I had almost been ready to dismiss my friends’ call as just a particularly vivid dream, except that I had gotten another call from my mom at a more sane hour of the morning. She had been absolutely thrilled, and had already gotten several calls from friends in the Bureau, keeping her updated on all the news and rumors about me. Some of them were actually pretty funny, and she said I already had a fan club.
“A fan club?” I asked incredulously.
“Phoenix fan club. You already have a website,” she said.
“I… don’t even want to know…” I said faintly. Let Stronghold deal with fan clubs and groupies; the whole idea didn’t appeal to me at all.
“Don’t worry, I figured you would say that. I heard Magenta had to talk Zack out of posting something under your name though,” she said, holding back a smile.
“I owe her big time,” I said, shaking my head.
“Warren, will you come to my office for a moment?” Tobias asked casually as I finished the last of my breakfast. I shrugged and nodded, shoving away from the table and trailing after him through the twisting corridors of the estate.
The office was as opulent as the rest of the place, with a particularly huge tapestry depicting a dragon rampant with flaming claws right over the roaring fireplace. Tobias took a seat behind his massive redwood desk while I gingerly took mine in a red velvet chair on the other side. I was irresistibly reminded of Principal Powers’ office, but somehow I was pretty sure Tobias thought he had the upper hand in this situation. Whatever it was.
“I had the plans brought up yesterday. I was wondering where you’d like your room to be,” he opened, tapping a roll of paper on his desk and unfurling it.
“It’s fine where it is, I guess,” I said with a shrug.
“That’s a guest room, I mean your permanent residence,” he said with a wave at one wing of the estate.
“For when I come over here again?” I asked, suspicion and anger beginning to curl in my gut.
“No, no, for when you come over here to live,” he corrected. Red shot across my vision for the briefest of instances. I had been right this morning, Tobias was certain I would want to stay.
“I’m not staying,” I said very calmly.
“Why not? You would be a very welcome addition to the Fire Court. I’ve seen how well you work with my sons and daughters, even after just a very brief fight. They think well of you and are impressed by your training,” he said persuasively. I don’t think this is what Mom had in mind when she told him to keep his opinions to himself…
“I already have a group I’m going to work with. My friends at Sky High,” I said tersely. Tobias waved his hand in airy dismissal, and I felt my anger mount. I kept it locked down as tight as I could though; Tobias had already proved he could push my buttons pretty easily, and I didn’t want to fall for the same trick twice.
“That won’t be for another two years. Certainly we could help you train as well here,” he pointed out.
“I need to train with them, and I can’t do that if I’m here. Besides, you’ve never met Coach Boomer,” I said.
“Perhaps I should,” Tobias said a little stiffly.
“And I have a cover job already lined up that I’ve been going to class for. I can’t just pack up and leave,” I continued.
“You wouldn’t need a cover job here. You could just concentrate on being a hero,” he pointed out. “Your family is here, and we’d be very proud to have you in our house.”
The penny dropped in my mind.
“Tobias, we might be related, but everyone here, all these people, they’re still strangers to me, including you,” I told him, and watched him sit back heavily in his chair. “My mom is my only real family, and I made my own ‘family’ out of my friends two years ago. I don’t know any of you that well. I know my teachers, Principal Powers, even the Lees better than you. I’m willing to work with you because you’re fellow heroes, not because your son is my dad.”
Tobias looked somewhat shocked, as if that had never occurred to him. I just kept pressing on him.
“At best you’re a bunch of friendly acquaintances. You’re decent people, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve just met. I’m not going to give up the life I have in Maxville after two days here,” I told him plainly. Tobias eyebrows had crawled halfway up his forehead during my little speech, and I gave him a few moments to collect himself.
“I… did not realize you felt that way,” he said finally.
“You could have asked,” I reminded him acidly. It had been an altruistic gesture he had made, but it had been in his usual rather high-handed manner.
“I take blood bonds very seriously…”
“Yeah, well I’ve spent all my life hating my father,” I snapped.
“You seemed so happy the other day,” he said softly. The anger abruptly left me, and I stared down at the floor. Yesterday had been one of the highlights of my life; being finally accepted as a hero. Even if he hadn’t known that much about me, Tobias must have figured out how much that meant to me. Did he figure I would want to stay at the scene of my first triumph? Maybe.
“I was. Am,” I told him, rubbing a hand along my neck to try to ease an impending headache.
“But I shouldn’t have assumed anything. I apologize,” Tobias said. I looked back up at him, slowly calming down.
