When we finally broke apart, I was actually smiling a little, and reached out to tuck a wayward lock of hair back behind Monica’s ear. I was a little hesitant, but I flatly refused to make this awkward. I thought something good was happening here, and I didn’t want to go all romantic-comedy over it.
Monica smiled broadly at the gesture, looking suddenly very pretty. She didn’t smile very often, at least not openly like that, and it brought a kind of light to her face, a relaxation.
“So, you’ll really be my personal cheerleader?” she asked lightly, though her eyes were still serious.
“Yeah. But I’m not wearing a skirt or waving pom-poms,” I warned. Monica laughed at that, and then stopped, thought it over and snickered some more.
“Ok, deal,” she said. We finally leaned back to our own seats, a little hesitant, but both a lot happier we had been in a while, even if we didn’t know exactly the reason why. It didn’t matter though. It really didn’t.
I had been expecting Mom to know what was going on. In most ways, she knew what was going on with me before I did, even if she didn’t come right out and say it. She had known something about what I had been doing with Monica even though I had scrupulously kept it a secret from everyone else. And considering my colossal screw-up last August, Mom had kept a somewhat sharper eye on me. After the first time or two, she hadn’t been quite so demanding in asking what I had been doing, but I knew she was still very much aware of it.
And I knew she would be very well aware of this. That was borne out when I came upstairs to see Mom standing in the hallway outside of my room, her arms crossed confrontationally, but her face determinedly neutral. Body language says she wants a fight, but doesn’t want to tell me what. And she’s blocking me from getting into my room, but didn’t wait in there, so she’s still respecting my space. She wants this on neutral ground. It was nearly automatic, reading body language and facial expressions. I remembered how Mom had used times when we were at the park or sometimes at restaurants to point out the various nuances of how people gave away their thoughts by how they acted. Usually trying to read my mom was hard, but today she was giving a fair amount away. That didn’t bode well.
“Warren Nathaniel Peace!” she said sharply in greeting. I winced at that. The last time Mom had used my middle name was when I was thirteen and had burned part of the garden in an emotionally melodramatic moment of teenage angst.
“Yes Mom?” I said with infinite politeness and contrition. It would gain me nothing to get defensive myself. And I wasn’t feeling in a combative mood at all.
“What exactly were you doing out there tonight?” she demanded.
There was only one way I could possibly answer that question truthfully that wouldn’t cause Mom to have a coronary.
“Saving the city from the forces of evil,” I said very calmly.
Mom gaped at me in utter astonishment for a second, and then began laughing. I cracked a smile as she finally had to unfold her arms and brace herself against the wall. Eventually she gave up entirely and slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
“Oh… oh my. I’m sorry,” she finally gasped out, winding down a bit. I lowered myself down to the floor as well, sitting with my back against the wall next to her.
“Sorry for what?” I asked. Trixie poked her head out of my bedroom to see what all the ruckus was about, made an exasperated sniff, and padded over to flop on both of our laps.
“I’ve been… less than helpful with all of this Warren. And I wish I could have been there for you,” she said in a much more serious tone. I looked at her quizzically.
“Mom, you have,” I said. “You always have.”
“I could have helped with Monica. I didn’t have to leave you to do it alone,” she said, leaning her head back against the wall. I was getting confused, because she had said virtually the opposite last August. Why was she bringing this up again?
“But you said I did have to do it alone. It was my responsibility to,” I pointed out.
“I shouldn’t have,” Mom said softly. She trailed one hand down Trixie’s soft fur, brushing against mine as I tried to do the same. She looked at me sharply for a moment, and I saw a peculiar mixture of pleasure and sadness cross her face.
“And history repeats itself,” she said enigmatically, and rubbed her left hand. Though Mom had never worn her wedding ring in my presence, she still sometimes made a worrying gesture like she was twisting it around her ring finger. I wasn’t even sure if she knew she was doing it, but she only tended to do it when she was talking, or thinking, about my dad. I caught her drift almost immediately, and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or… I didn’t even know what else.
Superhero/supervillain relationship? Star-crossed lovers? Dude, what doesn’t sound like what happened with your own parents?
Because I’m doing it backwards? Mom was married to a superhero that went supervillain. Monica was a supervillain who’s becoming a hero-.
And you’re in looooove!
I. Am. Not!
Uh-huh, just keep telling yourself that, lover-boy.
“Mom, that’s not exactly true,” I tried to backpedal slightly from Mom’s too-accurate reading.
She only raised an eyebrow in a way that made me feel like her and the snarky part of my brain were in cahoots.
“So, you’re saying that with what both of you have been through, talked about, that there is absolutely nothing between the two of you?” she asked.
“We’re friends-,” I started, and then hesitated. I had even been thinking tonight that we were more than friends. My friends had practically held me down and forced me to open up during that trip to Yellowstone, but I had done so voluntarily for Monica. Not for the same kind of stuff, to be sure, but still. My friends had made me realize that opening up wasn’t the end of the world, and in an odd way, it had been them that had let me realize this-.
In depth, sappy, loving relationship in which you will get married and have six kids and you will all defend the world from evil-.
Look, we’re not sappy!
And what about the rest of it?
I ground mental teeth at my brain.
You said “we.” You’re thinking about you and her as “we.” I think we’re a little beyond the “it’s not love!” protestation stage. Good God, if this were a romantic comedy, you would have already had sex a few times, had some ridiculous misunderstanding, broken up, and then gotten back together through some stupid stunt that would have required months to plan and execute. Instead you’re barely at the “first kiss,” stage when you’ve both already risked death or injury for each other!
