I trembled on hearing her voice. First, in shock and disbelief, then in rage as a decade of repressed hate boiled to the surface.
“How. Fucking. DARE YOU!” I screamed, screeched if I was being honest with myself, and I didn’t care that I was making a scene. “You don’t get to call me that!” The look on her face was worth letting loose, if only for a moment. “Everyone who has the right to call me by that name is dead! You killed them!”
She stepped back, her perfect self control broken for the first time in my memory. I couldn’t help but notice that while I didn’t care about the crowds, she still glanced around. Even now, the bitch cares more about appearances than she does me. “You know that’s not-”
“Shut up!” By that point, I’m sure everyone in the building was looking at us, but I didn’t care. Giving in to the emotions I’d fought so hard to resist felt wonderful. “You may not have pulled the trigger, you may not even have been in the same state, but we both know that you’re responsible.”
“I loved them, too.” Her words were little more than a whisper, and later I’d wonder if she even said them, or if it was just my imagination.
“You don’t know what love is.” My power called out to the Everywhere, reaching deeper than I’d ever dared allow it before. Untold monsters lived outside time and space as we mortals understood the concept, and I knew there was so much more of their hidden worlds than my power could access. I had enough to call upon some of the weaker beings from Beyond and twist them to my desires. If I were to draw deeper, forgo the aspects of my power which gave them their cartoonish forms and leashed them to my will, what horrors might I unleash, and how good would it feel?
My view of Marisela was blocked by the shocking orange of Laura’s hair. “That’s it, bitch,” she said. “You better get your wrinkled cougar face outa here an’ stop upsetting my boo, or I’m gonna have to rip an elephant skin rug off your antediluvian ass.”
Just like that, I lost whatever connection there was to the deeper level of my power. God, what did I almost do? How many would have died if I broke open the gates?
“Excuse me?” It was good to know Laura put Marisela off her game as well.
“There is no excuse for you,” Laura showed no signs of letting up, either. “I saw you follow us in here, and frankly it’s creepy as fuck. You should just go back to the museum, or did they replace you with a younger mummy?” Holy shit! “I understand that a mid-life crisis can be tough, especially after going through as many of them as you have, but could you do us all a favor and stop trying to hook up with college girls?”
“You have no idea what sort of mess you’re causing right now,” Marisela said. “It would be better for you if you just step aside and-”
“No, I know exactly what I’m doing.” Laura’s hand came up. “This is called a cell phone. It uses magic to take moving hieroglyphs and send them to a mysterious world known as the in-ter-net.” As Laura spoke, her tone became more and more patronizing. “Now, I don’t know the story, and frankly I don’t care, but what I do know is how to write clickbait. I’m thinking crazy old skank harasses young women in a thrift store, epic bitchdown ensues. PS, the chick with the orange hair has the best tits ever.”
Things went eerily silent, even the people from the crowd which was forming around us seemed to hold their breaths. Dammit, you’d think a world full of superpowers would teach people that standing around to gawk is the opposite of good survival instincts.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Laura broke the silence. “You’re wondering if you can snatch the phone from my hand before I hit send, or at least before the file finishes uploading. But I promise I’ll fight back, and then the cops get involved, security footage, a dozen witnesses, and maybe I’ll even let you get a hit in just to have something to show the reporters later. You’ll be on TV.”
Fuck, I need to get Laura to back down before she gets herself killed. I looked around, desperate to find anything that might work. If there was a fire alarm, I would have used an imp to pull it, but I had no such luck. Then I considered using the rat familiar to tear through some wiring, but that carried too many risks, not the least of which was starting a fire in the walls of a building that didn’t have a fire alarm.
“Whatever it is you think you want from Beth,” Laura continued. “I’m sure it’s not half as important to you as making damn sure this doesn’t make it to the evening news.”
“Are you threatening me with blackmail?” Marisela seemed to have gotten her footing back under her, and as was a talent of hers, she was going to turn this around and try to make Laura into the bad guy in this situation. Considering she worked in the police department, I didn’t doubt she could sell it in court if she had to.
I touched into my power again; I wouldn’t dare go as far as I almost had earlier, but I at least needed a fast way to get Laura out of harm’s way. Centerpiece wouldn’t work, not unless I was willing to kill. Flamewreath was the next best option; it couldn’t shield her from injury, but the retaliation would be enough to hurt Sapphire, hopefully force her back before she did too much damage. All other options were likely to kill Marisela, Laura, or everyone in the building.
