Between everything else that was going on, somehow the rest of the gang was attempting to have something resembling a normal life. The Strongholds were actually helping their son buy his own house, Zack and Magenta wrangled all of us into helping them move into their new apartment, and Ethan quietly got himself a condo downtown.
I had gotten myself moved to second shift so there was a fighting chance I’d be halfway awake during most of our emergencies, so I was actually seeing my friends during daylight hours again (and helping with all the subsequent moving). Because of that, I actually noticed something was up when Ethan wanted to have a house-warming party at his place- and Layla said she would cook. I smelled a conspiracy.
Or, as Ethan had said, “We’re going to have a nice night out for once, before everyone gets too busy... for stuff.”
I found that highly suspicious. But I went anyway.
“Guys, I have an announcement to make,” Ethan said abruptly as we were getting ready to eat. Layla had promised us a gourmet vegetarian dinner, and it smelled good enough that even I, a dedicated carnivore, was eager to dig in. We all waited a little impatiently as he stood up and dug something out of his pocket.
“And not only an announcement, but also a request,” he said, dropping a small box on the table. The rest of us stared at it, Layla smugly because she obviously already knew, but Magenta was the first to grasp the implications.
“You’re going to ask Chloe to marry you?” Magenta exclaimed incredulously. Ethan nodded, ducking his head and blushing. The long-distance romance between those two had been blossoming ever since Chloe moved to Maxville, but since Ethan had to be so careful about his secret identity, we hadn’t gotten to see his girlfriend very much. Because she was so smart, and such a good Champion Debater, we danced on eggs around her to avoid even veiled references to our real jobs. She was frighteningly quick to put together clues.
“Yeah…” he said, lifting his head and beaming at us. “But I need you guys’ permission to reveal our secret identities to her. All of ours. Because I’m going to have to tell her mine, and she’ll figure out the rest of it eventually.”
Well, there were plenty of cases where superheroes had married citizens and then never revealed their secret identities, but there were also plenty of cases where those ended in tragedy as well. And with a girl as smart as Chloe, we’d be much better off just telling her in the first place. We all started nodding slowly.
“Sure Ethan, yeah. That’s fine. I mean, she’s practically one of us anyway. She knows more about superheroes than anyone except you,” Will pointed out.
“Depends on who wins that day,” Ethan said mysteriously. “Um… Layla I hope you won’t mind if we delay dinner for a bit.”
“You’re going to propose now?” she exclaimed.
“I… I wanted to let her know what she’s getting herself into before she says anything,” he explained a little uncertainly.
“Totally understandable. But I think she’ll just think it’s cool,” Will opined, smiling broadly.
“So, lemme see!” Magenta demanded, pointing at the box. Ethan obediently forked it over, and Magenta and Layla opened it to exclaim over the ring. It was a fire opal bracketed by two small diamonds, set in a platinum band. Zack looked at it, wide-eyed, and then abruptly dragged Ethan off into a corner, presumably to talk about how much that cost him. Magenta wasn’t going to settle for anything less, not after having seen that. I think Ethan must have been hitting the freelance Champion Debate tables to get the extra cash to buy that.
In less than ten minutes, Chloe finally showed up from work, and we were all half-marveling and half-goggling at Ethan’s careful planning. Ethan practically pounced on her at the door and dragged her into the living room. We all had ringside seats to this little drama; as he positioned her in front of us, then dramatically fell to one knee. Chloe’s eyes went wide as he knelt; she obviously hadn’t been expecting this.
Zack was stifling snickers, but Will was actually starting to look nervous. Clearly Will had gotten the clue first. I idly placed bets with myself as to when Will would start panicking and looking for a way to top this proposal. Hopefully it wouldn’t involve something at a football stadium.
“Chloe… I love you very much. I think I have from the first time we met in Yellowstone. And it would mean the world to me if you would do me the honor of becoming my wife.” Chloe’s jaw dropped and she looked about ready to say something. Ethan quickly bounded to his feet and stretched up to place a finger over her mouth.
“But before you say or decide anything, I have to let you know something about me, so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.” And with that he took a deep breath, and melted.
“Ethan?” she cried, dropping to her knees beside his puddle-form. She glanced back up at us all, took in the shit-eating grins we all had plastered on our faces, and started to get suspicious. Ethan resolidified and stood in front of her, looking a little scared. You could practically see the wheels turning in Chloe’s head as a few hundred odd clues suddenly fit together.
