Five months after graduation
I was rudely jerked out of my healing trance by a flash of pain between my temples from a pain-enhanced scratch. I came to myself with a start, Monica taking her hand away from my head. Below me, the boy coughed and resumed breathing, his ribs looking far less squashed now. Considering he had fallen two stories while trying to escape his burning apartment, he was lucky to be alive. He still looked hurt, but at least he could breathe now.
“That’s enough, he’ll live,” she said, patting me on the shoulder. I took a deep breath to clear my head, and began helping him in a more mundane way by patching up his wounds and putting in an IV.
Between the conversations I had had with my mom, my lessons at school, the talks with Monica, and my own desire for help, we had finally come up with some agreed-upon rules for using my healing power in public. Throttling down the ember-fire around people that had been in car wrecks, building fires, or other accidents was incredibly hard and tended to lead to a migraine.
I really couldn’t afford to have one of those if I was suddenly called to battle a supervillain, but I hated not being able to help those people that were right in front of me. Yes, we had to expect that sometime, some case, someone was going to die on us, no matter what efforts we put into it. No one ever wanted it to happen, and everyone fought for their patient’s every breath and heartbeat, but sometimes people were just too damaged to save.
I think I might have done something really dumb before the year was out, if it had just been me. I might have healed someone down to the dregs of my strength and had nothing left to fight crime, or I would have caused a round of questions that couldn’t have been answered if people on the brink of death suddenly started arriving at the ER in perfect health. If Monica hadn’t been my partner, I’m certain I would have done that more than once.
However, she was a lot more cautious than me, and a lot more paranoid. And she had put some of that in perspective when, shortly after the confrontation with my mom, I nearly pulled the same stupid stunt again in trying to help an injured bike rider. Monica had smacked me out of that trance as well, but had the same good reason she had done so the last time.
Sometimes I’m a slow learner.
“Look Warren, people lived even through car wrecks long before you were born. Maybe I can’t heal flesh, but I can patch it, and you can help people the old-fashioned way too, you know. You can do this healing thing, but the city needs you saving the lives of dozens of people from psychos like me rather than patching up people one at a time,” she had said.
“You aren’t a psycho,” I said unthinkingly. Monica drew up short at that, but then the rest of her statement started to get through my brain. It was a classic superhero dilemma, saving the many versus saving the few. And even though I found it annoying that a former supervillain was acting as my conscience, she had a very good point.
So we made an agreement, if I ending up having to heal someone, Monica had the final say on how much, enforcing it by using her powers on me. As Ethan had said, physical pain overrode mental compulsion, and as my mom had said, I needed someone around me to shake me out of my healing trance. Monica didn’t have to do that, any more than she had to subject herself to coming to grips with what she had been doing for the last four years. But she was doing it anyway. It was about then that I decided this might actually work out.
I was honestly starting to trust her judgment, to think of her as more than a partner, more than a project. I was thinking of her as a friend. And she was trusting me too, more than just the fact that I wouldn’t turn her in. She trusted my knowledge of what was right, but also wasn’t afraid to call me on things when she thought I was slipping. She didn’t blindly follow my lead in things, but had plenty of ideas and questions of her own.
I hated to test our relatively fragile friendship with something I knew was going to be very personal and very touchy, but the week after Veronica Powers had updated us on the academy, we started to see Royal Pain’s students popping up everywhere. Bruin showed up partnered with the Caveman, Viper with the Snake Charmer, and Bloodtalon with Killraven. Ethan had also spied several others that were probably the offspring of one villain or another, their academy training made clear in their rather ruthless attacks on whatever law enforcement or superheroes they faced. They were also absolute geniuses for getting away, pulling Houdini-like escapes if they were captured, which was maybe only one out of every five times.
It wasn’t like the crime rate had taken a huge spike or something. The presence of the academy-trained supervillains (or henchmen) seemed to be more for the fact that they absolutely delighted in taking down more police, SWAT, or superheroes than their counterparts. It had only been a short time, but it seemed that they liked creating as much mayhem and injury as possible, and their original intentions of robbery or whatever be damned. And that was disturbing.
