What followed after that was possibly the worst night of my life.
Mom arrived maybe a half-hour later; I don’t know if she had been working or asleep or something else entirely when I had called her. Afterward I was too afraid to ask. By that time, Keller had gone from screaming to weeping, but I didn’t dare say another word to her, or even to lay a finger on her. I was worried that anything I would do would end up doing something irrevocably worse to her.
No other calls had come in yet; hopefully Coop thought we were still at the hospital, as we hadn’t called to tell him we were free yet. I wouldn’t do so until Keller had a chance to get calm, at the very least. Before that could happen though, Mom finally pulled up.
“Warren, what happened?” she asked as she opened the door, nearly flying to the back of the ambulance. “Is it one of your patients?”
I couldn’t even explain exactly, at least not to her right then, so I just opened the back doors.
“What’s her name?” Mom said softly. Keller still had her head in her hands, hiding her face from both of us.
“Monica Keller,” I said quietly.
“Monica? Monica, my name is Joy, I’m here to help you-,” Mom stopped talking abruptly as Keller raised her head. Though the light was uncertain, and her face was wet with tears and her eyes swollen from crying, it was still very obvious she was one of the supervillains I had fought last fall. To her credit, Mom’s hesitation didn’t last more than a second.
“Will you let me help?” she asked gently. Keller only stared for a moment, and then finally nodded. Mom reached out and placed a hand on her forearm, and Keller lost some of the desperate wild look in her eyes. “Rest for a little bit, just lie down. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Keller swallowed, nodded, and finally lay back down on the gurney. Then Mom grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and hauled me around to the front so Keller couldn’t overhear us.
“I want to know everything you know about her, everything you guessed about her, everything she’s done, and everything you said to her starting from the first time you met, again, until a half-hour ago,” she said flatly. Temporizing, stalling, or justifying anything I had done was completely out of the question. I proceeded to sing like a canary while Mom ruthlessly cross-examined me. She drug up things I hadn’t even remembered consciously, and then finally held out her hands to me, silently demanding to use her powers to read me.
I dropped my hands in hers, pulse racing in fear. She closed her eyes for a few moments, and then opened them again. The expression on her face nearly stopped my heart. She looked like about how I must have when I had faced down Tobias in our first meeting. I am in serious trouble. Right on the heels of that thought, Mom dropped my hands.
“That girl is having a nervous breakdown because of what you did to her. Now, you will call your supervisor and tell them Monica had to go home sick. Then you will finish your shift, and you will return here as soon as you get off. Is that understood?” she said with a kind of drill-sergeant sharpness. I nodded once, and Mom walked back around the ambulance, and got Keller out, leading her around to sit on the curb.
I, very meekly, got back into the ambulance. The radio was already squawking loudly, something we had all tuned out for the last little while.
“657 respond, respond immediately!” Coop was yelling in a slightly frantic tone of voice.
“Yeah Coop, 657 here.”
“Peace, the next time you drop off the grid for an hour and a half and I’m going to fire you both! What the hell is going on?” he demanded.
“It took us a while to get the car wreck victim all settled, and then Monica started to feel really sick and had to go home,” I explained. That wasn’t quite a lie, not really.
“Whaddya mean, went home sick? She hasn’t been sick since the day she got here!” Coop demanded with irritation.
“I don’t know, she just said she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t finish her shift,” I said. Coop sighed explosively.
“All right, get back to base, Josh will finish out your shift with you,” he groused. “Base out.”
There was usually at least one, if not two other people at base besides the dispatchers that could fill in during situations like this, or if another ambulance was needed and everyone else was busy. Josh, a guy who had been on the job maybe ten years, had been looking forward to a quiet night at base, and lost no time filling my ears with complaints as we went out again. But as long as he was on long diatribes about his girlfriend, his apartment, his dog, his family, and his interrupted video game session, I didn’t have to do more than agree or disagree at appropriate intervals.