“Viscosity!” she exclaimed, pointing at him, and he nodded, grinning. She turned to slowly look at the rest of us. Viscosity worked in a group; she would know that, so now she just had to figure out who was who out of costume. Will shrugged and flew up a bit from his seat.
“Guardian,” she said, and he smiled sheepishly, grounding himself. Layla was next in line, and she extended the ivy-bracelet she wore on her arm to arc across the room.
“Rose Queen.” Magenta was next, rolled her eyes, and shifted.
“Violet Cavey!” she said with a smile. Zack was after her, and glowed a bit. It was hard to see in the light, and Ethan turned off the overheads so Zack’s yellow-green glow was more visible.
“Brilliance!” I was last, and powered up one hand, my flames illuminating my face in the dark.
“Phoenix,” she said to me, and I nodded as Ethan flipped the lights back on. “You’re the Champions! And you… couldn’t tell me, right?” The last was to Ethan, and he shook his head slowly.
“It’s dangerous, and I wanted you to know before you said anything-.”
“Don’t be silly, I could hardly love you any less now that I know you’re a superhero! Where’s the ring?” she demanded, her eyes a little wet, smiling brilliantly. Ethan tried to recover his equilibrium, and pulled out the ring. Dropping to one knee again, he lifted up the open box.
“Chloe, will you marry me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said simply, and then lifted him off of his feet for a passionate kiss.
The rest of us whooped and hollered. Maybe it was a little childish, but it had taken Ethan a lot of courage to get together with Chloe in the first place, and they were really well suited for each other. And maybe now the other two couples in our group would stop stalling. Finally.
Eventually Chloe put Ethan down, and got a very mischievous expression on her face.
“I almost hate to tell you this, but… I’ve known for months,” she told him. Ethan’s face fell, and the rest of us nearly died laughing. “And honey, that Spandex suit doesn’t hide much.”
Ethan turned as red as a tomato, and Zack nearly stopped breathing he was laughing so hard. Layla attempted to save Zack’s life and Ethan’s dignity by announcing dinner, even as Will got a faint deer-in-the-headlights look. Luckily he managed to restrain himself until Layla went to go get rolls before shooting me a panic-filled glance.
“Yeah, this was a big hint,” I said quickly as he started to lean over. He swallowed quickly and took a deep breath. Citizens usually waited a lot longer to get married, but it wasn’t unusual for heroes to get hitched right out of high school. We were in a high-risk profession, and if you waited too long… well, there might not be a second generation of superheroes.
So Ethan’s proposal didn’t really shock me at all. Seeing him together with Chloe was actually kind of cool. He had been a lot more low-key than Will or Zack, but he had been really mature about the whole thing. I honestly expected Zack’s proposal (once he got around to it) to go something like this.
“Hey Magenta, I got this awesome plastic ring out of this machine. Will ya marry me?”
“Sure. But I’m not wearing any stupid dress.”
“I’ll get Will to fly us to Vegas or something.”
We’d probably find out after some weekend, “And oh yeah, we got married on Saturday.” Layla and Will though… I shuddered internally. Layla struck me as the traditional type, at least when it came to something like that. And elaborate superhero weddings were such a target for supervillain attacks; I wouldn’t even want to think about it.
Shortly after Ethan’s engagement, the other shoe dropped. Academy teams began popping up all over the world, hell-bent on maximum destruction. We watched in fascinated horror as groups of academy-trained supervillains clashed in vicious battles with heroes across the world. Maxville wasn’t immune either, but we weren’t getting hammered as hard. At least not by academy villains. All the other villains seemed to think of this as some kind of free-for-all, and joined in.
And it wasn’t just the overt ones either. Layla and Will uncovered and defeated a guy who was going to raise radioactive sludge monsters from the landfill, catching him at their cover job and doing a citizen’s arrest before he could get very far. Magenta and Zack had discovered a supervillain plot to spike the water of Maxville with nanobots that would have turned the population into mindless slaves. The villain in question tried to use Glitterdust as a test-run, and Zack had objected strenuously once he had caught the guy sneaking into the concession stand. Magenta literally sniffed him out while Zack gleefully shorted out the nanobot-tainted tanks of pop syrup.
