I am afraid for my son.
For months I knew something had been eating at him, something important, related to being a hero, and that could have devastating consequences. I had thought he might not have been getting along with his assigned partner, which could have meant risking his identity every time he had to be Phoenix. But he never said a word about it, and I could tell he was so uncomfortable that speaking about it would be like pulling teeth. So I pulled back, gave him space, and let him know I was there if I needed him.
If I had known earlier, might I have reacted differently? I could not say. For too much of Warren’s life he had been my strength, pulling us through the trials and tribulations of a difficult existence by pure force of will. I had been sunk in deep depression since before his birth, and only nearly losing him to the same despair that had claimed me had shaken me out of my shell. Empathic powers are insidious, and as dangerous as they can be to those around you, they are more dangerous to the empath themselves. They can feed on self-doubt and turn it into reality.
Nearly two decades of inactivity was completely wiped away when he came into the house over two years ago after fighting in the cafeteria, radiating raw pain and shame like a nova. It was the pure passionate strength of his feelings that took me right out of my own circle of hell and into being the mother I always should have been for him. He reminded me so much of Baron, not in his vulnerability, but in his intensity. But unlike my husband, Warren I could reach, Warren I could help. Warren, I could save.
Baron had been the catalyst that turned me into the Peacemaker right out of high school. No one else in my family had been a public superhero; it was not just our emotion-based powers, but our family name as well. How could someone with any degree of empathic abilities go into a profession where they would have to hurt people? Myself especially, I was the most powerful of my family, being able to read or project any emotion under nearly any condition. My brother John could only sense, project, or repress fear. My older sister Jill could sense and project all different kinds of emotions, but only if both she and her subject were asleep. Mother was the same, except she could only use music as her vehicle.
Calmness was a byword all my family lived with. Meditation rituals dogged every single activity, and we were almost violently nonviolent. Even with all that help, I had to teach myself partially out of books, because I was so far beyond anything Mother could teach. Rituals became self-imposed law, and calmness a rigid structure to hold back the tiniest bit of emotional chaos. Perfect school notes, a precise brown-bag lunch, and a nearly pathological obsession with neatness were the hedges I used to keep my powers under control.
Then I met Baron. Trying to test my own calmness against drama queen high school actors had been the next logical choice, at least in my mind, to make sure I could control myself under any circumstances. And most of my fellow classmates were prima donnas, hams, clowns, or clueless. A little wild, but nothing that could even ruffle my feathers. But not him. He exuded passion even in the most innocuous of roles, turning even the high school musical into something far beyond what its composers intended. Yet overlaying that was the same kind of hard control I used to keep myself contained, and it fascinated me.
He showed me so much about myself that I could never repay him. He showed me “control” didn’t mean “containment,” and how passion could be used in service of one’s powers instead of misusing them. And I never tried to repay, instead trying to give him myself, loving him, marrying him, and even having a child with him. The creation of the Peacemaker came from his passion for life and justice. It was he who gave me the idea how I could use my powers as an active superhero without having to hurt anyone. The greatest diplomat the world has ever seen was partially the brainchild of a man now serving a quadruple life sentence for murder and mayhem. The irony is staggering.
Warren has so much of his father in him. Not just in appearance or in powers, but in that driving passion. But while Baron’s was like a fire in a steel furnace, Warren’s is like bubbling lava under a thin stony crust. Pierce his control and he explodes, often in all directions, until he manages to seal it again. That’s what I had been working with him to control since that fateful day in the cafeteria nearly three years ago. I had been so afraid to use my powers on him, but further fear of him shutting himself down, withdrawing behind those walls was too painful for me to sit idle.
So I gave him the tools he needed. Some I had given him years ago; the skill to sift truth from lies, to read people and know their motives. That day I gave him a few days with his temper tempered by my powers. It showed him he didn’t have to live in anger, and slowly I saw him open up to the people around him. He had his first real taste of heroism when he helped save the school, and his almost involuntary friendships with his classmates drug him completely out of that dark place he had been living in. I taught him the meditation techniques to calm his mind, and told him often of my pride for him.
I could so easily have stopped him from being a hero if I had wanted to. As a mother, and as an empath, I could have played upon his fears, tried to keep him close, at least at my side. Royal Pain’s attack had terrified me, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent who suddenly wanted to stick their child in a safe place until they were forty or so. Even superhero parents can get overprotective. But I couldn’t allow myself to do that. Warren was desperate to prove himself, to prove that he wasn’t his father. He needed my help, my support, not my own fear. So I told him I was proud of him, that he could do it, that he could accomplish anything.
