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War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 31: Revelations in the Gray Zone
Sky High
Drama/Sci-Fi

Revelations in the Gray Zone

 

“What the hell was that?”

“You first,” I growled, fist clenched. Fear was warring with anger inside me, anger at myself, fear of her, and also a kind of blank astonishment at both of us. “Careless” was something of an understatement for how we had both acted. I had basically made her use her powers in public, and then I had blithely used my own in front of a supervillain.

Keller simply stared at me for a long time, making me a little uncomfortable. She had a very peculiar serenity about her, I supposed because of dealing with her powers, which was normally more than a little creepy. As EMTs, we were supposed to be the calm ones in a crisis, but she was like that all the time. It certainly didn’t make reading her any easier.

“Why is it always me first?” she asked. I scowled at her. “Ah yes, because I’m the super villain. I’m the bad guy.” Her expression turned bitter, and I tried not to feel guilty. She’s trying to make you feel bad about this, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts, my brain commented acidly. I’ve never gotten into a bet with myself before, because I always lost, and I wasn’t about to start now.

“Go on,” I said shortly.

“You’re a real idiot. You don’t think about consequences, honestly! You’re letting that whole Phoenix persona of yours take over, and it’s going to get you into trouble. You can’t save everyone, and you’ll kill yourself or others trying.” I stopped my mouth from dropping open just in time. I hadn’t been expecting a lecture on secrecy and caution from her.

“So what, don’t try? Don’t think, don’t feel?” I asked acidly, striking back.

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” she said.

“Then what?” I asked. “Why are you helping me? Why cover for me? Why tell me anything about you? It makes no damn sense!” Frustrated anger crossed her face, the first real time I had seen her show any strong emotions. I had a sneaking suspicion I wasn’t going to like her answer.

“If you blow your cover, even if you don’t give me up, even if somehow the Bureau doesn’t recognize me, there’s going to be questions. Reporters and photographers, investigators and journalists, all wanting to know the ‘inside scoop.’ They’ll ask questions, want to know my story, take my picture, and they won’t leave me alone. The academy will find out, and that… wouldn’t be good,” she explained, a brief expression of fear showing.

The few times heroes had managed to blow their cover identities beyond what the Bureau could repair, the media had descended like locusts on anyone who had known them. Blithely I hadn’t even considered what might happen to my co-workers if I got careless. The Bureau could frustrate access to my close friends and family, considering they were all heroes too, but everyone else was fair game. As for the academy… I realized that the paparazzi were nothing in comparison to what they could do.

“What would they do?” I asked.

“The academy would kill me, because they know torturing me is pointless. The Bureau would put me in jail,” she said shortly.

“Why risk it in the first place? Why didn’t you just leave when I showed up in June?” I asked.

“They gave me a task, and leaving it half-done because of a minor setback would be considered a weakness. I didn’t manage to survive the academy by asking to be coddled,” she said.

Survive the academy? Considered a weakness? Good grief, how are they teaching them? I thought. Not to mention the fact she had implied they tortured or killed people for compromising their cover or failing something. I suddenly remembered Bruin, and the comment he had made to us back last fall. “We didn’t all want this,” he had said. Had she been forced into the academy? She had implied she joined willingly, but…

“Then how did you survive?” I asked. She didn’t answer, not surprisingly, so I switched questions.

“What did you do back there to that girl?”

“Pain diversion,” she explained shortly.

“Was that new or what? You looked kind of surprised.”

“It wasn’t something new… I’ve done it before, it was just a very long time ago,” she said slowly.

“How long?” I asked.

“Over ten years,” she said quietly. I quickly calculated backwards, being that she was in her late twenties and had powered up for the first time at thirteen…

“Your grandmother?” I hazarded. She shot me a sharp glance and nodded reluctantly.

“Her cancer was extremely painful, and she hated taking drugs for it because they clouded her mind,” she explained.

