of images flitting across the screen in quick succession. Design schenatics, uniform design references, self-defense techniques, prosthetic attachments, and others that moved too quickly for Cinder to process or recognize. Ideas sparked in her brain with every new picture and a tiny flame of excitement began to build in her chest. As wild as the thought seemed...it was do-able.
"So, what do you think?" Iko said cautiously. Cinder smiled, glancing out the grimy window and over the smog-blanketed, gray-tinted city that sprawled out in flat, lonely rooftops and jagged, towering skyscrapers as far as she could see. As it was, her future was as bleak as the view outside her window. Another long, bleak year until she aged out of Adri's care followed by an uncerimonious launch into life on her own. If taking to the streets like she had today would give her the same rush...the same purposefulness...that she came away with today, then she would take on the risks. What did she have to lose?
"I think...I think it couldn't hurt to try."
Thanks to regolithheart for being a very patient brainstorming buddy and chairwoman of the codename committee!