And despite everything that had happened initially with Tobias, I knew that the invitation at graduation had partially been to help Warren. Tobias had wanted Warren to have an unequivocally good experience with being a superhero. Specifically, being a superhero with his family, so that Warren would want to stay. It had been a confidence booster, an ego stroke. Tobias obviously didn’t know what supervillains would choose to attack that week, but he knew there would be some, and with backup always in place in the form of his children, he could be fairly sure Phoenix would come out on top easily.
I had seen how nearly ebullient Warren had been after his first official fight, and perhaps I should have burst his bubble, at least a little. But I couldn’t make myself. I hadn’t seen him that unreservedly happy ever in his life. Life would find a way of evening things out eventually, I told myself, and it had shortly after he returned to Maxville.
Had it been too much of a downer to be brought so violently back to earth after the fight with Flashpoint? All the good cheer he had had after the trip to Europe had suddenly vanished, replaced with a much more businesslike attitude. I was even proud of him for that, for realizing and acting to correct his own mistakes, but in retrospect I wondered if it had been too hard. In further retrospect, it had probably been because he was working side-by-side with a known supervillain.
The night Warren had confronted her, the supervillain Painbreaker; I could feel the emotion-storm from nearly across town, hard on the heels of him invoking his healing fire. Guilt and fear so thick and powerful it woke me out of a sound sleep and into a kind of waking nightmare. Having the phone ring was almost a relief, for at least I would find out what he had been up to for the past few months.
When I saw her though, I came as close to losing control as ever had been. When Warren told me what had been going on, I was so astonished I couldn’t even speak. I was furious with him, that he had been working with a supervillain for so long without telling me or anyone else. I was angry, that he had misused his powers, his skills that I had taught him, to hurt her. I was shocked that he had trusted her to not give away his identity. And above all, I was afraid for him.
I saw, in my mind’s eye, everything that I had worked for during the past few years going up in smoke. If him or I were caught associating with supervillains again, for any reason, the reaction of the superhero community would be terrible. Trust would be shattered and the ostracizing would begin again. They would see a repeat of the past; a failure of my powers, of Warren giving in to the evil they all assumed was inherent in him because of his father. I didn’t think I could handle that again, not after Baron.
For the first time, I was harsh with Warren. I did not give him an ounce of sympathy. I told him the pure, undiplomatic truth and ordered him around like he was three years old. I was channeling to him, and I knew it, for he didn’t even protest when I summarily told him what to do. He had expected help, sympathy, guidance, and some solution to the mess he had gotten himself into. I gave him none of that, and it killed me inside to see the wounds I gave him.
I couldn’t even tell him the full reason for what I had done. I told him I had lost my temper, but I didn’t tell him my fears. Would it have done him any good to know how close to the edge he was skating? I knew he would think of it for himself at some point, but would it be too late? All it would take was a single mistake; one of his friends catching sight of Monica while she was walking around town, and everything would come apart for him.
That was the second reason I was afraid for him, his friends. I had watched those tapes from last Homecoming over and over again, writing down what observations I could for the Bureau files. And so it didn’t entirely surprise me when Zack showed up at my door one night a few weeks after they had returned from Yellowstone, a night when I knew he knew Warren was at night class.
One of Zack’s older sisters, Krystal, went by the Sidekick name of Switch, and had the power to turn electrical things on or off at a distance. She was partnered with Dynamotronic, a genius with a mechanical bent, helping him battle against evil geniuses with their own electronic toys. It was the lot of a Sidekick to often be the distraction, the decoy, or even the sacrifice so the hero could save the day. After one too many close calls had left her rattled, she had come to see me, not more than six months after I had gone active again. It had been a joy to use my powers to help again, and even if it hadn’t been on the big scale I had been used to, I had been no less pleased to help her regain her nerve. So if she had seen Zack faltering like she had been, she wouldn’t have hesitated to point him my way.
It amazes me sometimes that no matter how much things change, they also remain the same in so many ways. It wasn’t so terribly long ago that students in schools had so many more restrictions on how they could dress, talk, or act. And yet now that so many of those school-imposed restrictions are gone, students still have their own restrictions they put on themselves. They must show the proper amount of “coolness” at all times, or suffer the consequences. Zack’s own proper façade of infinite cool, agreeability, and nonchalance hemmed him in as much as my own son’s stony walls of indifference had for so many years.
Whatever had gotten Zack to my door had required a huge sacrifice on his part. Proper teenage attitude didn’t require help from grown-ups, and it certainly didn’t acknowledge that the teenager had any problems that he couldn’t solve himself. Self-reliant American mentality combined with macho male posturing topped with the inherent peer pressure of being cool. Without some kind of external prompting or internal revelation he probably would have gone until he snapped.