“Of course it is, disturbing is practically the academy motto,” Monica had said, when I had broached, in extreme hesitation, a request for her to tell me a little more about the academy.
“We were told… there were ‘horrors’ at the academy, something about the training. You told me you just had to endure it. What… how were they teaching you?” I asked finally. Monica swallowed hard, but finally nodded and took a deep breath. Since I was basically laying out most of my own psyche for the two of us to pick over so we could find what would work for her, she knew she owed me And she knew that this was going to come up eventually.
“Let me tell you a little about it,” she started, almost like a storyteller. “In the academy, you walk the halls at your own peril. You have to fight to first blood in gym class every single day, and if you managed to mess someone up while they’re unaware, like walking to class or their room, you might have a better chance of getting through the day uninjured.”
“Wait, you had daily… cage fights?!” I asked incredulously.
“Basically,” she nodded.
“And you ambushed each other on the way to class?”
“Or the cafeteria, or the dorms, or anywhere else. The hallways were a no-man’s-land. You had to be too strong, too important, or too scary to fight. I was one of the scary ones,” she said matter-of-factly. I nearly exploded.
“That’s insane!” Monica sat quietly while I got my temper back under control.
“Of course it’s insane. And it was safer if we were insane, because sane people couldn’t stand that for long,” she said bitterly. “You saw what they did to me. There are psychics in the academy, mostly the teachers, but they don’t waste time trying to put lessons in your head or things like that. I actually didn’t even know what they did, right up until about two months ago.”
“Backlash,” I stated, suddenly realizing what she was getting at. “They did that to you on purpose.”
“And not just me. I’ve been thinking about it. Nearly everyone in my group wasn’t exactly the safest person to be around in the first place, but after a few years in the academy, they went from being just a little on the wild side to full-on crazy. Like Skybolt? He’s a weather controller, but the academy is underground. I think they kept him away from the sky too long. And Cutter was always pretty cruel, but she became a complete sadist after a few years. I think… crazy people are easier to control. Just let figure out what their obsessions are and let them rip,” she said, her voice harsh as she gave voice to something repressed for far too long.
They’re making their students crazy on purpose? I knew now why Veronica Powers had called the academy training ‘horrors.’ God, if the superheroes knew, they’d go running in the front door like a bunch of morons. No wonder they need to use the insiders to take it down. I have to figure out some way to tell them, to warn them about it. Maybe anonymous tips or something…
“I’m really glad you’re out of there,” I said after a long moment, and meaning it.
“You have no idea,” she whispered. She looked terribly alone right then, and I slowly reached over and squeezed her hand. If I had been in her situation, I probably would have been waking up with screaming nightmares for the rest of my life. Telling me about it must have been a little like reliving it, and I owed her for that.
“Thanks,” she said after a long moment.
“Anytime,” I said, and smiled at her.
Five months and a week and a half after graduation
After a lot of back-tracking, anonymous tipping through at least eight different sources, and excruciatingly careful dropping of hints to my friends, my friends’ parents, Principal Powers, my mom, and Mandy Mayweather, I had managed to get Monica’s information through to the Bureau, and from there, hopefully to the spies at the academy. It had taken all the sneaky skills I possessed (and some I didn’t know I had), to do it, and I felt like I had just tapped out at least a year’s worth of good luck in managing to keep my source a secret.
The academy henchmen were still in the news, but now they were more scattered across the world, as if they were trying to get their influence as wide as possible. At least, in my selfish mind, they couldn’t take as hard a toll on any one country that way. And oddly, despite their attacks in nearly every major city (which, to be fair, sometimes had four attacks a week, even in fairly quiet times), none had been in Maxville. Well, Monica had said they were crazy, but they probably weren’t stupid. Attacking the Commander and Jetstream’s hometown would have been the height of insanity, even for them.
Six months after graduation, Sky High gym
“Creosote?” I asked incredulously. “Like what they use on railroad ties?”
“Mom brought some plants back from Arizona, and I thought maybe some of these might help,” Layla said a little diffidently.
“I get the cactus, but why creosote?” I asked again.
“It’s resinous,” she explained, and I almost hit myself for being stupid.
