The ride home with Cassie was, at the very least, a welcome reprieve from the damn bus. I vowed that the first thing I did once I got the money would be buying a car. I wasn’t a Gadgeteer, so a suit of flying battle armor wasn’t an option, but it’d be nice to avoid public transportation. More than that, now that I was back on Cassie’s good side, I had to wonder about Ferne. Whatever her power was, it functionally countered mine. Maybe all she had was the ability to scramble superhuman senses. Someone should give her a sniper rifle and send her after Kitten, if that was the case.
“You’ve been quiet, today. Something on your mind?”
Lots and lots of things. “Just overwhelmed by your beauty, is all.”
Her laugh was musical. “Naturally. But usually you’re more talkative. Now are you gonna dish, or am I gonna have to break out the boy band music?”
“Sorry, if it was just me, I’d be happy to. But this involves other people. Not my secrets to share.”
“Even under threat of Bieber?”
“You listen to Bieber?” Suddenly I’m having second thoughts about everything.
“No.” Oh thank God. She spared me a glance, before turning her eyes back to the road. “Okay, I’ll let you keep your secrets. Besides, a little bit of mystery is attractive.”
I couldn’t say I agreed with her. As far as I was concerned drawing things out was just a waste of time and energy. I’d lost too much already by not being strong enough to act when I had the chance, and never wanted to experience that again. But I didn’t care to argue about it. She might see it as me trying to pressure her into doing… things. And then she’d proceed to tell all her friends, and it would be impossible for me to ever get another date in school.
It wasn’t much longer before we got to my place. I grabbed a chair on my way through the kitchen, only for Cassie to interrupt. “That’s sweet, but, we can do it the same way we did before.”
That chair was quickly forgotten, much like another shirt that joined its comrade under my bed. You’d think, seeing as I don’t sleep, that I’d devote a little more time to cleaning my room, but you’d be wrong. I started up the computer and she plopped down in my lap.
“Best seat in the house,” she stated as she shifted her hips, getting herself comfortable. I had to agree.
As it turned out, Cassie had a real sense for fashion, and that apparently extended to superhero costume design. I may have lied to her a bit about how my powers worked, claiming my costume was protected by my power, while knowing that wasn’t completely true. Kitten was proof my power could be overwhelmed. What we eventually worked out was a costume based on the colors my power used. Dark blue for the legs, dark green for the upper body (she kept telling me no every time I suggested black), and yellow along the elbows and shins designed to imitate trim on a dress uniform, or some sort of armor plating.
She even talked me out of going without a mask, insisting I at least wear goggles and a mask to protect my eyes and lungs. If only so I can fight a little better when there’s a lot of debris. My power may heal damage, but being able to see and breathe required some air quality. And the plan was to add other features as I could afford them. Turns out, Cassie knew more than me about accessorizing my costume as well.
There were lots of things online to be purchased by supers, like hands free cell phones designed to integrate with face masks and goggles. Special fabrics and dyes that came with advertisements like ‘as safe and easy as a coloring book’. Also expensive as hell, a full make your costume kit was like two grand. Hiring someone else was even worse. Hell, just Cassie’s design advice, if I’d gone to a professional, would have been a couple hundred bucks.
Eventually, we stopped focusing so much on work and spent our time kissing. I, of course, was a complete gentleman and kept my hands to myself, despite all temptation. What I planned to do with them after she left was nobody’s business but my own.
Then the phone rang. I looked apologetically at Cassie, and she stood up so I could go get it. The number didn’t show, but I answered it anyway. After that nutjob Gadgeteer in New Jersey invented robot spiders that would travel through phone lines and attack telemarketers, I almost felt bad for not answering. Even now, twelve years later, they still made the news on occasion. Urban legend was that they found a way to breed.
A mechanically altered voice spoke a moment later. Another of those things you could buy just about anywhere, voice modulators. “I just wanted to plan our meeting tomorrow.”
That would be Ferne, then. Strangely, the modulator made her sound more enthusiastic than normal. “How did you get my number?”