Some of them were more personal. I got a call from Tobias one afternoon letting him know there had been an attempt on the Battle estate. Everyone had been gone except for Thomas and the staff, and Tobias had been certain Thomas was the object of the attack.
"They tried to use technopaths to get past the house security," he had said smugly. Smugly because the Battle estate dated back to the Dark Ages, and half of its defenses were purely physical. Apparently there had been a mildly amusing interlude where they plucked the invaders out of the moat. That had been the only amusing thing about it though. They hadn't gotten through, but they had still been willing to go after a twelve year-old child. The good part was only one of them had escaped; two more languished in jail right now.
The little victories like that helped keep our spirits up, because our friends and fellow superheroes were getting hammered. The Bureau kept a running tally of who was hurt, a lot like how professional sports had an injured reserve list. But there was a lot more at stake here than just the loss of a game. Citizens could die, buildings could crumble, things could be stolen, and power plants explode because Scarlet Tiger had a broken leg, or Starlight needed to be thawed and recover from hypothermia.
No one had died yet, that we knew of at least. It wasn’t through lack of trying, but so far the heroes had been careful. Nobody had to be told the consequences to trying to beard the dragon in his lair to try to stop this for good. Attempting to stop this madness at its source would only result in a lot of dead bodies. Unfortunately, we were the only ones so far to capture any known member of the academy, and Skybolt’s continued catatonia didn’t exactly give the Bureau or us anything to work with. Our insiders had gone mostly quiet, for reasons they didn’t want to tell the Bureau (or they didn’t want to tell us), so we just had to deal with the blows as they came.
One month later, Sixth and Main, ambulance 657
Monica had moved with me to the afternoon shift, disregarding the increased danger as she had Coop’s knowing smirks and some of the other girls’ poisonous glances. It was her decision to make, not mine, and I hadn’t argued against it. I didn’t want to lose the only real place we had any privacy to talk.
My own house was out; everyone else was still getting their sanctums built, so we were still meeting in mine. Most public places were too risky. We could have gone to Monica’s apartment, but that would have been too much of a temptation for both of us. Neither of us was ignorant of where we wanted this to go eventually, but things could have gone too far, too fast if we weren’t careful. It was frustrating to have to sneak around so damn much, and more than once I had nearly talked myself into doing something stupid. Nearly. The fact that I was still living in the same fifty-mile radius as my mom helped with my self-control.
“I just got a heads-up in my latest communiqué. The Crew is hitting Maxville First National Bank tomorrow at dusk,” she said without preamble as we parked, snapping me abruptly out of my woolgathering.
I stared at her for a second, stunned. Fear clutched me for a second as my mine ran to the first obviously conclusion.
“Did they tell you to-?”
“No,” she said instantly, shaking her head. “They actually told me specifically to stand down and observe.” She rolled her eyes a little. “If I still actually cared about them, I might be annoyed about not getting any action.”
I snorted in half amusement, half relief at that.
“They’re going to be outnumbered though,” I pointed out, raising an eyebrow. With Monica here and Skybolt still in Metroplex, not to mention attacking us on our home ground, we’d have the clear advantage. Doubly so because we knew they were coming.
“They didn’t mention anything about that,” she said, shrugging.
“Are they done doing test runs?” I asked sharply. I wasn’t angry with her, but I was just damn tired of waiting, probing, and testing. Any other respectable supervillain (and I used that term loosely) would have considered sending Son of Silver to Maxville, or unleashing dinosaur robots a more than good enough attempt, if they had just followed through with it.
“Yes. They’re ready now. I’m supposed to be evaluating your performance this week particularly closely,” she said, gripping the steering wheel a little tightly. “I think it’s going to be really harsh.”
“No kidding,” I muttered.
“It’s all about timing,” Monica told me, striving to clarify something. “Look how long it took you to take down the dinosaurs; how long it took the Commander and Jetstream to respond to the call for Son of Silver. They think it’s crucial that you don’t have any other backup.”
I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, as I tried to get an idea on how we would handle this.
“I’ll be nearby. I’ll do anything I can to help,” she added, going a little pale. I leaned over and caught her up in a sideways hug, holding her close. I could tell she was trembling.
