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War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 44b: Inside Job
Sky High
Drama/Sci-Fi

Inside Job Part B     


When I woke again, she was shaking my shoulder slightly.

“Come on,” she said with a bit of a smile. “I thought you’d like to do something physical.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Like go to the gym,” she clarified, but she was still smiling.

“Hmph,” I muttered, but got up anyway.

“I generally don’t collect people until after breakfast anyways, so…” she shrugged. I just got my things together, still not saying anything. I hadn’t had any caffeine yet, so I wasn’t going to be fit to talk to until much later in the day. Also, she had a point about the exercising. Neither of us could afford to get out of fighting trim, not even by a little bit.

“Watch the hallways; morning’s prime hunting time for some people,” she warned when she opened the door.

The silence in the hallways was deafening when we started, but after the fourth or fifth turn, I started to hear the faint thuds and yells of fights. I didn’t actually see anything more than a few fleeting shadows, and a couple of times people running through connecting corridors just ahead or behind us. No one bothered us at all.

“It this normal?” I whispered. Monica nodded slightly, and just kept walking serenely. The adrenaline from anticipating getting jumped at any second had woken me up far more effectively than coffee.

“If Ash has two brain cells functioning, he would have warned everyone that I’m back, and that I brought you with me. That buys us a certain level of protection.”

I had to force myself to close my ears to the faint cries of pain and surprise around us. I had an automatic reaction to run towards them, one that Monica had to grab my arm to suppress.

“Keep cool,” she warned. “This right now? This isn’t bad. Bad comes later this evening. Save your strength.”

I glared at her, but she was unrepentant.

“I will not see you get ripped apart because I didn’t protect you every way I could, do you get me?” she hissed. “I went out already this morning and got the low down on what happened to those spies. You want to know how they died?”

I nodded tightly, my jaw clenched.

“The Headmaster had them locked in cages just big enough for their shifted forms. Then he used some kind of technopathic device to force them to unshift,” she said flatly.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I felt a faint roaring in my ears from the rush of blood.

“God,” I whispered finally.

“Do you get me?” she asked, twisting the sleeve of my jacket slightly to get my attention. I only nodded as we resumed walking, slightly benumbed by the news. I vaguely noticed that the sounds of fights stopped, and now all the noise was coming from in front of us. A huge maw of a door, not much altered from a natural cave opening, spilled us into the academy gymnasium.

Once inside, I was able to put aside my shock to stare in awe at what they’d done.

This must have been a natural cavern they had enlarged, it was just too big for them to have blasted it out and not have the whole mountain collapse on itself. The ceiling above was high enough for at least a dozen flyers to practice at once, which was exactly what was going on. I thought I recognized Bloodtalon, and there were also some people with wings, some with mechanical suits or jetpacks, and one with no visible means of support flying around each other. Flashes of laser light both from the walls and between the flyers made it look like they were doing a combination of laser tag and dodgeball.

Below, part of the room was devoted to weight equipment (including set-ups for those with super strength), part cordoned off as obstacle courses for agility training with a track around its perimeter, an open floor for freestyle fighting filled nearly half of the available space, and an elaborate target range that took up most of one curving wall. To one side was what looked like a caged Save the Citizen-type floor, ringed with seats.

Everything but the cage was in full use, with dozens of students all striving to make themselves just that much tougher. Flashes of light from the combats above and below were a little distracting, coming both from those with the lasers and those with energy powers.

As Monica wove her way through the practicing supervillains, I kept noticing big differences between here and Sky High. The equipment wasn’t all that different, but its mismatched nature revealed it had been stolen. There wasn’t a whole lot of practice armor, energy buffer panels, force fields, null-grav, safety nets, or any other kind of protective equipment. The attitude on the floor was tense, people’s faces grim as they pumped iron or ran through the obstacle courses.

It wasn’t the kind of hard-faced determination I had seen at school, with people being bound and determined to do their best. No, these were the expressions of people who were fighting for their lives.

