On Sunday morning I finally left the Battle estate to fly back to Maxville, needing the extra day to get back in the right sleep schedule before going to work. I’m sure Tobias was hoping it’d be a little wrenching for me to leave, that I might turn back and suddenly declare that I’d stay. Of course, that didn’t happen. The place was an amazing pile, but I don’t think I could have lived there without having grown up there. My relatives were actually pretty nice people, but it was much easier to relate to them as fellow heroes than with all the baggage that came from being family.
Thomas said he’d write to me and tell me how he was doing with his powers, and Reginald had offered me a more formal farewell, telling me that I was always welcome in the Fire Court. The others hadn’t been nearly so stiff, offering me a handshake (or a hug in the case of my aunts and cousins) before I finally was ready to fly off. Tobias himself was waiting at the foot of the stairs to the jet.
“I hope you’ll consider returning some day,” he said finally.
“Probably,” I offered neutrally. “Definitely if I get a call, I’ll be here.” That wasn’t what Tobias wanted though, and I knew it, but I didn’t want him to get his hopes up. He didn’t have any hold over me, and I wanted it to stay that way.
“Well then… have a good flight Warren,” he said, and held out his hand. I clasped it briefly and nodded at him, and got into the plane to fly home.
Time zones being what they were, I ended up back at my house at some ungodly hour of the morning. But despite the time, when I stepped in the door, there were all of my friends, my friends’ parents, and my mom, a bunch of food on a table, and a big banner that declared, “Welcome Home Phoenix!”
“Surprise!” they all yelled, as I dropped my bags in shock.
“What the-?” was the only thing I could get out, before being dragged into the living room and plied with cake and punch.
“Welcome home darling,” Mom said, giving me a hug.
“What’s all this?” I asked, trying to get my brain back in gear.
“Surprise party. Duh,” Zack said logically, his mouth full of frosting.
“I’ve only been gone a week!” I protested, trying not to spill my punch as my cat took a running leap onto my shoulders and started purring.
“Yeah, a week in which you’ve managed to win a superbattle nearly every day!” Ethan pointed out, holding a folder that proved to be full of newspaper clippings about my exploits.
Huh… cool, I have exploits! There were some from foreign papers about the battles themselves, some about mom and me, some about me and Fire Court… I didn’t see any that mentioned my dad, which meant either Ethan hadn’t included them or there weren’t any. I doubted the media would have been so discrete, so I decided to thank Ethan privately at some point for excluding them. I really didn’t need to hear any conspiracy theories about my parentage; what went on in my head was bad enough.
“I kind of had help,” I said faintly.
“You still did a great job, and I haven’t seen a more auspicious start to a heroic career in a while,” Mr. Stronghold said to me, clapping me on the back, carefully avoiding a swipe from Trixie.
“Uh… thanks,” I said a little uncertainly, a little intimidated and embarrassed at getting that kind of praise from the Commander.
“Don’t badger him Steve, he’s had a long trip,” Mrs. Stronghold chided, smiling at me and tugging her husband away.
“And they expect the same out me. Did you have to set the bar so high Warren?” Will complained when they were out of earshot. I laughed at that, and the rest of the gang joined me, Layla planting a kiss on Will’s cheek, causing him to blush.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll manage to save the world three times over in the first week and shame us all,” I told him. He looked like he wasn’t sure to be encouraged or concerned by that.
The early-morning party continued apace, with all the adult heroes congratulating me at one point or another, mostly to my own embarrassment. I hadn’t exactly been looking for praise; I had wanted to do this partially for me and partially for what the world thought of me. But after everyone had talked to me at least once, I got the rest of my friends together and retreated up to my office for a more private homecoming.
“So, what was is like? I mean, were you scared?” Layla asked me when I finally shut the door.
“Which times?” I asked her, dropping into my office chair.
“Any of them!”
I laughed a little and finally started talking, telling them what it was really like to be in a fight with real supervillains. It was funny, but after the ruthless viciousness of Cutter’s Crew, most of the others hadn’t seemed nearly so scary. Meltdown hadn’t been that bad, as it was his sidekick Cascade that had given me the only real scare that week. The Destructo-Bots had been quite destructive, obviously, but they were actually pretty easy to deal with, provided you got them from a distance. Cyborgs really couldn’t function that well if their cyborged parts were melted. And etcetera and so forth.
“I hate to say it, but Boomer really overtrains us,” I confessed. “I don’t want to get overconfident, but seriously, some of those guys are clowns.”
“Yeah, no kidding. Did you hear about Speed, Lash, and Penny?” Magenta asked, and I had everyone laughing when I told them about the confrontation between Tobias and Reginald.
“So, what really happened with Cascade?” Ethan asked me, during a lull in the conversation. “Sorry, I checked the Bureau records, and there had been another video upload to your file.”
