Tempus Fugit , Part A
It had been a week since Monica’s breakdown, and three days since Sky High had started classes again. Luckily, she had had two days off after that incident with the car wreck, two days to relax, to calm down, and to think. I’d needed the time too, but there was no way we could stall any further with purely concentrating on our cover job. I would end up saying something stupid, I was sure of it.
We were parked in our usual sector, an uncomfortable silence filling the car, the lack of sound almost hurting my ears. Monica was almost silently breathing, eyes closed, echoing at least a posture of calm I was very much envying right now. Working as a hero wasn’t for the faint of heart, or weak of nerves, but I felt I had had quite a lot thrown at me in the last little while.
Or you could just be whining, my brain pointed out cheerfully. Weren’t you just saying you didn’t mind hard work?
Shut up, I told myself firmly.
“Do you really want out?” I asked finally into the awkward silence. It was the first time I had said anything directly related to last week’s incident since it had happened.
“It’s a little late to ask me that now, don’t you think?” Monica pointed out. I dropped my eyes in embarrassment. Because I had asked Mom to help me, Monica could have found herself under arrest by the Bureau if Mom had reacted any worse than she had. And it wouldn’t have taken much, I think.
“Yes, I want out,” she said after another few moments, her voice firm and determined.
“So, what do you want to do now?” I ventured. Monica was quiet for another few minutes, but I could tell she was just thinking, figuring out how to say something.
“I don’t want to be a supervillain, but I can’t go public as a hero,” she said reluctantly.
“Why not? There’ve been supervillains that have gone over to the good side in the past,” I pointed out.
“If I turned my back on the academy, what’s to stop people from thinking I might just turn my back on the Bureau again if things get too hard?” she said. Well, she does have a point, I thought.
“I don’t know. But you won’t,” I said. “And they’ll have to believe you eventually.”
“How would you-,” she started heatedly, and then stopped when I gestured to myself. “Right. Ok,” she sighed. “But going public would be too dangerous for me. You know what the academy does to traitors.”
Considering they had sent six people to kill Speed, Lash, and Penny, I could just imagine whom they might send to silence her. Those three hadn’t even known that much about the academy, and I could guess they’d spare no effort to quiet someone who had actually been inside it, if that person decided to turn.
“Yeah…” I started.
“Do you realize that some of the supervillains Speed, Lash, and Penny have faced haven’t just been committing crime in their neighborhood? Some have been bounty hunters. The academy put a price on their head after we failed to kill them,” she pointed out.
“No,” I said, and shook my head in half-disbelief, half-anger. The academy is one sick and twisted organization.
“The academy hasn’t sent any other graduates after them yet, but it’s only a matter of time. But those three can practically smell danger, and they’re used to looking out for it now. And there are three of them. They can watch each other’s backs. There’s only one of me, and I have to sleep sometime.
“Besides,” she added with a sigh. “I kind of owe them.”
“What?” I demanded, incredulous.
“They’re the ones that took me in. I worked for them for four years. They trusted me, as much as they were able. The heroes won’t, not for a long time,” she said sadly.
“Trust is only as good to the person whom trust is given,” I told her.
“That sounds like you got it out of a fortune cookie,” she said, giving me a frank look.
Ok, I actually had, but that wasn’t the point. Just because I worked at a Chinese restaurant for about five years didn’t meant I discounted fortune cookie wisdom. A lot of it was good advice, and it didn’t make it any less good for being wrapped in a semi-sweet cookie.
“So? It doesn’t make it any less true. Those guys are liars and thieves, murderers, and you know it. You don’t owe them anything. And they don’t own you.”
Monica looked out at some middle distance, thinking, and closed her eyes. After an uncomfortably long moment, she opened them again.
“You’re right,” she said firmly. I sighed in relief, and Monica smiled a bit, looking a little more relaxed.
“Good to know,” I said finally. Monica smiled a little, seeming to understand. I kind of hoped I was right about something in this mess that I had made.
“Look, I can’t go public as a hero. Even if the Bureau believed me, it’s not their job to protect heroes. It’s the heroes’ job to protect them. If- When the academy goes down, maybe I’ll consider it, but… not now. I don’t think I can hack it as a citizen anymore either.” She didn’t mention being a villain again, that was already over and done with.
