The last time Sara had been held hostage had definitely been worse.
Last time, the hostage-taker had been an angry man in a ski mask. He’d shouted at her to hand over all the cash in her register, his face so close that she could count every vessel in his bloodshot eyes. She’d been in the middle of giving it to him, the bills sticking to her sweaty hands, when the police had appeared. The thief had grabbed her and waved his gun, shouting that he’d shoot her if they got too close. She’d been a crying, terrified mess for the entire two-hour standoff. Then Captain Alpha had come and put an end to it, and all in all, it had been the worst day of her life.
Today would probably be a close second, though, because this time her hostage-taker was a supervillain.
“There.” The supervillain finished tying the rope around Sara’s ankles and stood up. “How’s that? Not cutting off your circulation, is it?”
Sara sat in an armchair in her own apartment. (That was the only part worse than last time. She’d barely managed to go back to work without having a panic attack; now she was going to feel terrified in her own home.) Her wrists were bound behind her back in the same elaborate, looping knots that now tied her ankles. Instead of answering the question, she looked at the floor.
“Alright. But let me know if your hands or feet start feeling tingly. I’ll loosen it. Promise.”
Lady Nightmare. Sara was ninety percent sure the woman standing in front of her was Lady Nightmare. Or maybe Bella Morte? Sara didn’t watch the news enough to keep all the various supervillains of the world straight. Whoever she was, she wore a dapper three-piece suit, domino mask, and fedora all a shade of purple so dark it was nearly black. She had fair skin and dark hair cut in a classic bob, and she smelled like raspberries. That last bit probably wasn’t the most relevant thing to notice about a masked villain who’d broken into your apartment, but she’d gotten really close when she’d tied Sara to the chair, okay? Sara couldn’t not notice.
The supervillain picked up Sara’s cell phone, and the four-digit password jumped to the front of Sara’s mind. Apparently, the supervillain could read minds. Because that wasn’t terrifying at all. And both Lady Nightmare and Bella Morte had that superpower, so it didn’t even help Sara figure out who’d captured her.
Sara could only hear half of the conversation that followed, but it was one she’d been afraid of ever since Captain Alpha had asked her out. It was all “I have your girlfriend” and “Come alone if you want to see her again” and stuff like that. Captain Alpha probably said something macho in response, but the supervillain hung up on him. “That went well.” She set down the phone and beamed at Sara. “Anyway, don’t worry about a thing. I’ve no intention of hurting you. I mean, yeah, I might have to do my nightmare thing to you to give him a bit of extra motivation, but you’ll be fine.”
Sara’s stomach tied itself into a knot as elaborate as the ones around her limbs. “Nightmare thing?” she asked, her voice squeaking.
“Yeah, you know. I’m Lady Nightmare. I get into your head telepathically? Make you live out your worst fear? It’s my whole thing.”
Well, at least Sara knew who’d taken her hostage now.
“You’ll be fine,” Lady Nightmare said with a dismissive wave. “Got anything to drink around here?”
Sara didn’t drink, so no, but she couldn’t say anything as Lady Nightmare strolled into her kitchen. Oh, crap, her kitchen. There must be at least two days’ worth of dirty dishes in the sink, and when was the last time she’d taken out the trash? If Sara had known someone would be breaking into her home today, she would have cleaned. This was going to be awful. Once Lady Nightmare was finished (assuming Sara survived), the apartment would be crawling with cops, and they’d all get a good look at the dirty clothes on her bedroom floor, piles of unopened mail on the kitchen table, and a floor she hadn’t vacuumed in weeks. They were going to look at her all judgmentally, and it was going to be awful. Maybe the nightmare thing would kill her and spare her the mortification.
“This is really good. Did you make it?”
Lady Nightmare was leaning against the bar between the kitchen and living room, holding a fork in one hand and a green Tupperware in the other.
“No.” The word came out softly and weakly, but Sara was actually pretty miffed, thank you very much. That was her mother’s baklava in that Tupperware.
“Well, it’s really good.” Lady Nightmare took another bite, and the fork lingered between her lips as she savored the taste. They were full, glossy lips, her lipstick a shade of deep plum that matched her outfit and complimented her pale skin. The fork slid slowly and sensuously out, and Sara tore her gaze away, heart pounding.