I’m not ready for-.
Love? You can say it you know.
I’m not ready for it.
Ooo, Warren’s afraid of commitment!
I am not!
You’re in love! Warren and Monica, sittin’ in a tree-
I banged my head against the wall.
“Maybe more than friends,” I admitted finally out loud. I was quiet for another second, and then asked plaintively, “Do you ever get into arguments with your own brain?”
Mom gave a light, carefree laugh.
“All the time darling. And if you’re doing that, then I think you don’t need any more backtalk from me.” Mom got off the floor (much to Trixie’s protests) and brushed off her clothes, holding out a hand to me. I hauled myself up too, holding Trixie to avoid further feline wrath.
“Invite her over sometime if you like,” Mom added breezily, before heading back down the hallway, leaving me blinking in confusion after her.
The next night
“Man,” Coop greeted me with a wide grin as I walked into the Medic-Co office the next night. I was a few minutes early and sat down in a chair on the other side of Coop’s desk to kill some time until Monica got there.
“What’re you smiling about?” I asked. Coop waved a handful of five-dollar bills with an air of a man who had just won the lottery.
“Check this out man, sixty-five dollars!” he said gleefully, eyebrows raised, obviously expecting me to ask how he got it.
“What did you do, raid the pop machine?” Coop snorted.
“Nope, won it,” he said, still with a broad smile.
“Scratch-off ticket?” I asked idly, knowing Coop would get around to telling me only when he was damn good and ready.
“Office pool,” he said, still smiling.
“Your team win?” We had several office pools going at any one time, which sports team would win, when Josh would master his latest video game, when Craig would finally make it to work on time, that kind of thing.
“Not my team, this was one of the personal ones,” he said, his grin getting even wider.
“What, Josh finally bought a new game?” I asked.
“Nope, lost that one. We didn’t tell you about this pool,” he responded, and I started to get a little suspicious.
“Coop, dude, just tell me,” I said, letting a little irritation show.
“When you would finally get a girlfriend,” he said, casually flipping through his hard-earned money and clearly enjoying my horror-stricken expression.
“How did you-?” I started, and then stopped, grinding my teeth, when Coop pushed a few buttons on his camera phone and turned it around to shot me a shot of Monica and I kissing in the front of the ambulance in the parking lot. I somehow knew it was probably a bad idea to have given her that good-night kiss last night but…
“She was the only girl who didn’t have her sights set on you, like you said, and you’ve been a hell of a lot nicer to her than anyone else here. I figured it was inevitable, and I,” he said, waving his wad of cash again, “cleaned up because I’m a friggin’ genius!”
“You show that to anyone else and I’ll put your phone in the microwave,” I threatened. Amazing, I was worried about being caught by my friends, the Bureau, my former teachers, the media, or my friends’ parents, but I hadn’t even considered my co-workers!
“Hey, if it’s that embarrassing, maybe I should tell Keller too-,” he started, and cut off when I scowled at him full bore. “Ok, ok.” He raised his palms in appeasement. “I’ll delete it. I just had to have proof to win the cash.”
“You got it, you’re rich, now get rid of it,” I snarled. Coop shrugged and punched a few more buttons. I hoped that would keep my secret actually a secret! Coop wasn’t the type who would have, say, e-mailed it to himself for blackmail purposes, thankfully.
“Done and done. So… what’s she like?” he asked casually. I continued to glare, and Coop just let out a huge belly laugh. Monica walked in just at that moment, took in the situation in at a glance, walked over and kissed me on the top of the head.
“Ready to go to work, honey?” she asked in tones of poisonous sweetness, flashing a vampire smile at Coop that nearly stopped him cold. I caught her drift, stifled my own laughter, and responded in the same vein.
“Sure thing dear,” I said, getting up, actually holding Monica’s hand, both of us swanning out of the office, leaving Coop weirded out and confused. By the time we got to the garage, we were both chuckling quietly, though we hadn’t stopped holding hands. Monica had tried to let go once, slowly, but I found myself reluctant to let go, and she had quickly clasped my hand again.
Aww, that’s soooo adorable!
I quickly pummeled that part of my brain into submission before it could pick up any momentum. I wasn’t in the mood to hear backtalk… from myself.
“Where did that come from?” I asked her as we finally got to work, running down the checks on the ambulance and finally pulling out to drive to our sector.
“What, that thing with Coop? There are a lot of freaks in the academy. Sometimes the only way to deal with them is to play to their expectations and then go past them. Tends to make them back off,” she said, and cracked another smile. “The expression on his face!”
That set us both off again.
It turned out to be a very good night.
Two weeks later, Sky High gym
“I hate this,” Layla said dejectedly, staring out onto the gym floor.
“Stronghold can handle it,” I reminded her, putting my arm around her shoulder for a moment. I figured she needed some kind of reassurance, considering what was about to happen.
“I know that, here,” she said, touching her forehead. “But the rest of me isn’t so sure.”
“I survived this test too. Getting shot isn’t so bad. I got shot three times last month,” I commented, trying to keep things casual.
“Warren!” Layla exclaimed, horrified. The rest of the gang was looking at me weirdly.
Smoooooth, Peace. Real smooth.
“Who shot you?” Ethan demanded, looking a little green. Well, he might, considering he had to do this today too.
“Some bank robbers. They’re in jail, and I’m fine,” I said quickly. Ethan only looked slightly less green at my explanation.
