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War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 46a: Darkness Before Dawn
Sky High
Drama/Sci-Fi

Darkness Before Dawn Part A

 

Like yesterday, we encountered no one in the halls, though the shouts and screams from around us were as loud as ever. Shutting my ears to the noise was nearly impossible, and only Monica’s grip on my arm stopped me from running to someone’s rescue when I heard a body hit the wall not twenty feet behind us. The mask-like expression on her face was actually comforting; I knew she was at least as conflicted as I was, and sharing the misery made it marginally bearable.

When we ghosted into the gym, people quietly made room for us to pass, not daring to come within touching distance. But today there was a very distinct change in the mood. While the fundamental miasma of tension, fear, anger, and arrogance was still prevalent, there was an odd relaxation in the air. People moved aside for us, but some of them seemed to move out of the way with a kind of respect, instead of a fearful scramble.

When we wanted to use weight equipment, people seemed to give it up more willingly. Not all of them, but at least two of them were people we had talked to yesterday, and one of them I had healed. And those with them seemed to be influenced by their attitudes.

We’d already managed to make our mark on this place. It was subtle; I only really noticed it because I was so hyper-aware of the people around me for fear that I’d be attacked. It hadn’t happened yet, but I refused to be caught off-guard. Would long-time academy residents notice a minute decrease in the general aura of fear today?

While Monica and I went through the usual routine of weights and running, I kept catching people looking at me kind of sideways. It was less a sizing up for an attack and more… something else. I wasn’t exactly sure. They were trying to figure out something about me, or Monica, and I didn’t know what it was. But for some reason I didn’t get the same “sharks smelling blood” vibe off of them that I had yesterday. It was unsettling.

However, I was also noticing some other oddities. Yesterday I had been too distracted by the sense of danger to me personally to notice how Monica was dealing with it. While there were people that moved aside for us, there were also people I realized Monica was avoiding. Some were huge guys or girls with savage scars, other people moved with the kind of grace that reminded me of a snake or a stalking tiger. Though they were out of their costumes, I thought I recognized several people who had been responsible for a fair chunk of the mayhem that had been going on for the last year or so.

These were people even Monica avoided, and for good reason. Though for everyone I’d seen, I hadn’t seen one I considered to be one of the most dangerous.

“Where’s Silver?” I murmured as Monica started dialing up the firing range. Cutter was at the next range over, flinging her knives in silence. While she seemingly didn’t care if we were there or not, I did not want to meet her boyfriend (and thinking of Son of Silver like that made me faintly ill) if he decided to stroll in late.

“Gone, he’s got planning to do for his next caper. Cutter’s a marksmanship teacher, so she has to stay here,” Monica replied just as quietly. “They don’t let her out unless she’s either leading a group or being supervised.”

That both confused me and made sense. Confused me because she seemed to be one of the academy’s “success stories.” Made sense because if she was as ruthless and violent as they seemed to want their students to be, it would behoove them to keep a very close eye on her, particularly with her powers. It occurred to me that virtually no academy-trained villain went anywhere alone. They always had at least a sidekick, and often went out in groups. It looked like the academy was enforcing their control over their students with a dose of paranoia; you never knew if your teammate was going to betray you to the academy teachers.


Today was the day we started on the crucial technopaths. Between the morning workout and breakfast, Monica rapidly briefed me on the eight men and women that we’d be trying to convince. Six of them were second-generation and two were first, all of them former techo-geeks: coders, tech-support, programmers, or hackers. None of them were fighters, few had had direct contact with supervillains, and all of them were on the bottom tier of the academy pecking order.

“Royal Pain has very firm ideas about the role of sidekicks and minions. These people barely qualify in that respect. And the technopaths never get trained to fight, never participate in Blood and Bones, and other than sharing food with the rest of the students, never talk much with the rest of the school,” she said.

“And no one else thinks its pretty damn weird that people with the founder’s power basically get walked on?” I asked. Monica looked troubled.

“I’m going to say something stupid. No one probably thinks its weird because that’s the way it’s always been. Yes, it is weird,” she said with a bit of a shrug. “But compared to a lot of other people here, they have nothing going for them. They’re considered to be flakes. For example, Allie claims she got her powers because she slept in a crop circle on a dare and was abducted by aliens.”