I tried to wrap my mind around that; that a thirteen year-old girl, newly come into her powers, and not from a super-powered family, had willingly taken on a dying woman’s pain. If that didn’t count as a heroic action, I didn’t know what did. Now things made a hell of a lot less sense.

“That was how you first used your powers?” I asked. She shook her head, her hair hiding her face slightly.

“No, the first several times they worked the other way. That was why she ended up taking the drugs in the first place. I had… to do a lot of experimentation at first. I didn’t know what had happened to me. Books helped a little, but practicing was the only way to really learn,” she said.

There were dozens, if not hundreds, of books and websites that described various super-powers, how to tell if you had them, and how to use them. Most of them were pure bullshit, but there were a few that were written by retired superheroes or sidekicks, and authorized by the Bureau, to give some kind of real guidance to first-generation powers. It was inevitable that some people would show up that, like Keller, hadn’t powered up publicly and thus had slipped through Bureau detection. Giving them a legitimate way to get their powers under control helped find them, considering those books kept emphasizing for the would-be heroes to go to their local Bureau office to get tested.

I couldn’t imagine how frightening it must have been to suddenly develop such a superpower while the only family you had ever known had been stricken with a painful, terminal illness. I knew I was probably going to get powers at some point in my life, and even though I had been angry at discovering I had my father’s powers, what would it have been like to think you were completely normal and suddenly power up? Particularly when your first time had been to increase the pain of a loved one?

“Why didn’t you go to the Bureau?” I asked her. She shot me a sardonic glance.

“I was thirteen and knew I was going to go into foster care in a few months when Grandma died. And I had pain powers. What superhero has pain powers?” she asked rhetorically. “People with powers like mine, poison, pain, disease, they end up as villains anyway. There’s no good way to use them, and you can’t just stay out of the conflict unless you choose to never use your powers. And I had to use mine. Someone eventually noticed, and I was just lucky it was Royal Pain and not the Bureau, or I’d be in jail right now.”

For some reason I was strongly reminded of Ms. Olsen and her lessons on why some super-powered people turned to villainy. Keller’s comment on how you couldn’t stay out of the conflict was pretty much true as well. If you found out you had powers, you either got noticed by the Bureau and decided to become a hero, or you decided to use your powers for your own purposes, Bureau be damned. And that always tended to lead to unwanted attention by heroes, which soon led to a superbattle. The only way to have superpowers and not get drawn into the superhero/supervillain conflict was to not use them, or not get caught. Keller obviously had done a pretty good job of not getting caught up until Royal Pain had found her. And since we were now deep in personal stuff whether I wanted to be or not… I kept the questions coming. The more I could question her, the less time she would have to question me.

“Why would you be in jail?”

“Because I had been using my powers on my patients, fool!” she snapped. “That’s not exactly an ethical use of them.”

“So you had people that came to you to help them deal with chronic pain problems, and you enhanced their pain?” I asked, both horrified and disgusted. “Why the hell would you do that?”

“I have to use my powers or I get backlash. If I go without using them for too long, they feed back on me. My vision goes blurry, I get weak; if I go too long I can end up blind or paralyzed for hours at a time, even days. Some of these people were genuinely in pain, but couldn’t get past their little daily troubles. So after a round with me, suddenly their day-to-day pain was negligible and they could go home,” she said almost frantically.

“What happened when it didn’t work?” I asked faintly, trying to digest that. Some of Ms. Olsen’s lecture came to mind. Sometimes a person’s powers are very hard to control, possibly even turning on their wielder and causing them emotional distress or even physical harm. If these unstable super-people aren’t picked up by super-villains or find some other way of coping, they often do something very drastic.” Keller had found a way to cope, all right, but… damn. That seriously had to suck.

“Sometimes…” she trailed off, and her face crumpled slightly. “The people we dealt with, even before I came, sometimes just couldn’t deal with their situation. Sometimes people ended up being institutionalized, or in a few cases they attempted suicide. A few of my patients… that happened to them. I don’t know if it was because of my powers, or if it would have happened anyway. I just don’t know.”