All of my friends had been added to my allowable list for my powers when I graduated, because, well, they were going to be my super team. It would have been stupid to keep it just to the directors and my blood relatives, and I had taken care of it before I left for Europe.
“Apparently she can leave part of herself behind. She filled up Tesla’s lungs and then got blown off when she got shocked,” I explained. “And I had to heal her. Look -.” I forestalled Ethan from erupting with another bunch of questions. “Mom found out some stuff about healing and… I need to talk it through with you guys at some point. Seriously, I know that. But you all have to be fried right now, and I have like half a zillion things to do in the next two days. How about Tuesday afternoon?”
From the owlish way most of them were blinking, I was right about the being fried part, and I actually got them to agree without too much of an argument. Finally the party wound down, and the parents called up for everyone to come home. Will lingered for a second though, after everyone else had left.
“So hey, um… I had a question for you,” Will said finally.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were going to meet your dad’s family until like right before you were going to go?” he demanded, crossing his arms and looking a little belligerent.
“I already told you, I didn’t want you to talk me out of it,” I told him. It had been a slightly cowardly move on my part to not tell them until it was almost too late, and I knew it, but it was hard to explain.
“Really? Do you think we would?” Will asked me, looking a little hurt. I blinked at that and actually felt a little ashamed.
“I just… it’s my dad’s family,” I tried to explain. Will nodded his head a little, and shrugged.
“Just don’t make us have to pull a Yellowstone on you again. You start keeping secrets again and I’ll figure something out,” he threatened.
“Scram Stronghold, or I’ll tell your dad about what you and Layla really do out on your roof,” I shot back. He went scarlet, and finally conceded defeat.
I managed a little sleep after the homecoming party was over, only waking up when my mom shook me, telling me Principal Powers had everyone on a conference call. Yeah, definitely no rest for the not-so-wicked. She had news about the academy. That was more than enough to chase the last of the fog from my brain. I got connected just as I heard Ethan begin to ask questions.
“What about the academy?”
“We’re still waiting for Warren,” Powers said.
“I’m here,” I said, stifling a yawn.
“Excellent. Good afternoon everyone! I have both bad news and good news. Yes, we found the location of the academy; it’s in eastern Wyoming.”
“Wyoming? Why there?” Will asked.
“Lowest population density in the lower forty-eight states, that’s why. And it’s underground, so picking a state in the Rockies would have been essential.”
“What’s the bad news?” That was Magenta.
“They have enough technopathic and telepathic shields on it to stop anything less than a full-scale invasion. Both Mind Mist and the Ghost were unable to continue to ‘ride’ with the Weaponsmaster past the first gate. So we know where it is, but we can’t get in without putting together an army.”
“So the gate stops anyone who’s bugged?” Ethan asked.
“Basically. It can apparently detect telepathic presences, as well as astral projections, and stops communications and tracking gear cold. We can track her students outside the academy until our eyes bleed. But we can’t get inside that way.”
“This is such bullshit,” I snapped. Short sleep hadn’t helped my temper any, and I think I heard Layla stifle a gasp at my language to Powers. We had pinned so much hope on this tenuous link to the Weaponsmaster, and to get so far only to be blocked again was frustrating. Two steps forward, one step back.
“That is a true statement,” Powers said evenly. She wasn’t any happier about this than we were at least.
“Who does she have working for her that can make shields that good?” Ethan asked.
“She’s had twenty-five years to have her people perfect and strengthen them, remember that. As for who exactly, from overheard comments we know that there are several members of the Tenney family that are technopaths, which is where she got those shields. As for the psychics, there are plenty of mercenary villains with those powers she could have hired.”
“So what’s next?” Will asked.
“We tried the smallest and most subtle way of getting in, mental and astral ‘riding,’ and that didn’t work. Full-scale assault it out; we have no idea who or what they have in there. The next step is something in between the two extremes. A shapeshifted spy,” she said. “Or two. Or three.”
Before Ethan could begin the usual barrage of questions, Powers interrupted.
“I don’t know who is going yet Mr. Howard, but I’ll let you all know as soon as they’ve made the requests. We’re going to have to find some Sidekicks, I believe.” Magenta made a superior little snort into the phone.
“Yes Miss Patterson, I know what you’re thinking. Someone with like a shapeshifted form like yours would be ideal. We’re also looking into people that can phase through objects and other things like that. This is a lot more dangerous than what Mind Mist and the Ghost were doing, so we’re not going to be able to rush into this, I’m afraid.”
“We have to be patient again?” Layla asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Powers confirmed.
“But they’ve graduated by now, haven’t they?” I asked, and Powers sighed.
“Yes they have. The Weaponsmaster was going to the graduation ceremony when our spies were blocked. So we have the location, and the knowledge that they definitely have one class active. But they’re also going to delay, that much we know for certain. Be ready everyone, at least we know they’re coming. They still think we’re in the dark about them.”