“God dammit, hit it harder!” someone yelled over by the punching bags. “If you think that limp-wristed smack is even going to floor a Sidekick, think again! You saw what happened to Ash when Windwalker put him down. You want that to happen to you?”

The chastened fighter, a short guy barely fourteen or so, shook his head violently at his trainer, an older black guy with long purple dreadlocks. The trainer braced the bag again and the kid went to work with a will, heavy knuckles wrapped tightly in old strips of cloth to protect them from the bruising of repeated strikes.

“Come on, fucking hit it! What, are you scared of the damn bag? Put some muscle into those hits or we’re switching to freestyle against me.” The kid got a horrified look on his face and started pummeling the bad like his life depended on it. Which, I guessed, it very well might have.

The dreadlocked trainer waved the kid to the bench press as we drew closer, and deferentially got Monica’s attention.

“Painbreaker? Can I talk to you?” he asked, suddenly becoming extremely polite, dropping his tough-guy routine. There was something about his voice that bothered me; it sounded oddly echoy, like more than one person was talking simultaneously.

“What do you want Duke?” she asked.

“Ah… I was wondering when Phoenix is going to be available,” he said, sounding a bit uncertain. Close up, he was in decent shape, but his skin looked strangely streaked with… green? Something odd tickled my mind, a vague hint of wrongness. Was he sick maybe? A long-term illness?

“You already know what your problem is Duke. I doubt Phoenix could help,” Monica said flatly.

“Could he try?” Duke persisted.

“I very much doubt he’ll have time free at any point soon. If something comes up, I’ll let you know,” she said very neutrally. Duke set his jaw in a hint of belligerence, but nodded, and turned away from us to head back to the kid.

“What kind of candy-ass weight set-up is that?” he bellowed as went, and several nearby people winced.

“That’s Meduka,” Monica said as we kept weaving through the gym floor. “He got his powers when he was somewhere over in Europe. Said the wrong thing to the wrong person and ended up with a gypsy curse.”

“That’s old school,” I said with faint wonder. Most new super-beings nowadays got their powers from radiation, or toxic or biologic waste, or some kind of industrial accident or experiment. Gypsy curses, magic rings, and ancient artifacts were very rare in modern super-being history.

“Well, Royal Pain doesn’t mind old school. She thought he’d be useful. It’s a curse of serpents,” she explained.

“Those aren’t dreadlocks on his head, are they?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Nope.”

“Wow.”

“His problem is it’s a curse. The snakes attack when he gets within their striking range, whether he wants to or not. He doesn’t have really good control over his abilities. He thinks its something that you could fix. I honestly very much doubt it. It’s probably as much in his head as in his brain,” she said.

I only shook my head. “I really don’t know anything about powers like that…”

“He’s not the only one like that here; people who can’t really control their powers that well, I mean. Dallas and Duke are only two of them. Royal Pain seemed to collect as many power-rejects as not. It makes them feel important to be here; the Bureau really doesn’t bother with people who don’t have control over their powers… or at least not when they’re not that interested in risking their lives for strangers,” she said in a low voice, skirting a somersaulting body and finally getting to the target range.

“Maybe I should bring that up to the director,” I muttered. It was very true that you didn’t see superheroes that couldn’t control their powers at least most of the time. You really didn’t see many overly reluctant heroes, or those with severe reservations about throwing themselves in the line of danger. I had assumed a lot of that stemmed from the fact that super-powered kids went to places like Sky High, where they got the kind of training they needed. It made me really uncomfortable to think the Bureau might have been only picking kids selectively.

Monica fiddled with the controls for the target range, and small dots of moving light appeared at the end of our alley. Unlike a shooting range for guns, each “alley” was probably a good thirty feet wide, with enough room for skirmishing and strafing shots, acrobatics and anything else you’d need to do.

“Care to join me?” she asked with an arched eyebrow. I flicked my eyes back at the other students and supervillains. Many of them were keeping an eye on her and me, even to their own detriment, like they were looking for an opening. This was like swimming in a pool full of sharks.