“Flammable,” I translated, smiling crookedly. Oh, there was a lot of potential there!
“So if we need to get your fire somewhere where you don’t have a clear shot, we can use this, kind of like a fuse,” she finished. Something brought me up short though.
“You’re actually willing to let me burn one of your plants?” I pressed. “Stronghold, is your girlfriend a pod person?”
“No!” Layla exclaimed indignantly before Will could even answer. Ethan and Zack looked like they were about to jump in about my precise use of a sci-fi reference, but Layla kept going before they could interrupt. Probably just as well.
“Any one you can burn, I can grow two more. It’s… well, you or Will might get shot at or things thrown at you. And I guess… this is my way of -.”
“Taking one for the team?” Will finished. Layla nodded, looking determined.
“Aww, that was adorable! Now the real question is can you not manage to wrap yourself up again? Because you totally need to work on your self-defense,” Magenta said, a broader smile taking the sting away from the sarcastic words.
“Chick-fight!” Zack crowed enthusiastically, and stepped away from the girls.
They both shot him withering glances but otherwise ignored him. Ethan, Will, and I joined him as Magenta and Layla circled each other. Layla had given in to the inevitable and started joining Magenta at her sensei’s dojo. How she had managed to get that past her mom, I wasn’t sure, but I think Principal Powers had been forced to get involved at one point.
That might have left Ethan as the only person on the team that couldn’t defend himself without his powers, but Will had finally bitten the bullet and talked to him about it. Since I wasn’t at school anymore to keep everyone in line, so to speak, Will had gotten a little more assertive and protective. The horror stories I trotted out about some of the villains I had faced, only slightly embroidered to make them a bit scarier, had helped. I hadn’t exactly felt really comfortable in attempting to freak out my friends, but while Will or I could recover from being overconfident, a stupid mistake could cost the others a lot more.
Predictably, Will’s plea for Ethan to just “try to learn a little self-defense” had ended up including Chloe. Somehow. I was getting convinced that if Ethan hadn’t been so very much on the side of good, he’d have made a great evil genius, because he was managing to keep Chloe from figuring out he was a superhero-in-training through a web of clever deceptions that was rivaling anything I was doing. He had managed to get her to teach him a few karate moves, and actually was starting to not lose to Zack every time we sparred.
As Layla and Magenta circled each other, us guys watched with rapt attention. It, of course, had nothing to do with the fact that they were wearing more-or-less form-fitting workout gear. Nothing at all.
“I bet Chloe could take Magenta in a fight,” Ethan said casually, as Magenta slid forward, throwing a flat punch that Layla barely spun away from.
“Dude, no way! Your girl’s got height, but mine’s got moves!” Zack protested. Well, he was right on that account. Chloe was a truly ridiculous six foot, eleven inches tall, a height she exaggerated by tending to wear high-heeled shoes or tall boots. I really didn’t know how Ethan dealt with it, considering he was barely five foot four, but he seemed to get a real kick out of it. Me, I’d have felt a little awkward if my girlfriend was nearly two feet taller than me.
“But Chloe’s been in training longer than Magenta,” Ethan said patiently.
“Magenta’d run in circles around her, she’d never be able to find her,” Zack said. Will winced as one of Layla’s return kicks overbalanced while when Magenta shifted, then cheered when Layla ran vines all over the ground, so when Magenta shifted back, she was entangled by them.
“Layla could take both of them,” Will said firmly, and both Ethan and Zack turned on him.
While the rest of the guys wrangled over how “my girlfriend could beat up your girlfriend,” I idly wondered how Monica might fare in our little theoretical throwdown. She wasn’t much of a fighter, but then again she didn’t have to be. She could make even a little hit hurt a lot, which might give her an advantage… Then I took my thoughts firmly in hand and squashed them. One, Monica wasn’t my girlfriend, she was just my friend. Two, if the rest of the gang found out, I very much doubted it would be just the girls who would come after her.
Nine months after graduation, ambulance, Sixth and Main
“The Wolf Pack?” I asked a little desperately, hanging up my phone.
