As fun as scaring the hell out of the gangs was, I was still pissed. I just lost almost all my friends and my reputation in a single day. I started running without caring where I went, embracing the brief pain every time I duplicated. All I wanted to do was forget about the backstabbers I thought were my friends.
It didn’t help. I couldn’t get how Alex pushed me out of my head. He was the one who taught me how to run the right way, and encouraged me when I actually started winning against him. I stopped and punched the wall of some office building, hard enough to break my hand. Alex taught me that, too.
I wanted to punch the wall again, but people were staring at me. I needed to talk to someone. I wasn’t scheduled for my shrink until after New Years, not that I was looking forward to talking to him anyway. Laura was at work, Glen was doing whatever he did, and I… I didn’t want to be alone.
I dialed in the number from memory. “Hello?”
I steadied my voice. “White Lady?”
“Uh. Respawn? I something wrong?”
I felt kinda bad, the last time I’d talked to her was right after the fire. I meant to call her or something, but the timing was just never right. “No. I mean, yes, but not what you’re thinking. I just…” I tried to find the way to say it, but on the phone while people were watching me wasn’t it. “I need someone to talk to. If you’re busy I’ll understand.”
I watched everyone watching me, judging me. “Sure, they don’t need me right now. Will you be in costume?”
Being reminded of my costume made me want to cry. More than half of it was Cassie’s design. She was the one who helped me look good for the cameras and encouraged me to embrace the ‘publicity’ aspects. Not that I was expecting good publicity any time soon.
I took another breath to steady myself. “I’ll be in civies.”
“Meet me at the theater. I’ll let Mrs. Battle know you’re coming.”
I wasn’t that close to the theater, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Besides, it was rush hour, I was faster than the cars right now. “I’ll be there in about half an hour.” Nearby a car honked at a taxi that stopped in the middle of the road to pick up a rider. “Better make it forty-five minutes.”
“Okay, I’ll just finish up here, bye.”
“Bye.” I slid my phone into my pocket and started my run halfway across the city. As it turns out, I didn’t need the extra fifteen. The air was too cold for most people to be out, and the weeks of finding random crimes taught every sidestreet in the city; I had the sidewalks to myself.
Miss Battle was all smiles when I showed up. “Hello, ma’am.” If she thought I was somehow ‘polite’, I’d let her keep thinking it. All the better for Anima.
“Come in,” she said, holding the door open. “You always seem to show up when the place is a mess.”
“Sorry, I’ll try to be more considerate in the future.” She wasn’t exaggerating about the ‘mess’ part. If I thought Halloween was a mess, well, it was nothing compared to all the Christmas junk.
Several of Anima’s summons walked around. These were half the height of a person, but stocky enough that I could believe they weighed as much as I did. Their skin was black and their bodies covered in blood red hair. Knowing how Anima’s summons were weapons, I recognized how deadly they might be. Their skin looked rocklike, and they were freakishly muscled. It didn’t take much imagination to picture them ripping someone apart like one of those chimps people tried to raise as pets.
They shambled along carrying boxes of decorations for the employees. Mrs. Battle wasn’t kidding when she said Anima deserved to be paid more. I wasn’t sure what she was getting, but it probably wasn’t ‘small army of laborers’ level.
My thoughts went to the question Kitten asked Anima that first fateful night. What did she lose, to gain power like this? I lost one of the only two people in my life I could trust, then I lost my privacy, and now my friends and reputation, and my power still didn’t hold a candle to Anima’s.
“Does that mean we’ll be seeing more of you?” Mrs Battle asked.
Huh, that’s a good question. “Know what? Maybe you will.”
“Good,” she said. “Anima needs more friends.”
“What about the people that work here?” The way Anima talked about it, she spent her time here doing theater and hanging out with the actors. “Is she having problems?”
She hesitated for a moment. “Well, yes, but she’s not really close to anyone. Everyone likes her, but she only ever socializes at work or when we have an afterparty. You’re the only one of her friends she’s ever introduced me to.”
Huh. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to blow her cover,” I suggested. “Some of us are really paranoid about that.”
“Maybe,” she didn’t seem sold on the idea. “You’re not.”
I noticed I wasn’t being led in the direction to the office this time. Instead she led me the opposite direction. Some more of those weird trolls were doing their thing while people worked on decorations, but I didn’t see Anima around.
“My power’s not really one you can hide.” I reached out to where a guy was trying to untangle a ball of Christmas lights from a fake Christmas tree. A tap and a thought was all it took to solve that puzzle for him. The string fell on the floor next to me, mostly straight.
“Thanks, dude,” he said. I was surprised by how not surprised he was, but then he was used to Anima, so what was one more superpower?
“No problem.” I looked over to see Mrs. Babble smiling. “What?”
“Do you want a part time job?”
Actually, I could use a few extra bucks. The therapist came out of my lawyer’s retainer, and the hospital bills were mostly covered by Dad’s insurance, but expenses were kinda adding up. “I’ll let you know after I talk to Anima.”
“She’s up those stairs,” Mrs. Battle gestured. “Have a nice day.”
Ah, if only that was possible. “Thanks.” These stairs were as steep as the ones on the other side, but there wasn’t a hallway this time, just the door. I knocked a couple times and waited.
A few moments later, there was a click and the door opened. Anima was in costume. “Are you okay?”
