We both froze, not sure what we could do or say. He makes the same New Year’s resolution for three years in a row, and he has to pick right now to start being on time? I thought incredulously. And pointlessly. It was my own damn fault for leaving the sanctum door open.
“Zack-,” I started, and then took a deep breath. “This is Monica Keller, my girlfriend.”
Zack gaped at me, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Monica smothering a look of astonishment. We hadn’t exactly declared ourselves to be properly dating or anything so far, and it had obviously surprised her that I had taken that step right now. That made two of us.
“Girlfriend?” Zack said, slackly astonished.
“Yes,” Monica said quickly, straightening slightly in my grasp.
“When did-? Where-? How-? What-?” he got out.
“I was sent here to spy right after we… fought the first time. Seeing how long heroes took to get to the scenes of crimes, things like that. I was working as an EMT,” Monica said softly. “Then last June, I was assigned a new partner,” Monica explained. Zack was starting to glow, more obvious in the dimness of the stairwell than it would have been in the main room, but a sure sign he was quite angry enough to have lost control of his powers.
“Why didn’t you tell us? Or somebody?” Zack demanded of me. Monica and I looked at each other, trying to figure out the best way, if there was one, of explaining the situation.
“I figured out what she was doing-.” Zack’s glowing was getting perceptively brighter. “And I thought I could help out by messing it up. I couldn’t take her into the Bureau without her fighting and blowing both of our covers.”
“And I didn’t want to risk fighting him, so I went along with it,” Monica added. Zack was looking back and forth between us, not quite ready to believe.
“The Bureau had kinda screwed up with getting spies into the academy, and I thought I could do better on my own,” I added. Monica nodded in agreement, watching Zack warily.
“Then what?” he asked slowly, starting to look a little more thoughtful than angry.
“I… wanted out. I was helping him as Phoenix,” Monica explained. “I was trying to tell him how I had… gotten into this whole thing. He confronted me about it, last August. He pointed out… how I had been tricked. I had a breakdown, went a little crazy. He called the Peacemaker to help me.”
It was like a switch had been turned, because Zack’s expression went from angry to sudden, profound understanding at the mention of my mom’s superhero name. That thoroughly startled me, because as far as I knew, Zack had only seen her when he was over at my house. He hadn’t seen her professionally… had he?
If he had, she certainly wouldn’t tell you, you know, my brain pointed out. Patient confidentiality and all that.
“Seriously?” he asked her, and she nodded slowly, looking at him curiously.
“She’s been helping me,” I added quickly. “Against Hammerfist, the Green Crow, Glacier Fang, Aeon Wasp, Shimmerling…”
“Wait… She’s ‘Phoenix’s Shadow?’” he asked, and got nods from both of us in return.
“For about a half year now,” Monica confirmed.
“Dude…” Zack said slowly. “Hey, that’s where you got stuff about the academy, right?” We both nodded, and I resolved to never underestimate Zack again.
“Yes, I was trying to help you, all of you. I just wasn’t sure-.”
“We didn’t know how much we could give the Bureau without them figuring out where it was coming from,” I finished.
Zack just nodded a bit, and crossed his arms, seemingly waiting.
“I’m sorry Zack,” Monica said finally, and I let her go as she crossed the floor to stand in front of him. He towered over her, very bright in the relative dimness of the stairwell. “I just… didn’t really think I had a choice at the time. If I didn’t try to get rid of you, worse things would happen to me. We had to, or we would have ended up like Speed, Lash, and Penny.”
“Sucks to be you,” Zack said pointedly.
“Kind of did. I don’t know what I can do to make it up to you though,” she said, looking up at him. I couldn’t have imagined what it was like to be in Zack’s place right now. He was an easygoing guy, but enough to forgive someone who had attacked him? Particularly when he had found her with someone he thought was his friend.
I am his friend still, I hope.
Zack only seemed to be waiting, thinking, and I think both Monica and I forgot to breathe for a while.
“You seriously talked with the Peacemaker?” he asked, and Monica nodded. There was another tense moment, and then Zack suddenly seemed to relax.
“Ok,” he said, abruptly stopped glowing, and sat down in a nearby chair.
Somehow I was expecting more yelling… I thought idly.
“Ok?” Monica asked, confused.
“Ok,” he repeated. “Look, I’m stupid sometimes, but I’m not dumb. I’m pretty sure Warren’s not being mind-melded or something. And his mom’s upstairs, and she knows frickin’ everything about good and evil. So… if you’re here, you’re not evil. And Warren’s my bro, and I know he wouldn’t dis his friends so… you must got some kind of good reason for going over to the Light Side. And it’s kinda obvious why Warren didn’t want to tell us.”
Huh… that’s the best, most succinct speech I’ve ever heard out of Zack… ever. And I was amazed he hadn’t decided to start yelling at me. Or worse.
“Thanks,” Monica said finally, and stepped away. I could see she was shaking, and I reached out and took her hand. Standing up to someone she had hurt had to have taken courage, particularly because she had probably been expecting to get punched in the face for her trouble.
“Ok, here’s my thing. You guys are obviously stupid for each other. That’s cool. You’re trying to help us out, and help Warren out. Also cool. Just… if you really want to be a hero, do your own damn thing and stop hiding behind Warren,” Zack said finally.
