“We have problems,” I opened, sliding into the passenger side seat of the ambulance that afternoon.
“The academy,” Monica stated, raising an eyebrow, and I nodded.
“I was just giving them their weekly report,” she said flatly, scowling. She and I might have gotten a little amusement out of working out the information they got, but each report still forcibly reminded her that she wasn’t free to do what she wanted.
“Same stuff?” I asked.
“You’d think, considering I’ve been here nearly two years, they’d want to give me some incentive to keep doing this job. But no, same exact response every time. ‘Continue observing, report in a week,’” she muttered. “I know it doesn’t really matter, but… it still makes me angry.”
“But the academy is so forthright and upstanding. Shouldn’t it just be enough to serve?” I said facetiously, drawing a faint laugh out of her.
Monica responded that the academy could do something anatomically impossible for its individual members. I didn’t think anyone could actually do that, unless they had Lash’s powers, and even then I wouldn’t to see the results. I mentally translated the insult into Mandarin to use on the next supervillain that seriously pissed me off. I chuckled a little, shaking my head.
“What about the academy?” she asked once I had gotten myself back under control. I gave her a quick run-down of my talk with the director, and from the expression on her face, she was both not surprised and not happy.
“The Bureau is pretty smart,” she said quietly. “Trust me, the academy doesn’t tell us too much about their goals for us, but this makes too much sense. My… work area was near one of the generator rooms. I saw some of the things they were installing in there. I don’t know if they’ve been modified, but I know I saw a half-dozen mega-rays, I’m not sure what types, and at least four different other kinds of things. They were in boxes, so I’m not sure what they were…”
I somehow doubted our insiders had managed to get into the generator rooms, but hearing casual talk about it from the people who were programming and upgrading the things must have been enough. Knowing what kind of things might actually be turned against us or our parents didn’t make things any easier. In my mind the academy was looming larger and larger, casting a shadow over me, my friends, the Bureau, and my relationship with Monica. Like a glacier, it was starting to affect everything around it, and I knew the consequences would be far-reaching and dramatic.
She told me that she personally hadn’t heard anything about the academy wanting to capture me, but because she had been undercover in Maxville since that trip to Yellowstone, she was not particularly up to date on current academy gossip. She wasn’t sure exactly whom Cutter was supposed to be partnered with, but agreed with the “short list” the director had given me.
“What about you, were you supposed to be teamed up with anyone before they sent you here?” I asked. Monica looked resigned and heaved a big sigh.
“Yes, I was supposed to be working with Judge Libra,” she said, looking down at the floor.
Judge Libra had been some young, rich, influential judge down in Texas some forty-odd years ago. Powerful and politically connected, he had a very strict sense of justice… unless it came to his family or friends, for which he could always find some perfectly legal loophole. He had a very annoying “good ole’ boy” mentality. But he had gotten sick, and used his power and money to get into an experimental drug trial he had no business being in. It had cured him, but also given him psychic powers, which drove him off the deep end. He now found those he considered guilty of some crime or another, and used his powers to have a “jury of peers” convict them, and then usually execute them. He was a fairly old man now, but his mental powers hadn’t diminished one bit, and he was considered very dangerous.
“Why him? And how did the academy find him? I thought he always went into hiding after a ‘trial,’” I asked, weirded out. After our tangles with Psychic Club, I really had zero interest in fighting someone with strong mental powers.
“He was willing to accept me because he worked with my ‘grandfather,’ the Grim Reaper. Since I was related, that made me an old family friend,” she said a bit bitterly. “And I was useful because I could help give ‘ample punishment to the guilty before their sentence was carried out.’”
“But since sanity is in such short supply at the academy, I was more useful as a spy here, than working with the Judge. I don’t know how they found him in the first place,” she said.
Basically, Monica was a sleeper agent, and she knew it. She wasn’t being given any current information from the academy, and was totally on her own. She could be recalled at any time to start up something, but apparently the academy found her more valuable as she was. Unfortunately, the director had more current information than she did.
“There is one thing I can give you though,” she had said finally. She took a deep breath. “I can draw you a map, give you a blueprint of whatever I remember. I’m guessing there are places even your insiders aren’t able to go, and there are some passive defenses I remember that they probably haven’t seen.”
I felt a surge of excitement at her words, that I could give some concrete information to help those heroes who were risking their lives inside the academy… Then the feeling faded as fast as it had started when reality set it.
“There’s no way in hell I can give it to the Bureau. They’ll want to make sure that it’s real… And I’ve already used all the anonymous drops I know,” I said, sighing in defeat. Someone would have to confirm the map’s authenticity, and since only a member of the academy could have made it, I would end up revealing Monica or me, or both, in trying to get the information in. Everything we had given them before could be confirmed by the insiders. The map couldn’t, if the insiders hadn’t been able to get into restricted areas, and the Bureau wouldn’t use it unless they were sure it was real. It was frustrating as hell.
“I’ll draw it anyway,” she said softly. “I should have done it before… It’ll be useful to someone, even if you have to swear them to silence to use it.”
