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War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 46b: Darkness Before Dawn
Sky High
Drama/Sci-Fi

Darkness Before Dawn Part B

 

Fourth day in, I wasn’t the only one to have noticed the difference in the “air,” so to speak. When Monica and I were at the bench press that morning, Meduka strode over to us, an odd look on his face. Monica only raised an eyebrow when he came within speaking distance, but he didn’t shy off.

“Hey, wanted to talk to you for a sec,” he said, his voice low and hard to hear over the yelling from some of the people on the floor.

“What’s so important that you have to interrupt our workout and yours?” she asked mildly. This time Meduka didn’t flinch at the implied rebuke, and I mentally revised my opinion of the guy upward.

“You’ve been doing some good work. I had at least a dozen of my trouble students come in voluntarily for extra practice,” Meduka said, one eyebrow quirking slightly in question.

“I’m more of a novelty; it gets a bigger reaction after three years without ‘persuasion,’” Monica said smoothly.

“They’re pretty serious about wanting to get tougher. I mean it; they weren’t like this even for Cutter, and she’s ten times worse than you ever were. Helps you don’t leave them damaged for weeks afterward,” he pointed out.

I remember Monica saying that Cutter might have filled in for her in the torture department while she was spying on me, and I think I lost some color thinking about it. Damn, those people might have been actually glad to see Monica, because at least with her they know the pain will stop when they leave the room.

Yet another deep level of wrong to lay against this place. Not that it needed it.

Monica’s back was tensing up as she was talking and after a second, it penetrated what Meduka’s comment could mean. Was he figuring out why previously reluctant students would suddenly ask for more practice? Had he gotten information out of someone? Was this just a comment or a subtle warning?

In some ways, Meduka was a little like one of Monica’s physical counterparts. She was supposed to force behavior into a particular mold; he did the same to bodies. And nothing Monica had said made me think that he was on her mental list.

Had we just blown our cover?

“I have my talents. I didn’t spend my time idly,” Monica said non-committally, her tone indicating that she was done with the conversation.

Frustration crossed Meduka’s face at Monica’s casualness and alarm bells sounded in my head. He knows something, but what?

“Ash was pretty impressed with Phoenix,” Meduka said. “Last time he broke an arm he was out six weeks.”

“Ash, impressed? Are we talking about the same Ash? God’s gift to the world?” Monica asked with a hint of incredulity.

“Yeah, he was really vocal about it at karate practice,” Meduka said, sounding amused. Monica rocked back on her heels a bit, shock in her eyes covered by a mask-like expression.

There was something going on here that I wasn’t picking up on. Subtle body language, slang, code phrases, knowing the people in the academy better than I did, Meduka and Monica were having a whole separate conversation that I wasn’t privy to, and it was making me nervous as hell.

“He shouldn’t be so concerned about me simply doing my duty,” Monica said flatly, a finality in her voice that sent a brief chill down my spine.

“Fine, whatever. I just like what you two are doing. Ass,” he said the last under his breath as he turned away. From the repressed twitches in Monica’s hands, she wanted to grab him and demand that he apologize… or explain. She did neither, and in two breaths Meduka was back in the crowd.

Turning back to me and setting the final plate on the bar, I could see she had lost most of her color as blood drained out of her face. A slightly shake of her head silenced me before I could even ask any questions. She didn’t respond to a single whispered comment of mine until we were back in the safety of her room.

“What the hell is going on?” I got out finally when we were alone.

“He knows what we’re doing. Not details, but he’s figured something out and he and Ash want in.”

“Fuck,” I swore. “Goddamn it, we were so fucking close!”

“Wait, hang on, we’re not dead yet. If he wanted to screw us over, he’d already have taken it to one of the teachers or the Headmaster. I believe he thinks I’m working on some kind of coup… He wants in on the spoils,” she explained. “This isn’t as bad as we think it is.”

“Great,” I muttered. “So how bad is it?”

“If he keeps trying to angle for himself, not very. If he decides to save the status quo, extremely.”

“What are the odds either way?”

Monica smiled a little and I relaxed a fraction.

“If Meduka weren’t a self-centered son-of-a-bitch he would have never gotten as far as he has, considering his curse. Just hope he keeps being greedy.”

“And if he doesn’t?” I asked pointedly. Monica looked troubled.

“Then we’re really screwed. I’m not a mind reader, and I can’t just go drag him into my workroom and get the truth out of him. It’s only a few more days; we just have to keep a lower profile,” Monica explained. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I was very proud of her that she hadn’t considered using her powers on him to get information. I was a little tempted at this point, just out of fear, but she hadn’t said it.