Today was the Bullet Test, held once a year for certain people in the senior class. Anyone who could survive a direct hit had to be shot at; people who were super-strong, indestructible, or who could transform their bodies in other ways. Those who could turn themselves into stone, metal, or other tough substances, or most of those in Amorphous Club, that could make their bodies insubstantial, all had to be tested. Ethan, for example, would have to take the test. Normally they wouldn’t have done it with Sidekicks, but with the new program, a lot more people were subject to Boomer’s tender mercies.
It wasn’t done unless Coach Boomer, Principal Powers, Nurse Spex, and the parents in question had agreed that no harm would be done. No one “failed” the Bullet Test. It was basically why everyone had to get hit with various kinds of rays or other devices before they graduated, just so we’d know what they felt like. Except only some people would be subject to this particular test. Other people had to take it that weren’t bulletproof, in a variation called the Bullet Deflection test. I remember Melissa Frost, the cryokinetic, had had to take it, seeing exactly how thick of an ice wall she needed to stop a bullet. Layla would have to do the same thing, seeing how many plants she would need to protect herself or others during a firefight. Magenta and Zack would never have to take either version, so they were only here for moral support.
“Ok, quiet down up there!” Boomer demanded from the floor.
He was carefully going through a safety inspection of the various firearms he would be using on Will. While most people only had to be subjected to one shot, Will, being who he was, had to take a hit from everything his dad could handle, within limits of what Boomer was actually allowed to fire within the school. Layla had every right to be nervous. I knew I couldn’t survive some of the artillery Boomer was lining up.
Will stood, fidgeting nervously at the far side of the gym, a blast shield behind him to absorb any misses on Boomer’s part. Boomer luckily did not cackle manically while doing this test, which would have been a bit much for most people. Layla got paler and paler as Boomer lifted up the first weapon, a pistol, and took aim at Will. She finally turned and buried her face in my shoulder, too scared to watch at Boomer pounded out a shot. I patted her shoulder a little awkwardly as Will stared in amazement at the flattened bullet that had bounced off his chest.
“He’s fine,” I told her.
Layla reluctantly cracked an eye and heaved a sigh of relief. Zack was actually smiling at Will’s astonished expression. But we all flinched again when Boomer picked up the next gun in line and fired again. Layla squeaked and hid her eyes. I almost did the same. Zack, Ethan, and Magenta were also flinching and looking away, so I didn’t feel quite so bad. But each one was a little more difficult as Boomer moved up the lethality scale. When he got to the final one, some kind of grenade, none of us could watch. We just waited for the boom, and then slowly opened our eyes and waited for the smoke to clear.
Will was standing there, completely unharmed, and also completely unclothed. Apparently his workout gear wasn’t as bulletproof as he was. Will went scarlet and flew to the locker room so fast he cartoonishly left a small puff of dust behind. I almost expected to hear a “zing” sound effect.
“O…k…” Boomer said slowly, and checked the last thing off on his list. “Howard, get down here.”
Ethan was almost entirely green by that point, but swallowed hard and got up anyway. Will was back in regular clothes and in the stands by the time Ethan made it to the gym floor. Layla and him then had the kind of reunion that you have when someone comes back from the dead. Kissing, hugging, whispering tender endearments, the whole nine yards. I moved to the opposite end of the bench in case such sappiness was catching. Magenta and Zack joined me within five seconds.
“Hey Warren, what’s with you being all touchy-feely all of a sudden?” Magenta demanded, as Boomer started his checks again. Coach could be something of an ass at times, but he wasn’t overly cruel. If he weren’t so hard on us, we probably wouldn’t have been nearly as well-prepared as we were.
“Putting my arm around Layla for about a few minutes while she was watching her boyfriend get shot doesn’t make me ‘touchy-feely,’” I defended myself.
“For you it does. I think I remember what happened last time Layla tried to lay a finger on you. You burned her,” she pointed out. I rolled my eyes.
“One, that was a long time ago. Two, you don’t want me to be?” I asked, sidestepping the question. Ok, maybe I was slightly more inclined to offer, say, a high five, a helping hand, or even the rare, occasionally hug if the situation warranted it more recently, but I didn’t think I was being, well, grabby. But enough so that Magenta had noticed?
Aw, it’s because of your girlfriend.
The Lady of Pain melts the fire-thrower with the heart of stone…
You don’t have to keep secrets from her because she is your secret, that’s so romantic.
She is a really nice person, now that she doesn’t have to be evil.
You’re in loooove!
I wrenched my thoughts back to the real world.
“I really don’t mind that you’re willing to be a shoulder for Layla to hide behind, but it’s like someone let out happy skippy Warren and he’s here to stay,” she said with a smirk. I actually laughed out loud at that.
“What, I’m not allowed to be happy?” I snarked back.
“You’re Warren Peace, you’re a living icon of gothic brooding angst. It’s a little hard to change that whole image now.”
“I’ve been out of school for a year Magenta,” I said exasperatedly.
“You know you have quite the devoted branch of your fan club here. Should I tell them you’re actually nice and approachable and would be so happy to answer all of their question?” she asked.
“You wanna get flambéed?” I snapped.
“Ah, there’s the Warren we all know and love.”
“I swear if this is a lead-in to a ‘nice abs’ remark…”
“Naw, that costume of yours doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”
“Are you torturing me on purpose?”
“Oh great. With friends like you, who needs enemies?”