And that was the best we were going to get for now, and we both knew it. Reality really sucked sometimes.
The next afternoon, Phoenix’s Secret Sanctum
The gang had gathered after school, clearly still flabbergasted by the bomb Veronica Powers had dropped on them yesterday. It was one thing to know some supervillains were out to get you. It was another thing to be told they were not only out to get you, but your parents, your friends, and basically everyone you cared about, all in the most horrific, painful way possible, just because one person had gotten snubbed in high school.
“Dude, so they want us to, like beat our parents to the punch if those whack-jobs show up?” Zack was saying. I shook my head, looking sideways at Will.
“We have to make sure we don’t lose,” I said, phrasing it a little more lightly than the director had yesterday. Since the gang had been talking about the whole thing non-stop since they arrived, I quickly picked up on the differences between my briefing and theirs. Since the director hadn’t gone over that with me, I wasn’t sure if the implications were a credit to my intelligence, a deliberate oversight, or something more sinister.Your paranoia is showing Warren…
“I could just imagine what my dad would do if something happened,” Will pointed out.
“So we fight smarter, not harder?” Magenta suggested with a bit of a smile, and everyone laughed.
“Sounds like a plan!” Ethan said enthusiastically, and began pulling out books. Information was enough of a distraction to keep Ethan from panicking. Everyone looked at them warily, but surprisingly no one groaned when he started distributing them. Passages were marked for nearly every ‘mentor’ we knew about, along with all the possible ones the director had named too. Ethan’s vision of “working smarter” was to have us all be experts on what the academy kids were being trained to do.
Everything pointed to us having to defeat these guys away from their home ground, and even capturing them if we could. We absolutely could not let them just strike and run back to their base every single time, because that would eventually end up just playing into their hands. I was foreseeing a lot of extended, painful, tedious Gauntlet sessions in our future.
I was not wrong, when within a week of us nearly memorizing what we could both us and the rest of the senior teams were being set against each other in mock battles, imitating, as best they could, the members and mentors of the academy.
Some were easier than others, relatively speaking, but none of them left us any less than exhausted. The scenario with the Caveman and Bruin, for example, was just and out and out slugfest. While there was no one at Sky High that could turn into a bear, there was a transfer student from Kenya that could turn into a rhinoceros. We figured if we couldn’t contain him, then we had no business going after Bruin in the first place. Combining him with one of the super-strong guys from Strength Club to act as the Caveman, we only had to limit their damage. It was our “villains’” job to just cause as much mayhem as possible, because that’s what real villains would do; cause so much chaos we would be more concerned with saving citizens than capturing them.
There were a few electrokinetics (or close to it) that stood in for Skybolt and Electric Eel, and while no one could exactly mimic Killraven’s bird control powers or Bloodtalon’s rage inducement, we could come pretty close with some clever telekinetics and a hawk shapeshifter. No one in the school had anything like Viper’s poison powers or Painbreaker’s powers, and we didn’t have any teleporters like Cutter, but we did the best we could.
Not so strangely, Zack and I were teamed up for these fights, as were Magenta and Ethan. Will was often alone, being the only one that could fly, while Layla’s ability to use her power at a distance meant she could stand fairly far back, protected, and still help. Her powers had the longest range of all of ours, and were easily the most versatile. She could use her vines to move us up to places we couldn’t reach, or to hold a villain, or to hurt him if necessary. She could shield us or citizens, help us cross broken ground, even use the vines to haul things out of our way or break through walls. Will could do a lot of that too, but we all knew the danger of simply assuming he’d be there.
While Ethan and Magenta’s attacks relied on surprise and stealth, Zack and I relied on being as obvious as possible. It was impossible for Zack to hide if he wanted to use his powers, and it was nearly impossible for me to do so. That was the reason that Zack and I had the heaviest armor of anyone in the group; we were honestly expecting to attract the most initial attention and its attendant dangers. But once people were focused on us, it gave everyone else a chance to get the drop on them.
When we did the mock-up battles for the Overlord and Son of Silver, two villains that used guns or whose minions did, we had the best marksmen in the school armed with paintball guns to give us a good simulation. Will would swoop in first, drawing their fire, followed shortly by Zack and I, both powered up, him shooting with his stun ray and me throwing fire left, right, and center. Layla would begin to grow vines across the ground, giving Ethan and Magenta enough cover to sneak up to the shooters. It wasn’t a bad bunch of strategy, provided we could keep things moving fast enough.
Will, Zack, and I ended up thoroughly splattered with paint by the end of the day, though Zack had also been ducking and diving enough that he was also bruised and covered in dirt as well. Those self-preservation instincts Boomer had been hammering into him actually worked.
All of this helped keep our minds off of fretting over everything. Even though we were basically mock-fighting for our lives, the Gauntlet sessions gave us something to actually do. And at least it gave us all a kind of a taste of how things might work in the real world. Zack and I drew the bad guys’ attention, Layla helped get citizens out of the way and gave us cover or distractions, Ethan and Magenta backstabbed the bad guys when they weren’t looking-.