“How? Go ask the people we’ve talked to to keep their mouths shut?” I asked.

“I don’t know! There are only so many plan B options we have in here. We’re going to have to take this on faith, because I am out of brilliant ideas!” she nearly-shouted.

“Ok, ok,” I said quickly, and backed down. Both of us were dancing on eggshells around each other due to our touchy moods, and I didn’t need to provoke myself any more. The academy was doing plenty of that for me.


An incident later that night brought more evidence to support Monica’s assessment of Meduka’s odd request. I’d just finished up in the infirmary, sending out the latest patient (five badly smashed ribs and some other internal damage from being caught under a collapsing wall) when Cowboy Jack stomped in, scowling furiously. Catching sight of Monica as we were about to leave, he planted himself solidly in front of her.

“Painbreaker, I have problems,” he announced. I was very, very glad right then that none of the gang was here. Zack or Magenta, especially Magenta, wouldn’t have been able to resist an opening like that. Monica only raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“You don’t seem to be seriously hurt.”

“Goddamn it, I’m not talkin’ about that! My hoss been actin’ up. He’s all skittish and ornery and I don’t have the time t’ straighten him out,” Jack said, crossing his arms belligerently.

“If you can’t control your own sidekick, that’s not my problem,” Monica said evenly.

“Yeah, it is. You took him in fer an eval not more’n three days ago. Now, he’s usually nice and quiet after things like that, but he’s been ornerier than evah these past few days and I’m sick of it!” he shouted.

“He was fine with me. Perhaps you’re just paranoid,” Monica said pleasantly, as if dismissing the whole thing.

“Don’t play those mind games with me!”

“I don’t need to. If you can’t keep Nightsteed in line after I’ve checked up on him, then the failing is with you, not him.”

Jack’s mouth snapped shut at that subtle threat. A villain that couldn’t control his sidekick could suffer a very cruel role-reversal when other villains found out about it.

“Go play with your rope Jack,” she finished. From the look on Jack’s face, he wasn’t done with her yet, but also wasn’t willing to push things right now. He stomped out with ill-grace, spurs jingling.

Back in the room, I actually saw some real fear on Monica’s face.

“We’ve got to move fast, we don’t have much time.”


With cracks starting to appear in our carefully crafted façade, on the fifth day Monica opted for a grueling pace of “talks,” praying we’d be able to get the number of people we needed before something worse happened. We were close, very close, but the drain on me was definitely taking its toll. I was starting to get cold toward the end of the day, a danger sign I couldn’t ignore, and my temper, long frayed with witnessing cruelty and being unable to stop it, snapped shortly after Blood and Bones. Again.

I’d been yet again forced to watch the strong beat up on the weak, to watch blood fly and bones break for cruel entertainment and “training.” And because of all the people we’d talked to today, the philosophy of the academy was eating at me. Three more people had had complete breakdowns in the workroom today, and I’d had to physically restrain one girl until Monica could frighten her into silence.

It really made me think, realizing how close so many of the others were to that kind of reaction. The academy’s main philosophy, if it had one, was to make “better” supervillains. But with all the potential mental breakdowns within its walls, I couldn’t believe that this place was still standing. Not to mention all the strange tactics the academy villains had been using against us in the last few years, with their endless “testing” and prodding to no visible end. Brooding on that, and combining it with the fear of discovery and the whole stew of crap the psychics were probably throwing at me, I nearly exploded right in the stands. None of this made any sense!

Ignoring a few snickers and significant glances, Monica hauled me off to the supply closet again, managing to get the door shut before I started a rant that had been running through my mind for the last hour.

“Ok, screw this shit. Monica, this just doesn’t make any fucking sense!” I said heatedly. “Just seeing these guys today… Look, instead of the academy pressing their damn advantage when they should have, when we’re still just figuring out that there is an academy, the Headmaster holds everyone back, and we end up having enough time to get ready. They test and test and test us, but don’t seem to use what they learn half the time. Sure, everyone gets away fast enough to avoid getting in jail, but a quarter of the capers and robberies are abandoned because of that.

“Almost half the students here don’t really want to be here, and a quarter of those hate this place and never would have been villains in the first place if they hadn’t been forced. This isn’t just being cruel, this is being stupid. This isn’t the work of a criminal mastermind; it’s the work of some kind of schizophrenic sadist. How the hell has this place managed to keep going all this time without imploding from the inside?”

