Stronger, Better, Faster, More

Katey Hawthorne & Carlin Grant

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When he gets super-endurance powers out of nowhere, being a culinary student and kids’ soccer coach isn’t enough for Beau Warren--he has to be a superhero too. A sweet, hardworking trans man from a close knit family, it’s im...
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When he gets super-endurance powers out of nowhere, being a culinary student and kids’ soccer coach isn’t enough for Beau Warren--he has to be a superhero too. A sweet, hardworking trans man from a close knit family, it’s important to Beau to use his new abilities to stand up for people who can’t protect themselves. When he runs into a speedster at a fire rescue, he doesn’t expect it to be his high school crush, Vel Chandrasekhar. Turns out Vel got superspeed when Beau go his endurance, so they decide to make their single supe act into a duo.

With their immediate attraction and superpowered libidos, it’s not long before Beau and Vel are roommates-with-benefits. That’s the idea, anyhow, if only Beau can keep from falling back into his old crush hard, since Vel’s self-esteem issues have left him skittish about relationships. Just when things are at boiling point between them, though, their search for their own superhero origin story leads them and their families into mortal danger. The only way to survive the truth is to depend on each other--and admit they’re a lot more than friends.

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    Stronger, Better, Faster, More
Excerpt
Beau barely felt the oppressive heat and smoke. Or, well, no, he felt it; he was conscious of the temperature rising as he got closer to the flames, the smoke in his lungs making it harder to breathe, but there was no pain, not like there would’ve been a year ago.

He heard someone crying—shit, that was a kid, wasn’t it?—and squinted to make out the door. He needed to figure out some eye protection, since apparently this was getting to be a regular thing. The goggles had been a terrible idea—that had hurt. He’d gotten them off his eyes fast enough, but some had melted onto his hand. He’d healed; there wasn’t even a scar. But the pain of healing had been agonizing.

There was another cry, this one upstairs, and he didn’t know what to do. He had to get the child—of course he did—but he couldn’t do both. There wasn’t time. The bottom dropped out of his stomach, but he continued, his heart breaking.

Suddenly something whipped past him. He couldn’t see what it was, but he could see the way the gust altered the flames, moved the smoke. He cracked a grin and pushed through harder as he realized. A speedster had showed up; he didn’t know any personally, but he’d seen them on TV, and he knew the signs. Together they’d be enough to finish what Beau had started, and maybe they wouldn’t have any casualties.

He burst through the door and scooped up the child, then covered her face with a wet cloth. As he started toward the exit, she was still coughing, still breathing, but going limp, and his previous optimism faded. He got out the door he’d kicked down earlier and called out “Hey, speedster! I need you to get this one to the EMTs!”

And then there he was, standing in front of Beau, carefully taking the girl out of his arms. Beau started to say thank you as he moved her, but their eyes locked and—“Vel?”

The speedster clutched the girl to his chest, dark eyes wide through the holes in his small mask. “What? How do you…?”

“Relax,” Beau said, hands open and palms up. It was stupid; he knew how scary it was, the risk of being made. He’d have been more careful if he hadn’t been so shocked. “It’s Warren. From high school. I, uh, I look different now.” Which was understating it. Even before he bulked up, he’d spent high school pretending he fit in the body that’d been chosen for him, with its breasts, feminine curves, and long blonde hair that his mama wouldn’t let him cut short but was never out of a ponytail anyway. He didn’t look like that anymore. It’d cost him a lot of time and money not to look like that anymore. “Go, get her to medical, but…find me after we get the other guy out? If you want?”

“Dude.” Yeah, that definitely sounded like Vel. There was some flutter-fast blinking. “You got huge.”

It was so inappropriate next to a burning building, but Beau couldn’t help the hard, shocked laugh that came out of him. “Yeah. I…yeah.”

Vel grinned. “Coffee shop, two blocks down. I’ll grab the other one too, then meet you there.” And in a gust of wind, dragging smoke in his wake, he was gone.

Beau nodded, even if Vel was gone before he could see it. He ducked away—everyone was still paying attention to the fire and the victims, so he was able to get away unnoticed. The police and fire department were pretty okay with them helping out, but he didn’t want to risk it. He’d make his way to his duffel and then down to the shop.