“Werewolves. Or rather, shapeshifters that look a lot like werewolves. They go in for the whole ‘murder and mayhem’ bit. It’s a full moon; they’re on the hunt,” Monica explained. I had called Ethan the previous three nights in a row for some help after an emergency call, and tonight he just hadn’t answered his phone. He was probably sleeping the dead sleep of the chronically sleep-deprived, poor guy. In desperation, I had asked Monica for help. I didn’t ask her very often, because she was understandably reluctant, even now, and I tried to respect that.
“That’s just great -,” I started. Just at that moment a werewolf went flying past the windshield, as if it had been hurled. It was followed a second later by a large wave of water. Some part of me that wasn’t laughing recognized Ethan’s dad Tsunami.
“Werewolf,” Monica said in bemusement. Two seconds later the werewolf went flying in the other direction, again followed by Tsunami a moment later.
“Another werewolf,” she commented.
“Actually, I think that was the same one,” I said, grabbing the rest of my costume as the remainder of the Pack came galloping behind Tsunami.Three minutes later…
“Hey Tsunami! Need a hand?”
“Sure thing kid.” I let the “kid” remark pass unchallenged. Mr. Howard was old enough to be my dad. “I’ll soak ‘em, you toast ‘em!”Five minutes later…
“Bad dog, no biscuit!”Fifteen minutes and a lengthy wrestling match later…
“I said bad dog!”Two minutes later…
Wet wolves smell a lot like wet dogs. But worse. And scorched wet dogs smell worse than simply wet dogs. Not to mention they did a number on my costume.Five minutes later…
“Warren, I really don’t know why you felt the need to go wrestle werewolves.”
“It was either that or have them go running through downtown. At least between Tsunami and me we got them rounded up.”
“While I’m sure your fan club will spontaneously explode from the pictures they’re going to get from this, but, for the love of God, put a shirt on!”
I finally had time to take a better stock of my costume. I had been clawed and bitten so much I hadn’t realized my costume had been taking more of a beating than I had. Embarrassingly less than half of it was intact. I grabbed for my citizen clothes and did the fastest quick-change I ever had in my life, furiously attempting not to blush.
“By the way,” Monica added from the front, politely not looking my way. “It’s a damn good thing I had front row seats for this fight, or I would have thought you were getting killed out there.”
I blinked at the implications of that. Monica had mentioned that she could feel when I was getting hurt, but she sounded genuinely concerned for me right then.
Two weeks later, Maxville Bureau Headquarters, communications department
“Phoenix, I think I’m going to forbid you from doing any kind of hand-to-hand from now on. Your fan mail volume tripled after people started posting those pictures of you from the Wolf Pack fight online,” Mandy said, crossing her arms in mock-fury.
“I’ll make sure all my supervillains fill out their Intention to Attack forms in triplicate,” I said, rolling my eyes and picking up the folders.
“Your fan clubs are getting desperate. You have to pick one to be your official one or otherwise it’s going to start getting nasty,” she reminded me. While I liked the fan mail, even the ones from the rabid fangirls, I was still somewhat reluctant to write back to the kinda-crazy ones.
“Ok, ok, I’ll do it,” I said finally.
Mandy held out a pen and paper, and it was clear she wasn’t intending to let me leave until she had gotten a letter out of me. I finally gave in, and a half-hour later had given my official blessing to the Phoenix, Arizona Phoenix PhanClub. Name aside, they were the one with most of the artists, the goods ones, and at least their website was cool.
“Ah, I was guessing you’d pick that one,” Mandy said, giggling slightly as she addressed the letter.
“What’s so funny?” I asked her.
“Oh, Phoenix, Arizona petitioned the Bureau to have you assigned to their city. But then the Bureau reminded them of what happened the last time they had someone with fire powers. They got in a fight with Fire Storm and burned down half the city. And then they shut up,” she said. “Fashion over common sense, like most of the fans.”
Man I’m glad I wasn’t there for that conversation…
Eleven months after graduation, ambulance, Sixth and Main
“Did you ever want to be a villain?” I asked Monica seriously one day.