“Aliens?”

“It happens. And Richard says he merged with his computer after some terrible accident with a ferret. Paula is the niece of Mistress Mechtronica, Travis is the bastard son of The Metal Monstrosity… You get the picture. They’re considered jokes, either on their own or by proxy.”

“But they’re the ones running the defense systems that have managed to hold several hundred superheroes at bay for seven years,” I pointed out.

“Designed by Our Sainted Leader, of course,” Monica said, with heavy sarcasm.

“The more I learn, the less sense any of this makes,” I muttered.

“I understand, I’m thinking the same thing, but we can re-hash this later,” Monica pointed out. “We have to get going.”

Selecting and bringing the technopaths to the workroom was depressing. All of them tended to find either out-of-the-way corners or to cluster together in small groups for protection. Of the ten minor technopaths in the academy, two were off Monica’s list due to the fact they had major connections to some of the more vicious villains, but the other eight might as well have been scared mice.

It didn’t help that unlike the others we’d talked to, we didn’t want these guys to do anything as simple as run. We needed them to participate in overthrowing the academy. Understandably, that took some convincing.


“You want me to what?” Allie asked, her pale eyes huge with shock.

Convincing her that I was in control instead of Monica had gone fine. Telling her I’d help her get her powers under her own control hadn’t been too bad. She hadn’t screamed at either of us; as a matter of fact she seemed terribly relieved that someone actually cared about her welfare. But when I’d talked about taking down the defense systems…

“Take the systems off-line. We can’t take the academy down with them up,” I explained gently. Allie’s mouth opened and closed like a fish.

“I can’t. I can’t do that; everything’s coordinated through multiple servers, quintuple password protection, you’d need simultaneous access from at least five terminals-,” she started, beginning to hyperventilate.

“What if you had help?” I broke in quickly before she could start crying. Allie’s mouth snapped shut and she thoughtfully chewed on a nail. A minute went by, then two, but I didn’t push her quite yet.

“We’d need consensus. More than five, minimum. And we definitely couldn’t do that from inside the control room, the failsafe systems would fry us if they figured out what we were doing,” she said at last, her knife-edge of fear sublimated, for the moment, by the need to solve a half-impossible technical problem. Suddenly I was reminded of Ethan. And I was definitely encouraged by the fact that she said “we.”

“And if you had help?” I prompted. Allie’s face abruptly crumpled.

“We’d still die doing it! The last act of anyone in this place would be to kill us before they died from rogue weapons-.”

“Whoa, whoa, I’m not talking about taking over the damn systems. I don’t want to use those weapons on anyone! I just want to disable them,” I said quickly.

Allie looked at me strangely.

“If you want out of this place, I’ll help protect you and your friends from whatever the academy throws at you. I promise,” I said seriously. “I’m not asking you to risk death, I just need your help to throw a wrench in the works. That’s it. No mass destruction. If you can just take the systems down…”

“Can you get me that help?”

“I’ll try,” I said. I wanted to promise her help, but she’d probably had hundreds of promises broken during her time here. I wouldn’t do that to her. Instead I held out my hands and let the ember-fire glow along my palms. Swallowing terror, the terrified technopath gave me a nod, and let me close enough to heal her.


The other technopaths we spoke to were easily as frightened, and more than one broke down in tears before, during, or after my offer, or sometimes all three. But it was the last of our eight possibles that broke down completely.

The others, once they had gotten past fear or relief, had leaned back on the technical problems as comfortable, familiar ground. This last guy, Richard, wasn’t interested in solving any kind of technical problem, for us or anyone else. When I’d gently made the suggestion that I’d help him, heal him, and protect him in exchange for his help, he stood up so violently he knocked over the chair.

“You’re insane! You can’t take on the academy! They’d kill you, all of you, and everyone who helped you. The Headmaster’ll figure it out and then kill everyone and no one will escape and we’ll all die! I’m not going down with you, I won’t, you can’t make me, you’re sick! I’m going to tell him, he’ll have to believe me, you can’t do this-!”

