"I like the clip show," Karina said. "It livens up the boardroom."
The display at the front of the table cycled through a highlight reel of Blue Rose's most recent victories. Here was the time when she pinned a robber's hood to a tree with a shard of ice. There was the time when she shored up a damaged building with a wall made of seawater. With so many feats under her belt, Karina could be forgiven for thinking that her handlers at Titan Industries had called her in to celebrate her accomplishments.
She knew better, though.
The marketing department always turned on the charm for the annual strategy meeting. They didn't know how Karina would react to their plans for Blue Rose next season, and nobody wanted their spokeswoman sulking her way through this year's coronation of the King of Heroes.
"So what is it this time?" Karina examined her nails. "A gimmick weapon? You've decided to rent logo space across my chest? I'm doing well, so clearly we have to change everything."
She expected the lead executive to get flustered, say something flattering, maybe try to sell her on a new corset.
Instead, he looked relieved.
"I'm so glad you understand the situation."
Karina crossed her arms. Suddenly her manicure was less than enthralling.
"Explain it anyway," she said.
"Titan Industries is worried that your messaging might not be on point. We hired a consulting firm to conduct a Q-score analysis and run some focus groups."
The executive tapped his smartwatch and the video of Blue Rose cut away to a series of charts. Karina was capable of reading them -- Nathan had recommended that she go to business school, so that she wouldn't be taken advantage of -- but at the moment she didn't care to try. This meeting was supposed to be about boosting her ego.
"Is this supposed to mean something to me?"
"You need to consider our target demographic," the executive said. "Males aged eighteen to twenty-four can't imagine going on a date with you, and females aged eighteen to twenty-four don't think you can sympathize with their problems."
"So now you want me to be… what, vulnerable? When you've spent years selling me as the sadistic siren of Sternbild?" Karina got to her feet. "I don't appreciate being toyed with. This is my brand! This is the brand you told me to build."
The executive was old, for an advertising guru, and probably worth whatever they were paying him. Not everyone was able to remain calm in the face of a woman who could freeze the blood in their veins with a nasty look.
"Listen, it was fine when you were sixteen and every other broadcast ended with you running away," he said. "No one had to work to sand the sharp edges off of your image. But you must know that these things change."
"Just say it, then," Karina snapped.
"You're not an ingenue any longer. The company needs you be more… relatable."
Relatable? Really? Whatever. Karina could model, act, sing, dance, compose, play an instrument, promote herself as a freelance musician, save lives, sexually humiliate criminals, and ace her macroeconomics midterms… all in one week. She should be able to do relatable in her sleep, no problem.
"It won't be an issue," Karina said.
Karina ignored the dubious looks that the executive's assistants were giving her. As someone who regularly fought crime in stilettos, she was used to being doubted.
Karina's confidence lasted for two days. That was about how long it took for for her to rescue a kidnapped child, make an appearance at a charity gala, and catch up on her statistics readings. Once all those things were through, she sat down with her smartwatch and made a nasty realization about her contacts list.
Karina didn't actually have any friends from the target demographic to practice being relatable on.
Her old high school group stopped texting her after graduation, and college hadn't yielded any acquaintances that would be of use. Karina was far too busy to keep up with unambitious people. Who knew that she should have kept some around? Honestly, if Karina weren't a professional, she would have circled right back to Titan Industries and told them exactly what she thought of their inane branding suggestions.
Karina sat cross-legged on her couch and thumbed angrily through the folders in her address book. Club promoters? No. Hair and makeup people? No. Photographers? Nope, no way, the absolute worst. Heroes? Not a no on principle, but Ivan might take her interest the wrong way and nobody else was in the target age range.
Pao Lin was almost eighteen now, wasn't she? And she basically never stopped training, so she wouldn't even be hard to locate.
The Hero TV gym was aggressively ordinary. There were no heat-resistant target ranges or weight machines that could challenge super strength. The producers wanted their stars to focus on honing their human bodies instead of their NEXT powers.