“And then Will swoops in and saves the day,” Magenta always finished, to Will’s everlasting embarrassment.
Funny, but true.
Sixth and Main, one year and seven months after graduation, last week of December
“What is that?” Monica said suddenly, breaking off the conversation we had been having and pointing up. I ducked to look up out the windshield and saw a bright light traveling fast towards us, maybe two stories up and closing fast. It took me a second to recognize it, because I hadn’t seen this for over a year, but once I did-.
“Comet!” I exclaimed, and wondered what the hell Veronica Powers was doing out here at this hour of the morning.
“Isn’t she retired?” Monica asked, eyes searching for what Comet could be following.
“Kind of-,” I started, and then abruptly shut up as gunshots rang out.
Running from around the corner, paralleling Comet’s course, came a silver man. His skin was dull silver, from his bald head to his ungloved hands, and he wore a shiny silver trenchcoat and super-suit. Even the guns he had in both hands gleamed silver as he twisted and fired them up at Comet. He should have looked ridiculous, like Zack in his Liberace-coat, but he didn’t. He looked incredibly dangerous, and I recognized him immediately from Ethan’s relentless drilling of the past few months.
“Son of Silver, Son of Silver, Jesus!” I cried as I dived in the back for the rest of my costume. I had absolutely no business fighting a guy on the Ten Most Wanted list, particularly this one, but I couldn’t sit here and do nothing.
Son of Silver had been a normal man until someone, an enemy, a business rival or something, had pushed him into a vat of molten silver. Instead of dying, he had somehow merged with the silver. It gave him a metallic body and molten silver blood, which made him immune to fire and fairly hard to hurt. He wasn’t any stronger than a normal guy, but because he was metal, his blows always hit harder. It also made him fairly slow, which was why he usually kept a couple of henchmen around, dressed identically to him, as decoys.
But it wasn’t his powers that made him really dangerous, it was his marksmanship. He used silver bullets, lighter than lead but much harder, tending to penetrate even tough armor. With extra powerful powder and some other modifications to the bullets and his guns, he had the equivalent of cop-killer ammunition for superheroes. Ever since he had killed Captain Lightning during a silver heist back when I was in elementary school, Son of Silver had gained a reputation as a supervillain who could kill the unkillable. He had killed three superheroes and six sidekicks in the decade and a half he had been active, and had never been caught once.
So why was he in Maxville? Jetstream was plenty fast enough to catch him, and the Commander was strong enough to resist even his bullets. Coming here was just asking to get caught. Or did he know something we didn’t?
Monica suddenly hurled herself in the back, next to me, her face deathly pale and her eyes huge and frightened.
“Cutter’s with him,” she whispered. The penny dropped. Cutter, like Son of Silver, relied more on her marksmanship and skill with weapons than her powers, even though they were completely respectable. Son of Silver had been on the list as one of Cutter’s possible ‘mentors’ for the academy. And Cutter’s mobility would save Son of Silver from capture.
I dared a glance out the windshield, and could finally spot Cutter, dressed in some silver-spangled singlet, standing back-to-back with the now stationary Son of Silver, knives in her hands and a cruel smile on her face. I wondered how the hell she was keeping warm in the freezing temperatures out there. I was not looking forward to fighting in the snow.
Comet was hurtling towards him in a dizzying corkscrew path as the supervillain fired towards her with eerie deliberateness. One shot ended up with Comet taking a suddenly right-angle path and speeding off over the city. Monica gasped simultaneously and I felt a sudden stab of fear.
“She’s been hit,” she said.
Damn it! Monica can’t go to her as an EMT… but no one’s seen her costume other than me. And Cutter can’t see her at all, or she’s dead.
“Take the ambulance, go after Comet in costume. I’m calling for back up, and I’ll try to keep these two busy until it gets here,” I said, making a decision quickly. “If anyone can capture these two, the Commander and Jetstream can.”
Monica swallowed quickly and quickly shrugged on her own costume, pausing just a second before sliding on her mask. This was dangerous, deadly, deadly dangerous to both her and me. The academy might want me alive, but Son of Silver wouldn’t hesitate to hurt me, and Cutter had a personal score to settle. She didn’t say it, though it had to be on the tip of her tongue, and that helped. If she didn’t say out loud how worried she was, then I wouldn’t have to carry her fear with mine. Neither of us was particularly sanguine about this going well. Son of Silver wasn’t on the Top Ten list for picking daisies.
And if Comet figured out who Monica was, even through the costume, then there was no clear way out for her.
“Just be careful,” Monica said finally, giving me a brief, intense kiss before sliding her mask on. I didn’t have time to do anything more than squeeze her hand back, a little surprised at how much it warmed me inside, just knowing she cared enough to trust my judgment, and to risk her own freedom rescuing someone who could recognize her.