* * * *


Vel was already there when Beau arrived. Vel had ditched the Under Armour gear he’d been rocking at the fire, not to mention the small mask that had done very little to hide his identity. Instead he sported a Star Wars T-shirt that was about two sizes too small and a pair of expensively battered jeans. He sprawled in the coffee-shop chair, that same cocky smile he’d had in high school in full force. “Well, well, well. It is you.”

Beau grinned back, a big, shy grin up through his eyelashes. Instantly he was hit by déjà vu; how many times had he given that exact look to Vel in high school? “Yeah.” He pulled out the chair and set his ice tea and two muffins—so expensive, but he had to eat—in front of him before sitting carefully. He really hated to break things. “I, uh, I go by Beau now, though.” Going by his last name had been a way to avoid using the decidedly gendered name he’d been given at birth and all the dysphoria that came with it. Fortunately, the one thing everyone knew about him in high school had been that soccer was his life, which had made it not seem strange, since half the team went by their last names.

“Nice.” Vel plucked up a cold glass of something tea-looking and sucked on the straw. “So, apart from the obvious, what have you been up to? Last I heard, we were both off to school on soccer scholarships.”

Beau couldn’t help but grin a little wider at how much of a nonissue it was for Vel. So many people made a big deal out of it. “Uh, not soccer, actually. They kicked me off the team after I started taking T. Unfair advantage, apparently.” He lifted a shoulder as if it hadn’t hurt or screwed up his life as much as it had. “I’m coaching youth soccer now and going to school over at NRCC.” Going from one of the best universities in the state to community college stung, but it was better than the alternative. “You?”

Vel’s nose was wrinkled up. “Well, their loss. I’m kinda-same-but-very-different. Lost my scholarship after I got put on academic probation. Dishonor on me, on my family, on our cow. You know how it is.” Vel’s smile went crooked and wry. “Whatever, though. I finished up an associate’s. Doing web design now. I mean, day-job-wise.”

Beau gave a half smile as he sipped his drink and tried not to sigh at the cool relief. Just because the smoke inhalation hadn’t hurt him didn’t mean his throat didn’t feel like a desert.

“Don’t worry about the dishonor thing. I’ve seen that movie; it turns out all right in the end.” He flushed and focused on the muffin. Well, he’d never been cool in high school; at least Vel wouldn’t think that had changed.

Vel chuckled and slouched comfortably, long legs brushing past Beau’s jeans to sprawl under the table. “Here’s hoping.”

It took Beau a long moment to respond, distracted by a fluttering feeling at those legs touching his and the way Vel looked, all relaxed like that. Dammit, that was something he should have left in high school too. “I thought about doing something with computers, but I’ve never been much for them.” He gave a little smile, then added, “I’m, uh, I’m doing my associate’s in pastry arts at the moment. I’m hoping I can open a bakery one day.” He was shy when he said it, and carefully started to take off the wrapper of one of his muffins.

“Oh my God.” Vel’s pouty lips formed a little O and let loose a low whistle. “Epic. Are you in the market for a new best friend? Because if you’re gonna be a baker, we should totally be best friends.”

Beau felt a flush spread over his cheeks, and he wet his lips before taking another sip. “I can always use more friends. But, uh, do you need a roommate? Or know anyone who needs a place?” He laughed, mostly kidding. “My roommate moved in with his girlfriend without any notice, and I’m kind of screwed if I don’t find anyone before the end of the month.” He could just afford his bills, even though he had two jobs, with how much he had to eat. There was no way he could afford the other half of the rent too.

“Seriously?” Vel’s face lit up. “Because I am stuck at my sister’s house right now, and I love her, but I am so very over living like the baby brother twenty-four seven.”

Beau’s eyebrows went up, “I…seriously? Because you would save my skin. You don’t even know. It’s only a few months, so if we’re not a good match, you’re not stuck. I’m pretty easy to live with, though. And I cook.”

“Sold.” Vel smacked the table like an auctioneer with a gavel. “I, on the other hand, am a neat-freak pain in the ass who never stops talking. But considering our, uh, common interests go beyond soccer these days, it shouldn’t be too bad. For a few months.”

Beau nodded in agreement, not bothering to hide how relieved he was. “Rent’s due in a week, and you can move in whenever you want.” This could be a horrible idea, but how badly could a few months go?