Monica uncurled from her corner as Richard’s voice reached a pitch and volume that could have cracked glass. This was our Plan B, in case someone hadn’t liked our sales pitch. And this guy didn’t just not like it, he was about to explode right here and now.

“You really don’t think I’d let you go, do you? Fool.” Monica’s voice was very cold. “Get a hold of yourself.”

Richard abruptly stopped the hysterics.

That is not a healthy reaction, I thought.

“If we really were going to take down the academy, do you think we would ask an insignificant little cretin like you? Idiot. Loyal, but nearly useless. Get out my sight, you disgust me,” she snarled. He was gone so fast he nearly left a hole in the door.

“Dammit,” Monica said. “Someone must have worked him over recently, he’s a wreck. Looks like he was used for target practice.”

“Shit,” I muttered.

“Still, that’s seven,” she said, and sighed. “And that’s enough. Poor kid,” she added, looking at the closed door.

I didn’t ask her if she was sure he was going to keep his mouth shut. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to talk for the next two days. He’d been scared out of his mind, but better that than the alternative.

“What about the other two technopaths, the ones we didn’t see? Are they going to think it’s weird you didn’t ask for them too?” I asked instead.

“Not really. I never had to talk to them very often; I didn’t need to. Come on, we have more people to get to today.”

No rest for the wicked. I took a deep breath and followed her out.


While the technopaths might have been pretty sad cases, it was some of the odd ones that were the real sob stories. These were the ones that should have been strong enough to be confident villains in their own right, but somehow lacked the hardness of heart to be as cruel as that profession demanded. Some of them already had families or jobs before Royal Pain had found them, like Bruin or Monica. Others had just enough moral fortitude to resist going to the extremes that would have made them effective villains.

It didn’t stop me from quietly questioning Monica’s sanity when she pulled them for “questioning” though.

“Brittany,” Monica said later that day, subtly pointing to a girl in the corner of the cafeteria. The girl’s long dark hair was ruthlessly braided back out of her face, her skin pale enough to see the blue veins beneath it, like marble. That wasn’t the strangest thing about her though. The strangest thing was that she must have been nearly as tall as Ethan’s fiancé Chloe and obviously never met a barbell she didn’t like. She was built like a concrete wall, but like most others we had talked to, she had the characteristic defeated slump in her massive shoulders.

“Super strength?” I guessed sarcastically in an undertone.

“No, that’s Voidhammer,” Monica muttered back. I nearly broke pace and felt a cold knot of fear in my stomach. I should have recognized her from pictures of suspected academy villains, but she’d always worn a heavy metallic super-suit and I’d figured her size was due to the costume.

Voidhammer’s power was gravity manipulation, allowing her to fly though anti-gravity or smash someone down with the power of multiple gravities. I knew she’d sent at least six superheroes to the hospital on her own; two of them almost didn’t make it. That wasn’t unique amongst supervillains, but it was a big step up from the people we had been dealing with so far.

“A little out of our league?” I hissed. Monica’s original plan, at least as I understood it, was to get enough of the little guys so that when they ran, the big guys would be left without support. Trying to take on someone of Voidhammer’s strength was dangerous. If the Champions of Justice had ever fought her, we would have left her up to Will. I doubted I could stop her with any kind of speed if things got ugly.

I’d considered Monica very lucky that none of our “victims” had thought to use their powers in her workroom when they’d thought to strike back at her. Actually… considering Voidhammer’s size, I might have trouble, powers or not. And that was embarrassing, and more than a little frightening.

Monica jerked her head in the negative to my qualms.

“Need her,” she said quietly. “I know she wants out.”

“How the hell did you keep these guys in line before you-?”

“Broke them?” Monica finished in a bitter undertone. “I’ll tell you later.”

Voidhammer, or Brittany, somehow seemed to shrink into herself when we got in Monica’s workroom. She huddled in the chair and nailed her eyes to the floor, not daring to meet our eyes. But when Monica went to her corner and I started to explain that I wanted to help, she snapped her eyes up to look at both of us. Her eyes were wavering, almost wild, and I tried to get between her and Monica without being too obvious about it. I’m pretty sure I failed at that though.