“They aren’t going to think it’s strange that I’m practicing?” I asked quietly. I had somehow been imagining a much smaller gym, or perhaps even a separate room. I found myself reluctant to use any of my powers in front of these guys. I had wanted just to a nice, normal workout to clear my head, not be on display.

“No. I’m taking my dog for his exercise,” she said, regarding me frankly. “Nothing strange about that.”

“Should I be wearing a leash?” I quipped.

“That could be arranged,” she agreed, barely managed to keep a straight face.

Bad, bad, bad mental image. Bad Monica, very bad! I shouted mentally, my face probably a study in incredulousness. She had to turn away from me so she wouldn’t laugh.

“Maybe,” I allowed through clenched teeth, trying to keep my imagination in check.

“It could be fun,” she breathed in my ear.

Without a word I turned and slammed the first target with an extravagantly large fireball. I was not going to let that conversation go any further, at least not in public. I ran down the line, dodging from imaginary enemies, rolling, skidding, twisting and turning, throwing fire at the targets with every opportunity.

Monica had started a half breath behind me, matching my movements with the ease of long practice. She couldn’t actually use her powers unless those targets were actually real people with injuries, but she could make the same gestures she would in a fight. We moved together easily, smoothly, if not perfectly, but by the time we got to the far side of the alley, nine out of every ten targets was dark. For me, that was a damn good run, especially considering everything.

I took a quick second to lean down close to Monica’s ear as she checked the scoring computer.

“We’re finishing that conversation later, in private,” I whispered, and was vindicated to watch her struggle to control a blush.

“Not a bad score-,” Monica started, trying to stay cool, and then jumped along with everyone else when the sound of a gun rang through the room.

Everyone turned to find the source at the same time, eyes locking on one of the far alleys of the target range. Two silver figures were moving in a perfect synchronized dance of death, back to back, blinking from position in flashes of blue light. Son of Silver would fire, and an instant later Cutter would throw one of her knives, flying from her hands like silver birds. Five seconds, ten, fifteen and they were done. Monica automatically pulled up their readout on the targeting computer.

“Perfect run,” she said softly. I watched the two of them warily, suddenly afraid both of them would take the opportunity to try to kill me, or worse, talk to me. Son of Silver could have killed me very easily during our one and so far only meeting, and I was not eager to cross weapons with him again, for any reason.

As for Cutter… Any thoughts I had about getting a little back for what she had done to Layla were put on hold when I saw Cutter throw her arms around Silver and give him a shameless kiss, right before teleporting them both out of the gym.

“No way…” I said in disbelief.

“The perfect run or what just happened?” Monica asked. I shot her a Look.

“They like to show off. They’re the best shots in the school, possibly the best in the greater supervillain community. Phoenix, if Cutter ever gets hurt, I’d be very careful. Silver doesn’t like it when people hurt Cutter. It annoys him,” she added quietly.

That didn’t make me feel any better. Very few people here were on my side, but Cutter, Son of Silver, and most of the rest of the Crew had personal reasons to hurt me. And I was on their turf.

“How many other full-fledged supervillains are here?” I asked in order to distract myself. I was wondering how many more nasty surprises I was going to learn today.

“About fifty teachers and older students like me. But Son of Silver is the only ‘mentor’ villain to stick around, for obvious reasons. Most of the others don’t like hanging around kids.”

I breathed a sigh of relief; the idea of encountering Judge Libra down here gave me the crawling horrors. But being under the same roof as Son of Silver was quite bad enough! The idea that Cutter had hooked up with him didn’t bode well for me at all. Luck going the way it did, I might have to try to heal Cutter. And somehow I thought that wasn’t going to happen, no matter how bad she was; I didn’t think I could put how I felt about her aside.

Ok, stop making up horror scenarios before they happen Peace. Those two probably just wander in here to make everyone else feel inferior; don’t go reading too much into this! The world doesn’t revolve around you, my brain reminded me fiercely.