Monica clicked off the light in the closet as my rant rose to just short of Boomer-volume and used the disorientating affect of darkness to slide close to me and press both of her hands along the pressure-points on my wrists. It wasn’t hurting yet, but the promise of pain stopped me in mid-sentence.

“Paranoia does not become you Warren,” she said softly. I took a deep breath and slammed my head back against the wall. It didn’t hurt much because I still had my helmet on, but it cleared my head.

Fuck it, I knew how this place was affecting me and I hadn’t caught myself in time. Each time it was getting harder and harder to remember what was real and what the psychics were forcing on me. I found myself hauling myself back from strange mental tangents at least three times a day, but this time it had nearly taken me along for the ride…

“Listen to me. You know why the academy waited, why this place is designed to create the most psychotic and desperate people it can. This place is a weapon, an instrument of revenge. It’s meant to create as much chaos, pain, and injury as possible, to lure as many superheroes here as possible, so they can all die as soon as possible! It’s a giant death trap, and Royal Pain obviously did not care what happened to the children in her care as long as she was able to wipe out a whole generation of superheroes in the process. And the Headmaster might not care about Royal Pain anymore, but he sure as hell isn’t above fulfilling her agenda.

“Now, calm down.”

I took five deep breaths and let the tension slowly drain out of me, as much as it could.

“I’m all right,” I said finally, and she let me go, turning the lights back on.

“I expect the same from you if that happens to me, got it?”

“Promise,” I said grimly.


The sixth day in the academy and I was wondering if I was going to go completely insane before Monica and I could put the final phase of our plan in action. I was finishing each day cold and exhausted, emotionally drained and uncertain. The mood swings I’d noticed in the people we’d talked to I’d also noticed increasingly in myself. I’d go from fairly happy about how the general plan was going to depressingly uncertain, from contemplative about one hurdle or another to furious. I’d flared up more than once when I’d been angry, and I damn near backhanded some kid that didn’t clear the bench press fast enough this morning.

My mental walls were in ragged tatters, and I considered it a minor miracle that I hadn’t gone postal on any of the people I’d talked to in Monica’s workroom. Fatigue hadn’t let me keep my mental walls up consistently, and trying to monitor my thoughts against manipulation was hard, mostly because I was starting to wonder if I could tell the difference between deliberate manipulation and fatigue-induced randomness.

Oddly enough, the two places where I weren’t having mental breakdowns were Monica’s workroom and the infirmary. Healing took too much concentration to allow any kind of intrusion, but outside of there, I was fair game.

Today we’d managed to hit our threshold for the number of people we needed to stage a successful revolt. If we’d have any kind of luck, the superheroes would stop debating and hit the academy within the next two days. The fact that I’d healed two dozen villains should have convinced the heroes they had to get me out, if nothing else had. And if the Dreamer was to be believed, then the heroes should be here tomorrow. I was starting to even doubt my own dreams though, and had to face the fact that I might get no warning at all before the attack.

Having to watch Blood and Bones that night was perhaps the hardest thing I’d done yet. The constant crashing noise was pure hell on my mental state, and the vicious violence on the floor made me simultaneously furious and nauseous. I had a splitting headache before the “game” was half over, and by Monica’s stiff posture, I thought she probably knew it too. Irritably I wondered why she hadn’t channeled the pain to her, like she had before, and spent five minutes thinking about trying to get the ref’s attention so I could challenge Painbreaker before reason slammed me over the head.

It was a measure of how routine this had become in that I had been thinking about trying to fight my girlfriend. That in and of itself was frightening though. I tried to calm myself as much as I could, reasoning that she was picking up on the pain of most of the arena, and my headache couldn’t be anywhere near the level of what was going on down on the floor.

Just calm the hell down Peace. Calm. The fuck. Down, my brain told me sternly. Meditating through the noise of Blood and Bones was nearly impossible, but trying kept me from attempting murder in the stands. By the time the matches were done, I had gotten some semblance of control back, but even Monica’s inscrutable mask looked concerned when we started to file out.

“You look like hell,” she murmured. I was about to come back with a snappy comment when someone called out behind us.

“Hey Painbreaker!” I heard behind us. Cutter suddenly appeared in front of us in a flash of light, a bright, psychotic grin on her face.

I do not need this right now. Why the hell was Cutter choosing to talk to us now when we had been here for a week already?