“Once,” she said thoughtfully. “For about six weeks before they sent us after Speed, Lash, and Penny. After that… it was mostly just enduring what they had us do.”
I didn’t say anything else, just raised an eyebrow, and Monica sighed and tried to explain.
“It was… the idea that you could just go out and do what you want with no consequences. It’s a five-year-old’s dream, I know, but sometimes it can be really attractive. And also? You guys get paid.”
“Huh?” I asked intelligently.
“You guys get paid, the Bureau pays you. Crime only pays if you steal. That’s why so many supervillains are thieves or mercenaries. Or frauds, like Royal Pain. Or those with inherited money. Nefarious plots can’t be done without some kind of funding. And I wasn’t too likely to become a hero. So… there was that,” she said with a small shrug. “The academy only encouraged so much thinking. You get to thinking about consequences and worrying about what might happen to you… And generally they’d end up in a room alone with me.”
She swallowed kind of hard, but I didn’t say anything. She’d have plenty of time to regret what she’d done for the academy, and didn’t need any of my help in guilt-tripping her. She was getting pretty good at doing that on her own.
“It was also supposed to be my destiny, according to Royal Pain,” she added softly.
“Because of your powers?” I prompted.
“That too. And… because of my family,” she explained. I started to get a rather sour feeling in my stomach. “She told me my grandfather was the Grim Reaper.”
Hell… the last person known to have her kind of powers? It vaguely made sense… The Grim Reaper had been defeated and dropped out of sight almost forty years ago. Monica told me her grandfather had died in the seventies. But isn’t that just a little too pat, too neat?
“However, I also am now of the opinion that Royal Pain is a lying sack of -,” she broke off, and shook her head. “I think it was just one more reason to get me into the academy. She liked having a lot of control over us, and she had less over me than she had over Bruin before she trotted out that little ‘factoid.’ I didn’t want to tell you before; it was too stupid to mention.”
“Yeah,” I said, and almost laughed. If Royal Pain had been nearly ready to enroll back into Sky High when she was recruiting Monica and the others, she must have been laying on the bullshit a little thick to get them under her control in time.
“Besides, what I told you before was the truth, about how I got my powers. It makes a lot more sense that way,” she pointed out. She had told me that she had been in town when a toxic waste truck had overturned near her school, and probably that was the reason she had gotten her powers. She was only the most recent in a long line of superheroes to get her powers that way, and combining the exposure to toxic waste with the stress of her grandmother’s illness made a classic combination for the development of her powers the way they had. We were both quiet for a minute before Monica broke the silence again.
“Did you always want to be a hero?” she asked me in turn.
“Basically. Really seriously after I met my dad though. He just pissed me off so much… I wanted to do something so people wouldn’t look at me like I was him. I wanted to redeem my family, I guess even more than I wanted to help people. But then I fought Royal Pain with Will and the gang, and I figured out I had more than one reason to do it,” I explained.
“And you don’t mind throwing yourself into deadly danger on a regular basis to rescue strangers?” she asked.
“It’s all part of it. I mean, you’ve seen my fan mail. I’m really helping people,” I pointed out. Monica nodded, but she was also frowning.
“But why be so reactive?”
“Reactive?” I asked.
“You sit around and you wait for that phone to ring. A supervillain just has to go and do his thing, and then you come in later and clean up the mess. Why don’t you fix it before it becomes a mess?”
That was a hard question to answer. I remembered thinking, before fighting against Cutter’s Crew last fall, that we should have found a way to ambush them. I thought that the unwritten rules of the superhero world were too confining and ridiculous, and would end up getting us into more trouble than we could handle.
I wasn’t the first hero to think that, nor probably would I be the last. More than one of our teachers had addressed that issue, which was kind of eerie at the time. Then again, since Ms. Olsen had been teaching a lot of it, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. A lot of it had to do with image, and a lot more with fair play. Reputation played a big part in it, as did what citizens expected us to do.
“So much of heroics is not just saving people or property, but doing it in the right way. It’s not just swooping in to save the day, but looking good while doing it. And no, I don’t mean your costumes, Mr. Cramer.” Zack hadn’t even been annoyed at that; he nearly laughed himself sick, along with the rest of us. Even Ms. Olsen cracked a smile.