Stop staring, she instructed herself. Lady Nightmare had to be doing that on purpose. No one was naturally that sexy when they ate.
“So, how come Captain Alpha is in your phone as ‘Captain Alpha’ and not his real name?” Lady Nightmare asked.
Sara had to swallow before she could answer. “He hasn’t told me his real name. He said… What did he say? He said knowing his secret identity would put both of us in danger or something.”
Lady Nightmare snorted. “What a douchebag.”
You don’t know the half of it, Sara thought. Then she had another thought that was much worse. Captain Alpha was coming here. To her apartment. She didn’t want him in her apartment. What if he defeated Lady Nightmare? He’d rescue Sara again, and he’d be so damn pleased with himself, and her bedroom was right over there, and—no. That wasn’t going to happen. That probably wasn’t going to happen. There was a better chance of Lady Nightmare just killing them both. Yes, that was it. Sara just had to think positively.
Lady Nightmare finished the baklava and gave herself a tour of Sara’s apartment. She browsed through Sara’s bookshelves (“Oh, I’ve always wanted to read this one. I heard it’s really good.”), glanced over framed family photographs, and shook up Sara’s collection of snow globes. Sara kept her eyes on the wall and definitely didn’t pay attention to the way Lady Nightmare’s soft-looking lips pursed thoughtfully as she gazed at Sara’s paintings.
How long before Captain Alpha got here? How long before Lady Nightmare made Sara live out her worst fear? Sara wondered what it would be. She was afraid of heights, and she’d had nightmares before about falling off a building. Could Lady Nightmare make her feel pain? Because Sara was definitely afraid of being tortured to death. She’d once dated a guy who dragged her to awful horror movies showing graphic stuff like that. Though none of those dates had been as bad as the one she’d had with Captain Alpha.
It had been at a fancy Italian restaurant two days ago, and he’d started it off by ordering wine even though Sara protested that she didn’t drink. And then he’d talked. He’d talked and talked and talked. No awkward silences on this first date. Sara had smiled and nodded at first, but eventually she’d stopped, trying to politely hint that she wasn’t interested in hearing about how the entire backstage staff had begged for his autograph the last time he’d been interviewed on late night TV. The date had lasted less than two hours in reality, but it had felt like at least five.
If only it had ended there, but everyone she knew had asked how it’d went afterward. And when Sara had answered not so great, a lot of their replies had been “But he’s saved so many people,” “But he’s so handsome,” or “But he’s a superhero.” Like he could never do anything wrong, and it was Sara’s fault for not having a good time.
“I like this one. Where’d you get it?” Lady Nightmare pulled Sara from her thoughts. She was pointing at Sara’s favorite one of her paintings: a moody mermaid under a starry sky.
“Made it,” Sara mumbled, lowering her gaze to the floor.
“What was that?”
“It’s one of mine,” Sara tried again, less mumbly. “I painted it.”
“What? No way!” Lady Nightmare looked around the room again, her eyes lighting up behind the mask. She’d been pretty before, but the genuine delight on her face made her stunning. “Are all of these yours? That’s—” Her phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her suit jacket pocket and put it to her ear. “Got it. Thanks.”
She pocketed her phone and turned back to Sara, the smile gone from her face. Sara had liked her a lot better when she’d been smiling.
“Captain Alpha just showed up,” Lady Nightmare said. “I’m gonna have to do my thing now.”
“Your nightmare thing,” Sara said weakly.
“Yeah…” Lady Nightmare approached slowly and knelt in front of Sara’s chair. “I won’t lie. This is gonna suck. But it’ll be over soon, and it’s not real, okay? Just remember it’s not real.”
Sara nodded mutely. Her mouth was suddenly very dry. She tried to prepare herself, but she had no idea what was coming. Would it be a horror movie monster or something much more realistic and vile? The most fear she’d ever felt before was when she’d been cowering on the filthy tile floor of the store, the man in the ski mask screaming at the police outside. She didn’t want to relive that, either. Lady Nightmare’s mouth was curved in an attractive frown. Was she hesitating or just concentrating on using her powers? Wouldn’t it be nice if—
Sara was standing in the church she used to go to with her parents when she’d been younger. It looked bigger and darker than she remembered, and the saints in the icons on the walls had shadowed faces and grim eyes. Sara’s wedding dress was tight and scratchy, and Captain Alpha stood next to her. A strange priest asked, “Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband—”
“No,” Sara tried to say, but no sound came out of her mouth. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t even a proper Orthodox wedding ceremony.