That wasn’t much comfort, but it was the best we were going to get for now.
Monday afternoon I was supposed to go to the Bureau office before going to my cover job. Mom had told me I was supposed to talk to someone called Mandy in the correspondence department. Whatever that was. And whyever that was for. Walking into the Maxville Bureau this time wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time. People did seem to notice me a little more, but the looks I was getting this time weren’t quite as veiled. At least, it didn’t seem that way.
I got lost twice trying to find the correspondence department, but after navigating the Battle estate, a cube farm wasn’t nearly so intimidating. These offices were mostly plastered with various pieces of paper, mostly different kinds of letters, along with drawings and pictures of various superheroes and other people that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t put two and two together until I had finally found the mysterious Mandy, a short, plump cheerful woman with short, dark hair, maybe a little younger than my mom.
“You must be Phoenix,” she said cheerfully, grabbing and pumping my hand with no sign of trepidation, before sitting back down at her paper-strewn desk. “I’m Mandy Mayweather, and I’ll be handling all your fan mail. I just needed you to let me know what you wanted done with it.”
“Fan mail?” I said in shock. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I really shouldn’t, but I just hadn’t given it much thought. Mom didn’t seem to get anything in the way of fan mail, or at least she didn’t have it plastered all over the walls of her sanctum. Will’s parents didn’t either, but for all I knew they could have a fan mail vault I just hadn’t seen.
“Yes indeed. You have quite a bit already, I was impressed. Then again, we don’t often get new heroes that make such spectacular entrances. So, what’s your pleasure?” she chirped.
“I… have no idea,” I said, shaking my head. Mandy laughed self-depreciatingly.
“Silly me, you’re new. Sorry, we sometimes shuffle heroes around and… oh never mind, just take a quick seat and I’ll give you the run down. All your fan mail comes to your local branch of the Bureau, and we process it for anything unpleasant, poisons or bombs or whatnot. Then your assigned processor or processors opens it and sorts it for you and does what’s requested with it.”
“Oh, some people like to read everything, particularly people that don’t get very much. Mostly sidekicks and whatnot. The Commander and Jetstream just get the highlights of their fan mail; otherwise they’d never get anything done. I think sometimes their fan mail volume exceeds Maxville as a whole, and they have a whole staff assigned just to them. If they read all of it, they wouldn’t be able to do anything, even sleep!”
“Huh,” I muttered. That kind of figured. I wondered what they did see.
“Trust me, we open your mail for a reason. You really don’t need to see some of the things people send you. Super junkies… they send the most ridiculous pictures. Some of them have made it their goal in life to sleep with a superhero and will send anything as ‘bait.’”
I attempted not to choke. Or blush. I failed at both, but Mandy politely kept talking over my embarrassment.
“They aren’t even worth mentioning. We get those letters with every new hero, as regular as clockwork. Though, on the other hand, you got some truly lovely fan art, drawings mostly. Some of your fans have genuine talent,” she said, pulling out a few folders. “Oh and you got some very pretty official thank-you letters from some of the places you saved.”
Mandy pulled them out without being asked, and I was fairly impressed both by the elaborate, engraved thank-you letters, and the truly well-done drawings some people had sent me. Some must have caught news footage of me in action, or seen me personally, or had really good imaginations, because there were several really cool ones of me using my powers. Silently she also passed me a sheaf of letters in a folder. I began to flip through them, my mouth starting to hang open.
Only about half of them were in English, but even the ones written in Russian, or German, or other languages were pretty clear in their intent. “Thank you for saving my daddy’s work,” “Thank you for saving my house,” “Thank you for making the bad robots go away, they were scaring my baby brother,” and on and on. Little crayon or pen doodles accompanied some of them, mostly of my phoenix symbol from my super-suit, or of a red stick figure throwing orange blobs against stick-enemies. These were the letters from children I had saved, in one way or another. I actually felt tears stinging my eyes for a second before rapidly blinking them away.
Mandy passed me another sheaf, this time mostly from adults. Oddly enough, though slightly more articulate, they were a lot like the kids’ letters, though minus the crayon doodles. People wanted to thank me for saving the places that they worked, for making their streets safe, for making them feel safe.
“You know, there’s something your mom once said to me, while she was reading her letters. It was a quote from someone else I think, but I don’t know whom. It was something like, ‘You lay awake at night thinking of all the lives you haven’t saved, but no one ever tells you all the lives that were spared by your actions.’ That’s what these are for, you know. When things get tough. I mean, I know you’ve only been official for a week, but… I do your mom’s fan mail too, and we talk sometimes,” she offered. I looked over at her in surprise.