“So, what?” I prompted. I was kind of fresh out of ideas. She took a deep breath.
“I’ve been helping you out. Can’t I keep doing that?”
“What, like hero support?” I asked a little impishly. She gave me a rather disturbing dead-eyed glare, and I looked away first. I probably shouldn’t be teasing her right now.
“Sorry,” I said quickly.
“I’m not going to prance around in tights as your Sidekick,” she said. “First off, I’d die of embarrassment. Second off, that’s hardly any less inconspicuous than going public as a hero. I’ve been helping get you to the villains, helping cover for you, can’t I just keep doing things like that?” she asked.
“I think they call it ‘Sidekick distraction,’ not ‘prancing,’” I corrected, smiling a little. Monica looked exasperated. “No reason why you couldn’t keep helping me. I think I’m actually more used to having help now. But what about the academy?” I asked. She looked at me quizzically.
“What about the academy?”
“Can you tell me things about them?” I asked cautiously. It was risky for both of us for several reasons, and I knew she had to know that. She pursed her lips in thought.
“If I do, can you give the information to others without revealing where it came from? They’ll either start thinking you have a supervillain in your back pocket somehow, or that you’re the villain, if you aren’t careful,” she pointed out.
“I know… I think, maybe I can pass it off during brainstorming. Or if something comes up, maybe I can work it into the conversation. And if I can’t…” Monica looked at me hard as I trailed off. “Then I won’t say anything. I promise.”
If I betrayed her, then I’d betray my mom and me as well. Even if I hadn’t promised to help keep her existence a secret, I would have kept my mouth shut for that reason alone.
Three months and two and a half weeks after graduation, Warren's house
I decided that, within the bounds of my promise, I had to figure out what my friends thought about all this, especially Will. There was one talent Will had, above and beyond his superpowers, that was going to make him one hell of a hero. He always made the right decision. Granted, he had to know a decision had to be made (which sometimes required a bright flashing sign, a map, and a guide, something even he admitted), but once there, he didn’t hesitate. And considering how fast he could be, it was a damn good thing he tended to be right, because in a battle, we wouldn’t be able to stop him.
Yeah, he saw things in shades of black and white, but sometimes I thought that was better than seeing every possible consequence in shades of gray and agonizing over each and every one. I was guilty of that one in spades. Layla wasn’t always willing to use a solution that included violence, Ethan sometimes needed too much time to make any decision at all, Magenta was inclined to let some problems take care of themselves and charge into others full tilt, while Zack sometimes made decisions based on how cool something would appear. Nobody was perfect in everything, but I thought my friends would at least give me a more balanced idea of what I was doing.
It was Thursday afternoon, my house, our usual study session. However, myself, now no longer needing to take tests and quizzes, was acting as the teacher. Or at least I was prompting them with questions from the book. Since we were using my house, I exercised my host’s rights to determine the order of study, starting with Moral Dilemmas. I had passed that class with flying colors, thanks to what my Mom had taught me, so in theory it was the best subject for me to teach. There was some brutal irony in there somewhere.
“Supervillain turning superhero,” I started, while Zack and Will were still digging out pencils and paper. Ethan perked up and began flipping through his books, while Magenta tapped her lips with her pen.
“Like in the middle of a battle? Or something else?” she asked.
“Something else,” I said confidently. “Say you know your villain’s secret identity, he knows yours, and he tells you he wants to change.” There had been more than one case like that over the years, so while I was atop dangerous ground, it was hardly unknown.
“Most of the time when you have sudden reformation cases it’s usually because the former supervillain has been possessed, or under mind control, or has some kind of alien parasite,” Ethan pointed out, writing notes down.
“Let’s say they seem to have a genuine change of heart,” I prodded.
“How would you tell? They could be lying through their teeth, wantin’ to stab you in the back or something,” Zack asked.
“Good point,” Layla said thoughtfully, lying on her stomach. “Get a mind-reader maybe?”
“Say you can’t, maybe there’s none around,” I said, turning the questions the way I needed them to go.
“Is this scenario in the book?” Ethan asked curiously.
“Yes,” I said instantly, and flatly. Will looked at me a little oddly, but didn’t say anything.
“So you’re relying only on yourself?” Layla asked, and I nodded.