“Of course she does,” said Captain Alpha, flashing a smile of perfect white teeth.
Sara tried to pull away, but his hand gripped her arm, and she couldn’t budge. She twisted around, looking pleadingly at the congregation for someone who could help her. She didn’t recognize anyone. Where were her parents? Where were her friends? The strangers all smiled at her. Why couldn’t they see this was wrong?
Then Sara wasn’t in the church anymore. She was in her bedroom, and Captain Alpha was there, too.
“No,” Sara said, shaking her head back and forth.
“You’ll like it. Trust me.” It was the same thing he’d said when he’d ordered her wine at the restaurant. And the worst part was he honestly believed it. The possibility that Sara wouldn’t—that any woman wouldn’t—had never crossed his mind.
Sara couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. He came closer and closer, and she couldn’t do anything. Her bedroom—her homey, familiar bedroom hadn’t changed, but something about it looked so sinister now. She had to escape. If she didn’t get away, she’d never escape this moment for the rest of her life. And no one would ever believe her, because he was a hero, and nobody wanted to believe bad things about their heroes. Run. Scream. Do something before it’s too late! But it was already too late. He reached her and—
Sara was back in her living room, tied up in her chair and gasping for breath.
“Shit,” said Lady Nightmare. “I’m such an asshole. Oh my God. Are you okay?”
Sara didn’t know. Her heart was pounding so hard it almost hurt.
“Forget this.” Lady Nightmare yanked at the knot around Sara’s ankles and untied her. “I thought you were going to be afraid of spiders or something. Are you okay? I’m so sorry.”
And Sara was officially so pathetic that she’d made a supervillain feel bad for her. This was a new low.
“You’re not pathetic,” said Lady Nightmare. How had she—oh, right. Mind-reading. “You’re not,” she repeated. “I’m just an unbelievable jackass. I didn’t think— Here. Lean forward.”
Sara leaned forward so Lady Nightmare could untie her arms. Her shirt stuck to her back, which had gotten soaked with sweat over the course of her nightmare. She must smell so gross right now. Lady Nightmare’s fingers brushed Sara’s arms as she expertly untied the ropes, and Sara probably would have taken a secret, guilty enjoyment out of how close they were if it weren’t for the lingering nightmare-related terror.
The ropes fell away, and Lady Nightmare straightened up. “There. Are you— No, you’re not okay. I don’t know why I keep asking that. Shit.” She stood there for a moment that probably wasn’t as long as it seemed. Sara ran her hands up and down her freed arms absently, even though the ropes hadn’t hurt.
“Right.” Lady Nightmare rubbed the back of her neck and looked briefly away. “Well, I’ll go fight Captain Alpha outside or something. You just…stay here. Sorry again.”
She winced, took about three steps in the direction of the door, then stopped herself and turned back around. “Why are you even dating him?”
Sara jerked. That had sounded a lot like an accusation.
“Sorry,” Lady Nightmare said again. “I didn’t mean— You don’t have to answer that. It’s none of my business.”
She turned to leave.
“No, I—” Sara wasn’t sure she wanted Lady Nightmare to leave yet. But on the other hand, she felt an undeniable relief that the supervillain would leave if Sara wanted her to. “He saved my life. There was this guy with a gun who tried to rob the place where I work, and Captain Alpha—he saved my life. He asked me out right after—in front of the police and the reporters and everyone. I didn’t know how to say no with so many people watching.”
“And I’m guessing your date was just him telling you how awesome he is and how everyone who doesn’t like him is a moron?”
Sara smiled gratefully. Finally, someone who understood. “Exactly. It’s like being a prick is his superpower. But he… I tried to tell him. When dinner was over I said he was nice enough but I just didn’t feel any chemistry and….” Sara sighed, feeling that awful sense of helplessness closing in on her from every side again. “He just steamrolled right over me. He said he was a man with many sides and it would take time to get to know all of him, and that he was taking me to a basketball game next. Last time I went out with someone who couldn’t take a hint, I just ignored her calls afterward, but….”