“Yeah… Mom’d say something like that,” I said, handing the letters back after a minute, getting myself back under control. I hadn’t had a bad fight yet, barring Meltdown, but I knew that sometimes I would. I wasn’t being cynical, I was being practical, or so I told myself, and having something like this supporting me before it happened again was very comforting. Trust my mom to set it up that way.
“Wait, Mom gets fan mail?” I asked suddenly, as the meaning of Mandy’s second comment sank in.
“Oh yeah. I mean, not as much as the Commander, but she gets some. She has a whole book full of copies of treaties and these flowery thank-you letters from different government officials. And she gets a lot of letters from wives and kids. I mean, the macho military guys are usually a little too uptight to thank her informally, but from the families she gets bunches! They know what she did.”
She pulled out a scrapbook from another drawer and held it out, letting me flip through it. There were letters on dozens of government letterheads, copies of treaties with elaborate seals, formal pictures from signings… I hadn’t been looking at the dates, so it was the pictures that tipped me off; Mom looked incredibly young in them.
“These aren’t… recent, are they?” I asked slowly. Mandy shook her head.
“Ah no, Joy keeps her current things at home. This is everything from… before you were born. She… brought these back shortly after she moved back to America. Or at least that’s what the logbook says,” she said quietly. I idly flipped through a few more pages, and then closed the book.
Bite the bullet, ask it, Peace…
“Is there anything here for my dad?” I asked after a second. Mandy slowly turned and put my mom’s book away, pulling out another from the bottom of the drawer.
“Joy said you might ask for this, I brought it up from Storage yesterday,” she said softly, and handed it to me.
I flipped through a few pages, staring at the same kinds of thank-you letters, some written in other languages, but all of them profusely thanking the Red Knight for saving them. Letters followed, some even from kids, all with the kind of artless gratitude that could only come from being saved from a life-or-death situation. I turned a few more pages, finally finding a picture of my dad in his full superhero costume, made of red mock-chainmail, rescuing a child from a burning building. I stared at it for several long minutes, and finally snapped it shut and shoved the book back at Mandy, a little harder than I intended to.
He’s insane. He’s absolutely crazy. What the hell is wrong with him that he’d give that up? Those were questions I had asked myself plenty of times, but after standing on the steps of the bank in Berlin and hearing people cheer for me, to have looked at letters of people whose lives I had influenced… It had been easy enough to hate my dad growing up just because of what he had done to my mom and to her life. It was easy to hate him because he was a murderer, because I looked like him and had his powers, and because of the way people who knew of him looked at me.
But now I didn’t hate him. Right now I pitied him.
“I um… have something that might give you a bit of a laugh, if you like. You look like you could use one,” Mandy said after a few seconds.
“Yeah… that’d be fine,” I told her, snapping myself out of the blue funk I was going into.
“These are your rabid fans here, teenage girls mostly,” she said, handing a third sheaf of papers, much thicker than the other two. I flipped through them with a combination of growing amusement and horror. This was unabashed hero-worship of the most literal kind, liberally spiced with trendy phrases and spellings.
Phoenix ur so hott! So awesome to see such a cutie! You can save me anytime! Love you, XOXOXO! I totally joined your fan club can you send me a picture? I luv your costume, it's sooooo kewl! And on, and on, and on, written on pink stationary, or printed with flowers, or covered with tiny little hearts…
I was laughing before going through a quarter of them, shaking my head in disbelief.
“And that is the edited pile. There were worse ones, but I weeded them out. I’ve been doing this for six years, trust me, I know you don’t want to see what I tossed,” Mandy said.
“I believe you,” I said, handing the lot back to her.
“So, do you want me to keep everything but the dregs? Or just want me to clip the highlights? What’s your pleasure?” she said in a more business-like tone, shuffling the folders a little.
“What… what do you do for my mom?” I asked her. I honestly had no idea what was “normal” for this kind of thing.
“Keep nearly everything but the psycho letters, organize them by event and chronologically, and tag any unusual ones for special attention,” she said briskly.
“Yeah, sure, that sounds… great,” I said quickly. “Wait, do I have to write back?”
“If you want to. I mean, most people understand that heroes are busy, busy people, but it’s considered polite if you write back to at least a few. I try to find the people that are really deserving and mark them for Joy,” she said.
“Sure, that’s fine,” I said with a sigh of relief. If Mom trusted her, then I could do the same. Besides, I wanted to thank those that had drawn the pictures.
“Oh, did you want to have an official letter sent out to your fan club?” she asked before I could get up. I looked a little pained, and she smothered a giggle.
“Sorry, there’s this kind of unofficial rule. Whichever fan club gets a real letter from their superhero first becomes the ‘official’ one,” she explained.
“How about I get back to you on that?” I said, not even wanting to contemplate the avalanche of pink, flowery stationary that might provoke.