“Hey man, she’s doing it for a good cause,” Zack piped up.
“Torturing Warren for fun and profit?” I asked. Zack snickered.
“No, making sure you’re in a bad enough mood so the fan girls that are waiting outside the gym don’t think you’re up for pictures and autographs.”
“…I owe you one. You think Will can just fly me home?” I asked, warily eyeing the door.
“If you can pry him and Layla apart,” Zack said, jerking a thumb back at the two. They had gone from the “whispering sweet nothings” stage into the “playing tonsil hockey” stage in the short time we had been talking.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Get a room!” The two broke apart, blushing, and then Boomer hollered at all of us to pay attention.
Ethan was very pale, but had at least stopped shaking. As Boomer picked up his chosen firearm, Ethan melted. We watched with trepidation as the shot rang out, splashing in the center of Ethan’s melted body. Boomer strolled over and carefully plucked the bullet out.
“Ok Howard, you pass, power down,” he commanded.
Ethan abruptly resolidified, went absolutely green, clapped his hands over his mouth and dashed for the bathroom. Us guys wouldn’t have bothered him until he was ready, but Layla and Magenta quickly shamed us in to going and seeing how he was doing. We slowly followed him in, only to pause when we heard Ethan throwing up breakfast, lunch, last night’s dinner, a lung, and possibly his toenails to boot. He stumbled out a few minutes later and went for the drinking fountain, slurping down what seemed like a few gallons of water. Then he finally acknowledged us.
“I never want to do that again!” he exclaimed, and abruptly collapsed on a bench. “I can still taste the lead…” He scrubbed his mouth with a hand and finally took a few deep breaths. “Will, I wouldn’t take your powers even if someone paid me. How did you stand that?”
Will looked a little sheepish and put his hands in his pockets.
“Actually, it um… kinda tickled,” he confessed. Everyone stared at him with various degrees of astonishment.
“Will gets the Freak of the Week award,” Zack announced.
“Not again!” Will complained good-naturedly.
Zack had started handing out that award during the summer, when Magenta had complained that his ability to get by on four hours of sleep made him a freak. He had gleefully dubbed himself the Freak of the Week, and then passed on the title to anyone that did something particularly “freakish” that week. Like when Layla had casually grown a lemon tree in front of us because she wanted fresh lemonade, or when Magenta shifted just so Zack could carry her around on her shoulder and she wouldn’t have to walk. Will had gotten more awards than the rest of us put together.
“So Freak, will you give me a lift home before my fan club gets here?” I asked with a bit of a smirk.
“They’re here?” Will said, looking at Zack and Ethan with annoyance. Then nodded in confirmation, and Will looked seriously peeved. “Come on Warren.” Will stalked back out to the gym, and talked to Boomer for a minute, finally getting permission to leave the school grounds. A few minutes later we were flying down from Sky High, Will leapfrogging from cloud to cloud to keep from being seen.
“It’s really dumb of them to keep hanging out by the gym every time you’re here,” Will said finally after a few moment of flying in silence.
“If they’re giving you problems Stronghold, I’ll deal with them,” I offered, though the thought didn’t appeal to me at all.
“No, they’re at Sky High, it’s my problem,” Will said assertively. I twisted around a bit so I could look up at him.
“Yeah, but they’re my fans, even if they’re crazy,” I pointed out.
“Well, it’s like they think they know you, like they’re your friend or something just because some of them used to go to school the same time you did.”
“Even though they were all scared of me and wouldn’t talk to me,” I finished.
“Yeah. They’re hypocrites,” Will said firmly. “Besides, how am I supposed to protect you guys if I can’t even keep a few crazy fans away?”
I noticed Will had gotten a lot more protective, assertive, and a lot more… adult I guess was the word I was looking for. I wasn’t sure if it was just because he was now a senior and seventeen years old, or because of everything else he had been through with Royal Pain, the academy, and all the associated preparation to fight them.
“Hey, you’re doing fine dude,” I told him, and Will smiled a bit.
“Like you said, I have to save the world three times the week after I graduate, right?” he said with a bit of a nervous laugh.
It was terribly unfair; the kind of pressure that Will was under, and I think all of us knew it. He was going to eventually be filling both of his parents’ capes, someday, and when he actually stopped to think about it, he damn near had a panic attack. All of us were very thankful that Layla was so grounded (no pun intended), because she really helped him keep things in perspective.
“Stronghold, you always do the right thing. Don’t worry about it,” I told him, and pointed down to where I could see my house.
“What, and you don’t?” Will joked, quickly setting me down under the cover of a tree so no one would notice a flying teenager. I couldn’t quite answer Will one way or the other, so I just waved him off to get back to school. I couldn’t honestly answer him yes, and I wasn’t prepared to say no.
Bureau office, communications department, one year and four months after graduation, the last week of September.
“You have your first conspiracy theory,” Mandy greeted me that day. I raised an eyebrow as she started to hand me my folders, and she elaborated. “’Phoenix’s Shadow.’ Some of the tabloids seem to think you have some kind of shadowy sidekick. I love these pictures, they’re getting shadows of mailboxes and streetlamps and saying they’re a person…”
I listened to Mandy with half an ear as I quickly flipped through the articles. Most super-beings had a conspiracy theory or two attached to them; the Commander had some secret talisman that was the source of his power, Jetstream was actually secretly in love with Storm Wind, things like that.