“Captain Alpha doesn’t let people ignore him,” Lady Nightmare finished.
“Right…” Sara slumped in her chair. She felt whiny and pathetic. “I should have, I don’t know, been firmer or something. It’s my own fault.”
“No.” Lady Nightmare crossed the distance between them and crouched down so that she was at Sara’s eye level. Her eyes were deep brown, nearly black, and she had the longest eyelashes. “Don’t blame yourself for—”
The front door burst off its hinges with a bang. Sara flinched, and Lady Nightmare spun around while pulling a gun from her jacket.
The gun was ripped from her hand. It flew through the air like someone had tied an invisible string around it and yanked. That was Captain Alpha. He was telekinetic, which meant he could move things with his mind. He’d told Sara over dinner that only people with the greatest mental discipline could control such a power.
Sara had her doubts.
“It’s alright now, Sara,” he proclaimed. “I’m here.”
He was good-looking. That was the only positive thing she had to say about him. With perfectly styled sandy hair, a handsome face, and a body that must have taken hours with a personal trainer everyday to maintain, he looked exactly like a stereotypical hero. And while listening to him drone on about himself over dinner had ruined his mystique, Sara couldn’t deny he had charisma at times. The way he stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips radiated enough confidence to trick you into thinking his garish costume looked good.
Lady Nightmare charged him, but Captain Alpha thrust out his hand and stopped her with a jolt. He didn’t have to touch her. It was like she hit an invisible barrier.
“That’s close enough,” he said. “I’d rather keep some distance between me and the range of your powers.”
He flicked his wrist, and Lady Nightmare went flying back. She slammed into the wall with such force that it knocked down two of Sara’s paintings. A pained grunt escaped her lips, and Sara cringed. This was all her fault. She’d distracted Lady Nightmare with her stupid problems, letting Captain Alpha take her off guard.
“You made a mistake coming here.” Captain Alpha’s voice was brave and bold, but he took no steps closer to Lady Nightmare pinned against the wall. “Did you really think I wouldn’t save her?”
Lady Nightmare didn’t answer. She looked like she was having trouble just breathing. Her feet were inches above the floor. How much pressure must Captain Alpha be putting on her to keep her like that? And how could she escape? Captain Alpha didn’t look like he was going to get close enough for her to use her superpowers.
She jerked at the sound of her name. The way Captain Alpha said it made her think he’d already called her a few times without her noticing. Once he had her attention, though, he gave her a winning smile. “This has been an eventful week for you, hasn’t it? Good thing I’m around to keep you out of trouble.”
Sara’s mouth opened, but no words came out. Lady Nightmare, however, managed to growl, “Fuck you.”
An ugly expression came over Captain Alpha’s face, and it felt like the air pressure in the room changed. Lady Nightmare gasped in pain, and the plaster on the wall around her cracked. Captain Alpha’s telekinesis had just hit her like a hammer.
“That’s enough from you,” he said. “You came after my girlfriend. I don’t think anyone will object if I use a little more force than necessary to bring you in.”
“No!” Sara jumped to her feet, only then realizing that she’d been sitting frozen in her chair like an idiot the whole time.
“It’s okay, Sara,” Captain Alpha said in what he probably thought was a comforting tone. “I won’t let her hurt you.”
I’m not afraid of her, I’m afraid of you! she shouted in her head. What she said aloud was, “N-no. She didn’t hurt me. You… You don’t have to—”
“This is too much for you. I understand. Why don’t you go into another room and wait? I’ll come get you when I’m done here.” He winked.
“I…” She what? What could she possibly do here that would make any difference? She looked at Lady Nightmare, her beautiful lips twisted in an agonized grimace. Their gazes met, and Sara ached like she was the one who’d been slammed into the wall.
“Go on, now.” Captain Alpha jerked his head in the direction of the hallway. “I’ll take care of this.”
It was that damned confidence in his voice. The authority had Sara’s feet moving to the hallway before she even knew what she was doing. Maybe Lady Nightmare could escape on her own? She was a supervillain, right? A real one, not one of those wackos who got high and tied a blanket around their necks before breaking into a liquor store. She must deal with this kind of thing all the time. Or, wait, somebody had called Lady Nightmare to tell her when Captain Alpha showed up at the apartment. She had a lookout. Maybe that person would help her. Supervillains always had minions, right? She’d be okay. It wouldn’t matter if Sara left.