The night might have been just about complete if I had gotten a call on top of everything else, but evidently life didn’t hate me that much. Josh was too wrapped up in his own concerns to notice that I was about five shades paler than normal with stress, and hadn’t said a whole sentence since he got into the bus. I was in such serious stomach pain out of guilt and fear, I felt like I needed to chug a whole bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
The night dragged while I tried to figure out what was going to happen when I got back to my mom’s car. This was the first time I had really seen her mad at me, and that scared me even more than whatever might be happening to Keller. Like I had seen, when Mom got mad, she could be a force of nature. And if anyone could push her buttons, it was me, even if I hadn’t meant to.
By the time the sun had come up and my shift was over, Josh still hadn’t wound down his series of complaints, and I rudely left him still talking when I punched out. I couldn’t have repeated a word of his complaints back, despite the fact I had been listening all night. I didn’t even remember the drive back to the parking lot where I had left Mom and Keller. The only bit of relief I got was that both of them looked reasonably calm.
That relief was quickly shattered when Mom quickly steered me into the passenger side of the car and closed the door so we could have privacy to talk.
“Warren, I know you got good grades in Moral Dilemmas class. So why did you do this? You were psychologically torturing that girl and you knew it,” Mom demanded.
Do not justify, do not temporize, just tell her the truth… Balls, I don’t friggin’ know why I did it that way.
“I… we put so much on having Mind Mist and the Ghost follow the Weaponsmaster, and then that was a bust,” I started. Mom nodded slowly for me to go on, but she wasn’t being very encouraging.
“And… when I figured out who she was, she said she’d blow both of our covers if I tried to bring her in. I… didn’t want to do that. And I thought I could… get information out of her, and maybe kind of… mess up the academy at the same time…” Mom wasn’t looking convinced.
“You pushed her too hard. You knew the signs of emotional distress, the frantic tones, the justifications, the shaking, the trembling… My God Warren, if triggering that psychological backlash wasn’t a big red warning flag of how unstable she was, I don’t know what else could be!” she said, her voice rising in anger.
“She’s a supervillain-,” I started.
“So’s my husband!” Mom broke in. I collapsed back into the seat and hung my head. “So’s your father. And even though he’s committed many crimes, he doesn’t deserve to be tortured for them. They’re people, Warren, supervillains are people too. Punishment for their actions is one thing. Wanton abuse is another.”
Oh God… The thought that I had basically been taking out how I felt about my dad, or supervillains in general, on Keller was a mental wake-up call of horrific proportions. As superheroes, we weren’t supposed to have sympathy for supervillains, because otherwise how could we do our jobs? I certainly didn’t, and I had ample personal reasons to hate them. I remembered sending that letter to the warden of Metroplex Maximum Security back in my junior year, basically asking them to give my dad some headaches. At the time it had felt justifiable. Now it just seemed petty and cruel, but it was just a drop in the bucket compared to what I had done tonight.
I felt very small right then, and I felt my throat tighten with shame. Then Mom hugged me. Since right at that moment I was more expecting her to tell me to pack my stuff and move out by the afternoon, I was kind of in shock.
“It’s not often you get a second chance to set something right,” she said softly. “You know, Monica had basically forced herself not to feel anything so she could survive using her powers on others. And when she got to the academy, she either had to not feel or go crazy. She was rotting her own morality so she could live.”
That drew me up short, because that was exactly Mom had told me had happened to my dad…
“It was like seeing Baron again,” she said, confirming my thoughts. “Except there was a core of something good, something that had kept her from just giving in to what she thought she had to be.”
“Like… what?” I asked, confused.
“Think about what you know about Tobias. Given the choice between an expedient solution and a moral one, what do you think he would choose? That’s what Baron had to fall back on. Monica had something better than that under her,” she explained. “But she hasn’t been living that way for a very long time. You broke her out of that habit of unfeeling, even if your method wasn’t very good, but now she doesn’t know where she stands.”
“I…” I said intelligently. When Mom decided lay on the guilt, she really slathered it on. She probably could have asked me to commit seppuku to purge my crime and I would have done it at that point. “What happens now?”
