Author’s Note: Minor props to Tenacious D for one of Warren’s nicknames. I’m also putting a gore warning on this chapter. Gore! Gore is ahead! And here there be dragons!
This made no sense. None at all. Not the tiniest bit. Why should she tell me the truth? Everything she said I could use against her. The reverse was true as well, but I hadn’t said anything about me. At least, not directly. But how in the world did she think that giving me part of her history was going to help her? I was extremely confused, and could only think of one way of dealing with it right now. Shut the hell up. I needed time to think, and think hard about what I thought I was doing.
I had put a lot of faith in Mom’s lessons on how to read people, but right now I was so weirded out that I didn’t know what to believe. Was Keller better at lying than I was at detecting a lie? I wasn’t infallible, though most people weren’t used to hiding information from someone with my training. Was I arrogantly assuming I could guess what she was really up to? I bet she had plenty of practice in hiding her true intentions at the academy. I mean, I hadn’t figured out Gwen was Royal Pain until everyone else at school. Yeah, I definitely needed the time off.
She lapsed into silence again along with me, and we both sat, wrapped in our own thoughts for at least another half hour. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Why did you tell me the truth?” I asked her. I noticed I hadn’t managed to startle her like she had me at least a half-dozen times, and that irked me.
“I’m not a terribly good liar. And you’re not so much of a fool that you couldn’t figure out the truth with a bit of hunting. I figured I’d spare you the time and me the recriminations,” she said.
I wanted to ask more obvious questions, like why she was giving me information I could use against her, why she had said she was partnered with Cutter, or what backlash was. But I was a little worried about what she might say. Too much truth could be as confusing as too many lies. Before I could formulate a question though, I was saved by the bell. Literally. My emergency phone started ringing.
The ring was the same as my normal phone, but I knew my normal phone was on my belt, whilst the emergency phone was in an inner pocket of my vest. I was reluctant to answer it in front of Keller. Scratch that. Actually I was pretty sure there were rules somewhere about answering your emergency phone in front of a known supervillain.
“Aren’t you going to answer that, hero?” she asked a touch sarcastically. “They might be calling about me.”
Welcome to the Twilight Zone… my brain said softly. She already knew I was Phoenix, of course. She had seen me with no mask, using my powers, if she hadn’t already known about me from studying my dad. There weren’t two pyrokinetics of my age and build that could have come on the scene so recently, and certainly none that would have been working with Fire Court. And, most blindingly obvious, none that would have claimed to be the son of the Red Knight. I didn’t have time to argue with her to go somewhere else, and going outside to answer was almost as reckless as talking in front of her. I chose the lesser and more well known of the two evils and pulled out the phone.
“Go,” I said quickly, staring at her almost defiantly.
“Phoenix, we have a burning office building on Main and Tenth, the fourth floor. We think the blaze was set by Flashpoint!”
“I’m on it,” I said, and snapped the phone shut. The ambulance was parked only four blocks away from where I needed to be; I could run there quickly enough. It might not be as cool as Fire Court’s jet or Will’s flying, but until I managed to get a Phoenix-mobile or something, I was stuck with hoofing it or commandeering the ambulance. That had been my plan until I saw who my partner was. At least the Bureau knew I was a little constrained in where I could feasibly go.
Chhk “657, call to Main and Tenth, possible burn victim from building fire, respond,” the radio crackled to life in a burst of static, Coop calling out the number of our ambulance. Keller stared at me, and I nodded tightly, confirming that’s where I was going.
“657, on the way,” she responded, and started up the bus. I flipped on the lights and sirens as we pulled out of the parking lot, trying to surreptitiously fumble for the bag that held my helmet and gauntlets with the other hand. I had on most of my costume under my clothes, but I still had to change before confronting Flashpoint.
“I’ll pull around back,” Keller said shortly as we rounded a corner. “You just make sure you’re back down here to drive before people get suspicious.”
The weirdness was going a little too fast for me, but I didn’t have time to argue. Undoubtedly my guts would be tying themselves in complicated sailor’s knots once I stopped to think about the implications of what I was doing (and what she was doing), but not now. Keller whipped the ambulance down the alley behind the smoky burning building, slowing just enough to let me roll out the doors before zipping around to the front. Shoving my unease at Keller aside, I quick-changed as I rolled, and sprang up, shouldering open the fire door as I went. Most of these were supposed to open automatically when the alarm tripped, which was good for me. I was strong, but not nearly strong enough to rip open a locked metal safety door.