“The academy will kill me,” Monica protested.
“Then I guess you really don’t want to be a hero. All heroes have people that want to kill them.”
“Not like the academy-.”
“Dude, the academy does want to kill us. So don’t whine about it. Put up or shut up,” he said plainly.
Monica gaped at him for a second and I came up behind her to put my other hand on her shoulder. I hated to admit it, but Zack was right. Monica had helped me. She had put her life on the line, she had gotten herself bruised and cut in fights, she had used her powers and risked her freedom in putting criminals behind bars, but it was always with me. I had never known her to do it on her own. I didn’t think less of her because of it; she had a bunch of personal and perfectly legitimate reasons to be deathly afraid if someone caught her alone, in costume or out, using her powers. But if she started doing heroics on her own, or at least starting them on her own, it would go a lot towards showing she really meant to reform. If not to herself, at least to the public and the Bureau.
“I…” she started, and then trailed off, hanging her head. Zack had managed to hit a pretty sore spot, and I’m sure it wasn’t entirely by accident. I was torn between wanting to support my girlfriend or my teammate, and clenched my jaw shut to keep from saying something equally stupid to both.
Zack looked a little uncomfortable at that, and then finally looked me in the face for the first time.
“I gotta talk to Warren,” he said. Monica nodded and turned to go, but I pulled her around to face me, still holding onto her hand.
“I love you,” I whispered. She blinked at me in astonishment and then smiled brilliantly. There were probably more dramatic and appropriate times to break out such a declaration, but most of them involved someone’s imminent demise. I wasn’t going to try to wait so long, or I’d end up losing my nerve. I wanted her to know and to know now.
“I love you too,” she whispered back, and kissed me quickly.
“I’ll call you later,” I said softly. Blushing, she finally turned away and walked upstairs, not looking back at either Zack or I. Zack stared at the stairwell for a second before shaking his head.
“Yeah, I thought so,” he muttered.
“Thought what?” I asked.
“I thought you had a girlfriend,” he said. “I mean, you’d go staring off into space and stuff, kinda like Ethan does when he’s thinking about Chloe.”
I very much thought I did not stare into space dreamily, but wasn’t going to contradict him.
“You guys were looking at each other the way Magenta and I do,” he added, and caught my eye again. “People don’t really get why we’re together either.”
“Thanks,” I said finally.
“Don’t get me wrong man, I think it sucks hardcore that of all the frickin’ millions of girls out there who want to be your girlfriend, you had to pick her. But you’re my bro. You trust her, and she trusts her,” he jerked his head over to Mom’s side of the sanctum. “So I guess I gotta trust that you know what you’re doin’.”
“So are you…?”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut. Magenta’d go A-1 ballistic, Will’d give you the hurt puppy-dog eyes ‘bout why you didn’t tell him, Layla’d be all nice and offended, and Ethan’d probably crap his pants,” he said quickly, laughing a little. I had no trouble imagining any of that.
“So… are you actually gonna tell us anytime soon, or just going to wait for stuff to happen?” he asked.
“She can’t go public until the academy is gone,” I explained. Zack shook his head.
“Tall order, man,” he said, with an odd rising of his eyebrow. I didn’t like the implications there. What was she supposed to do? Take down the academy single-handedly to prove herself?
Well, that’d certainly put a lot in the good side of her karma, maybe even just enough to halfway balance the people she’s tortured over the years…Damn. Damn, damn, damn!
“I know,” I said.
I felt something for Monica I hadn’t felt for any other person, but no matter how it made me feel, neither of us had forgotten that she had spent several years as a full-fledged villain doing villainous acts. Even if most of it had been contained within the academy, it mitigated nothing. If she ever wanted to work as a Bureau-sanctioned superhero, she would need a lot more good karma than she had now. And we both knew it. I just hated having it pointed out.
“Yeah, I guess you do know. Look, are we going to get to the part where you kick my ass all around the sanctum tonight or what? If I get Guinea Pig Kung-Fued again I swear I’m going to do something that’s gonna get me bit,” he said at last, abruptly changing the subject.
I gave into the inevitable of Zack’s firm need to focus on the mundane and normal, and dropped into my fighting stance.
Later that night
After Zack left, I probably set a new world record for dialing a phone number.
“So, you’re still alive?” she said in greeting.
“Barely. I let him get in a few cheap shots. I owe him that for starters. He promised he wouldn’t say anything,” I said quickly.
“You have good friends,” Monica said, her voice slightly shaky over the phone.
“Yeah. He’s pretty good about keeping stuff to himself when he wants to,” I tried to reassure her. And me.
“I know, I know. I wish…” she said, and then stopped. “I wish I could get to know them.”
“Me too,” I said. I had a sneaking suspicion she’d get along great with Magenta, once they got past the whole supervillain thing. “Zack thinks you need to take down the academy first.”
I had meant it as a kind of joke, but I heard Monica make a very odd noise, a kind of strangled choke.
“I know. I just got horrible grades in Villainous Schemes and Plots, so it’s a little hard to think about taking everything down,” she said softly.
“Maybe because you never had a goal you really wanted to accomplish before,” I tried to say lightly.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said thoughtfully, and trailed off into silence.
“I didn’t really mean for tonight to go this way,” I apologized, as the silence grew to awkward lengths.