“I hate this place with the fire of a thousand suns,” I muttered, a quote I had stolen from a movie or something.

“Me too,” Monica said.


The rest of the workout went much more normally; weight lifting, running, going through the obstacle course. No one came to talk to us, and no other unexpected persons showed up. As a matter of fact, people tended to avoid us, though they kept a wary eye on whatever section we happened to be in. I wasn’t entirely sure if they were scared of Monica or wanting to attack me. Maybe it was both.

Either way, it made me tense and wary, and by the time we were done, I was starting to get a headache from trying to watch everyone at once.

“Painbreaker doesn’t eat with the peons. Come on, we can get out of here for a while,” she murmured. Everyone else was streaming in one general direction, I assumed towards the cafeteria, but the older students, those who were acting as trainers, all headed towards their own rooms.

Back in Monica’s room, I ate only because I knew I’d need the energy. It could have been sawdust for all I knew; my attention was elsewhere. We went over the finishing touches of the plans we had worked out for talking to our potential students, and Monica gave me a very brief run-down on some of the people we were talking to today as we left the room.

The first person on Monica’s list wasn’t one of the technopaths, but a desperately unhappy shapeshifter, one who could turn into a horse, specifically a black stallion. He was only a henchman, partnered with someone Monica described as the “cowboy from hell,” and wasn’t having an easy time of it. Unlike some minions, who thrived on the negative attention and reflected notoriety they got from their supervillains, he had always been wary and skittish.

“His supervillain name is Nightsteed, but his real name is Quint,” she murmured in an undertone as we walked into the cafeteria. The place wasn’t all that different from Sky High; the major difference being instead of large windows, the concrete walls were covered with elaborate, overlapping graffiti. Like the rest of the academy, the lighting was dim, and the conversation was muted.

But when Monica and I entered, we walked in a cone of silence. Conversation died when we approached and only picked up in whispers when we passed. Monica walked amongst the groups of students slowly, looking around casually, before putting her hand on one guy’s shoulder. If I hadn’t known his powers, I could have guessed them; he had a long face and large nose, big teeth, and was skinny and bony with long, dark coarse hair. He jumped slightly in the silence, and then turned and shuffled slowly to his feet in defeated resignation.

As Monica led Quint away, I was struck by the difference between the academy and Sky High. If, in Sky High, one of the hall monitors or teachers had come and gotten you at lunch to serve a detention, you would have gotten commiseration, teasing, sympathy, or congratulation, according to the kinds of friends you had. The couple of times Zack and Magenta had ended up there (for PDA) we had given them all kinds of grief and jokes. Here everyone just hung their heads and tried to pretend Quint didn’t exist.

For them, I didn’t exist either. Some of them snuck sideways glances at Monica, but no one even tried to look at me. I wasn’t used to being ignored, not even by my enemies, and it was a distinctly disconcerting feeling.

Monica began to walk Quint to the small room in the middle of the maze-like academy, past the heavily soundproofed rooms that housed the underground hydropower plant, the control rooms, the many weapons’ rooms, and others with no known purpose. Quint tried to go slower and slower as Monica prodded him closer to his workroom, his face growing paler by the minute.

She chivvied him along persistently, through a heavy door and into a metal chair in the middle of a small, bare room. It was a clichéd setting, the small dark chamber with a single bright light, one chair, and one door. I supposed that was the point though; anyone who saw this room had little doubt as to its purpose.

Quint sat in the chair, hunched over, arms folded protectively over his chest. He was wearing a shapeless, baggy sweater and jeans that looked far too big for him, and he huddled in them like he was trying to hide.

I was nervous as hell as to what was going to happen next. Some of what we were going to say and do we had planned beforehand, but some would be dictated by how Quint reacted. I thought we had covered most of the contingencies during that long car ride to the academy, but it was possible something unexpected would happen. I just had to try to keep my calm, no matter what happened. As Monica had warned me, none of these guys were angels.