There had been no doubt in my mind what his problem was the moment I opened my door. It hadn’t been more than a few weeks since he had fought Cutter and her crew, and even now I could still see the very faint scar on his cheek from where her knife had cut him. He wasn’t any paler than normal, he hadn’t lost any weight, or had any other signs of what I knew had to been nightmare-ridden sleep for the past few weeks. That must have been why Warren and the others hadn’t picked up on it. But I could sense it; he was trembling and sharp inside with fear, with shame, and with other things he couldn’t even name. But he didn’t feel he could talk to Warren about this, or obviously he wouldn’t be here.
I hadn’t let him dangle; I brought him into the den the minute after I opened the door. What courage had brought him to me might fail if he had to try to speak things aloud on the doorstep. The fact that I already knew what was going on, at a gut level at least, spared him the agony of full confession. This was why I had gone back to helping superheroes, because sometimes the only people who would understand them were other superheroes. And understanding them without words helped more than most could articulate.
“Painbreaker?” I said to him, as soon as we had sat down. Zack nodded.
“And Cutter,” he added.
“Nightmares?” I persisted. I remembered Warren had mentioned once that Zack didn’t have to sleep very long, as some odd side effect of his powers, and anything that could disturb that short time of sleep must be very bad indeed.
“I just…” he paused, and I felt another wave of fear flood him. “I just see them. In my head, all the time. It’s stupid, you know?”
I extended a bare tendril of calm to him, slowly easing the fear a bit, giving him the ability to go on.
“You were brave, you know that,” I told him as a statement of fact. All of Warren’s friends had been brave, but even I had to admit that Zack had shown some of the most physical bravery of them all. He hadn’t had Ethan or Magenta’s ability to hide if cornered. Layla had been hidden in relative safety on the roof. Will had been flying, and would have been impervious to the kind of harm Zack had had inflicted on him. And Zack didn’t have my son’s indestructibility either.
Yet after being on the receiving end of an unusual power so intense it had knocked him out, he had come to in time to see his girlfriend nearly die. Then he had willingly left what protection he had to find her, and punched out a boy he knew was poisonous to the touch.
“I… I keep thinking what’s gonna happen when we fight them again,” he said in a rush. “I want to hurt them, bad. I don’t want to use a stun ray on them either. They hurt Magenta, they were going to hurt her more before the killed her, and me.”
“You were being a good hero Zack. And you decided to come talk to me before upgrading your stun ray because you know it would be wrong,” I told him quietly.
I saw him wince, then nod. How many young heroes had I counseled before I went inactive the first time? It must have been dozens, maybe even hundreds. Zack was not the first Sidekick to feel this way after his first fight. Relatively powerless, and sometimes run roughshod over by their Heroes, Sidekicks had been turned to supervillain minions before for just this reason.
With no options in a fight in-between nearly powerless attacks and something fully lethal, Sidekicks could go bad. And to strike back at the people that had hurt his girlfriend and himself so badly… it was only human. But heroes were expected to be superhuman. That was the crux of all of our problems.
I had to credit Zack for having the courage to take his sister’s advice. Admitting to someone, perhaps even particularly someone like me, that you were willing to do deadly harm to a supervillain had to take guts. Slowly I convinced him that wanting that wasn’t crazy, it was even natural. It took me a while, for he wasn’t quite ready for me to use my powers. Unless someone was in a dire and immediate crisis, they didn’t need me mucking around in their heart and soul. But words were my weapons, with my powers or without them, and even without them I could help him.
Warren even ended up helping, though he didn’t even know it. Teaching Zack unarmed combat suddenly gave him a third option, something between an all-out lethal attack and subduing. It was strength, and given strength in body, came strength in mind and spirit. It’s sometimes odd how something so simple can stop something so complex. I wasn’t surprised when his nightmares stopped soon after.
I couldn’t tell Warren about any of this though. What Zack had told me I would take to my grave. It was more private than a patient and a counselor, closer to a confessor and a priest perhaps. I could not break the oaths I had made to myself, not even to warn Warren how much he was risking. Zack, and all his friends, had geared themselves up to fight against Cutter’s Crew. Did Warren realize how much of a betrayal this could seem? Perhaps intellectually he knew it, but not at gut level, not yet. For someone who felt things deeply, Warren could also sometimes keep things mentally at bay if he wasn’t quite ready for them yet.
All this had run through my mind right after Warren had told me what had happened. And yet after I dismissed him to cover for Monica and finish his shift, things became even stranger. Knowing what I did about her and being able to tell what she was feeling enabled me to cut through much of the verbal song-and-dance we might have gone through. In between broken words of half-understood concepts, I learned what she knew, how she had survived, and why she had suddenly reached out to Warren, risking the wrath of the academy.