“See ‘em in action,” Zack said simply. “See what they do when the chips are down.”
“Maybe you don’t get a chance to,” I said quickly. Ethan was frowning and flipping through his books, trying to find which problem I was reading from.
“So, they’re talking to you while both of you are in cover, you don’t have a mind-reader, and you don’t have time to see them in action? Is this one of the questions from the test?” Magenta demanded.
“Hey, I’m not going to give you guys easy problems,” I pointed out, and Magenta sighed in defeat.
“Give them a chance to prove themselves,” Will piped up for the first time, looking thoughtful. “They might not be telling the truth, but you never know unless you give them a chance.”
“Yeah, that’s easy enough if you can’t be hurt,” Magenta quipped.
“I think Will’s right, we should always give them a chance,” Layla said more firmly, backing up Will’s choice.
“What if they betray you?” Magenta continued. She generally enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate in situations like this.
“It would really depend on the supervillain. If they’re known as an evil genius, I think it’s be really, really hard to trust them. But if they’re like a henchmen or something, that’s different,” Ethan said, not looking up from his books. “I mean, if Royal Pain was asking-.”
“Throwdown,” Zack said quickly, and Ethan grinned.
“Right, I doubt any of us would believe her. But if it were like, oh um…”
“Bruin?” I suggested when Ethan stalled to think of a name. I didn’t even want to name Painbreaker, not even in a theoretical sense.
“Bruin,” he repeated, nodding to me. “If it were him, he doesn’t seem like the mastermind type, and he might be really telling the truth.”
“Until he eats you,” Magenta pointed out.
“I wouldn’t trust any of them man, most of those guys are crazy,” Zack said with conviction. “Warped.”
“So, no second chances?” Layla challenged.
“If they wanna prove they’re all on the down low, come swoopin’ in during a battle and save somebody. Actions man, actions speak louder than words,” he said, not backing down a bit. “Not this whole ‘come up to you during your off-day’ stuff. I mean, you can’t really answer that.” Zack shrugged expansively and looked over at me.
He’s right, you know. You won’t really know for sure until she’s willing to take up arms against the academy.
Shut it, Monica is already risking a lot by talking to me...
Just keep telling yourself that Hothead, my brain taunted. Great, now my own subconscious was calling me by Boomer’s nickname.
“Anything else?” I asked the rest of the gang, and got a bunch of headshakes in response. They would have to answer more thoroughly on the test, but I knew this would never be used at Sky High. So the gang might not ever trust Monica unless she was ready to do something physical to be a hero. And that might be never. I resolved to try to keep my mouth shut about it from now on.
“Ok, so there’s a supervillain on a bridge…”
Three months and three weeks after graduation, amublance, Sixth and Main
“You have a headache,” Monica said the moment I got in the ambulance. Since I had one hand on my temple and a pained expression on my face, I wasn’t particularly impressed. She didn’t need her powers to tell her that.
“Your powers of deduction are staggering,” I snapped, sliding the bundle of papers I had brought with me into my bag.
“Any particular reason?”
“I was picking up my mail at the Bureau. They have a lot of mind readers. I was keeping up my walls, and I’m a little out of practice,” I said shortly. Maintaining my firewall wasn’t automatic, nor was it easy, and I had been uncomfortably remembering Ms. Olsen’s words that mind readers at the Bureau might try to check up on me from time to time. But I had to get my fan mail from Mandy, not to mention anything else I might get that was too sensitive to trust to the post office.
“Ah, well then if you’re going to be grumpy all day…” Monica trailed off as I dropped my hand and started to root through my bag for some painkillers. Then she reached out and touched me on the temple with two fingers. Before I could protest, I realized the headache was gone, just as if someone had flicked off a switch.
“Um…” I said after a few seconds. “Thanks.” That was the first time she had every really offered to do anything like that for me, and I was understandably startled. It’s a good thing sign though, isn’t it? Willing to take on someone else’s pain after all she’s been through?
“Don’t mention it,” she said, and took her hand away. Faint shadows danced across her forehead and eyes as she kept her powers invoked, nearly invisible in the late-afternoon sunlight. “So, what mail do you get that the Bureau has to hold?”