“You knew I wouldn’t stay. You had to know. Why even bother asking me?” I asked him.
“I had hopes, nothing more. Well, high hopes,” he corrected himself. “And a very good reason want you safely in the family fold.” He opened a drawer in his desk, withdrew something wrapped in dark cloth and slid it across the desk. I took it and unfolded it, staring at the metallic, spider-like construct the size of my palm contained within; the center of it scorched black.
“It’s called a ‘spyder.’ A favorite of technopaths and mad scientists everywhere for keeping tabs on their enemies and allies. It was on the Bureau jet that brought you here. Anthony found it shortly after you arrived,” he explained. “He’s the technologically adept one of the family.” I suddenly felt a sensation of cold in my stomach.
“It was active?” I asked. Tobias nodded.
“Right up until Anthony burned it, yes. Someone is keeping very close tabs on you, I’m afraid,” he said. I stared at the spyder with apprehension.
“Who placed it?” I asked.
“Anthony says what’s left of the wiring could have been done by any of several dozen technopaths or evil geniuses. There is another few dozen that just supply these things as well, so it could have come from them. However, we did find something stamped into the metal, a symbol,” he said. I examined the thing carefully, finding a faint imprint of a V-shaped mask. It reminded me a little of Royal Pain’s symbol that had been on the remains of her anti-gravity sabotage device Principal Powers had show us. But it wasn’t quite the same; at least I didn’t think so.
“It’s not Royal Pain’s, is it?’
“We’re not sure. It certainly resembles hers, but it could be a variation,” he said.
“The academy,” I said flatly. Tobias nodded.
“That was our thought as well.”
“How could they have gotten one on a Bureau jet? The security’s pretty tight,” I asked, handing the spyder back.
“Even the Bureau is not infallible. There are dozens of people who have contact with their planes, mechanics, maintenance personnel, crew, not to mention the passengers themselves. Each person is a place where the security can break down, as it obviously had. I would dare to say no place and no person is impregnable,” he pointed out.
“I know that,” I said a little sharply. I wasn’t a child to need these things explained to me. Really. Oh, at eighteen you already know everything there is to know, is that it? my brain asked me.
“Indeed. Well, this was the reason I wanted you to stay. No place is impregnable, but the Battle estate comes fairly close. Not to mention I dare say your potential attackers would be far more reluctant to take you from our midst. Our reputation for family loyalty makes us a poor choice of enemies,” he pointed out.
“I have Will Stronghold on my side. He could literally punch Sky High in half and throw both halves a few dozen miles in either direction. People screw with me at their peril,” I said with a bit of a smirk. Tobias pressed his lips together in what I was sure was an attempt not to smile.
“But they don’t know that yet. He isn’t out of school, and most people don’t know he exists,” Tobias said logically. “And do you really want to rely on someone else to protect you?”
“Ok, who was just talking about family loyalty? I trust Will and the rest of my friends. They’d save me or die trying. And Will’s too tough to die,” I said, locking gazes with Tobias. He finally nodded.
“You have me there,” he conceded. “And you did say they were your family.”
“I do have family loyalty, it’s just not to you. Not yet.”
“Someday?” Tobias asked, looking somewhat hopeful.
“Maybe someday,” I agreed.
“Then that will do. I find myself getting rather impatient in my old age, and don’t want to wait for things to happen naturally. I keep trying to order them instead.”
“I don’t do orders very well,” I said, standing.
“I rather thought not,” he said with an odd smile, and stood up as well. “The more I get to know you Warren, the more you remind me of your father. I don’t mean that as an insult; he was a good man before he fell. He could be very stubborn for what he perceived were the right reasons, and he didn’t like orders either. That’s why I sent him to be an exchange student in America. He was something of a rebel, in his own way.”
Considering how mentioning Baron had completely silenced Tobias’ end of the table at dinner the other night, I was surprised at how casually he was willing to talk about him. I couldn’t even think of any way to respond to that intelligently, so I just nodded and left. It was definitely time to go do something that didn’t involve thinking for once.
I found my way into the gym, locating what was basically a shooting gallery, set up for ‘kinetics of every sort. A computer panel controlled the targets, and I dialed up the setting fairly high, needing to get a good workout in. Boomer would have my hide if I slacked off, and I hadn’t done anything in the way of training in the last few days. Points of light began to flash at the end of the gallery, and I powered up and tried to hit them as they moved, a musical chime sounding every time I managed a hit.
I think you could actually play a tune if you got them in the right sequence, and I was experimenting with that when I felt someone staring at me. I lobbed a final fireball at the last target before powering down and shutting off the range.