“No problem. Ok, that’s all I needed you for Phoenix, thanks for coming in!”
“Thanks,” I told her, getting up. I swear, hero work got more complicated every day.
Monday night I was down at Medic-Co’s main office. I had been in and out of here for the last few months as I had been taking classes and getting my EMT license, and had made a few friends out of my future co-workers. A couple of them recognized me from the Paper Lantern, but luckily I hadn’t gone to school with any of them. That had been my one real concern, that I might end up working with some of the people I had gone to junior high or elementary school with. I had a cover story ready in case I did; it was the same one all Sky High graduates used, about a private school called Maxville Prep that I had allegedly attended for the last four years.
What was frustrating was I couldn’t tell them about what was basically the most important thing in my life. It wasn’t like I didn’t have experience in acting normal, but when you realize that you’re never going to be able to make the slightest comment about what you really do… It was that realization that kind of brought to light how much having real friends in the form of Will, Layla, Zack, Ethan, and Magenta had changed me. Three years ago I wouldn’t have cared if people had talked to me, because I certainly hadn’t wanted to talk to them.
Unlike working at the Paper Lantern, people at Medic-Co didn’t know a thing about me. They didn’t know my dad was in prison, they never knew I had been poor, they had no idea that I used to get into fights all of the time and might be considered dangerous by some. The Lees and most of their employees hadn’t cared, but they still knew. I could create a whole new persona of Warren Peace here if I wanted to. Here I didn’t necessarily need to keep people at bay, not if I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to make people fear me because my powers were so uncertain. People here didn’t have a reason to want to go after me like some idiots had when I was younger.
On the other hand… One of our classes at Sky High had been Concealing Your Secret Identity, which included a lot of guest lecturers. Most of them were active heroes, a few inactive, and a few Bureau officials that handled inadvertent exposures (like Will two years ago when he had, in full view of two citizens, helped lift Sky High back up above Maxville). We had been warned, time and time again, about being careful with office gossip, to not show an insider’s knowledge of who had been where, of not to publicly correct inconsistencies in newspapers or magazines about us.
It wasn’t like we had to keep ourselves totally out of the media. Steve and Josie Stronghold had their faces and names on signs and bus benches all over the city. Penny obviously had managed to wrangle herself a model’s position in Paris, and that wasn’t exactly a low-profile position either. But it still meant we had to be very discrete. The Strongholds really didn’t invite any of their co-workers over for casual visits, because they last thing they needed was for a friend to drop by unannounced and accidentally find one of them in costume.
So yeah, we could have friends outside of the superhero world, but having close friends that also weren’t superheroes was tough, nearly impossible. It worked in some cases, Zack and Ethan’s moms, as well as Layla’s dad, were all citizens, though they still knew what their spouses did for a living. But no one brought their cover job co-workers home casually. Superheroes really couldn’t afford too many more-than-casual friends, because of the risks involved.
“Hey Coop!” I said.
“Hey Peace! Hey, I wanted to tell you thanks for taking the night shift. You wouldn’t believe how much bitching and moaning we got from the rest of the class when we handed out who was going where,” he said, standing up and reaching over for some papers on his desk.
Brian Coopman, or Coop, was my supervisor and had taught a few of my classes. We were friends after the few months we had known each other, but it hadn’t gone beyond much more than talking about sports, work, or weightlifting. Coop wasn’t much of a prying guy, which made it a lot easier to be friendly.
“Well, I’m a night owl anyway,” I told him, accepting my new badge from him and signing the last few forms he gave me.
“Good for me, it’s hard to keep people from wanting to transfer out all the time and I never know who I’m supposed to have on shift,” he said in an exasperated tone of voice, taking the forms back and throwing them in a drawer. “Anyways, I have your partner coming in here soon, she should be here any minute.”
“She?” I asked with trepidation. Coop laughed and smacked me on the back.
“Don’t worry. Man, it’s a damn good thing you never look in the mirror or the rest of us guys would be forced to kill you to get any ladies for ourselves,” he snorted.
“Look, there’s a difference between getting asked out and getting hunted,” I pointed out, and Coop just kept laughing.
“You broke the hearts of damn near every girl in class without even trying, Peace,” he said. I rolled my eyes.
“Their problem, not mine. I wasn’t encouraging anyone,” I said, like I had the last fifty times.
The few people around work that had tried to get to know me a little too well I had to give the brush-off, going back to the same tactics that had worked so well before in school. The unfortunate thing was all of those had been women, for some reason, and now the scat was I had either just come off of a bad relationship with someone that had broken my heart and I was afraid to love, or I was gay. As hilarious as both of those were, I just stayed the hell away from the gossipmongers to avoid giving them any more ammo. I couldn’t have come up with a cover this elaborate if I had tried, and I hadn’t even officially had my first day of work yet!