Damn… I thought again. It was a vicious Catch-22 situation, and all choices were equally bad. I wasn’t even sure if there was an ethical solution to her problem. Could I have calmly accepted going blind or paralyzed periodically if I chose not to use my powers? Would I honestly be able to never power up again, if I had to make a choice? I liked my powers, even with the troubles they gave me, and I really couldn’t imagine being without them, even voluntarily. I wonder…

“So was that why you joined the academy?” I asked.

“Royal Pain said she could teach me how to use my powers, how to control them. That the Bureau would put me in jail for misusing them anyway, so it was easier to get the drop on them by coming with her. So it would have been jail time, or a chance to learn how to use them. By the time I found out the details, there was really no going back. I just endured what I had to to survive,” she said.

“Details?” I prompted, getting the shape of Royal Pain’s scheme in my mind. She finds vulnerable first generation powers, and threatens them with exposure if they don’t come to the academy. And paints the Bureau as some kind of dictatorship that’ll lock them away for life if they ever use their powers outside of academy protection, so they never come looking to the one place that could have helped them. Fucking brilliant.

Keller suddenly gave herself a quick shake, as if throwing off a bad memory, and I saw her mask-like expression suddenly slip back into place.

“My turn to ask questions,” she said, her voice a little harder.

“We’re not doing this quid pro quo,” I reminded her. “What details?”

“No, I get to ask questions too,” she said sharply.

“I don’t think so-,” I started.

“Why do you think I was chosen to be a spy?” she asked me.

“No idea,” I said shortly.

“I told you everything. I gave you all the information you needed,” she said simply, and a little arrogantly.

“Then I couldn’t put it together. Why are you a spy?” I snapped.

“What’s the primary danger for someone knowing a spy’s identity?”

“If they get uncovered, it’s a lot harder to spy, because no one will tell you anything. And everyone will be watching you,” I said after a second. That’s what made her actions so senseless…

“And?” she prompted, as if I were a student that had only given half an answer.

“If you know who they are, then you can get them to leave by…” I trailed off as what she was saying started to make a horrible sense. A few dozen pieces of information suddenly began to fit together, and the picture they made was not pretty.

“By threatening those they love,” she finished. “Their family and friends.”

“But you-,” I started, realizing what her family history on the second day of our acquaintance had meant.

“I was chosen to be a spy because I’m older than the others, and I lived as a normal person up until four years ago. I have an established identity as a tax-paying, normal citizen with a perfect normal record. I’m sane. And I have no family or friends to use against me,” she said in a very level tone of voice. “I’m expendable. You can’t threaten me with physical pain, and I have no emotional attachments to use against me. You can’t hurt me.

Icy terror suddenly gripped my heart as I realized the implications. Her odd openness now began to make sense. In a strange way, she was pretty much free to do as she wanted, and now she knew far too much about me… I am a prize moron.

“And I already knew you could heal,” she added.

She now had my full and undivided attention.

“How?” I asked warily.

“Last fall. I saw your hands were on fire when you got the guinea pig, but I could tell you weren’t hurting her. I could tell you were lessening her pain. My power is pretty rare, so when I told my teachers, they figured it out what you must have been doing.”

Fuck, it was the academy that was spreading the rumors. Crap, they probably have my capture as some kind of graduation exercise or something! I waited for the axe to fall, honestly expecting her to pull out power neutralizer shackles or the door to fall open and the rest of her group to surround me. Escape didn’t enter into it right now, because the only way I could stop her would be to kill her. She had conclusively proved that her pain tolerance was so high, that I basically couldn’t disable her. I’d have to break bones, at the very least, to keep her from coming after me, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

She kept staring at me, her face a cool mask, moments passing as my surge of fear sharpened my senses, preparing me to fight whether I wanted to or not. But she just kept staring, keeping utterly calm, as my brain started working again. Behind her still expression, her eyes were filled with fear, and I realized she was just as frightened as me. A few more things clicked into place.