“You too,” I said back, and slid out the back, keeping the ambulance between me and the villains, the snow and ice on the pavement melting around me. Only a few moments had passed since Comet had left the field of battle, and Son of Silver and Cutter were still standing back-to-back, breath steaming, looking for trouble.
“This is Phoenix, calling for back up. Son of Silver and Cutter are in front of the Hallowell Building, and Comet has already been hit,” I said as I activated the com in my helmet. I had gotten it put in a few weeks after I had gotten back from Europe, though it would only really get useful after I started working with the rest of my friends.
There were a few seconds of stunned silence on the other end as I imparted my news, then the operator suddenly found her voice.
“Confirmed Phoenix. Back up is on its way. Use extreme caution!” she said sharply. I knew the Bureau didn’t want me tangling directly with anyone from the academy, but there was no way I could just sit by and watch them do whatever they wanted. I could not take the coward’s path now, no matter the director’s wishes, because there was no one else here right now to stop them.
“Right,” I said back, and clicked off the com. I took a deep breath, knowing this was going to hurt. The worst thing that could happen here… Scratch that, there were several worst things. They could capture me, which was probably high up there on the “worst” list. They could escape. They could hurt anyone else that happened to wander by so they could escape. They could seriously hurt or kill whoever came by as back up.
So my job, right now, is containment. I have to keep them from planning anything clever, from escaping, capturing, or random violence.
And the easiest way to do that was to keep their attention focused on me. I certainly had plenty of practice in that. Most of our Gauntlet runs had me and Zack making ourselves the biggest, brightest, most obnoxious targets we could, so that the rest of our team could sneak up on them. The quickest way to do get them fixed on me was to make them mad.
Well, Cutter didn’t have much of a temper when I first met her, and I somehow doubt it’s improved. And if she’s Son of Silver’s ticket out of here, he won’t dare try to run without her. This is really going to hurt. I seriously wished Will was here, and I knew if I called, he and the rest of the gang would come. But I didn’t dare. That was exactly the kind of stunt Crimson Tempus had warned me against. I took a last deep breath and strode into view, fear piercing me, but I shoved it aside as I powered up.
Son of Silver looked at me curiously, and tapped Cutter on the shoulder to alert her to my presence. She turned around, looking thinner and even crueler than the last time we had met. I was squirming a little inside though when I saw she was wearing elaborate silver wraps around her wrists to hide the burn scars I had given her. She scowled when she saw me, and the knives in her hands glinted. I knew she wanted to hurt me, badly, and I took another steadying deep breath before I spoke.
“Cutter, back to lose again?” I called. As I talked, I watched her weave her knives in the air, making flickering gestures with her hands that had a look of familiarity. I wasn’t quite sure what she was doing, but I filed the odd behavior away. Her lips thinned in a parody of a smile before she answered my challenge.
“Oh, I just can’t get enough of you, hot stuff. I couldn’t stay away from this party,” she said in reply, still making the odd gestures with her hands. “Where are your playmates? I thought you heroes liked to gang up on us poor little supervillains.” Son of Silver seemed to be watching the conversation between Cutter and I with some interest, and was as relaxed and casual as if he were waiting for a bus.
“Where’re yours?” I shot back. I was scanning the skies, hoping against hope back up would get here soon.
“Here and there, learning things, getting ready to kill you. Thought I might get an early start,” she said, her knives weaving rapidly in the air.
Cutter still liked to talk too much, and I was barely getting warmed up. I was hoping I could keep her exchanging barbed witticisms instead of fire or knives. The academy wanted me alive, so all of her tough talk was bluff, I hoped. I knew she probably wouldn’t worry about hurting me, just for kicks, and I hoped she would do the honors herself instead of getting her mentor to do it. I really, really hated getting shot.
Then she made a short nod with her head, pointing her chin at me, and Son of Silver suddenly flung up one gun in my direction. Oh holy fuck!
I instinctively ducked, but he anticipated me with contemptuous ease, and three loud bangs rang out on the street. Each one drove me a step back, the bullets all going right through the phoenix emblem on my chest, burning like hell. I gasped and coughed, my mouth filled with the taste of iron and silver, and spat to rid myself of the taste. I realized, with growing horror, that there was blood on the pavement. My blood.
Indestructibles don’t bleed, our bodies fix themselves too fast, and I literally couldn’t remember the last time I had. I would only be bleeding if I had a massive trauma, and the icy fear I had felt the first time I had fought Cutter was suddenly back. Three sharp stings from my back, followed quickly by three loud, metallic pings on the pavement and the sudden absence of the taste of iron from my mouth made me realize my body had just rejected the bullets. I was starting to shake; that was the closest I had come to death since I had first used the ember-fire. A few extra hits in more vital areas and I would be dead before I could pull myself together.
Was that to scare me? They have to know the academy wants me alive… Well, if they wanted to scare me, they were doing a pretty damn good job!
“Didn’t work,” I said with a casualness calculated to insult, standing upright again, snow melting off my costume and puffing into steam. Son of Silver actually looked very surprised, his eyes widening and mouth gaping as I got up from his hits. Fine, how do you like feeling scared for once? I snarled mentally through my fear. He obviously wasn’t used to people getting up after he had hit them.