Coop had been riding me about that ever since Valentine’s Day, when I had valentines from every unattached female in class stuffed in my notebook. The fact that I hadn’t responded to any of them (and there had been a shameless amount of phone numbers included) gave some people the subtle hint that I wasn’t looking for anyone right now, but some others had gotten the opposite idea. Luckily no one had gone into stalker mode, but after going back to being “scary” for a couple of weeks, I had shaken off most of them. Still, there wasn’t any single former female classmate of mine that I trusted alone with me in an enclosed vehicle for several hours.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like girls. It was partly what I had told Coop; I didn’t like the idea of being hunted. There had been a few girls at Sky High that had the same crazy romantic notion that they could break me out of my brooding shell, and I hadn’t liked it any better then than I did now. Not to mention it put me in mind of some of those crazy fan mail letters. I didn’t want some kind of rabid fan that wanted to be with me just because of what I was or how I looked.
Coop had joked that I never looked in a mirror. That wasn’t strictly true. It was just that ever since I had seen my dad’s picture when I was little, looking into the mirror was like seeing him looking back out at me. Intellectually, that was crap and I knew it. But it was hard to shake old habits. Particularly not after having met my dad’s relatives, who had commented more than once on how much I looked like him. Citizens wouldn’t know, nor would they care, but when I saw myself, I didn’t see how I looked, I tried to see what differences there were between him and me. It was stupid, melodramatic even, but there it was.
It was also partially that I worried about my secret identity, and I would absolutely hate to put someone that I cared about at risk because of my real job. The rest of my friends had it really easy in that respect. Will and Layla, Zack and Magenta already knew what they were getting themselves in for. And Chloe might be a citizen, but from Ethan had told us, she could obviously take care of herself. Besides, if she didn’t know he was training to be a superhero yet, she’d either find out or Ethan would tell her. If things got serious between those two, I had no doubt he’d want her to know.
That led me to me to another serious problem, something Will had reminded me of inadvertently when he talked about his fear of accidentally hurting Layla with his powers. I was an emotionally-fueled pyrokinetic, and I honestly wasn’t entirely sure of my control if things got… well, past first base. My Battle relatives’ powers worked a little differently than mine, and since their spouses were all unburned, I guess there must have been some trick to it. I certainly didn’t want to ask Mom about how I had been conceived though; there were some things that were beyond my comfort level. I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask my dad, and I didn’t know my relatives enough to broach that subject with them.
Even with all of that buzzing around in my head, it wasn’t like I was desperate to find someone to share my life with. Sure, all my close friends were hooked up with somebody, but it didn’t mean I felt like I was inadequate for not ever having had a girlfriend. I had been so uncertain of exactly who and what I was for such a long time that the mere thought of complicating that with a relationship made me laugh. And now that I had several big secrets to keep… It was not a good time to go looking for love, even if I had felt I needed it.
I was also cursed with my mother’s perceptiveness. That was what turned me off so much about both those fan mail girls and the valentine-givers in class. They weren’t interested in me; they were interested in an idea of me. I didn’t necessarily consider myself a romantic, but if there was someone out there, I didn’t want a one-night stand.
Aww, big bad Warren Peace wants true love and a happy, fairy-tale ending. Guess what, that doesn’t happen to people like you, my brain had snapped at me.
It happened to the Strongholds, the Howards, the Evans, all my friends’ parents, I had told myself.
What about your parents? There’s the true litmus test. I couldn’t even refute that, and the thought was depressing.
“Yeah, well, Keller is the only female that didn’t put in a request to get you as her partner, so you’re safe,” he said, and I sighed in relief. Thank God, I didn’t think I could have handled another person who just wanted to jump my bones. I had been perfectly prepared for people to hate me, both as Phoenix and as Warren Peace. I hadn’t expected them to like me, and that had brought its own crop of problems with it.
“I don’t recognize the name though.”
“Oh, she’s been on the nightshift for the past… nine months or so. Way before you started class at least. Anyways, she tends to come in early and leave late, so I doubt you would have ever seen her. Hey, there she be! Keller, this is your newbie,” he said heartily.
I didn’t recognize her at first. She had on the same uniform I did, with the same navy vest and hat; her black hair was tucked up under it. She wasn’t any taller than Layla, with dark walnut skin that bespoke of Indian heritage. But when she actually looked up at me, then I realized whom it was. The last time I had seen that sharp-featured face, she had been holding Magenta’s shifted form, right before collapsing in Speed’s vortex.
It was Painbreaker.
This is not happening to me…
“Monica Keller, Warren Peace,” Coop said, making the introductions. “Now am-scray, you guys are in section four, Sixth and Main.”
“Thanks Coop, I’ll try not to run him ragged,” Keller said evenly, and turned to leave towards the garage. I took two steps to catch up with her, checking to make sure Coop had gone back to his paperwork before grabbing her elbow and steering her into an out-of-the-way hallway.