“Me either, but I’m kind of glad it did,” she said, her tone much brighter.
“I meant what I said. I would have said it earlier but-.”
“We got interrupted. Find sometime where we won’t get interrupted and tell me again. I won’t mind,” she said, and I could tell she was smiling.
“I’ll do that,” I said warmly.
I was just hanging up the phone when Mom came walking down the stairs.
“I saw them both out,” she said, and I throttled down a momentary surge of anger. If she had known Zack was coming, she could have stopped him and-.
And what? Someone was going to find out sooner or later, and it looks like it was better Zack than anyone else. She must have thought you could handle it.
I shoved away another surge of resentment that she would have sprung something like this on me, and took a few calming breaths.
Mom put a lot on the line with not telling the Bureau about Monica in the first place. She has the right to-.
Mess up your love life?
I growled mentally, and Mom was looking at me rather frankly. She was probably getting all of this emotionally loud and clear, but she didn’t look the tiniest bit repentant.
“I gave Zack just a few seconds to think all of this through logically. And that was all he needed. I think you’re really going to need all of your friends standing by you when this finally all comes to light, and Zack honestly deserves to be the first to know,” she said.
That was true but…
“You were using your powers on him?” I asked instead. It normally wasn’t like her to push her abilities on the unwitting unless it was some kind of life-or-death emergency.
She looked at the floor for a second, then crossed to me and put her hands on my shoulders, locking her eyes with mine.
“We have to be careful Warren. This could break us, or someone else, if we aren’t careful. Pay attention to your friends, and to her. I don’t think they’ll lead you wrong,” she said firmly, and then dropped her eyes.
“Mom? If you’re going to give advice, could you make it less cryptic?” I asked. She laughed a little and shook her head.
“Darling, all good advice is cryptic.”
Zack kept his word. If he hadn’t, I’m sure I would have been the first to know about it with some kind of yelling or fist to the face. It wasn’t like Mom’s powers would have kept him from turning us in if he really wanted to do it, not unless she used them to an extent that I knew she was unwilling to go.
I unfortunately didn’t have a lot of time to get into any kind of in-depth discussion about it. Partially it was because Zack liked in-depth discussions about as much as he liked homework, and partially the spring thaw meant an upswing in supervillainy. Even most supervillains preferred to attack in nice weather.
Son of Silver did not make a return trip to Maxville, nor did any other of the Crew, or anyone else we could positively identify as being from the academy. Monica was of the opinion that having tested their theories, they wouldn’t be back until they were completely ready. On the upside at least it meant they still were swallowing her continued loyalty. My friends were still clueless, but the Bureau was ominously silent about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have endless free time to go find the academy masterminds and get the master plan out of them. At this point, it was more of a challenge just to keep my own life on track.
April before graduation
Monica and I slid into the ambulance from opposite sides, after we had managed to rescue a half-dozen club-goers from the clutches of the Hip-Hip Kiddo. His power was to make people dance, for which I was profoundly grateful we had fought him in the back alley and not on the street. I knew not all supervillains had class, but I didn’t know I’d be suffering semi-permanent mental trauma from being attacked by a bunch of clubbers in mini-skirts being forced to do a Rockette kick-line.
“Setting his shoes on fire was really the only logical way to deal with him,” she was saying.
“Yeah, but when he starting bawling that I had destroyed the source of his power, I almost felt sorry for him.”
“But what about when he got the girl with the steel-toed combat boots to kick you right in the-.”
“He deserved what he got coming to him,” I said firmly. Even thinking about where that kick had landed hurt.
Monica laughed heartily, and after a second, I joined her. I was laughing a lot more nowadays, enough so that I was having to forcibly curb myself in my friends’ company. Magenta had made a few more comments about “happy, skippy Warren,” that I didn’t want her to follow up on.
We lapsed into silence for a while, listening a bit to the police scanner, snickering a little when the limping Hip-Hip Kiddo, his neon red and orange costume scorched, was escorted past the mostly-concealed ambulance to a squad car. Someone came by a moment later bearing a pair of melted sneakers in a plastic bag, and we both had to look away to keep from laughing loud enough to startle the police. The upside about using the ambulance to get to crime scenes was we could park very close and watch the aftermath with total impunity. People just tended to ignore it as part of the city scenery.
“You said you were going to tell me again sometime,” Monica asked enigmatically after a few minutes.
“Tell you what?”
“What you said in your sanctum, back in January,” she clarified with a somewhat shy smile.
“That I love you?” I asked. It was damn surprising how easy that was to say. I wasn’t one to break out passionate declarations every few minutes, but if she wanted to hear it, I was more than happy to say it. Monica didn’t exactly go into the coo-faced melting routine the fan girls went into whenever I said anything mildly positive about them, but she smiled back at me with a sincerity to make all of them look like poseurs.
“Yeah, that,” she said. Then she leaned over to my side of the ambulance and kissed me. I wasn’t exactly used to getting ambushed that way, but I figured I could get used to it in a hurry. The difference between her and the fan girls that tried to sneak a kiss in when I was pulling them out of danger was that I actually wanted Monica to kiss me.
We weren’t all over each other all the time, like my friends were upon occasion. Mostly it was because of privacy issues, but it seemed to make each time we could steal a few moments twice as sweet.
