Just the second chapter of my epic-length tale...
Mom was waiting for me when I got home from detention. Taking the late bus home, I had plenty of time to think about the cafeteria fight, and each step I took from the bus stop to the house was putting my stomach into a knot. “It’s the curse of the Peace family bloodline,” my mom once told me. “Back to my great-great-grandmother, in fact. Even if you didn’t actually get emotional powers, you tend to feel them, to think about your feelings, to know what others are feeling. We just feel things very deeply, we Peaces. Sometimes too deeply.” Damn. She was right.
And now Mom already knew what I had done. Principal Powers had told her, and told her whom it was with, and even sent her the video from the cafeteria so she could see for herself. So now she would have seen Stronghold being tripped by a bully and me going psychotic. I think I would have rather stuck needles in my eye, stepped in front of a bus, or had a five-course dinner with my dad than face my mom with a guilty conscience.
She was standing in the living room when I got home, her arms outstretched to me, an expression too complicated to decipher on her face. Suddenly I was four years old again, wanting her to protect me from monsters. Except this time the monster was me. I lost it entirely, flinging myself into her arms and starting to cry. She hugged me tightly and pulled me to the sofa, draping her hair over my head like she used to when I was little.
Sometime when I was about eight or so, Mom had once told me, “I know how guilty you feel when you’ve done something wrong. And I know you punish yourself for it. So only you can decide when you’ve punished yourself enough for what you’ve done.” Some kids might have taken that as a free license to screw off whenever they wanted to, but for me… I would have never taken that lightly. Like Mom said, I feel things too much.
I remember thinking what the other kids at school would have thought if they could see me right now. Big bad Warren Peace, crying in his mommy’s arms. But then again, none of them had tried to kill someone today, had they? In between sobs I told her the whole story, how it had been all my fault, how angry I had gotten, how I had even tried to power up in the Detention Room.
“I tried to kill him, I tried to kill him,” I repeated over and over. I admit, I was hysterical. Powering down after something big like that sometimes can make me have a big reaction. I’ve never asked anyone else if they feel that way, but then again most kids haven’t tested their powers to the limits before. The only time most of them might ever go until they’re power-exhausted would be in gym class, not the cafeteria.
I don’t know how long it was, but I think it was nearly an hour before Mom started talking to me.
“It was because he mentioned Baron,” she said, making it a statement. If I said anything, I think I was going to break down again, so I just nodded. “I know you’ve been bottling all that up inside Warren. For years and years I watched you just bury it all inside you, pushing it down, putting it away. You’ve tried to deal with it with little fights against those horrible bullies.” Here I felt a flush of shame. She knew about my clandestine fights off school grounds when I was younger. Why did I even bother trying to hide anything from her?
“But you’ve never let your feelings just go before. And I should have done something about that Warren. I should have helped you long ago, instead of hiding behind my own fear. I didn’t want to use my own powers on my son… I thought it would hurt you. But I’ve hurt you more just by not acting. And that’s what got me into trouble with Baron. I refused to act; I didn’t want to do anything for fear of doing the wrong thing. I can’t do that anymore. I could feel your pain radiating from the bus stop. I know you think you’re becoming a menace, that you tried to kill Will, but you are also radiating remorse, disgust, and grief for that. You know it’s wrong, you know it deep in your bones. You had a terrible scare today, you know now what can happen when both your temper and your power gets out of control. Warren, the worst has already happened, and the only things that got hurt were a few walls and a lunch cart.”
I slowly raised my head and pulled back to look at her. I had never heard her talk so… assertively before. I had often thought of my mom as a kind of weeping flower, she even talked like she was on a knife-edge of tears most of the time. But now she sounded so certain of herself and what she was saying, and it made me want to believe her too. It didn’t hurt that I knew she was right. But as I raised my head, I had to take a double take. I hadn’t paid any attention to what Mom was wearing when I came in, but now I noticed, and it startled me. She was wearing what looked like a long white dress, with patterns of feathers sewn into it, and a wreath of silver leaves on her long, dark hair. Feathered dress… silver olive leaves. It came to me in a flash when I remembered looking over some old newspaper articles. This was my mother superhero costume! The white-feathered dress, like a dove, with a wreath of silver olive branches was the Peacemaker’s signature.
“Mom?” I asked tentatively, and she smiled.
