I sat down to wait for Cassandra in the main lobby, which she would have to use since none of us bothered to consider getting her number or telling her to come in the back door. Zach might have kept her number, but he hadn’t talked to me since Saturday; a fact which stung more than I wanted to admit. I wanted to call him, but didn’t want to push him into talking to me if he didn’t want, and things devolved into some stupid, stubborn competition against someone who probably didn’t even know it was happening.
On the other hand, if Zach or Laura did come over, they’d wonder why I kept them away from my apartment. At least Muwth’s people worked as fast as they said they would, to the point that they even replaced the interior walls and matched the wallpaper. I still didn’t know how they pulled that off, but nothing was impossible once powers got involved. Powers, and a woman who could get away with being late to a meeting with world leaders.
While lost in thought, I kept my eyes closed so that I could watch through my raven’s eyes. I didn’t need to concentrate on a familiar’s senses to use them, but it helped not to have two sets of vision competing for that part of my brain. Trying to use a familiar with strong eyesight felt like taking two televisions, setting them next to each other, and crossing your eyes to watch both at once.
Of all my familiars, Raven’s eyesight was strongest, in most ways better than my human eyes. I tested that vision as best I could while waiting, though I had no way of knowing if my summon’s eyesight was equivalent to a real bird’s. If any of my coworkers thought it odd that I stayed in the lobby with my eyes closed while my Dweorh carried out their tasks of hauling boxes for tomorrow’s play of choice, they said nothing.
Raven spotted Cassandra the moment she opened her car, and mist poured out of the door. Considering it was still below zero out, that meant it was either a sauna in there, or cold enough that the mist was created by dry ice. Given her powers, there was only one explanation.
“You have served well.” Of all my summons, the familiars invoked the least distaste from me. They were the closest to harmless, being spies and scouts rather than having direct combat applications. Stalker is the least disturbing use of my power. “Rest until you are needed once again.”
The Raven vanished to the Everywhere, and I stood while doing my best not to fall over. My power didn’t seem able to harm me, not that I tested that theory more than I had to, but spending an hour or so seeing through inhuman eyes left me somewhat disoriented for a moment. I had more than recovered by the time Cassandra made it to the door.
She was hesitant, dipping her head in and looking around. Her eyes ended up on me before she stepped in, closing the door right behind her, rather than the confident march that nearly got her killed the last time. If I’d given the order, not even I could have stopped my Wild Hunt. I wasn’t certain killing me would stop that particular summon once they were unleashed.
“I figured you’d show up early,” I said. I tried to sound reassuring, and perhaps confident, when dealing with Imbued. I feel back on Anima’s persona, the mysterious powerhouse that the internet imagined me to be. I tried to dip into Doctor Cantu as well. “Should I call you Cassandra, or would you rather something else?”
“Cassie’s fine,” she said. “Not like I have a secret identity to protect.”
Foot, mouth, enjoy. “So, let’s go upstairs. Get a few things done before the others arrive.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda scary dealing with everyone at once.” She inched toward me, acting for all the world like a scared child. “Thanks, for standing up for me.”
In thinking about it, isn’t she a child? Sure, she may be taller and have more curves than my genes could give me, but she’s still half a decade younger than I am.
“I’ve been where you are.” It was true enough. “If nobody was there to help me when I needed it, then…” I paused, considering the chain of events that got me here. Muwth and Mrs. Battle to start with, and others as the years went by. Now I had Glen, Zach, even Laura in her own way. I wasn’t sure about Flux yet, but if nothing else he was a huge help dealing with this city’s slow burning gang war. I wasn’t sure why he was helping, and I certainly didn’t trust him enough to unmask in front of him, but there was no question that he was helping.
“I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t want to know.” Considering the nature of my powers, there was perhaps no scenario better for me than the one I found myself in, no matter the problems I may have had with it. Death, insanity, or worse featured in most of them.
“I read about this guy who claimed he Gadgetted up a device that could view alternate possible realities, show people how things might have been. Nobody’s sure if it’s real, or just some sort of fiction device pulling ideas from the viewers’ minds. Sounds horrifying, no matter how it works.”
“It’s a fraud. Nobody gets a power that absurd.” I hoped, at any rate. Perhaps there was some basis for it working in multiverse theory, and time travel did exist to a certain extent, so it wasn’t impossible, and asking would be so easy. No! “If it does exist, then it’s poison fruit. Like everything else that comes from powers, it could only make things worse.”
“She said stuff like that.” Cassandra moved her hands to rub her shoulders, as if trying to warm herself. Despite the frozen appearance, her body seemed to move the same way a human’s would. “Stuff about how power defies Destiny, so Destiny has to even everything out. To retaliate because we break the rules.”