Sara’s legs were shaking. She walked slowly past Captain Alpha, who smiled encouragingly. Nobody would blame her. She didn’t have powers. What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t even stand up for herself when it came to ordering drinks at dinner. And even if she did do something—something ineffectual and stupid, probably—she’d be helping a supervillain. That wasn’t what you were supposed to do in a situation like this. You were supposed to cheer for the hero and fall in love with him for rescuing you.
This was all the man in the ski mask’s fault. If only he hadn’t tried to rob the store while she’d been there, Sara would never have met Captain Alpha and this never would have happened. If she ever saw that jerk again, she was going to kick him in the balls. Except she wouldn’t, because she never did anything that brave in real life. She just went along with what people expected of her, even when it left her with the worst hero ever. And now she was going to walk away and let him hurt Lady Nightmare—whom Sara felt a stronger connection with than the man she was supposedly dating, despite the fact that she’d broken into Sara’s apartment and tied her to a chair. Sara didn’t know if that said more about her own weird turn-ons or Captain Alpha’s complete and utter failure as a date or even a decent human being, but it didn’t matter, because at the end of the night she’d still be stuck with him, and—no. Screw this.
Sara grabbed one of the snow globes from the shelf to her right and chucked it at Captain Alpha’s fat head.
She didn’t have the greatest aim, so it hit his shoulder instead. He flinched and spun around. “Sara?”
“Get out of my apartment,” she said. “I’m breaking up with you. We’re done.”
“You heard me. Put down Lady Nightmare and get out. And stop calling me.”
Captain Alpha’s mouth had been hanging open in confusion, but it snapped shut and he smiled. “Sara, listen to me. Lady Nightmare is using mind-control on you. This isn’t what you want.”
“No! I’m not being mind-controlled. The fact that you think that’s the only explanation is—argh!” She grabbed fist-fulls of her hair. “I tried to be nice about this and let you down easy after dinner, but you didn’t get the hint, so I can’t be nice anymore. I don’t want to date you! I don’t know how I can get any clearer than that.”
His mouth twisted, and it made Sara want to run and hide. He was frightening. How did people not see how frightening he was? Did the flashy costume and handsome smile make everyone forget he could kill them with a thought?
“Wait in the other room,” he said through clenched teeth. “We’ll talk about this later.”
She took a deep breath. It was too late to stop now. “There’s nothing to talk about. I don’t like you like that.”
“I saved your life! How can you not like me?”
“And thank you for saving me. I really mean it. But that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to go on a second date with you. Do you make everyone you save go out with you?”
“No, but that’s the point!” He’d turned almost completely away from Lady Nightmare. If he would just loosen his mental grip on her…. “I chose you out of everyone. You should be flattered!”
Sara swallowed. “I’m sorry. It’s just not working out.”
“You like toying with me, don’t you? I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”
He turned his back completely on Lady Nightmare, his cape flaring out behind him before flapping back down. “I did everything I could for you, and you’re throwing it back in my face.”
“We went on one date. You—I can’t believe you—” Sara snatched up another snow globe and flung it at him. “Get over yourself!”
He should have ducked, but apparently his instincts were to use his powers. His hand swung up, palm out, and the globe stopped in mid-air a foot from his face.
At the exact same moment, Lady Nightmare dropped to the floor and landed lithely on her feet. He couldn’t focus his powers on more than one thing at a time. So much for mental discipline.
Captain Alpha’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit.” The snow globe plummeted, and he swung around to face Lady Nightmare again. But as soon as she’d hit the floor, she’d sprinted at him. Sara cringed, expecting him to slam Lady Nightmare into the wall again. But he stumbled back like he’d been hit, though Lady Nightmare hadn’t touched him. Lady Nightmare’s sprint slowed to a stop a second later, and she smiled wickedly. Then Captain Alpha fell to his knees.
“No, no, no, no,” he gasped, shaking his head back and forth. He curled into a ball on the floor, jerking and twitching. His eyes darted this way and that, staring fearfully at things Sara couldn’t see.
That nightmare thing sure packed a punch.