“You’ve really changed,” Brittany said to Monica, her voice very soft and hesitant.

That was weird. Usually no one wanted to say anything to Monica unless it was to yell at her.

“Yes. I’m still changing,” Monica replied, barely looking up.

“You’re really sorry about what you did?”

“Yes.” No qualifications, no explanation, but maybe it was better that way.

“Why are you doing this?” Brittany asked me, her pale eyes locking with mine.

That was a loaded question. I tried to answer it as simply as I could.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” I said. I could have said I was doing it for myself, to prove my worth as a hero. I could have said I was doing it for Monica, to destroy the place that had twisted and hurt her. I could have said I was doing it for all of my friends that had been hurt by this place, or for all the citizens that had suffered harm. I could have said I was doing it for every reluctant villain in here, but I didn’t. She didn’t need a speech on my state of mind. She just wanted truth. And cliché as it was, it was the right thing to do.

“Why are we worth so much to you? I’m no citizen, no innocent. Why risk everything to help us?” she whispered.

“Because he’s a hero, Brittany. And the rest of us are trying to be,” Monica said.

Silence reigned for another long second as Brittany stared at Monica like she’d just grown a second head. Finally she turned back to me.

“If you think you can help me…”

“You’re not beyond hope, ok? Don’t think that you are,” I said fiercely, letting the ember-fire warm my hands. Shuddering slightly in reaction, Brittany slowly straightened up in her chair and let me near her.

Damn… Looking at her life-fire, I could see she was bound down even tighter than Bruin. When I cut the bindings, I was jolted out of my trance as I found myself slammed against the ceiling, which had suddenly become the floor, to my perspective. Brittany gasped and coughed, her pale face flushed red, one hand outstretched where she had pushed me away. And up. She blinked at me when she realized what she’d done.

“Sorry!” she exclaimed and let gravity slowly reverse itself. I was too busy trying to hold onto my food to make any comments, reassuring or otherwise.

“It’s ok,” I said, once my feet were firmly back on the floor. I definitely wasn’t eager to experience that again anytime soon. No wonder Voidhammer had taken out six heroes on her own; just reverse gravity for a few seconds, then reverse it again and let them fall. Even if you could fly, how could you possibly be prepared for something as fundamental as gravity to just stop working?

“You’ll be fine,” Monica was saying to her, while I was trying to get my equilibrium back. “You’re one of the faster people here; you’ll get away easily. It’ll be fine.”

When had Monica suddenly become a counselor? That hadn’t exactly been part of the plan…

“I-. Thank you,” Brittany said, and made a hasty escape. When the door shut, Monica let out an uncharacteristic Zack-like whoop and pumped her fist in the air.

“God, I’m glad she’s on our side,” she said by way of explanation. “She has one of the widest area of effect powers in the academy. Getting her out of the fighting really helps even the odds.”

The switch from confidant to tactical officer gave me mental whiplash. Some of that must have shown on my face, because Monica smiled a little at my confusion.

“I meant all of what I said. She wants something to believe in. I tried to make her believe in this place… And now she believes you. That’s her weakness; she just needs someone strong to follow. When she didn’t have that… she’d go out on missions, fail them pretty spectacularly, and then she’d end up here.” Monica sighed slightly and turned away from me, her voice going flat. “She had sessions with me about two times a week until they found her someone to team up with.”

“How did you keep her from body-slamming you into the ceiling?” I asked. That peculiar flat tone was enough contrition for me; I knew exactly what she meant, and how sorry she was for it. I didn’t need her to agonize over the specifics of each and every person, not here, not now.

I’d hit a nerve with that question though, by the way Monica’s shoulders stiffened.

“Preemptive strikes,” she said simply. “I got them first, so they’d never think about getting me. I had to think of my own skin.”

“I think I knew that,” I said softly. It was the only thing that made sense really. It wasn’t like there were restraints in here, or that they’d spare someone to act as Monica’s bodyguard. How else could she have kept herself in one piece?

“I’m sorry Warren.”

