The Silence of the Lambs
I found out a few things that night. One, Keller didn’t try to attack me. Two, most people are overprotective hypochondriacs. We only had a few calls that night, all for things that I didn’t think even rated an emergency room visit. A bump on the head, a fender-bender, someone who had taken a hard fall, and a guy who thought he was having a heart attack, but only had heartburn. Coop had made jokes about that in class, about how we’d spend a lot of our time wiping people’s snotty noses, but it was kind of ridiculous to see it in real life.
Nothing even gave me a hint of trouble with my powers, and I honestly spent most of the night more worried that Keller was going to do something than worrying about the patients I was supposed to be transporting. But other than purely necessary conversation, she didn’t even talk to me for the rest of the night.
At seven a.m., when we knocked off, Coop was waiting for me at the exit.
“So, did Keller try to jump your bones or get your number?” he asked, smirking. Keller chose just that moment to walk out past both of us, nodding solemnly to each.
“See you tomorrow, Coop, Warren,” she said politely as the door shut behind her.
“Nope, we just talked about work. That was it,” I told him a little stiffly, not even trying to look where she was going. I suppose I should have been trying to catch a glimpse of her car or something so I could follow her back to where she lived. But the stalker-like visions that brought up quickly made me discard the idea. Not to mention that if I looked like I was the slightest bit interested in her, no matter what the reason, Coop would never let me forget it.
“Huh… So I suppose the office betting pool-.”
“Is never going to get won. Sorry,” I told him with infinite casualness. Coop just grinned a little.
“Good to know. Dating your co-worker is one thing. Kidnapping your co-worker to be your sex slave is something else. I’m pretty sure there’d be a sexual harassment suit over that. Somehow,” he laughed. I just rolled my eyes and went home.
I considered myself very lucky that while Mom was a morning person, she also tended to leave the house early to go work out. I was not necessarily looking forward to explaining what I was trying to do with Keller. Mom would manage to get it out of me one way or another, especially considering how badly my stomach was in knots. When I finally parked my car though, I realized my luck was out. Mom was waiting for me on the porch.
For about two seconds I debated going to a hotel. Or crashing at one of my friends’ houses.
This is stupid. I’m a superhero, I can face my own mother.
Yeah, but unlike a supervillain, she’ll always get the better of you, my brain pointed out.
I got out, squinting in the morning light, knowing that Mom probably already knew what was going on with me. But explaining the details wasn’t going to be pleasant. My mother was the most ethical person on the planet, and what I was doing was somewhat less than ethical. I was keeping secrets, harboring a known supervillain, risking her doing something evil for a chance to get information.
“How was work honey?” she asked once I got into earshot. I shrugged expansively, and she followed me into the house.
“Pretty good. Kind of a boring night, which is a good thing,” I offered evasively, dropping my bag in the hallway. Mom just closed the distance and gave me a big hug.
“You don’t have to say anything, if you don’t want to. But I know a boring night shouldn’t leave you feeling like you’re ready to do battle at any moment,” she said, finally letting go. I opened and closed my mouth once, then decided to take Mom at her word. I didn’t dare look this gift horse in the mouth, so to speak.
“If I get in over my head, I’ll come to you, I promise,” I said, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead. That was as far as I was willing to acknowledge exactly what I was doing. Mom gave me an odd little look, but thankfully didn’t go any farther.
“I’ll get you up this afternoon,” was all she said, and I nodded, repressing the urge to groan. My friends had to know about the newly discovered quirks of my powers, and I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to telling them. I needed them to know, just in case something weird happened to me during a fight. And who knew? Maybe they’d be able to figure out more of why my powers worked the way they did. It was inevitable, because I had graduated first, that they’d have the time to analyze everything I did in the field, which meant I was going to be under more scrutiny than I had been even at Sky High. That’s why I was a little uneasy about having to spill even more of my guts. My friends were going to be a lot more careful and critical than Boomer ever had been. Which technically was a good thing. I think.