My hands were sliding through her hair, and at some point before coherent though ceased, I thought that if there were some kind of crisis right now, I’d fireball the damn radio. I wasn’t sure if I was breathing or not, but with the feel of her lips on mine, and whatever the hell she was doing with her tongue… I came back to myself with a start when I smelled something scorching.
I jerked back from her so hard I must have pulled some muscles, and watched in kind of horrified fascination as she calmly covered her hands with the cuff of her shirt and patted out the smoldering parts of her hair. I was just trying to bring my temperature, and a few other things, back under control.
“Well, I guess I don’t have to ask if you liked that,” she said with an arched brow. I swallowed hard in embarrassment.
“Don’t apologize,” she cut in, and leaned in again. I would have tried to move further back, but unfortunately my back was against the wall, in more ways than one. I had nearly lost control and burned her, and I shouldn’t be wanting to-.
She reached up and placed two fingers on my temple, the same gesture she used to invoke her powers on me to get me out of my healing trance. It was a subtle threat, and also a reminder to keep control. It was also kind of…You are a sick puppy, you know that, right?
Shut up, I’m ignoring you.
“Warren, I love you,” she said softly. “And I know when your friends are ready… we probably won’t see each other very often. It’s going to take time… and I don’t know when we’re going to be able to fight together. Just… consider this motivation.”
I was going to ask “motivation for what?” when she kissed me again. She kept her fingers pressed to my temple, a potent reminder to keep my fire under control, and I reined back my temperature enough to prolong the kiss until I had to surface to breathe.
“Ok, I’m motivated,” I said a little breathlessly as she finally retreated to her side of the ambulance. I had to blink a few times to get myself back in focus.
“I just don’t want you to forget me when you join the Boy Scouts of Maxville,” she said a little impishly. I cracked a smile as I imaged Layla’s reaction to that potential group name.
“My memory’s not that bad,” I pointed out, capturing her hand. For a moment she looked oddly sad, then smiled again.
“I’m not going to be able to make the graduation party, but I’ll try to keep a lookout in case any party-crashers show up,” she said lightly.
“Thanks,” I said, and ran my fingers lightly over her palm. She got that oddly introspective look on her face again.
“Monica? You know I’m here for you, whatever you need,” I said. That thoughtful look vanished into surprise.
“I know, it’s just-.”
“Look, I know Zack tried to lay everything at your feet, but you don’t have to try to go at this alone,” I said quickly. I had had a sneaking suspicion that ever since Zack had intimated that Monica should be the one to take down the academy, she had been hunting for a way to do it herself. Having a guilt trip like that laid down by one of her former victims had hit her pretty hard. And I had an idea that something like tonight might be a good-bye, if I let her.
“I won’t,” she said after a long moment, fairly reluctantly, and I felt a faint knot inside me ease.
“You told me not to forget you. You don’t forget me either ok?” I reminded her. “Just because things are changing doesn’t mean we’re changing us.”
She reached out her free hand to me and ran it through my hair, her fingers trailing down my cheek.
“I promise. I won’t forget,” she said with conviction.
Graduation day, Sky High. Finally.
The gym was packed with all my friends’ families, all of them armed with cameras and recorders, most of them dressed in at least a hint of their child’s chosen color. Everyone else was doing that too, but Ethan’s huge family made a very impressive wedge of orange on one side of the bleachers. There was even a certain amount of media attention; both from the school paper as well as the Bureau, who had some internal newspapers and newsletters they published. There had been a few around when I had graduated two years before, but there was a veritable flock of them now.
It was all because of Will, of course. The gang wasn’t even going to get a more normal graduation party, because there was already one planned. There was a citywide celebration every year called the Superheroes’ Ball, where the city showed its appreciation for the superheroes that protected it all year round. No so coincidentally, this was coinciding with Sky High’s graduation this year.
Will was going to be presented with his parents as part of the Stronghold Three (though they weren’t calling themselves that in public), as well as the leader of our group as the new defenders of Maxville. The Commander and Jetstream were going to officially hand over their city’s defense to their son and his group while they continued with larger threats country and world-over. So this meant all of us had to be presented publicly with him. Hence the small swarm of reporters.
“I’m seriously sorry about all this guys. I didn’t know it was going to be such a-.”
“Circus?” Magenta filled it pointedly. Will nodded, sighing.
This also meant that our group would be going last, so that no one else would get buried under the attendant media storm our group was going to cause. Any swelled heads we would have gotten from all of this had been harshly squashed by the director’s warnings a few months ago, and while I knew everyone was excited and proud to finally be able to get out there, they also knew it was going to be very tough.
Will didn’t want to overshadow any of the other seniors either. His powers and heritage was a fluke, but unlike me he had both embraced it and was ready to deal with it.
We paid careful and close attention to all the other groups, not just to be polite, but also because they were our friends and soon-to-be fellow fighters. There was the Rain Forest Alliance; with a group who had each patterned themselves after jungle creatures. Like Jacob, the guy with six arms, dressed himself like a tarantula, or Troy, the guy with acid spit, wore a bombardier beetle costume. I couldn’t fault him really, even though his costume was kind of silly; I dressed like a bird even though my powers had squat to do with flight.