“Warren, it’s time I stopped letting people make me pay for the mistakes of my past. I lost a lot of credibility when Baron Battle was put in jail, and I let people force me out of a job I loved and did well because I thought I deserved it. You’ve just shown me, rather forcefully, why I used to do why I did, and why I liked it. I helped people so they didn’t have to fight, or only fought the fights that really needed to be fought. I helped them with their feelings, so they didn’t have the repressed rage or shame boiling inside, waiting to go off at any moment.” I froze for a moment, not really sure what was going on consciously, but hoping against hope that my instincts were right.
“I want to help you Warren. I want to use my powers to help you, because I know right now that you’re so sickly afraid that if anything happens between you and Will again, you’re going to react with a killing stroke before your brain can tell you no,” she said calmly, though her arms were still around me. My guts turned to ice at those words, because she had just said aloud things that I could barely articulate, but could still feel, and strongly at that. “You picked a fight with a kid that represented the bullies you’ve dealt with for the past seventeen years, and you couldn’t finish it. Not only did the kids at school run screaming from you, but Will humiliated you in front of everyone.”
I had to purposely slow my breathing, as I could feel that sick rage boiling up in me again, and my skin started to heat up. It had been humiliating, and if anyone in the cafeteria had dared to laugh after Will had sprayed me with the fire extinguisher, I may have gone totally ballistic. Mom touched my hand, and I suddenly felt the rage begin to subside. She put a gentle but instant hand under my chin and turned my head to look her in the eyes.
“I need your permission. I’ve told you how this works. It doesn’t change who you are; it doesn’t change your personality. It gives you more control over how you react, so your brain has time to figure out what’s going on before you lash out at someone. It makes it so you’re in control of you, instead of your rage being in control. You might not even notice any difference, except… things that might have made you only annoyed don’t even bother you, things that would make you angry only make you annoyed, and things that would have put you in a killing rage only make you angry. It’s a flexible net, to keep you from diving into the deep end. It’s not permanent… but by the time it wears off you’ve had time to work it through on your own.”
I took a couple deep breaths while I thought that over. Mom had only ever used her passive powers on me before, reading my emotional state mostly. I knew she could let other people feel what she felt… or actually manipulate another’s emotional state. She had done that for people who were fighting wars, getting them to see reason instead of simply fighting for an endless round of revenge. She had helped forge treaties, trade agreements, border disputes, everything from world-shaking events to intervening between a company and a union, or two quarrelsome neighbors arguing over a yappy dog. She had met and helped hundreds, even thousands of people, to see that they didn’t have to be upset or angry all the time. Why should it be so different if she wanted to do it to me?
“If I can help you, if you want me to, then I think I’ll have the confidence I need to get myself back on the active list. And I don’t care if they only call me for little things at first; I’m not going to let that stop me. I just need to know I can still do this,” she said softly, pleading entering her eyes. I sucked in a sharp breath. I had wanted my mom to go back to being an active superhero for years, but I never had any idea of what to say to convince her to do so. She had loved that job and had been great at it. More than once I had found her in front of the TV, crying during a news broadcast, probably thinking that if she had been there, than whatever they were reporting, a bombing, an unprovoked attack, a war, wouldn’t have happened. If I were the only one she really needed permission from… And I think I would have done anything at that point to keep from feeling that sick rage again. I nodded finally and closed my eyes, and Mom clasped both my hands.
I felt a faint cool rush, but otherwise nothing. “Let me tell you something about Will’s parents,” Mom said casually. My eyes flew open again, startled at the change in subject, but Mom’s eyes were still closed, and there was an expression of fierce concentration on her face. “Steven Stronghold was a second-generation superhero, his father was The Steel Fist, Defender of the Weak. He had a lot to live up to, and a very proud family lineage behind him. He could have been a bully very easily, but he despised them and avoided them. He had a strong sense of ethics drummed into him by his father, and never compromised on those. He wasn’t perfect of course, he’s something of a power-snob; never would socialize with the Sidekicks. And Josie DeMarco… well, her mother was Silverhawk. Not a very well-known superhero, but Josie was very determined to make her own way, and got top grades in Superhero Ethics and Responsibility.”