“You’re going to teach me today Uncle Warren?” Thomas asked the instant I turned around. He was dressed just as impeccably as the last time I had seen him, and was standing at attention, his hands clasped behind his back, at a respectful distance away.
“Yeah, sure. Don’t you have school or something?” I asked. It was awfully early for him to have free time… at least in my mind.
“Yes I do, but this will be gym class. Mama told me to come over here now,” he said logically, smiling.
Having a kid smile at me was a new experience.
“Fine with me. Look, do you have some workout clothes or something? You’re going to burn those sleeves,” I said. Thomas looked at his hands and then simply rolled up his sleeves past his elbows. I refrained from rolling my eyes, but didn’t say anything. If the kid had enough control to avoid flaming past the elbows on his second day of powering up, I would be extremely impressed. If not, he’d get a very pointed reminder of what his powers could do.
I couldn’t count the number of shirts I had ruined when I had first powered up before I started sticking to t-shirts. I would have ruined my jacket a lot of times too, but at that point Mom couldn’t afford to get me a new coat every time I burned one. I saved nearly six months’ wages from the Paper Lantern and had my jacket custom-made from a company that made firefighters’ turnouts, just to avoid any more destruction to my clothing.
When Thomas was all prepared, at least by his estimation, I spent a minute or two figuring out the lowest setting on the gallery targets. That accomplished, I knelt down so I was at his level. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with teaching kids, but I had dealt with them a lot at the Paper Lantern. I didn’t need to loom over the kid like a giant, and he didn’t need a crick in his neck from looking up at me.
“So, what were you doing when you powered up?” I asked him.
“Practicing throwing like Grampy was at the Brotherhood,” he said, demonstrating the throw in question. His hand abruptly burst into flame and a fireball impacted on the ground. Thomas jumped and looked startled, and quickly extinguished himself.
“Hang on with any more demos until we figure out what exactly you’re doing…” I said, trying not to smile. I couldn’t help but contrast him with me when I had first powered up. I had been angry, sad, and had felt betrayed. I had been terrified of my powers, worried that I would hurt my mom, and had been sick to my stomach that I would have to meet my dad. Thomas just thought this was the coolest thing ever, as if he had been given the latest toy for Christmas. I felt a stab of unreasoning jealousy, but tried to lock it down. Thomas had been lucky enough to be born into a family of superheroes that were used to dealing with this. I hadn’t, and I had come to terms with that years ago.
Just keep telling yourself that Peace, my brain commented.
“When I power up, I usually draw my arms back, curl my fingers and clench my forearms. You… you were thinking of fire when you powered up, right?” I asked. I didn’t need to, and I didn’t necessarily even need to clench my hands anymore, but I had six years of experience on Thomas. Since he was a “normal” Battle pyrokinetic, I tried to dredge up everything my dad had told me about how his powers worked. He had used really specific mental images and words to trigger his powers, along with the gestures, and that had to be a lot easier for Thomas to learn than it was for me to try to control my emotions.
I don’t know why Tobias had been so eager for me to teach him, because I had to really wrack my brain for my dad’s exact words to me. Then again, if Tobias, Reginald or the rest of my uncles had been his disciplinarians for all of his life, Thomas might have gotten to the point where he automatically tuned them out. Zack did that spectacularly well when his dad went into lecture-mode for one reason or another. At least if Thomas thought I was interesting enough to talk to he might actually listen to me.
By the end of a half-hour I had Thomas throwing little fireballs at some of the targets, though I had to fiddle with the system to bring them twice as close as I had been using, because he couldn’t throw far enough to reach the end of the gallery yet. He had also scorched the floor in an interesting pattern, and burned the sleeves completely off his shirt. He had been a little embarrassed, but had taken it in fairly good humor. A lot better humor that I ever had, that was for sure. Then again, he knew that a ruined shirt was nothing to his family; whereas I knew I ruined shirt was more money out of an already slim budget when I had been younger.
I had been about ready to call it quits when I heard someone walking behind us, and Thomas called out “Mama!” Ivana folded her son into her arms, steam actually curling up between them as her son’s body heat met her own naturally cold flesh.
“You’re cold!” he exclaimed, pulling back.
“No, you’re hot!” she said, clucking him under the chin. “Go back to Great-Uncle Andrew, it’s time for your math lesson.” Thomas actually giggled and rocketed out of the gym.
“Hmm… I probably should have brought another shirt with me for him. Oh well,” she commented, turning to me.
“He learns pretty quick,” I offered. “He was only powering up when he wanted to, there at the end.”