She’s been here over ten months, since just after we fought them last September. How long would it take to figure out the information I think she’s after? It doesn’t take ten months to get a good grip on how fast heroes take to respond. She’s been here too long. She doesn’t have any backup!

Royal Pain basically threatened her to get her into the academy… then things must have been so hard she couldn’t get out until they let her. And by then, they must have had other things on her… If nothing else, attacking us! If she leaves, they can give her up to the Bureau in an anonymous tip. And if she turns on them, she’s already seen how they deal with traitors.

She was trying to live a normal life; she didn’t grow up in the superhero world. If she hadn’t had to use her powers, Royal Pain would have never found her. If she had never been found, I bet she would have never become a supervillain.

And she was helping me so I wouldn’t send her to the Bureau. She said the Bureau could imprison her, but the academy would only kill her. Death doesn’t scare her so… prison does?

I closed my eyes for a second, her cold words warring with what I had seen her do over the last couple of months, of her quiet and unassuming history compared to her quiet and ruthless use of her powers against Zack. Warring. Her words and her actions are at war with each other. Suddenly everything snapped into place.

“You want out, don’t you?” I asked softly, hoping to God I had read her right. She rocked back in her seat, shock playing over her features before anger hardened them.

“I’m not a nice person, Warren. I used my powers on my patients. I was one of the school torturers; when people failed to do what they were supposed to, I used my powers to punish them, to break them. I earned my title by making people scream,” she said, glaring at me with hooded eyes.

“So, you’re a sadist?” I asked almost conversationally. I had the upper hand back in this conversation, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let up on her now. She was trying so hard to do something, but I wasn’t quite sure what yet. Part of what she was telling me made me want to feel sympathy for her. And part of it made me want to hate her. Maybe they weren’t mutually exclusive. The thought made my head hurt. I was rapidly getting in deeper than I could handle.

“No! No,” she said, shaking her head. “The way my powers work… I have to feel pain before I can amplify it. And I can handle more than most other people. I don’t enjoy hurting people, not really.”

I felt a little ill. That was how Mom had said her powers worked, that she had to feel emotions before she projected them. But the thought of comparing their powers was sickening. In a twisted way, she had thought she was doing something to help her patients. And then Royal Pain had decided she should be one of the school torturers… As one more way to convince her she was meant to be a villain? I thought. Get her in too deep to leave?

“So you’re a masochist then?” I asked, keeping up the pressure on her.

“No! I don’t like pain, I can just handle it. I… find it life-affirming,” she said, hands spread as she tried to explain.

Ok, that’s sick and twisted… I thought. Oh yeah, and who can traipse around in the middle of a burning building without any worries? You can frolic around in fire; she can prance around in pain. That’s her power; she’s stuck with it. If she weren’t able to get something good out of it she would have offed herself years ago!

“You don’t make any sense,” I said finally, exasperated. Her contradictory nature was giving me a very bad headache, and I was seriously torn about what I was supposed to do next. The only leverage I had against her was the Bureau, and she had threatened me pretty badly. On the other hand, I now had the source of those damn rumors, and a pretty good idea as to how Royal Pain had gotten some of her students to do her bidding.

“I don’t have to make sense! I’m a supervillain!” she snapped, throwing her hands up dramatically.

Believe me, hate me, I’m evil, and I can prove it. Help me, this is my power and I can’t not use it. My brain wanted to implode at the implications of her cross-purpose confessions. I forced myself to a moment of calm, trying to dig out something that would catch her off-guard.

“If you don’t have anything that can be used against you…” I said slowly. “The academy doesn’t either. If they can’t catch you, if the Bureau were out of the picture, they couldn’t do anything do you, could they?”

Her eyes widened slightly, and I saw her start to go pale.