I smirked inside at that. Trust my mom to remember people’s grade from that particular class. Then again, she had probably been the TA by her sophomore year. “I know that between the both of them, Will is bound to be an ethical and responsible kid. He’s not going to be a bully, and now that he knows how sensitive you are about your dad, I can guarantee he’ll never mention him again. A real bully would probably ride you about that until you did something unforgivable to him,” she pointed out. Already I knew her powers had to be working, because while those words triggered guilt and anger, they weren’t so all consuming. I could still think while I was feeling, and that was something new.
“I’m not saying you have to try to be friends with Will, but that he won’t make himself your enemy unless you give him a great many reasons to. He has a cheerful personality, and it would take a lot to hurt him…” she paused for a moment, and raised an ironic eyebrow, “emotionally. But probably less than it would take to hurt him physically. Especially now.” I snorted at that as Mom gently took her hands away from mine. I took another deep breath, closed my eyes, and began to run the fight in the cafeteria fight over in my mind. It was if I could actually see what I was doing, instead of just feeling it. It still made me mad, but now I no longer felt like marching over to Stronghold’s house and setting it on fire.
I opened my eyes again and saw my mom smiling at me. I started to smile back, feeling like I had just won a prize of some kind. “Hey Mom, give ‘em hell at the office on Monday,” I told her. We both managed to be serious for about another two heartbeats, but then we started laughing together until we cried.
Mom had been right about her “Peacemaker’s touch.” It didn’t really seem to affect me much, other than the fact that I no longer wanted to roast some idiots alive on a daily basis. Ignoring them was easier, both because I didn’t have to sustain my anger when I was trying to do something else, and in the fact that they apparently still thought I was, but going about it more subtlety, and avoided me like the plague. Both suited me fine.
The week after the cafeteria fight, however, was the biggest test of my “new” temper. Today was Save the Citizen in gym class, a game favored by the teachers, the students, and Coach Boomer equally, but for different reasons. The teachers liked it because it was a good kind of “practical” experience for fighting other super-powered people, despite the artificiality of the setting. The students liked it because it was a place to beat the snot out of people you didn’t like in a school-sanctioned way. Of course, others hated it for the exact same reason. And Coach Boomer liked it because he got to play God over the rest of the students. There were technically supposed to be fouls called for various things during the contest, but Boomer rarely called them. Most fouls in Save the Citizen were for excessive force, because the game wasn’t supposed to be about injuries. However, Boomer wasn’t above letting some bonehead come away with an injury to “remind” them of how they had failed. In retrospect, that’s probably a good idea.
Speed and Lash were the reigning champions this year, as they had been for every year since they came to Sky High. Those two had apparently been friends since childhood, and had whole lot of attack plans worked out to win. They also preferred being the villains in this game. Being villains was actually a whole lot easier, because a hero had to get the citizen from above the mulcher, while the villains just had to prevent them. Hell, the villains didn’t even have to do anything if they didn’t want to. They could win by default if the heroes couldn’t figure out how to get the citizen, and once they had won by not even moving a muscle, because the heroes they were fighting were so hopelessly idiotic that time had run down before they could come up with a plan. Oh, did I forget to mention that there’s a large student betting pool on Save the Citizen? Yeah, those two cleaned up on that one.
The two bullies were in fine form; having won two matches already today, both without breaking a sweat. They had mostly chosen sophomores or weaker juniors, but I knew they were working themselves up for something. I bet they just wanted to get the kinks out before going after their chosen prey. After the second citizen of the day had been shredded into sawdust, they tipped their hand.
“All right, who do you want to beat next?” Coach Boomer asked, after they had chosen, without surprise by anyone, to be villains again.
“We’ll take little Stronghold…” Speed mused thoughtfully, as Will started to get up, looking worried. “And…”
“We pick Peace!” Lash finished. I was sitting alone in the gym stands, as usual, and got up with ill grace. Lash was hoping for a repeat of the fight in the cafeteria, and I was very much disinclined to oblige him. If my brain had been working properly last week, he would have been the one I was fighting with. I didn’t play Save the Citizen that much, but I hoped a few fireballs would knock Lash and Speed off their feet long enough for me to figure out how to save the citizen. I ducked down to the locker room, changing out of my gym clothes and into the body stocking and armor while they game floor was set up. Will was in there too, looking a little pale, and fumbling with the buckles on his body armor while I ignored him. He’d better have figured out how to use his super-strength better in the week he’d had it, or this was going to be a really short match. Speed and Lash might be a pair of bullies, but they were undefeated at this game for a reason. I wasn’t looking forward to this… Then the buzzer sounded, signaling the floor was ready, and we had to go.