“Blackmail sounds racist. How about we call it extortion, instead?” Meanwhile, Laura kept running her mouth like she had her brother’s immortality. “Now, guess what? You’re in luck, because I’m feeling cheap today. All you have to make this go away is to grab your walker, hobble out that door, and never look back. Kinda like that time you were chased out of your cave by a glacier.”
“Have it your way.” My line of sight was still blocked by the back of Laura’s head, but I could imagine Marisela looked as absolutely livid as she sounded. “But this is not over.”
Laura’s arm shifted, and she slipped her phone into her pocket with the fluidity of a gunslinger in an old western holstering his gun. “I’m sure you said the same thing the last time you were burned at the stake.”
Marisela turned and walked toward the door, stopping only for a moment to spare a glance back at me. I did my best to convey all my hatred and contempt via glowering, and I’m sure she got the message. After she walked out, Laura slumped against one of the clothing displays.
“Th-that was Sapphire, wasn’t it?” Her voice shook, and now that I could look her in the face, she was even more pale than usual. Laura and her brother were both about as melanin deficient as I was, but now she looked like she was moments away from passing out due to blood loss.
I, however, was more concerned about the other tidbit she just revealed. “You knew?!”
“Suspected,” she said. “Based on your reaction and what Zach told me, it was her or Sympathy, and Sympathy’s way too young and tanned to look like that out of costume. Huh… You’re right, secret identities are flimsy as fuck, aren’t they?”
“They really are,” I said. “But that’s not the point. The point is… you knew and you did it anyway? Why?”
“Maybe I’m an adrenaline junkie and wanted to get a rush by talking shit to someone who could break me in half like a Kit Kat bar?” Somehow, she managed to force herself to smile. “Damn, I got some crazy burns in, though. Now, let’s get outta here. Everyone’s staring and I could use some fresh air.”
“Uh, sure.” I led the way for the door, the few items we might have purchased remained forgotten in the aisle. Once outside, I looked around for some sign that Marisela was still the area; she didn’t have Infiltrator powers, but it’s amazing how many people forgot ‘up’ when looking for trouble. While it was too much to hope that she’d never come back, for now Laura’s stunt seemed to have driven her off.
I glanced back at her once I was satisfied that we wouldn’t be interrupted. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, she’s kinda intense, though. Felt like she was staring straight through me. Does she have some kind of mind reading power that I need to worry about?”
“Well, I can’t rule out that she Surged and kept it secret.” Or, some aspect of the Pairbond she abandoned her husband and daughters for. “But as far as I know, all she has is a Tracker power that boosts her vision and hearing. She literally has senses like a hawk or owl, but she’s not an Esper or Infiltrator.”
“Explains why I thought she was gonna whip out talons and eat my eyeballs.”
There’s a mental image. We walked in the cold; rather, she walked, and I followed while wondering why we didn’t head for her car. Does Laura think Sapphire’s watching to see which vehicle is hers? No, she has to know that cops don’t typically have easier ways to identify people, and she’d have a notation in her brother’s file. Dammit, why’d she have to show up in the first place? I was almost prepared to enjoy today, and then this happened.
A minute or so of deafening silence later, I cracked. “Aren’t you going to ask me what all of that was about?”
She looked back at me. “You’ll either want to talk about it, or you don’t. This is a little too heavy to press the issue.” She stopped at another door, smiling as if nothing was wrong in the world. “Well, here’s a bookstore, if you’re still up for it.”
How the hell can she bounce back like that? My hands were still trembling, and I wasn’t the one who could have died. I was the one who almost killed everyone. I decided that if she could pretend everything was fine, then I would at least try to do the same. “Sure, that sounds nice.”
The store had a remarkable spread of options for a small shop that wasn’t a regional chain, but their prices were also what one would expect from a store that isn’t a chain. Some of the nicer hard covered novels came close to fifty dollars. Having little else to waste money on, I selected a couple promising titles, and resolved to come back alone to pick up a silly romance novel which promised abandoned beaches and discovering some lost stash of pirate gold. I assumed innuendos related to chests and treasures would abound.