There were several long minutes of silence as Monica stood in front of Quint, with me off to the side, waiting for a signal. Her face was blank and hard, like it was carved out of wood; there was not a drop of emotion in her expression, nothing to reassure or even frighten Quint. The silence grew awkward, then tense, then nearly excruciating.

“Did Jack complain?” Quint asked finally, in a very small voice.

“I have not even spoken to him, so you may assume he remains pleased with your performance,” she replied evenly.

“Ok.” Quint kept looking at the ground, his head and back bent like he was expecting a blow.

Monica looked up at me and nodded. I took a single deep breath and moved in front of Monica. Quint snapped his head up and looked almost ready to cry.

“I’ve done everything you ask, I swear! You can ask Jack! I’ve even… trampled people… just like he asked, I did everything! I-,” he almost wailed in protest, looking only at Monica.

“Dude, chill, I’m not here to hurt you,” I said quickly, trying to cut through his hysteria. Quint shut up instantly and wrenched his gaze to me.

“What?” he asked.

“Monica, go sit down or something,” I said quietly. Monica shrugged and sat down against the wall next to the door, knees drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped around them in an odd mirror of Quint’s pose. It was deliberate, to make him feel better, and I turned back to see his incredulous expression.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” I repeated. “You don’t want to be here, right?”

Quint’s eyes kept snapping back and forth between me and Monica, looking for the trick.

“Remember my first rule Quint?” Monica asked in a tired voice.

“No lies in this room,” he responded instantly.

“No one is lying to you; not him, not me,” she said, and put her head back down.

“She’s not going to hurt you or anyone else anymore unless it’s self-defense. Ok? I won’t let her, and she knows better after all this time,” I said. Quint looked astonished, but he actually looked like he was thinking about what I was saying. What I had said was the strict truth, but he was probably coming to a slightly different conclusion than what had actually happened in the three years she had been away from the academy.

“You… came here on purpose?” he breathed.

“You don’t want to be here, right?” I asked again.

“No! No… but I had to. There was that thing with the rancher…” he trailed off, but I only nodded encouragingly. That was probably something he hadn’t felt since he got to the academy. “It wasn’t my fault, he used spurs!” he blurted, and flushed. “I hurt him getting away, and when the Headmaster found me, he warned me the Bureau would lock me up for doing that, so I really had to come here.”

“You do know the academy is a lying sack of shit,” I stated casually. Quint looked terrified, glancing over at Monica like he was expecting her to rise up to strike me down. When nothing happened, he began to straighten his back a little.

“No, I don’t want to be here,” he said with conviction.

“One of these days, the superheroes aren’t going to stand back and let themselves get pounded by people like Cutter and Jack,” I pointed out. I didn’t even know exactly who this mysterious “Jack” was, other than the obvious that he was Quint’s villain, but from Monica’s vague description he wasn’t a nice guy. Well, with most supervillains, “not a nice guy” was a fairly safe way of describing them.

“So what’s going to happen?” Quint asked.

“Eventually they’re going to take this place down. When that happens, you know they’ll have everyone out there to fight. How’d you like to buck Jack off of you and run away, leave this whole thing behind you instead?” I asked.

Quint sat bolt upright, surprise warring with savage joy on his face. He looked positively feral right then, but more animated than I had seen him yet. Like Monica had said, there were no angels here. Quint said he had trampled people, even if it was under protest, but he was subject to whatever cruel whims his supervillain chose to heap on him, along with whatever else the academy teachers decreed.

I wouldn’t ask him to fight, but instead I’d ask him for what I guessed he really wanted: freedom. Taking a bit of revenge… I wouldn’t blame him for that at all, but getting free of this place would be worth more to him than trying to pay back everyone for what had happened to him. That was the heart and soul behind Monica’s list: people who wanted freedom or justice over revenge. There were some people who would be delighted to get free of the academy… just so they could commit villainy on their own terms. People like Quint just wanted out.

“How?” he asked cautiously, his initial excitement fading. “I mean, they’ll catch me, the Bureau’ll catch me! I can’t, I mean I have to use my powers, all they have to do is look for a wild black horse and they’ll find me!”

