“Oh god, you guys are dumb as fuck!” Laura laughed “Don’t you morons know anything about powers? Important fact: it’s contagious. Spend enough time around an Imbued, and there is a damn good chance you’ll become one.”
Through an imp, I watched Laura give an Oscar-worthy performance; she managed the perfect act of a nervous person trying to appear calm. Many could perform the vocal part of the role, but Laura managed to convey the body language, which even accomplished actors found difficult, and she did it without any practice. The storm of power Genius Loci released around her added weight to her lies.
“Fuck!” One of the thugs ran for the door. Part of me wanted to cut him off, to see him in police custody, where he belonged, but we needed to follow the script. A script that required sending them back to their boss with news that Laura was Imbued as well; fear of the Mark of Caine would dissuade better than any individual threat by Zach might.
I could do more, I should do more. I spared a glance over at Zach, who had found a place in the corner, where he sat with his eyes closed. He was in the same meditative trance he always used when holding a person in the ‘memory’ of his power. Someone else might have mistaken his behavior for relaxed, but I saw how jaw was clenched and how his breathing was of someone trying to force themselves not to get upset.
His power, the deepest part of his nature, gave him the power to be the target, to take on all the danger and, yes, attention. Yet here he has to sit in silence, letting his sister put herself in danger while he’s safe back here. And if he makes one mistake, she suffers the consequences. He fears being seen as weak, but right now he’s proving himself stronger than anyone I have ever known.
I wanted to encourage him, but I didn’t know what to say; more, I might distract him at a critical moment. I returned my focus to the imp. It turns out, I picked the exact right time for it. The remaining thug rushed Laura, perhaps imagining he could take her out before she could stop him. He ran right into Flamewreath’s power. Flamewreath, beyond its protection from extreme temperatures, was a weapon built around equivalent retaliation; the harm you sought to cause, returned upon you twice over.
A normal person would have been driven back by the initial whirlwind of flame, singed and missing some body hair, but otherwise unharmed. A normal person would not have kept pushing forward into a fire which had begun to melt his flesh off.
ShitShitShit! “Zach! Now!”
In a single moment Laura appeared next to Zach, through the Imp I watched Laura’s clothes fall to the floor, and Flamewreath returned to my finger. The thug stood there, covered in nasty welts, open sores, and clothes half-converted to charcoal.
“Son of a bitch!” Laura jumped away from Zach. “Why didn’t you tell me how much your power stings!?” She grabbed the bath robe draped over one of the chairs and slipped it on.
“Ain’t that bad.” Zach chanced opening one eye, and only after confirming his sister was now clothed, did he pull his hand off the wall and face her. “Don’t be such a baby.”
Laura tied the robe together. “Ain’t that bad my ass. That felt like getting slapped in the everywhere. And I mean everywhere, like places I didn’t even know I had, and a couple I’m pretty don’t even exist! What the fuck, dude?”
Zach looked away, and his body language wilted. “Well, I guess it’s worse when it happens to other people.”
It’s not. I knew it wasn’t; powers weren’t so merciful to their wielders. Through the Imp, I saw the remaining thug struggle for the door, which surprised me given that most people would be laying on the ground screaming right now. I clenched my hand, pressing my fingers against the warm band. Powers aren’t merciful to anyone else, for that matter.
“Do you think we should call someone?” I interrupted the siblings’ argument. Now they both looked at me, and I felt even more awkward. “Like, I know we didn’t want the cops, but what about an ambulance.” I’m the oldest person here, except maybe Glen, why am I acting like a kid?
Laura looked toward the door that, once opened would lead to the shop. “Do you think his own people will take him to a hospital? Will he need one? It’s your power, you know it better than we do.”
I supressed a shudder. That’s right, it’s my power, and my choice. “Well, there’s no way he’s getting off without some nasty looking scars, but it was all surface damage. He’s got days before he’ll need medical attention.” Uncomfortable days at best.
“Then we trust Glen to do his part of the job,” Laura said.
“S-reh.” The grumble that was Glen manipulating air felt off, like someone who’d just suffered a blow to the head trying to talk. “I didn’t get a chance to hitch a ride on their car. They got away.”
How did they get away? Glen’s as fast as whatever he lock on to, and that would be… the guy… who was caught in my fire. Oh.
“Hey, it’s fine,” Zach started walking toward the exit, which put him on a path to approach me. “We know who they were, we got them on camera, and now they think Laura has powers. As long as we still have, uh, our precog backing us up, it’s all good. Even if we didn’t get everything we wanted, we still got all the important stuff? Heck, we don’t even know if they were going to run back to their boss or anything. I bet they’re used to dodging police Espers, and they know we got a precog, so they gotta be planning to hide in some motel or something for a week, right?”
“If they’re smart, they would,” I said. I even managed to smile. Thanks, Zach. I hoped he knew how grateful I was.
Zach turned around to look at Laura again. “So, it all worked out. The hard part’s gonna be if they use surveillance on Laura. I don’t know if we can detect a threat if all they’re doing is watching at a distance.”
The robe Laura was wearing tightened around her stomach without anyone touching it.
