Heroes and Villains Part A
I awoke in a dream, and I knew it. I wished I wasn’t; I was so tired even dreaming was making me feel exhausted. All I wanted to do was end the dream and get back to sleep… Or something. My brain wasn’t working very well.
“Hello?” I heard someone call. It was an effort to blink, but as I did, the fuzzy world around me came into focus: a meadow filled with short grass, colorful wildflowers, and bright sunshine. A woman robed and veiled in pale gray stood very close to me.
“Hello?” she said again. For some reason that annoyed me.
“Let me sleep,” I said tiredly.
“It’s time to get up, though; you’ll sleep better once you’re awake. You’re too tired to sleep,” she said with gentle insistence.
For some reason that actually made sense.
“Do you know who you are?” she asked kindly.
That question didn’t make sense for a while, so I stared at the woman for a long minute until her name came to me.
“You’re the Dreamer?” the woman repeated, sounding a little anxious. I shook my head carefully.
“No, you’re the Dreamer.” That was obvious. That was clearly who she was; I remembered that.
“All right, that’s me, so who are you?” she persisted. That was a dumb question. Who else was I supposed to be?
“I’m-,” I started, but stopped, a stab of fear piercing me as my mind went blank. My eyes darted around wildly for a second, seeking answers, before alighting on a red wildflower. Red… The color triggered a memory, and it felt like a starburst had taken place in my brain.
“I’m Warren Peace, I’m Phoenix, I’m Phoenix!” I almost shouted, embarrassed that it had taken that long. The woman bowed her head in acquiescence, and I closed my eyes for a second. When I opened them, the meadow was filled with long, autumn-gold dried grasses and dozens of flowers in red, orange, and yellow. A crimson sunset bloodied the place with its light, and a warm breeze smelling of woodsmoke washed over me. I breathed it all in for a moment, fatigue slowly lifting from me.
“Phoenix, will you get up now?” The Dreamer’s voice was implacable, and I sighed heavily. Then the world slowly dissolved around me.
When I woke up, for real this time, it was quiet. I was comfortably warm, and since there were no screams of agony or angelic harps, I more or less figured I wasn’t dead. But the minute I moved, searing pain lanced across my head.
“Kill me,” I groaned mindlessly, hoping whoever was nearest would be merciful. I’d never felt pain like this in my life.
“Sorry, I couldn’t do that,” a voice whispered. Someone’s hand gripped mine, and the pain was gone like someone had flicked a switch. The relief was so incredible that I couldn’t talk for a few seconds.
“Monica,” I whispered, daring to open my eyes. Monica was at my bedside, and Mom was right next to her, her hands on my arm. Both looked thin and haggard, but still ok. Still alive. Still here.
“Mom, I-,” I started, and then actually looked at the arm and hand they were holding. It looked like it belonged to someone else; a thin, emaciated arm from a victim of starvation or a wasting disease. Panic and fear gave me the momentary strength to move my other arm in front of my face. Same thing, same twig-like arm, so weak I couldn’t up it up for more than a few seconds.
“What happened?” I said fearfully, my heart starting to pound. I felt a sudden thread of cool calm come between the fear and me as Mom exerted her powers, and my heart rate slowly returned to normal.
“The doctors said it would be very bad for you to panic dearheart,” she said in apology. I swallowed hard, looked down at my arm, and then forced myself to only look at Mom and Monica. I was alive, so I didn’t need to freak out yet. There were more important things I needed to find out.
“What happened?” I asked more calmly. “Is everyone ok? Did we lose anyone?” I didn’t think we had been lucky enough to defeat the academy without losses, but since together we had pulled off some crazy healing stunt, I had hope. Mom and Monica hesitated at my question, and my heart sank.
“We didn’t lose anyone after you began healing,” Mom started. There was fatigue and pain in both her and Monica’s faces, and I began to wonder how long I’d been out. I’d only seen that look on Mom’s face when she came from a really long job.
“Damn it,” I said weakly. “Who? How?”
“Son of Silver killed Diamond, Seawalker, and Crimson Tempus before Sonic Boom was able to stop him. Cutter gutted Sonic Boom for hurting her boyfriend, and then got Silver out before the weapons activated. She took Bloodtalon, Skybolt, Viper, and Saurian Lord along with them. They’re still at large,” Monica said tiredly.