As we stepped out on the gym floor, Coach Boomer started laying down the rules. “Hothead, Stronghold, you’re the heroes.” Boomer was the only person I would let get away with a nickname like that, and only because he was a teacher. Maintaining that scrap of dignity by starting a fight with him wasn’t worth it. Will was barely paying attention to Boomer, his gaze focused on someone in the stands behind me. I flicked my gaze over and saw Gwen Grayson waving and smiling at him, and whipped my head around to see Will doing the same.
“Hey!” I snapped, “Get your head in the game.” Will abruptly dropped the smile and tried to look serious. Freshman. Honestly.
“You have three minutes to immobilize your opponents, and save the citizen,” Boomer went on, raising his stopwatch as we got ready. “Ready. Set. Battle!” he boomed the last, and the timer started. Speed and Lash were grinning too damn much, and I knew we were being set up. Will and I really had no strategy, we had never worked together before, and they were probably hoping I’d just turn and start flaming the kid. I still didn’t like him that much, but I wasn’t going to purposely lose to the school bullies just to humiliate Stronghold. As my mom had said, I didn’t have to be friends with the guy, and while I wasn’t going to kill him, I wouldn’t mind him getting taken down a peg or two. But it wasn’t going to be today.
The battle floor for Save the Citizen is set up with obstacles like a city park, lampposts, a newspaper dispenser, a bench, mailbox, payphone, and a dumpster, giving some people the options of hiding, throwing, burning, morphing into, or otherwise use things that should be there in the real world. Of course, a slippery wooden gym floor, bright gym lights, and a barrier of reinforced duriglass didn’t exactly build a sense of verisimilitude. If Will did manage to punch Speed or Lash, I would want them to go through two or three rooms. See how they like it for a change.
Lash stretched out one arm from one end of the gym to the other, hanging onto a lamppost, while Speed leaned back like it was a giant slingshot. Before I could even realize what they were up to, Lash snapped his arm forward, and Speed was off like a human pinball. I couldn’t even see Speed as more than a blur, and he whipped by both of us, knocking us both flying. I crushed the newspaper dispenser when I landed, and when I looked up; Stronghold had been bounced off the safety wall. And it looks like he was finding out that neither super-strength nor indestructibility would save you from pain. I tossed the remains of the dispenser over the barrier, not wanting to trip over the damn thing.
Lash stretched out both arms across the gym and got me bound up before I could power up.
“Hah! What now, Peace?” he asked, an arrogant smirk on his face. What, he thinks I need to be able to move my arms to power up? Your mistake, Lash. I let the heat build up quickly and flared it along my arms, flames illuminating my face as Lash yelped and whipped his arms back to their normal length.
“Hey coach, that’s a foul! Call something on that” he yelled to Boomer. But Boomer only chucked a bit cruelly and let the match go on. I knew Lash’s stretchy body made him resistant to most blows, and he healed pretty fast too, so any scorching I gave him wasn’t going to leave any lasting impression. Pansy. Bullies never like feeling pain themselves.
On the other side of the gym, Speed was running interference with Will, whizzing by him every few seconds, knocking him down, sprawling, or spinning each time he tried to go for the mulcher. It was actually pretty smart of Speed, because if Will could get even one finger on him, he could probably end this match pretty quickly. Someone was howling about how that was a foul, but Boomer ignored them.
Lash had stretched himself halfway to the ceiling, making an obliging target, and I lobbed a fireball at him. He stretched out of the way and it instead impacted on Boomer. He merely looked startled and started to brush the sparks away.
“Watch it Hothead!” he snapped. I snarled at Lash, angry with him that he had made me miss. I was running cooler flame that usual, I had to during the game, and so Boomer had been more startled than hurt. It still made me realize I had to keep the flames at the level of the duriglass walls if I didn’t want to get one of the spectators hurt. Take a deep breath, Peace, this isn’t over yet.