Monica and I had realized, shortly after the fight with Hammerfist, that if she kept showing up, eventually people would start to notice constant reports of some figure in black that kept helping me. She had since kept to the sidelines, striking only from cover, using her costume only to help keep herself hidden. These kinds of attacks were a hallmark of academy training, but since she only could use them in conjunction with my powers, people simply though it was just their original scorchings that were so painful.
However, it certainly gave me a much better chance of stopping a crook in their tracks, and I truly appreciated the fact that she was out there watching my back. She had kept me from getting ambushed any number of times, and I wasn’t taking as many hits as I used to.
It was with a sigh of relief I saw the articles were just about as crackpot as Mandy had named them. Even if people were snapping their own amateur pictures of my super-battles, none of the ones here could have been used to conclusively prove a thing. I breathed a mental sigh of relief.
“Yeah, frickin’ hilarious,” I deadpanned.
“Heads up,” Mandy murmured quietly, flicking her eyes behind me, and suddenly turned to keep her head down, her posture deferential. I had only dropped by to pick up my fan mail, and hadn’t been expecting meet anyone. I mentally braced myself, because there were several people in the Bureau that would cause the normally outgoing Mandy to act like this, and none of them were people I really cared to meet, not with the secrets I had. Perhaps it had been a mistake to distance myself from the Bureau, but I certainly wasn’t the only superhero that held myself somewhat aloof from Bureau politics.
“Phoenix, would you please join me in my office?” a voice rumbled behind me. I stopped myself from jumping and slowly turned around, having been warned by Mandy’s comment. Director Adams stood right behind me, looking like a granite wall in his gray suit. This probably wasn’t good…
“Sure,” I said more calmly than I felt, accepting the rest of my folders from Mandy, shoving them in my bag before I could accidentally leave scorch marks. I was still keeping my mental walls up while I was in the Bureau, for obvious reasons, and the stress sometimes wore at my control.
The director waved me into his office, handing me a cup of coffee, before sinking down in his chair with a faint groan, pulling a mug of something close and taking a drink.
“Would you mind powering up?” he asked. A weird request, but I shrugged and let one hand flare with fire. The director stretched out one hand a little and the fire streamed from my hand to his, floating an inch above it in a small ball. I dropped my own hand in confusion, wrapping it around my own mug instead. I knew he was a fire-controller, but I wasn’t quite sure what this little display was for.
The fireball began to spin, and slowly a small, serpent-like creature spun free from it, blinking fiery little eyes at me and then yawning, showing sharp little fire-fangs. I looked at it curiously, and then glanced back up at Crimson Tempus. Even out of his costume, I couldn’t really think of the director by anything other than his superhero name when he was using his powers. Which was probably what he wanted, for some odd reason.
“You’ve been doing very well for yourself Phoenix,” he said with a smile. “Maxville’s streets haven’t been safer in years. I know many people would and have been somewhat… annoyed at going after thieves and arsonists when there are more dramatic and larger threats out there. We’ve had people request transfers before because they weren’t comfortable playing second banana to the Commander and Jetstream. But there’ve been no complaints from you, nothing but extremely dedicated heroics.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say, and I thought shrugging it off wouldn’t be appropriate. While the guys I had been battling in Maxville hadn’t made for the splashier headlines I had had during that week in Europe after graduation, I had pretty much come to terms with the fact that it didn’t matter. Yes, some of the fame was nice; I wasn’t going to say it wasn’t. I liked the fan letters (even the crazy fangirl ones); I liked knowing I had made some kind of difference. I even liked the fighting, as much as I let myself. The point was I didn’t need the elaborate press conferences or to be fighting city-destroying villains on a daily basis to be happy with what I was doing.
“I like being a hero,” I said simply. It sounded fairly lame even to me, and I refrained from rolling my eyes at my own statement. Sometimes I thought I had picked up too much of Will’s idealism. Crimson Tempus only smiled again, nodding politely at my more-or-less ridiculous answer.
“So, your friends will be graduating in a few months,” he said casually, as the little fire snake began to weave through the fingers of his right hand.
“Yeah,” I shrugged. I wasn’t quite sure where this whole conversation was going, but I was starting to get worried. Why call me in here for a pat on the head?
“Will Stronghold has been designated the group leader, I understand, with you as the second-in-command?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s the plan.”
“And you would have no problems with taking orders from someone with less experience than you?” he pressed.
“We’ve worked out a lot of stuff in the Gauntlet. If it comes to anything having to do with flying, I don’t tell Stronghold anything. If it’s something on the ground, we’ve worked out tactics. He respects what I’ve learned,” I said a little tightly. What, did he think I’d be that petty? Or that Will would be?
“And you still intend to join their group?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. I raised one right back at him.
“Yes, of course,” I said with surprise.
“You’ve been doing extremely well solo. No one would blame you if you decided you preferred working alone,” he said, the fire snake popping its head up to look at me, as if it were Trixie eyeing a treat.
“It’s hard working alone. They’re my friends, we’ve been training for this for three years,” I said pointedly.
“You do realize Will Stronghold is the single most physically powerful hero we’ve seen in fifty years? I know he wasn’t necessarily interested in working with his parents, at least not on a permanent basis. However, considering his abilities, the Stronghold family might be the only ones capable of handling certain situations. It is possible, actually very likely, that Will Stronghold will not be around to lead your group all the time.
“As you are designated the second-in-command, you are going to be leading your group whenever he’s away. You said you’re willing to take orders. But are you willing to give them as well?”
