After some time, Mrs. Battle stopped holding me. “Are you feeling better?”
I let her back away. “Yes.” So much better, but… “There’s still the matter of expenses.” As wonderful as the gesture was, it didn’t obviate the theater’s need for funding.
Mrs. Battle smiled at me, then sat back down. “Oh, dear, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Why do people have to be so stubborn when other people try to help them? “Actually, now I kinda do have to worry,” I said. Only after saying it did I puzzle together the excuse I needed. “I mean, if I’m going to inherit the business, that means I’ll inherit all the debts that come with it, right? The sooner that’s taken care of, the less problems in the long term.” It made sense enough to me, though I wasn’t an expert on finances.
The smile vanished from Mrs. Battle’s face. “Where did you… find… this money?”
“It’s a long story.” Dammit, Beth, don’t avoid the question, not with the woman who’s basically the grandmother you never had. “The short version is that I was attacked by some weirdo from New York, and after he lost, he gave me a bunch of money.”
I didn’t blame her for the silence while she absorbed my statement. “Why? Is that… legal? Is he trying to pay you off so you don’t go to the cops?”
“No, he’s not buying silence.” Our fight wouldn’t cause the threat assessors to add anything new to his profile, though it might cause them to increase my numbers. “And it’s not illegal, just weird.” Is there any law against paying someone for beating you to death if you get better? “He wanted to fight me for… well, the thrill of it, I guess. Something about me being the ultimate challenge. It’s easier just to accept that Imbued are messed up in the head, and leave it at that.”
Or, as Zach put it when he thought I wasn’t listening: ‘more power, more crazy.’ I couldn’t think of an exception to the rule.
“I’ve known a few people like that,” Mrs. Battle says. “Mom always said nothing worth doing is easy. Though I don’t think she meant getting into fights with superheroes. So, out of curiosity, how much did he give you?”
Ah, yes, the dreaded conversation about numbers. “A million dollars.”
Mrs. Battle stayed quiet for a moment, but she moved her hands over the paperwork on her desk as it were a half-read book that she wanted to get back to. “That… is a lot of money for ‘the thrill of it’. Are you certain there isn’t some ulterior motive?”
“He could have won, but he went out of his way not to attack me directly.” Not physically, at any rate. I didn’t like talking about my big weakness, no Imbued did, but everyone who was a possible threat already knew how to stop a Summoner: the person is much easier to kill than the power. “He wanted the challenge, maybe he just wanted to find someone stronger than him. Besides, with a power like his, money isn’t hard to make.”
Now that I’d had time to think, it wasn’t much money in the grand scheme of things. I could make more, even doing plays, if I left my comfortable little place in the world and signed up with one of the big production companies. To say nothing of what the government was willing to pay high tier summoners like myself.
All I had to do was walk away from the family I’d cobbled together. If I were willing to sacrifice my integrity and pride. If I became a slave to the same systems that took my parents away and ruined my life. Were I to do all of that, then I could have all the money I’d ever want. Needless to say, I made a different choice with my life.
Mrs. Battle sighed, still looking at her paperwork. “There goes what’s left of my excuses, and my pride with it.” She slid some sheets over to me.
Which was right around the time I remembered my comprehension of economics, and math in general, was less than stellar. I recognized the words and numbers, but together they may as well have been cuneiform.
Mrs. Battle chuckled. “If it makes you feel any better, Clyde does most of the work for me. I’m sure he’ll be happy to know he has job security.”
The papers were heavy in my hands. The money, the idea of buying the Playhouse, Mrs. Battle’s age, all were things I knew, but until now I hadn’t understood what it meant. The responsibility, the knowledge that others would suffer if I made a mistake. Why does this bother me? By now, I should be used to the idea that a single mistake on my part could ruin other people’s lives.
“Yeah, job security.” I slid the papers back over to Mrs. Battle, regretting that I started this conversation to begin with. “Speaking of, I should get back to rehearsals.” There wasn’t much I could do until after I got the money.
“Of course.” Mrs. Battle smiled. “Wouldn’t want to disappoint April. Between you and me, I think Titania’s why she stays around.”
I chuckled. “Maybe we’ll have to do a second showing this year, when it’s actually summer.” I left, still thinking my thoughts.