Karina had always thought that was about making sure they stayed slim for the camera, but now she wasn't so sure. Now she wondered if Hero TV was concerned about their heroes scaring the audience. Sternbild might reject NEXT who could defeat criminals without props or traditional martial arts.
Well, if that was the game, then Karina wasn't about to lose it. She stepped onto one of the treadmills and set the pace two points faster than usual.
"Hi," Pao-Lin greeted her from two treadmills over.
Pao-Lin didn't look like she'd been working out for long, but a quick glance at her machine told Karina that she was already six miles into a ten mile circuit.
"Hey," Karina said.
Ordinarily it would be fine if they both stayed silent after that, but this wasn't any old workout session. Karina spent an awkward few minutes gathering speed and trying to think of something that she and Pao-Lin might have in common. They were both girls, so there was obviously… uh… hm.
This wasn't going as well as Karina had hoped.
"So … good strategy meeting?" Karina finally asked.
If Pao-Lin was surprised that Karina was talking to her, it didn't break her stride.
"I have to change my name," Pao Lin said.
Karina wasn't happy that Pao-Lin also had to deal with marketing issues, because she wasn't a terrible person, but a part of her felt vindicated, because she wasn't that great of a person either.
"I'm turning eighteen, so I can't be Dragon Kid anymore," Pao-Lin continued. "They want me to pick something new. Dragon Lady is no good, so they suggested Dragon Damsel. Or, um, Voltage Vixen, if I wanted to change my animal theme too? They think fox ears could be good for me. They designed me a bunch of new costume concepts to choose from. Most of them are, um, different from what I'm used to. They say a new costume will help distract criminals and improve my freedom of movement, but… I don't know about that."
Now, Karina wasn't exactly Mistress Sensitive at the best of times, but even she could tell that Pao-Lin was in a bit of a panic. Pao-Lin almost never talked this much at once.
Karina tried to think of what Kotetsu would do if he were here and not an idiot.
"They'll tailor the outfits to make the most of your body," Karina offered. "The sexy costumes can feel pretty good."
"Maybe for you!"
"Oh, no, no, that's not… I mean, I didn't mean it that way!" Pao-Lin said. "I just mean, you're Blue Rose, right? A real star. That kind of costume looks beautiful on you."
Karina took a moment to examine her colleague. Pao-Lin's breasts still weren't much to look at but her legs were sleek and her stomach was flat as an iron. Coming up with a little girl-to-girl pep talk shouldn't be too hard, right?
"Don't underestimate yourself. You train a lot. Not that I'm saying you could outshine me, obviously, but you have a cute, toned look that jocks or other girls might go for."
"It isn't that! I mean, I don't think I'm ugly. I just…" Pao-Lin made a strangled noise in the back of her throat. "I'm sorry, never mind. You wouldn't get it."
Hmph. Fine, then. Maybe she wouldn't.
Karina wrenched her gaze away from Pao-Lin and placed it firmly back on her treadmill. Trying to help Pao-Lin was a waste of time that could have been spent planning. Karina had decide how she was going to appease Titan Industries without stooping to the kinds of suggestions that marketing had offered her, like a sappy love album or a fake relationship with a pop star.
There must be some way of being relatable without actually talking to anyone about their feelings or her feelings or feelings in general. It was out there waiting for Karina to find it.
Sternbild was a marvel from any angle, but it was especially impressive when viewed from the financial district, which was perched atop the superstructure's uppermost plate. The ocean spread out from far below the edge of the city and shone with three tiers worth of reflected light. There wasn't a billionaire in the western hemisphere who didn't own office space in this block.
Personally, Karina felt that she would have enjoyed the scenery more if she had a gin and tonic in hand. Or if she weren't standing on a window ledge forty-four stories above street level.
Karina inched her way towards the balcony, trying to pitch her body weight so that the wind shear wouldn't knock her off. She could easily have summoned some ice to widen her path, since the sky was thick with nourishing fog, but that didn't suit her objectives.
