“Gold Regalia, Eufron.” I held still as the armor warped around me, adding the corset, padding, and the other enhancements which disguised me as a goddess amongst mortals. I couldn’t imagine who’d be visiting me today, and nobody called in about an emergency. The last thing I expected when I opened the door was Laura leaning against a wall, tapping away at her phone with her thumbs. Since sometime last night, she’d dyed her hair to a bright, almost neon, orange color.
She looked over at me the moment the door opened, her smile and relaxed body language dispelled all fears that this was an emergency. “Oh, right, everyone knows it’s Anima who lives here. Bet it gets fuckin’ annoying to have to costume up every time you wanna open the door?”
Replaced by fears of a different sort. I forgot all about our shopping trip today. “Trust me, it’s better than the alternative.” Beth is easy to hide, while Anima insists people know where it treads, one way or another. “Hiding my power’s not easy.”
Laura shrugged the statement off in her usual way. “Guess we’ll have to meet up somewhere else. How do you normally go out?”
“I use the metro, most of the time.” One of the biggest mistakes new Imbued made was keeping a vehicle; too much paper trail for the casuals and newbies to maintain. To say nothing of the expense of having paperwork on multiple identities.
“That’s the smart way,” she said. “Nobody uses a car anymore, there’s too much damn traffic.”
Heh, cute. I didn’t laugh, but it brought a smile to my face nonetheless. “That explains all the cars on the road.” I backed out of the doorway so she could come inside; I’d already left her standing in the hall too long to seem welcoming, but much longer would have come across as rude.
“Oh, those are all from the tourists, you know they’re not real people. Just a conspiracy to keep us off the roads.”
“Not the craziest theory I’ve heard all week.” The idea that Doctor Cantu would report private files on her patients was absurd. “Daryl seems like a nice guy” for a supervillain “but I don’t know where he gets some of his ideas.” He reminded me of Muwth sometimes, but in her case she participated in actual conspiracies and shared conversations with people that the crazies believed were members of secret world-controlling cabals. All Daryl did was repeat stuff that I suspected came from the internet.
“He does have some doozies,” Laura agreed. “Glen says that Mike says it’s something in the psychology that creates Gadgeteers. The obsessive types are more drawn to conspiracies, technology, and dreams about rebuilding the world into something better. Somewhere in that overlap of desires is where you get the Gadgeteer class of powers. Tanks typically come from people who’ve been hurt bad in the past, either one huge event, or many small ones. Guess that makes sense. I know some guys who got beat up as kids, went into martial arts, and now beat up other people.”
That’s not too different than some of the theories I’ve heard. “Or people who have medical problems.” Like Zach, in and out of hospitals since he was born. “You’ve been studying this?”
“Kinda have to, if I wanna lead a team of Imbued. Otherwise, the only superpower I got is being the one person in this group who owns a car.” Her cheerful demeanor slipped, and for a moment I saw how worried she was. For a moment. “Now, c’mon, we only got a few more hours of prime shopping time to go.”
“The middle of the day, when everything is the most crowded, is prime shopping time?” To me, it sounded like the worst option possible.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “Unless you’re planning to buy everything we gawk at, it’s best to go when there’s lots of people so the tellers are too busy with real customers to chase us off.”
“That sounds like something a shoplifter would say.” Oh shit! I said that out loud! “Uh, I mean… not to say you’re, uh… dammit. I’m sorry?”
Even as I stumbled over my apology, Laura laughed. “A few more zingers like that, and people are gonna believe me when I brag about being a bad influence.”
Not the reaction I was expecting. “I think Zach’s going to argue that he’s the one who deserves the blame.”
“And who do you think taught him everything he knows?” Laura posed so her hand was resting on her hip. The positioning let her shirt slide up just enough to show the hint of a green and gold tattoo across her stomach. “Now, let’s get going before I start to think you don’t want to be seen in public with me.”
I don’t want to be seen in public at all. Also, Zach isn’t near as pushy as you. “Meet me by that Chinese place down by the light. Shouldn’t take me too long. In fact, I’ll probably beat you there.”
“Cool,” she said.
Once she was gone, I began the rush to clean up. A shower was out of the question, but I had time to brush my teeth, try in vain to manage my hair, and find the pants I never bothered to put on this morning. The fact that it was cold out at least gave me the excuse not to worry too much about clothes, since nobody would see anything other than my coat. Less convenient was that being in crowds meant I couldn’t use Flamewreath to keep warm without risk to others.
The fretting about made a fifteen minute job of something that should have taken five, which meant I got to see Laura’s car in the lot when I made the pass to make sure nobody was having a smoke break in the alley. One side was occupied by what I assumed was an employee, but the other was clear so at least I didn’t have to stay in the air keeping Laura waiting any longer. The pegasus dropped into the opening too narrow for its wings to extend, in stark defiance of more laws of physics than I cared to count, and landed without so much as disturbing the trash on the road near its feet.
“Valkyrie, your duty is complete.” It dissolved beneath me, while I ran down the litany of other options. “Eufron, Flamewreath, Familiar. Return to whence you came.” The drain on my strength vanished, a relief replaced in moments by the cold I had moments ago been immune to. Even the smell of the air became sharper and more unpleasant, as the protective effects which quarantined me from the world were removed.
Anima was asleep, leaving Beth alone in a dirty and dangerous world. “Gold-” I stopped myself. If anything bad was going to happen, Muwth would have warned me. Still, I didn’t want to press my luck, so I walked for Laura’s car as fast as I could without looking suspicious.
“Sorry, I didn’t think it’d take so long,” I said while climbing into the car.
“I was only here a minute.” She shifted into gear, driving us out onto the street. “Aren’t you worried about getting caught swapping out of costume like that? Changing in phone booths doesn’t work in the world of security cameras everywhere.”