I was supposed to be sleeping during the day now, considering I was on third shift, but sleep was not easily forthcoming. The airshow must had been in town, and the planes must have been choosing to fly right over my house to practice, because I kept being jarred awake by sonic booms at irregular intervals. Trixie did not approve, because she was trying to catch some winks as well, and every time I started, she would meow in irritation. So it was a thoroughly irritated me with an equally irritated pet that greeted my friends that afternoon.
“You look terrible Warren!” were the first words out of Layla’s mouth when I opened the door.
“Happy Tuesday to you too,” I grumped. “I didn’t sleep well. Is the airshow in town or something? There were jets flying over my house all morning.”
“Umm… that was me, I think,” Will offered a little sheepishly, trailing in right behind Layla. “Mom and I were um… doing some flying stuff. Sonic boom tag.”
“Right over my damn house?” I demanded. Will looked embarrassed.
“Not on purpose!” he protested. “Seriously, we were all the way over the lake! The sound must have… just… carried…” He trailed off into an awkward silence when my expression didn’t soften.
“Right. Trixie, sic ‘em!” My cat looked at me, looked at Will, looked back at me, jumped over to Will and took a half-hearted swipe at his nose. Predictably, nothing happened, though Will politely stood there and took it. Then she jumped down and primly groomed her whiskers, balance having been restored in her world. Magenta and Zack had come in right after Will, and were both choking down laughter.
I glared at all four of them, daring them to say anything, and everyone abruptly went into the living room to escape any further fiery or feline fury. Ethan showed up five minutes later, and Mom came out with two things, a tray of lemonade, and the dusty box labeled “Margaret Peace.”
I swallowed, a kind of reflexive unease coming over me. It wasn’t about this, not necessarily. Mom had promised to do most of the talking, so at least I wasn’t going to have to do this on my own. It was what Will had said to me the other day, about pulling a Yellowstone on me again if I started keeping secrets. Right now we were gathered to talk about one of them; yet I had a whopper of one under my belt right now, and I could just imagine their reactions if they knew I was working side-by-side with Painbreaker.
How could I explain to them that I was trying to help? That I was trying to get information on the academy where the Bureau had failed, not once, but several times? That I was impatient with being patient, and wanted to do something myself? Well… actually they probably would understand that, but I doubted they would have approved how I was doing it.
There was also something in the back of my mind, something my uncle Anthony had mentioned to me. That the Bureau would only try me past my strength once, because a single mistake could see me dead. I had told him I wasn’t disillusioned with the Bureau yet, but after waiting so long for answers only to have them blocked yet again… Maybe I was a little disillusioned, that I was trying something this reckless. It wasn’t that the Bureau had ever asked me to do something I hadn’t wanted to, or that they had ever refused anything I had asked them (not that I had asked them for much). But perhaps my uncle had just made me realize I shouldn’t take anything for granted. I wasn’t going to be an ass about it, but it also didn’t mean I could try to do stuff on my own either.
“We finally figured out how Warren’s healing powers work,” Mom was saying as I shook myself out of my reverie.
“Like how?” Will asked, looking at me curiously.
“When I was fighting Cascade… Tesla, my aunt Lauren, was drowning. Cascade left part of herself behind when she got shocked off,” I explained again, a little more thoroughly than I had on Sunday morning. Ethan went a little green at that, probably imagining how it would feel to literally rip part of yourself away. “I was going to go after her and Hydro, but I was…” I paused to think of the right word, “compelled to heal Lauren. The ember-fire wanted me to, and I couldn’t make myself do anything but heal her. It was like my powers were in control of me.”
Magenta and Ethan were looking at me with sympathy, but not a lot of understanding. Shapeshifters might involuntarily shift from time to time (that was where the legends of werewolves had come from, or so Mrs. Richards had told us), but their powers were usually a lot more controllable than mine. Mental powers like Layla’s or my mom’s could be more insidious, and people like Will could occasionally have accidents from their powers. Well, Will probably had more accidents than most, but that was also because he was more powerful than any five “average” superheroes put together. But in general it was energy powers that were the most unpredictable. So it wasn’t surprising that Zack was the most empathetic.