She’s talking about Kitten. “Come on, let’s go upstairs. Not the sort of conversation to have around my coworkers.” I walked ahead, thinking in silence. Muwth expressed similar musings more than once, if you replace ‘destiny’ with ‘God’s Plan’. If I wasn’t so certain her power made her immune to intoxication, I’d have assumed she was drunk during those conversations.
Still, it didn’t pay to dismiss the concept outright, not when two Stage Four Imbued shared it. Those of us with the greatest access to power also seemed to have the greatest understanding of the hidden nature behind powers. Kitten’s Destiny, Muwth’s Will of God, my own Everywhere, there was a common thread even if none of us comprehended it. The parable of the three blind men examining an elephant came to mind. Only in our case, we were trying to map the solar system using our sense of smell.
I stopped at the top of the stairs, then turned to face Cassandra. “I’ve heard more theories than I care to count.” Most of which carry a handful of common themes. “The only thing I can say for certain is that whatever gave us our powers, it’s not of this reality, and it is not on our side.”
“Well, that’s an existential crisis I never knew I didn’t want.” The look on her face was odd, at best. My experience in acting gave me an eye for when someone was pretending, and Cassandra was faking her expression of nervous uncertainty.
That wasn’t what put me off, however; I’d dealt with too many people putting on a front to think too much about when I caught one. Cassandra’s case was different, before she forced the awkward smile she was using now, there was nothing. None of the fear or apprehension I would have expected, nor false confidence, nor even boredom. Her behavior was reminiscent of a marble statue that had to be reminded it was pretending to be human.
I knew she was no longer human, but is she even alive anymore? “Sorry.” I couldn’t tell if I was apologizing for what I’d said, or what I’d realized about her. “How about we move on to more cheerful topics? Like, literally anything else.”
Cassandra looked at me for a moment, while the room got colder. “So, what do you think about Zach?”
Dammit! “I have a hard time figuring him out, sometimes.” That much was absolutely true while remaining vague around the girl who, as Zach put it, was stalking him. “He’s an important part of the team. I know I get most of the credit, but he deserves it more than I do.” Not including the Muwth-Respawn Interaction, which was its own separate factor I wouldn’t speak of. “All I do is provide transport, sometimes. And intimidation. I don’t mean this as an ego thing, believe me, but people still think they can beat him.” As seen by Shock and Awe, some of them are right. “Nobody even tries to fight me. It’s either run or surrender.”
“Yeah. The girl who summons entire fantasy armies compared to some kid whose only power is immunity to death. Not much of a competition.” Cassandra smiled, in that practiced but unnatural way of hers. “I’d say I wish I had power like yours, but I don’t.” She looked away, again hugging herself. “I already lost so much, I don’t know what’s left.”
I wanted to believe the perceived lack of genuineness in her behavior was because of her Altered biology. I wanted to trust that she was honestly trying to express her feelings via a body that couldn’t do it naturally, rather than trying to tug on my heart strings. Still, I couldn’t forget Laura telling me that Cassie had the same manipulative streak she did.
The fact that her words reminded me of Kitten, staring me down and demanding to know what I lost to make me so powerful, spoke of something in Cassie’s subconscious that I doubted she would emulate if she recognized the connection. It didn’t do much to ease my concerns, either.
“It’s different for each of us.” What I did know is that I didn’t want to share my own troubles with this girl. Or anyone else, for that matter. “Like those silly ‘you have to figure out for yourself what will make you happy’, but in reverse.”
She stayed quiet, and I let her. I had problems of my own to consider, after all. Instead I went further, letting her follow so that we could take seats that would have been overlooking the stage, if not for the curtains. They would do a fine job of giving us some privacy and keeping the sound of our voices from carrying. This wasn’t the sort of conversation I wanted people eavesdropping on, after all.
Cassie walked past me, putting me between her in the door, but didn’t sit down. “I don’t want to seem rude, but it’s better if I stand.” She looked at the chair, then back at me. “I don’t want to break anything from the cold.”
Dammit. “Sorry.” I remained standing as well, if only because it would have been awkward to sit when she wasn’t. To say nothing of feeling bad about her circumstances.
“Don’t worry about it, my feet don’t get tired anymore. I can stand for days, like…” She trailed off, and once again the room grew colder around me. I considered summoning Flamewreath, just to counter the effect of Cassandra’s power. “That’s not what you were sorry for, is it?”
Right. Truthsayer grade enhanced senses. “No.” Now it was my turn to look away. “I… there was a moment when I could have killed Kitten, months before Christmas. I didn’t.” So much misery and death, all because I couldn’t give the order to end something that didn’t deserve to be called human. “I didn’t know it would be you, but… I knew she’d go on hurting people. She even bragged about it to my face, like she wanted me to snap.”