Now I had April to consider as well. She and I were similar, in that we were… well, an uncharitable person would accuse us of slumming it. I had my power, while April had looks and talent and a passion for the art which could make her famous. I knew my reasons, but nothing about hers.
“You’re here!” April found me the moment I came out of the back hall. “I’ve been looking for you! Let’s do Act Three!” Behind her, Ben waited with his script. He looked like an animal caught in the headlights, staring at the paper.
I knew the scene she meant; it had reached the point of Pavlovian some years ago. “Sure, give me a second to prepare.” I concentrated on my power, not because I had to draw power, but because I needed it to be a slow trickle. I had fuel to spare, but little finesse.
“Sure, we’ll just start a bit off the top.” She twirled to face Ben, the hem of her skirt flaired out to show off her athletic legs. It was a long skirt, down to her knees when in a resting position, but not my first choice of clothing when the high temperatures were still below freezing. Not that I wore skirts in the summer, either. “Okay, your turn.”
A blush began to creep up Ben’s neck. “Uh, well, I’m a terrible singer.”
“Then your career as a pop singer is all but guaranteed.” April wasn’t put off in the slightest. “You’re a good actor, but you’ll never be a star unless you learn to cut loose.”
“I-I’m not a good actor.”
It wasn’t nice, but I had to agree with Ben. He wasn’t terrible, but he was nowhere near ‘good’, and there was no hope of him becoming a star. Sure, there were plenty of actors who weren’t all that good looking, and some didn’t have a lot of technical skill, but they could get by with humor and charisma that Ben also lacked.
“You’ll never know if you don’t try.” April leaned inward so she was looking upward at Ben. I would bet money she gave him the full puppy-dog-eye treatment. “Please, for me?”
“Uh… okay.” He looked down at the script, reading the lines one more time. Then he started from his top. “I see their knavery! This is to make an ass of me, to fright me if they could. But I will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.” He took a breath, then started to sing, or rather read the lines in a lyrical manner. “The ouzel cock, so black of hue with orange-tawny bill, the throstle with his note so true, the wren with little quill.”
April sat down on the floor while Ben began his lines, her smile wide in anticipation of what was to come next. “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” She provided her line; in the play proper, she’d be half-hidden at this point, preparing for our variation on the classic scene. Here, however, she was looking up at Ben, still smiling.
Poor guy never stood a chance. I reflected on Laura’s spiel on the ways strippers, and I suppose all women, manipulated men. I wondered what her opinion of April would be in that career. My money was on ‘overqualified’.
“The finch, the sparrow, and the lark. The plainsong cuckoo gray, whose note full many a man doth mark and dares not answer ‘Nay’, for indeed, who would set his wit to so foolish a bird? Who would give a bird the lie, though he cry ‘cuckoo’ never so?” Ben’s singing was hesitant, but it was better than I’d expected. I wasn’t an expert, but being in theater was a good way to hear singers of all levels of talent. He was good enough for an amateur production like ours.
Now it was my turn to contribute. I whispered my line. “Gold Regalia, Eufron. Bequeath.” Running two sets of armor at once was taxing, but I could maintain it for a few hours without much risk. The hard part was to guide the armor as it formed. I tended not to wear much under my armor, and what I did wear was as form fitting as possible, to avoid the armor destroying my clothes. In addition to the constant control to keep it from hurting others. Making sure the forming armor didn’t rip April’s outfit or skeleton apart took concentration.
April, ignorant of the danger literally wrapping itself around her like a serpent, treated it like a game. She used the force of the armor manifesting itself to lift her off the ground, drifting in mid air like she was floating in water. The golden armor locked itself around her, and I couldn’t help but think that she used it better than I could. If she knew the truth, she would run and never look back.
She touched down on her toes like a ballerina, inches from Ben. “I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again. Mine ear is much enamored of thy note. So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape. And thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me on the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.”
“Uh.” Overwhelmed by the combination of my power’s display, April’s presence, and the declarations of love called for by the script, Ben was overwhelmed. He took several seconds to look at the script he clutched with white knuckles. “Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays. The more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.”
The rest of the impromptu rehearsal went much the same, with April all but dancing around reciting lines long memorized, while waiting for Ben to read the script. It didn’t matter to her; she was having the time of her life moving around in my armor. After reaching the part where other characters got involved, April skipped to another scene where Titania got a major part.