“I hear you man. Dude, that must have been pretty freaky,” he said with a surprising amount of compassion. When I got mad, I burst into flame. When Zack got excited, he started glowing. Different things, but still the same phenomenon. Aside from really extreme situations, most of my friends didn’t power up accidentally. Usually. There were quite a few broken doors and banisters in the neighborhood that gave mute testimony to Will forgetting how strong he was, though.
“Yeah… so I Tobias basically told me he had no idea how to deal with what happened. So I called Mom,” I said, handing the floor over to her.
“Warren gets his healing power from me. Healers usually tend to be psychics, and it was my family that had the last strong one. That’s who Margaret Peace was,” she explained, and carefully went over what she had told me about the history and quirks of her great-great grandmother. The gang looked strangely subdued when they listened, and Layla looked particularly stricken near the end.
“That’s so sad,” she said softly, and Mom nodded.
“You can see why Tobias was so… insistent in warning us once he got rumors of what Warren can do,” she said. I gave a short, dark laugh at Mom’s word choice of “insistent,” but didn’t bother to explain to the others.
“So… we need to make sure if we get hurt, to not fall down at Warren’s feet in the middle of a fight?” Magenta asked.
“Hey, it’s not like I don’t want to help you guys, I just want you to know what’s going on if I go in a trance,” I protested.
“We need to hit you. Got it,” she said matter-of-factly, while Zack snickered. I glared at both of them, and Trixie did too, for good measure.
“Anyway,” Mom said, stopping the quips before they could start to get out of hand. “That’s all we needed to let you know. And I’m sure you have some more power practice to do before dinner.”
I was going to protest with the rest of my friends, seeing as I hadn’t had any normal, casual hanging-out time with them for over a week, but Mom gave me a significant look, and I shut my mouth. It probably wasn’t going to be the first time that we had little emergency meetings, things going as they did in the superhero world. If I hadn’t told them today, luck would happen that they’d need to know it tonight. And secure phones or not, I felt a little safer getting them together to talk about it in person. Besides, I think Mom had something she wanted to talk about with me that my friends didn’t need to be privy to.
“I’ll catch up with you guys later, promise,” I said instead, once everyone was done protesting. I dropped a few hints that Mom needed to “talk” with me about something, and got a few sympathetic glances, presuming it was going to be another “worried mother” talk before I went out on my cover job. After a bit more joking around, it was down to the two of us again. Mom waited two breaths after the front door shut before she started talking again, words almost tumbling out of her.
“I haven’t seriously spoken to my own family up until two years ago,” she said softly. “You know I’m the most powerful of my family, and I had to learn how to control my powers mostly on my own, because everyone else’s powers were weaker, or only dealt with a specific emotion. I was also the first of us to work as a public hero. My brother and sister work for the Bureau with traumatized heroes, and that’s what my mother did too, until she retired. So I gained our family a lot of inadvertent fame, and then smashed it all into the mud when…” Mom had to stop for a moment. Hell, no wonder they were pissed, I thought. From behind-the-scenes heroes, to relatives of the relatively famous Peacemaker, to being as suspect as she in the fall of Baron Battle… High to low in the blink of a madman’s eye.
“I knew those diaries existed; I had seen that box in the attic when I was younger. And I should have gotten them last September when you first found out about your healing power… But I wasn’t ready yet. When you called me last week though, I knew it was time. My mother lives in the next town over, barely twenty minutes away, and I drove right over there and claimed this box. And my mother was so wrought up that we couldn’t even speak to each other. This was a crucially important event in both of our lives, and we had so much silence between us that we couldn’t even talk normally,” she said with a small, involuntary shudder of sorrow.
What kind of courage could it take to walk into a house where a blood relative empath could shove their own pain down your throat? I thought, my admiration for my mother’s bravery raising a notch. Mom was being a little stiff and formal, like she had rehearsed this speech in her head. I had a feeling she had, perhaps several hundred times, just so she could get it out. This must be as hard for her as talking to my friends about my own past had been.