This was the first time, as far as I knew, that the Crew was going to be all together in the same city since Homecoming nearly three years ago. And this time she wouldn’t be able to easily hide from them if she decided to help us. Cutter would, and had, carved up superheroes, sidekicks, and citizens alike in her short time being active. All of the Crew had a deserved reputation for viciousness, and there would be a very good chance that any or all of the Champions of Justice or the citizens we were protecting could get badly hurt defending ourselves.
“We’ll be ok,” I told her softly. “We know they’re coming. The academy’s going to be really disappointed.”
Giant robot dinosaurs or mutated gorillas were easier to fight than a variety pack of villains; for one, they were much bigger targets, something all of us could focus all our efforts on at once. But with something like the Crew, with their random array of abilities, made for a much more difficult battle. What I had said was partially bravado… but we had the advantage of experience, foreknowledge, and numbers. That should give us an edge, at least.
She didn’t meet my eyes at that; her own were suspiciously wet, and her lips met mine for a slightly frantic kiss, spiced with salt. She was scared to face them, even if not openly, and trying to hold back her fear.
“It’ll be ok,” I whispered, and I felt her breathe heavily, taking deep calming breaths.
“I’m such a mess right now,” she mumbled into my vest. “I’m sorry.”
She had been crying a lot more recently. The stepping up of the academy had really woken feelings of intense guilt within her, guilt about what she had done to force some of the supervillains to learn what the academy wanted them to, guilt about every hero that got hurt, resentment that I had to spend more time away from her because of my friends, and then guilt over that too. If I hadn’t guilt-tripped myself on so many occasions, I wasn’t sure if I would have understood what she was going through.
But I had, and I did. She was being forced to come to terms with what she had done and the consequences of that, on top of divided loyalties and falling in love with someone from the opposite side of the fence. Luckily though, that went for both of us.
I knew some guys could have been annoyed with her for being clingy or weepy, but it wasn’t like she didn’t have a reason. She never smothered me, she never tried to lean on my shoulder if I was already shaken from something, and would always listen to me when I got frustrated or upset. I was helping her shoulder her sorrow and giving her heart; she was helping me deal with my anger and soothing my temper.
“Don’t be. We’ll get through this sooner or later,” I reminded her, running one hand through her hair, feeling her slowly doing the same to me.
“Sooner,” she said quietly. “I think it’s going to be sooner. Be careful out there.”
I didn’t like lying to my friends, but the fact of the matter was I had gotten depressingly good at it over the past couple of years. The Bureau had even helped me inadvertently. The fact that the director had occasionally spoken to me in private about things had given me the perfect excuse to claim I had been given a heads-up about the Crew’s intentions. At that point, everyone had been more worried about making plans than questioning the origin of the warning. Maybe later somebody would wonder about it, but not now.
Maxville First National Bank was in the city plaza, behind which was the alley where I had fought Hammerfist. The plaza was the perfect place for our confrontation, reasonably open, but still with enough in the way of statues, fountains, artwork, and pillars for cover if we needed it. Green enough to give Layla a good arsenal, but not so much that I would have to be overly careful about setting things on fire. The fact that we actually knew the Crew was coming gave us an edge we hadn’t had against supervillains since the last time we had fought them. We didn’t know exactly when or how they would make their entrance, but since Monica had been told me she had to start observing around dusk, I made an excuse to the others that we had to been there before then.
Since more than one academy team had attacked in broad daylight before this, it wasn’t much of a stretch. And that, unfortunately, was the really sad part about it. They had gotten so bold I didn’t even get much of an argument out of the gang.
That day Ethan had managed to get himself in to see the manager of Maxville First National Bank on some consulting excuse; Layla and Will were nearby in the plaza doing “inspections” on the recycling containers, Magenta had “dragged” Zack along to “shop” at some of the stores, and I was lurking near a large piece of metal artwork. I had once made a lifestyle out of lurking, and it wasn’t too hard to play that role now.
I attempted to be pretending to wait, occasionally checking my phone, checking my watch, and keeping an eye on the crowd. Where Monica had hid herself, I wasn’t exactly sure. And I wasn’t going to go looking for her either. It was getting into fall, and the fact that people had started to break out coats meant that it would be a little easier for our villains to sneak up into the bank, if they wanted to.
I should have known better than to think that Cutter’s Crew was going to “sneak” anywhere.