Fourth story, why the hell did Flashpoint have to choose the fourth story office? I groused mentally as I ran up the stairs into the smoky air.
There were two types of supervillains I was most likely to face, ones with cold powers, for obvious reasons, and ones with fire powers, because I was immune to what they could do to me. I made sure I had most of them memorized before I graduated.
Flashpoint was a pyrokinetic, though a little different than me. His powers were limited to short, intense bursts, and he couldn’t stay powered up for longer periods of time like I could. He was, first and foremost, an arsonist. Secondarily, he was a thief and blackmailer, taking what secrets and goodies he could, burning everything else, and then calling the owners to pay for their things back.
It was his greed that kept him from being a deadly menace, because he generally preferred to burn buildings to people. It wouldn’t stop him burning someone so he could escape, and if someone didn’t get out of a building he burned, that was just too damn bad, in his mind. I could only be grateful he had chosen to burn the place at night, when there were less people around. Luckily his greed and desire not to be caught were stronger than his need to set things on fire, at least tonight. I only hoped I could get him under control before he managed to burn anyone else.
The smoke was getting thicker with each flight of stairs, and I grabbed one of the oxygen caplets from my belt and slid it in between my cheek and gum in case I needed it, silently blessing Nurse Spex for suggesting them. Hell of a thing for me to collapse from smoke inhalation inside a burning building. I would lose far too many cool points that way.
The fourth floor stairwell was open, flames licking a few of the walls, smoke filling the air, the lurid red and orange of the flames providing the only light. The cloth-walled cubicles of the office inside were filled with paper, and the place was going up fast. I paused for a moment and listened, trying to hunt for the sounds of groaning floorboards or shifting ceiling beams. Being indestructible, in theory I could survive a four-story fall and walk away. In reality, I better not test that unless I had to.
There were no dangerous sounds from the structure itself, but I heard two other things. One was slightly hysterical laughter, coming from deeper in the burning office. The other was a very faint muffled voice, coming from a closet further down the hall. I slid in quietly, checking all around for signs of Flashpoint. I hoped he was the source of the laughter, because if he had minions lurking around…
I was suddenly very much aware of the fact that I was alone. I had no backup, no one checking the left while I check the right. It should have been second nature really, considering how I had grown up, but having concerned friends had kind of made me lose that slightly paranoid edge I had developed as a survival trait as a kid. Boomer had trained me pretty well, but I still had a brief moment of panic.
Calm, be cool… I told myself firmly, and slid quietly down to the door. Check the doorknob. It’s cool, all right, no more fire in here. I opened it, and saw a figure huddled up on the floor. The guy wore the coverall of a janitor and a very frightened expression. His eyes got huge when he saw my costume, and I kicked myself mentally. I had made that costume for intimidation purposes, and for a guy that had been trapped by a fire I must look a little more than simply intimidating.
“I’m Phoenix, I’m here to help,” I told him quietly. The guy stared at me for a second, coughed, and finally started breathing normally again. “Flashpoint, where is he?” I asked urgently.
The guy blinked in confusion, and waved vaguely to the left, where I had heard the laughter.
“Ok, can you make it to the stairs? The way’s clear,” I told him, pointing back the way I had come. He nodded vaguely, and I stood up. “It’ll be all right, I promise. Just be careful, I’ll be back soon.”
“Carl,” he coughed. “The night guard. I saw him get burned. He ran down the front stairs… I hid in here.”
“The ambulance is already here for him,” I told him. That must have been who Coop called us for. He stood slowly, looking relieved at what I had told him, and began to walk towards the stairs with a somewhat unsteady gait, holding on to the wall for support. I figured I better deal with Flashpoint quickly before the guy accidentally pitched down the stairwell and broke something.
I kept easing forward, keeping to the walls, listening for more of the deranged laughter I had heard earlier. Somewhere in the distance I heard the horns and sirens of firetrucks, and knew Flashpoint was going to have to make a break for it soon if he wanted to get out of here. The laughter abruptly cut off as the owner heard the sirens, and I stepped around the corner.
A tall and wiry man in a garish yellow costume was standing in the middle of the office, sending jets of flame into computers, walls, and the ceiling. I had no idea why the sprinkler system wasn’t going off; maybe he had found a way to bypass it so his “fun” wouldn’t be ruined. Apparently these last few bursts of flame were for the road, because he began to turn in my direction, shouldering a bag of loot as he went.
“Going somewhere?” I growled at him. Flashpoint abruptly snapped his mouth shut, and then smirked.
