Eventually I made my way to our rendezvous point, a small theater I’d never heard of before. It was very vintage looking, made from brick instead of, say, concrete. It was probably something impressive, back when it was new. The sign on top gaudily announced that it was called ‘The Playhouse’.
Dozens of dirty jokes went through my head before I crossed the street. Beneath the bold name was block print proclaiming a haunted house on Halloween, followed a few hours later by a midnight showing of Rocky Horror. When I got closer, I noted a sign on the door that said the place was closed. But it was the address I was told to come to.
An old woman opened the door. Not just a little old, but really old. She could make a believable Mrs. Claus, if not for her blond hair dye that really needed an update, since I could see the white roots. “I’m sorry, but the theater’s closed while we get ready.”
No surprise she didn’t recognize me. I’d removed the costume parts of my outfit, now I was just some kid carrying a bag. “I was told to meet someone here.”
“Oh, I thought you’d be in costume!” The woman’s smile widened a little “Anima said you’d be coming. Please, come in!” I accepted the invitation, entering the door she opened. “And watch your step, we’re still busy setting up for the weekend. This is always our busiest time of year.”
She wasn’t kidding, they were definitely setting something up. One hallway was covered in black cloth, with various monster decorations. A big focus on the campy horror monster posters and fake looking skeletons that probably couldn’t scare a six year old. Which was their target audience. “Don’t worry, ma’am, I’ll be careful.”
“What a polite young man, your parents must be so proud.”
Ouch. All the fucking ouch in the history of ouch. “My dad’s in the military.” It was the closest thing to an honest answer she was gonna get.
“That’s nice. Good to see the new generation is still being raised well.” Please, lady, please talk about something else. Anything at all. I would listen to you complain about how adult undergarments are getting too expensive if it means not having this conversation. “Are you Anima’s boyfriend? You look so young. I guess that’s just what girls are into these days.”
Note to self: when you say ‘anything’, be more specific. “No, I barely even know her. I’m hoping she’ll…” I hesitated for a moment, if I said I wanted her to join my team, that’d make it easier for people to connect her to my mysterious summoner partner. “I just got my powers and she’s helping me figure out what to do with them.”
The woman just smiled and waited while a couple employees went by with some kind of carpet. “She’s such a dear, always taking time to help the less fortunate.”
At this point, I was starting to think she was fucking with me intentionally. “So, how do you know Anima? Are you her” ancient ancestor “mother?”
“That’s nice of you to say. I don’t have any children. This theater is my legacy.” The lady led me off to a side hall. “Anima’s been a godsend. Such a sweetheart, always there to help even though there are bigger theaters offering her jobs that can afford to pay her more than I can.”
Okay, so she was referring to herself in the ‘less fortunate’ camp. I guess I can feel less insulted now. “Yeah, she’s been a big help to me, too.”
“Then you know how special she is, so you’d best treat her right.” I was about to object to the woman’s assumption, but she opened a door that revealed a narrow and steep staircase. “She’s in the office downstairs, first door on the left.”
Eh, she can think whatever she likes. I made my way carefully downstairs. How something built like this wasn’t condemned by every health inspector, I couldn’t begin to guess. It was be physically impossible for two people to pass each other on these stairs without one of them actually climbing over top the other. Luckily, no one else seemed to be down here.
I opened the door to find Anima sitting inside. She was back to wearing her ninja costume. I could see her eyes and freckles again. “So, ‘White Lady’? Really?”
“Sorry, I kinda panicked back there.” I stood in the narrow doorway of the tiny office. If the old lady thought we wanted to be close, she certainly sent us to the right place. “If it makes you feel any better, I told the news crew that you might be changing the name in the future.”
She sighed, looking at the ceiling. “No, it’s fine. White Lady isn’t that bad, and you were just trying to help in a bad situation.”
“Thanks. I knew you didn’t like Sapphire, but…” I trailed off. How do you ask someone you barely know why they were maybe three words away from killing someone? “What was that about, anyway?”
“We have a history.” She looked at me, her eyes were wet. “I know, you figured that out. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it. Can we just talk about the rest of the robbery instead?”
Damn. “Sure.” It’s not like we were close. I understood how hard it was to talk to people I was close to, and we were barely more than strangers. I stepped in a little further. “Man, this room was any bigger, it might get mistaken for a broom closet.”
“It is pretty cramped.” Anima agreed. Moments later there was a cartoon chair next to me. I took a seat while Anima continued talking. “This theater was top of the line when it was new, but that was over a hundred years ago.”
“Yeah, your boss said something about bigger theaters trying to recruit you.” That didn’t seem too interesting, so I bit the bullet and told her the other half of our conversation. “Oh, by the way, I think she thinks we’re dating.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I could tell Anima had managed to smile behind her mask.
“Nope, not at all. She also said I was, and I quote, ‘a polite young man’.”
Anima snickered. “Mrs. Battle clearly isn’t the best judge of character.”
Her name is Mrs. Battle? Also: hey! “That’s funny, because she has nothing but good things to say about you.” I smirked at her. Who’s laughing now? “It seems like she thinks you’re sticking with this theater out of some sense of charity.”