The Illusionists included Rob, the Carbon Copy guy, and Jenny, who could turn herself into a ball, along with others from the Deceiver and Real-Shifter Clubs. Larry, the rock guy, was now president of Earth Club, and his group called themselves the Geogods. There was substantial eye-rolling going on when that name was announced. Hive of One included those who could turn into or have control over insects, while the Iron Six were mostly from Strength Club, including their president who could turn himself into living iron.
I kept catching glances from the gang, mostly smiles and general head nodding. We had, at this point, fought every single person in the senior class during Gauntlet runs. We knew what they could do both alone and as a group, but it was impressive to see them all costumed and named. While we dared not be over-confident, I think all of us were feeling confident enough of this group of new superheroes. I think the academy was going to get a run for its money.
It took at least two hours for the next-to-last group to finally get done, and now it was finally time for my friends to take the stage.
Zack stepped forward first, flashing a cocky grin at his family, his costumed father and sidekick sisters waving back enthusiastically. If I hadn’t known he had found me with Monica a few months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from his behavior. He had been just as casual with me as he had ever been, and hadn’t showed the slightest hesitation in working with me during practice. Zack, I realized, was something of a bigger man than I was.
Slipping behind the provided screen for a quick-change, he emerged from the other side glowing brightly.
“I am Brilliance,” he said, nobly refraining from adding “yo” or “dude” like I’m sure he wanted to.
Unlike me, everyone else had talked about his or her name and costume before graduation, which had culminated in a brainstorming session a month prior. The rest of us had helped Zack think up a new superhero name when even he had reluctantly admitted that using his real name would be kind of dumb.
Zack’s super suit was a truly eye-smarting shade of neon yellow-green, topped with his silver trenchcoat, which had secret pockets for his light bombs and other stuff. For his disguise he wore a pair of wrap-around mirrored shades. He struck a bit of a pose while pictures flashed, and then gave way for Magenta.
She didn’t even look at her family when she took the stage, probably because her brothers and cousins were whooping and hollering so much she was pretending she wasn’t related to them. She emerged from behind the screen in her signature black and purple, a dark purple super suit topped with a short black jacket that hid most of her utility belt. Like Zack, she had taken sunglasses for her disguise, though hers were dark metallic purple rather than mirror-silver.
“I am Violet Cavey,” she said proudly, and did a few quick shifts combined with some of her fighting moves, drawing applause from her family. Cavey, Magenta had informed us, was another word for guinea pig.
“The smart villains will get it and then underestimate me, and the dumb ones will still be trying to figure it out while I’m busy kicking their asses,” she had informed us when she was explaining her name to the rest of the gang. Zack had suggested she do a few of her fighting moves in guinea pig form when she did her name announcement. Magenta asked him if he wanted a bite where the sun doesn’t shine. Zack asked her if she really meant that with a ludicrous waggling of his eyebrows. That was the first time I had seen Magenta speechless.
The applause died away as Ethan mounted the stage, smiling a bit at his swarm of relatives as he slipped behind the screen. Stepping out, his costume was a simple liquid orange super suit with a matching domino mask, his utility belt nearly flat against his body and virtually invisible from its identical hue and material.
“I am Viscosity,” he said a bit loudly, melting and then bouncing himself around the stage like a pinball. He said he made him a bit dizzy, but he had told us he didn’t want a repeat of Power Placement. Just melting in and of itself looked fairly… unimpressive, particularly compared with Will or Layla. Magenta had been entirely understanding about it; adding her fighting moves to her name announcement had been Ethan’s idea. Ethan finally resolidified and took his place with Magenta and Zack as Layla’s name was called.
Layla smiled a bit at her family before finally coming out from behind the screen in the most elaborate costume in our group, well over and above mine. Unlike every other girl so far, Layla’s outfit wasn’t skin-tight. She had loudly and repeatedly over the years rejected the whole “artificial and unrealistic ideal of superhero feminine beauty,” and had refused Spandex or other form-fitting materials on those principles. If Will had been disappointed, he had wisely kept it to himself. Four intense years of working out meant most girls were fairly happy with wearing Spandex, Magenta included. To Zack’s profound relief, Layla hadn’t persuaded Magenta to wear a more conservative costume.
Layla’s outfit was a little like my mom’s, but emerald green with ivy instead of white with feathers, and it was cut and armored so she could actually fight in it. Unlike Ethan’s smaller domino mask, Layla wore a full-face mask in a kind of feminized version of the Green Man (as she had carefully educated us), with her hair loose behind her. She also wore a belt of flowers, its decorativeness disguising the fact it was also Layla’s arsenal. Sturdy ivy vines, thorny roses, small creosote plants, stinging nettles, and even little cacti were intertwined with daisies and other flowers. She had finally ditched the idea of plant capsules a few months ago, for reasons she refused to name, which always involved Will coughing, turning red, and abruptly changing the subject.
Zack had suggested she go with the name “Mother Nature” to go with that outfit, to which Layla had replied tartly that she definitely didn’t feel like someone’s mother and she sure wasn’t going to start now.
“I am the Rose Queen,” she said, her voice sounding fairly impressive behind the mask as her flowers and vines grew and twinned all around her.