“Thanks for doing that for me,” I told her quietly, hugging her hard. She took a few deep breaths in my arms and then hugged me back before pulling away.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to talk normally again. A lot of it is she’s so ashamed at not having spoken to me in so long… It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, really. Thinking of shame and then shame becomes reality. That’s why I can’t mend fences with them. It’s almost better to start over as strangers,” she said with a sigh. I really had not idea what to say to that, but then Mom shook her head and stood up.
“I think that’s more than enough depressing family history for one day,” she said in a slightly brighter tone of voice. And that was all I could get out of her on that for the rest of the day. Not that I tried very hard. I’d be perfectly content to let the Peace family continue to deal with their issues on their own, and not try to complicate it with demanding a familial relationship with them. The very idea of trying to force myself on a bunch of unwilling empaths gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies.
That night, I barely had time to say hi to Coop before Keller showed up. I wasn’t at all willing to talk with her in front of him, mostly because I was afraid I’d let something slip about her identity or mine. And the fact that Coop would cheerfully joke with both of us, and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with even friendly joking right now. I’d just end up biting someone’s head off. I had had the rest of the afternoon to work myself up to deal with Painbreaker, and I had myself on such an edge I’m sure even an innocent comment would have garnered a truly ridiculous response.
“I have to ask you something, but I’m going to have to violate the terms of our deal,” Keller said once we had parked in our sector. She hadn’t said a single word to me since we had left the station, and she had startled me again with talking out of the blue. I felt myself clenching my jaw and stopped. The last thing I needed was another stress headache on top of the short sleep.
“Shoot,” I said neutrally. Mentally I was prepared do battle again, as Mom had said, to try to extract the real meaning out of anything she said.
“I have… another aspect to my power. I can sense pain, sometimes from up to four blocks away, if it’s bad enough. It’s almost like seeing color, it’s just there unless I make an effort to block it out,” she explained. I turned to her with curiosity. “It’s how I knew Bloodtalon had tagged Flyboy last fall.”
I almost automatically corrected the “Flyboy” remark, but stopped myself. She either already knew it was Will Stronghold, considering that Royal Pain had dated him for a few weeks, or Royal Pain hadn’t bothered to tell them just to be mysterious. Either way, it wasn’t my job to confirm her information. It was actually my self-appointed job to give her disinformation. And she might have purposefully been trying to make me mad and careless by bringing up the Homecoming incident. So I just nodded to show I understood, but held my tongue.
“So, most of the time I know where someone’s hurt before we get the call to go there. I can get a jump on any major injury. Assuming you aren’t going to haul me in for using my powers,” she added.
Ok, that’s interesting. It was a practical use of a power that might otherwise only have the option to hurt. Just like yours, my brain added. I abruptly squashed any latent sympathy that thought brought up.
“What do you usually use it for, if you’re not doing this?” I asked cautiously.
“My powers don’t work unless someone is already hurt,” she said simply. “That’s why I was partnered with Cutter. She doesn’t miss. I knew you hadn’t been hurt when she tried to stab you, or you would have been feeling me. That’s why the only person I was able to tag was Glowboy.”
The temperature in the cabin spiked ten degrees before I wrenched my temper back under control. Yeah, practical use of her powers… just to get a jump on whom she can torture the worse. When did you become such a bleeding heart, Peace? You’ve been hanging around Layla too much, my brain scolded me.
“If you’re trying to get me to feel sympathy for you, you’re doing a crappy job,” I said, instead of yelling at her like I wanted to. I knew I shouldn’t be so snappy, not if I wanted to get any honest information out of her, but it was hard to not want to yell at her for what she had done. She closed her eyes for a second, and something else she had said suddenly penetrated my anger. “That’s why I was partnered with Cutter.” Was. Was partnered. Did that mean anything? Something? Nothing? Was I overthinking this? Crap, I am not so great at espionage…
“Sorry, I got really bad grades in Evil Plots and Schemes. I was much better in Disturbing Glances and Quips,” she said after a moment.