I tried to find the words, the ones that could make the situation better, that could make everything okay, but they didn’t exist. “No.”
Behind her mask, her expression was unreadable. “Come in.”
At first, I thought it was an attic; An entire wall was lined with books and there wasn’t a TV to be found. It took a moment to realize this was an apartment, if one that didn’t have a kitchen. It was smaller than my place, but obviously lived in. “Uh, nice place.”
“Thanks. Mrs. Battle lets me rent it for dirt cheap.” She sat down on the sofa. How anyone got a sofa up here, I wasn’t about to guess. Then again, I could do it. “So, what happened?”
I took a deep breath and sighed, then I started talking. “There’s a rumor…” I stopped, the tears were already forming. I stomped my own foot to force a respawn and get my emotions under control. Then I sat in one of Anima’s chairs. “They’re saying I killed Ferne to cover up some kind of sex scandal.”
She just nodded. I didn’t think she knew who Ferne was by name, but she had to know at least the basics of my week. “One of the hazards of the business, I’m afraid. You were cleared by the cops, so it’s not likely to get on the news. Except the gossip rags. They still claim I’m pimping out my summons to politicians and foreign dignitaries.”
“And here I thought being able to punch the clothes off people was power perversion potential,” I muttered.
“I know you’re trying to change the subject,” Anima said. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Don’t tempt me,” I said with a forced smile. “I don’t care about the rumor, I don’t even care that the school believes it. But Alex was supposed to be my best friend, he’s half the reason I’m a hero in the first place. He didn’t even give me a chance to talk, to explain what happened. He just told me to fuck off, and that’s what really hurts.”
“It’s the betrayal,” Anima offered. “The ones we let get close are the ones who can hurt us the worst.”
Is that why you’re so distant from everyone? “Yeah, that. And then there’s Cassie.” I realized Anima didn’t know who that was. “My girlfriend… ex, now, I guess. She wouldn’t even talk to me. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than Alex.”
I closed my eyes as the tears started falling. “I mean, I didn’t love her, we were just dating. We were only together for a couple months.” But she was beautiful and fun and smart and encouraged me that whole time. “It was nice, maybe I hoped it could go somewhere. I just… I don’t know, if we’d broken up for another reason I’d be bummed, but okay. I just… not like this.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “You were abandoned.”
I nodded, opening my eyes. “I thought they were my friends, that they had my back. And now I’m alone.”
“Laura might have something to say about that,” Anima said. She was right, of course. “I know how much she cares about you. I don’t see Glen buying into these rumors, either. We talked a lot in the hospital.”
I blinked. Laura didn’t mention anything about any of them, herself included, visiting me. “Really? What about? Wait, you were in the hospital?”
It was her turn to shrug. “A lot of things, mostly how powers work and the weird legal stuff we deal with. She was afraid some villain might come after you while you were out, like Kitten. I’m the only one really capable of stopping her.”
I shuddered involuntarily at the idea of what Kitten might do to me while I was unconscious. “Trust me, I’m grateful for that.” I wasn’t sure what Glen told Muwth or Anima about Kitten’s fucked up motives. “Would you? Fight Kitten, I mean?”
She looked up, like there were answers on the wall behind me. “It didn’t matter, Muwth already used her power, we knew exactly when you were going to, uh, die again. I still don’t get how you can be so blasé about that.”
Well, that explains the law firm knowing exactly when to be there. “That only works if they were there to kill me, but if someone had… other… plans.” I stood up and put my hands on her shoulders. “If you used your power to protect me at all, it would have revealed you’re White Lady. And if Kitten did show up, you’d have to fight her. Plus there’s always the police heroes. Silf was there before I woke up.”
Anima looked down. “Y-yeah, ran into a few of them. Your sister has some… colorful… language.”
“Oh god, what did she do this time?”
“She threatened to kick Sympathy in, umm, the c-word, so hard that her kids would be coughing up toenails.”
I laughed, that was the Laura I knew and loved and often feared. “That sounds about right. I taught her everything she knows.”
“She said the same thing about you.”
“Well, she’s a liar.”
“So, yeah, there’s nothing we can do about your school, but you have friends. Laura, Glen… me…”
“I don’t even know who you are behind the costume,” I said.
“Sorry, guess Muwth’s paranoia’s rubbed off on me a bit,” she answered. Lightning ran across her costume, reducing it to mist. My power tried to tell me information about the fog of her power disappearing, but it just couldn’t get a lock.
Without her costume, Anima was on the short side, not even coming up to my shoulders. her freckles, it turns out, were everywhere, going across her cheeks and along her neck. The obvious Irish ancestry didn’t stop there, she also had pale skin and frizzy reddish-brown hair to go with it. She smiled nervously. “My name’s Beth.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Beth,” I answered. “Thanks for reminding me I still have friends.”
“Nothing you haven’t done for me,” she said.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Her body relaxed and she drew away a bit. “Hey, what’s a good emotional breakdown or two between friends, right? Don’t worry, I promise not to tell Glen or Laura.”
I smiled. “Thanks. My rep’s taken enough hits as it is.” Up close, her eyes were the color of honey. Beth wasn’t wearing any makeup, and it was late enough that whatever soap she used had worn off. Despite that, or maybe because of it, she smelled nice.
I kissed her.