“Say nothing, follow my lead,” Monica murmured sotto voce to me. “Cutter,” she said evenly, in a more normal tone.

“Nice job nabbing hot stuff here. He behaving?” she asked.

“Well enough.”

“Good to see you actually doing work for once. You have a nice three-year vacation?” Cutter snarked.

“Not really,” Monica deadpanned.

Cutter snorted in laughter and looked me over in an uncomfortably predatory way.

“Well, if you got him under control, mind if I borrow him for a while? He still owes me for the burned wrists.” She looked right at me, still grinning disturbingly. “Took me three months to get my wrist shots back after you burned me. Least you can do is make up for it.”

Fuck you, I snarled mentally. On second thought, no, never mind, not in a million years.

“Cutter, it’s not nice to play with your food,” Monica remarked.

Cutter broke into peals of laughter at that, and had to put her hand against the wall to keep herself from collapsing, gasping for breath as she wound down.

“Oh man, Painbreaker you got yourself a sense of humor out there. Never thought I’d hear you make a joke,” she snorted.

“I have my talents.” Monica was keeping her voice smooth and even, almost mechanical.

“Seriously, you can spare him for an hour or two right?” she said, taking a few steps forward. Casually Monica put herself between Cutter and I.

“Cutter, Phoenix is a very valuable academy asset-.”

“Don’t I know it,” Cutter murmured, eyeing my ass.

I kept myself from punching her by a thin margin.

“-And I don’t need you using him for target practice,” Monica finished, as if she hadn’t even heard Cutter’s comment.

“Please, I have something else in mind,” she said with a toss of her head.

Monica’s face got very hard as she regarded Cutter as if she were a lowly worm.

“Where I’m from it’s considered polite to stick to the man you’re with,” she said in same maddeningly calm voice.

“Who are you, my mom?” Cutter demanded, the grin on her face becoming more brittle.

“Since I didn’t drown you at birth, no.”

Cutter’s face darkened with anger.

“Shut up! Whatever I do it’s none of your damn business.”

“It’s my business because I’m in charge of him. Now shove off. He’s useful to the academy, and I’m not going to let you damage him because he made noise at the wrong time. You like it quiet, don’t you?”

Cutter’s face started to turn purple.

“Shut the hell up!” she screamed, but Monica was relentless.

I really hope you know what you’re doing Monica… I thought, a roaring in the pit of my stomach. My hands were hot and I was holding on very hard to not burst into flames, tense and ready to move to put myself between them. I had no idea why Monica was provoking Cutter so much, but I was scared Cutter would go for the kill after taunts like that. She’d “killed” Penny for less. Hell, she’d “killed” Penny for fun.

“If I were involved with Silver, I would think twice about messing around. He’s a little too jealous to be screwing the prisoners for fun,” Monica mocked, and Cutter snapped.

“You goddamned bitch!” she snarled, drawing a dagger and slashing at Monica. Monica moved in the same instant, faster than I’d though possible, sidestepping the blade and coming up under her guard, taking only a shallow slash across her scalp for her trouble. Monica’s hand flashed out and found purchase on Cutter’s face, her finger knives digging into the flesh of her cheek, blood beginning to trickle down as her skin tore.

“I did more than get a sense of humor out there Cutter. I grew a spine,” Monica said in a tone velvet with malice. Cutter sank to her knees as Painbreaker invoked her powers hard, darkening the air around them, a few strangled cries issuing past her lips.

“I am tired of taking your shit. I took it for years while I was here, and I will not take it anymore. You will keep your hands to yourself, you skanky ho, or I will redefine your world in living pain. How would you like to experience those burns of yours again, this time with my powers invoked to heighten them?” she asked in the same frighteningly deadly calm voice. A sideways glance from Monica told me what was expected of me, and I let the heat go, overpowering the cold feeling in my gut. The roaring emotional storm I had been experiencing for nearly a week was reaching a crescendo.

I’m supposed to stop this… I whispered mentally. Refuse and die. Give in and give up. Shit!

Cutter lost most of her color at Monica’s threat as I powered up a little, letting her see the flames dancing on my fingertips.

“Do we have an understanding?” Monica asked.

Cutter nodded, Painbreaker’s finger knives pulling in her flesh. Monica abruptly released her and powered down. Cutter vanished down the hall, and was out of sight in nothing flat. Monica looked around at everyone else in that corner of the gym with a simple expectant expression. “Anyone else?” it said, as clearly as if she had spoken. Everyone became intensely interested in the walls, floor, or ceiling, and Monica calmly walked us away, a triumphant expression her face.