The few minutes of silence amongst the smell of paper was comforting, familiar, and somehow I even started to feel like today wasn’t a complete bust. Laura found me after a while, carrying a book of her own.
“So, you’re the book expert, think Zach’ll like this one?” She passed the rather thick novel over to me. I looked at the cover which read Midara Paradox, with a jagged bolt of black lightning splitting the words. Some kind of gigantic, clawed hand looked like it was reaching through the lighting, while beneath sat an idyllic Romanesque city of ivory and gold. “They’ve got, like, ten sequels, and I know there’s at least one videogame. They wouldn’t keep making them if they were too bad, right?”
I was aware of the setting, and couldn’t call myself a fan. Somehow, the author’s opinion of human nature was even more pessimistic than mine. “I dropped the first one during the prologue,” I said. “The writing wasn’t bad, but I think the author has issues that he takes out on the characters, and if he wasn’t writing books, he’d be torturing prisoners for the CIA.”
Laura accepted the book back, giving it a dubious look. “That bad, huh?”
“The story starts with a mass human sacrifice in order to summon and enslave a demon. I’m told that’s just the start of a chain of violence, horror, and death.”
“Okay, I get your point. I think I’ll get something a little more cheerful and upbeat. Maybe Lovecraft,” Laura said. She went back over to the shelves where I presume she found her book. “So, I guess we’re done here, where next?”
She meant it, I realized. She’s not even going to ask about my history with Sapphire. “She’s my mother.”
Laura looked confused for a moment, then put together the strange non sequitur. “I figured it was something like that,” she said. “Please don’t get too upset, but there is a family resemblance.”
“I know. I can’t help but notice every time I look in the mirror,” my voice dripped with anger. “She was never much of a mother, and… well, Dad changed after she left.” After she replaced us with that manipulative bitch. “I’d be happier if I never had to deal with her, or hear about her, or think about her ever again.”
“Yeah, I almost wanna say ‘my parents got divorced, too’, but I’m betting you’re talking about that special brand of shit that is reserved for Imbued alone,” Laura said. “It’s like there’s some kind of universal karma that’s offended by your abilities, and goes out of its way to fuck you over. Like there’s some kind of cosmic scales, and the harder your powers break the rules, the harder the boot stomps to put everyone back in their places.”
She’s not talking just about me, and her conclusions aren’t all that different from some of the stuff Muwth’s said to me. Muwth’s rants tended toward a religious interpretation, even while she claimed it was metaphor and she didn’t believe the stories were anything more than stories. “Makes as much sense as anything when it comes to us.”
Again, we drifted off into our own thoughts, mine revolving around the Imbued she knew, and the problems she must have seen them dealing with. By this point, I was certain she knew more about Glen than I did, and obviously she’d know more about Zach’s life than I would. With exception to Muwth, I tended to avoid getting close to other Imbued, or anyone else for that matter.
“Well, I can’t do shit about cosmic dickery, but maybe I can fix something a little more mundane.” Laura scrutinized me. “Back when I went through my rebellion phase, the first thing I did was everything I could to not look like my own mother.” She pulled the sleeve up on her left arm, revealing a series of tattoos which formed a vine pattern along my arm. “Then I developed something of a habit.”
What. “Uh, sorry, I don’t think I want a tattoo.” God damn it, now she’s going to think I’m a stuck up bitch. “I’m scared of needles.” I wasn’t scared of needles, anymore than was normal for people who didn’t like pain, but it sounded good as an excuse.
“I was thinking a new hair color, myself,” she said. “Seriously, I’ve given away more than enough free work as is. Plus, I never advocate permanent mods for someone who hasn’t at least tried the temporary options first. You can shampoo dye, but ink is permanent.”
I hadn’t considered that possibility, which was rather stupid given that Laura seemed to have a new color every week or so. Now that I was thinking about it, a dye job sounded like a nice change of pace.
“That sounds fun. So, uh, what color do you think would look good.” I hoped she didn’t pick anything too crazy; I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with hair the same color as a sports car.
“Well, unless you wanna bleach first, it’s better to stick to colors that either compliment or cover well,” she said. “So, nothing crazy. We could do redhead, you’re over half there already, but then you’d look pretty much the same. So if I were you, I’d do black hair. Not only as different as you can get from your natural color, but black has a habit of creating optical illusions, so you won’t even recognize your own face.”