* * * *


The next afternoon, Vel arrived with a carload of boxes. He had them up the stairs in less than sixty seconds (since no neighbors were nearby), and Beau watched the tornado from the couch with an amused grin. Then Vel kissed the sister who’d dropped him off (not Ahalya, who’d graduated with Beau, which meant it was either Kavya or Chaya) and immediately plugged his phone into a tiny but powerful-looking speaker. “Time for unpacking. You picky about music? I need unpacking music.”

“I don’t suppose you like bluegrass,” Beau said with a laugh. “But, nah. Play whatever you like, so long as it’s not that screaming stuff. Thanks for asking.” It wasn’t a huge apartment, and whatever he played would be audible through the entire place.

“I’ll spare you the Bollywood tracks—for now.” Vel touched his phone, and some very electronically dancey music spilled from the speakers. He swiveled his slim hips in time to it, executing a little turn. “Ahhh, yeah. Makes it easier to exist, to be honest. Superspeed’s weird like that.”

“I know what you mean.” Which Beau didn’t, not really. He knew nothing about superspeed, but he knew everything about music making living a little easier. “Feel free to play it whenever you need it. And I wouldn’t mind Bollywood, for the record.”

He set his book down on the coffee table. “Can I help at all?”

Vel waved him off, still dancing across the room. “Sit there and look cute.”

Warmth crept over Beau’s cheeks, all the way up to his ears. He wished he could chalk it up to T and his powers, both of which did a doozy on his sex drive, but it wasn’t just that. He’d always reacted like this to Vel, ever since they were both gangly teenagers with bad haircuts and acne. His being hot only made it worse. “All right, then.”

Vel winked over his shoulder, and the proverbial tornado became a lot more real of a sudden. Boxes disappeared one after the other, knickknacks appeared on tables, and a rack of video games and DVDs appeared next to the television, all with the brown-and-black blur that was Vel speeding from end to end of the apartment.

Beau asked, “Is there anything you need? Do you, I don’t know, get up early, or anything else I should consider?”

“I get up super fucking early.” Vel finally paused across the room, arranging some books in a shelf that had only been half-full until that moment. “And don’t sleep for long periods of time. I mean, unless I…uh.” He frowned. “How do you feel about weed? Because, like, depressants are kind of a necessity for me these days.”

Beau shook his head, giving a little smile. He could understand that. “I’m not okay with harder stuff, but that’s fine. Just, you know, make sure not to leave anything out. We don’t want anything laying out if the cops show up.” Not that he thought they would, but, well. They were superheroing.

“God, let’s hope not.” Vel made a ridiculous face, then turned to lean against the bookshelf. From moving at a hundred miles per second to looking totally relaxed, just like that. “But cool. I’ve never been into drugs, honestly. My body is a temple—just the Hindu kind. But weed, ehn, I’ve had worse things in me.”

Beau’s blush heated up again, and he stared at his lap, wishing he hadn’t set down that cookbook. He needed something else to look at, dammit. Way to be inappropriate, Beau. “I, um. Weed isn’t that bad, from what I’ve heard. And you don’t have to worry about if I’m here. Stuff like that doesn’t affect me, part of the whole”—he gestured at himself—“thing.”

Vel nodded, then waved for Beau to follow. “Gonna set things up in the bedroom. Wanna come tell me about it?”

“Sure.” Beau followed him in, then ended up standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, not sure if he should sit on Vel’s bed or not. “What do you want to know?”

“What is it your, uh, thing does exactly? Like, how does it let you run into burning buildings?” Vel blurred after he finished speaking, a box went flying, and his huge HD computer monitor was suddenly in place on his desk.

“Oh, well, I’m not real sure. Most of what I know is from experimenting. I got a whole lot of muscle, and I’m stronger now—I can rip a door off its hinges with one hand. And I’m more…impervious, I guess? I don’t get hurt too easy, either. I can get shot or stabbed, but—like, with the smoke, I could feel it in my lungs, and it made me cough, but it didn’t do any damage. I also heal fast. It hurts like hell, though. Worst pain I ever felt.” He rubbed the back of his neck and lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. “I’ve got, uh, some other side effects too that are a real pain in the ass.”