“Good to know. I’ll keep reminding him. I hope you don’t mind, I was watching you from the back for most of the lesson,” she said. I shrugged; I'd almost been expecting that.
“No big deal. Probably was a good idea, I haven’t taught before,” I said.
“Father was watching too,” she added. “He had some things to do back in the house, but he was watching for most of it. I think he was pleasantly surprised.”
“What, did he think I was going to teach him something I shouldn’t?” I asked.
“No, that Thomas listened to you as well as he did,” she said, gesturing for me to walk with her.
“So he disrespects his elders already?” I said with a laugh.
“He’s eight years old, he already know everything, didn’t you realize that?” she said, smiling.
“Yeah, I hear you. Hey, you’re Ice Princess, right?” I asked her, trying to make sure I remembered whom everyone was. Getting all my uncles’ titles straight was bad enough, and I didn’t want to miscall someone in the middle of a fight. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would be fighting alongside them more than once this vacation.
“Yes, I’m Ice Princess, and Emily is the Freezing Duchess,” she confirmed, leading us back through the estate towards the kitchen.
“Why’s there the break in the names? Why Freezing Duchess and Burning Duke instead of Ice Duchess and Fire Duke?” I asked. I had wondered about that.
“Oh, that,” Ivana said with a long-suffering sigh. “The family had used those names for years, and they were so certain that no one else was using them that they delayed when the Bureau finally had us register our superhero names back in the forties. By then someone had already taken them. So it was use the alternate names or nothing. It’s rather silly, so we don’t talk about it much.”
“Yeah… I guess you wouldn’t,” I said, repressing a chuckle.
Ivana smiled in return, and abruptly changed the subject.
“Aunt Bernadette told me you wanted to talk to Uncle Anthony,” she said. “Grandfather is entrenched in a meeting for the next two hours, so we thought this would be a good time.”
Well, apparently the Battles were fast at putting a request into action. Ivana jerked her head to the side as she began walking towards a different part of the estate, occasionally looking over her shoulder.
“Hey, tell me something, are you all scared of Tobias?” I asked. Ivana looked like she was trying to smuggle me somewhere, and I wondered, as we wound through the twisting corridors, if she was trying to make sure we didn’t run into any of the staff.
Ivana’s mouth twitched in a hastily-repressed smile at my question.
“Not afraid of. Respect. Grandfather has never been terribly warm-.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Demonstratably affectionate then,” she corrected. “He’s very… shrewd, very experienced, and he’s used to being in charge of everything. He thinks he knows best because most of the time he’s right.”
I thought about that as we mounted more stairs and crossed galleries. What would it have been like to raise eight super-powered children and try to have them all turn out as relatively normal, mentally stable, conscientious, skilled superheroes without turning yourself either into a tyrannical drill sergeant or distance yourself completely. All in all, when I thought about my own childhood, Tobias had done a damn good job.
Which explained why my dad was such a forbidden topic unless Tobias brought him up first; who wanted to be reminded of that kind of failure. Baron Battle wasn’t a taboo topic just for what he’d done, but for what the Battle family had failed to do. Somehow, somewhere, all of them had failed, or at least thought they had. Mom wasn’t the only one that had suffered guilt from my dad’s crimes.
My whole view of the Battle family had just undergone a pretty significant change.
“I think I get it,” I said softly as Ivana finally stopped in front of a heavy wooden door. She nodded sympathetically and knocked. Anthony opened the door, nodded once at Ivana, and she vanished down the hall.
“Come in,” he said, shutting the door behind me. “This was Baron’s room.”
I’d somehow been expecting something… different. The room was just as richly furnished as everywhere else in the estate, but seemed void of personality. Well, to be fair there were a few books on military history on the shelves, but there were no pictures, no papers, nothing that told me definitively that my dad had grown up here.
“Most of his things are either with Joy or in his cell. Honestly I wanted to meet here because we won’t be disturbed,” Anthony explained, sitting down heavily in thickly-upholstered chair. I remained standing, arms crossed almost reflexively.
“What do you want to know, Warren?”
Faced with such a bald question, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought I’d had answers when I talked to Will’s parents, but they were only there during one day in Baron Battle’s life. I stalled, trying to think, and Anthony took pity on me.
“None of us ever went to see him after he was jailed. I understand you did.”
“When I first powered up. Just once, and I haven’t been back since.”
“Would you mind telling me about it?” he asked. In a way, he seemed as hungry for information about my dad, his brother, I realized belatedly, as I was.