“You actually have a Disturbing Glances class?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Tell me you didn’t have some kind of Heroic Poses class or something,” she said back. Since we had, I didn’t even bother to answer, and Keller actually smiled slightly before going back to her usual neutral expression.
“So, about my pain-sensing?” she asked again.
“Fine,” I growled. I shouldn’t have been so touchy, particularly not if I thought I was going to be able to do any reverse spying. But it was harder than I thought. I was going to have to get inside her head, to a certain extent, and I seriously didn’t want to do that.
Looks like your plan isn’t so brilliant, James Bond, my brain reminded me.
Shut. Up, I told myself sternly.
Several more minutes of silence passed while I tried to figure out what, exactly, I was going to do. “Feeding her false information,” was kind of a vague plan, and I wasn’t sure what I needed to say or do, precisely, to get that done.
“I didn’t have a tragic childhood,” Keller said suddenly, startling me again. She was some kind of verbal ninja, to keep surprising me like that, and it was irking me. I shouldn’t have kept losing myself in thought.
“Did you have to make one up instead?” I asked, trying to keep the sarcasm down and not succeeding very well. I remembered what she had said about using her “sob story” to win sympathy from heroes, and wondered what she thought she was going to do.
“I suppose I could, if you wanted to hear a tragic story,” she offered. I looked at her in annoyance.
“So how does someone with a non-tragic story end up in a supervillain academy?” I asked. If she was going to bend the rules of our little deal by talking about her powers, then I wanted to see if I could get any more information out of her about the academy before she decided to clam up again. She shrugged.
“Ask me, maybe you’ll see something I didn’t,” she suggested. I found it suspicious in the extreme that she was at all willing to talk about herself, but since she had offered, I’d figure I’d ask. If she were going to lie to me, now would be the time to do it. I hadn’t been an interrogator before, but I thought I could wing it. Start with something simple…
“Were your parents supervillains?” That was the most obvious question, and one I thought I already knew the answer to. Principal Powers had said she was probably a first-generation power, considering her age compared to the others.
“No, they were normal, as far I as I knew. I never met them,” she said.
“No. My father was from Delhi. He came to America to go to college, and got a scholarship to Stanford. He met my mother there, and they were married right out of college. She got pregnant; he died in a car crash two months later. Mom died in childbirth, and her mother raised me.”
“No grandfather?” I asked.
“No, he died sometime in the early seventies, industrial accident,” she replied. So far, she was being truthful, but her story still seemed very odd.
“So, your grandmother?”
“She was wonderful, and I loved her very much.”
“What happened to her?”
“She died when I was fourteen, about six months after I powered up the first time, pancreatic cancer. It was fast, at least,” she said with a fatalistic shrug. “After that I was in foster care. Good people, fair, nice. I never had any problems with them.”
This was not exactly the mental portrait I had of a supervillain’s childhood. Where were the mean guaridans or foster parents, cruel punishments, the mutilated animals in the back alley, bullying or being bullied by other kids, or experimenting with their powers for fun and profit? I had the uncanny sensation she was telling the truth, which was rather disconcerting, considering how had expected things to go. Either she was lying, which I didn’t think she was, she was leaving things out, or I wasn’t asking the right questions. Right, next most obvious thing then.
“What about school?”
“I skipped the second grade in elementary school, and took some college courses in my senior year of high school and some other night classes at the local community college, and was able to double up to get through college in two years instead of four to save money,” she said quickly, as if she had anticipated my questions. Ok, so she was smart, or at least dedicated. And not overly rich, if she had to cram that much into two years. No scholarships apparently. When would she have had the time to be a villain if she was taking that many classes? All right, next big question. And the one closest to the bone for me.
“People ever pick on you?”