“All of you have jobs, so I guess it’s on me,” Glen’s voice was back to its deep, booming, state. I hoped that meant he recovered from what my power did to him. “I don’t have much better to do, anyway.”
“Damn straight you don’t have better,” Laura made an attempt to sound annoyed, but her smile bordered dreamy. She ran a one of her hands over the tightened portion of her robe. “And if by some impossibility you do find someone better than me, I will find out. Then I will seduce her away from you.”
“Hold on a second.” Zach brought up his hands. “Are you telling me the two of you are dating? The hell did this happen?”
Laura’s smile vanished. “Right before New Years.” Given the time frame that covered, she likely meant right after Christmas, so I could understand why she was vague. “One thing led to another, and, well.” She glared at her brother. “You got a problem?”
I was behind Zach, so I had no idea what expression he had on his face. “A few problems, now that I think of it. First thing I was gonna do is ask ‘how’, and now I’m going to be spending the rest of my life trying to never think of it. In between the existential crisis that comes from you having a boyfriend that isn’t a complete sack of shit.” He brought up his arms, as if grasping at the sky. “Everything I once thought was true in the universe is crumbling around me!”
I couldn’t help but laugh, though I kept it quiet enough that I hoped nobody but Glen realized it. I found myself amazed at how well this pair handled their problems. It was like no matter how serious the issue, or how bad it might get, they would always have humor to get themselves through. A simple thing, yet I found it inspirational.
“So, you don’t have any problems with me dating your sister?”
“Well, I think doing it behind my back broke, like, four whole chapters of the bro code, and I have no idea how I’m supposed to threaten to kick your ass if you’re just trying to get in her pants.” Zach paused for a moment. “And now I just realized you are literally able to get into her pants. God damn it.”
He turned toward me again, smiling. “Hey, White Lady, do you know where to get some brain bleach?”
It was sweet of him, trying to include me in the banter, reaching out to me. It had been years since anyone so much as tried, and she ruined my life. It would be safer, easier, just to stay aloof, to- no! I made the decision that I’d spent the whole day on the fence about.
“No more White Lady.” Dammit, Beth, could you find a way to sound more bitchy? “I mean, I’m retiring the name. From now on, I’m Anima in costume.”
Zach’s eyes lit up, but a moment later the smile vanished. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
No. With a thought, I dismissed portions of my costume, enough to reveal the lower half of my face. “I’m certain.” I tried not to blame him too much; what I offered was a big deal, and he had a lot more reasons to celebrate than he did to worry. “We’re doing a lot of good, but that also means we’re angering a lot of powerful people. Respawn and White Lady are low end B-listers with a scary precog gimmick. No offense.”
Zach shrugged it off. “Hey, as long as I’m out there helping people, I don’t care what I score on some imaginary ranking system.”
He cares, with a power like his, he can’t help but care. “And there’s any number of reasons we can’t reveal any of our silent partners, regardless of if the cops know or not.” Me working with a card-carrying villain would have sent Sapphire into an apoplectic fit, followed by the FBI assigning an entire team to monitor me alone, and Muwth’s response to ‘public’ anything was negative.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Glen said. “It’s not like I have much of an identity, let alone a secret one.”
Laura brought one of her hands up, to touch her own shoulder. I tried not to stare; in part because it felt like I was a voyeur into something beautiful, but more because I was jealous. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like, to have someone there to protect me. I had perhaps the perfect power to feel protected with, but I was still alone.
“No, it’s better to keep Glen secret.” I went back to focusing on my argument. “Never know when we’ll need a trump card.” Which my power, effective though it is, can never be. “I can’t imagine a better secret weapon than an invisible telekinetic with superhuman hearing. So that leaves Anima, the most talked about Imbued on the eastern seaboard. I think that, and the mysterious precog everyone knows we have but can’t prove, is enough to dissuade almost anyone.”
“You’re certain about this? Like, beyond a shadow of a doubt?” Glen’s voice was soft; I had no idea what Muwth told him of my past, I doubted it was much, but I appreciated his concern.
“We’d better get moving,” I said. “Mrs. Battle’s great for giving me the day off whenever I ask.” In many ways, that was part of the appeal of working for her rather than a major production. “But I try not to abuse her generosity.”
“Oh, right!” Zach took a step back and grabbed his left ring finger. “Watch and be amazed as I turn causality into my bitch!” The whole time he made his wild declaration, he’d had his head facing toward me and his eyes closed. A grimmace followed by twists of his wrists heralded a new copy of Zach, and a horrible sickening crunch. “If anyone can explain to me how time travel works, that’d be awesome. I’m dying to find out.”
Laura flinched a little as well; neither of us were a fan of Zach’s suicide performances. “Every time you talk about that, I picture a piece of paper being crumpled into a ball and tossed at a garbage can, only to bounce off the side. And instead of paper, it’s an alternate reality.”
“Hey, what have the laws of space and time ever done for me?”
I found myself smiling again; as bizarre as the scene was, it somehow managed to feel normal, comfortable. I could see myself getting used to it. “I’m gonna get going.” I went for the door.
“Hold up!” Zach reached a hand out with a finger held up, then ran toward Laura. He passed something off to her and spoke quiet enough that I couldn’t hear before running back toward me. “Mind if I go with you?”