“Who’re you?” he demanded, casually hitching his bag higher on his shoulder.
“Never heard of you. The mayor has got to be getting senile, sending fire to fight fire,” he said with a laugh, sending another jet of flame flashing right by my face to see if I’d flinch. I held my ground, but refrained from powering up. We didn’t need any more fire in this room, not by a long shot.
“I don’t need my powers to stop you,” I said, dropping into a fighting stance.
“I don’t either,” Flashpoint said arrogantly, and pulled something out of the bag at his side, a heavy, black tire iron, simple, reasonably melt-proof, and quite decidedly painful to be hit by. Not exactly thematically appropriate, but pretty efficient!
Oops, I though faintly, and ducked under his swing as he lunged. I came up with an uppercut, barely grazing him as he twisted aside, and he came around with amazing speed, connecting hard with my upper arm, cracking the armor plates and the bone beneath. Pain exploded, and I ducked and rolled on my good side around the corner.
“Boomer really overtrains us.” “Those guys are clowns.” Hubris, hubris, hubris! You arrogant ass! Look, every other supervillain you’ve faced, you’ve faced with help! Well, there’s no one to watch your back right now, so you play this carefully or you’re going to end up seriously screwed! my brain yelled, giving me what I’m sure it considered a rousing pep talk. In the interim, the rest of me was pressed up against a wall, holding my arm while the last of the pain faded. The sensation of having my arm break and then heal within instants of each other was a seriously unpleasant feeling, and I choked back bile as it finally snapped into place. Indestructibility was not always a comfortable power to have.
It wasn’t like this hadn’t ever happened before. In the cafeteria fight with Will, I was very certain I had broken several bones going through those two walls, but at that point I had been so angry I had been ignoring everything. Right now, I was more afraid than angry. I could see the janitor had collapsed in the hallway, and while I was still between Flashpoint and this exit, I knew the supervillain wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of any witnesses, if he saw the janitor was there.
Pull it together, come on… I told myself, and took a few deep breaths of the smoky air. I crunched the oxygen caplet to clear my head, and then ducked frantically as Flashpoint slammed the tire iron around the corner, nearly cracking my skull.
“Come on birdie, you gonna fight, or are you gonna run?” Flashpoint asked, striding around the corner, tire iron held like a baseball bat. I was glad my helmet hid my eyes as I glanced over to the guy on the floor. He expects me to make a stand over the citizen… So do the unexpected. You know you can take it. This is just like Save the Citizen, the hero who waits, loses.
“Fight,” I said simply. This time I lunged, going low, tackling the guy around the waist, and ignoring the glancing blow across my back. We crashed to the floor, and I heard an ominous rumble beneath us. The fire must have been starting to weaken the floor, and now we were both running out of time. Panic crossed his face, and he tried to roll away, but I had his legs pinned. Unfortunately that left his arms free, and he struck me hard across the face before I could block. My vision went red with pain and blood, the blow only partially deflected by my helmet.
Snarling, I blinked my eyes clear and punched him hard in the face. Flashpoint collapsed under me, apparently unconscious, and I got up, watching him warily. I was unsurprised when he began to twist sideways, having faked being knocked out, and decided that I was uninterested in playing around.
“Unless you want a boot to the head, drop it now,” I growled. Flashpoint considered that for one second, dropped the tire iron… and let loose with a blast of fire right past me to hit the guy on the floor. That bastard, he was just trying to get me out of the way! I roared in anger and made good my threat. The kick landed Flashpoint a good ten feet away, crumpled against the wall, bleeding from the nose, with a spectacular bruise forming on his jaw. I whipped around to the janitor, and saw a half-dozen startled firefighters in the stairwell door, wrestling with a hose. Two had already rushed forward to pat out the guy’s clothes, and the others had been about ready to start doing something about the blaze when they had caught sight of Flashpoint and I.
“He’s getting away!” one of them yelled, pointing behind me. I whirled again to catch sight of Flashpoint staggering up and pelting through the burning office. Damn it, what does it take to knock this guy out? I thought with irritation, and ran after him. I hoped the firefighters had the janitor well in hand, because I wasn’t going to let this guy get away, not after that. Hissing and steam behind me told me the hoses had started going, and I heard some startling groans coming from the floor.
Ahead of me, I saw Flashpoint vanish through an exit door, a mirror to the one on the opposite side of the building. I ran straight for it, but then, with a sickening crunch, the floor gave way underneath me, and I was falling through space. I landed hard and was pelted with burning wood and chunks of smoking plaster, my legs half-pinned under all the rubble. I hauled myself free with a painful jerk, hurtled the remaining pile of debris, and dashed for the stairwell. Flashpoint was a story below me and going fast.