“Fan mail,” I said, pulling the papers back out of my bag. It wouldn’t hurt to let her look at them; as far as I was concerned, fan mail was one of the huge perks to being a superhero. I read them first, and then handed them over to Monica. She laughed a little at the ones from the kids, smiled at the ones from the adults, and choked at the rabid fangirl letters.
“No wonder you do this,” she said very softly, so softly I wasn’t sure I had heard her right. She put each letter back with care, and I caught her expression. It was oddly sad, and her eyes were suspiciously bright. I looked away quickly before she could see me peeking, and read the last letter. I smiled broadly at it, because this one was from Thomas. I wasn’t quite sure what had made her upset, but maybe this might cheer her a bit.
“It’s from my cousin, he’s eight,” I said casually, tapping it. “He just powered up a few months ago, he said he’d write me. He said he managed to set the dining room table on fire before some big dinner party the other week, and they ended up having to serve it on tables they scavenged from all over the estate. And then no one could remember where they all went, so they’ve been swapping them around for a week.”
A bunch of other little mishaps and misadventures followed, hilarious for an eight-year-old, but a little more charming to me, particularly after he had mentioned he was following Phoenix in the super-news. I was actually kind of touched that he’d remembered to write. I had liked reading well enough when I was that little, but writing had been a pain, and Thomas had written a small novel, by eight-year-old standards.
Monica listened, a faint ghost of a smile coming back to her face before I was through.
“Nice kid,” she commented. “Must be nice to have fans.”
“Yeah, it is. It’s… a big reason of why I do this,” I told her. Monica looked very thoughtful for the rest of the night, but a few times I thought I caught her wiping her eyes. I did the only thing I thought I could, and didn’t say a word about it.
We talked a lot in the next several of months, about our powers, about ethics and morals, about what it was like to be a good guy. It was probably the most intense questioning of what exactly I was doing that I had ever done. Our final essay of “Why I Want To Be A Hero” had nothing on this.
“How do you usually use your powers in a fight?” was the first question I had asked her when she wondered how she was supposed to use her powers for good.
“I was partnered with Cutter because someone has to be hurt before I can use my powers. So I waited until she cut someone, then used my powers to enhance it until the person stopped, collapsed, or fainted. Wash, rinse, repeat until all enemies are down. And if it wasn’t Cutter, then I had to wait until someone else hurt the enemies. Or I had to do it myself. I’m not a kung-fu artist or anything, I just have to get close enough to scratch someone, and then I have a foothold,” she explained. It was something of a conundrum on how she could make that work in a heroic context, and I reluctantly said as much.
“Well, how do you use your powers?” Monica asked in exasperation.
“Wing people, for the most part. If they’re tough, I can pour on the flames, but if I’m facing someone that’s not fireproof, I can either try to scare them into backing down or… I have to hurt them,” I told her.
It was one of the things that sucked about my power, that I had truly hated about it before I had discovered the ember-fire. If I powered up normally, the only thing I could do was hurt people. Most people didn’t realize how hard it was to not hurt someone with pyrokinesis. Boomer had basically told me, as well as other ‘kinetics in the school, that using our powers responsibly was basically knowing when not to use them, or where to hit when you did.
Cryokinetics had it a lot easier. They could freeze the ground and have their opponent sliding around, or freeze weapons or armor into immovability. Electrokinetics could shock their foes into tetany. But pyrokinesis tended to be the most destructive because fire had a way of growing and feeding on itself. A single battle with a pyrokinetic could leave a city in charred ruins if things got out of hand. The other ‘kinetic powers didn’t do that nearly so much. Sure, I could heat up armor or weapons like a cryo, but the damage from fire was so much faster than the damage from cold. And once a fire got started, most pyrokinetics didn’t have any control over it. There were very few fire controllers (like Crimson Tempus), and if no one was around to control it, a simple small fire made to scare could turn into an inferno.
I could hem people in with flame to frighten them, but that wasn’t always an option. Sometimes the only way to stop someone was to burn them. If the person wasn’t tough, I had to pick my targets with care, somewhere non-vital but damaging. But it still meant I had to hurt people.
“That’s actually kind of comforting to know. My powers hurt, but they don’t actually leave scars,” she said. I clenched my fist at that, my jaw tight. I had already had to scorch more than one villain to stop them, and I was uncomfortably aware that was exactly what my dad, and all his relatives, had to do too. If I had only known my dad out of all of my relatives, I think I would have been a lot more screwed up about it, but after meeting the rest of his family, it had made it a lot more bearable.