“The white pages are online, so anyone who knows your name can find your phone number and address. You may want to look into that.”
Well, fuck me then. “Ah, the internet, preferred by stalkers everywhere. So, what’s the plan?” I glanced at where Cassie was peaking from the door to my room. “I’ve got company right now.”
“The park next to the library, midnight tonight, sound acceptable?”
“Yeah, if you want to get mugged by a junky, raped by the dealer, and then arrested for prostitution.”
“I was under the impression your power was better than that. I will be arriving in costume.”
“Is this a plot to lure me into a fight with some supervillain in the park? Because this is starting to sound like a plot to lure me into a fight with some supervillain in the park, and I have enough on my plate already.”
“That would be the dumbest plot on the planet. I only have a vague idea how your power works. Why risk you escaping and reporting me for doing something stupid and illegal, when I could instead do absolutely nothing and be perfectly fine?”
“Okay, you have a point. See you then.” I turned off the phone and looked at Cassie. “Sorry about that. If this was a movie I’d now be coming up with an elaborate excuse for that call that makes you suspicious. God I hate those plots.”
She didn’t make a comment on that, simply wrapped her arms around me and gave me a quick kiss. “It’s good timing, anyway. I really should get to work on my homework. I’ll have to beg off tomorrow, too, got the other type of French quiz to study for. What about Friday?”
“I’d love to, but I’ve got more business. But if you want to hang out Saturday and help lie to my dad, that would be a huge solid. I need you to pretend we were on a date last weekend.”
“Okay, I can do that.” One last kiss, and she headed out the door.
Then I went back to browsing the lists of various powered individuals out there. I found Muwth, which is how you spell the name of the woman who sent Anima after me. She had the power to look at a person and know if they were going to die unnaturally within the next two days and when, to the minute. She had a career as a ‘risk consultant’ dating back to the early 1950s, with a lot of satisfied, and important, customers. There was no mention of the power she used to find me.
And a bunch of others, who meant pretty much nothing to me. There were a lot of people and a lot of powers out there. I looked up Com, confirming he was a member of Arlington’s Imbued Police Division. A cop who got a badge because he had superpowers.
Sapphire was listed, too, but I already knew about her. She was a flying brick, one of very few Imbued who had that combo. For whatever reason, flight was super rare. She was a serious celebrity, too, having several movies to her name, and even did cameos of herself a few times. She was also one of the few supers that gave absolutely no clue about who they were under the mask. The dark blue costume she wore was form fitting enough to suggest an attractive woman underneath, but no one knew her approximate age or race, save that she started her career in the eighties.
I also looked up Sympathy, and found exactly nothing of value. A probably Hispanic or Asian woman who wore a sundress and masquerade mask, complete with elbow length gloves and slippers, and all of it sky blue. No one had any idea what her powers actually were, and online speculation wasn’t any help. It seemed like she could change what powers she was using at will.
The more I looked at these three, the more it pissed me off. Between Sapphire and Com, they should have been able to stop Kitten. There’s no way she could evade Com, and Sapphire once stood there and let some jackass unload an M-16 at her, until the gun overheated. They could take her, and they refused. They didn’t even report that she was in town. All the news sites and online followings that dealt with Imbued had Kitten listed her last known location as somewhere in West Virginia. It was enough to make me want to yell at the computer.
While doing that, I also paid close attention to the clock, and wondered where Mom was. She didn’t get back until late, late enough that I opted to just pretend I was asleep.
Much like with Cassie, I kept details about my power from her. She was out like a light in only a few minutes, and I was out the door. The park was nowhere near a quick trip, but this late on a Wednesday, and the ability to sprint as long as I liked meant I got there without much trouble. I wasn’t sure whether to smile or frown at how people saw me coming and dipped into the alleys to avoid my notice.
The park was occupied by a couple strung out druggies when I got there. They seemed to be attempting to have sex on one of the tables, and failing miserably. A laser pen flashed my eyes from the darkness of one of the trails. I followed that, taking it as a sign.