“I had to help her re-awaken her conscience, and it wasn’t easy on her. It was actually quite painful. She needs help putting her world back in order. You’re going to help her do it,” Mom told me calmly. I attempted not to sputter in shock.
“But, you just said, I-,” I babbled.
“The best way to learn something is to teach it. You need a refresher course in morals and ethics. She needs to re-learn morals and ethics. I think you’re very well suited to learning from each other. You both know the right thing to do, but you’ve both shoved it aside recently to do what was easy rather than right. But this time, you’re not going to.
“And you’re not going to have me looking over your shoulder like an anxious mother all the time either. You’re eighteen, Warren. You’re an adult, you have both a job and a calling. I’ve started you both on the right track, and you’re going to figure out how to finish it, one way or another. You crossed the line, Phoenix. The Peacemaker commands this as the price of her silence,” she said very formally.
“Silence?” I asked dumbly.
“The Bureau would have a conniption fit if they found out you had been working with a supervillain for nearly three months without reporting her. And the fact that I just helped her doesn’t make it any better. I think more harm than good would be done by exposing either of you. So… you will make this right. And she will learn what she needs to in order to feel worthy of herself again. And if you screw this up Warren…”
She trailed off, and I suddenly felt the barest trickle of anger, disappointment, and shame, not from me, but from her. It was powerful enough to rock me. I realized this was how Mom could walk into a war zone and tell people they would stop their conflicts, or else. Her unspoken threat was much more potent than anything she could have said, and I was mentally cowering. It was all I could do to prevent myself from physically cowering as well.
Mom looked at me hard, nodded sharply once.
“You can do this, you know,” she said cryptically, and shooed me out of the car, pulling out a few moments later. I wasn’t sure if I should feel reassured or more worried. I settled for reassured; I was worried enough. I half-collapsed on the curb, blinking vaguely in astonishment. Monica waited a few moments before coming over and sitting next to me so we wouldn’t be shouting across the parking lot.
“So… I’m not sure which one of us had the worse night, you or me,” she said casually, raising an ironic eyebrow at me. The situation had suddenly become totally absurd, and I found myself laughing weakly. Monica shook her head a little, smiling, and sighed.
“You look like she just read you the riot act,” she commented.
“Yeah…” I said, not really wanting to get into it.
“I can’t say I’m sorry to see the shoe on the other foot,” she said.
“Thanks, my ego could use a little more battering,” I said sarcastically.
“Well, if you really think so-,” she started.
“No, thanks,” I said quickly. “Why the hell are you so… chipper?”
“I’m probably going to have horrible nightmares for the next month and a half and be questioning every act I’ve done in the past ten years, but right now I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream. Right after someone ripped the scabs off all my wounds,” she said thoughtfully.
“You really are masochistic,” I said darkly.
“So’re you,” she countered. I took a few deep breaths with my eyes closed, reaching for a few scraps of inner calm.
“Ok, how about we make a deal. How about we both stop being masochists? Or at least idiots,” I said neutrally. Monica considered that for a moment, and nodded.
“That’s a good start,” she said softly. “Thank you,” she added after a moment. I started at that.
“Thank you for what?”
“For calling her. I’ve never… She was really something,” she said. “You have to guess what the academy thought of people like her. I… never thought she would be so nice.”
“Yeah,” I murmured. “I don’t know what they told you, but-.”
“I’m starting to guess exactly how much was bull,” she finished uncertainly. “It was my life, you realize, for the last four years. This… all this.” She waved her hand, indicating the parking lot, Maxville, or life in general. “This is all new to me.”
“Me too,” I reminded her. The thought that I had the responsibility for helping someone like her was disconcerting at best, and terrifying at worst. It was actually somewhat comforting to know she didn’t have any more of an idea of what was going on than I did. If nothing else, it made us equals in ignorance.
At home, things went strangely. When I finally got into the house, Mom was sitting on the couch, a wad of tissues in her hand. Thinking had finally kicked in again on the drive home, and Mom’s anger made sense, at least a lot more than the obvious. I had inadvertently dragged up everything with my dad, and had basically lied to my mom. And considering what had happened the last time she had been lied to, I thought I had gotten off very lightly in the parking lot.