“Sorry,” she added, after seeing my face.
“It’s ok. I deal with it,” I said, sighing. Then I shook my head.
“Duh, you can do what I can,” I said, nearly smacking my forehead as the answer came to me. Monica looked blank for a moment, and then realized what I was getting at.
“Winging people? That’s what I should be doing?”
“Makes sense. You said you could stop nearly anyone in their tracks with what you can do. Don’t hold your powers on them, just make them think twice before running,” I elaborated.
“It’s only effective when I’m actually using them though,” she pointed out reluctantly.
“Hey, if you can get someone to just pause, that’s enough,” I said. “That’s what Zack, Ethan, and Magenta do.”
I had decided, though not without some trepidation, to not beat around the bush when it came to talking about my friends. Most of my examples of stuff came from them, and trying to dance around the subject would have gotten really ridiculous after a while. I wasn’t going to give out addresses or anything, but I could at least let her know their first names and what they could do.
“If I have someone else around to give me a foothold,” she countered.
“You said you wanted to work with me, right?” I pointed out jokingly. “I mean, when the academy finally goes…”
Monica got a look of shock on her face when I said that.
“You really mean that?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess I do…” I said, realizing, with some surprise, that I actually did. No one else would know about her when the academy was finally taken down. I would be the only one who knew her well enough to trust her. If she couldn’t work with me, where would she go? I had basically kicked her out of one world, so it was my responsibility to open up the other to her. Huh, I guess I really do mean that.
That evening, Warren’s house
“How’s it going?” Mom asked the minute I walked in the door. Things between Mom and I weren’t exactly strained, but I could tell she was very much on edge from what I was doing. That made two of us. It was scary, trying to help fix someone’s entire worldview, knowing that if I messed up, I probably wouldn’t have much time to bemoan the consequences.
I wasn’t even up for giving Mom a blow-by-blow, so I did the only other thing I could. I held out my hands to her, silently telling her to read me for herself.
“Are you sure?” she asked, looking a little sad.
“Yeah, I really can’t do this twice in one night,” I said, and Mom gave me a hard hug, letting her powers tell her without words what I was doing.
“Warren, you’re really doing fine,” she said, after a minute. “I’m sorry I’m having you do this on your own-.”
“I know, I messed up, I got to fix it,” I interrupted. Mom shook her head for a moment, and then sighed.
“You’re handling it very well, Phoenix,” she said in a queerly formal manner.
Four months after graduation, the morning after Homecoming, Medic-Co parking lot
“Huh, I was expecting there to be some kind of big thing. Supervillain scheme, someone trying to blow up the city, sewers imploding, or something like that,” I said idly. Surprisingly, for the first time in two years, Homecoming night had not involved a prolonged battle with supervillains. Phoenix hadn’t gotten any kind of call at all, not exactly typical, but somewhat uncommon. I wasn’t getting a “night off” more than once or twice every two weeks.
“Count your blessings,” Monica suggested with a somewhat sardonic glance.
Four and a half months after graduation, Sky High gym
“Dudette, not comfortable being grabbed there!” Zack yelled as Layla’s vines wrapped him up. Layla abruptly turned a brilliant scarlet, and the vines retracted at light speed. Zack was blushing, Magenta was glaring, Will was attempting to hold in laughter with both hands, and Ethan pretended the whole subcontext of the conversation was beyond him.
Four months and three weeks after graduation, Warren’s house
We had been waiting for the other shoe to drop about the academy for months. We had expected explosions, world domination attempts, or something like that. Instead we had gotten nearly five months of very eerie silence. I hadn’t pressed Monica for information yet; I didn’t want to make her angry by blatantly trying to trade on her inside knowledge. But maybe after today I might have a direction to try. Will had called a meeting for today, claiming he had something new about our erstwhile foes, and had also commandeered my sanctum for it. I had tried to protest, but Will had pointed out that I was the only one of the group that had my own, even if I was sharing it.