“No,” she whispered. “Except I couldn’t stay hidden forever. She found me once, because of my powers and how I was using them. They’d find me again. Even if I never used them against my patients, they’d just have to wait until backlash hit.”

A few months ago I would have scoffed at a power that had fed back and controlled its owner. I had never heard of such a thing in my life, right up until it happened to me. So I wasn’t inconceivable that other people could have weird quirks of control. She had implied Royal Pain had found her after she had used her powers on her patients, and presumably whoever was running the academy now might be able to do so again. So she wouldn’t want to leave just to get caught. But did she honestly want to leave in the first place?

“You do want out though, right? You don’t want to be a supervillain,” I asked. She clenched her hands into fists and stared at the dashboard.

“You don’t know everything about me, Phoenix, no matter all that I’ve said. You don’t know me.”

“But I can hurt you,” I pointed out. I was only a phone call away from getting her in jail, if I wanted to, and she needed to remember that. Because right now that was one of the few ways I had of overpowering her. If she decided that she couldn’t leave the academy, I had a sneaking suspicion I would be the first victim of her renewed conviction to villainy. The Bureau was the only club I held over her.

Now who’s the sadist?” she snapped.

“You think this is any easier for me? Half the Bureau is just waiting for me to screw up, and if they found out I was working with a supervillain-.”

“So if I’m not a supervillain anymore, then that makes it easier for you? What about if you ‘redeem’ me? Think that’ll make up for daddy’s little stunts?” she said in a taunting sing-song.

My temper snapped, and fire flared briefly along my hands as I struggled with my temper. Right now I just wanted to hurt her back, consequences be damned.

“Smart as you are, you think your grandmother would want to see you waste everything as a supervillain?” I yelled back. She looked stricken, as if I had slapped her, and I let the flames die as guilt flooded me. Her only family for the first thirteen years of her life, and I dared to put words in her mouth. And I knew what it was like to have someone go after you like that. You are such an insensitive moron sometimes…

“You fight dirty,” she said quietly. I kept my mouth shut.

“And you’re as much of a masochist as I am then, aren’t you? You’re half-killing yourself with work, trying to fix everything you can on your own…”

“Don’t,” I said shortly. “Just don’t.” I refused to be psychoanalyzed by her…

What, can’t take what you can dish out? my brain demanded.

“What? You’re trying to pick apart my motives too. And I’m not going to sit here and let you tear me apart. I could go back and let the experts handle it, if I were being really masochistic,” she said tightly.

“I’m not-,” I started to protest. Yeah, you couldn’t hurt her physically to threaten her, so now you’re doing it emotionally and mentally. Just keep telling yourself you’re a good kid Peace, and eventually you might start to believe it.

“Not trying to tear me apart? No, I won’t believe that. You want to know what I’m up to. You think you know what I’ve been doing. I haven’t told you half of it,” she said fiercely.

“You’ve been here how long? Ten months? And haven’t done anything but observe? I don’t think a real supervillain could have waited.”

“So I’m not a real supervillain?” she said challengingly.

“No, I don’t think you are. Last fall, you just did what Cutter told you to, didn’t you?”

Her expression got tight and still.

“A real supervillain wouldn’t have been able to wait this long. A real supervillain wouldn’t have helped me, or used her powers to help others. That’s what you’ve been doing. You’ve even been helping me catch other villains,” I pointed out.

“I could prove you wrong, right here, right now,” she said, her voice a little thick, raising one hand slightly.

“I don’t think you will. I don’t think you want to,” I said with way more confidence than I was feeling. I had a sudden horrible feeling I had just pushed her into a corner, and if I couldn’t convince her of what I thought she was telling me, she was going to go on a rampage just to get a little control back. That wouldn’t be a good thing… I seriously needed to talk to my mom if I got through this in one piece.

“And if I’m not? What if I’m not? If I’m not a villain then what am I? I can’t be a hero!” she protested, trembling.