Storm clouds began to gather as the afternoon went on, kicking up a wind and starting to clear the plaza of sightseers. A storm had actually been forecasted, so I hadn’t gotten too paranoid, only mildly annoyed that I might have to fight in the rain. It was when the lightning started that the adrenaline kicked in. Behind me a metal sculpture exploded as a huge stroke of electricity lashed down from the sky, sending people scattering all over the plaza like leaves. I had managed to land prone, but at least facing the right way and at least half my wits intact.
Skybolt was standing on the slagged metal, a crazy, cocky grin on his face. My heart sped up as I scrambled into cover. The citizens of Maxville were well experienced in what to do during a superbattle, and other than a few rubberneckers or super junkies, most fled at top speed, screaming their heads off. Those that could, of course. Plenty were limping away, some were crawling, and some weren’t moving.
How the hell did Skybolt get out of Metroplex? How did get regain consciousness? Oh fuck, did he stage a jailbreak?
Even as I quick-changed and got ready to step out of cover to protect the injured citizens, I was looking wildly around for a glimpse of Royal Pain’s signature purple and gold. All I saw was a flickering at the edge of my vision, and whipped around to see Cutter and the rest of the Crew finally come to rest next to Skybolt after teleporting in.
Bruin and Bloodtalon were already shifted, and Viper was holding what looked like a long, thin spear, glistening wetly in the flickering lightning. That it was completely poisonous I had no doubt. Cutter stood in the center, shooting Skybolt a “good puppy” look, knives in her hands. She looked briefly around the plaza, a contemptuous glare for all the fallen and fleeing citizens, before wheeling to face the bank.
Viscosity was already standing there, a stun ray in his hands, looking both valiant and terribly vulnerable all alone. Cutter just laughed, Skybolt and Viper joining her, howling like rabid hyenas.
“You know, you really ought to get that checked. It can’t be healthy to have not hit puberty this late in life,” Magenta’s voice rang out over the plaza. They all turned in shock, the cackling cut off, to see Violet Cavey and Brilliance off to their right. Brilliance had light bombs in either hand, and Violet Cavey held her ray gun in a deceptively loose-fingered grip.
“Or what about that sloppy entrance?” Layla’s voice called right on her heels. To the Crew’s right, Rose Queen and Guardian walked into view, the trees in their planters growing slightly in response to Rose’s anger. Guardian hovered slowly, ready to fly at them in an instant.
“I just don’t think these guys even have a clue,” I said, adding fuel to the fire as I powered up, revealing my location opposite Viscosity in the plaza.
“Surrender!” he called, lifting his chin up.
“Oh, honeybear, I don’t think so. Now!” she screamed. There was another bright flash, but I saw it all pretty clearly. Skybolt somehow managed to call down another bolt of lightning right next to him, and then grabbed it and held on like he was a bronco rider from hell as it zapped back up into the sky.
Rose Queen caught the implications instantly, that he meant to start slamming us all from above, and did the quickest use of her powers I had ever seen. Every single tree in the plaza suddenly shot up and began to grow- sideways. The branches shot out and intertwined, forming a ceiling over the plaza, completely blocking any overhead view. Simultaneously, they also grew downward in places, forming protective barriers around each and every fallen or unconscious citizen, and then a few more empty ones besides to give us more cover. It cut up the battlefield considerably, but it also meant Bloodtalon and Cutter would have a hell of a lot harder time targeting any of us.
Cursing from the Crew told us our first move had worked.
It meant I had to be a lot more careful when fighting, but I would take this over unanticipated attacks from multiple angles any day. Ducking behind the first of the new obstacles, I heard Will shouting orders over the com.
“I’m going up to get Skybolt. Phoenix, take care of Rose, that took a lot out of her,” he said, and then all I could hear was the booming of thunder. Through the thick foliage above, I could see brilliant flashes of lightning, and knew the two must be chasing each other all over the sky. I had no damn idea of how Skybolt was managing to ride the lightning like he was, and though he must be fast, I knew Will was a lot more maneuverable. And he damn sure wasn’t going to get hit again, not after the dinosaur debacle. Skybolt could do the most damage to the greatest number of people, so he was Will’s. It was up to the rest of us to contain the Crew.
I ducked from tree to tree, working my way closer to Layla, closing my eyes once as Zack warned us of a light bomb going off, ears and eyes straining for any sign of our enemies. Cutter could be anywhere, but with so much of her line of sight cut off in our newly defined space, she would have to be careful. Bruin would be a heck of a lot louder though, and I listened for his lumbering pawsteps.