She'd been waiting all week for her chance to take another stab at the whole relatable thing.
And so Karina wiggled in place, teetering on top of her four-inch heels. Oh my! Such a frightening drop! Absolutely not something she could cope with on her own, good gosh! How might this poor cutie escape her predicament? Once the ordeal was over, she would definitely need to confide her fear of inadequacy in a person aged eighteen to twenty-four.
"Blue Rose." Her earpiece crackled to life. "The sniper has taken position at the west side of the penthouse. What on earth are you doing?"
"Helping you out, Agnes." Karina fought to keep her worried look in place. Was it too pouty? It might be too pouty. Damn it, it was really hard not to be alluring with her body and this uniform. "He can't hit anyone on the ground, right?"
"Sky High is still taking care of it. We've got him on the live feed right now."
"What!? You can't ignore me while I'm in danger. I made a bad decision trying to sneak up on the sniper from the outside! I'm about to fall to my death here!"
Karina stomped her left foot and, for a second, legitimately lost her balance. She quickly stuck out an arm and iced her hand to the wall.
"You're a limited actress, is what you are," Agnes said.
"Don't pretend you're doing me a favour by cutting my screen time." The frost spread out from Karina's fingertips and spiraled sharply upwards. "I'm great as Blue Rose and you know it."
"Then go be Blue Rose. This season isn't over yet. Our ratings for the finale will go down if Sky High doesn't have a challenger, and you're the only one with a chance."
"Ugh. Fine. I'll be up there in a minute."
Karina considered the side of the building. The place was a bit of a relic, as much sandstone as it was glass, and Karina was thankful for it. Sturdy construction meant that she didn't have to worry about the walls shattering from a sudden temperature change.
The ice around Karina's hand became a column, which then shifted into a crude ladder. She stepped onto the first rung without hesitation. If she slipped, her power would not allow her to fall very far.
Keith already had the situation well in hand by the time Karina reached the penthouse, so Karina left him to his victory and took the elevator down to street level. Nathan and Antonio had stationed themselves outside to keep the sniper from escaping the building. They should be decent company for the ride back to Hero TV headquarters. Karina liked Keith, but right now she didn't think she could stand him and his goodness and his fathomless optimism. No, no, and no again.
Karina found Nathan in a secluded corner by the police cordon. Antonio was busy clearing away the wreck of a cab that the sniper had sent careening into a fire hydrant. It looked like they were stuck waiting for Agnes to send a van.
"Are you all right?" Nathan asked, as she approached. "You were distracted tonight. If any of those college boys are giving you trouble, then you point them out to Auntie Nathan and we'll have ourselves an intimate chat."
"I thought you were supposed to threaten to beat up bad boyfriends, not seduce them," Karina said.
Nathan dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand. "We live in the modern world, honey."
That didn't actually make any sense, but whatever. Karina understood that acting like a total queen was Nathan's way of trying to keep her spirits up.
There were days when she couldn't believe she was being mentored by such a ridiculous person. Then she remembered that Nathan was a real pro, the best there was, and that changed personas as easily as his eyeliner.
"But you're okay?" Nathan pressed. "We saw you on that ledge. It's not like you to let yourself be held up."
"I'm fine. It's nothing."
Nathan spent the next sixty seconds looking at her like she'd suggested bringing back the poodle skirt.
"It's marketing," Karina admitted.
"Ooooh." Nathan cooed his sympathy. "Brand strategy time."
Oh, good. There was Karina's annoyance again. She thought she might have forgotten it back on that ledge. Nathan answered to no one and made a great big fabulous show out of being whoever the hell he wanted. He could take his pity and shove it down the throat of his latest boytoy.
Fortunately for Nathan, Antonio chose that moment to walk up behind them and let out a big, disgusted snort.
"Like you'd know anything about branding, Rock Bison." Karina wheeled around to glare at him. "What even is your brand? I've never seen you change your armour."