I waited until we had reached our room before talking, mostly because I didn’t trust myself to say anything without yelling, but my mind was going a million miles an hour. Any brooding over possible thought manipulation was gone, and my thoughts felt clear, if conflicted.

For once though, Cutter had actually faced the consequences for her cruelty and selfish thoughtlessness, and Monica had stood up for herself against her. But it hadn’t been right. And I knew it was wrong that I’d enjoyed seeing Cutter being forced to back away. It was also probably bad that Monica had damn near gotten off on being able to use her powers like that. She had told me she enjoyed using them that way, perverse as it was, and she hadn’t been able to do that very often for the past few years.

It made her feel powerful, in complete control, for the first time in a long time. She’d just spent most of a week getting emotionally beaten up by her former victims, and oddly it was good to know she wasn’t a glutton for punishment. Hearing her saying she deserved getting yelled at was responsible and showed fortitude, but only a saint could be completely forgiving under these circumstances.

It wasn’t right or fair, what we had just done, but some of my unease and fear were fading before the feeling that Cutter wouldn’t dare touch us again… and if any of the stronger students had felt like she did, they wouldn’t do anything after that demonstration. I didn’t dare think how tomorrow would have gone if Cutter had gotten her way. It’d be like declaring open season on me. I’d have been eaten alive.

On the other hand…

That was exactly the kind of thing I was supposed to be stopping. If I had come across something like that sick little scene as Phoenix I would have taken them both in without hesitation. It was wrong; wrong on a level I hadn’t known until now. This was the first time I’d seen Monica give in fully to the villainous training and indoctrination she’d lived with for all those years. This was a whole magnitude worse than the first time we’d ever met. There she’d done what Cutter had asked her to do.

Here she’d happily initiated torture. This was why she was “one of the scary ones.” This was why people broke down when she brought them to her workroom. I had to imagine she’d done things like that over and over and over again, to each and every person we’d spoken to, and had probably appeared to enjoy-. No. Had enjoyed it. I was sharing a room with a supervillain, in the bowels of Royal Pain’s Supervillain Academy, and right now that had suddenly hit me on a deep gut level.

“Holy fuck,” I said, the instant the door was closed.

“She had it coming after everything she’s done, psychotic bitch,” Monica said, her expression one of self-righteous satisfaction.

Monica’s eyes were very bright, and her cheeks were flushed with emotion. From everything I knew that Cutter had done, especially the things I had seen her do, for “killing” Penny, for nearly butchering Layla, she deserved some kind of punishment. But it freaked me out to have seen the hate and fear on her face and the triumph on Monica’s. The way we had threatened Cutter, so directly and blatantly, made me queasy.

I’m sharing a room with a supervillain. I was in a bed with her. I just saw her torture someone. I helped her torture someone. I helped her… willingly.

Anger swelled from deep within me, tangled with a hundred fears I’d had since coming to this place, and crowned with my father’s face. I’d just crossed a line I promised myself I’d never cross. I’d gone from aiding the enemy in order to deceive them to actually becoming one of them.

I kept myself from bursting into flames, but my hands were hot enough to scorch when I grabbed Monica’s shoulders and slammed her back against the wall. Blood from her slashed scalp began to trickle down one side of her face. I ignored it.

“I don’t care if she deserved it!” I yelled. “Damn it, we shouldn’t have done that-.”

“Warren, what the hell?” she demanded, struggling. I growled at her, vision going red, and she stopped moving, surprise on her face when she saw my expression. I couldn’t intimidate her with pain, but she knew I could damage her badly if I wanted to.

One of them… my brain whispered.

Shut up! I demanded.

“Take your hands off of me. I was just protecting you,” Monica hissed, her dark eyes hot with anger.

“I don’t need you to protect me-.”

“Yes you do. In here-.”

“I don’t fucking care!” I roared. “I don’t need you to protect me from supervillains. I’ve been doing that most of my fucking life!”

“Cutter has played those games with lots of people, and no one has ever stood up to her before. There’s no way I was going to let you out of my sight in here, particularly not with her,” she explained, her teeth bared, a dangerous expression.

“You think I can’t fend her off? That I’m so goddamn weak just because this is your home turf?”

“What, and you didn’t think the same of me on yours? You were so eager to protect me from all of your friends and fellow heroes. Ashamed of me? Thought I couldn’t handle their reactions? Thought I’d collapse?” she snapped.

“You did,” I pointed out, my face inches from hers.