I’m not going to catch him! I thought angrily, hurling myself between the landings, trying to roll with the impact of each jump. I heard the exit door thump open when I still had two flights of stairs to go, and nearly tripped trying to get down them in time. I had just barely gotten to the bottom and thrown open the door when I heard the squealing of tires. I got outside just to see the receding taillights of what had to be Flashpoint’s getaway car.
“Damn it!” I swore, one flaming fist slamming into a nearby dumpster in my frustration. That was fucking brilliant, you moron! Didn’t stop the fire, didn’t stop the villain, didn’t stop him from stealing…
I did save the citizen though, I reminded myself, and took two deep breaths to get calm. No time to rest on your laurels, gotta change and get back out front. You still have work to do. I shoved aside my attitude and quick-changed back into my civilian gear, swiftly walking back out front like I belonged there. A slightly harried Keller was holding an oxygen mask to an older, portly guy in a security guard’s uniform, while he held a cold pack to his hand.
“Peace! Come on, it looks like the firefighters already found the other victim. They’re bringing him down now,” she called, as if my late appearance was totally expected. I felt a little grateful that she had calmly come up with an alibi, considering I didn’t have one handy. My half-failure in my fight with Flashpoint had driven such mundane considerations out of my head. I brought myself back to the here and now, helping Keller check over the guard (who was indeed named Carl), and finding him to be only lightly scorched and suffering from a mild case of smoke inhalation. It was his buddy, the janitor Marco, who was much worse off.
When the firefighters finally got him down, the man was totally unconscious from spending so much time in the smoke, and burnt badly on his back from Flashpoint’s fire blast. Carl stepped aside immediately, insisting he’d go to the emergency room on his own, letting us give our full attention to Marco. I could feel a faint wrongness about him, enough to let me know the man was in danger, but I was still able to control the ember-fire. He wasn’t in mortal danger, yet.
“You drive,” Keller said, after we had strapped him in and loaded him up. I didn’t argue, though this was the first time I had had the occasion to drive during an emergency. Concentrating on the road would help me keep control. Beneath the sounds of the sirens and engines, I could hear the faint sounds of Keller hanging the IV, checking his blood pressure, turning on the oxygen, and talking quietly to him to try to get him to regain consciousness.
I kept watching her out of the corner of my eye, but she didn’t lay a finger on him that she didn’t need to, nor did I hear anything out of him that would make me think she was using her powers. He didn’t wake up before we got him to the ER and let the doctors take over, but the pull on my wasn’t any stronger than it had been before, so I was pretty confident he’d be ok. It was the only real consolation from that night, that he had been rescued.
We had parked again and were filling out paperwork when Keller started up again.
“You really took a beating up there,” she commented idly. I blinked at her in non-comprehension.
“He broke your bones, didn’t he? At least, briefly,” she clarified.
“Yeah… you could tell that?” I asked, trying to not have a very quiet freak-out in the driver’s seat.
“Very much so. I only really do one thing, and I do it very well,” she said with a kind of odd pride.
Ok, that will be quite enough weirdness for one night, thank you very much and goodbye, my brain said firmly. I finally decided to follow my own advice for once, and didn’t say anything else the rest of the shift.
Keller didn’t press for any further details, and, as expected, my gut promptly tied itself into a sheepshank knot in reaction to everything. Too much possible truth, too many unanswered questions, too much you need to know but are too weirded out to ask.
Half-losing to Flashpoint had thrown me for a loop, and Keller’s bizarre comments hadn’t helped any. I was tapped out with clever ideas, clever comments, or even coherent speech.
It was a very long night.
It was decidedly strange to drive home in the morning just to go to bed, but I hadn’t lied when I told Coop I was a night owl by preference. It hadn’t been too hard to adjust to being basically nocturnal, but my friends were still getting the hang of the fact that I wasn’t fit company until mid-afternoon at the earliest. I also had to forcibly remind myself that I couldn’t call any of them at seven a.m. and expect to get a reasonable answer.
Mom, on the other hand, was being very quiet about everything. She had given me a big hug the moment I had come in the door, nearly squeezing the breath out of me, and then had just walked out the door to take her morning jog. If I hadn’t known better, I might have started to become paranoid about all the weird things going on. I guessed Mom was just trying to give me the space to make my own mistakes and triumphs as a superhero on my own. I wasn’t sure if I appreciated that or resented it, particularly because she couldn’t help but know I was not having the easiest time of it. But I had to talk to someone about what had happened tonight (or at least part of it), and the only person I really could talk to was Will.