"I don't change. I'm like a rock. That's the brand."
Antonio put his hand over his heart as though he'd been wounded. Unfortunately, he was about a billion times less talented than Nathan when it came to dumb theatrics, so he mostly just looked like he was trying to knock a pebble out of his chest paneling.
"You don't think of me as a guy you'd like to have a beer with? Maybe talk some sports?"
Karina frowned. "I don't drink beer. And I don't like sports."
"Us girls are too sophisticated to be in his target audience." Nathan slung an arm over Karina's shoulder. "Though I'd love to be in his target audience, if you know what I mean." He waggled his over-plucked eyebrows to invite her in on the joke.
Karina was not in the mood.
"You'll give yourself lines if you keep doing that to your face," she said.
Nathan reeled back as though she'd slapped him.
"Well! I never!"
The next evening, Karina came home from the jazz club with a dry throat and hair that smelled like cigarette ashes. She was running on three hours sleep and a pair of gin martinis, but that hadn't stopped the performance from being the highlight of her week. It was nice to be a struggling artist now and then. Nobody cared about whether she was relating to them while they played the slots in some dive.
Karina hung up her coat flopped down on the couch, not caring about what she did to her cocktail dress in the process. Her eyes stung with fatigue. She was still too high from the thrill of live performance to even think of resting. There had to be something she could accomplish that didn't involve sitting alone in an empty apartment and thinking about her personal issues.
She should probably call Nathan to apologize.
No, it was Friday, he must be in the middle of tying some guy to his bed right now. And Karina didn't like to apologize as a matter of principle.
So Karina patched her smartwatch into the main screen of her living room and dialled up Pao-Lin. Forget apologies. Answers would help her to shake the butterflies that had set up camp in her gut. She'd ask Pao-Lin why she'd failed and fix the problem.
Pao-Lin appeared on the monitor instead of sticking with voice chat, so she must be at home too. Her hair was mussed and her jeans were torn. She plainly hadn't planned out going out.
"Is this Blue Rose? Do you have the right number?"
"Yes," Karina said.
"Oh…" Pao-Lin trailed off. Karina could make out several cardboard boxes behind her. They were covered in folded clothes and half-wrapped tchotchkes.
"I'm turning eighteen, so my host family wants me to move out at the end of the season. I'm going to have my own place."
"You'll be by yourself."
Karina spread her arms to show Pao-Lin her apartment. It had an unused kitchen and an overstuffed bathroom, tasteful art and an expensive leather couch. Karina hardly lived here.
"Isn't it great?" Her smile was bright and sharp.
"Um… yes? That's pretty…." Pao-Lin shook her head. She didn't look like she thought being alone would be great. She looked like a dog who was about to be dropped off at the pound. "Did you call for an apology for the other day at the gym?"
"It's fine. The outfits take some getting used to."
Karina dropped the smile and leaned back to rest her eyes. Maybe she should say what she was really calling for. It wasn't her style to beat around the bush. Of course, it wasn't her style to ask for other people's input either.
She heard a rustling sound. Pao-Lin must be sitting down. "Don't you get cold? I tried some of them on and it's chilly with the… er… chest opening…"
"I don't think I feel cold the same way everyone else does."
"Oh. That makes sense."
Karina's lips thinned into a line. What was she supposed to say to the girl? Tell her to stop being stupid about such a minor thing as costuming? Yeah, that would go over well.
Thankfully, Pao-Lin chose to fill in the awkward silence before Karina had to decide on a course of action.
"I thought of a name."
"What is it?"
"Dragon Fist. I don't think they'll let me use it, but… I can try? What do you think? I think that's a person I can be, the way you're Blue Rose," Pao-Lin said. "I've been working on lots of new kung fu moves. Agnes found a trainer to start me out on the hou quan style."
Karina cracked her eyes opened and raised her head. Ow, that hurt -- the monitor was too bright with the rest of her lights turned off.
"I'm not Blue Rose," Karina said.
"I'm not Blue Rose."