“The academy lied to you about damn near everything, and you know it,” I pointed out. Quint started to cry, and buried his face in his hands. I was profoundly uncomfortable, and clenched a fist, feeling helpless. He wasn’t going to accept a shoulder to cry on, not from me, and anger at the academy flared in me.

Look what the hell you’ve done. You have your students either crazed psychopaths or broken shells. Damn you to hell! I snarled mentally.

Quint got himself under control very fast, considering the circumstances, wiping his eyes on his sleeve and cringing again when he saw my expression.

“I’m so sorry,” Monica said softly from her corner. Quint shot her a look of pure hatred and suddenly shoved himself out of his seat.

“I bet you could have fucking stopped this whenever you wanted! And you didn’t do shit!” he yelled.

“I wasn’t much better off than you. You know they’re making us all crazy, making us think we have to use our powers, that nobody wants us but them-.”

“You fucking tortured me!” he screamed. A ripple seemed to pass over his body, something I had seen more than once in Magenta when she was about to shift. “For what? For nothing!”

Shit, if he shifts in here he’ll crush us like bugs!

I quickly stepped between them and put my hand on his chest, physically blocking him from getting any closer to Monica.

“She’s paying for what she did. Let me worry about her,” I said forcefully.

Quint seemed to quiver with repressed rage, but finally turned his back on Monica and flung himself back in his chair. Monica had dropped her head again and her shoulders were shaking. I knew she was crying silently, and had had her shoulders tensed for a blow from Quint. Part of that was acting, it had been in the plan… but I knew a lot of that was real. You’d have to have been made of stone to not be affected by the raw emotion in Quint’s voice.

“I want to help you,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. I didn’t like what he had been about to do; he was obviously not terribly stable, but all things considered, he hadn’t been out of line at all.

“How? You bring the heroes here, we’ll kill ‘em, simple as that. I run after that, the academy will kill me,” he pointed out.

“Let me worry about the details.”

“The devil’s in the details,” Quint snarked.

God’s in the details,” I shot back. “There’s a plan, and the academy isn’t going to be in any kind of shape to hunting you down afterwards. And the Bureau isn’t a tenth as bad as they told you. You hurt people. Yeah, they won’t like that. It won’t be a free ride, but they aren’t going to coerce you into anything. They aren’t going to cage you.”

“Prove it,” he challenged. “You talk big, Mr. Big-Shot Hero, but I don’t see a whole lot of changes going on around here.”

“You know what I can do? That I can heal people?”

“Yeah? So? I’m not hurt right now,” he said bitterly. The implication that he had been hurt, and probably repeatedly in the past, didn’t escape me.

“You think you have to use your powers. That’s why you haven’t just run away before, because you’d try to hide and eventually you’d have to shift. Then the academy, or worse, the Bureau’d catch you. That’s what you’ve been thinking, right?”

Quint nodded warily.

“The psychics have been messing with your head since the day you got here. They have your powers all bound down. I can cut the binding. You get control of yourself back. And all you have to do, when the times comes, is to run away.”

Quint was staring at me, but his eyes weren’t focused. He was deep in his own head, wagering truth against lies, the promise of freedom against pain and continued physical and mental torment. He was trying to figure out if he could trust me enough to say yes, he’d betray the academy.

This was the reason why I had to be in charge in the workroom. If Monica had been the one to offer freedom, to counsel running away instead of fighting the superheroes, her victims would have, with complete justification, assumed she was testing the loyalty she had so painfully tried to instill in them. At best, they wouldn’t have run given the opportunity, guessing they’d be rewarded for fighting on the academy’s side when the superheroes were defeated. At worst, they’d try to turn her in to the Headmaster to save themselves from getting caught up in her “illegal” plan.

But if I were in control, if Monica stayed in my shadow, if I used my powers to give them a tangible effect of freedom, they’d be more inclined to believe I was telling the truth. If Monica had been in charge, and I still used my powers to help, they’d probably still believe it was a test.