I ended up being polite and waited until nine to call. Will was our group leader, and like it or not, I had to tell him how the fight with Flashpoint had gone. I was keeping back several secrets from him and the rest of my friends, but I wouldn’t hold this back, no matter how painful or embarrassing it was. I owed him that much. Will would have to know what I could handle, and what problems might come up in any fight. And no matter how many films of superbattles we watched, or how many books we read, there was no substitute for practical experience. Besides, he couldn’t be a very confident leader if I kept lording my own experience over him. He needed the knowledge, and right then, I needed a friendly ear.
“Warren? What time is it?” Will answered his phone with a yawn.
“Nine a.m. Rise and shine Stronghold.”
“What’s up? Something going on?” he asked, his brain starting to kick into gear when he realized that I had willingly called him. The last time I had done that my grandfather had dropped by to visit.
“You know when I said Boomer overtrains us and supervillains are mostly clowns? If I ever say that again, hit me,” I told him.
“Ow… bad night?” he asked.
“Yeah, Flashpoint burned at least two floors of a building and managed to get away scott free. I managed to keep him from killing a citizen, barely, but that was it…” I gave him a quick run-down of my fight, not really sparing myself at all. It was slightly masochistic to be telling my best friend how badly I had screwed up, but also a relief at the same time.
“Man…” Will said finally after I was done. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, I didn’t call for sympathy. If I wanted that, I’d talk to your girlfriend.”
Will laughed at that.
“Look, I was… I just wanted to…” I trailed off, trying to find the right words.
“Tell us not to get cocky?” Will finished.
“Yeah. I kind of realized a little too late that I’m too used to having someone watch my back. I need to get my head back into the game.” Will paused for a moment at my comment, thinking, and then finally sighed.
“So you wanna do more training stuff?” he asked finally.
“Wow, you sound so enthused Stronghold. Come on, you knew we were going to have to anyway.”
“It’s summer! I wanted a little time off,” Will protested.
“Evil knows no season, Wonderboy.”
“Oh man, don’t call me that in front of my dad. He’s still trying to help me pick out my name.”
“What? That’s a perfectly respectable… lame superhero name,” I joked.
“If you want me to hit you, you’re doing a great job,” he warned, but I could tell he was trying not to laugh.
“All I’m saying is that since we were going to have to practice anyway, let’s not wait. Magenta said we could use her family farm, right?” I asked. Will groaned at the loss of his summer free time. “Hey, remember you’re supposed to save the world three times over the week after you graduate.”
“Yeah, right. Ok, ok, I’ll get something set up, promise,” Will said, and we both hung up. But not before I heard someone say, “I’ll call Magenta-,” right before the line went dead. And it wasn’t Will’s voice, it was Layla’s. The implications of what the two of them were doing together at nine a.m. when Will was still (supposedly) asleep… I quickly resolved not to say anything unless I had to. I apparently wasn’t the only one keeping secrets.
We ended up meeting at least three or four days during the week during most of the summer, taking over a pasture on Magenta’s family farm to practice. Layla had a terribly unfair advantage, at least compared to our Gauntlet runs at school, because she had a lot more plants to work with. I had to be careful, because if I managed to burn down a field or outbuilding or something, the Pattersons were going to be very put out. Ethan managed to get sucked down an old pipe twice, which meant Magenta had to go in and find him, though inadvertently he found out exactly how small of a crack he could fit through while melted. The answer, very small indeed.
Though by necessity a lot more random and free form than our Gauntlet runs, our summer sessions were plenty useful. My not-quite loss to Flashpoint had given me a slight edge of paranoia to not have a repeat, and my friends were more than willing to help both me and them out. We tried going two-or-three on one as a start.
Unsurprisingly, Will was the best at it, but even Layla beat me out for second place. Being able to control all the plants in a huge honking radius around you pretty much meant no one could touch you. I could burn through them, sure, but all Layla had to do was pile on the plantlife, like she had with Skybolt, and soon I ended up too muffled to power up. Annoying? Yes. But since Layla was maybe the least physical person in our group, it was comforting to know she could hold back nearly anyone.
Magenta was obviously doing really well with whatever she was learning from her sensei, because she was dodging our attacks with a lot more coordination and grace than ever before.