I closed my eyes for a second, and then told him everything I could remember. Baron’s superiority, his cold-blooded assessment of me, his frightening normal and logical dissection of my powers, and his parting shot to make the Battle family proud. I tried hard to lock down my own feelings about it, but I also made sure my hands were clear of any cloth. The heat I was putting how had to be palpable even across the room.
“Amazing,” Anthony said when I’d finished, shaking his head a little.
“What?” I asked. Amazement wasn’t quite the reaction I’d suspected.
“It’s just… he still sounds like my brother. He was always very clever in how he said things so he could get the reaction he wanted,” Anthony explained.
“Manipulative-,” I started, remembering my mother’s haunted expression that day.
“Yes, sometimes, and a liar when he felt it was necessary. But he always did it for a good cause, or what he thought was a good cause. He was the youngest of us, and he was always trying to find some way to impress us all. It rubbed Father the wrong way,” Anthony said.
“Then what happened?”
“Father sent him to America, mostly so they wouldn’t end up at each other’s throats. Baron met your mother, they married, moved back to Germany, and the rest…” Anthony trailed off for a moment. “Baron moved into his own house when he came back; he didn’t come back here. He never worked with Fire Court on a regular basis. I remember him saying he got used to relying on himself at Sky High. And he’s always been an excellent strategist, so he never seemed to need our help.”
That hadn’t ever occurred to me, that Baron being separate from his family during high school might have been a factor in his crimes. Or that he’d never worked with his family, ever. There was a lot of power and camaraderie working in a group, and Baron had missed all of that.
“Before Royal Pain’s attack, everyone was supposed to fight alone or just with a sidekick,” I explained.
“Ah. That makes sense. And he could never work alongside Joy either. I think now that he was… very lonely,” Anthony said with reluctant.
“He got sick of being able to only do so much,” I said, thinking out loud. It was a strange feeling, trying to get inside my dad’s head.
“And then Joy got pregnant with you. If he was worried about you, about raising a child when he saw the results of evil every day…” Anthony sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. “We should have guessed. We should have known, and with no disrespect to Joy, we all saw Baron born, and we thought we knew him better than that.
“Maybe he thought too much, or lied to himself about what he needed to do in order to be a hero. That’s my best guess, and my siblings all think the same,” he said with an oddly resigned shrug.
“I think I’m getting it,” I said, taking a deep breath. Everything I’d learned didn’t give me definitive answers, and I had to accept that I’d never get them. If Baron Battle’s own family combined with the finest psychics and psychiatrists in the Bureau couldn’t figure out exactly what turned him from crafty to crazy, then it wasn’t like I was going to figure it out with a few conversations. But it helped.
“It worries us, you know, and we don’t talk about it nearly enough. I’m glad you came Warren,” he said, standing. He made an abortive moment, like he was going to put his hand on my shoulder, but thought better of it.
“Thanks for talking to me,” I said sincerely.
“Baron did one last good thing before he snapped, and that was fathering you. I’m just sorry it’s taken this long to finally meet you face to face.”
For the second time in two days, I was getting an idea of what it would have been like to grow up in a big family. I could tell Anthony wanted to treat me like any of his other nieces and nephews. Maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad, but I couldn’t quite throw myself into this wholeheartedly.
Looking at Anthony Battle, I realized I barely knew anything about him, or anyone else in the family, other than what was on public record. And while being family was supposed to mean I could ask for help without having to know them, I wasn’t ready to leap into this with both feet. At least Anthony seemed to understand that.
“It’s ok,” I said. “I think I understand a lot more now.”
“Baron and Father are more alike that either of them want to admit. And I think that scares Father,” Anthony said, in partial explanation, and partial apology for having to sneak around to talk about Baron.
I was about to respond to that when when my jacket pocket began ringing. I snatched out my cell phone, discovered it was silent, and then fished out my other phone. There was a loud knocking at the door, and Anthony flung it open to reveal Ivana, her own emergency phone clapped to her ear. Gesturing frantically, she started to break into a run for her own room. I followed suit, leaving Anthony behind, needing to get my costume.
“Phoenix,” I answered, feeling a faint thrill of anticipation.
“We have a situation in the Munich power plant! Meltdown, Hydro, and Cascade are threatening to blow it up unless their demands are met!” a faint, tinny voice sounded on the other end, trembling and full of fear, echoing as if the owner were in a warehouse.
“I’ll be there,” I said, and snapped it shut again.
“Munich power plant?” Ivana asked, still running alongside me, pointing down the correct hallways so I wouldn’t get lost.