“Yeah. I mean, we figured that would happen sometimes,” I said. “We planned for it.” This is getting a little Dick-and-Jane, director, get to the point.
“Well, you’re very well prepared then. You’ve also shown some great maturity in the field, and made some fairly solid decisions and tactics,” he said, nodding.
“Thanks,” I said a little warily. I was hearing a “but” attached to his statement.
“And I’ve been rather pleased to see you haven’t made any more mortal enemies,” he continued.
“I’ve annoyed a lot of supervillains,” I corrected.
“But none to the point of swearing bloody revenge. Other than Cutter’s Crew, you don’t have anyone out there that wants to skin you alive. Angry with you, yes, wouldn’t shed a tear if you shuffled off the mortal coil, certainly, but no one ready to give up everything to kill you. Trust me, I prefer that to superheroes that collect rivals like baseball cards. Rivals tend to throw everything into chaos. If I may use Royal Pain as my example number one, you’ll see what I mean.”
The Bureau wasn’t exactly a true bureaucracy, nor was it exactly like the military. Trying to closely regulate people that could destroy large parts of cities was nearly impossible. Superheroes had a great deal of autonomy to do what they saw fit, though the Bureau tried to form a framework of where the heroes might be, and match them to the more appropriate villains when they could. Superheroes could even put in requests to fight certain villains, if they really had a score to settle. Since I hadn’t, even though I had the chance to, I suppose the director thought that counted for something.
But I could easily see what he was talking about. Royal Pain’s rivalry with the Commander had ignored all the unwritten rules of engagement and nearly precipitated a disaster. It wasn’t like the Commander purposefully taunted supervillains, but given that the two were polar opposites in terms of their powers, he often seriously angered the more intellectual villains.
“Yeah, I do.”
“That was the other reason I wanted to talk to you actually; Cutter’s Crew, and the academy in general. There’ve been some developments in regards to the academy,” he said, tapping his fingers together, letting the fire snake cavort around them.
“Pri- er, Comet Girl has been keeping us updated on them,” I said, correcting her name at the last minute.
“Comet actually, she dropped the ‘Girl’ part a while ago. And yes, I know she has, and she’s been doing a fine job. However, you deserve to hear some of this information directly from me. We’ve had some information gathered, some from our insiders, some from anonymous tips, and some from our in-house think tanks. And the overall picture that’s been painted is not good.
“The reason I mentioned rivals is because we’ve seen some activity from the Crew, and we believe we’ve managed to decipher some of the intentions of the academy…”
It was really strange to hear some of mine, or rather, Monica’s words out of the director’s mouth. I wasn’t sure how much was directly from what I had given to the Bureau, in my roundabout fashion, and how much was from our spies, but I was relieved that they were at least taking it seriously. How some of the students were recruited rather deceptively or forcefully, the sheer brutality of the academy teachings, the fact that the students were being mentally manipulated to make them easier to control, amongst other things.
I tried to keep myself back in the emotional state I had when Monica had first told me about the academy, the kind of incredulous outrage that I knew the director would be expecting. It still outraged me when I thought about it, but I didn’t dare seem as if I had already known this information. But I didn’t have to feign what he told me next.
“What truly worries me about the academy is its purpose. Royal Pain wanted revenge on Sky High, and this is her way of getting it, now that she’s in prison. Those who are in charge now are putting their own spin on things, but its fundamental principles haven’t changed. Brains and cunning are emphasized over brawn and sheer power, and a clever plan, no matter how insanely conceived, is given more precedent than any straightforward tactics,” he was saying. “Tell me, if the Crew had been a typical superhero team, who would you have pegged as the leader?”
I thought about it for just a second, and sighed, conceding defeat.
“Bruin or Skybolt,” I answered, seeing what he was getting at. If there had been any real justice in the world, Ethan would be leading our team. We all turned to him to help us prepare for any challenge, but it was just the fact that the leader had to take the brunt of any attack that had put Will and I in charge instead. That and I think Ethan would have been extremely nervous with that burden on his shoulders. More so that us even!
“Exactly, but instead a person with perhaps less power but more brains was put in charge. That is what is worrying me about this current attacks by the academy’s students. They’re violent, vicious, even tenacious, but not overly clever. The attacks on your classmates Swift, Stretch, and Legioness two years ago were much more clever and nearly successful. I can see no reason why they would have backslid.”
It took me a second to recognize Speed, Lash, and Penny’s superhero names, but then everything snapped into place. Why would they get dumber and more direct? He was obviously waiting for me to ask the obvious question, so I obliged. I had been learned something of patience after hanging around Monica for over a year.
“So why are they running around the world doing random mayhem?”
“The academy’s purpose is revenge. It’s not so much an educational institution as a tool, like a supervillain doomsday device. And these little attacks? It says to us that it’s ticking.”
“So pairing the students up with the older supervillains, it’s like what, post-graduate work? Combat practice?” I asked.
“Exactly. I expect that sometime soon, perhaps within the six months to a year, that they will begin to join up together again. Then things get worse. These attacks, they’re goads. I expect that fully-trained academy teams will begin to perform atrocities that will force a reaction. And I expect they’ll go after your team, for just that reason. The Crew not only has a rivalry with you all, but if any of you get hurt -.”
“Parental superhero smackdown,” I finished. I remembered my mom saying to me that the rest of my friends’ parents wanted first crack at the Crew if they showed up again. “They actually want that, don’t they?”