“Too personal?” Vel paused long enough to cock an eyebrow. “It’s cool. I’ve got some of those too. Guess we shouldn’t TMI on the very first day.”

“Yeah, well, I—” Beau paused, then started to speak, then stopped again. The thing was, Vel would undoubtedly notice. But it was so embarrassing, even if he wasn’t exactly body shy. “Let’s just— Don’t worry about the water bill, is all. I’ll…pay my share.” He cleared his throat.

Apparently the superspeed fully applied to the brain too, because Vel’s face lit up with an impish grin, dark eyes flashing with amusement. “Oh, bro, everything is superspeedy. And constant. Betting my half will keep up with yours. That and the need for a constant supply of Kleenex.”

Beau cleared his throat as he inspected the floor, but some of the tension bled out of his shoulders. “Oh, thank God. I mean— No, I just…I’m sorry you have to deal with that; it’s a real pain. Just, my last roommate—it was a little…awkward.”

Vel leaned against the desk and crossed his arms over his chest comfortably, still grinning. “Yyyeah, I guess it would be. Let’s just say living with my big sister could’ve gotten weird if she hadn’t let me have the basement to myself. Meant I wasn’t bringing home one-night stands all the time, but, ehnnn, superspeed makes that kinda awkward too. Like, ‘Hi, I know that was over superfast, but it’s not actually over. Look, I can go five more times right now!’ Gender doesn’t matter; it’s weird to say that to anyone.”

Beau couldn’t help it—he burst out laughing, one hand over his face. “Oh gosh. Yeah, I, uh. I don’t bring many people over. I’m a little, well, you know. It ain’t as simple with all of this, and even less than when they’re cis, and I’m real shy.” He could hear his accent creeping in, going from the generic Southern he’d trained it into back to the deep drawl of his childhood. “But yeah, the couple I’ve slept with—people don’t like it too much when they can’t wear you out. Makes ’em feel bad.” He lifted his shoulder. “Easier just to not.”

Vel’s face was all sympathy. “Aw, sweetness, I totally feel you. I mean, I’m cis and obviously not shy, but I get it.”

Beau smiled a little at the nickname, which made him feel warm all over. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. Like, I’ve had to curb my casual-sex habit tons because of all that weirdness, but also…” Vel scrunched up his face. “It gives the impression I’m not satisfied. I’m like, no, I just made a mess here. It’s good. Just that I could totally do it again. As in, right now. So…”

Beau laughed again. “Yeah, I—yeah. That pretty much sums it up.” He rolled his eyes, still grinning. “Nothing says romantic like ‘that was real nice; I’d love to stay and cuddle, but I need to eat an entire pizza right quick.’”

“Sooooo much.” Vel mock swooned, one hand on his chest. “All the pizza ever. This one time—”

But a ping interrupted him and the dance track currently blasting in the living room. Vel disappeared, then reappeared with his phone in hand before Beau had time to ask what was going on. Vel frowned at the screen. “Alerts set up to let me know when shit’s going down. Looks like some kinda standoff.”

All other thoughts were immediately gone from Beau’s mind, so that he was focused only on the task at hand. “How’s your strength?” he asked, tearing his shirt over his head as he rushed out for his duffel, then stripping his pants in the living room to pull on his Bohn Armor leggings, followed by his Army drab Kevlar tactical pants. Next was an armored vest over Under Armour shirt, followed by a balaclava, gloves, and helmet. “Can you carry me in, or am I driving?”

Vel appeared fully kitted out in his Under Armour gear, all black with silver piping, that hugged every line of his broad shoulders and long legs. The small mask didn’t hide his dark hair with its wild waves, but somehow that seemed intentional. “Hop on.” He pointed with his thumb to his back.

Beau laughed out loud as he pulled the balaclava over his face and wrapped his arms around Vel’s shoulders, adjusting himself when Vel picked up his legs. It looked ridiculous, but it was efficient. “I’ll try not to throw up on you,” Beau said with a laugh.

“If you do, just try to miss the hair.” Vel hitched Beau up a little, getting a secure hold—way stronger than he looked, apparently, but that made sense if he was going to withstand and travel at superspeed. Then he opened the door and darted off, carrying them both to the rescue.

Copyright © Katey Hawthorne & Carlin Grant

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