But Monica was shuddering, curled up in a corner, clearly not in any kind of control, not even of herself. Her own breakdown convinced them of my sincerity. I wasn’t offering them intimidation; I was offering them a deal. Maybe that wasn’t terribly heroic, but a free ride would have looked too suspicious for people steeped in years of academy philosophy. Even the best of them stole things and hurt people; they had to just to eat. An even deal seemed terribly noble by comparison.

“Ok,” Quint said finally. “Do you thing.”

Even now he was bracing himself, ready for one last cruel trick. Goddamn, this place sucks… I thought to myself.

“If this starts to hurt, push me away,” I warned him, and stepped forward to put my hands on his temples.

It was easy to concentrate and find it, even though Quint had no other kinds of injuries barring the power binding. Maybe it was just because this was the third time I had tried to heal this exact injury; maybe focusing on the same thing over and over again actually gave me better focus when looking at someone’s life-fire. Whatever the reason, I mentally slashed at the black band, and found myself suddenly tumbling on the floor as Quint’s fire consumed the band with a flare of brilliant orange and red.

Quint had one hand out where he had pushed me away, and was shoving his sweat-soaked hair back from his face with the other. He was flushed from the excess heat, the byproduct of my healing, but had the most profound look on his face. It wasn’t just relief from his injury; I knew that expression well enough. It was also the relief of suddenly being able to believe in something he hadn’t dared hope.

“You… weren’t… shitting… me,” he said slowly, pronouncing each word with care.

I picked myself up off the floor, and shrugged shortly.

“I wouldn’t sneak in to this place, pretend I’m under her thumb,” I said acerbically, nodding at Monica, “go around healing some of the real psychopaths in here, and destroy my own reputation just to goddamn shit you.”

“Hah!” Quint almost barked, then snorted with repressed laughter. “So… you’re going to burn this place down?”

“One way or another. All you have to do is run,” I said.

Quint nodded slowly. “I run pretty good,” he said laconically, and unexpectedly reached out and shook my hand.

“Yeah, I bet you do,” I said, a little touched. “Look, don’t look or act-.”

“Dude, seriously, I won’t fuck this up,” he interrupted.

Duh, I thought. He’s already had the “fitting in” speech from Monica several times before under a lot worse circumstances. He’ll keep his mouth shut about this or he knows he’ll probably die trying.

“It’ll be soon,” I said.

“…Thanks,” he said finally, and left. I let out a huge sigh of relief as soon as the door closed.

Neither Monica nor I had wanted to give out exact dates, just in case she had miscalculated about someone and they went to one of the teachers. From a pure dialogue standpoint, it sounded like I was encouraging some of the more timid henchmen to be cowards, and that the superheroes would attack en masse someday soon. That wasn’t exactly earth-shattering news, not with what I had said to Psion or given the academy’s own goals. Monica’s supposed breakdown could be explained as just an elaborate loyalty scheme, using me, her pet, as a kind of proxy.

The only real evidence was what I was going to be doing to each of these students, cutting the coercion that made their powers not always under their own control. If they confronted me on that, I’d only say that it felt wrong and I had to fix it. They wanted me to heal, so I was healing! Let them argue that point.

“Monica, you ok?” I asked, kneeling down next to her. She lifted her head up, and surprisingly there were no tears.

“Yes, I’m fine. You were great,” she said with a small smile. “’God’s in the details,’ that was kind of-.”

“Ok, it was kind of lame,” I admitted. “I just didn’t want to give him a chance to blow this off.”

“It wasn’t lame,” she insisted. “It was pretty nice actually.”

“You’re being too cheerful again. You’re freaking me out,” I warned with irony.

“I know how to cry without tears. Otherwise the guys outside the workroom will figure out that I have been crying and they’ll wonder why,” she said.

Monica shouldn’t have had to hold back. She should be able to cry during things like this. She needed to cry, to get out whatever she had been holding back for however long. Mom had told me that unshed tears tended to remain inside, building up like poison. She said she had probably cried a small river over my dad and how he’d destroyed her life, and for good reason.