And maybe Karina was the one who was being stupid. It wasn't as if anyone expected her to sleep with the boy they suggested she go out with, or even tolerate him outside of work hours. All she had to do was walk the red carpet at a few awards shows, be less aggressive during arrests, and put some terrible songs on an overproduced album. Whatever she did to salvage her image, her real identity wouldn't come into it.
What did it matter to Karina if people starting thinking differently of Blue Rose? A heroic persona was only a means to an end. Karina wasn't about to make the same mistake that brought down Barnaby Brooks.
"If you say so…? But… I mean… when you're Blue Rose, you don't look like you're holding anything back."
"Is that right."
"I've been a little jealous of you." Pao Lin flushed. "Sometimes."
"I see," Karina said, even though she didn't.
Pao-Lin should not be jealous of her. Well, okay, Pao-Lin should be jealous of her, because Karina was gorgeous and wildly talented, but she shouldn't be jealous of Karina in this specific context.
"Sorry, wow, you're tired!" Pao-Lin abruptly stood back up. "You'll need sleep of you want to try and beat Sky High before the points are totaled next week. I should, um, let you rest. I'll see you around!"
The screen went dark and the room felt into shadow.
Karina felt okay about allowing Pao-Lin to hang up with the last word. The girl really cared about being a hero. And when she talked like she thought Blue Rose was something special, even though she'd actually met Karina in person, well…
Karina didn't have the heart to tell Pao-Lin that she'd been screwing around with branding stunts instead of trying seriously for the crown.
The bomb threat at Sternbild University came as a surprise to absolutely no one. Sure, the details couldn't have been predicted -- it might just as easily have been arson in the manufacturing district, or a high-profile kidnapping -- but the entire city was braced for a crime wave. The last week of the Hero TV season always lured out some hotheads who wanted to make a name for themselves during peak viewership.
Morons. It was like they wanted to get arrested in the most humiliating way possible.
Well, far be it for Hero TV not to oblige such upstanding citizens. Especially when they were so considerate as to show up on Karina's doorstep.
Karina got up from the table, stuffed her books into her backpack, and ducked into the library bathroom. It was the work of a moment to empty her coffee on the door hinges and freeze them shut. Then she opened her gym bag and pulled out a wig, a white catsuit, and a tube of blue lipstick.
"Hold tight." Agnes' voice cracked from Karina's earpiece. "The other heroes are on their way. According to their demand letter, the bomb isn't set to go off for another hour. We can have a costuming van to you in fifteen minutes."
"No. I have some things with me. I won't look my best, but it will do."
Karina frowned into the mirror as she pinned on the wig. It was long and straight and easy to store, unlike her usual updo.
"The sponsors won't be happy that you're not in uniform."
"My suit says Titan Industries on the back," Karina snapped.
Stupid boring wig. Stupid emergency costume. Stupid Kotetsu and the stupid diamond mask he kept in his back pocket, which had given her the stupid idea to carry around a simple disguise just in case.
Karina zipped herself into the catsuit, grimaced, then opened the front back down to her waist, exposing her bra. It didn't feel right to go into a fight all buttoned up. Blue Rose was supposed to be desirable. Her looks had been her very first selling point, back when she was only a girl, and it felt good to go up to the men who undressed her with their eyes and show them why they could never, ever touch.
Er. It felt good to the character of Blue Rose, that is.
Karina heard a strange noise. It took her a moment to realize that it was Agnes being amused.
"So you're going to chase Sky High after all?"
"Just make sure you keep the cameras on this time." Karina finished putting on her lipstick. "It'll be a good show."
She stashed her bags in an air vent and then jumped out the library window in the quad. Some of the students who saw her shouted out Blue Rose's name. Others raised their phones to take pictures.
The smart thing to do would be to act distraught about all these students being in danger. These people were the same age as her. They drank coffee and took tests together. She could start an evacuation effort and be a friend to her peers. Agnes would love the human interest angle. Titan Industries would be over the moon.