Monica’s hand flashed in the corner of my eye, finger blades flashing close to my face, stopping inches from contact. I could have burned her before she did anything, but I knew I would regret it. Both of us froze in a Mexican standoff.

“I want to hurt you so badly right now,” she breathed. Her hand crackled with black pain energy and my own were nearly red hot, and dangerously close to her neck.

“Why don’t you?” I snarled.

“I’m not mad at you,” Monica said. “You have a damn fucking irritating habit of being right and sometimes you shove it down my throat, but I don’t hate you for it. I’m goddamn tired and angry, but I have reasons for doing what I did.”

I waited for more of an answer, feeling suddenly like we were on the brink of something.

“I am not weak anymore Warren. I did not do that to Cutter because I wanted to,” she said. “I finally understand why I’m doing this, why I came here, why I have to do it this way.”

“Tell me,” I said softly. Neither of us dropped our hands so much as an inch.

“This place is evil. It only ‘helps’ the ten percept of people tough enough and callous enough to embrace cruelty; the ones who are willing to walk over the backs of a dozen people to take what they want. Everyone else is scared to death of themselves and everyone around them. No one should have to live fearing and hating themselves or anyone else every single day. And I’ll be damned again before I let those evil bastards here hurt anyone else.”

“If you died tonight, I’d stay and tear this place down with my own hands if I had to. I’d find some way to get those others out of here and I’d find some way to blow this place myself. It doesn’t matter what would happen to me, as long as I stop this place. Do you understand me?” she asked, both conviction and desperation in her voice.

“I understand,” I said slowly. At least, I think I did.

“I will never be the kind of hero you are,” she hissed, standing up straight, looking up into my eyes, challenge written in every line of her. “I will never be able to intimidate someone without hurting them eventually. But I know the difference between how to get someone’s attention and just bringing them to their knees for fun. Cutter does not respond to anything subtle. I did that to her because when we finally fight, I want her to be so concentrated on killing me that she forgets about you, forgets about running, forgets about hurting anyone else but me.”

Monica closed her eyes for a second and some of the tenseness left her body.

“What makes a hero, Warren? Intent? Your father had good intentions; he wanted to save the world from itself. But he murdered to try to do it, and that was wrong. Methods? Death doesn’t make a hero, and torture doesn’t either. You showed me I can do other things with my powers, things I’d forgotten… ways I can use them safely. And I want to do this. It’s want that makes a hero. Desire, desire to do something right with your life.

“Warren, I want this place destroyed with as little harm as possible to anyone else. I don’t want something like this to happen to anyone else ever again,” she said, looking back up at me. Her eyes looked huge in the shadowed light, and she was looking at me with an odd mixture of entreaty and stubbornness.

“I need you to believe in me,” she said finally.

Something snapped in my mind, like a dislocated joint snapping into place, and the furious uncertainty I had been living with for nearly a week seemed to vanish. Clarity of thought returned and my nausea and anger vanished.

“I believe you,” I said, pressing my lips to her blood-soaked hair. The ember-fire tricked into my hands, turning from orange to red, wanting to brush away the faint inner shadow of her slashed scalp. She let me in, and I could see her life-fire was still untainted by the black bands that had nearly been controlling her before.

She knows what she’s doing, I realized, letting the red fire brush away the faint shadow, then dropping out of my trance with the characteristic jolt of pain as Monica pulled me back out.

“I believe in you,” I repeated. Monica smiled a little and laced her fingers around my neck, pressing her face into my chest. We stayed that way for a long time, just holding each other, before the emotional strain of the day caught up to us in fatigue. This time we collapsed onto Monica’s bed, cradled together, but nothing more. We just shared the warmth between us, our hands intertwined, as we drifted off into sleep.


“What was that little stunt?” the Dreamer demanded.

This is getting old, fast, I thought.

“If you can read my damn mind enough to know what happened, then you already know the fucking answer to that,” I said. No, it wasn’t particularly polite to mouth off to my aunt. But then again this whole conversation was so completely inane that I didn’t care. There were some bigger issues at hand. Very close at hand.

“You’re touchy tonight,” she muttered behind her veil.

“Look, you know it wasn’t a stunt. She had a reason, a good one for doing that. And-. Screw it, I don’t really care about explaining this right now. If you can pass on messages, pass on this one: Attack now,” I said.

My, aren’t you pushy today? my brain commented brightly. Get bent, I thought back, and looked at the Dreamer.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t tell me to hold off the attack, because they’re just about ready now. I’ll tell them, and we should be there at dawn,” she said, nodding her head a fraction.