I let the rest of the gang start hauling food down there, threatening them with torture-by-Trixie if they got anything on Mom’s half of the sanctum, while I tried to finish up some last-minute repairs to my costume. I refused to let any of my friends see me sew; I had some standards. The doorbell rang just as I was tying off the last knot, and I quickly stuffed everything in the closet. They never told you how high-maintenance those super-suits were in high school…
I shouldn’t have been surprised really, but when I opened the door to see who was there, I just stood there in shock for a second.
“Principal Powers?” I asked dumbly.
“In the flesh. Didn’t Will tell you I told him to call the meeting?” she said with a smile as she stepped in.
“I think it slipped his mind,” I said, mentally resolving to sic Trixie on him at the earliest opportunity. Surprise visits were never really my thing, and that went triple at this point in my life.
“Well, at least he remembered to call it at all. And Warren, I’m not your principal anymore, you can call me Veronica,” she said as we started walking downstairs. I must have looked really uncomfortable, because she quickly added, “Or Ms. Powers, if you prefer.”
You’re an adult, Peace. She’s a peer hero now, not one of your teachers.
“Veronica,” I asked, feeling a little self-conscious, “what’s going on with the academy?”
“Quite a bit,” she said, nodding to everyone as we entered the sanctum. Principal Powers, Veronica (it was going to take some getting used to even thinking about her by her given name) took one of the better chairs by the computer, while everyone else had pulled folding chairs out of the closet. I stood in the back, arms crossed, suddenly feeling a distinct gap between my friends and me.
Having Prin- Veronica ask me to call me by her first name suddenly brought home the fact that I was passing into the responsibilities of not just being a superhero, but being an adult as well. I had a full-time job and then some, my own place, technically, (I had started paying Mom rent so I wouldn’t feel so much like some slacker college leech), and even my own sanctum. I wasn’t involved so closely with all the little things that were so important in high school, and even though the gang kept me forcibly up-to-date on everything at Sky High, my priorities were shifting a lot faster than they realized.
It wasn’t like they weren’t still my friends. And hell, they were only two years younger than me! It was just that it wasn’t ever going to be quite the same, even when they all graduated. Things were going to change, maybe not a lot, but it was going to happen. It was happening right now, right in front of me, and it wasn’t easy or comfortable to practically see yourself growing up.
Trixie had managed to follow me down to the sanctum (how she got past the biometric scanner was a mystery I had never been able to uncover) and seemed to sense my blue mood even before I realized I was depressing myself. She leapt into my arms and lay there purring as I wrenched my attention back to the here-and-now. Having a purring cat in your arms practically prevents you from being blue.
“I finally have some firm information about what’s happening with the academy. However, there’s only so much I’m allowed to tell you at this point, I’m sure you understand,” she started.
“Plausible deniability?” Ethan hazarded, as Pri- Veronica shook her head.
“Something like that. Also, I am not terribly high up on the notification list, you see. But here’s what I know. The Bureau has managed to get five people inside the academy.”
“Whoa!” “Dude…” “How?” “Who?” Considering how much trouble the Bureau had gone to for nothing last time, this was great news!
“Three shapeshifters and two with mental powers. The exact how and whom I don’t know, and it’s probably just as well. What I don’t know, I can’t be forced to reveal. They’ve uncovered some horrors… I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say the academy students are prepared to fight and to fight dirty. However, most of the graduates have left the school to study abroad. It’s some kind of graduate work under the wing of more experienced supervillains.”
“Ouch,” Zack said, wincing, and Veronica nodded.
“We don’t know why they suddenly switched from using groups to farming out individuals, but we do know several of the supervillains who are ‘mentoring.’ We think we’re going to get some more vicious attacks on their behalf, and we’re warning everyone. Right now, that’s the best we can do on that front. What our insiders are also doing is trying to sabotage the training as best they can without getting caught.”
“Oh man,” Will said softly. The danger there was astronomical, and I could tell everyone in the room was feeling a surge of fear for our unknown spies.
“I know,” Veronica said, catching all of our eyes in turn. “You’re going to be battling this on one front, but they’ll be trying to help take it down on another. It look Royal Pain over twenty years to build this academy, and I hope it doesn’t take us another twenty to stop it.”
I resolved, bruised pride, latent conflicting loyalties or not, I was going to have to figure out some way of broaching this to Monica. The insiders were going to need all the help they could get, and there was one person who could help them.