People started calling out to her -- asking if there was going to be a concert, or if she'd take photos -- yet Karina wasn't really paying attention. She'd reached out with her sixth sense to feel for the water around her. It pumped steadily through the veins and the arteries of the city, waiting to clot.
This would not be Karina's first time using ice to contain an explosion.
"No, there's not going to be a concert." Karina's awareness snapped back to the crowd around her. She blinked her eyes, trying to force some tears. "You all need to get out of here. It's terrible, someone has decided to bomb all my friends here at the university! I'm not--"
"Keep it up." Agnes murmured through Karina's earpiece. "Dragon Kid and Origami Cyclone are due at your location in five minutes. Sky High in twenty."
Pao-Lin wouldn't understand what Karina was doing. Neither would Ivan or Keith, for that matter.
She wasn't anything like what Titan Industries wanted from her.
She was so, so done with this.
All NEXT were the sum of their powers, when push came to shove. Ivan would never stop trying to be someone he wasn't, Keith's head would always be lost in the clouds, and Kotetsu was one hundred times the man he appeared to be. Karina was no different from the rest of them.
She did not care to bend or shatter. To thaw would be the end of her. Her ice was the strength of her will and the force of her certainty.
"You're not what?" Some smartass yelled.
"Awww. A big brain like you can't figure it out?" Karina sashayed over to her heckler. "The blue rose isn't found in nature. "
Karina wagged a finger in the boy's face, then winked at him. He looked like he was about to pass out.
"I'm not an ordinary woman, so don't you worry. My ice will make sure I stay the hottest thing on this campus."
There was nothing else to be done. If Karina couldn't be relatable, she'd have to be a queen instead.
Karina poured herself into the support van and pulled her terrible wig off. Her catsuit was signed in five separate places and her socks were stained with mud. Would Titan Industries try to release a variant trading card based on her emergency costume? God, Karina hoped not. She was never wearing sneakers to a terrorist strike again.
She toed her shoes off and took a can of Pepsi NEXT out of the mini-fridge. Pao-Lin joined her in the back of the van a few moments later. Ivan would be along once a tow truck showed up to haul away the remains of his motorbike.
"Congratulations, Blue Rose!" Pao-Lin sat down on the bench opposite from Karina.
Pao-Lin's costume was soaked. Karina supposed that she might have overdone it with the ice that she pulled up from the storm drains. When she left the blast site, teams of students were making a game of scaling the protective lattice she'd formed over the student union building.
"Thanks," Karina said. "I hear I'm back in the running now."
"Yes! There's five more days."
Pao Lin stripped off her top and put on a Hero TV t-shirt. Karina considered the soda in her hand and chilled it a few degrees colder.
Coming down from an arrest was tough -- especially when you were the one who made it. Karina knew she would be useless for the rest of the day. It was all she could do not to turn the whole street into a skating rink.
"Are you counting down the days until you're kicked out?"
"Listen, if you're ready to live alone yet, I could use a roommate."
Honestly, there was no reason for Pao-Lin to look that shocked. Karina was impressive, sure, but Pao-Lin should be used to situations like this, since she seemed to have the whole relating thing pinned down.
This idea had come upon Karina suddenly but that was no reason not to act on it. Pao-Lin had helped Karina out. She didn't want to owe Pao-Lin a debt for that. And anyway... if Karina had more trouble with Titan Industries, it would be good to have a reliable resource in her contacts list.
"I don't need the money, obviously, but it's strange for a college student to be living alone, wouldn't you say?" Karina shrugged, a little too casually. "I can't have paparazzi catching wind of my civilian name. Barnaby still gets photographers hanging around in the bushes outside his building."
"You wouldn't mind?"
Karina attempted to catch Pao-Lin's eye. "If you're trying to turn me down politely, you can go ahead and speak your mind. I'm not fragile."
Pao-Lin ducked her head to towel off her hair.
"No… I'd like that."
Karina opened her soda.