“That seemed too easy,” I muttered. The Dreamer had given me little concrete help over this past week, and a little helpful dream-nudge might have kept me from nearly going nova six times a day.

“Easy? Phoenix, we’ve been doing everything possible within our power to keep the heroes from attacking for the last three days. Your mother is nearly frantic with worry, Emberkeeper had to be restrained from burning down the Council chamber, and if Guardian hadn’t suddenly thrown in on the Peacemaker’s side, The Commander would have lead the charge in to kill you before any more supervillains came out healed,” she snapped.

I actually laughed, which made the Dreamer nearly steam at the ears.

“Zack found the maps,” I said with a bit of a smile. There was no way that Will would have gone from wanting to get me out immediately to going along with my mom’s idea that we should wait unless Zack had found Monica’s maps. She’d left Zack a copy of maps of the academy along with an outline of our plan, knowing that with Zack’s messy room he wouldn’t find them until now. Will and the others now knew Monica’s plan, and they knew that I wasn’t being mind-controlled. My friends were back on my side. I felt a relief so intense it was nearly painful.

“Do I want to know?” the Dreamer asked wearily. I shook my head; it was too complicated to explain right now. “Then fine.”

She looked off to one side and sighed.

“Wake up Warren, someone’s at the door.”


Pounding on the door woke me, along with Monica shaking my shoulder.

I groggily came awake, and then suddenly the mental cobwebs cleared as I remembered the conversation with the Dreamer. But from how tired I was feeling, it couldn’t be dawn yet. A quick check of the clock revealed it to be three in the morning. So who the hell was at the door?

“Someone has a death wish,” Monica growled as I sat up. Shoving off the bed, she stalked over to answer the knocking, adopting a fearsome expression. For a half-second I feared it might be Cutter… But then I realized Cutter would never bother knocking before attacking.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Monica demanded of whomever was on the other side of the door. She cracked it open as she spoke, and I saw her expression go blank. I got to my feet and lurked behind her.

“Painbreaker, we need Phoenix,” Meduka said, his odd voice even more strange and echo-like in the stone corridor outside. The heavily-muscled trainer looked tired and ragged, like someone had just dragged him out of his bed too. “Cutter just came in and they can’t stop the bleeding.”

Crap, I thought.

Monica snapped her fingers imperiously at me and I stuck to her side as we ran through the corridors, my stomach in a knot.

“What happened?” I asked. Meduka looked at me oddly, academy protocol overriding any respect he had for me personally. And protocol demanded that everything got filtered through Painbreaker. Particularly at three a.m.

“Answer the man,” Monica said mildly, and Meduka flinched, fatigue dulling his courage.

“Jewelry robbery went wrong. Cutter and Silver smashed the cases right before the Mind Gamers showed up. Psi-Lance used her powers to hang the shards in the air so Cutter couldn’t teleport out, and then called for them to surrender. Cutter used her powers anyway. I have no idea how she got back here still alive…”

Corridors flew past during Meduka’s explanation and faint cries could be heard ahead as we got to the infirmary door. Inside, Cutter was in the first room, her skin pale as the white sheets and her silver costume liberally splashed with crimson. A large shard of glass was impaled in her abdomen and blood was running down her side.

Someone had managed to get a blood transfusion going, but whoever had done it was long gone by now. The reason why was clear. Son of Silver was hovering over Cutter, alternately holding her hand and raging impotently against what had happened to her. Except I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. I knew he was “raging” because of the expression on his face and the gestures he was using, but though his lips were moving, nothing audible was coming out.

Cutter was alternately hissing in pain and trying to calm Silver down. She was talking, albeit with a lot of effort, but also moving her hands at the same time. I remembered she had done the same kind of thing in Maxville the last time the two of them had shown up. But this time she didn’t have her knives in her hands to confuse the issue. She was using sign language. Son of Silver was deaf, and apparently mute too.

Somehow, somewhere, that was going to be useful, but not now.

“Phoenix,” Cutter said weakly, and pointed at me. Silver whipped around, took two steps over to grab me and dragged me to Cutter’s side, nearly shoving me through the bed rail.

“Fix her,” he mouthed, his expression dark and panicked. The wrongness about Cutter was hammering me hard, making it difficult to think through both the clamor of adrenaline and the lack of sleep. I hadn’t seen someone this badly hurt since my last bad car accident on my cover job, barring Cutter’s own attack on Layla.