I only knew Diamond and Seawalker by reputation, but the deaths of Boomer and Crimson Tempus floored me. Boomer had always seemed indestructible; as our gym teacher, he threw his weight around plenty of times, but had come through for us in the clutch. Training us, working out a whole new program to toughen us up to face the academy in record time, never letting up on us (even if he was sometimes a dick about it), he’d never let us down. And Crimson Tempus, the Maxville Bureau director, had seemed about as easy to hurt as a brick wall. I’d never had the occasion to see him in action, but had heard plenty of stories.
“There were four academy villains in front of the death ray when it went off, and Iceangel and Cool Cross were caught in the disintegration beam. There was nothing anyone could have done for them,” Monica continued.
Christ. Iceangel was Melissa Frost, the cryokinetic from my class at Sky High. The girl who’d danced with me at my sophomore Homecoming…
“The splitter beam just barely winged the Geogods, and Stonehenge lost an arm. He pulled through though.”
Stonehenge… Larry the rock guy from Will’s class. Damn.
“After the battle, we found Psion, Mindmelt, and Brainshock’s bodies in one of the inner chambers. Not a mark on them; the doctors said their brains were overloaded from massive neural shock. It looks like a stroke if you’ve never seen the loser in a psychic battle before.”
“Were they fighting each other or one of us?” I asked.
“Warren, they found Dallas-.”
“Wait, he’s all right. The Dreamer managed to get him to wake up. He doesn’t remember much, which is probably just as well. But Tracy and Elise-.”
“No,” I whispered, but Monica continued on mercilessly.
“They woke up in their own bodies about five minutes before the battle, grabbed the nearest person, dumped a few years’ worth of academy information in their head, and then vacated again. They never woke up, and they died a half-hour later,” she said quietly.
I turned my head away for a second, swallowing hard. They had been so close to getting out... Why had they leapt back into a psychic duel? But if Psion, Mindmelt, and Brainshock had been free to stir up people during the actual fight, a lot more people could have died. And who else knew enough about them to fight them on their own turf? Tracy and Elise had made the same decision I had, but they hadn’t lived through it.
“Anyone else?” I asked, turning to face Monica again.
“No one else died. A lot of the villains escaped, but some surrendered, and a few defected. Some of those were lying, we found out when the Mentalist and the Peacemaker interviewed them, and they’ve already been tried and jailed with the others that were caught. There weren’t any critical injuries after you got done, so everyone else lived,” she concluded.
I stared at both of them, eyes starting to burn. I was still too tired to be stoic and hold back tears, not when there was a suffocating lump in my throat. It was futile to try to hide it from those two, and they closed in on my, pulling me into a tight embrace, not letting me cry alone. Eight heroes and seven villains had died during the culmination of our brilliant plan, not to mention the three shapeshifter Bureau spies who had been killed earlier, and who knew how many other failed villains that didn’t make the grade. All of them dead.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t known some of them at all. For a few minutes, when I had been in that healing trance, I had been connected to hundreds of people. I’d known Boomer for years, and Crimson Tempus peripherally for almost as long. Melissa Frost had ended up as a friendly acquaintance at school, and Tracy and Elise… All the people I hadn’t known, now I never would. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked some of them, but now I’d never get the chance.
I wasn’t going to carry their deaths on my shoulders; we’d been damn lucky to only have fifteen people die during that battle. It could have easily been fifty. Or fifteen hundred. But they were fellow human beings, and I cried because they deserved something more than what they’d gotten.
I didn’t have the strength to cry for very long, but it still seemed a long time later when I finally ran dry. Mom and Monica passed around tissues and water as all three of us tried to get back under control. At least I didn’t need to explain myself to them; they both understood completely. Mom sighed, knowing there was still a lot to go over, and I nodded, ready for more news.
“The Bureau is still figuring out what to do with the people who genuinely defected. They wanted to wait until you’d woken up,” Mom said finally, with a slight sideways flicker of her eyes towards Monica. Well, since Monica was here and not in a prison cell somewhere, she must have managed to convince them of her sincerity. But I didn’t know what they’d want to do with her afterward.
“They’ve already debriefed me, and everyone else too. I… told them everything we’d done, but they still want to hear your version,” Monica said, her hand still tight on mine. I guessed the Bureau wouldn’t have taken Monica’s word on faith, but I’d been futilely hoping I wouldn’t have to rehash this whole nightmare so soon.
“Wait, Will and the guys-,” I said suddenly, looking past Mom to see cards and flowers littering the table behind her. Amongst them was the voodoo lily Layla had given me for Christmas a few years ago, and I realized I had almost expected to see the gang here.