“How about I carve you a new one instead, pretty boy?” Cutter said, leaning forward, her hands still flickering. Son of Silver put his hand on her shoulder though, and stopped her before she could teleport forward to carry out her threat. At that moment, a bright light rose up from behind them, and the lenses in my helmet darkened protectively as Comet blazed in from over the skyscraper.
Yes! I cheered mentally; relieved she hadn’t been too badly hurt, or at least Monica might have been able to help patch her back together. I charged Son of Silver when they turned to find the source of the white light, taking advantage of the distraction. I couldn’t let him fire at her again, because this time he might not miss. And Comet was not on the academy’s protected list.
He didn’t even hear me coming until I was practically on top of him, turning at the last second and trying to lunge for me. I didn’t bother to try to tackle him; as heavy as he was from all the metal, it would have been like trying to wrestle a lamppost. I took a page from Torque instead, and grabbed his wrist as he turned, using the momentum to throw him off balance and make him measure his own length on the icy pavement.
He’s going to be pissed when he gets up… I thought, surprised I had actually managed to trick him, and ducked back out of the way. I did not want to wrestle him for his guns, not at that close of a range.
I was expecting to feel one of Cutter’s knives in me at any second, but instead felt a huge side-swiping blast of cold from behind me. I turned to see Comet climbing into the sky, Cutter on her side on the icy pavement, thickly frosted with ice crystals from Comet’s fly-by attack. Comet gained height and spun down, diving for Son of Silver. I threw myself out of the way just as she dive-bombed him, and saw him get covered with frost from her attack. She was up in the sky again in an instant, and both supervillains were stirring slowly, Son of Silver actually seeming to move in slow motion.
With his molten silver blood, cold is nearly lethal to him! I remembered gleefully from Ethan’s lessons, and turned instead to Cutter. Son of Silver was clearly out of my league, because my fire would actually help him at this point, but if Comet could keep him contained, I could try to keep Cutter away from him to keep them from escaping.
I whirled and began throwing fireballs as fast as I could, whipping them in a fan-shaped pattern, keeping them aimed more at Cutter, trying to cut her off from him. She had had the glorious feeling of trying to teleport through fire once before, and I hoped the experience would keep her from trying again, as long as I could keep enough random fireballs going off around her.
“Halt evildoers!” I heard a voice from above me. I turned to see Jetstream suddenly let go of the Commander, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Will’s dad thudded down right next to me, and I resisted the urge to hide behind him. I had seen Will take much worse hits than I had just a moment ago without even flinching, and I did not want a repeat performance. Let the Commander take Son of Silver’s hits, he was better equipped for it than I was!
Cutter’s head snapped up at the Commander’s words, and then narrowed her eyes at me in a chillingly evil smile. I belatedly realized I had let my fire up when the Commander and Jetstream had arrived, hoping somehow they would be able to get her.
“Later,” she said, and kipped to her feet.
“No!” I cried, as I suddenly saw her flash to Son of Silver’s side, and then vanish into thin air. “Damn it!” I snarled, forgetting the Commander was right next to me. We were looking up and down the street, and above us I heard Jetstream call she couldn’t see them either.
“What was that?” Jetstream said finally, landing beside us. Comet spun down next to us a moment later, looking none worse for the wear. I couldn’t even see any wounds on her at first, until I saw a bloody graze on one leg, staining the pristine white of her costume.
“Very strange. I can’t believe Son of Silver would have the guts to attempt anything in Maxville… normally,” she said, shaking her head, her expression stern.
“Yeah, but with Cutter with him, he’s a lot faster than he should be,” I pointed out, still looking around. I was still pretty hyped up from the fight, and if anyone had startled me at that point, I would have damn near exploded with pent-up tension.
“He’s still fast enough. I couldn’t believe you actually confronted him Phoenix. You should know better,” Comet scolded. “You could have been killed!”
“You were hurt, what was I supposed to do?” I asked forcefully. Comet drew herself up short at that. “I didn’t even know you covered Maxville anyway.”
“I don’t, I’m nearly inactive,” she said stiffly. “But I have a score to settle with Son of Silver.”
The Commander and Jetstream were looking back and forth between us, clearly uncomfortable, before the Commander interrupted.
“But they’re gone, and whatever they came here for, they didn’t get it,” he said in slightly too-hearty tones.
“We need to keep this quiet, Commander, Jetstream. Phoenix, I think this is attack is a little too random. Please, don’t tell your friends before we’ve figured this out,” she said, catching each of our eyes from behind her white mask until we agreed. “Get on home everyone, I’ll take care of the media.”
The Commander and Jetstream gave me a brief smile and a nod before lifting off again, and I quickly got myself changed in an alley and called Monica to pick me up. Surprisingly, she was fairly close, and didn’t look nearly as harried as I expected her to.