“That’s ancient history, right?”

She smiled. “Right.”


That evening, other than having to endure Blood and Bones, things were relatively quiet. I wasn’t asked to fight, so all I had to do was to hold onto my temper and stomach contents through the vicious gladiatorial display. After using my powers through most of the afternoon, dealing with the pounding sound and emotional chaos of Blood and Bones was a torture, but I managed to grit my teeth and bear it.

Only two people waited for me in the infirmary afterward, both with broken bones from capers gone wrong earlier that day. Word had already gotten around about what’d happened to Ash; no one so much as said a word in my presence.

It turned out that was for the best, because I needed all of my wits for later. That night, the Dreamer was waiting for me when I fell asleep.


“I’m sorry I had to leave so abruptly last night Warren-,” she started, but I cut her off, more interested in information than apologies. It wasn’t polite, but I wasn’t worried about appearances right now.

“Did you tell my mom that I’m ok? What about my friends?” I asked urgently.

The Dreamer looked troubled.

“What can I tell them Warren? Would your friends believe me with what little proof I can bring?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” I demanded.

“Your friends are on Fire Court’s side. Or at least Guardian is, and the rest of the Champions follow him as a sign of confidence in their leader. On our side are most of the older heroes, but the younger generation is quite effective at stirring people up. They are not eager to hear from me,” she said.

The thought that they wouldn’t believe her hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d managed to divide Will against his parents, all of my friends against their mothers and fathers… The Law of Unintended Consequences had once again reared its ugly head.

“But they know my mom, they know she doesn’t lie-. She believes you, doesn’t she?” I asked the last in an alarmingly pathetic tone of voice.

For an answer, the gray fog around us swirled and then cleared, showing both the Peacemaker and the Dreamer side-by-side on a carpeted floor, the Fearmaster and the Heartsinger looking on. I watched Mom’s face twist suddenly in pain, and then suddenly relax. Tears began to slip down her cheeks as she slowly woke up. The Dreamer looked at her and reached out a hand in comfort.

“You were right all along Joy. Forgive us for doubting you,” she said. “If I hadn’t seen into his mind myself, I wouldn’t have believed it either.”

Considering the Peace family hadn’t believed anything Mom had done for nearly twenty years, I was a little surprised at the breakthrough. But just a little. Nothing brought a family together like a crisis.

“I know it here,” Mom said softly, touching her forehead. “And I love my son, but that’s why I wanted you to see for yourself and be sure. I know Monica loves him dearly, but I know, and know well, that love doesn’t preclude evil and irrational acts.”

“Thank you for trusting me,” the Dreamer said just as quietly. “He’s just like you Joy. He’s going to burn himself to the bone to see the academy free, or die trying. And so will she.”

The gray fog swirled in again and left just the Dreamer standing before me. I swallowed thickly, reaching out for the vision of my mother as it faded. It had only been a few days, but I missed her so badly… Her, my friends, even my cat.

“Why-,” I started and had to pause for a second to get past a lump in my throat. “Why can’t you just show the Council what you showed Mom about me? Then they’d know and -.”

The Dreamer shook her head sharply.

“Do you know what I do for a living Warren? When superheroes are unconscious or comatose from physical or mental trauma, I go into their dreams and get them back to the waking world. And for that I delve into the very deepest parts of the mind, where reality barely matters and everything is in shapes and colors. What I see is very symbolic, but not necessarily real. That is what I am known for.”

Her tone was just very slightly self-pitying and it pissed me off.

“So fucking what? Show them that you can do more!” I said forcefully.

“You’re related, Warren. With you, with Joy, my mother, my brother, everything comes through crystal clear. With others, not as much. I could tell them what I know, I could show them the emotions through their dreams, but belief is a fragile thing,” she explained.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I growled.

“I don’t like it any better than you do. But what am I supposed to do? Ask each member of the Council if I can invade the deepest part of their dreams to show them the truth? They know what I do to the injured, and it’s extraordinarily intimate, mentally. I’d see an awful lot that most people would rather keep hidden,” she said, her tone sharp.