“We need to talk,” I hissed through clenched teeth. Keller looked back at me curiously, blinked once, and widened her eyes in shock.
“You,” she whispered, and looked around sharply. No one was here now, and I needed answers before we took another step.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demanded quietly, keeping a hold of her.
“Working my cover job, same as you,” she replied, not quite looking at me.
“In Maxville? Bullshit. Where are the others?” I hissed.
“Others?” she asked, looking bewildered. She honestly seemed surprised, but she couldn’t be stupid.
“Cutter, Bruin, the rest of your group, where are they?” I snapped. She looked down at the ground.
“You can’t expect me to answer that,” she said softly. I held onto her elbow a little harder, holding onto control very hard, heat flashing along my skin. I was remembering Zack’s screams when she tagged him; how she had obediently held Magenta, ready to send her into agony at Cutter’s nod. I wanted to do something horrible to her, to make her pay for the pain she had inflicted on my friends, but I didn’t dare.
It would be wrong, terribly wrong, and with the anger curling in my gut at seeing an enemy at a place I thought was going to be safe… If I started I might not be able to stop. I felt a shudder go through me as I reined in my temper, but my grip didn’t let up. I hadn’t felt this kind of anger since I had fought Will in the cafeteria almost two years ago, and right at that moment I hated both her for bringing it up and myself for giving in even the tiniest bit to it.
Keller stared at her elbow with a kind of detached fascination, and finally looked me straight in the face. Her eyes were oddly bright and her expression was serene.
“You can’t threaten me with physical pain,” she said very calmly. I felt a shock as severe as if I had just been plunged into cold water, and let go. Heroes don’t hurt people. And with her powers, it wouldn’t matter what I do to her.
“How about jail time?” I shot back, getting my metaphorical feet back under me. She actually looked a little startled at that.
“If you try to take me in, I’ll fight. I think you’ll win, but I’ll fight, and we’ll blow both of our covers doing it,” she said quietly, staring at her feet again.
Damn it, she’s right.
“Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t take the risk anyway,” I told her. She didn’t need to know how much I didn’t want to break my cover.
“You just want a little normalcy before going out to save the world,” she said simply. "And heroes don't take people out of their cover job; it's rude."
“That doesn’t answer my question,” I pointed out. We hadn't exposed Bruin for some of the same reasons, but I still needed to hear her excuse.
“Please don’t. I… I won’t do anything. You haven’t heard anything out of me, haven’t you? I’ve been working here nine months. I haven’t been working,” she pleaded, emphasizing the last word.
I glared at her and took two steps back. The words wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else, but I saw what she was getting at. If she had been working as a supervillain, somebody would have seen her by now doing something. Or the Bureau might have picked up victims of her powers at local hospitals or clinics. Since nothing of the sort had happened… She had been telling the truth.
Nine months and hadn’t been doing any supervillainy? So what else could she be doing here? Not enjoying the scenery… It came to me in a flash, so obviously I nearly smacked myself in the head. It was the exact same reason Royal Pain had roped Speed, Lash, and Penny into her scheme.
“You’re a spy,” I said, and when she looked away from me, I knew I was right.
“I had no idea who you were, and I certainly didn’t expect to have you assigned to me as my partner,” she offered diffidently.
“So what are you spying for?”
“I can’t tell you,” she said, still looking away. Well, I wasn’t expecting a straight answer, but at least she didn’t try to lie to me. I was torn. I could try to take her in and risk both of our cover jobs. Or I could lie low and try to figure out another way to beat her at her own game.
I truly hated the idea of blowing my cover after having spent so much time establishing it. The only reason I had the relatively plum assignment of Maxville was because I was waiting for my friends to graduate. This being the Commander and Jetstream’s hometown, they didn’t really need the help. But since they did a lot of jobs all over world, courtesy of Jetstream’s flight speed, sometimes they didn’t mind the extra help at home.
If I blew my cover here, I’d have to go to a different town entirely, away from anyone I knew. But would it be worth it to take in a member of Royal Pain’s supervillain academy? Was cracking the cover of the superhero world worth putting her in the Bureau’s hands?
Or should I wait, and spy on her in return? Sure, I could probably take Painbreaker in, only to discover she knew little more than Lash, Speed, and Penny, leaving us exactly where we were, with virtually nothing.
Though I was of the opinion I would never be a good spy, everyone at Sky High had to learn at least a little about the trade. And there was one thing I remembered very well from that class. “The best spy is one you know.” A spy you know is a spy can be fed false information. And if she were going to be spying on the superhero world in general (at a guess) or even me in specific, what would be worse? To let her spy on me from an unknown distance, or to be right there to try to control what she learned?