Shouts and curses heard both normally and over the com told me Zack and Magenta were fighting Viper and Cutter. Brilliance’s glowing, sans the light bomb, illuminated the whole covered plaza, and was giving me the light I needed to see where I was going. Glancing over at them as I ran, I could see Magenta back to back with Zack; both of them with stun rays out, carefully targeting their foes.
I could see what was going on, because of the photosensitive lenses in my helmet, but Cutter and Viper were much worse off. She couldn’t see well enough to target, and both of my friends were moving around so much and so erratically it was spoiling her patented blind throwing shots. Viper kept trying to get closer in, but Zack and Magenta weren’t going to let his poisonous hands anywhere within the same zip code as their own skin. They kept retreating from Viper and dodging from Cutter, doing a peculiar long-distance waltz all over the plaza. Amazingly, both of the Crew were dodging or deflecting the return stun rays with remarkable accuracy, Cutter with her metallic bracers, and Viper with his spear. My opinion of their skill took a shot upward, and I kept myself powered up, braced for more trouble.
Within a few moments I had finally worked my way to Layla, Ethan meeting me at almost the same instant. She was swaying on her feet, holding herself up with vines, but doggedly determined to not give in to exhaustion. I had never seen her grow so much in such a short period of time, and we both gave her smiles as we moved to protect her.
“Great job!” Ethan said, and Layla smiled weakly behind her mask; we could see it in her eyes.
We didn’t get there a second too soon. No sooner had we gotten ready to defend Rose Queen when Bruin came sprinting towards us with the speed and force of a train, having caught sight of my fire slipping through the trees. Right over his back, flying low, was Bloodtalon. I threw my fire at her without hesitation, hitting hard and drawing an avian scream of rage as she retreated. With any luck that would take her out of the fight for a little bit. I didn’t dare let her turn any of us against each other, and despite Bruin’s strength, I considered her the dangerous one. While I was roasting chicken, Bruin had gotten shockingly close, and I found myself abruptly shoved to one side.
Layla had been shoved to the other, and I yelled as I realized Ethan was now directly in the path of the charging Bruin. Heart in my throat, I tried to shove myself up so I could stop him, and nearly screamed as Bruin’s mouth gaped open, roaring loud enough to shake my bones, huge teeth ready to tear into Ethan-.
Who melted at the same instant, plastering himself across Bruin’s eyes, nose, and gaping jaws. The roaring stopped as Bruin drew himself up so short he somersaulted right past us, slamming into a planter. Frantically he got up again, huge claws tearing at Ethan, trying to pry him off his face. But the huge, knife-like claws only slid through Ethan’s melted body, and I realized, as blood began to hit the pavement from behind the orange blob, the only damage Bruin was doing was to his own face.
Bruin’s gyrations took on a frantic quality, still in complete silence, and I knew that in addition to being blind, Ethan was cutting off Bruin’s air. Bruin had put at least a half-dozen superheroes in the hospital, some with scars they would carry all their life. One would probably have to wear a full-face mask from now on, if he didn’t want to scare the people he rescued, he had been mauled so badly. However apologetic or harmless he had seemed the time we had met him off the clock, there was no denying the man was as dangerous as any other supervillain.
I leapt to stand over Layla, powering back up and flinging more fire at Bruin. Ethan would only ride the guy to unconsciousness and not to anything further, at least I hoped. He had been particularly appalled at what the members of the Crew had done to the other heroes, and he was done holding back. Due to his extensive experience at Champion Debate, Ethan “knew” a lot more heroes than we did, and I knew it really bothered him on a personal level to know what had been done to him. And I knew this was also a personal quest to prove he wouldn’t be a coward facing the Crew a second time.
My fire would hurt, but it wasn’t my intention to bring him down myself. Dancing around blindly to avoid the pain of the burns would exhaust Bruin faster. This was cruel, but with Bruin half-immune to stun rays and Layla about to pass out, we didn’t have a choice. It took a lot longer than I would have wanted, but Bruin finally fainted, shifting back to human at the last second, as Ethan quickly pulled himself off and resolidified. In human form, Bruin wore a rather sad and baggy brown super-suit with an indifferent half-mask, now ripped to shreds. Huge bloody furrows from his own claws were raked from forehead to chin on one side of his face, and the blood leaked sullenly onto the pavement.