She stepped off to loud applause as Will finally walked to the stage. He took two deep breaths and flew out the other side of the screen. During the brainstorming session we’d had for costumes and names, Will had said, with bit of a sigh, that he was bowing to the inevitable in regards to his costume. He was the son of the Commander and Jetstream, and they would all be working together on occasion. He didn’t want to blatantly stand out from them, and there were plenty of times were being easily recognized as their son would be very helpful.
Will’s costume was very similar to his dad’s, red, white, and blue with a white cape. A shield symbol in red and silver proclaimed his superhero name.
“I am Guardian,” Will called, as Boomer, with dramatic timing, dropped the Power Placement car from the ceiling. Still hovering, Will caught it effortlessly with one hand, then crumpled it up as if it were a paper cup and casually (but carefully) tossing it behind him. Larry caught it as wild applause rang out from the Stronghold section of the gym.
Will had taken a name of his own choosing, rather than his parents’ (or at least his dad’s), opting for something protective rather than aggressive. Will just wasn’t as gung-ho as his dad when it came to nearly anything and didn’t want a name to make people think that. Just as well, Will’s dad had an ego the size of his bench press score (though with some justification, to be fair) and I couldn’t see Will acting like that.
As the cheering swelled, I slipped out of my seat and to the stage, quick-changing behind the screen and joining my friends. There was a slight murmur of confusion from some when I appeared, but I also heard a few “It’s Phoenix!” in the kind of squealing fan-girl tones I had come to dread.
The rest of the gang was smothering smirks as I rolled my eyes behind my mask. With coordination wrought of endless practice, Will chivvied us into position for our group pictures. This, at least, he had had a lot of experience with, via his parents. If there was something Will didn’t know about heroic poses, it wasn’t through lack of exposure.
I heard a few disappointed-sounding comments from my fan contingent as I moved to Will’s right, clearly not taking a leadership position. Layla was on his other side, with Magenta next to her and Ethan next to me. Zack, the tallest person in our group, was right behind Will.
“We are the Champions of Justice!” Will called out proudly as the rest of the parents and reporters started snapping pictures.
“Champions of Justice? Seriously?” Magenta asked with a quirked brow. “Will that’s… lame.”
“Very lame,” Zack agreed.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding with the other two. Ethan wasn’t saying anything, which meant he probably didn’t approve, and Layla only had a kind of vaguely encouraging smile on her face, so she wasn’t exactly wild about it.
“Wait, I have a reason!” Will said, forestalling everyone’s dismissal of his latest idea. Magenta waved at him to go on, but was scowling at her list of our potential group names as if they personally offended her.
We had been at this for nearly an hour and a half and still hadn’t come up with anything everyone could agree on. Zack had a few “Brotherhood” names that Layla had lambasted for being sexist. Ethan had a few that were kind of obscure, Layla’s weren’t quite tough enough for us guys, and Magenta and I hadn’t come up with anything useful.
“Ok, so a champion is someone who fights for someone else so they don’t have it. They fight for the weak and oppressed against the cruel and tyrannical. And fighting for justice is just something heroes do,” Will explained, surreptitiously referring to some notes.
Well, let’s just say that despite muttering to the contrary, no one else came up with a better name the rest of the night.
Back in the present
“Dude, we are kind of a mötley crüe,” Zack said through his teeth as our parents flashed pictures.
“Did I hear an umlaut in there? Because if I did…” Magenta said warningly
“Nope, nope, umlaut-free,” Zack said quickly. “Just a motley crew, that’s all…”
I repressed laughter as I kept an appropriately intimidating scowl for the pictures. Most of the other teams had gotten coordinating costumes, or even virtually identical ones except for color or certain accessories. At least most of them had some kind of insignia or color in common. But aside from Zack and Magenta’s vaguely similar themes, the rest of us looked like we had all developed our costumes totally in private. The Champions of Justice had no kind of theme, not at all. We were the most uncoordinated fashion disaster (according to some of the comments I heard) of the year.
Yeah, but just wait until you see us fight, I thought with a bit of satisfaction.
From the slight chaos of the Sky High gym, our newly made superhero team, as well as our superhero parents, descended into the pure chaos of downtown Maxville in what was probably our last trip in one of the flying busses of Sky High.
“It’s going to be great this year, really, I’ve been there before, and they really pulled out all the stops,” Ron Wilson, bus driver, was telling us. He was also attending, but didn’t seem to mind ferrying us kids around. He wasted no opportunity to let people know he had known all of us well before our fame. Or soon-to-be fame for most of us.
“Yeah… all the stops,” Magenta said, giving me an oddly evil smile.
I had noticed Magenta had been honing her wit on me more than usual lately, to which she had responded, when I asked, “Zack asked me to give you a hard time.” Apparently, that was my extended punishment for going out with Monica, like my banter with Magenta had been to pay her back for the Yellowstone incident. I sometimes wondered if Zack wasn’t a little evil himself.
“What the hell now?” I muttered.
“Oh, just the new issue of People came out today,” she said with a brilliant smile. With her sunglasses on she looked a little sinister.
“Yeah, and?” I asked with feigned boredom.
“You won first prize. I think your ‘phans’ stuffed the ballot box, but I really don’t blame them,” she said, reaching into her jacket and pulling out a rolled-up magazine. I unrolled it gingerly, and stared at the glossy cover imprinted with my own costumed face.