“I believe they might even know we know where the academy is located. They might be counting on it. It would bring many of Royal Pain’s enemies, including the Commander, to attempt a full-frontal assault on the academy. It’s her bailiwick, her iron fortress. It’s shielded hard, it has many weapons built into it, and has now a full compliment of supervillains to protect it.”
There was a reason why it was considered a bad idea to go after an evil genius inside their own fortress. “Never attack a fortified position,” was one of the top ten rules of engagement in Heroic Tactics. Though that was also followed by the caveat, “Unless you have to in order to save the world.” There was a reason the Gauntlet had been originally set up like it had. However, I took the director’s scenario one step further.
“And if our parents get hurt, then we’d probably go charging in there like a bunch of morons. Wash, rinse, repeat with other teams,” I finished flatly.
“Exactly. It’s an initial cycle of blatant violence that eventually closes the jaw of a trap. The placement of the academy makes it an extremely tough nut to crack,” he said.
“Doesn’t this seem kind of… unnecessarily complicated?” I asked. Crimson Tempus gave a kind of humorless laugh.
“Supervillain doomsday devices are like Rube Goldberg machines. If it was straightforward, I’d expect some other trap I just couldn’t see,” he pointed out.
“Ok, fine. But this whole thing… What about the insiders? Can’t they disable some of the academy defenses?” I asked, trying to figure out what exactly the hell I, and the rest of my friends, was supposed to do about all this.
“They’re trying, but they have to be very cautious. There are still several experienced technopaths at the academy that are continually updating and improving the defenses. Our insiders were chosen for inconspicuousness and ability to observe, not necessarily sabotaging skill.”
“What about… You said you had anonymous tips right?” I asked, trying very hard to make it look like I had just thought of this.
“Yes, several actually.”
“What if some of these are from people inside the academy? You said some of them had been forcibly recruited. Maybe they’re trying to help,” I proposed. I hated raising the idea in his mind, but if Monica had managed to get out, maybe others had too.
“If they are, I wish they would just come forward. Some of the information has been very useful, but we need more, and more specific things,” he groused. The little fire snake had been apparently listening intently to the whole conversation, echoing the director’s moods, and now it coiled around one finger, bobbing its head curiously at me.
“Considering what they did to Speed, Lash, and Penny, maybe they’re scared,” I pointed out.
“You’re probably right. I suppose we should just be grateful we’ve gotten that much. Actually, I didn’t call you in here to talk about weakening the academy directly. That’s a job for other people. I came here to talk to you about tackling the other end of the problem. Attacking the academy is a trap, but the weakness of a trap is that it’s useless unless the prey walks into it. I need you to make sure that never happens,” he said. I was taken aback, and I swear the fire snake was snickering at me.
“How?” I demanded.
“If- When the Crew attacks you, I need you to keep your group safe. Not just in the usual way, but as safe as they possibly can, within the limits of keeping them from harming others. Will Stronghold will be a very powerful hero, but he does have a rather simple sense of justice. You, on the other hand, tend to see and think about the consequences a little more.” Which explains why he wanted to talk to me separately. But still…
“You want me to keep my friends’ parents from being blockheads?” I asked incredulously. “Why just not warn them directly?”
“Oh, I have. I also know when it comes to their children, I don’t expect parents to act rationally,” he said.
“You make it sound like they don’t have any self control,” I accused. I tried to keep my voice level, but the sting was still there. Will’s dad wasn’t exactly a genius, but he had to understand how bad this could get. Royal Pain had come up with one device that could hurt him, so why not two? Or three?
“I’m simply saying that when it comes to a parents’ love for their children, logic flies out of the window. I believe you’ve seen that in action more than once,” he pointed out. I had to concede defeat on that point. Hadn’t Principal Powers (Veronica, I reminded myself again) hidden us in the woods for a week after fighting Cutter’s Crew to avoid having our parents overreact?
“Ok…” I said slowly. “Have you managed to locate all the Crew? If we know what they’ve been learning from their, umm, mentors, we can fight them more safely.” I tried not to wince at how pompous that sounded. Fighting safely. Oxymoron if I ever heard one.
“Unfortunately, no. Bruin, Viper, Bloodtalon, and Skybolt are all accounted for. Cutter and Painbreaker are still MIA.”
“Any ideas, leads?” I asked, trying to stay businesslike. I couldn’t afford to not talk about Painbreaker; it would look very suspicious if I omitted her.
“Neither of those two have been seen in the academy since our spies got inside. And no one is talking about them either.”
“Could they be laying low, or spying?” I asked tentatively.
“Possibly. It may be that whoever they are paired with as a ‘mentor’ is simply one of those villains that only surfaces every few years.”
“Those guys are always the really bad ones,” I pointed out.
“That’s what worries me. Each one of the Crew so far is paired with a villain that has similar or complimentary powers. The Caveman has tapped into his primal rage; Bruin has great physical strength. Killraven commands birds; Bloodtalon has rage inducement while in bird form, and can enrage Killraven’s flocks. Viper can enhance the virulence of the venom of The Snake Charmer’s controlled serpents, and Skybolt’s electric powers are perfect for recharging Electric Eel. There are a few I can think of that would work extremely well with Cutter or Painbreaker, and all of them are supervillains I wouldn’t care to see even every ten years.”
“The Overload, Galactorus, Son of Silver, Judge Libra, The Iron General, Paragon of Death, and those are just the few off the top of my head,” he said flatly.