“Yeah, I’m learning Guinea Pig Kung Fu,” she had said proudly when Will asked her about it. I shouldn’t have snickered. I knew I shouldn’t have. I didn’t need the look of doom from Zack or the glare from Magenta to know I had screwed up. But seriously… guinea pig kung fu!
“Ok Mr. Phoenix Fancy-Pants, if I can put you on your back first, you can never laugh at that again. If you manage to take me down first, then you can laugh all you like,” she said challengingly.
“I do not have fancy pants,” was all I said back to her, but dropped into my fighting stance anyway. I wouldn’t have laughed at it again anyway, but I was certainly willing to spar with her. I had nearly six inches of height on her, weighed more, was stronger, and had been training myself how to fight for eight years. Guinea pig kung fu aside, I didn’t want her to get too cocky about her fighting style. Some people, you teach them a few kicks and they think they’re some Shaolin monk from a martial arts epic. And I didn’t want Magenta to be amongst them.
I waited for her to make the first move, hoping to make her overextend so I could end this quickly. I didn’t want to humiliate her, not after I had laughed at her, but I wasn’t going to take a fall either. She leapt in quickly, making small, darting movements with her hands. I waited a breath for her to get just a hair closer, and then sprang at her, poised to grab her arm and send her tumbling… Then she wasn’t there! I had just enough wit to realize she had shifted (and she had gotten a lot faster with her shifting) before she skittered just behind my foot, unshifted, and tripped me with a sweep of her leg.
I lay on the ground for two breaths before getting up.
“Guinea Pig Kung Fu,” I told her with great solemnity. “Seriously, I didn’t mean to laugh.”
“I know. But I just wanted to see if it would work,” she said with a little smile.
“Right, you’re a kung fu genius. Come on, I think Zack’s next.”
“Bring it on guys! The Zack Attack will take all comers!”
Yeah, that was how I spent my summer non-vacation.
Working with Keller became less odd as the summer went on. After those two days of peculiar confessions in June, she had finally kept to our original deal to not mention our oddities unless necessary. That was bad for my grandiose master plan, of course, but after having gotten a little more seeming-truth than I had bargained for, I had opted for a slightly more subtle approach for the time being; I could return to the more personal stuff when I was certain I could read her better. I simply paid attention to her; specifically what she paid attention to. When we occasionally made small talk about normal things like current news, I made careful mental notes about what she talked about or seemed interested in.
While a little tedious, I realized after a couple of weeks that I was actually getting somewhere. From what she talked about, it seemed like she was getting information on how fast and how often heroes responded to their calls, how often villains were captured versus escaped, and how much damage they did. That only made sense, when I thought about it, so I began my own counter-campaign of disinformation. I couldn’t help the fact that she had my evidence right in front of her, but I would casually mention mostly fictitious battles, some modified from The Illustrated Lives of Superheroes, the facts carefully altered to make the heroes seem a little slower and less competent than they were. All of those times we had helped Ethan prepare for a Champion Debate tournament really helped there.
Principal Powers had mentioned the need to make the academy complacent, and if they thought the superheroes were less diligent than they actually were, then the villains might be slower to leave the scene of a crime, or more careless about how they did things. The fact that I was a known hero actually worked for me, because I might conceivably know facts left out of the public records. Just saying someone had one more loss than they did, or let the villain get away that one time… It wasn’t a masterful deception, but Keller didn’t seem to disbelieve me when I “corrected” the occasional factoid from the news.
There were still weird moments though. I still got my emergency calls, and she would occasionally drive me to the area. A few times she helped me with my alibi, and even covered for me once when Coop had called and I hadn’t been there. This odd way of helping didn’t make me feel any easier about working with her, but I didn’t think I could afford to shove away her help. If she thought I trusted her, maybe she would be more inclined to believe my “inside information.” I didn’t even notice her using her powers at all, aside from the pain sensing that occasionally let us beat the call to the scene of an accident.
Twice it had even let me know a supervillain was in the area before my emergency phone rang. Apparently there was no honor amongst supervillains, at least those not from the academy, and Keller was supremely unconcerned that she had led me to foiling the schemes of her “peers.” I had been tempted to ask her about that, but decided I wasn’t quite ready to broach into personal stuff yet. Training with my friends had helped me get my edge for one-on-one stuff back, and while I wasn’t exactly kicking major butt every night, I was certainly putting a serious crimp in the criminal lifestyle in Maxville.