“Come here, silly boy,” Mom said with a bit of forced lightness. I sat down hard on the couch, looking at her with trepidation.
“I’m sorry?” I offered after a bit. Mom’s eyes were a little red, but at least she wasn’t crying. I don’t think I could have handled making her cry. She made a kind of odd little snort, halfway between a cough and a laugh.
“If I didn’t know how bad you were feeling about this right now, I’d be tempted to ground you for the rest of your natural life,” she said in a kind of matter-of-fact tone.
Most high school students, after finally graduating, would at least like the idea of their own place, even if most of them couldn’t figure out how to wash their own laundry, or have even the fraction of the cash to pay rent. I hadn’t bothered even looking for my own place, despite the fact that superheroes were paid very well. (The first time I had checked my account balance in mid-June I had actually wondered at first if someone had misplaced a decimal point or added an extra zero.) Mom and I only had each other, and leaving her alone in the house she had bought partially as a symbol of her return to the superhero world wasn’t even an option. Besides, all my friends were in the neighborhood, and I got along great with Mom. But that still meant I had to follow her rules. And I knew she probably could ground me, adult or no, and I would go along with it.
“If you wanted me to feel guilty, you got it,” I said, reaching out to give her a hug.
“I know… I know. I let my temper get the better of me. You didn’t deserve that,” she whispered.
“Yeah, I actually think I did,” I corrected. She laughed.
“I was angry. It was all bad memories, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you,” she argued.
“Hey, I’m mad at me right now too,” I pointed out.
“Well, that’s good. As long as it’s motivating you, not clouding your judgment,” she pointed out, sitting up. I took a deep breath and nodding, breathing out slowly, and trying to take out some of the complex welter of anger, fear, and confusion this night had left me with.
“I’ll be ok Mom,” I told her. “I’ll do better, I promise.”
Mom had given me half of her own sanctum so I could keep my superhero stuff separate from everything else, saying it gave her an excuse to forcibly clean out her area. My half was pretty empty still, mostly containing what fan mail Mandy had deemed would be inspirational rather than horrifying, as well as newspaper articles and Bureau reports on my fights. I went down there after talking with Mom so I could think a little. I soberly reflected on the fact that Monica was somewhat right about me; I was a little masochistic, because the stuff I had most prominent was the fights I had lost or at least hadn’t gone very well. I had them out to remind me I could do better each and every night.
Despite any aspirations of boundless glory to the contrary, most of the supervillains I had been battling had been closer to Flashpoint’s level than, say, the Brotherhood of Frost. Those heroes that got assigned to Maxville took care of “small time” problems; leaving the truly epic stuff to the Commander and Jetstream. I remember seeing some footage of them in class, including the massive, ten-story robot Royal Pain had sent against them the beginning of my junior year. That had made quite an impression as to my eventual role in the grand scheme of things. What could I have done against something like that? Warm up a toe? Maybe, if I had been on top of a building, I could have take out its eye, but then what?
Working with the Battle family had given me a confidence boost. Actually, more of an overconfidence boost. Alone, I couldn’t take on multiple supervillains at once. And since supervillains were generally more ruthless than I was, they were willing to cause a situation I had to correct so they had escape. The choices were simple, save the citizen or capture the villain. Each time, I had chosen to save the citizen.
When Plasmastream had set the gas line on fire, when Fissiontronic had set off grenades in the underground parking garage, when Specter Haunt had thrown that guy right into my line of fire, each time I had dove right in, taking whatever lumps I had to in order to make things right. In the heat of the moment, I thought I had made pretty good decisions.
It angered me that in a more subtle situation, in the depths of shades of gray, I had made really crappy decisions. I had remembered thinking, back before graduation, that I hadn’t wanted to use my healing power on random strangers, and I had wondered if I was only heroic when it ‘mattered’. I had just borne that own in the worst way possible, and it pissed me off.