“Why not? I am, and you already know about my dad,” I pointed out. Her shaking got worse. I clenched my own hands to keep them from shaking as well. This was taking a lot more courage and resolve than facing the supervillains I had been fighting against for the last couple of months, and took more poise than even facing my grandfather.

What the hell are you doing Peace? She hurt your friends and put you on a target list.

What Royal Pain did to her isn’t right. She deserves a real choice of what to do with her powers, not just be tied to the academy because she was lied to.

Royal Pain was a pretty decent liar, able to completely fool the students and staff of Sky High, two of the world’s greatest heroes, and Will. Though it hadn’t taken much with Will. If she hadn’t been impatient or sore with Stronghold, I had no doubt that he would have been at Homecoming with his parents. And I would probably be an evil toddler right now.

Keller breathed carefully through her nose, trying to get herself calm.

“You name me one damn hero with powers like mine, and maybe I’ll think about turning my back on the one place where I’ve belonged for four years,” she challenged. I took a single deep breath, the answer on the tip of my tongue.

“Psysick,” I said almost immediately. She looked dumbfounded; she obviously hadn’t expected me to have an answer.

“Who?” she asked faintly.

“Psysick, he’s kind of new. He was in my class. He makes people sick,” I explained. Justin’s superhero name was fairly obvious and easy to remember, for which I was extremely grateful. I didn’t have all my classmates’ names memorized yet. “You said disease was a supervillain power. Well, he has it, and he’s a hero.”

She opened her mouth in shock, her eyes going huge in her pale face.

“No,” she said faintly, shaking her head.

“Look, Royal Pain is a liar. She fed you a bunch of bullshit so you wouldn’t dare leave,” I pointed out.

“No… I hurt people, I did. A lot of people, dozens, maybe more. My patients, the students. I can’t do it…” she said, shaking her head more violently, her whole body trembling.

“You say I don’t know anything about you. Lemme ask you something, you said you hurt your patients, both because you were trying to help them and you had to use your powers right?” I asked carefully. I have to say this just right, please let me get this right…

“Yes,” she whispered shakily.

“And you used your powers on the students because that was how you had to practice your powers? That’s what the teachers there told you?” Another trembling nod.

“You said you weren’t a sadist. Did you want to hurt them?”

“No,” she said after a moment. “I… like using my powers. But I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t… there’s no good way to use them! I can’t be a hero!”

“What, you think there’s any good way to use mine?” I asked her. She looked at me blankly.

“You can heal,” she said flatly.

“Forget that. I’m a pyrokinetic, and that’s what I use when I fight. I have to hurt people to get them to stop or surrender. And I don’t like it either. But I have to, because it makes the world better,” I explained a little hesitantly. The ethics of powers like mine were on a fairly thin line, which was why there were slightly more ‘kinetic villains than heroes.

A light seemed to dawn in her eyes, but then they seemed to dim.

“No… no, no!” she said sharply, and then sagged in her seat.

“Keller?” I asked her, wondering if I had just managed to say the wrong thing and had set her off.

“Said… backlash. Been… too long. Went through three rounds… trying to keep my word these… last months… Just…” she trailed off and her face went slack.

“Fuck,” I said softly, and leaned over. She had just used her powers tonight, but she hadn’t exactly been using them a lot. And I had just put her through an emotional wringer of monumental proportions. That didn’t exactly have a really good effect on anyone with superpowers, and as far as I knew, it could have made things worse. Actually, that probably had made things worse. Must worse.

She was breathing, and her pulse was slow but steady. Her eyes were blank and unseeing, and her body was limp, held in the seat by her safety belt. Cursing myself, her, and the world in general, I unbuckled her and moved her to the gurney in the back. She was lost in her own private unseeing, unfeeling hell, and I had put her there.

Brilliant, hero. Now, what are you going to do about it? She said this backlash, if that’s what it was, hadn’t ever killed her, but there was no way I could just wait for her to snap out of it. The thought of being without sight or feeling for hours or days was horrific.