“Are you okay?” Lady Nightmare walked past Captain Alpha like he wasn’t even there and stopped in front of Sara, looking her quickly up and down.
“Me? What about you?”
“Eh, I’ve taken worse hits than that.”
Sara glanced at Captain Alpha cowering on the floor, unable to still the tremors shaking her body. Was it really over? “What happens now?” she asked.
Lady Nightmare glanced back at him, too. “I won’t kill him, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll let him enjoy his nightmare a while longer. He thinks he’s lost his powers and is getting creatively tortured by all his greatest enemies. By the time I let him go, he’ll be too traumatized to ever fight crime again. Though he’ll probably keep doing publicity tours.”
Sara nodded like this was perfectly normal, like supervillains told her their evil plots all the time. She probably would have nodded along even if Lady Nightmare had spoken complete gibberish, as long as her tone was reassuring.
Lady Nightmare took Sara’s hand, and Sara’s gaze snapped to the dark eyes staring out at her from under the mask. “I need you to wait ten minutes after I leave, then call the cops,” Lady Nightmare said. “If you don’t, they’ll suspect you. Tell them what happened, and be mostly honest. Act confused and scared, and they’ll assume I used mind-control on you. Can you do that?”
“I think so.” Sara’s gaze dropped to Lady Nightmare’s stylish shoes. Her hand went limp, and Lady Nightmare let it slip away. “But you didn’t… I mean you…”
“No, that was all you. I was too far away to control you when you threw stuff at him. Thanks for that, by the way. You were awesome.”
But Sara hadn’t been thinking about the moment when she’d become an accessory to a crime. She was thinking about the smell of raspberries and how Lady Nightmare’s kissable lips wouldn’t leave her mind. Wait, was Lady Nightmare gay? She was, wasn’t she? Or was that Bella Morte? Dang it, Sara really should’ve paid more attention to supervillains on the news. This was important.
Lady Nightmare grinned. “Bella Morte’s straight as a board. I’m the gay one.”
Sara could feel her cheeks heating. “Oh! Um….”
“And I wasn’t using mind-control for that, either. Anyway, I can’t make people do something completely out of character. Take Captain Douchebag back there.” She jabbed a thumb in Captain Alpha’s direction. “I can’t make him graciously accept your decision to turn him down. But I can convince him to dump you and tell everyone that he’s letting you go to protect you from his enemies, because he’s just so self-sacrificing and noble.”
Sara wouldn’t have been surprised if she developed the power to fly on the spot. “Really?”
“Really.” Lady Nightmare straightened her hat and cleared her throat. “So…uh, would you maybe want to get a cup of coffee sometime, or…. No.” She glanced around. “I broke into your apartment and psy-assaulted you. This isn’t appropriate timing, is it? Shit. Um.”
If Sara had been flying, now she dropped like a rock. So she wasn’t getting asked out, then?
“Hold on. Here.” Lady Nightmare walked over to the kitchen table, picked up a pen, and scribbled something on one of the unopened envelopes piled there. Then she handed the envelope to Sara. There was a phone number scribbled on it.
“Take a few weeks to yourself, get some space,” Lady Nightmare said, “Then, if you’re still interested, give me a call. No pressure.”
Sara smiled for what felt like the first time in days. “I will.”
“You don’t have to. I don’t want you to feel obligated—”
“I’ll talk to you in a few weeks,” Sara said firmly.
Lady Nightmare made another call on her cell, and a minute later, a muscled minion came to drag Captain Alpha out of the apartment. Sara walked Lady Nightmare to the door like a polite hostess, never mind that she hadn’t intended to host anything.
Lady Nightmare stopped outside the threshold. “I’m Bianca, by the way. Bianca Belmonte.”
Sara, feeling daring, went in for a hug goodbye at the exact moment Lady Nightmare stuck out her hand for a handshake. After an awkward pause, Lady Nightmare—no, Bianca kissed her on the cheek and walked away with a bounce in her step.
Sara closed the door and sighed contentedly. She would have to call the police in ten minutes, but at least she had a date to look forward to after. And the next time Bianca came over, Sara would make sure to clean her apartment beforehand. The two of them might hit it off, or they might not, but it would be fun to find out either way.
No matter what happened, it would definitely be better than her last date.