Phoenix, Sexiest Superhero Alive! the headline proclaimed. I stared at it, stopping my jaw dropping from a major effort, and had it yanked out of my hands by Magenta before I could set fire to the thing on principle.
“So, I think you’re going to have at least two tons of squealing fangirls here, and for once you’re going to have to deal with them,” she said triumphantly. Everyone else on the bus was desperately trying to cover laughter and smirks as I must have looked about ready to dive out of the window of the bus.
“If you try to run, I’m going haul you over to them and hold you there,” Will said cheerfully.
“Darling, you’ve managed to avoid them all for two years. I think you can spare a couple of hours to pose for pictures and sign autographs,” Mom piped up from the back. The Strongholds were barely containing laughter, and I glared at everyone. I liked being acknowledged as a superhero, but…
“Trust me Phoenix, the fangirls are the least of your worries,” the Commander advised. Jetstream starting laughing next to him, and I sighed in resignation. Being wrestled to the ground by Will and his dad on national television was not the way I wanted to be introduced to our group.
Careful planning had us arriving just after sundown, with huge spotlights marking the entrance to the Maxville Convention Center, the sight of this year’s Superheroes’ Ball. Will’s parents had flown in ahead of us nearly a half-hour ago after we had touched down, but we decided not to. Using Layla’s vines for a harness, Will could easily lift all of us, but it wouldn’t exactly looked particularly dignified to have us all tangled up in vegetation for our first public appearance together. Hence we had taken advantage of the mayor’s use of a limousine.
In theory, with all of Maxville’s superheroes at this party, it should have left the city undefended from the schemes of clever or opportunistic villains. In practicality, anyone crass enough to interrupt the Superheroes’ Ball got their asses handed to them on a platter. It had become another one of those unwritten rules that supervillains flaunted at their peril. I initially hadn’t believed it until Ethan had pulled out the records of supervillain attacks on Maxville. Except for a few occasions back when it had first started, there had never been a villainous attack on Maxville during the Superheroes’ Ball in the last forty years. The academy might be the ones to break that though, so we still all carried our emergency phones.
It was with that in mind that we pulled up outside the convention center, more worried about being presented to the mayor than any possible supervillain attacks tonight. However, it had given all of us a very long look at the thousands of people who had lined the sidewalks for a glimpse of their favorite heroes. And some of us were taking less well than others.
“I’m gonna puke,” Zack announced in a low voice as Will was about to open the door to the red carpet.
“Do that and they’ll catch it on national television,” Magenta warned.
“Maybe they’ll think it’s your power,” Ethan opined.
“Super puke? Aw man…” Zack muttered, swallowing hard a few times. The cheering from outside was reaching a new pitch, and we could hear the loud echoes from the announcer beginning to penetrate the noise.
“…the newest heroes of Maxville, lead by the son of the Commander and Jetstream…” he was staying.
“That’s us guys,” Will said, looking back at everyone and trying to smile encouragingly. Of all of us, Will wasn’t wearing a mask, having taking his parents’ idea of disguising himself in reverse. Zack finally nodded back, and took a deep breath as Will flung open the door dramatically and strode out. The rest of us piled out behind him, blinking a little in the glare.
“Dude, they must have had someone with super-printing skills or something,” Zack muttered. When we could finally see past the glare, we could see the walls of the convention center were festooned with huge, multistory banners of Maxville’s heroes. Will’s parents, Zack and Ethan’s dads, Magenta’s folks, Layla’s mom, and even my mom. And right next to them… was a huge poster of us!
“Didn’t they like take that maybe an hour ago?” he asked rhetorically.
“Now presenting, the Champiooooooooooooooooons of Justice!” the announcer boomed as we all stared in shock.
“Kids, close your mouths, you’re look like you’re catching flies,” Jetstream admonished quietly. Her and the Commander had managed to sneak up on us while we were still gaping at the walls.
Our jaws snapped shut as Will’s parents turned us around to face the TV cameras. There must have been ten times as many reporters and journalists here as there had been at school, which was giving everyone else a rather rude and brutal introduction into what a post-fight media storm looked like. Well, better to get it over with here…
“Citizens of Maxville! We thank you for your continued support over the years. Fighting crime is easy when we know we have such devoted fans!” Jetstream opened grandly, waving and smiling at the crowd. “And now we want you to know a second generation of superheroes stands ready to defend you in your time of need…”
She called each of us forward along with our superhero parent or parents, introducing us and letting the reporters fire away questions. However, the point of the Superheroes’ Ball was to let the fans actually see and talk to their heroes, so the questions were blessedly kept to a minimum. Someone asked the expected question about why I, an independent hero with such a history with the Commander’s son, would be joining his group.
“Guardian needs someone on the ground to help out the team. He’s always got his head in the clouds,” I had said, in a pre-packaged quote that I cringed a bit to say. But it got a quick laugh and kept people from asking anything else leading. The Peacemaker had always shut down reporters who asked questions about her husband, and always made them feel horribly guilty about it too. Best to not let them think they could get the information from me either.
I gave way for Brilliance and Electro-Man, trying to drop back into the crowd of superheroes a bit. I could see a rather intimidatingly large block of red and pink over on one side of the ropes, and I was trying to delay the inevitable as long as a could.