And I didn’t get a choice? I thought, but didn’t say. If she hadn’t made contact, my mom would be totally clueless about whether or not I was even alive, let alone sane. I’d bared my soul to her all my life; I’d take this in stride.

“Besides, you want four more days of this insanity to get your plan to work. If they knew that you were honestly putting your life and sanity on the line like this, they’d be in here so fast… I trust you when you say you have a plan. You asked me for delay, and that’s what I’m doing. Your mother is extraordinarily good at playing one side against another when she needs to, and that’s what she’s doing for your sake,” she said.

“Without lying?” I asked. How could she keep two factions of superheroes against each other without lying through her teeth about what was really going on in the academy? Mom never lied.

“Joy once told me that diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggy’ until you can find a big stick. She’s a diplomat, she’s used to making the truth work for everyone. I used to watch her work, before you were born, sometimes for days on end. If anyone could play the Council against each other and still have them united at the end, it’s her. Most won’t even realize they’ve been manipulated until weeks later, if they even think about it.”

“That’s kind of twisted…” I said without thinking. I hadn’t quite realized Mom’s powers could work with that kind of subtlety, like the academy psychics.

“So is what you’re doing. The Council just found out that about six villains that should have been out for weeks due to their injuries were back in the field today. Do not preach about morality to me,” she said.

“If you’re digging so far into my head than you know why I had to do that,” I said tersely.

The Dreamer folded her arms and drummed her fingers on her elbow for a minute. Then she nodded sharply.

“This is not making Joy’s job any easier you realize,” she said.

“There are several hundred people in here that have been tortured mentally, physically, and emotionally every single day for years. We’ve got some of the most violent villains we’ve ever seen come from this place, and there’ll be more every single year until we destroy it from the inside out. They’re killing people in here!” I cried. Stoicism was crumbling in trying to make her understand why this was so important.

Maybe it was just because I’d seen it first hand, and unlike Monica, this was a much more extreme culture shock for me. I didn’t want any of my friends to get hurt by those damned defense systems, but nearly anything short of that was worth the price of destroying this place.

“You can see what I’ve seen? Then look for yourself!” I nearly shouted.

The Dreamer bowed her head.

“I’ve already seen. But I wanted to make sure you see as well, and that you’re doing this for the right reasons,” she said softly. “You might not see me for a few days, but trust me, we’re doing everything we can. Go back to sleep Warren, you have a long few days ahead of you.”


When Monica woke me up this time, she had the same puzzled expression on her face that she’d had yesterday, wondering what in the world I had been dreaming about. Apparently I had been talking in my sleep. Again. That was a very bad habit to get into around here.

“More strange dreams?” she asked.

“Not just dreams,” I admitted a bit reluctantly. Monica waited impatiently. “Do you know anything about my mom’s family?”

Monica blinked twice and then I could see the lightbulb go on in her head.

“The Dreamer,” she breathed. “That’s what’s been going on, right?”

I gave her the short version of the last two nights, and watched her expression go from hopeful, to pissed-off, to resigned.

“So we’re on our own, just like we thought we’d be,” she sighed. “I don’t want to say thanks for nothing but…”

“Yeah,” I said shortly. My head was pounding, and I wasn’t up for any other kind of extended discussion without coffee. Monica abruptly channeled my pain to her and arched her eyebrow.

“I don’t want you accidentally flambéing someone because you’re in a bad mood,” she said by way of explanation. “Let’s go.”


We managed to get through most of the day without serious incident. Right up until Blood and Bones, that was. I hated that part of being in the academy more than any other. The noise, the blood, the fighting, everything conspired to rub my nerves raw.

I’d been trying to concentrate on anything but the carnage on the floor when the next pair of fighters was called.

“Painbreaker!” the ref called, snapping my attention to the present.

Monica didn’t even flinch when her name was called, but I did. That’s all I dared do, and I mentally cursed the fact that I couldn’t even offer her my help. I didn’t dare draw any attention to myself, mostly because I didn’t think I could stand another round of Blood and Bones without doing something I’d regret for the rest of my life.

If Monica had any of the same qualms, she didn’t show a thing. With her face covered with her mask and her costume hiding everything else, it was easy to be inscrutable.