“What happened back there?” I asked her. The Bureau was nailing a lid on this whole attack, according to what Comet had said, which was perfectly fine with me. I was shaking pretty back with reaction, not from using my power, but from adrenaline and fear. I couldn’t have given a coherent description of the fight to the press if my life had depended on it.
“I found her, but she had only gotten winged, just a graze on her leg. I didn’t even have to get out of the bus before she powered back up and threw herself back in the fight. By the time I got back to you, it was all over,” she said, clearly both frustrated and afraid, but also relieved that she hadn’t had to risk her identity.
“Yeah, you saw who showed up though,” I pointed out.
“That’s what worries me. That was a test. They were testing my information about how fast the Commander and Jetstream respond!” she said in a shuddering tone. I suddenly got it. The information she had been passing to the academy had all kind of been in the abstract, until she had just seen it used in action.
“They sent Son of Silver to Maxville as a test?” I nearly sputtered. What kind of rewards or blackmail were the academy using that they could get an independent supervillain assassin to do something both insanely dangerous and without obvious profit?
“Who else could have gotten them out here? Cutter was with him as insurance against capture,” she pointed out. “He’s safer with her than with his usual decoys.”
“Jesu damn,” I said finally, leaning back into my seat and staring at the ceiling.
“I hate this,” Monica said softly.
“You’re not the only one,” I reminded her, reaching out to hold her hand. She squeezed mine hard, and I heard her go through several breathing exercises to get herself calm again.
“We’re on to them, they can’t keep this up forever,” I said. “It’ll end, it has to end sometime.”
“I’m just afraid of it starting.”
One week later
I had finally gotten up the courage to invite Monica over to my house. Well, maybe courage wasn’t the right word. We were friends, and it would be nice to hang out somewhere other than the Medic-Co office or our ambulance. I wanted some downtime for the two of us, and my house was a much better place for that than our workplace, assuming I didn’t get a call.
Also, Monica had been very tense since the fight with Son of Silver and Cutter, with very good reason, and I wanted to give her a chance to relax before she imploded or something equally messy. She recognized it too, and had accepted my invitation too hang out on our night off with almost unseemly haste.
I hadn’t been allowed to talk with my own friends about the fight with Cutter and her mentor, mostly because the Bureau had squashed as much news about it as they could. Publicity of the academy’s atrocities would only serve as fuel for their fire, and they definitely didn’t want the Crew’s rivals to know about any attempts on me. I knew my friends would have totally gone to bat for me, and if I had called, they would have come. Which was exactly why the Bureau didn’t want them to know. It burned me up to keep my mouth shut about it, and I was very relieved that I had Monica to talk to. What the Bureau didn’t know about, they couldn’t forbid.
Embarrassingly though, Monica had to basically sneak in the back door, just in case any of our neighbors were watching. She slipped in like a commando, closing the door silently behind her, before finally turning to say hello. She stopped even before she started though, because Mom was standing in the kitchen doorway behind me, watching us both with amusement.
“Hello Joy,” Monica said after a moment, trying to gloss over the awkwardness of being face-to-face with someone who had basically put her mind back together for her. It gave Mom a lot of power over her, though I knew she would never use it, but it was a very hard thing to forget.
Mom stepped forward and put her hands on Monica’s shoulders, holding her at arm’s length and looking at her frankly. Monica matched her gaze for gaze.
“You’re looking much better Monica,” Mom said finally, and I knew she didn’t just mean that Monica had lost some of the bitterness and tenseness around her eyes that she had carried when they had first met.
“I’m feeling better,” Monica said quietly. Mom nodded, and leaned in to whisper something to her. I couldn’t hear what she said, but Monica’s eyes widened in what looked like shock, and she nodded vigorously.
“You two have fun, I’ll be upstairs,” Mom said, turning away from her, smiling at me, and then breezing out of the room. Ooooo… k, that was strange.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said, turning to head downstairs. I was a little desperate for a fragment of privacy and as much normalcy as we could get.
“Warren, remember Zack’s coming over at eight thirty!” Mom called to remind me.
“Right!” I yelled back. Monica looked over at me, concerned. It was only around six thirty or so.
“I’ve been teaching Zack self-defense. And he has this complete inability to get anywhere on time. I’ve never seen him show up less than half and hour late to anything, unless he was with Magenta,” I explained.
“Ah, I’ve known a few people like that. Where are we going?” she asked, as she followed me into the basement. It wasn’t a finished basement, instead being all concrete floors, clutter, dusty shelves, dank smells, and cobwebs. It certainly wasn’t a place you’d like to hang out for any amount of time.
“Secret Sanctum,” I said, heading for what looked like an old fuse box in the corner of the room. Monica only raised an eyebrow at that, but looked terribly pleased. It was an act of trust to bring her here, though certainly no less than any other thing she knew about me already. I opened up the fuse box and flipped a concealed switch in the back to open the biometric scanner. Whatever else I could say about Royal Pain, she had built a very well concealed sanctum.
“Come on baby, lemme show you my Secret Sanctum.” Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?