“Damn…” I muttered.

“Besides, we have a dozen other people after him just this morning. If you have to wait for me to get a cold compress and a box of tissues after each person, we’re never going to get done,” Monica continued ruthlessly. “There are hundreds of people here, and we need as many of them on our side as we can get.”

“No argument here, but this is going to fucking kill you!” I protested. I could not possibly imagine how bad this was going to be, forcing herself to be the victim time after time after time… Seeing it in real life was much harder than talking about it in the abstract.

“I’m stronger than you think,” she said sternly, eyes flashing. “You hold back because you’re trying to protect me…” She trailed off, raising up the glittering finger-blades threateningly.

I caught her up in a fierce hug, ignoring the blades entirely, and trailed one hand down her neck soothingly.

“Call me crazy if I want to protect my girlfriend,” I whispered.

“My knight in black leather armor,” she said, looking up at me, and delicately brushing my hair out of my eyes. “I know, I do, but it’s my turn to throw myself in the line of fire now. It’s just… an emotional line of fire instead of a literal one. I need to do this like you need to haul people out of burning building and smack around thugs like Hammerfist. It’s my turn. Joy told me I’d have to do something like this one day.”

“You really hated sitting in the ambulance all this time,” I stated.

“Honey, you have no idea.”

I took another deep breath and reluctantly let her go.

“So that’s hopefully one down…”

“And several dozen more to go,” Monica finished.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was an emotional roller coaster of epic proportions. Despite the fact I was asking these guys to take a risk of monumental proportions, two things always convinced them: Monica’s broken submission and my own proof that they had been mentally manipulated for years, by breaking the black bands on their powers.

Some were harder to convince than Quint, and one person had even managed to hit Monica in anger before I’d gotten between them, holding onto my temper with teeth and toenails. That one had been a particularly hard case that took me almost thirty minutes to convince, but she’d had her reasons. Others agreed quickly in almost hysterical relief that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t the headlight of an oncoming train.

There were so many: we talked to almost thirty people. We couldn’t help but keep up such an insane pace though; with several hundred people in the academy, we’d be very hard-pressed to even get a quarter of them on our side in the short time we had. Anything less than that might not turn enough of the tide to make a difference. The only reason this was working was because Monica had done all the scouting beforehand.

It was kind of frightening, changing people’s outlook with a handful of sincere words. It was a kind of manipulation, like what the academy had done to them, but hopefully for a better reason, and with better results. I realized this was how my mom felt when she used her powers. I held more power right now in these people’s hearts and minds than I ever had as Phoenix.

I was getting a lot better at what I was going to say each time, and in anticipating their reactions, but the emotional investment of using my powers was only slightly less of a drain on me than what Monica was going through. Despite the fact that people were screaming at her during every single interview, I knew this was being oddly cathartic to her. Yeah, it sucked majorly, but I knew she felt like she was finally taking responsibility for what’d she’d done to each person.

“I think I’m going to get through this,” she said after the last person, finally uncurling from her ball and standing up shakily. “I think this is good for me.”

“I thought we talked about not being masochists,” I warned her. I hated seeing her huddled in the corning, taking the screaming abuse of the minions like it was her due.

“I’m not enjoying this, buster,” she said in a slightly brittle voice. “I talked about this before, with Joy, so… just let me take my medicine.”

I was about to respond when a loud, deep tone suddenly reverberated through the very stone of the walls.

“What the-?”

“Gym class,” Monica said shortly, her expression shifting from the complex one of acceptance and tempered fragility to hard-edged anger. “The cage fight games.”

“Do they expect-?”

“Yes, we both have to be there,” she said shortly.

“Anything about them I should know?” I asked, reaching for the rest of my costume. After everything I had been through today, the idea of simply pounding on someone that actually deserved it was uncomfortably satisfying.

“We call it Blood and Bones.”

This is not going to go well, I thought.

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Timothy
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