Meanwhile I did my best to facilitate the scenes and get into the habit of working my power’s less intuitive features. To apply a combat oriented power like mine to theater took a lot of creative effort, but it was better than brooding. The theater was always about escapism, allowing me to forget my own troubles for a while, which I did.
It was safe to say Ben enjoyed himself as well, if for a different reason. But, like all good things, it had to come to an end.
“Okay, I think that’s enough for tonight.” I started shutting down the little visual effects I spawned by half-summoning lesser creations like wisps and the white fog that came from the Wild Hunt. Using so many things at once was tiring me out.
“There’s always tomorrow, I guess.” April sighed, then stretched her arms out. Eufron melted, starting at the top and working its way down. It was a beautiful display in its own right, until the last vestiges of the boots vanished into the Nowhere. April took the time to straighten her clothes and adjust her bra. “Thanks for the help, Ben. You up to do it again tomorrow?”
Ben tried not to gawk, but failed. “Uh, yeah, I’d be happy to.”
“Glad to hear it.” Now April stretched her arms over her head. “Ooh. The armor’s awesome, but man does it gets cramped.”
“Sorry, can’t help it.” Because it’s sized for me. I tried to ignore my jealousy that she managed to be both slimmer and curvier than I was everywhere it counted. “Hey, uh, want to stick around a little bit? Maybe talk?” And now it sounds like I’m hitting on her. Good thing I never showed my face before, so I’m used to it.
“Sure.” Her smile returned with a vengeance. “What’s up?”
I started to walk toward the stairs to my apartment while she followed. The whole time we rehearsed, I tried to find a way to ask, but in the end I had nothing. “I was just wondering why you stayed here. You could easily get a job with a better troupe, or on Broadway. Who knows, maybe even Hollywood?”
“Well, if you must know.” She giggled nervously for a moment. It was the first time I’d ever seen her less than a hundred percent certain of herself. “It’s because of you.”
Oh. There are so many possible interpretations to that statement, all of them terrible. “You know I have a boyfriend, right?” I picked the safest possibility to speculate upon.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “And his power’s almost as cool as yours is. Like, he can shrug off death and teleport stuff around. It’s just so incredible. And you get to hang around with the rest of your team, like that girl made of ice, and I don’t even know what that one guy or the girl with the tattoos can do. It’s amazing, I wish I could join you…”
Oh. She’s a groupie. Damn. I’d dealt with enough of them in my life. Almost all the stronger Imbued got saddled with the kind of fans who weren’t content with the basic speculation about abilities, the ones who felt a need to drift into stalker territory. The idea that someone with as much going for her as April being one of them felt like a personal insult, somehow.
“Uh, I mean, I don’t want powers!” She must have picked up on my hesitation. “I read about how it works, what it takes to get them. It’s horrible, especially the strong ones like… well… I should just stop talking, before I drag up bad memories.”
Far too late. “It’s not your fault.” I looked at my stairs. I wanted to run for the stairs, then hide for the rest of the week, but doing so might drive April into leaving the theater. We might never find another actress of her caliber to work here. I turned my attention back to the girl who held her breath waiting for me to go on. I have to mend this bridge before it burns. “And I have to admit, having powers is fun, even if getting them sucks.”
She relaxed, even forced a smile. “Sorry again. And thanks for everything.” She inched a little closer. “So, uh, what does the tats girl do?”
Good question. What does Laura do? “The group consensus is she’s the most frustrating person on the planet. But, she keeps us humble and I guess she’s the leader.” In situations not involving Muwth’s direct influence, at any rate. “Sorry to cut this short, but I’ve got some things I have to do.” Like my pills, and lots of thinking.
“I understand. Don’t let me keep you from going out to save people.” At least she was more relaxed, though the smile still felt a little forced. “It was nice to talk to you for real. Maybe we can hang out tomorrow if I come in a little early?”
Have I really known April for this long, and never had a conversation with her that wasn’t about work? Thinking back, I didn’t have a memory of anything more in depth. Maybe she tried but I didn’t notice, or maybe she was afraid to approach me. I never made any effort to talk to her at all. Anima was intimidating, and Beth was a recluse, so I had little human interaction which wasn’t work or Imbued related. It was nice to break that pattern, even if it was with a groupie. “Sure, I’ll look forward to it.”
I watched her head toward the break room, before I went upstairs. I did need to take my medication, do the email to find out about my money, and wait for Zach to show up.