Shut up. You have a smutty mind.
Technically it’s you that have the smutty mind.
I didn’t dignify myself with an answer.
Unlike the Stronghold’s fireman’s poles or the Howard’s underwater passage, Mom and I just had a simple concealed staircase leading to our sanctum. Then again, Royal Pain had originally had a lot more technological deterrents down here, ones we definitely didn’t need and had had removed.
The sanctum for the Peacemaker and Phoenix was a lot more like an office and workroom rather than the Commander and Jetstream’s trophy gallery/gameroom. Mom’s half had maps on the walls, pictures of leaders, diplomatic reports, and counters covered with more of the same, mixed in with fan mail, pictures, and thank-you letters. Mom claimed it was organized chaos, and always seemed to be able to put her hands on whatever she was looking for, but I would have burned something out of frustration more than once.
My half was almost pathologically neat by comparison, though I had obviously had far less time to accumulate stuff than Mom had. There were some papers from the Bureau, some newspaper articles, folders of fan mail, and two spare costumes with repair supplies nearby. There were professionals at the Bureau that would take care of major repair to the armor plates (or more extreme cases like what had happened with the Wolf Pack), but I preferred being somewhat self-sufficient when it came to keeping Phoenix looking like a superhero and not a scarecrow.
Monica took a slow circuit around my half of the sanctum, glancing over at the computer, TV, the few books and weights I had neatly arranged on shelves. This place had become more personal to me that even my own bedroom, even though it wasn’t particularly impressive. I don’t know why, but I wanted Monica’s approval for some reason.
And don’t say a word.
I didn’t, I didn’t even have to.
You should have a couch down here or something-.
Shut the hell up.
“This is nice,” she said, turning back to me with a smile. “The academy would tell us stories, horror stories, about heroes keeping trophies or crap like that. But this… this is you.”
“Thanks. And it’s… actually kind of true about the trophies. I mean, I’ve seen the Commander’s sanctum and that’s practically a gallery-.”
“You’ve been in-?” she started, incredulous, and then stopped when I nodded. “I didn’t mean like weapons and armor. I mean, actual trophies.”
I caught my mouth before it could drop. The more I learned about the academy, the more I wanted to just go find Royal Pain and punch her in the face. It was caveman-like of me, I knew it, but I was still thoroughly convinced a few extra punches in her face would at least make me feel a little better, and probably make Monica feel better too.
“No, nothing like that,” I assured her, and nodded my head at a recent addition to the top shelf. Three silver bullets, ones I picked off the pavement after my fight.
“From Son of Silver? I think I remember something we agreed about not being masochists,” she accused lightly, crossing her arms.
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” I said without thinking, and then nearly hit myself. Monica had probably used that phrase, or had been forced to use it, when she had been working at the academy. “Sorry,” I added quickly. She had looked momentarily stricken, but waved it off, turning to look at one of my spare helmets.
She gave a yelp as Trixie unexpectedly oozed out from underneath, jumping backwards right into me. I steadied her, my arms encircling her, feeling unexpectedly strong right then for no reason I could even name. She looked over at Trixie and gave a bit of an embarrassed laugh, and I let her go quickly, not wanting to overstep any bounds. Or go too far.
Pluh-leeze! If anything you haven’t got far enou-.
“You have a cat,” Monica said as Trixie padded to the edge of the table. Smiling, she reached down to let her sniff her fingers.
“Yeah, that’s Trixie,” I said, eyeing the feline warily. I was wondering if she was planning to bite Monica or something equally rude.
“I would have pegged you for a rottweiler, or German Shepard, or pit bull or something. Instead you have this-.” Trixie chose that moment to roll over on her back and put her paws up in a pose of nearly lethal cuteness. “Adorable little kitty cat!” She reached out to ruffle up her fur and scratch her head.
“Yeah. She kind of picked me. I got roped into going into an animal shelter this one time…”
Monica looked up at me with a barely suppressed smile and a raised eyebrow.
“It’s a long story.”
“Ok, if you say so,” she said, and Trixie rolled back up and stretched carefully, showing sharp teeth and claws. She padded over between the two of us on the table and sat down regally, looking back and forth between us.
“Mrow,” she announced, taking a long look at Monica, and then, I swear, nodding at me in approval. “Rorw, mrew, mao!”
See, even your freaking cat-.
For the love of God, shut the fuck up!
My brain went entirely silent.
“Cute cat,” Monica said with a smile, and then glanced up at the silver bullets again as Trixie settled down for a serious washing after such strenuous activity. “Warren, how did you keep Son of Silver from shooting you more than that? I’ve never heard of anyone getting away alive once he had set his sights on them. At least, when he’s being serious”
“There was this judo throw I learned from Torque, remember him from last summer? The car guy? I figured Son of Silver couldn’t fire if he were face down on the pavement,” I said, trying to keep my tone casual.