Those were extremely major players, all of them on the Bureau’s Ten Most Wanted list, and ones we had all memorized in class at Sky High. Not all of them were world-destroying types, but every single one of them had several deaths to their name. Monica had said Cutter had been getting worse every year she was at the academy, and I was wondering how bad she could get if she was actually learning from any of those guys. Something else was nagging at me though, that concerned me even more than anything Cutter might be doing.
What was seriously worrying me, on several levels, was that the Bureau hadn’t found out about Monica being in Maxville yet. I was relieved that they hadn’t, but almost incredulous that they hadn’t either. While she hadn’t exactly been bruiting her existence about, she hadn’t been going to extraordinary lengths to hide it either. Her unmasked face was in the Bureau databanks, so why hadn’t someone, somewhere, somehow come up with a match? Willful ignorance? Gross incompetence? Neither boded well, the former for me and the latter for them.
“Not good,” I said, and shook my head a little to free it from the bad images.
“Do I have your agreement then?” Crimson Tempus asked.
“Look, no one on my team is going to work any less hard. We’ll be ready,” I said firmly.
“I have no doubt of your readiness, Phoenix. What I’m asking you is, if necessary, to be less heroic. I’m asking you to take the coward’s path if you have to,” he said very seriously, leaning forward. The fire snake stared at me with unblinking blue eyes, and curled around the fire globe still spinning, suspended above the director’s palm.
“You want me to keep my team safe by running away?” I asked incredulously, just to make sure I had heard him right.
“If necessary,” he repeated. “This is why I’m talking to you alone. You have felt the fear of death and defeat-.”
“So has everyone else. If you think we didn’t all think we were going to die when Royal Pain attacked Sky High-.”
“I’m not talking about that specifically. I am talking about your first meeting with Ember-keeper,” he said sternly. Tobias? What the hell-?
A few things came together quickly. Our first link to the academy had come through supervillains that had managed to hear about my healing fire, supervillains that Tobias Battle had managed to hear about. His first meeting had been to warn me of the danger of villains knowing about my abilities, specifically villains attached to the academy. I had had a few brushes with academy observation, like the spyder that had been found on the Bureau jet that had taken me to Europe, but there had been no specific attack to capture me in all that time. The threat had somewhat faded from my mind.
Even though Monica had told me she had been the one to originally inform the academy of my power, I didn’t feel she was a threat to me. Yes, she still had to deliver weekly reports to the academy; she didn’t dare do otherwise if she wanted to remain breathing. But the information the academy wanted she could deliver without compromising her original promise to me, or her relatively newfound desire to get out from under them. We actually had a little fun crafting some bits of the reports to include some entirely plausible but ultimately useless information. Still, the director’s words made me realize I suddenly had a lot of uncomfortable things I needed to bring up with her.
“You want me to run away,” I said, seeing what he was getting at. The director nodded solemnly.
“The academy obviously is not adverse to silencing traitors permanently. However, it has also invested a substantial amount of time, effort, training, and money into each ‘loyal student.’ The members of the academy have proved to me amazingly good at escaping-.”
“They’d have to be. They’d have to escape or die, from everything I’ve seen,” I finished. While I was fairly strong and powerful for a superhero, much more so that Monica in most areas, in a few ways she completely blew me out of the water. She was exceptional at running away, escaping, and hiding.
“I have to be. We all have to be. Capture is never an option, that’s how we were taught,” she had told me once when I had wondered how she kept managing to slip out of view of cameras, reporters, and observers in general. She was very good at striking from the shadows and fading back into them, which was probably most of the reason why she hadn’t been discovered by either side. The ‘conspiracy theory’ Mandy had told me about was the only real hint we had had that she might have been seen, but with so little evidence to support it, I hoped she was still safe.
“That seems to be the general consensus. But some of these young supervillains are escaping injured, sometimes severely, which hurts their ‘progress.’ If they had you, they wouldn’t need to wait until they were well to continue their ‘work,’” he said.
I didn’t protest that I would never help supervillains, that my powers wouldn’t work on those that I didn’t like, or that they could never force me. Having been on the receiving end of Monica’s powers several times, even if it hadn’t been at full force, and having seen her use them on several people, made me realize everyone had their breaking point. No doubt the academy had many ways of dealing with reluctant students. Monica had implied as much, had blatantly said so when she told me what she used to do for the academy.
“I understand,” I said solemnly.
“I’m glad you do. There would even been some in the superhero community would be… livid at the idea of someone with your powers acting as a normal superhero. They would want you to concentrate on helping injured heroes instead of fighting supervillains. It’s the other reason we’ve kept your power a secret.”
The very idea gave me a screaming fit of claustrophobia. I did not want to be tied down and forced to use my ember-fire, either for the side of good or evil. It was hard to do, draining, and I still didn’t have very firm control over it. It was one thing to voluntarily use it on the people I transported as an EMT, or on my friends and teammates during battle, but another to be forced by anyone.
The director was trying to scare me, I knew it, and it was probably for a good cause. But everything about this was making me profoundly uncomfortable. I wanted answers, real ones, and there was only one real way I was going to get them.
“I’ll be careful,” I said finally, nodding at Crimson Tempus and getting up. He only nodded thoughtfully back, letting the little flame snake weave around his fingers again. I left the office as quickly as I could without making it look like I was running, and set a new record for getting to the elevator. Suddenly the place felt confining, with too many eyes on me, and I really just wanted to get away. And also I needed more answers, more information, and clearly, so did the Bureau. I headed out immediately for the Medic-Co office; knowing Monica should already be there.