“Fallout!” the ref boomed, calling out her “sparring partner,” and a green-glowing man in an equally garish green costume joined her on the floor. His super-suit was covered with radiation symbols, making his lethal powers very clear.

Now why the hell would they do that? I thought. Monica usually didn’t participate in these fights. Fear kept me still in my seat as the possibility of betrayal crossed my mind. First thing though, Monica had to survive this fight.

Fallout’s radioactive blasts were lethally destructive; the last superhero to defeat him, no more than two weeks ago, was still in treatment for radiation poisoning. It occurred to me suddenly that I had healed more villains that heroes. I resolved to change that situation if I ever got out of here. When I got out of here, I corrected myself.

On the floor, Fallout’s sidekick Lead Balloon was invoking his own powers to protect the audience. It was less out of compassion and more from the need to not disable or kill the entire academy with a misplaced blast. The elusive Headmaster might be a cruel son of a bitch, but he wasn’t a complete idiot.

Blood and Bones!”

The screaming jarred my attention back to the match. Fallout didn’t bother to throw out a quip or make any extravagant displays like Cowboy Jack had. He just unleashed blast after blast of glowing energy right at Monica. She started ducking, dodging, and evading around his blasts with astonishing speed, but coming to a complete and utter halt in between each one, as if she didn’t intend to expend an iota more energy on him than she had to. Predictably, this pissed Fallout off.

Roaring loud enough to nearly overpower the frenzied crowd, he dove for her, hands glowing yellow, eyes blazing with hatred. The sound reached a crescendo, and I realized I was screaming wordlessly with the rest of the academy. Fallout hurled himself toward her over a park bench, and Painbreaker moved like a striking snake, hands flashing down over his neck, ripping his costume and slashing through his skin with her finger-knives.

“Blood, blood, blood!” they screamed, as Monica raised her bloodied hands. She seemed blissfully unaffected by the crowd’s chant, and for a long, black second, I hated her for her calm in the face of the storm. Reason returned a few moments later as I reined in my unruly thoughts.

They’re messing with your head, they’re messing with your head, I repeated to myself over and over, using that as a mantra to center myself. Well, as much as was possible when I just wanted to lash out at everyone around me. It was very hard to maintain my mental walls in here, and flat-out impossible to keep them up during Blood and Bones. After using my powers on all those people in the morning, I was emotionally vulnerable to psychic meddling. And since I healed other injured supervillains afterward, evenings were really bad for me. A pounding headache and a hair-trigger temper were starting to become “normal.”

When I moved through the crowd as Blood and Bones was dismissed, it became obvious how much my control had slipped. The expression on my face alone was clearing a path through the press of bodies, and it was very hard to not clear it faster with fire. When I reached Monica, she took one look at me and hauled me off into a quiet closet to get a handle on my temper.

“Fallout pissed someone off,” she said conversationally. “He needed to be shamed; that’s why I was called.” I was pacing in the small space, giving off enough heat to make temperatures soar to tropical levels, blood roaring loud enough in my ears that I barely heard her. Monica shoved back her mask to try to cool herself down. “The last time they made me fight…”

A quiet stream of half-heard remembrances became background noise until my heart eventually calmed down. I should have been uneasy, at least, that things had gotten this bad so fast. But right then I was grateful I hadn’t hurt anyone out of pique. When I stopped pacing, Monica finally stopped talking.

“Are you back on Planet Sane?” she asked. A nod from me and she sighed with relief. “Good. Really, if I keep dragging you off into closets, people are going to start talking.”

It wasn’t even that funny a comment, but I laughed at it anyway, finally throwing off the worst of my anger.

“How can you handle this?” I asked, pulling off my helmet and bringing my temperature back down to normal (at least for me).

“Experience,” she said simply, tugging off her bladed gloves and gently touching the side of my face. “I knew what this was going to be like. It’s hard, it’s damn hard, but I knew what I was getting myself into. And it’s my self-appointed job to keep you safe so you can do your job. And trust me, you’re doing great so far.”

“So far.”

“Don’t jinx it,” she said sternly.


 

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