Wait, what? “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I figure I can watch some of the performers and props, see if it gives me any ideas.” I don’t think any of us bought that excuse, but it sounded plausible enough. “Plus I need a convenient excuse to bounce before the lovebirds kick me out, and this is the only hero business lined up for a while. Turns out, there ain’t a lot of crime when it’s ten below in the middle of the afternoon.”
Now that I was committing to taking Anima out of self-imposed exile, the fear of being seen outside work with Zach seemed foolish. He’s using me, this is his way to obligate me by blowing the secret before I can change my mind. I felt terrible for thinking that; it was my own issues talking. Zach didn’t have the deceitful nature to pull off something so underhanded, not while keeping that smile on his face.
Leah tricked me into believing she had my best interests at heart, but she never once hid the calculating intelligence between her eyes. Zach isn’t Leah. “Do you think you’ll be able to keep hold when your power goes off?”
“Yeah, I think I’m good,” Zach said. “And if not, no big. Nobody’s gonna notice one more human shaped dent in the sidewalk.”
He went ahead of me, even held the door open, which was nice in a weird way. Both of us stayed silent going through the front of the tattoo place Laura worked, ignoring the stink of burnt hair on the way through. Most of it’s my fault; had I let everyone know Anima was on this team, then Crucible would never have dared provoke anyone on our team. Not that I would have retaliated, but there was no way for anyone other than a few choice Espers to know. I doubted anyone in Lightbringer had that power, or they wouldn’t be having such trouble in their war with the remnants of Los Fieles.
I was more certain than ever this was the right decision.
Once we were outside, I called on my power in full. “Valkyrie, come forth. Wyvern, you are required.” Valkyrie appeared as she always did in a white fog that fit well in the frigid weather. Wyvern plumeted from the sky, more a forced perspective illusion as it grew in size rather than a true drop from the heavens. In truth, it started around three or four stories above our heads. Its wings spread out just in time to slow its half-illusory descent moments before it hit the ground.
Larger than a horse, the creature looked much like a pterodactyl, but with batlike wings instead of a single membrane. Its structure was draconic in nature, and reminded me of some unholy hybrid between an ostritch, a bat, and a muscular iguana.
Zach eyes the monster. “Wow. I was kinda expecting I’d have to let my masculinity take a hit and ride on a unicorn or something. This i-” his words were cut off when the monster sprayed acidic saliva in his face. Amongst all the other animal traits, Wyvern had the personality of a camel.
Drawing upon both in such short order tired me some, coupled with the draw that Flamewreath required to stave off the bitter cold of a January that doing its best to make up for the unseasonably warm December, so I was forced to take a moment to recover after the summons appeared.
“Sorry. He’s one of the meaner ones. Don’t have a lot of creatures you’re meant to ride. Would you prefer the pegasus?”
Zach wiped at his face even though the copy that took the hit was almost gone now. “Nah, I’ll stick with the dragon.”
I held control over it long enough to allow Zach to climb on its back, then I got on the Valkyrie. It took some effort, but I managed to keep both of them under my control all the way home, save for twice when Wyvern twisted its head around and bit Zach for tripping whatever its programming deemed to be annoying it. Knowing my reptiles, ‘alive and in range’ was all the provocation it needed. He Respawned several more times for reasons I assumed involved the cold.
I landed us in the parking lot for the Playhouse, in the angle that kept us visible from the street without getting too close; more than once, I’d used my power in such a way to advertise for the little theater. “Valkyrie, you have served well, dismissed. Wyvern, stop being a dick and go to bed.”
Zach looked relieved to be touching solid ground again. “Well, that was an experience.”
“Sorry, it’s one of the meaner ones.” I hoped he didn’t blame me too much for the difficulties I had controlling it.
“No, that’s fine.” Zach smiled, and stepped a little closer. For a moment, I thought he might try to kiss me again. I dismissed Flamewreath, so he didn’t go up like a match if he did. “Listen, uh, I just wanted to thank you. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t want to sound rude, but I’ve gotta make a couple phone calls. Let our benefactor-in-chief know the score.” I made my way for the side door that put me closest to my stairs.
“Sure, that’s cool. I’ll go see what creative new murders Tina’s dreamed up.” Oh. “That girl scares me, sometimes. Like, I could see her going for the highest kill score in a game of pong.” He ran ahead and got the door for me.
I chuckled, though it was more to be polite; I didn’t know Tina well enough to have a strong opinion. “Right, well, good luck.”
While Zach stayed down in the employee areas, I went straight for my apartment’s medical cabinet. I took out the bottle of pills that I hadn’t touched in months. Whatever the shelf life of Sertraline was, I assumed I’d crossed that point long ago. It was a different number on the bottle which I was concerned with.
Holding the bottle in one hand, I dialed on my cell with the other. My hands trembled the whole time.
“Doctor Cantu’s office, how can I help you?”
I wasn’t sure if it was the same secretary as I had dealt with before; I’d forgotten the sound of her voice. “Yes, this is Elizabeth Thomas. I, uh, was a patient, and I’d like to set up an appointment.”