Okay? How is anything okay with what I just said? “Not what I expected you to say.”
“That’s why you really agreed to help me, right?” Cassie’s tone was neutral, now; she’d forgotten to act human, and what lay beneath her pretending was as cold and lifeless as her body. “It’s not just that you feel sorry for me, it’s because you feel responsible.”
If you wish your reign to be secure, first you must kill all the Truthsayers. I ran through my thoughts, trying to find the one combination of words that would make it acceptable, but all the famous lines from plays, literature and movies fell apart around me. I had only the laziest of defaults. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be, it’s actually kinda refreshing.”
Refreshing? I looked back to Cassie’s smiling, frozen face. Did her powers do something to her brain chemistry? Just because I’d never heard of Imbued having their personalities rewritten, and all the medical literature insisted it never happened, didn’t mean they were right. Although it was possible she was speaking from trauma, or perhaps she had an undiagnosed mental illness of her own.
“I suppose that was unnecessarily cryptic.” She licked her lips, which caused flakes of ice to fall to the floor. “To parrot your own words, this isn’t an ego thing, but I’ve always been beautiful. Beautiful people, especially women, get a lot of favoritism. We can get almost anything, if we ask nicely and give a pretty enough smile.”
Nothing I hadn’t already known. I remained quiet, to allow Cassandra to get to whatever point she was building toward.
“I… grew accustomed to it, I suppose. It became second nature after a while, and I forgot I was even doing it. Turns out, when you’re getting people to do things for you, they expect things in return. Some are more obvious about it than others, but you will learn that nobody who’s helping you has your best interests at heart.”
“Oh.” The chill in the room became more than merely Cassandra’s power in effect. I could empathize with what she’d been through; Anima’s power attracted a similar type of person, who cared about me only inasmuch as I was valuable to them. Then there was Muwth, whom I suspected was simultaneously using me and concerned about my best interests. “I guess beauty’s just power with another sacrifice.”
“But that’s a different story, entirely. I’m just saying it’s kinda weird to be around someone who’s not doing me favors in return for favors.” She stressed the last word perhaps too much. “I think, other than my family and Zach, you’re the only one.”
“Trust me, I’ve been used enough. I’m not about to start doing it to other people, or stand around and watch it happen.” All true enough, if not the whole of the story. I was still hung up on what she said about Zach. “But didn’t you come here to join the team?” To be useful?
“It’s different if I volunteer, right?” She looked at me for a moment, as if I had an answer for her question. Her lips trembled as if she were about to cry. How much of this display can I trust? “Look, I know it was stupid, it’s still stupid, but I love him. I just hoped that, if we could talk, if I could remind him… maybe he’d take me back. But it’s not going to work, is it?”
For someone who has to fake all emotional expressions, she is quite convincing. “I’m afraid I’m the least qualified person in the world to give relationship advice.” I’ve never even been on a date.
“Maybe I could talk to his sister, she might-” Her expression didn’t change, but mine sure did. She caught my look of concern even with my costume’s mask covering most of my face. Or perhaps she read my body language, anything was possible with Truthsayers. “Guess I made a bad first impression, huh?”
“You could say that.” I smiled, hoping to offer a little comfort to the girl. “Laura has a… strong personality.”
“I think my sister’s gonna be pissed if she hears you saying that.”
“Zach!” I spun, and there he was standing near the top of the stairs. Did Cassie know he was there? Was she trying to set it up so he heard me badmouthing Laura? “When did you get here? I thought you were grounded for all eternity.”
“I figured we should all be here, so I called Mrs. Battle and asked her to call me in to work, and Mom really can’t keep me from work, right?” He gave a rather unhappy glance at Cassie, but otherwise kept his eyes on me. “Granted, I’m not actually working or getting paid, but I am absolutely, indisputably, at work.”
Cassie giggled at Zach’s joke. “And you thought school would never teach you anything.”
The smile on Zach’s face vanished just as easily as Cassie’s laugh. Dammit. “I wasn’t going to make any important decisions for the team without you, anyway. And, uh, sorry if I said anything bad about Laura.”
“You should be.” Zach’s smile returned. “Strong personality? Please, just call her a bitch.”
What. “Your sister is not a bitch!” How could he talk about her that way, after all she’s done for him?
He raised his eyebrow. “Oh, she is a total bitch and she knows it. She is the Zen Mistress of Bitch. That’s not hyperbole, by the way. That’s what she calls herself online.”
Sounds like something Laura would do. “Okay, I stand corrected. She’s a bitch.”
Zach nodded as if some great universal wisdom had been disclosed. “And don’t you forget it.”