Stronghold had apparently taken enough of Speed’s run-by-attacks, and tried something else. Leaping up into the air, he pounded the ground with his fist, making the ground buck like an earthquake. I leapt over it, while Speed and Lash were sent flying. Speed landed square, but Lash crashed down hard, and Will got his hands on him. I saw him using Lash’s own arms to tie the guy in a knot to a lamppost while the crowd laughed. Actually, that was pretty damn funny, and about high time for Lash to get a little dose of humiliation.
Then Speed went zipping past my field of vision and I started unloading a volley of fireballs at him. Each one was landing just behind him, and I cursed the fact that my power was so slow! Behind me Will had Lash all tied up in a bow, and seemed to be admiring his handiwork.
“Hey!” I yelled, “Save the citizen!” We only had forty seconds left and our citizen-dummy was dangerously close to the mulcher.
Speed came right for me again, and I was ready for him this time, or so I thought. Instead of strafing past, he started running in a circle around me, too fast to be seen as anything but a dark orange blur. I wanted to start pounding the “walls” of this circle with flame, but I started to gasp and feel faint. The flames died on my arms and I clutched my throat as blackness started to descend on my vision. It hurt, it hurt really, really badly, more than being slammed through two walls. I began to crumple to my knees, and there was a roaring in my ears.
A few seconds later the blackness began to lift, and I saw that Will had grabbed Speed and pointed him in a different direction, using him as an arrow to crash both him and the bound Lash into the barrier. He looked around desperately for a way to save the citizen as Boomer yelled at him and the crowd ticked down the last few seconds. Will apparently had some brilliant idea, as he picked me up and hurled me through the air like a javelin, straight at the citizen over the mulcher. On reflex I grabbed her as I sailed past, and ended up flat on the floor as the buzzer rang.
“Time! She’s alive! Heroes win!” Boomer called out as the students began cheering. I tossed the dummy to the side as Will ran over to help me up. I ignored his hand and just glared at him as I levered myself up and walked slowly to the locker rooms. Behind me the crowd was pouring onto the floor, there to congratulate Stronghold. He was the first freshman to win at Save the Citizen, so I couldn’t entirely blame them. I appreciated the fact that Speed and Lash had both lost and lost badly to a freshman, but I had actually had to have been rescued by Will, so my feelings of good will went only so far. And I had a pounding headache. It was actually so bad I had to go to Nurse Spex to see if I could get an aspirin or something.
I ended up having to tell her everything I had done that day, apparently to see what triggered it. Super-kids often had strange reactions to seemingly normal things, and Nurse Spex was always trying to make sure she didn’t miss anything. When I told her about what Speed had done to me, she got an “ah-ha!” expression.
“Oh that’s it then, that’s easily fixed. Try to power up for me,” she said brightly as she began to dig around in a cabinet. I shrugged and tried to oblige, but suddenly my headache got ten times worse and I felt myself starting to black out again. To make it worse, there was no rush of heat, and I didn’t generate so much as a spark. I clutched the side of the table with one hand, to keep myself from falling, and tried to use the other to keep my head from splitting open.
“Heavens! I’m sorry dear, here,” she said, sounding apologetic and flustered. Suddenly she shoved something over my face, and I gasped a bit in surprise. I opened my eyes to see she had an oxygen mask pressed to my face. I was startled, but realized that each breath was making the headache go away, so I finally let go of my head and took the mask myself.
“Speed’s vortex sucks away oxygen. It’s actually a rather clever move that would be useful in disabling anyone, but it’s particularly devastating to anyone with fire powers. You use more oxygen than a regular person, and you store a more of it in your body to help with your powers. When he sucked away your air, you only got enough back when he stopped to keep you alive, not power up. So you had a headache,” she explained as I gratefully sucked on the pure oxygen.
“So… no powering up in the vacuum of space, right?” I asked flippantly. Nurse Spex just chuckled and shook her head.
“I wouldn’t try doing it on a mountaintop dear, you’d just get a dreadful headache for your pains. Oooo, we better work on that before you graduate. Can’t pick where you’re going to fight a supervillain, right?”
I just shook my head in astonishment. I wondered if they knew about this kink in my powers at Metroplex Detention Center. If they didn’t, I think a few headaches would do my dad a world of good. I resolved to write them a letter sometime soon. In the meantime, I had to get back to the bus. The world didn’t stop turning because of a little game of Save the Citizen, or I discovered something new about my powers. I still had my shift at the Paper Lantern tonight, homework to finish, and a lot more thinking to do.