“You look too thin.” These were the first words out of Edna's mouth as she opened the door to her three o'clock. The man stared at her, mouth still half open in a greeting he hadn't yet voiced, eyes blinking in surprise. Really, she thought, he should be used to it by now. She had no time for pointless pleasantries, especially when a client showed up to collect an order with their measurements changed from what she'd anticipated.
Honestly, people waltzing around with supernatural powers should at least be able to avoid the trap of crash dieting.
Or perhaps it was something more troubling. She studied the man critically, eyes narrowed behind the thick lenses of her spectacles. “Thin and tired. You've been ill, Nicholas. I'll forgive you. Now come! We have work to do.”
She strode off, the hard heels of her shoes striking the marble floor like war drums. Despite being twice again her height, her client had to hurry to keep up. “Not ill,” he said, the breathy edge to his voice assuring her he'd be winded by the time they reached the elevator. Well, he could rest on the way down to her workroom. “Just busy. You know how it is, this time of year.”
“Ah.” Edna nodded sagely, twisting her head around to give him a sympathetic look. “Of course, darling. Always work, work, work. No one appreciates an artist any more. Did you know, just this summer, I was asked to create a fashion line for a department store. A department store! Me! I told them, I work with gods! Heroes! I have no time for petty little things. And they say, oh, we will manufacture products based on your designs. Pah! No respect at all.”
“You should consider taking on an assistant.”
Edna waved her hand dismissively. “Assistants, pah. I have them. Good for paperwork, good for telephones. They make sure no one parks in my space. But they have no vision. They follow trends. No good!”
“An apprentice, then.”
Edna's jaw set, and her shoulders squared. The few workers she allowed into her sanctum – few living workers, rather, but the automatons didn't count – looked around in alarm as she increased her pace, instinctively falling back, as though fearing getting caught up in her wake. Several cast worried glances at her companion. Red-faced, she was sure, and puffing like one of those old-fashioned steam engines. Well, of course he was; she could hear that much herself.
Foolish children. They should know by now that she would hardly be designing for some frail old man who would fall over at any moment if forced to exert himself.
One of them caught her eye, and didn't quite manage to look away swiftly enough to avoid attention. Tall girl, white-blonde hair, dressed in charcoal and bright violet. No name that Edna could recall – new, then, or not able to distinguish herself in any lasting way. She snapped her fingers, and pointed at the girl. “You! Send down cocoa. And see that Nicholas's ride is fed.”
“Fed?” the girl stammered, eyes rounding. The glance she sent the old man's way wasn't as concerned this time. Or perhaps it was a very different sort of concern. Really, did she think Edna would invite in clients who would – themselves or by proxy – eat her staff? That had only happened the once, and ever since, she'd had a very strict policy: no werewolves, no devils, and absolutely no ogres.
“Yes, yes, fed. Go. Go, go, go. Quickly!”
The girl hurried off, her pace all but ridiculous in those towering heels she wore. Was she a super? No, Edna decided, just a girl, very well practised. Good. Supers were marvellous to design for, but a nightmare to employ. Always needing a break to fight this giant robot, vanquish that dragon, changing in phone booths or janitors' closets or any other improbably location they could get their hands on. Her super suits were built to withstand such nonsense, of course, but it was murder on their normal clothes.
Well, perhaps if those department store fools called again, that's what she'd tell them. She would design – if they carried fashionable clothing designed for the modern hero. They wouldn't, of course. Serving supers when you knew they were supers was terrible on the nerves of such mediocre people.
Her client cleared his throat, and she glanced back to see his eyes twinkling with amusement, despite the obvious signs of fatigue. “No apprentices, then.”
Edna gave another dismissive wave of her hand. “I had one, once. It didn't work out.”
“What happened?” He paused, then added cautiously, “If asking won't cause too much trouble.”
“She was arrogant,” Edna replied, giving him a narrow-eyed look of warning. She paused as they reached the elevator, long enough to give her voice code, and punch in the appropriate floor. She was unsurprised when her guest leaned heavily back against the wall. Sick, she was sure, even if he wouldn't admit it. “You know how it is. One stunning design, and they start thinking of themselves as above all others! She made the wrong challenge, wouldn't back down, and – poof!”
Edna sighed. “Turned into a spider. Very lovely weaving patterns, but not so useful for making clothing.”
“When was this?”
“Oh, you know how time slips away. Long ago. I was working for the Greeks. It didn't last, of course – too traditional, not open to new fashions. Style evolves, darling. You can't stay in the past.”
Her guest coughed into his hand, hiding a smile. It didn't work, of course, it never did. His eyes twinkled whenever he was amused. It would be a terrible tell, if his work required deception. “I'm still not wearing purple.”
Edna's nose wrinkled, and she gave him a disapproving look. “Fine, fine. It would take too long to change now. But you must consider updating. It's a new era, darling! How are you going to inspire millions if you don't adapt?”
“Gifts. Joy. The usual.”
“Sentiment.” Edna shook her head, though not unfondly. The elevator chimed as it came to a stop, and she strode out into the hallway. “Come, come. You'll like the new features. I've found a new fabric, very good at cutting the chill of high-speed flight. Of course, it's still fire-retardant – really, darling, why you insist on using chimneys is beyond me – and bullet resistant. Stand there.”
She stepped forward, pulling down her glasses to peer into the retinal scanner fixed beside the workroom door. The door slid open with a soft hiss of escaping air.
“Bullet resistant?” her guest asked as he followed her inside.
“You fly. So much nonsense about air space, it's best to take precautions. Which brings me to the best part!” Edna hurried up to the display holding the finished suit, and drew the left arm out to full extension. “You see this button here?” She shook the arm for emphasis, and the small brass button half-hidden in the plush white fur of the cuff glinted in the bright light. “If someone's naughty child sneaks down to have a peek, just press it and – voila!”
The suit faded, turning metallic grey, but for the cuff Edna held. That, instead, shifted shade to match her hand.
Edna shook her head, grinning. “No, no. You can't make yourself invisible, so if your clothing did, it would leave you, enh, looking very naked. That's no good. No good at all! No, this suit camouflages itself and the wearer. If you look very, very carefully, you can still see it, but the little children will be looking for bright red and white.”
Her guest smiled. “Edna, you're amazing.”
Edna glanced away, flapping her hand as though to wave off the compliment, though she didn't trouble to conceal her pleasure. “Of course, of course. Now, try it on! Soon you must be on your way, and I will have to take it in before you can go. You're too thin, darling. Too thin!”
A stair creaked, and then another. The man crouched by the pine tree – real, though its fragrance was beginning to fade after more than a week spent indoors – stilled, then straightened. One hand touched the brass button half-hidden by the white fur of his coatsleeve's cuff.
Several moments passed before a head peeked around the corner, sleep-tousled hair half-obscuring a pair of curious brown eyes. The little girl peered over the living room, nose crinkling when they failed to find the expected figure. “Santa?” she asked, breathy whisper carrying more sharply than a normal speaking voice would have. She crept a few more feet into the living room, then sighed, and turned to scurry back upstairs before her parents caught her out of bed.
The man by the tree swallowed a chuckle, waiting until the faint footsteps faded before he turned back to his sack and drew out the rest of the presents. Over the mantle, the clock chimed – two in the morning, right on schedule. He made his way back to the fireplace, stepping carefully around the cold ashes – then paused, planting his boot squarely into them, and stepping out to leave a pair of perfect footprints by the hearth before retreating again. They gleamed faintly, as though dusted with glitter. Edna hadn't mentioned that feature.
“I'm not the only sentimental one,” he murmured, then looked upwards – and vanished up the chimney.