Keller and I were in a wary kind of working relationship by early August. While I didn’t trust her motives, she was an entirely competent EMT. I don’t know how much she trusted me, but she never hesitated to help in the job. I had been very lucky so far in that while we had seen some bad injuries, even life-threatening ones, I hadn’t let the ember-fire get away from me yet.
It was hard, even headache-inducing to hold it back, but I had been working very hard on my concentration and control to keep it under wraps. My friends thought it was just so I wouldn’t zonk out in a fight. That was true as far as that went, but I definitely didn’t want to give Keller a demonstration. I sometimes got very absent when I was trying to keep it inside, but I noticed she also got oddly quiet during some of the same cases. I figured her powers had something to do with it, but wasn’t about to ask her, not then. But the third week of August both of those came to a head.
Keller sucked in an audible breath, and I glanced over sharply at her. She had gone rigid in her seat for a moment, and was staring at some middle distance.
“Keller?” I asked quietly, recognizing the symptoms her using her pain-sensing powers.
“Car wreck, three blocks away, someone’s hurt pretty bad,” she said simply, and reached over to turn on the ambulance while I hit the lights and sirens. Keller was still the better driver of the two of us, not to mention the fact that I occasionally had to leave at irregular intervals. It was simpler to let her drive, particularly because her pain-sensing would lead her like a beacon.
It was indeed a car wreck, a truly terrible one. The car had jumped the median and plowed head-on into a lamppost; at this time of night the driver being drunk was probably the reason. The driver had somehow managed to get out and was gone by the time we had gotten there, but there was a deathly pale blonde teenaged girl still trapped in the passenger seat. By the way the front of the car had crumpled, her legs were totally pinned, possibly crushed.
I hoped one of the few bystanders had called the fire department, because we were going to need the Jaws of Life to get her out. Right now I seriously wished I had Will’s super strength, because the girl was screaming in agony at the top of her lungs. Her face had small, bloody cuts on it from fragments of flying glass and metal, and crumbs of safety glass covered her clothes and hair. Thankfully she had been wearing her seatbelt, or I was sure she would have been thrown from the car.
She was deathly pale under the blood from her cuts, but at least she was definitely conscious and breathing, due to the impressive amount of screaming filling the air.
“Calm down ma’am, we’re EMTs, we’re here to help,” I tried to tell her from the passenger side, as Keller leaned in next to me to try to check her over for other injuries. I didn’t know if the girl was bleeding underneath the crumpled metal, if her legs were intact, broken, or even severed. We didn’t dare give her anything for the pain here; we didn’t know if she was allergic, or how her body might react, considering that she was probably in shock to boot.
The screaming continued unabated, and she struck out at us in a frenzy of hysteria. Coop had told us that people with bad injuries could act entirely crazy, and we both ducked reflexively as her wild blows banged against the doorframe. I grabbed her arms and held her still so she wouldn’t manage to break her arms on top of everything else, and prayed fervently for the firetrucks to get here.
I was also praying they’d get here soon. I was holding onto control of my powers so hard I was giving myself a migraine. The girl wasn’t quite dying, not yet, but she wasn’t going to last much longer, not as bad at the car looked. This was the worst injury I had seen in my short tenure in this job. I obviously didn’t dare heal her in public, not just because of the threat to my identity or because Keller was there, but because I didn’t know what would happen if I tried to heal a broken leg while it was still out of alignment. Her legs couldn’t possibly be in one piece under all that metal.
The girl stopped fighting after a second, and I took the opportunity to grab Keller’s collar so I could talk right into her ear; no one could hear us over the screaming.
“Can you block this?” I asked harshly. She looked at me as if I were insane.
“Can you absorb fire as well as make it?” she shot back. I didn’t let up; if she could do something to get the girl quiet, I might be able to keep control long enough to get her cut out of the car. Right now the pain-filled screams were nearly killing me, because I knew she wasn’t just screaming out of fear. She was dying and she knew it.
“Can you do anything?” I demanded, as the girl’s screams reached a new pitch. Mental powers were the most flexible of all the power families. Most people with those abilities could reverse their powers. Like Zoë, she could lift things up or hold things down, throw things, or protect people from flying projectiles. Elise could read minds, or prevent them from being read; Justin could reverse his own psisicking. Layla could even, in theory, sicken or even kill plants as well as making them grow, but it would probably take some evil botanopath doing something particularly twisted to the plant kingdom to get her to use that aspect of her power. My own abilities were a borderline case because they were tied so closely to my pyrokinesis.