Monica wouldn’t meet my eyes when I looked around. This had been a scenario I had been dreading. Nothing but major surgery or me was going to save Cutter now. And surgery wouldn’t save her in time. Silver grabbed the sleeve of my jacket when I hesitated, a look of doom and despair in his eyes. I met him stare for stare, not wanting to back down, and then carefully gripped the glass shard. I looked down at Cutter, and saw the pure panic brought on by the certain knowledge that she was about to die.

It was an expression I’d seen more than once on a car wreck victim.

Damn it, I thought.

I took a deep breath and yanked the shard out. Cutter screamed and thrashed in agony. In a blink of an eye, Son of Silver had drawn a gun had it pressed against my forehead. Monica moved a half step forward before Silver brought his other gun up to point at her.

“Fix Cutter,” he mouthed again. “Or I’ll shoot you both.”

Despite the gun that was very much pressing into my forehead, I could see he was truly desperate; that he actually was afraid of losing Cutter. But he was also used to getting what he wanted, and I doubted he’d ever asked for anything politely.

Cutter’s long trail of injury, maiming, and death, not to mention her trying to kill me twice didn’t earn her any clemency in my book. I didn’t have a lot of choice though. The ember fire was pressing hard against my control, knowing that Cutter was dying right next to me.

I hated her. But I wouldn’t let her die.

The ember-flames flared on my hands, for the first time mixed with orange as my anger tinged my compulsion to fix Cutter’s dying body. Silver holstered his guns as he saw the reddish fire, his attention now fixed on his girlfriend rather than me.

“This is gonna hurt,” I told Cutter flatly, and put my hands on her stomach. The fire flared brightly enough to make everyone wince, and I could suddenly see Cutter’s life-fire, a jagged black bolt through it, slowly darkening everything around it, the fire fading inexorably.

I could feel Cutter arcing and hear her screaming as the fire ate up her injuries inside, stopping the bleeding, sealing off the damage, and connecting what had been severed. When it came time to close the outer gash itself, I couldn’t bring myself to just help her body close it naturally. She wasn’t dying anymore. The ember-fire wanted to help her, but I didn’t have to make it pleasant. I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t see her die, but I wouldn’t make it easy for her either.

So I just cauterized the damn thing shut.

No, it wasn’t heroic. Yeah, I felt a little bad about doing it. But after every single person I had sent out-battle ready during this week, I wanted her to be delayed for a day or two. Long enough that she wouldn’t be able to fight us easily during the final battle. I just hoped that justification didn’t mean I was slipping.

Silver damn near drew his gun again when Cutter screamed at the last flare of flame, but as the wound closed and the bleeding stopped before his eyes, he held his peace… and his piece. When all that was left was a welt-like scar from the cauterized wound, Monica dug her finger blades into my shoulder and jerked me back.

Cutter was shuddering; a sheen of sweat covering her skin, but her color was a hell of a lot better than it had been. Through some miracle, the transfusion needle had managed to say in her arm through all of her gyrations, and fresh blood was flowing in to replace what she’d lost. I idly wondered who had donated that blood, and if they had any idea that it would be used by a supervillain.

Silver calmed down the second Cutter opened her eyes, and touched her face gently, as if afraid of causing her any more pain. I could see only the faintest of scars from Monica’s rough treatment earlier today; I’d inadvertently healed them along with everything else.

Cutter was breathing almost gingerly, as if not yet sure she still could. Locking eyes with Silver, she put her arms along him for a very long kiss. I just stood there, feeling both angry and somewhat superfluous, but Monica shook her head slightly when I would have tried to slip out the door.

“I warned you,” Monica said softly to Cutter, and I saw her stiffen slightly and break off the kiss.

“That fucking hurt!” Cutter said darkly, her hands gesturing in translation for Silver.

“You’re alive, aren’t you?” Monica asked reasonably. “It’s pyrokinetic healing; it’s not exactly easy on the body. Cutter glared at her, but couldn’t sustain it long. Injured as she had been, and with as rough as I’d been on her, she wasn’t going to be getting around easily for a few days. I hoped that would be enough.

As Cutter and Monica glared at each other, an insanely loud alarm suddenly reverberated through the air and lights on the walls began flashing. I clapped my hands over my ears in pain as Monica’s eyes widened.

“They’re here!” she shouted, and my heart skipped a few beats in both fear and relief. It was the proximity alarms. The superheroes were coming. And the academy was going down.


 

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