I glared at Keller with venom, knowing both choices sucked and not liking it one bit. I didn’t trust her with anyone else, now that I knew she was here, so I either had to stick with her or give her up to the Bureau.
Screw it, the Bureau has found barely anything about the academy since we defeated Royal Pain. Maybe shaking down one spy of theirs will give us what our own spies can’t, I thought finally. Sure, we had the vague location of the academy now, but no way in hell of getting in any further than the door, not with who and what we had right now. It’s time for something completely different. And not just shapeshifted spies. I don’t think we can afford to wait that long.
As Zack might have said, it was just so crazy, it might work. The thought of Zack also had me make up my mind not to tell my friends about this. Maybe Magenta or Ethan could keep this a secret, possibly Layla too, but I definitely wouldn’t trust Will to keep his mouth shut on this. And Zack… I wasn’t even sure exactly how Zack would react, but I could guess it would be bad.
If I was right, and I managed to feed the academy false information through Painbreaker, we could begin to take down the academy from within. If I was wrong, and she ended up turning on me, it would be better to keep the damage contained to one person. Heroes were given a lot of latitude in how they worked, and right now I was going to take it for all it was worth.
And that’s not much right now. This is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, you peacock-brained buffoon! my brain screamed at me. I agreed, but ignored it anyway.
“Fine. We have a shift to work, let’s get going,” I said after a moment. Keller snapped her eyes up from the floor, but didn’t question her good fortune in not getting hauled into the Bureau.
“We probably won’t be that busy, it’s only Monday, and four isn’t that bad of a section to work…” Keller started up as we began walking towards the garage. I paid attention to what she had to say, because now I had no choice. Not only was she my partner, but also she was our only solid link to the academy, and I couldn’t afford to let anything she said slide. Anything might be useful, particularly when the stakes were this high.
Maxville was divided up into sections, and we were supposed to go and park our ambulance in our assigned place, so we’d be close enough to help anyone in that area. The city was big enough that that was much more efficient than keeping us somewhere central. Keller drove while I quickly went through where she had stored everything in the back, making sure I knew what was where in an emergency. They were supposed to have a standard layout, but everyone tweaked their own just a bit.
She was silent the entire drive, other than answering a few direct questions about where something was, and by the time she had parked, I was completely tense. She had completely shut down and gone virtually opaque, just listening to the scanner with all of her concentration. So I nearly jumped out of my seat when she talked next.
“I guess you took this job so you could be where rescues are needed, right?” she said into the thick silence. I looked sideways at her, but didn’t answer.
“That’s the only thing that makes sense really. Hard choice for a pyro though, to be in a vehicle with pure oxygen. Your self-control is really very good,” she continued. “You could have hurt Cutter a lot worse than you did, just to make your point, but you didn’t.”
Is she trying to bait me? I thought incredulously.
“I’m a hero,” I told her. “I’m supposed to take the high road.” She actually winced at that.
Hypocrite, my brain told me. Who was contemplating burning her not an hour ago?
At least I didn’t actually follow through, I pointed out.
“I suppose you must think me very weak, doing what I do,” she said finally. How was I supposed to answer that?
“I’m sure you have reasons,” I said, my tone acidic.
“Terrible reasons, I’m sure. And now I’m supposed to relate to you my whole sob story so you’ll feel story for me and leave me alone,” she replied, leaning back in her seat, staring at the ceiling.
“You’re not that stupid to think I’m going to fall for that,” I told her, glaring.
“And you’re not so stupid to believe it. They told us that making a hero feel sympathy for us might get us a short reprieve that we could use to run away or attack at a weak point,” she said, closing her eyes.
“So, does it work?” I asked her sarcastically. At this point I was honestly prepared for her to do anything. Attack me, start driving out of town, flee on foot…
“I don’t know. So far, it hasn’t. Maybe if I were younger, angrier, and crazier I might believe it would. But since you’re ready to burn me alive if I even look at you sideways, I’m not going to bother. I told you, I like this job,” she said.
“You’re really strange,” I told her finally. I don’t exactly know what I expected from talking to a supervillain, but her oddly fatalistic acceptance of the fact that I wasn’t going to let her get away with anything was entirely not what I had in mind. She turned to look at me curiously.
“So are you,” she said back. “How about a deal?”
“I don’t deal with supervillains,” was right on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it. Cliché would have been an understatement for that, not to mention counterproductive.
“What kind of deal?” I asked instead.
“How about we both pretend we’re as normal as we can get and not mention what we do for our day jobs again unless we have to?” she suggested.
“How about if I ever catch you using your powers on anyone, I haul you into the Bureau?” I countered.
“Done,” she said suddenly, reaching over with her hand. I clasped it for a second, watching her sharply for treachery. She seemed to be telling the truth, but I could feel the beginning of a stress headache behind my eyes. I could tell it was only going to be the first of many.