For the second time that night, I let the ember-fire flare along my hands, quieter and under more control now as I put my hands on her temples. The feeling of wrongness about Keller was much, much less than the girl in the car wreck, thankfully. I concentrated carefully, and did a mental double-take when I got my first look at her life-fire. I had seen injuries as shadows or lightning, but her problems were a smooth black band across the middle of her flames, constricting tight like a rubber band. Huh… o…k.

Cut the band, free the fire… I thought. Careful, don’t burn her, don’t put too much power into it. I imagined the fire as a blade, not just burning away the band, but cutting it as well. I was startled into breaking my trance when I actually heard an audible snap as the band burst. When I opened my eyes in surprise, Keller was staring at me, her eyes clear and seeing. Very slowly, she reached up and took my hands off of her head.

“I… owe you. I didn’t mean to fall over like that. I’m sorry,” she said, sounding only marginally calmer than she had before she collapsed.

“It’s ok. It was my fault for pushing you,” I said, sitting back on the bench on the far wall, my hands clasped together to hide their trembling. I was not having a good night, power-wise or otherwise. Keller shook her head.

“No, what I said was true. I haven’t done anything much with my powers for months. I was just trying to hold on until I got home. I… I’m sorry,” she said, sitting up on the gurney. “It takes a fair amount to hold it off, and it gets worse with each round.”

“When did that first happen to you?” I asked softly, to distract her from thinking about it. I sure wouldn’t want to dwell on an experience like that for any length of time.

“Right… right before Grandma died,” she said softly.

I don’t know if it was because I had just healed her, but an idea flashed across my mind, a memory from class with Mrs. Richards. “How you first power up can affect how you power up for years,” she had said to us. I had first powered up in anger, and that’s how I ended up thinking it necessary for so long. Not that I still didn’t need to be somewhat mad to power up even now, but it wasn’t nearly so all-consuming. But Keller’s backlash was so strange, so oddly specific, and her “symptoms” that I had seen in her life-fire were too perfect, almost artificial. And any superpower was subject to self-doubt, which could affect your powers pretty profoundly. As Ms. Olsen had said once, “If you expect anything out of your powers, you’ll probably get it.”

“Did she go blind and paralyzed at the end?” I asked, in a moment of blinding clarity. Keller had said she was trying to deflect her grandmother’s pain. And maybe, at the end, with a blood relative dying, she had deflected something else.

“…Yes,” Keller said, the last of the color draining from her face. “Just for a little bit.”

“So…” I said cautiously. My guesses and suppositions were made on half-known information she had chosen to impart, and I was only relying on my mom’s training to guide me. I had gambled my knowledge and insight, even my powers, on what I hoped was the truth. I had been lucky; I had possibly been able to convince her to turn away from the academy, to take out another supervillain without needing to use my powers. If this didn’t all go south, maybe I could really help her…

“I didn’t have to,” she said faintly. “All this time, I didn’t have to…”

She didn’t have to use her powers; the backlash was something she had done to herself. And the academy didn’t give a rat’s ass about helping her, they just wanted to use her, and her own problems be damned. God, how much of a blow to the gut would that be?

“No, no, no, no, no…” she began to chant. I actually saw something break behind her eyes, like her last vestige of sanity. Then she screamed, burying her face in her hands and rocking back and forth, sobbing in pain and despair. I actually stumbled backward in the small space, frightened beyond measure. The howling, desperate thing in front of me wasn’t the coolly calm person I had known for the last few months, and I felt sick and terrified when I realized it was my fault I had done this to her.

Oh God, I broke her, I thought hysterically. I had shoved at her, dredging up painful memories, confronting her on things she had likely buried inside herself for years, all on the justification that she was a villain and I had to get the information out of her. I had no idea how to fix this now. Shaking, I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and hit the first speed dial number.

“Mom?” I asked the moment it connected.

“I need your help. I’m in over my head.”

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Timothy
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