That fight had been terrifying, and I knew either Son of Silver or Cutter could have killed me several times, if that had been their intention. A headshot would have been enough from Son of Silver, and Cutter just would have had to have teleported me straight up as far as she could see and let me drop. There were limits, even for indestructibility. Possibly I could have survived, but I definitely wouldn’t have bet on it.
“Show me,” Monica commanded, standing up suddenly. “That probably wouldn’t hurt for me to know.”
“The throw? Uh, sure,” I said with a shrug. We weren’t exactly on a date or anything, and it had been my fault bringing up last week’s fight. And we were in the sanctum, which was rather conductive to being a hero. I was almost expecting to hear a snarky comment from my brain about being a mood-killer, but it was being thankfully silent.
We wrestled the exercise mats out from the closet so we wouldn’t be tumbling on the floor, and I started to show Monica the tug on the wrist, followed with a kind of assisted push that turned a deadly lunge into a nose-first dive on the floor for one’s assailant.
“It doesn’t look too hard,” she commented with a bit of irony, and I gave a self-deprecating smile.
“I worked on this for at least a week before I could even figure out what I was doing. It took me another two before I really got it to the automatic stage,” I confessed, and Monica nodded.
“Ok, good to know the learning curve. Let’s do this,” she said, and reached out for her first attempt. Nearly an hour and forty-five minutes later, she was sweat-soaked and bruised, though she showed not the slightest sign of discomfort. But I knew thunking the ground at some of those angles she had landed was going to leave a mark.
“You’re doing fine,” I was saying, as Monica lined up for another attempt.
She hadn’t made a single complaint at my teaching technique, even though I knew I wasn’t precisely the best at this. The best way I knew how to do this was by endless repetition until it clicked. There was probably a better way, but that was the way I knew. Though Monica had powered up at least three times in frustration, it wasn’t for more than a split-second, usually when it was seriously time for a break.
“I think I almost got it, I nearly had you tripped there last time,” Monica said, shoving her hair out of her face with both hands and putting it back in its tie, her expression determinedly neutral.
“You’re not going to hate me for doing this to you, are you?” I asked with a bit of concern. Inviting her over to my house and then basically putting her through the wringer wasn’t exactly how I wanted this evening to go. I wasn’t precisely sure how I had wanted the evening to go, but this wasn’t exactly it.
“No,” she said simply. “I did ask for this. And I might be good at running away and hiding, but I can’t fight worth a crap. If you can teach your friend to fight, I can at least learn a little something. How much time do we have?”
I checked the clock on the table. Only eight fifteen.
“With Zack, about another forty-five minutes,” I said with a smile.
“Ok,” she sighed. “A few more passes and I better get going.”
She heaved herself up out of her chair and took her stance opposite me. I lunged at her like I had the last dozen times, watching her hands as she tried to grab for my wrist. This time she actually succeeded in getting a hand on me, but with careless precision, her fingers slid into position for the nerve-pinch hold Tobias had used on me. I barely clenched my teeth on a scream as I collapsed in pain.
I was swearing creatively in Mandarin as Monica pulled her hand back quickly, and knelt on the floor next to me. The pain was gone the instant she pulled her hand away, and I took a couple deep breaths to clear my head.
“I’m so sorry, I got frustrated, and I shouldn’t have done that. I know what hurts, and I’m sorry,” she said quickly, almost babbling, helping me back to my feet. I shook my head slightly, rubbing my wrist with my other hand.
“You didn’t know. Hey, you got the throw though,” I said with a ghost of a smile, trying to shrug it off. Monica only looked at me very seriously, and gently captured my injured arm. I froze for a second, the mood between us suddenly shifting into something much different.
“Warren, I’m sorry,” she said solemnly.
Then she slowly lifted up my arm and softly kissed the inside of my wrist, in a gesture of apology and also showing her fearlessness. I could burn her so easily this way, as easily as she had hurt me, and yet she didn’t show any hesitation. It was an extraordinarily intimate touch for me, I felt my pulse quicken and my breath get ragged, my temperature spiking as I struggled for control. It was such a vulnerable moment, fragile, for both of us.
“Monica, you don’t know what that’s doing to me,” I hissed, trying to warn her. I didn’t want her to stop, but I took another deep breath and gently pulled her head up before I could burst into flames.
“Yes I do,” she responded.
It wasn’t like there were swelling violins, time stopping, birds breaking into song or anything like that, but suddenly it was there, strong and bright and blindingly obvious. I reached out with my other hand, clasping her to me, and I felt something break in my chest. She was looking up at me, her dark eyes understanding and wanting, and everything started to fall into place.
I love her, I thought simply, and realized it wasn’t so hard at all to think that. We were kissing suddenly; before I could say anything, heat starting to build hard in my hands. I needed to pull away before I burned her, but the softness, strength, and passion in the kiss were a much more serious distraction. I need to tell her… I thought vaguely.
“Warren, what the hell, man?” I heard someone yell behind me. Monica and I whirled around, still caught up in each other’s arms, to see who had found us out, both of our hearts pounding with fear.
Standing in the doorway, his face incredulous and angry, was Zack.