“Can you fly a jet?” she asked, ducking around a table.
“Only if you want to crash,” I quipped back.
“I’ll fly us then, I think they called the rest of Winter Court and Tesla too. Meet you at the hangar,” she said, and pointed down my wing. I dashed into and out of my room in record time, slightly bemused that somehow Chester had managed to get my costume cleaned and laid out for me even though I had tried to put it away the night before.
I pounded into the hangar a bare two steps in front of Ice Queen, skidding to a halt as I spied my uncles getting into their own jet.
“Munich power plant?” I asked them, and Fire King shook his head.
“Eiffel Tower, Wind Demon and Dark Seasons are threatening to take it down unless they’re paid, etcetera,” he said.
“Bad day for public monuments,” I said, and Fire King laughed.
“Good luck Phoenix, Ice Queen, see you back here,” he said and ducked inside. Ice Princess and the Freezing Duchess skidded in a moment later, Tesla on their heels.
“Come on, power plants have a tendency to explode, and Phoenix is the only one that’s fireproof,” Ice Princess said, waving us into a white version of the Fire Court’s jet.
“Who’s Meltdown anyway? I don’t recognize the name,” I asked as we strapped in and lifted off.
“I don’t know a lot about him myself, honestly,” Ice Queen warned, and began to spin up the on-board computer to bring up specifics, frowning at the screen.
“He turns himself into lava,” the Freezing Duchess corrected. “And his minions turn into water. That’s about all I know.”
“I know someone who knows more,” I said quickly, and took out my regular cell phone, rapidly punching in a number. It must have ringed nearly ten times before a very sleepy Ethan picked up.
“Wha-?” he mumbled.
“Popsicle, wake up. It’s Phoenix,” I told him.
“Warren? Hey, I’m sorry about the call yesterday but-.”
“Forget that. I need your help,” I said, and I could nearly hear the lightbulb going on above Ethan’s head.
“You’re on a call?” he said excitedly.
“What do you know about Meltdown, Hydro, and Cascade?” I asked.
“They’re like me, amorphous shape-shifters, though they’re a lot stronger when they’re shifted. They’re a lot more like my dad, really. Meltdown turns into lava and-,” he started instantly.
“Hydro and Cascade turn into water, we figured that out. Weaknesses, tactics?” I cut in.
“Hydro and Cascade are minions, so they’ll be trying to delay you. Favorite tactics are suffocation, wrapping themselves around someone’s head,” he said, and I could hear him flipping through books in the background. “Meltdown prefers to use the environment against his enemies, heating up metal and melting rock to bring walls and stuff down on people’s heads.”
I repeated this to my aunts and cousins, and Ice Queen slowly shut the computer off as I kept rattling off more and more stuff.
“Rapid temperature change work on them too?” I asked.
“Cold only works on Meltdown, obviously, but get any kind of rapid temperature change on the other two and they’ll be hurting. Oh, electricity nearly flattens them, that’s a pretty recent entry. Totally disrupts their bodies and concentration on their shifted form,” he added.
“That it?” I asked, and got an affirmative. “Thanks Popsicle, I owe you one.”
As I snapped the phone shut, the rest of the people in the jet were looking at me oddly.
“Who was that?” Ice Queen demanded.
“My friend Ethan. He’s a Champion Debate master. What he doesn’t know about superbeings isn’t worth knowing,” I said, feeling fairly smug.
“He’s a citizen?” Ice Princess asked from the front.
“He goes to Sky High. He melts,” I explained, heading off the expected question. “So, Winter Court is going after Meltdown and Tesla and I are handling Hydro and Cascade?”
Ice Queen looked as if she’d rather finish questioning me, but got back down to business.
“Actually, Frozen Duchess and Ice Princess on the minions, I want you with me and Telsa, Phoenix,” Ice Queen corrected. “I know you can’t hurt Meltdown directly, but we’ll need your help if things get too hot for us to handle.”
“You mean if he starts ripping walls down,” I said. Indestructibility was only linked to pyrokinesis in the Battle family, so the rest of them were as vulnerable as a normal superhero.
“Exactly. Besides, with two different types of energy to contend with, he’s not going to know what hit him,” she explained, and I nodded in understanding.
“We’re down,” Ice Princess called, and I blinked. I hadn’t even felt us slow or land.
“I’m the best pilot in the family,” she said with a smirk as she came out of the front.
“Come on, exploding power plants make for unhappy clients,” Ice Queen chided, shooing us all out the door. Unlike the bank in Berlin, there were no civilians anywhere around, and only a few police putting up the last of the barriers. A quick conference with one of them gave Ice Queen what she needed.