“I was a little younger than most, but I had a few friends. I mostly kept to myself, kept out of peoples’ way, and they didn’t bother me. Read a lot, won the spelling bee a few times when I was younger, wrote a little in high school and college for the school paper. Medical stuff mostly, about volunteering.”
“After I powered up… I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on. I learned a lot of what I could from books. I kind of figured out I needed to be around people in pain to avoid backlash, so I volunteered at the local hospital. I worked as a nurse’s aide to help pay the bills while I was in college. Then I was a pain therapist for about a year and a half, before I was recruited,” she said, and opened her eyes.
“Pain therapist?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. Backlash? What exactly is she talking about? I filed that away for future reference. I didn’t want to get too sidetracked.
“The irony is staggering, I know,” she said with a small smile.
It was strange, but I had been expecting something far worse, a violent boyfriend, or witnessing some terrible tragedy, or something to help explain why she would want to go to the academy. She didn’t exactly have the kind of warm and fuzzy home life most of my friends had had, and most of the rest of it seemed, quiet honestly, boring. It sounded like she had led a pretty quiet life, powers not withstanding. Right up until she had decided to become a supervillain. Something wasn’t adding up.
“So, what about you?” she asked.
“What about me?” I said.
“I told you something about me. What about you? Quid pro quo.”
“We are so not doing Silence of the Lambs,” I snapped in exasperation. She looked at me measuringly.
“Well, I guess you’re no Clarice Starling,” she said with a hint of a smile.
“And you’re definitely no Hannibal Lecter,” I shot back. She snorted.
“Cutter said that to me once. She said I was a great female Hannibal Lecter.”
“And you don’t agree with her?”
“Since he was elegant, suave, and a cannibal, no, I don’t think so. Besides, she’s crazy, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention to her opinions.”
“So if she’s crazy, what does that make you?”
“Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. I was considering exactly how crazy I was, then I realized that if I was wondering if I was crazy, I probably wasn’t,” she said carefully.
“I think there’s a flaw in your logic.”
“Right, people shouldn’t try to assess their own sanity?” she asked.
“Sure, fine, that sounds about right,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Don’t be coy. If you think I’m insane, say so!”
“I… really don’t know. I honestly have no idea why someone would want to be a supervillain,” I told her, surprising myself a little. I didn’t think she was insane, at least not right now, but I still couldn’t reconcile her history with what I had seen of her in action. Keller started and looked sharply at me.
“So saying someone is insane is easier than understanding their own reasons for being a supervillain?” she asked a little harshly.
“What, you want my good opinion?” I asked, confused.
“Yes,” she said simply.
What… the… fuck? I thought slowly. Ok, this is some kind of elaborate mind game. It has to be.
“Why?” I demanded.
“I don’t want to spent forty hours a week with someone that hates me,” she said.
“You hurt my fr- teammates,” I said, stopping myself from saying “friends” at the last second. She didn’t need any more weapons against me than she already had.
“You hurt mine,” she responded, raising an eyebrow.
“Why the hell did you go to the academy?” I demanded, not daring to answer her last comment.
“Because Royal Pain asked me,” she said simply.
Why the hell did someone who led a relatively boring existence up until recently decide to be a supervillain? How did Royal Pain convince her? I had been a little uncertain about how exactly I was going to do my grand spy plan, and had been more uncertain with each passing comment. But suddenly I had a plan. Somehow Royal Pain had managed to find and convince a relatively ignorant superpower with little to no villainous ambitions to join her academy. Presumably she was doing the same to others, by proxy of whoever was running the academy now.
If I could figure out how someone like Keller has been picked and convinced, maybe we could intercept her next potential student. It was a long shot, I realized, but unless I could find someway to crack Painbreaker to giving me the keys to the academy doors, this was the next best way in. I could feed her false information on the heroes of Maxville until my tongue fell off, but this could be even better. What we needed was a person inside that academy, someone that could actually talk to the teachers, see the classes, and speak with the students without the fear of being unmasked. If I could find out who that next student was, maybe I could stop a villain from being born, or even save some of the others.