Anima hesitated for a moment. “Maybe if you want to be cynical about it.” She waited a moment, gathering her thoughts. “My dad always loved places like this one. He would take me and my sister to them and tell us that when we were his age, they’d all be gone. I know I won’t be able to save this theater, not really. I’m popular, but just barely enough to make this place competitive in a dying market.”
I noticed she talked about her dad in past tense. I also decided it would be in incredibly bad taste to point out that if she started using her powers to be a hero, she’d have more than enough fame to do whatever the hell she wanted.
Anima continued her story while I was quiet. “But Mrs. Battle’s entire life revolves around this place. Her grandfather built it, her mother was an actress here and married the owner’s son.” I was sure she smiled a bit under her mask. “I’m told it was quite the tumultuous forbidden romance. I’ve already talked to Muwth, she says it won’t take much to get the building converted to a historical landmark and museum. I just need it to keep going as long as Mrs. Battle does. No one should have to see their life destroyed in front of them.”
Is that what happened to you? “Is that why you stepped in at the bank? I know you didn’t want to get involved in the first place, and then you said you’d only be support to protect bystanders. I didn’t think you’d step in.”
She made eye contact. “I almost didn’t. My shields were starting to fail. I was planning to let her go.”
“But you didn’t. Why?” At this point, I had to know.
“Because you did.” I was about to ask, but she went on. “You were willing to let them escape. Even though it would have hurt that reputation you’re trying to build, and made your life harder.”
Yeah, that would have been a bitch. I shrugged, dismissing her statement. “Not that much. It still would have been two villains running away from me without making a single penny. I could work with that.” Even if capture is a whole lot better.
“Well, it impressed me.” God damn it, don’t blush in front of Anima. “Almost as much as what came after. When you stood up to Sapphire for me. Not many people are brave enough to do something like that.”
If I didn’t, you might have come to blows. “It’s easy to be brave when your whole power revolves around being impossible to hurt.” As awesome as the praise was, I couldn’t help but feel self conscious. Right now, I would have given anything to still be wearing my mask. “Umm, just so we’re clear. All that stuff I said. To Nano, and Shadow Boxer, and Sapphire. I’m not really like that. I was just running my mouth to draw their fire. You get it, right?”
Anima nodded. “I get it. Your power isn’t like Guardian. You can’t warp space to draw attacks. You have to convince the enemy to go after you. And for part of it Nano was using mind control on you. No one can blame you for that. If anything, most people would have done a lot worse to him after they broke free. That’s almost as bad as rape.”
She wasn’t wrong. As far as horrible crimes went, it was high on the list. It didn’t hit me in the moment, but if I thought about it, I might have kicked the bastard a few times while he was unconscious. I kept my trap shut.
“Besides, what you said to Sapphire was pretty funny. Is it a boob?” She actually laughed. It wasn’t nearly as rich as Cassie’s laugh, but the meaning behind it turned the sounds into music for me. “I was too upset to enjoy it right then, but, god… I’ve never seen her get angry at anyone. I thought she was going to snap and rip you in half.”
“Well, that is what I was trying to do.” Anima looked at me, her eyes widening. Oh, shit, now she’s probably thinking it was about me stepping in to protect her. It was, but I didn’t want her feeling bad about it. “Can you imagine what my rep would look like if a powerhouse like Sapphire tried to kill me and failed?”
She relaxed a little, but she didn’t seem completely sold. “Yeah, that would be pretty cool.”
“Not to mention the police brutality lawsuit.” I cleared my throat and returned to my shitty southern accent. “Your honor, this is video footage of the defendant pulling my client’s head off like a cheap pez dispenser. The prosecution rests.”
She laughed again. Good, laughter is good. “Civil court doesn’t work like that.”
“And that is why I need a lawyer, your honor.” I laughed along with her. “I think I could have made it happen, if Sympathy didn’t ruin it.”
Anima’s mood dimmed almost immediately. “She has that effect.”
Fuck! “I noticed.” I briefly considered asking Anima about the whole ‘Mark of Cain’ thing, then dropped it. Something made me think it was a bad idea. “So, umm, sorry about implying that I was trying to get you naked. Twice. At the same time.”
“At least you’re more honest about it than most guys.” Well, that was enormously easier than I expected. “Just don’t do it again.”
“I can live with that.” Wow, maybe women aren’t as disagreeable as I’ve been led to believe.
“Unless Sapphire’s in earshot.” Anima leaned forward. “Then I want you to imply you succeeded.”
What? No, seriously. What? “Uh. Yeah, I can do that.” I wasn’t sure if I actually could, but I’d try if the opportunity presented itself. “So, aside from the shit parts that I’m not allowed to pry into, it was a good day, right?”
I could tell she was smiling under the mask. “Yeah, it was surprisingly pretty fun.”
“Does that mean you’ll be up for doing it again?” I took a slow breath. “As part of a team.”
She looked at me for a while, long enough that I started getting nervous. “Yeah, I think I would.”