“They evacuated the workers already, and as far as they know, Meltdown is in the control room. Let’s go,” she said, and pushed in through the front doors. What is it with these guys and front doors?
The power plant was quite creepy, corridors lit only by emergency lights, strobes and alarms going off randomly as something interfered with the system. It was making me jumpy, as it gave far too good of cover for Hydro and Cascade to ambush.
“I don’t get it. Why only three people for a plant this big?” I whispered to the others as we crept through the halls. Creeping was one way to keep from getting ambushed, in theory, because we'd be on alert the entire way. And with five of us going for the heart of this place, they had to be waiting for us somewhere.
“Because Meltdown was probably hired with someone with more money than sense. Though more sense than he has, which isn’t saying much,” the Freezing Duchess whispered back. “He’s a thug’s thug, nothing more, no imagination and fewer brains-.”
“Shh!” Ice Princess said, pointing subtly ahead. On the ceiling ahead was a fresh water stain, and I saw Winter Court grin savagely. Ice Queen gestured for the cryokinetics to come up, and counted, one, two, three. Simultaneously they powered up and flung bursts of icy cold power at Hydro and Cascade’s hiding place. There was a faint crack from above us, and I looked up in time to see the ceiling begin to burn.
“Ambush!” I cried, and shoved Tesla ahead of me as the ceiling, and Meltdown, fell on top of me. It was like being hit with a ton of bricks, a burning hot ton of bricks, and I was crushed to the floor beneath his weight. Apparently Meltdown was a hell of a lot larger when he was shifted, because I could barely move at all. A faint gurgling filled my ears, and if Winter Court and Tesla were doing anything, I couldn’t hear it at all.
I couldn’t breathe under his weight, and I felt my vision start to go black that had nothing to do with the fact that there was no light under here. I struggled hard under his weight, desperately trying to reach the oxygen caplets on my belt, and just managed to get a hand on them when Meltdown shuddered and suddenly retreated. I rolled back out of the way, gasping for breath, as Winter Court rained down blow after blow of cold fury. Tesla jerked me to my feet behind them, and let loose a lightning lance at a blob of water that went hurling past us, missing by inches.
“Damn it! Phoenix, get up, these two are getting on my nerves,” she snarled, zapping at another one. There were two water blobs that were bouncing around in the corridor like mad pinballs, while ahead of us Winter Court kept hammering at Meltdown. He was huge, nearly filling the whole corridor to a depth of two feet, and glowing red-hot. Each time Winter Court struck him, he began to solidify and blacken, and was retreating with each hit. However, if Hydro and Cascade could distract them… There was no time to go back to our previously-discussed tactics, we would just have to wing it.
I snapped one of the oxygen caplets between my teeth, a cool rush filling my lungs, chasing away the last of the shaded vision and impending headache, and powered up hard. Soon lightning and flame filled the air in a deadly crossfire near the ceiling, as the two aquatic villains bounced around desperately in an attempt to find an opening to launch themselves at us or Winter Court. I snarled at them, and began to delay my fireballs, waiting for one of them to get overconfident enough to try to launch at me. It had worked on Speed, and I bet it would work on these guys.
“Phoenix, what are you doing?” Tesla demanded, turning to me. At the same instant, both hurled themselves straight at us, using the moment of distraction to their full benefit. I flash-fried one, and it caromed off two walls before rolling to a stop and unshifting into a slender man in a liquid blue super-suit. Tesla’s shot got off a second too late, missing by a hair, which was enough for Cascade to wrap herself around Tesla’s mouth and nose. She choked, and I tried to reach in to help. If I were to use fire, I’d hurt Tesla.
Touching Cascade was just like touching water, and there was nothing for me to grab onto. Tesla frantically pawed at her face while I ripped impotently at Cascade’s body, cursing her in Mandarin with words that would have brought the wrath of Mrs. Lee down upon my head. This was the problem our group had when dealing with those from Amorphous Club, no good way to fight them. In desperation, Tesla jammed her hands right into Cascade and powered up, blowing Cascade right off of her and slamming me into a wall.
All my muscles spasmed painfully for a second, and I saw stars, but my indestructibility saved me from worse. Cascade had unshifted and was slowly picking herself off the floor. I shoved myself up to hurl fire at them, staggering slightly, but still managing to wing her. She spun and just managed to keep from falling, as a scorched Hydro came up on her other side to support her. I took a single step forward to keep going after them, when a feeling of wrongness clamped around me so strong it literally stopped me in my tracks.