“Check out Warren’s Estrogen Brigade,” Magenta muttered quietly to the rest of us, provoking huge guffaws of laughter from everyone else. “Aren’t you going to go say hello?” she asked with poisonous sweetness.
“In a minute,” I said, teeth clenched.
“Nonsense! No time like the present,” the Commander said heartily, taking my arm in a deceptively gentle iron grip and pulling me along.
He hauled me right in front of the huge crowd of Phoenix Phans, mostly girls, all of them in pink and red, most of the waving posters, including a few of the cover of this week’s People magazine.
My God, there must be hundreds of them… I thought faintly. This was like Valentine’s Day at Medic-Co. Times a thousand.
“Go have fun,” the Commander said with a smile, and gave me a little push. Which translated into me having to do a spin and half flip just to keep from falling on my face. The phans all cheered with an embarrassing excess of enthusiasm, and I spared a glance over my shoulder.
Will was being mobbed with his parents, while the rest of the gang was suddenly finding newly-minted fans. With their superhero parents or parents, everyone was getting a quick, brutally practical lesson in meeting the press. That made me feel a little less singled-out, and I turned back to the wall of red and pink.
“Phoenix!” they all exclaimed in perfect chorus. I froze; I had no idea exactly what to say.
“Uh… hi,” I got out finally.
The subsequent squealing nearly broke my eardrums.
At the end of the two hours, the announcer called out that the superheroes would now be joining the mayor and city officials for dinner, allowing all of us a graceful way of extracting ourselves from our fans.
“Wow Phoenix, I didn’t know lipstick was part of your costume,” Magenta said cheerfully when I rejoined the group.
Frantically I tried to scrub the last of it from my face. While I had gotten mobbed, hugged, and randomly kissed (amongst other things), it hadn’t been too bad. At least all of them had been nice, even if some had been a bit pushy. A few of the artists that had sent me some of my favorite drawings had shown up, and some of the people I had saved, directly or indirectly, had been there too. They were at least less shrill and more gracefully appreciative. However, despite all the pictures I had smiled for, and all the autographs I had signed, I wasn’t going to let my friends know I had enjoyed any of it. I had a reputation to maintain.
“Not doing that again,” I muttered as expected.
“Why? Looked like you were having fun,” Magenta said with a bit of unholy glee.
“If I weren’t indestructible, I’d have hearing loss, and if these lenses in my helmet weren’t photo-sensitive, I’d be blind from the flashbulbs,” I said shortly.
“Hey, same here and I’m not even that popular yet,” she said with a broad smile.
“At least a dozen people grabbed my ass,” I growled.
“It’s very grabbable,” she said with a nod.
“Brilliance, a little help here?” I asked a bit plaintively. The look on Zack’s face made it clear, though, that I wasn’t getting any help from that quarter.
“Nope, you just gotta deal with it man,” he said.
“Great…” I started, and then stopped myself from jumping when my mom put her hand on my shoulder.
“He loved it,” she proclaimed loudly, and Ethan nearly choked beside me.
“Good thing you don’t have a girlfriend, or she’d be jealous, all those girls kissing you,” Layla teased. Mom’s hand tensed slightly on my shoulder, infusing me with a thread of calm so I wouldn’t inadvertently say something or look too horrified. Zack had fallen quiet, but Layla couldn’t notice in the press of people around us. I only gave her a patented scowl as we were finally swept inside the convention center.
A half hour later, I think we were all wishing we had stayed outside. The elaborate dinner with the major and city officials was eight kinds of boring, with improbably-named types of food served in between interminable speeches droning on about the great appreciation the city had for superheroes. Zack had fallen into that kind of slack-faced stupor I knew meant he was asleep with his eyes open, and Ethan nearly fell into his soup once.
“Is it always this bad?” I asked Mom finally. Even the ice sculptures of Maxville’s heroes that were scattered on the tables and melting into amusing shapes weren’t going to distract us from the inherent snore-fest at the podium.
“Sometimes worse,” she said with a smile fixed firmly on her face. “I deal with these all the time. I honestly think they should be banned under the Geneva Convention. There’s a reason we only allow these things once a year.”
“You think I should do that thing I did on the Fourth of July?” I muttered, and had my entire end of the table trying to choke back laughter. That proved to be the last solid laugh we got for the end of the night, as one of the city councilmen stabbed us with a disapproving glare (as much as one can disapproved of a bunch of grown men and women in tights and capes that saved the city on a daily basis).
Yawnaciousness aside, the mayor at least sounded sincere in his appreciation, even if he couldn’t get it across without meandering through half a dozen other political subjects. I decided to see if next year we couldn’t have a fan-only night or something. At least they were mildly entertaining!
It was just after midnight by the time we got home, tired from almost non-stop partying all day long. Everyone’s family wanted to have a quieter little graduation celebration of their own, but we had barely gotten out of our cars and started heading towards our homes when there was a sharp ringing noise from Will’s pocket.
“What the…?” Will said, digging out his new emergency phone. “Yes?”
He listened for a second, and then cupped his hand around the phone.
“Get back into costume guys,” he warned, and listened for another few seconds.No way, not tonight, not right after graduation, not on the night of the Ball…
“There’s trouble downtown,” Will said succinctly as he snapped the phone shut. “Big trouble, downtown.”