It didn’t take long for me to realize I was hugging a girl I barely knew while alone in my sister’s bedroom. Never mind that my power was trying to scan under her robes, to be blocked by her power-created armor. Feeling awkward and experiencing the worst headache of my life, I let her go.
“I don’t think powers work that way,” I said as I stepped back, then cut her off before she could argue. “Gives us what we think we want, maybe. But I know I didn’t get what I wanted. All I wanted was to stop Kitten, and…” she’s still alive, and Erica’s still dead “Now my identity’s public and I’m disowned, and I didn’t even get what I really wanted. And don’t dare try to tell me I don’t really want to stop that psychopath. Because…”
She hesitated for a moment, watching the floor like it might actually give her an answer. “But…”
“Hey, I like a good ‘but’ as much as the next guy, but I wouldn’t want to be one,” I interrupted with a smirk. “Powers come with fucked up side effects. I can’t so much as sneeze without blowing my identity, anyone who asks Muwth for a date goes in a registry, and…” Erica… poor Erica. “And your power is…” absolutely terrifying “no different than the rest of us.”
She looked up at me, letting me see where tears had stained her facemask. “You really believe that?”
“What? No lie detector in your summons list?” I joked, buying time to put my thoughts together. “Yeah, I believe that. Well, in the same way I believe a yacht is no different than a rowboat.” It was the only analogy I could think of that didn’t involve guns or bombs. “I’m going to guess you didn’t want to be one of the most powerful Imbued on the continent, either. You seem the type to want a nice, quiet life where no one bothers you.”
“That obvious, huh?”
I shrugged, which sent a jolt of pain right behind my eyes. “We introverts can sense our own.” I surpressed the urge to make a Highlander reference; even if she got it, it would probably only have upset her.
“You, an introvert?” She did not sound like she believed me.
“Says the girl who works in a theater,” I quipped back. “So, umm, I hate to do this, but… I’ve got a lot of crap to take care of today, and I’m not looking forward to a second of it.” Especially not with this headache.
“You’re right,” Anima agreed. “I’ve gotta get out of this costume and let people see my other mask, before people start drawing connections.”
“Oh, yeah.” I brought the bare hand up and rubbed my face. I’d worry about that hundred bucks later. Right now I had more important things to worry about, like how I didn’t get the power to talk to women. “Listen, umm, I know this was a lot more public than you wanted. If this causes you any problems, I’m sorry.”
I’d like to think she smiled, behind her mask. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about me. All eyes were on you, today.” Anima turned and opened the door to leave Laura’s bedroom. “I’m going to go home, now. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay, I’ll see you out,” Laura answered. She opened the door and led Anima down the stairs
I was left alone in the apartment, with only the television and my thoughts. The news was showing the burnt husk of the building I ran into, talking about the dead still inside. Far too energetically, the attractive brunette newscaster stated that there were nineteen missing and presumed dead. Nineteen people who didn’t make it, thirteen that I saved.
A quick run of mental math was roughly forty percent. In school, that would have been a failing grade. I tried to focus on those I’d saved; the mother and her children, that old dude, an entire family. That was more than anyone else managed to help.
The news even got a really good shot of when I teleported outside the building, and compared it to the footage of my footraces and workout sessions. I smiled, noting that most of that material came from Cassie’s camera. According to her, it was part of her job as my ‘image consultant’, and I had to admit that she made me look damn good. According to her, the secret was taking thousands of pictures and keeping only the best few.
I hadn’t realized how much I’d filled out in the last month. I had actual pecs, now. One of the clips they borrowed off Cassie involved me respawning in the middle of a pull up, after I’d developed enough control to not lose grip on the bar. The shimmer of light wrapping around me, with my muscles tensed up, looked awesome.
“You really shouldn’t check yourself out like that.” I jumped, turning to face Laura. Her smile was almost sadistic. “I mean, that’s just begging for rumors to start.”
“I wasn’t checking myself out!” I felt the heat rising in my face.
“Sure.” Laura just shook her head. “Don’t worry, I do it all the time. Why do you think there’s a full body mirror in my bedroom?”
“I just assumed it was so you knew which boyfriends still had a reflection.”
She smirked and raised her eyebrows. “Coming from the guy who sparkles.”
“Wow. Shots fucking fired.” I turned my head back to the news. I knew why I made the decision I did, to call in a ‘code black’ despite all the publicity. All those lives saved that wouldn’t have been. It sucked for Anima, and was probably going to suck for me now that it was clear I had a real weakness. Especially since it was one more thing Kitten could use to fight me.
“Hey, Zach, are you okay?” Laura’s snark gave way to concern.
“I’m fine,” I answered, not bothering to look her direction. “Just thinking that I gotta talk to Mom soon.”
“Oh, ugh,” Laura grimaced sympathetically. “Well, get changed and then get in the car. I’ll take you home.”
I thought about it, then shook my head. “No, I think I’ll wear this.” Missing glove and all. “Something about the uniform makes me feel…” I trailed off, not able to find the words.