The girl that stepped into the clearing did not look like Ferne at all. For one thing, she was about six inches taller, and had curves, as opposed to Ferne’s almost prepubescently small figure. Blonde hair done up in a ponytail stuck out of the back of her mask. The dominant color of the outfit was red, with white trim highlighting her figure.
“Platforms, padding, and a wig.” The voice was modulated, but Ferne’s personality shone through.
“Is that your power, to know when someone’s checking you out?”
She shrugged. “Not really. I just know how to pay attention. Now, what’s it going to cost for you to keep your mouth shut about my powers?”
I blinked, now I was confused. “I wasn’t planning on telling. But I am trying to start my own team, and I’m looking for members.”
“My power isn’t really good for the hero, or even villain, role. I’m not interested in it, either.”
“What can you do?” I wanted to know her power before I decided if she was worth pushing into saying yes. Some Imbued really did have utterly useless powers, but Ferne seemed to feel she was safe coming to a place like this in the middle of the night, so she couldn’t have been that vulnerable.
“I can give other people powers.”
What. “What.” Someone who could give people powers was absurd. Like, world altering potential.
“There are limits. The best I’ve ever managed only barely qualifies as a two on the scales.” Ferne leaned back against a tree. “Twenty extra IQ points, a ten percent increase in endurance, curing a minor physical illness, the ability to regrow a limb over the course of a couple weeks. Really minor things, as far as powers are considered. And it’s powered by love.”
“I am being serious. My power requires a personal connection. Love isn’t quite the right word, but the more trust and respect someone has for me, the stronger their feelings for me, the more power I can grant. And the more power I gain from them.”
“So you feed off people?”
She hesitated for a moment. “My bonds are more like sharing than feeding. I’m as strong as the strongest person I’m connected to, plus a little extra per everyone else in the group. Same with intelligence, and I have access to knowledge and skills from everyone. It doesn’t hurt any of them at all. And it’s barely enough to make me a little bit superhuman at everything normal human beings are capable of, but no more than that.”
I thought back to the last few weeks. If I thought Ferne was inscrutable before, now I was utterly perplexed. She had access to however many other people, she had to know the meaning of every joke I made. “You… you were grooming me, weren’t you? Planning to add me to your collection?”
“I like to think of it as a partnership. We both gain something from it. I could have cured your asthma, granted you improved muscle growth or boosted learning ability. The talent you’d need to become a leader in any field you desired.”
“So you’re telling me this now, why?”
She hesitated for a moment. “I’ve never had a chance to use my power on another superhuman, before. For all I know, it would give me the ability to use your power. Or maybe it’d work like normal, giving us both a little bit more power.”
“And having an Imbued who owes you wouldn’t hurt.”
“It would have been nice, if it was possible.”
Does that mean she can’t use her power on supers? “But it’s not.”
“I need you to trust me first.” Ah, that explains it. “Maybe you’re wondering if my power can be used to hurt people I’ve formed partnerships with. Or if I can steal your power. I don’t have any mind reading abilities, just enough to sense how strong the bond between us is. And right now most people who don’t know me at all trust me more than you do.”
She wasn’t wrong. More than the lack of trust, I felt betrayed, somehow. Like everything she did was some kind of plot to use me. If it were a matter of trading for power, I might have still taken her up on her offer. A little bit more strength or speed, more skill, that was something I’d take, to use against Kitten. But I couldn’t force myself to trust her. “Well, I guess that settles that. You’re sure you don’t want to be a part of my team?”
“No. I’m just not a fighter. Maybe if you need help I can research something for you or make a few phone calls. Some of my partners have a fair amount of influence. No, I won’t tell you who any of them are.”
I wasn’t really expecting her to. “I guess that’s that, then. See you in school?”
“Yeah.” She turned back toward the darker part of the trail. “And, Zach? Please remember that I told you the truth, even knowing it might hurt my chances. That has to be worth something, right?
“Umm, a bit, I guess.” Not enough to let me trust her, but it was a little bit. On the plus side, at least she wasn’t an enemy. I turned and headed for home.