Her danger from them was far more then our danger to her. Yet Warren hadn’t taken her in to the Bureau. Granted she had attempted to threaten him, and he had believed her, but nearly anyone else would have ignored her attempts at blackmail and brought her to justice. Will Stronghold would have. His parents certainly would have. So would have the rest of Warren’s friends, more or less directly. He hadn’t. He believed her when she said she hadn’t been doing any villainy. He actually answered his emergency phone in front of her. He had accepted her ride to his battles. He had been the first person to show her any hint of real trust in at least four years.
Four years, that was the problem. She had spent four years immersed in a deadly supervillain academy, and before that had spent far too much time shoving aside her feelings so she could use her powers as she thought she had to. As Warren had said, her actions, history, and words were all in conflict.
The reason was easy enough for me to see, though it had stolen my breath in fear when I first saw it. The mind is like a fortress of stone, each brick an experience, holding back raw instinct, the animal mind that comes forth in times of anger, fear, or stress. And at the core is the solid stone that forms our morality, our core values, what makes us more than animals, what makes us human. When I had seen Baron’s mind for the first and last time, I could see his core rotted, parts deliberately excised in startling clarity, others crumbled away by sheer repetition. It was a horror, and I fled from it.
To see the same thing again… I might have fled her mind immediately, seeing that crumbling stone in the core of her mind, but I forced myself to look again. Monica had not yet deliberately committed murder, so perhaps something lingered in her core, something that stayed her hand. Something that would explain her odd desire to help in the face of working for our enemies.
There, deep in the crumbling stone, thinner by far than anything I had seen, was a second core, and not of stone, but of steel. These were what she had been protecting, but unable to use. The morality that lay closest to the bone and dearest to the heart, a gift of a loving and able guardian before disease had robbed her from Monica’s life. Buried deep amongst her more conscious mind, hard to get to, but still there, it was something I could work with. I would not flee from her as I had from my husband.
When I asked her if I could help clear her mind and re-awaken what she had been trying to on her own, she had seemed confused. It’s so hard sometimes to explain exactly how the innermost part of the mind looks, particularly when it’s someone else’s mind. Emotionally, she wanted some kind of anchor, a solid place to stand. Warren had knocked all the pillars that had supported her worldview askew, and she was foundering. Things she thought were true weren’t, and facts she had based her life on were revealed to be no more than lies.
What is real? What is truth? Universal questions were shouting from behind her eyes, and I could give her no more than the basest of answers.
“I can help you find your way. But it will hurt,” I warned her.
“I’m not afraid of pain,” was all she told me.
“You’ll be afraid of this. But it will be better after, I can promise you that,” I told her a little sadly. It was all the comfort I could give her, because no one could really prepare themselves for that kind of experience. She gave her mind over to my hands, and I went to work.
Destroying stone is hard, even if it’s crumbling, for the rotted stone bastion around her core was everything she had for so long. To an outside observer, we sat in trance for several hours; Monica with tears running down her face, mine a mask of concentration. Inside the mental plane, I was using things like sunlight and storm, waterfall and rain to weaken, blast, and erode away a mentality based on years of lies. For me, all things mental come as pictures, sometimes with sounds or scents or even tastes. But in the constructs of the soul, I used the fury of nature to bring down a man-made edifice, finally exposing the slender and strong core beneath.
Having part of yourself ripped away is an ungodly painful experience, and I hugged Monica close to me as we broke our trance. Physical pain she had felt and shared in abundance. Emotional pain she had shut out years ago, and feeling it again had been above and beyond what she was capable of dealing with. Though Warren had started this pain and uncertainty, I had continued it. But I couldn’t finish it.
Fear held me away from completing Monica’s healing. She would need weeks of help, maybe even months or years. In truth, she should have kept coming to me as Zack had, for as long as she needed. But I couldn’t do it. She couldn’t be seen coming to my house. She obviously couldn’t go to the Bureau. And any clandestine meeting might be found out eventually. What the Bureau would think about me meeting any supervillain secretly wasn’t to be contemplated.
I admit; I passed the buck. I told Warren he would have to finish what I had started. I threw the whole problem back in his lap. Part out of anger, part out of fear, and part out of the genuine thought he should learn to reap what he had sown. He knew hero work didn’t just involve punching the bad guy in the face, but it was sometimes harder to see from this close. He had to learn. She had to heal. And I was too afraid to take this on.
He can do it. He knows how. She wants to heal herself, and she’ll help him help her. It won’t be easy, but even with what consequences they both might face, I think they’ll manage. I know myself to be too afraid to do this right. Warren can, I know it, and I even told him so and believed it in my heart.
But I’m still afraid for my son.