I was supposed to be a superhero. I was held to a higher standard, in my own mind if nowhere else. Rumors abounded of superheroes that had unsavory habits, but I wasn’t going to let myself become one of them. As Mom had forcibly reminded me, I was an adult, and I had a calling. And with Mom being who she was, I should have been doubly guarded against that kind of bad decision. Heroics didn’t end when you punched the other guy’s lights out, or hit him with a fireball, in my case. It would sure be easier that way, but I knew I could do better. I would have to.
The next week, it was the first day of school for the rest of my friends. With a little schedule juggling, Coach Boomer had managed to get their gym time for the first or last period of the day, either allowing me to catch the morning bus or the late bus. That Monday, it had been the late bus, making for one groggy me joining the rest of the gang on the floor of the Gauntlet for a few dry runs.
“Yeah, and Rob totally made himself look like Coach Boomer and had like, five freshman standing in the locker room for like a half hour! And they were too scared to leave because he kept threatening to come back and make them run laps if they did,” Zack was saying when I got out. The gang was letting me know everything that was going on in Sky High, whether I wanted to know or not.
“So they missed half of fifth period and Mr. Medulla ripped them a new one. And when they explained what had happened, he called Boomer to yell at him for making his students late. Then they got into a yelling match, and Boomer destroyed the intercom and half the stuff in the room, and Principal Powers moved Mad Science class to the small gym until they could get it fixed. Then Boomer decided to have a few rounds of ‘Save the Citizen,’ right after lunch, and you can guess how Mr. Medulla took that,” Magenta picked up the thread of the highly entertaining saga of the first day back at school.
I listened to the banter with an odd sense of disconnection. I hadn’t been there to see Rob flummoxing the freshmen, I hadn’t heard Principle Powers’ speech to the student body, or seen their reactions. I didn’t get to hear the lunchroom jokes or see the posters for Power Clubs or choir practice or sports tryouts… It was funny, some kids spend most of their lives pissing and moaning about school, but once you get out of it and into the real world, you realize it’s all you’ve ever known. The adjustment was a little strange. What time I wasn’t working either as an EMT or as Phoenix I was training. I didn’t have homework to do anymore, but that didn’t exactly give me any extra free time.
But even though I was at one remove from school, Zack and Magenta were doing their best to keep me entertained and informed, inadvertently or not.
I didn’t have to wear the school’s armor to practice anymore, being able to use my own suit, which was a heck of a lot more comfortable. Boomer, apparently somewhat subdued by the whole fiasco with Rob, shouting match with Medulla, and the subsequent lecture by Principal Powers, was going easy on us today, letting us do some free-form hand-to-hand combat practice against each other.
Layla and Magenta were facing off on one side of the gym while Will supervised, while I was trying to teach Zack a kind of tug-and-throw move I had actually had used on me back in July. This one guy called Torque had a real passion for taking extremely supped-up cars on rampages through the downtown area. After I had melted his tires, we had gone into a knockdown drag-out fight, where I had ended up measuring my own length in asphalt more times than I cared to count. The upside to that was I think I learned a new move from him. The downside was that I hadn’t exactly had the opportunity to ask him to slow down and I wasn’t even sure if I was doing it right in the first place.
“Popsicle, you said you were learning judo right? That’s throws and stuff. Does anything I’m doing look like anything you know?” I asked in frustration after Zack and I nearly knocked heads trying to throw each other off-balance. Ethan looked down at his shoes and actually blushed. From the other side of the gym, I heard Stronghold repressing laughter, and Magenta actually giggling.
“Dude, if this has something to do with Chloe…” Zack trailed off, smirking, and Ethan actually rolled his eyes.
“No. Henry was going to teach me but, um, I kind of found out I’m really, really, horrifically bad at martial arts. Like, Layla bad,” he clarified. We all automatically looked over to the other side of the gym as Will was desperately trying to stifle huge whoops of laughter and Magenta was laughing so hard she was gasping for breath. Somehow Layla had managed to wrap herself up in a cocoon of vines.
“Um… A little help here?” she asked pathetically. Will managed to get enough control over himself to get her free.