“A hundred times more badass?” Laura offered. “Trust me, I get it. A lot of customers at the parlor are like that; the ink gives them confidence, lets them imagine they can be their ideal. There are a few who take it too far.”
I smiled a bit. “Yeah, that happens in the supers community, too. Some people are obsessed to the point where they start thinking of their costumed identity as their real selves, and the civilian identity as the costume they put on for the world. It’s called ‘becoming the mask’.” I stopped, realizing how scary that might sound. “Don’t worry, I’m not like that. I just, I want Mom to know I’m serious.”
“Good,” she stated in a tone that was more threat than anything. Then she got a mischievous gleam in her eye. “So, White Lady seems nice. How long have you been dating?”
What? “We’re not!” Pain immediately lanced through my head. No more shouting for me.
“Really? Well, you should get to work on that,” Laura cajoled. “I’d say ‘before someone else gets her’, but she’s almost as big a dork as you are, so there’s basically no chance of that happening. You’re like Pandas. Adorkable as hell, but you’ll go extinct without someone to help you figure out how to breed.”
I rubbed my eyes, I still had my headache and this wasn’t helping. “For your information, I have a girlfriend.”
“Rosy Palms and her five daughters don’t count.”
“Her name is Cassie,” I muttered. I left the part where Rosy, so to speak, was still the only action I was seeing. “I’ve got pics of her on my cell, which should still be in your car.”
“Good thing I still got my coat on, then.” Laura grabbed her purse and went for the door. “Let’s go see how you took pictures of an imaginary girl.”
I walked after her, my head throbbing. It was just pain, I could deal with it, but I wasn’t going to make it worse by running. I closed the door behind me, it locked automatically when the door clicked shut. By the time I got to Laura’s car, the engine was running and she was smiling while holding my phone.
She looked at me while I got in. “I’d say you could do better, but I don’t want to lie.”
“What? Give me that.” I grabbed for my phone, which Laura handed right over. It was still locked, so all she got to see was the Yoda picture I set to display. I glared at my sister while typing in my password by muscle memory. I found the pictures I had of Cassie, then handed the phone back over. “This is my girlfriend.”
She looked at the phone. “Damn! Does she have an older brother? Hell, put a couple drinks in me and I’d settle for sister.”
I don’t actually know. Also: eww. “I’d say get your own, but with your taste in men he’d probably turn out to be a supervillain looking for blackmail.”
“No fun at all,” Laura muttered, then she started driving.
I closed my eyes and rested for the trip home. I ran into a burning building today, jumped into a literal pit of spikes that were also on fire, and told off some of the most powerful people on the East Coast, but somehow this was the only time I was honestly frightened. Still, I told myself that no matter what happened today, it was worth it. I was still telling myself that when we got home.
Mom opened the door before I could. Her eyes were red. “How dare you!? Both of you!” My headache made her screeching all the more painful. “You stabbed yourself in front of me! And I saw you on the news and… and…” she stooped and took a breath. “The first thing I’m doing is taking away that stupid costume, and your phone. You clearly can’t be trusted to-”
“Shut the fuck up!” I shouted, surprising her, myself, and probably Laura. “My head feels like a rabid howler monkey broke my skull open, climbed inside, and is now having carnal relations with my eye socket from behind, so I’m going to make this brief: I’m not stopping.”
I took a breath and forced myself to concentrate enough to continue. “Yes, I disobeyed your orders. Yes, I ran into a burning building. And you know what? Yes, I’d do it all over again any day of the week.” I met my mother’s eyes. “You can’t stop me, and nothing you can say will stop me. There are thirteen people alive today, who would have died horribly if I did what you wanted. I’m not the kind of person who can live with that, and I want to believe you’re not, either.”
She had her jaw clenched, and I was about to keep going. Explain that my powers meant I didn’t even need a place to stay. I didn’t sleep, didn’t need to eat or drink, and if I had to, I could contact Outreach and they’d take care of school. I could also have threatened to move in with Dad, but choosing to be homeless was a more believable threat.
“You’re right,” she sighed. “You’re right, I can’t stop you, and you… they’re saying you’re a real hero. They interviewed that little boy you saved, you know.”
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
“He’d be dead right now, wouldn’t he?” I took the question as rhetorical, waiting for her to continue. “You’re allowed to continue this superhero thing you’re doing, as long as your grades don’t suffer.”
I raised an eyebrow. As if grades really mattered, I could drop out of highschool and go striaght to a six figure career just on my power. Still, I wasn’t in the mood to argue. “Okay.”
“Now I’m going to talk to your sister,” she insisted. “You go inside, take a shower, and throw that costume in a garbage bag until it can be washed. It stinks to high heaven. Then go to your room and study. You’re still grounded.
“But you said I was free to be a hero,” I objected.
“You told me, and I quote, to ‘shut the fuck up’.”
Well, fuck. “That’s fair, I guess.” I quietly went inside. Things could have gone an awful lot worse, and that shower sounded really nice right now.