His chest was still moving and his color improved the second Ethan left him, so while he looked horrible, he wasn’t in any real danger of dying yet. Elaborate cursing from the coms told us Magenta and Zack were still locked in battle with Cutter and Viper, while Ethan turned a little green, realizing exactly what he’d done.
It was then I heard an angry screech above us. I hadn’t realized my flailing about with fire had burned a hole in our green “roof” until a very badly scorched eagle, eyes red with fury and stinking of soot, arrowed through, straight towards me. She wasn’t as fast as Guardian or Skybolt, but she was too fast for me to dodge, and I staggered, yelling loudly, as she raked her talons along my face. I felt her strike deeply, sickeningly scraping along my jaw before she flew up again. My last thought that went through my head was I hoped to hell Will remembered what he had promised.
Then everything turned into fire.
The rage struck instantly, boiling along my blood, and fire erupted from head to toe, blinding agony shooting through my head. I had to use it, to burn, to char, to see something, anything, reduced to a smoking skeleton. Only destruction would ease the fiery rage, only death would stop the pain. I wanted to smell burning flesh and scorched stone, I wanted to hear screams.
I hurled huge fireballs at the retreating Bloodtalon, everything focused on how she would look once she was ashes. Cackling madly, she escaped my range, and I roared, turning to look for a target. Any target.
I lashed out insensibly, turning towards any direction where the screams were loudest, barely even conscious of what I was seeing, only letting the fire flow in an endless stream of destructive rage. Something pounded into my side, pinning my hands, and I cursed it in every language I knew, the fire flaring from my entire skin, drawing gasps of pain from whoever dared to touch me.
I roared, trying to burn this thing with just my anger alone, wanting to hear it scream, to see it die, the agony spreading like wildfire…
I was screaming and became aware vaguely aware that I was moving, but not under my own power.
“Fucking let me go! Bastard, you’ll fucking burn for this!” I snarled, the fire pulsing and throbbing with the thunder of my heart.
Someone was talking at me, and I felt it start to get cold. My flames began to diminish, and now a new kind of pain, like wire wrapped around my skull, slowly eclipsed the burning. My flames flickered and died, and I felt myself gasping for air. Words were being spoken to me, and I slowly began to make sense of them.
“-nix, Phoenix! Wake up, come on Phoenix! Warren!”
Voice. My name. Guardian’s voice. Will’s voice. The rage began to subside as the red film over my vision began to clear. Guardian was right in front of me. He had managed to tackle me, pinning my arms at my sides, and must have flown up high. High enough for the air to thin and all the warmth to subside, because when I tentatively looked over to the side, there was nothing recognizable of Maxville at all. We were above the clouds. My head began to hurt worse and worse, anger still trying to make me burn even when there was no air to breathe.
“Air,” I said frantically, struggling futilely in his grasp.
“Are you ok now?” he asked sternly, at odds with the terrible expression of guilt on his face.
“Air!” I insisted, gulping like a fish out of water.
“Warren, you told me if this ever happened, I had to take you out. Tell me you’re ok or…” Will trailed off, and I saw tears actually leak out of his eyes, freezing immediately on his cheeks. “I’ll drop you.”
He would too, he had promised to keep his friends safe… Even an indestructible superhero couldn’t survive a fall from this height. Will looked completely stricken, his voice shook with sorrow and pain, facing one of the worst things he could have imagined so far. With a wrench of effort combined of the blinding agony from the lack of air, Will’s desperate plea, and the knowledge that having to kill me would nearly destroy him, the chains of rage snapped.
“I’m ok,” I said weakly, and stopped struggling, my vision blackening.
“Hang on, this is going to hurt,” Will warned, and without further warning began to accelerate earthwards.
My God, he left the others to help me. Are they all right?
My ears popped and popped again painfully as we descended faster than anything had the right to go, and anyone other than him or me would have ruptured their eardrums from falling so fast. I didn’t even protest though, only took grateful gulps of the ever-thickening air.
Breaking through the first layer of clouds, I could still see the lightning storm boiling over what had to be Maxville, and an intense feeling of guilt slammed into my stomach. He had left Skybolt to keep me from setting my friends, the Crew, the injured citizens, and possibly all of Maxville afire, and now the Crew outnumbered the Champions.
As we got closer, we must have suddenly come back into the range of the coms, because they erupted in a cacophony.