“It’s not about looking good, it’s about looking good. As superheroes, we’re held to a very high standard in terms of our behavior. While some of our problems are solved rather simply by punching the bad guy in the face,” and here she shot Will an amused glance, “we can’t just go around doing that whenever we want to. We are given a great deal of latitude in what we’re allowed to do to supervillains under the law. However, some things still hold. Like the police, we cannot shoot, or punch, someone just because we think they’re up to no good.
“That’s a very slippery slope for us, because I know more than one of you has wondered why we could simply go after the members of the academy right now. Yes, it is complicated, but yes, we also have a reason. By breaking people out of their cover jobs, we can often cause more problems than we solve. For example, Bruin. You all met him in his cover job, and very appropriately did not confront him as a supervillain. If we were to try to remove him as a park ranger, he undoubtedly would have fought.
“That would have attracted attention from normal citizens. They might begin to wonder how they missed a supervillain under their noses for so long. And then they might begin to wonder if they’ve missed heroes in hiding as well. A great deal of our own cover relies on people seeing what they expect to see. It’s why your parents can get away with relatively flimsy disguises, Mr. Stronghold. If you give people a reason to be suspicious, they will be. But give them none, and they generally won’t. That is a large measure of our protection and peace in our secret identities.
“Also, there are other reasons we discourage underhanded tactics of any sort, and enforce our unwritten rules of fair play. We don’t ambush, we usually use the front door, more powerful heroes don’t use weapons, we issue challenges, we fight relatively clear and direct battles… Much of it is, no, it’s not stupid,” she added suddenly, suddenly getting some psychic skepticism from both Magenta and I, judging from the looks she gave us, “It’s mean to reinforce the fact that you’re heroes.
“There is an old quote I have heard, and while it was referring to religion, I think it is no less apt for what I am teaching here. ‘Assume the attitude of prayer, and in time, the attitude will become the prayer.’ Even if you find being good to be hard, act in a good manner, and eventually, it will no longer be an act. This is why you don’t tend to find too many ‘dark’ heroes.”
“Is this the whole ‘don’t look into the abyss’ thing?” Zack had asked, and had received a solemn nod from Ms. Olsen. Magenta gave him a kind of “good puppy” look I carefully pretended I never saw.
“It’s why being a superhero is hard. You can forget, you might want to forget, to take the high road, becomes sometimes it’s so very much easier to take the simple route, rather than the right one. And it’s often those heroes with less power than can be more easily tempted to the dark side. Keep in mind Occam’s Razor; the simplest solution is often the best. The more you have to justify something, the easier it is to slide into the dark.” The most disturbing thing about that whole lecture, other than the fact that I think she was definitely reading our minds before giving it, was that she looked at everyone but Will while she was giving it.
In retrospect, it made too much sense though. Will, and his parents, hardly ever lost. When you hardly ever lose, you don’t think about using some underhanded tactics to tip the balance back in your favor. Hell, that was how my own dad had lost it; he hadn’t been able to save everyone on his own, and tried to make his own country so he could do it “properly.” It had been that though, more than any other, which had made me forcibly reevaluate how I was going to work as a hero.
It was difficult to try to distill a few weeks’ worth of lectures into a few sentences, but I boldly struggled to get the gist of it across to Monica. I thought I had succeeded though, because she finally started nodded.
“So that’s why you’re all ‘Halt evildoers!’” she said, looking very thoughtful.
“Act good, be good,” I summed up. “I mean, we get a little latitude when we’re outnumbered, we’re not stupid, but that’s basically it.”
“Act good, be good,” Monica repeated. “I think I get it. It just… It scares me.” I must have looked really confused, because she hasted to explain.
“I guess I see now why you go charging in to things. But you’re tough, you’re used to people coming after you. I-,” she paused, and took a deep breath. “Thinking about walking into a straight-up fight with someone scares me to death.”
“It helps if you have a reason,” I said. “When you know what you have to do, it’s not so hard.”
“Is that another fortune cookie?” she asked suspiciously. I smiled.
“No, that’s just me.”