I should be, but what’s the point? I live as Anima full time, anyway. “Anyone who’s dedicated to ferreting out a hero’s identity won’t have a hard time doing it. Between paper trails, Espers and guesswork, it’s mostly a matter of laziness and incompetence which stops most. And a sort of gentleman’s agreement with the media that keep us safe from the rest. Even people with open identities like Zach, you’ll almost never see their civilian names used if they get into a news report, unless they explicitly request it.”
“Makes those conspiracy theories sound a little more believable,” Laura said. “Takes a whole lot of clout to scare the tabloids into silence.”
“Nothing so clandestine. After enough judges grant seven figure settlements to aggrieved heroes, the rags learn there’s lines you don’t cross. Pavlovian.” I would have left it there, but I was in a darker head-space than usual. “And when they don’t, the villains make sure their successors figure it out. Darwinian. Several villains got their starts as heroes, until some asshole blew their cover and ruined their lives.”
“Yeah, I can see where you wouldn’t dig too deep to find a dude who can literally unzip you from your own spine.” Laura’s smile faded for a moment, then returned in full force. “But enough small talk, it’s time to get serious. We’re hunting the ultimate game.”
What? “I’m not even gonna pretend to know what you’re talking about.”
“After-after-Christmas sales. You know, after everyone’s sick of sales, but the prices are still low because there ain’t any customers.”
Wait a second. “I thought you said we’d be window shopping, not buying anything.”
“Of course not,” she said. “By now, anything worth buying has been picked clean. What we’re gonna find is the shit that nobody, no matter how stupid, desperate, or drunk from New Years, was willing to spend money on. Like, last year I found a cheap plastic tepee that was designed to look like a literal giant pile of dog crap. I almost bought it for my ex, but then I remembered he wasn’t worth the three bucks.”
A pile of crap? “You gotta be making that up!”
“Swear to God, real thing. Welcome to the twenty-first century, where everything has important has already been done, so now to be original, people must resort to things that all prior generations had too much self respect to do. Can you imagine a better time to be alive? Oh, and before you answer, remember all those other times people were dropping like flies from smallpox and doctors who thought slitting your wrists was how you cured smallpox. Also, we don’t get to vote. Not because we’re women, but because nobody gets to vote for kings and dictators.”
She’s not wrong. “Well, when you put it that way, we do got it pretty good.”
“Damn straight.” She turned off the side street we were on into a parking lot. “And here we are, at the best place to find the worst shit.”
She’d picked a less than stellar looking brick building, distinguished from its neighbors only by the sign out front which declared it to be a second hand shop. Wait. “Hey, I’ve been here before! Their stuff ain’t that bad.”
“Have you ever been here after Christmas?”
“No.” The Christmas season was never an easy time for me. Between the crowds, the fake cheer, my own issues, and the weather, I found it easier to hibernate through the season. I had more of an excuse to be miserable than usual this year, but otherwise it wasn’t much different than any other. “But I’m not a regular.”
“Then this’ll be a treat,” she said. Without giving me a chance to object, she climbed out of the car and I didn’t have much choice but to follow her. She didn’t wait, instead going ahead of me to seek whatever she thought she might find.
Inside was nothing unusual for a thrift story, with shelves stocked by some arcane formula lacking in rhyme and reason. I felt the tugging in the back of my mind, my power seeking release to scour the building for whatever it was I might have wanted. Nothing I hadn’t long ago learned to repress and control. I picked an empty aisle that, by some coincidence, looked like it had sensible clothing that would fit me.
Sure, I had to push aside a few things that I couldn’t imagine anyone ever wanting to buy, but I picked out a couple nice shirts and a pair of pants before Laura returned with a couple things in her hands. “You’re doing it wrong.”
“Sorry, I guess I’m not very good,” I said. I considered mentioning the booty jeans for eight year olds that I found back down the aisle, but those were more depressing than comedic, in my opinion. “Did you have any luck?”
“Oh, did I!” Laura pushed a plush animal into my hands. “It’s a booby booby.”
“A… what?” I rolled the little toy around in my hands. It was meant to be some sort of bird, that much was obvious, and it had bright blue feet for some reason. It had a strap that must have had some purpose, but I couldn’t puzzle it out.
“You know those comfort straps you put on seatbelts so they’re not squishing your tits?” I did, though it wasn’t an issue for me since I almost never used a car. “Well, you put that thing right there on your cleavage, and you stay comfortable. Also, it’s a blue-footed booby. So, booby booby.”
“I… what?” I fought to keep myself from giggling at how stupid that sounded. “That’s kinda gross.”
“Nah, that’s nothing.” Laura’s grin widened, and that’s how I knew I was in trouble. “Gross is knowing that someone already used it.”
“Yuck!” I dropped the toy at my feet. “What is wrong with you!” I swear I didn’t laugh, but I could understand if an outside bystander mistook it for laughter.
“Just high on life.” Laura, on the other hand, was cackling at my expense. “Or fumes from my hair dye. I can’t tell anymore.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s disgusting.” And hilarious.
“Oh, yeah, before I forget.” She pushed some balled up black cloth into my hands. “I’m actually buying this one for Zach.”
I unfurled the ball that revealed itself to be a graphic tee. On it read My sister is awesome and I’m lucky I am her brother. I looked up. “You wou-” I stumbled over my words.
Another woman stood behind Laura. Laura would have been taller, but she had heels that gave her the edge and Laura was leaning in toward me, which allowed her to stand well above the younger girl.
The freckles and stern face were the same as I’d always remembered them, though time had added more than a few wrinkles to her skin. I knew I wasn’t imagining the tinge of gray in her otherwise deep auburn hair. “M- Marisela.”