Keller looked at her, looked back at me, and then reached out and put her hand on the girl’s wrist. Keller looked out at some middle distance, her brow furrowed in concentration, and then her eyes abruptly unfocused. The girl’s screams cut off so suddenly that for a terrifying moment I thought she had died. But when I looked back at her, she had a transcendently profound look of relief on her face. Keller looked startled, like she wasn’t sure what exactly she had done, and I took the opportunity to shove the ember-fire inside mentally. It wasn’t going to be denied though, and I had a sinking feeling I was going to lose this fight. Right now I just had to hang on until we were out of the public eye.
Thankfully, the firetrucks arrived less than a minute later, and the gathered crowd parted to let through the laden crew. We threw blankets over the passenger as they worked with the Jaws, trying to check her over for any other injuries, now that she was being quiet and wasn’t fighting us. All of this was simple training, because my own healing abilities were maddeningly vague when it came down to figuring out exactly what was wrong. Something like Magenta’s poisoning or Will’s cold I saw as a uniform shadow, while Lauren’s near drowning came to my mind as a shadow somewhere in the middle of the fire. Yeah, specificity was not my strong suit, even if I dared invoke my powers in public.
“Left leg is bent backwards at the knee, not quite an open dislocation of the tibia, but close. Right has tibia, fibula, and femur all broken in multiple places, compound fractures with heavy bleeding. Upper body is all right, but we need to watch for crush syndrome when they get this opened up,” Keller said in a low voice. I looked at her oddly.
“You can… feel it that well?” I asked.
“Like it was my own body,” she said simply, her eyes glittering again, faint shadows dancing over her features as she kept her powers invoked.
Ho-ly shit, I thought, gaining a sudden profound respect for her pain tolerance.
“I’m feeling it for her,” she explained quietly. The passenger wasn’t really paying attention to us or the firefighters or anything, seemingly lost in her own little world, probably trying very much to pretend this was all a nightmare.
Right then the Jaws cut through the last bits of twisted metal, and the remains of the car were lifted off of her. Blood was splashed liberally everywhere, and shards of bone and shreds of muscle poked through the skin of her right leg, and the left was grotesquely bent backwards at the knee. With infinite care and unseemly haste, Keller, me, and two firefighters got her strapped to the gurney and packed into the ambulance. But the minute Keller took her hand away from the girl to drive, she started screaming again.
My head was about to explode from the sound and the stress of holding my powers back, and I finally broke. I would think about the consequences later, if there was a later.
“Keller, park this somewhere, now!” I yelled not two blocks from the crash site, and let the ember-fire explode from within me. It rushed up so quickly it filled the back of the ambulance with an explosion of red light, and I vaguely registered the bus coming to a halt. The life-fire of the girl beneath my hands was flickering dangerously, and thin shadows, like black lightning, crawled over it in echoes of her injuries. There was a gasp from somewhere beside me, and the screaming suddenly stopped again.
I shuddered slightly in fear and reaction for what I was doing, but also in an odd exultation. I could see the fire getting stronger, shoving aside the shadowed lightning, and began to feel the same kind of triumph I had when I had just won a fight… Then I felt pain sing along my nerves, and my concentration was shattered. Keller was kneeling next to me, pulling me back from the passenger, faint shadows leaving her hands as she stopped invoking her powers. I realized, with growing anger, that she had just used them on me to break my healing trance.
“Too many questions,” she said quickly. “The firefighters, the bystanders, they saw her hurt. If she shows up perfectly fine, or just decides to walk home and not go at all, they’ll be too many questions. The surgeons can take care of the rest, she’s out of danger now.”
The anger burned itself out as quickly as it had roused. I looked back down at the girl, seeing her left leg back in place, and most of the bones of her right back within the skin. While she still looked like she had been in a car crash, she no longer looked like butchered meat. The logic of Keller’s cool request got through to me, and I pulled myself back.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t think of a safe… mundane way to break your trance,” she apologized quickly, and slid back up front to continue our interrupted journey to the hospital. I busied myself with getting the girl an IV to help with the blood loss, getting her vital stats to give to the ER doctors, thankful beyond measure that she was no longer screaming. And now that I was no longer in trance, the pull on me was a whole lot less. Reluctantly I had to agree that Keller had been right… Having her show up fully healthy from a near-lethal crash would have started a round of questioning only the Bureau could have stopped.
In ten minutes, we had dropped the girl off at the ER, to no more questions than usual, and then were able to go and park somewhere to finish up our paperwork. The minute we had stopped though, we turned to each other, nearly shouting the same question simultaneously.
“What the hell was that?!”