Standing in the Hero TV lounge alone together, Karina had exactly what Ivan wanted, and was displaying it in front of him like the coveted treasure it was. A four-day special members pass to the biggest annual Japanese entertainment exposition held in Sternbild - BandaiCon. He could just see it now, the cosplayers in skimpy, complicated outfits, the giant Gundam statue in the hall, the scent of old rare manga and unwashed otaku. It would be glorious.
Karina didn't actually have the physical pass; he'd get that when he checked in - but he could see his name typed into the blanks on the transfer form that she was showing him on her phone screen. He'd have his confirmation soon, that was all that mattered.
He'd been saving up his salary for three months so he could buy whatever he came across in the dealers room, like that con-exclusive figurine he hadn't had enough for last year. He'd made his plans for this year expecting Helperidese to comp the pass and hotel room for him like they did before. Now his numbers were down even lower. When he asked his manager if he could go, it was suggested that he do an appearance there instead.
Ivan was not going to spend the one event he'd been looking forward to all year long, standing in front of the convention center handing out plastic bags full of key chains and pens and tissues with his sponsors names on them. He'd been ready to pay for the pass himself, when a unique opportunity arose.
"All you have to do is ask him about me," she said. "I don't really expect him to say anything outrageous."
"Whose form should I take?" he asked, uncertain how well he'd be able to imitate any one of his friends even though he knew them fairly well. There were just so many things that could go wrong.
Karina tapped a finger against her chin. "Hmm, if he'd share his inner thoughts with anyone it would be Antonio."
"What am I supposed to do if he says I sound like a pervert?" he asked. Karina was even younger than Ivan was, and Kotetsu had to be in his thirties.
She blushed fiercely and turned and started pacing. "I don't know. Don't you guys talk about stupid perverted stuff all the time in the locker room?"
"I don't," Ivan said, feeling uncomfortable.
Karina looked back at him and her eyebrows rose. "Really?"
"No one really talks to me."
She almost looked disappointed. "Okay then. Um, I guess you are just going to have to try to roll with whatever happens. If worse comes to worst you can just pretend you're sick and run off or something. How fast can you transform into someone else?" she asked.
"It takes a minute, but as long as I'm familiar with them I can change without much trouble."
"Change into someone he doesn't know then, and blend into the crowd if you have to make a quick escape," Karina said.
"Sure, but what if he asks Antonio about it later?"
"I don't know. Just try to keep it simple I guess, something he can blow off. Haven't you ever done anything like this before?"
This was different than trying to infiltrate a criminal organization, these people were his comrades. "Well not for a co-worker. I'm kind of nervous about it coming back to bite me, to be quite honest," he said, scuffing his sneaker against the beige carpet.
"Don't think about that, think about all the money you'll have to spend on overpriced dolls and movie prop weapons."
"They're not movie props," he said, defensive. A lot of the smaller stuff the weapons vendors had was quality steel.
Karina rolled her eyes. "If you say so. Anyway, call me when you're done, and I'll finish the transfer on the pass."
"Why were you going anyway?"
"I have a friend who is showing her art there, and it looked like fun," she admitted. "Anyway, I may still have to find a way to go, but you will have my deluxe pass for your own if you can do this."
"I'll see what I can do," he said, and waved behind him as he left her.
Pretending to be Antonio was not as easy as Karina made it out to be. First of all he had to make sure the real Antonio wasn't around when he was talking to Kotetsu. Challenging, because they were best friends and even if they weren't doing anything, the two liked to hang out in the same spaces. Usually they didn't talk much either, communicating in gestures and grunts.
He still had two weeks, so Ivan decided he'd follow Kotetsu around and figure out what the man did over the course of a day. Perhaps he'd find a situation he could insinuate himself into.
Kotetsu wasn't a very complicated person as it turned out. After a morning at the office answering fanmail and eating a huge lunch, if uninterrupted, he did his exercises. Usually the most calls from Hero TV came during prime daylight hours. Then in the evening he'd go to a bar with Antonio and drink for a few hours. Ivan had noticed that Barnaby went with them more often of late. That could be a problem, since Barnaby was a bit brighter than those two.
As luck had it, two days later, he overheard Antonio complaining to Nathan that he was going to be late meeting Kotetsu at the pub. He had to pick up his nephew up at the airport, since the kid lost his wallet. Another's misfortune was truly Ivan's gain.
"Back from the airport already?" Kotetsu said.
"Oh, um, it got worked out. He took a taxi." Ivan said, again disconcerted by the booming voice that he suddenly had access to. He'd had to walk around for a few minutes just to get used to Antonio's heavily-muscled bulk, and mind all the doorjambs.
"Really. Well that's good. I can't believe your sister's kid is already so grown up. What did you say his name was again?"
Shit, he would lead with a personal question.
"Uh, can I get a beer?" he said, pretending he didn't hear and excited that he wasn't going to get carded. He'd never even thought of using his power for this before. Ivan had no idea what kind of beer Antonio liked though. Was it the lager or the pilsner? Or maybe he liked mixed drinks. No, Antonio seemed like a beer guy.