“That’s pretty bad,” I deadpanned. Ethan laughed behind his hand, and Zack nearly passed out trying to hold in his mirth.
“So, I can say I have no idea what the two of you are trying to do,” he said somewhat cheerfully, and pulled out his Illustrated Lives of Superheroes book and started to thumb through it.
“Great,” I said sarcastically. “Boomer’s not going to let you read the rest of the time either.”
“He’s too busy talking to Principal Powers right now. I just saw her walk into the tower,” Ethan said without even looking up. “I can do other things than fight. So why should I be third-rate and miserable at a kind of fighting I’m probably never going to do when I can tell you the weakness of anyone we go up against?” I couldn’t refute that. Ethan’s stun cap sneak attack in puddle form didn’t require knowing any stances or throws or strikes, only him having a bit of the element of surprise and some halfway decent aim. He probably should learn something, at some point, but today probably wasn’t the one to bring it up.
It took almost the rest of the period for Zack and I to get the throw right, and by that time I think Layla had finally gotten beyond accidentally tripping herself up. Our summer practice sessions hadn’t necessarily included fighting without our powers, mostly due to Layla’s personal objections (or, more accurately, her mom’s personal objections) and the fact that Ethan had been suspiciously good at distracting us with “necessary information,” about our possible future foes. That had probably been on purpose, considering what he had just told us. And it gave me an idea…
“Hey Popsicle, I have a real question for you,” I asked. The day was finally over for Sky High, and the bus was flying back down to Maxville. Our group had taken over the back of the bus, as much as to keep our group from being overheard as anything else.
“Sure,” he said, looking away from the window and pulling out his books. ‘Real’ questions in Ethan’s world always involved superbeings, and it was something we had occasionally used as a codeword when I had called him a few times over the summer for some help.
“Are there other cases of people whose powers turn on them?” I asked. Ethan blinked a few times at the relative non-sequitor, and then opened his books. Everyone else looked at me a little oddly, but their expressions cleared fairly quickly. The question was a perfectly legitimate one for me, even if my asking was abrupt. Right now, the bus was perhaps the one place where we would all be both together and in a semi-private location. The floor of the Gauntlet, if Boomer was watching, was about the least private place you could get.
If I wanted to learn something like this, privacy and in the company of friends was the only way to do it. Or at least that’s what I wanted them to think. I was curious as to how Monica’s powers had been used against her; if it had been all in her head, or if someone in the academy had “helped” her along. But I obviously didn’t dare put something like that forth to the rest of the gang. Even if Monica was willing to try to put the academy behind her, I couldn’t quite handle my friends’ reactions to her right now. I owed it to her, though, to help her any way I could.
“Yeah, I think so. Pretty sure I saw some. Mostly supervillains actually… the few heroes that had their powers turn on them were usually the victim of a reversal ray or some kind of deep personal problem,” he said thoughtfully, scanning a few pages as he found the people he was looking for.
“Well, that doesn’t exactly narrow it down…” I said with a bit of forced humor. Magenta and Layla gave me a sympathetic glance.
“Why are you worrying about it man? Don’t you got this thing figured out?” Zack asked.
“I’m… having some problems keeping everything under wraps at work. I got everything I could from those journals but…”
“Want to see if there’s more? I get it,” Ethan said with the understanding of the academically insatiable.
“How is that going anyways? You haven’t said squat about it,” Zack asked. I gave an expansive shrug.
“Kind of tough, I guess. I didn’t know you guys wanted all the details,” I said evasively.
“Well hey man, the rest of us ain’t gonna be in school forever,” Zack pointed out.
“I have no free time, I’m working my butt off in both jobs, it’s hard, and there’s no way I would be doing anything else with my life,” I said quickly, but with the punch of passion behind it. I had never minded hard work, and this was perhaps the hardest thing I had ever done. Being a hero, saving a villain, deceiving my friends while trying to help them, and maybe trying to figure out some way to resolve it all together. Hard? Very. But if I had wanted the easy road, I wouldn’t have taken this path.