I turned back to look at Tesla, and my eyes widened to see her crumpled on the ground, water dribbling from her mouth and nose. Turning back to look at Cascade, I could see she was looking very thin and pale, but triumphant.
She left enough of herself behind to drown Tesla, I realized, as the two minions turned and ran. I should have gone after them, but I couldn’t leave my aunt. It was actually like a compulsion, and I felt myself walking forward to put my hands on her shoulders like in a dream. The ember-fire sprang up willingly, with no conscious thought on my part, and I couldn’t bring myself to stop. I could feel it burning the water out of Tesla’s lungs, steam beginning to trail from her mouth as her body coughed and spasmed under my hands.
The hard shadows of water began to clear as coughs wracked Tesla’s body, eerily turning back into blood as they lost their shapeshifted cohesion. I wasn’t even in control of what I was doing anymore, and when the ember-fire finally let me go, after protecting Tesla from the steam it had been created, I actually fell backwards in an attempt to break its hold over me. I picked myself up carefully, bracing myself for a reaction, and reached down to help up a somewhat shaky and sweating Tesla.
“What the hell was that?” she demanded, her eyes darting around, looking for more enemies.
“Cascade, she tried to drown you. You electrocuted her, and me, but she left enough of herself behind to fill your lungs up,” I explained. Hydro and Cascade were long gone, and I could see the pale forms of Winter Court returning from down the hall. I hoped wherever Meltdown was, he was in a lot of pain.
Tesla looked from me to the puddle of blood on the floor.
“Ah,” she said. “Eww…” she added a moment later when she realized exactly what the blood was.
“I… couldn’t chase after them, I’m sorry,” I added.
“Well I have to say I rather like not being dead. What did you do to me? I’ve had CPR done on me before, and my ribs don’t hurt enough for that,” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You already know,” I said obliquely.
“Hmm… that’s the way of it, is it? I’m very glad you were with me today Phoenix,” she said simply, and gave me a hug. I awkwardly returned it. I just wasn’t used to getting randomly hugged by people…
“Hey, heroes don’t have to say thanks for saving each other, right? Because otherwise this could get kinda weird,” I said, letting her go. Tesla smiled broadly at me.
“If you insist Phoenix. Mums the word,” she said solemnly, as Winter Court strolled up to us.
“Meltdown is currently enjoying the wonders of a liquid nitrogen bath. That should keep him out of trouble until he can be arrested,” Ice Queen said with satisfaction. “How are Hydro and Cascade?” I shook my head and Ice Queen sighed philosophically. “Well, we can’t get them all the time. Come on… what’s that?” She pointed to the puddle of blood on the floor with some alarm.
“Part of Cascade. Don’t ask,” Tesla said with exasperation. Ice Queen shrugged and began to walk out. It turned out that the power plant kept liquid nitrogen around for some intensive machine cooling operations, and Winter Court had managed to back Meltdown right up into it. A furiously bubbling vat of the stuff was spewing out white fog as members of the Bureau’s special extraction team tried to figure out the best way to get him out and into a transport truck.
This time there wasn’t any press around, which was a relief, because I was starting to get a bad power reaction. By the time I was strapped into the jet, I was starting to shake slightly.
“Is there anything hot to drink?” I asked, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. Tesla dug into a cabinet and came up with a thermos of hot coffee. I had no idea why it was there, considering this was Winter Court’s jet, but I didn’t care in the least. I drank at least half of it straight out of the bottle, and waited a minute for the warmth to penetrate. When the shivering stopped, I finally shoved off my helmet and put my head in my hands.
“He healed me,” I heard Tesla say to the others, and I didn’t even have the heart to grouse at her. “Cascade had filled my lungs up, and he healed me.”
“Heavens!” I heard Ice Queen exclaim, and I could feel the eyes of the others on me. “Eyes on the sky ‘Princess, don’t run us into power lines!”
My cousin turned her attention back to flying as I drank down the rest of the coffee in two gulps. It wasn’t the cold that was making me shake anymore; it was the emotional reaction.
“Warren, are you sure you’re going to be all right?” Tesla asked softly. I nodded, putting my head back down in my hands and resting my elbows on my knees. Conversation picked up around me, and I didn’t even listen. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been expecting to use my healing in battle, but it was the fact that it literally stopped me from pursuing Cascade that was making me shake. Tesla had obviously been very hurt, and the ember-fire had demanded that I help her. What if next time it happened, the hurt person was a villain? What in the world would I do then?