"The usual?" said the bartender.
"Yeah!" he said in relief.
Kotetsu leaned over the bar counter and looked at him funny. "So did you watch that movie I told you to? "
"Uh, yeah," he mumbled, as he accepted a huge mug from the bartender.
"If you didn't like it, just say so. I know you don't usually go for stuff with a lot of dancing -"
"It was, uh, interesting," he mumbled. Was this guy already drunk? Kotetsu was every bit as lame as he seemed outside of work, too.
"See, I told you you'd love it!" Kotetsu raised his mug and then took a long swig. "You're coming with me next time I have Kaede and we'll all go see a movie in a real theater. A big production."
"I'll think about it." He drank a little of the beer and was surprised at how bitter it was. Antonio actually liked this stuff? Ivan had had champagne before, and a light beer once at a family gathering, but this was really different. He was going to have to fulfill his mission quickly, because he didn't think he'd be able to keep the act up very much longer. Blech.
"You know, I saw something weird on the way out today. You're probably going to laugh," he said.
"Yeah what happened?" Now Kotetsu was watching the screen above the bar, which had some sort of car commercial running.
"Okay, so Karina – you know how she has that weird towel with the snake on it?" He made a gesture like someone stretching out a cloth.
"Yeah, I gave that to her!" Kotetsu said and nodded, his face breaking into a big goofy grin.
Ivan squirmed on his stool, nervous. "Well, I saw her take it out of her bag and it's got your real name on it. So later I teased her and asked if she was such a big Wild Tiger fan that she carried it around everywhere. She said it wasn't any of my business." This had actually happened, and was how this whole ridiculous farce had started. "Man, I think she has a major crush on you."
Kotetsu looked at him wide-eyed, and then slapped him hard on the back and started laughing. "Ahaha! Seriously? That's so cute. It reminds me of when I was that age."
"Yeah, I had this English teacher freshman year – her name was Ms. Andrews – and I could barely look at her for the first half of the semester, I was crushing on her so bad. I used to fantasize about-" he looked over at Ivan-as-Antonio, and immediately went red-faced, embarrassed. "Uh, anyway, that's always such an awkward time for kids."
He nodded into his mug, taking another tentative sip from it. "You're nice to everyone, that's probably why she looks up to you."
He shook his head again in disbelief. "She's probably a bundle of raging hormones and is stuck around such good-looking guys like us all the time."
"I know right?" he said, shaking his head at Kotetsu's egotism.
"And she's so cute. I can't believe she doesn't have a boyfriend already." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Maybe we should set her up with someone. I know, Ivan! He's nice and they're about the same age."
Ivan side-eyed him hard. "I really doubt that would be a good idea," he said. Karina was way out of his league even if he was interested in her.
Kotetsu scratched his beard. "Yeah, I guess he is pretty shy. Bunny's no good, either - he's such a cold fish when he's not in front of a camera. Mah, I guess she'll grow out of it."
"She will," he said. Well that was that, he decided he couldn't draw the topic out any further so he changed it. "Did you hear that Ivan got a new sponsor?"
"Another one? What is that, like six now? That kid is going to look like a stock car pretty soon."
He snorted. "Probably." Ivan took his phone out, pretending it had been going off in his pocket. He held it up and acted like he was listening, "Hello?" he said, and proceeded to have an imaginary conversation. "Hi – Oh yeah? - Alright, I'll be right there."
"Who was it?" Kotetsu asked.
"My nephew, looks like something else came up. I gotta run. Maybe I'll be back later." he said, getting up from his stool, and turning so Kotetsu couldn't see him take money out of a wallet that obviously wasn't Antonio's - it was printed with silver shurikens.
"Oh, okay – see you."
Ivan met up with Karina at the little tea shop in the lobby of the Apollon Media building, the next day. She was in a blue sundress, and had ordered cold tea while she waited for him to show up.
"So what did he say?" she said, and put the straw from her drink to her mouth.
Ivan smirked at her, willing himself not to laugh. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yes! You know how much it's worth to me."
He repeated the entire conversation as well as he could remember it – except the part where Kotetsu mentioned her possibly dating him - and watched her face shift from perfect calm to a deep pink blush.
"You could have been more subtle about it," she cried, half standing in her seat.
He shrugged. "How would his reaction have been any different?"
"I don't know," she said, sitting back down, head in her hands. "Honestly it's exactly what I expected. It's kind of a relief in a way. He is who I think he is."
Karina looked back up at him, sighing. "Forget it. Here, I'll transfer the membership for you right now," she said, and took out her phone.
"Okay." He watched her complete the transaction, and heard the e-mail alert tone from his own phone go off, moments later.
"Thanks for doing that for me," she said, taking a last drink from her tea, and gathering up her things hurriedly.
He shrugged. It wasn't like he'd done it for free. "You're welcome. Say, if you do end up going to the convention, and you want to hang out for a bit-"
She gave him an odd look at first, but then smiled. "I'll text you if I'm around," she said, tugging her hair out from under the strap of her bag as she got up. "Later."