“-ing bastards!” Magenta’s voice rang out, followed by the peculiar warbling retort of a stun ray. Further echoes, combined with low-pitched curses from Zack told us they were both still in the middle of a firefight.
“Rose! Rose, stay with me, please!”
Will turned white as Ethan’s voice broke in, nearly sobbing. As we passed through the boiling layer of clouds, I could feel a tingling along my spine as Skybolt tried to gun for us, cackling hysterically. Thought I thought it was impossible, Will accelerated even more, shattering the sound barrier and leaving behind a sonic boom that stunned Skybolt momentarily. It also shattered my eardrums, nearly broke my neck, and almost plowed us both straight into the ground.
Will slowed abruptly as the scene below us came clear, and I heard him choke back something that sounded like a sob.
“Take care of her,” Will pleaded, and I jerked my eyes down. I gaped when I finally made sense of what I was seeing; the trees Layla had grown for our protection had become dry and brittle, and only one thing could have caused that. Layla was lying on the ground in a spreading pool of scarlet, enough of Cutter’s knives stuck in her that she looked like a voodoo doll. I couldn’t believe she was still alive.
Cutter must have used Bloodtalon’s attack and my subsequent departure from the battlefield to get over to Layla in the confusion, trying to kill the one person who was cramping her style. Ethan must have managed to drive Cutter away, or she had left of her own accord, but she had been able to get Bruin out before she quit the field. Magenta and Zack’s last shots were just going off in their last general direction, and the thunder above had ceased as Skybolt quit the scene.
“They fucking ran!” Magenta spat, turning and seeing Layla for the first time. She froze in shock, Zack running into her, as Will and I finally landed next to her. The wrongness slammed into me with the force of a freight train, and I kneeled next to her, headless of the blood. Gaping bloody furrows had scored right through her armor, showing Bruin had managed to mark her too. Before or after Cutter’s attack, it didn’t really matter.
I was still massively light-headed and cold from my trip to the upper atmosphere, frightened to death of what had just happened to me, furious at the Crew, and terrifying of seeing Layla die. Some small part of me coldly realized exactly what the Crew had calculated for. Someone’s horrible death, and the subsequent swearing of revenge on her murderers, was exactly what they wanted.
Not now. Not now and not ever.
For the second time I felt the fire flow all through me, this time not in rage, but in need. Layla’s fire was nearly black, scored and fragmented from her wounds, but I was patient, finding each little piece of fire and stubbornly nursing it back to health. I heard voices in the background, but kept shoving them away, even as I felt the fire draining out of me. Someone gasped, and finally there was a faint cry of pain. Someone jerked me back, and I came out of my trance with a start. Blackness pulled at my vision, and I felt badly chilled, but I wasn’t going to fall over on my nose quite yet.
“Phoenix, it’s ok, she’s ok,” I heard Will say, and opened my eyes cautiously. Layla was bright red, flushed with heat, blinking and sweating, but clearly alive. Magenta had hastily given her the loan of her jacket to cover the rents in her costume, and a half-dozen bloodstained knives were laid out next to her in a line. Will shoved me aside to catch Layla up in his arms, his shoulders shaking hard, babbling to her and me simultaneously.
“Thank you, thank you, I thought I lost you,” he was saying, his voice muffled into her shoulder.
“I’m ok, I’m find Guardian, I’m just a little warm,” she said weakly, blinking in confusion. I just sat there numbly, wincing as cold rain began to fall, and began to shiver. All three of us were still sitting in a pool of Layla’s blood, but I really couldn’t muster up the energy to care.
“Guys, Channel Six caught all of that,” Zack muttered to us. Now that the immediate danger was over, police, paramedics, firefighters, and reporters (not necessarily in that order) descended upon the scene in droves, helping and questioning the injured citizens at the same time. I vaguely looked around for Monica, and then realized she would hardly come out under the cameras’ eyes.
“What… happened?” I managed finally, when I had regained enough coherence to form a sentence.
“Later,” Magenta said sharply. “You both look like hell. Guardian, get them to the hospital, we’ll finish up here.”
“Are they really gone?” Ethan interjected quickly, rapidly scanning the skies and the plaza with a healthy dose of paranoid.
“Dude, when do they ever stick around?” Zack pointed out.
“Point,” Ethan conceded, and waved for Will to get going.