“Are out on a call,” Mom said instantly. “At least one of them was here around the clock the entire time you were out, Will most of all. But with people still recovering, the Champions have to cover a bit more territory than normal, that’s all. They’ll check back here as soon as they’re done.”
“Recovering? Who’s still-? And why-? How long was I out? And what happened to me?” I spewed out the barrage of questions rapidly, the need to know overriding whatever calming effect Mom had on me.
“Warren…” Mom said in warning, and I took three deep breaths. When I was back under control, she started talking. “You’ve been out for two and a half weeks.”
“Weeks?!” I nearly sputtered.
“Do you remember dreaming?” she asked. I blinked and thought about it. Then my heart nearly stopped. The appearance of The Dreamer in that last odd dream hadn’t just been for the kind of information dissemination that it had been while I was in the academy. First and foremost, The Dreamer was known for using her power on the comatose and catatonic to get them to wake up. That gave me an inkling of how bad off I had been.
“Yeah. I- Jesus,” I got out.
“Possibly. As for the rest of your questions, Dr. Egret wanted to fill you in on that,” she said.
“I-. Ok,” I said, trying to get myself to relax again. What was left of my muscles was trembling with the effort of maintaining me even sitting up in bed (albeit heavily propped with pillows).
Dr. Egret popped into the room so fast I realized she must have been listening in the entire time. Then again, if I’d been out two and a half weeks, I should consider myself lucky that Mom and Monica hadn’t been swept aside immediately so she could do more medical tests on me. At least she’d given me that.
The doctor pulled up a chair to sit on the other side of the bed, and regarded me frankly with her bird-black eyes.
“Phoenix, first thing first, you will make a full recovery. Once you start eating on your own instead of having you on a nutrient drip, you’ll start to get your strength back,” she said, her voice high and fluting.
I shrugged vaguely at the news. There’s not much that can permanently disable someone with indestructibility, and recovery for anything short of an instant death-wound is only a matter of time. Not that that matter of time couldn’t be excruciatingly painful and unpleasant though.
“Second, and to answer your other questions, suffice to say I wouldn’t take your powers if you paid me.” Since the last time we’d spoken she’d basically been envious of my abilities, this was a hell of an about-face. I looked at her slightly in shock.
“Now, as to what happened to you,” she continued, nodding at my emaciated body. “It’s very lucky that in your destruction of the academy computers, you managed to miss some of the memory banks. We have very little hard data on your healing ability in action. You’ve never gone through formal testing at our labs, so the only information we really had on how your powers work was the information from that Gauntlet run almost four years ago.
“The academy, by the by, had an excellent sensor array that was active during your rather impressive show of power. All of that was recorded, and we were eventually able to interpret the data to some interesting conclusions. That was augmented by the personal testimonies of everyone I could find who has experienced your healing first-hand. I was finally able to piece together exactly what you were doing.
“Ok…” I said a little impatiently.
“On a basic level, you transfer energy from yourself to another, and encourage the body to use that energy to heal damage faster.”
“Yeah, Nurse Spex told me that years ago,” I pointed out.
“But you found it to be difficult. Control was hard, it was difficult to trance, and you could only really do it for very severe things. So you eventually learned meditation techniques, and how to focus your concentration better. It made it easier to use your power, but you found it was much easier to burn people by accident.”
“Yeah…” I said slowly, feeling slightly uncomfortable at hearing her bald recitation.
“After reviewing the data from the academy sensors, it became clearer what you were doing with your ability. You were giving parts of your personal power away.”
“What?” I asked incredulously. I was remembering my mom’s words, about how my ancestor Margaret Peace had given away so much of herself that she’d died. How much had I given away? And where? To who?
“The harder you try to concentrate, the more of your personal power is brought to bear on the injury at hand. The more power you pour into someone, the more the fire works to burn hotter, trying to match its source. Phoenix, you were trying to make people like you. That’s why you burned people,” she said earnestly.
“Like me?” I said ingeniously, but Egret kept talking.
“Yes. At any rate, your incredible effort to convert several hundred people into pyrokinetics, even with the massive assistance from Fire Court, forced your body to marshal every reserve, even cannibalizing itself. If you hadn’t been indestructible, if Guardian hadn’t shaken you out of your trance, you would have just gone up in flames and died. And unlike the classical phoenix, there wouldn’t have been any rebirth from the ashes,” she said severely. Then she got a thoughtful look on her face. “Or at least not in the traditional sense.”
My inquiring glance begged a further explanation from her.
“It might be possible, if the person or persons you were healing were strong enough, that you could literally give all your power to them before you burned up entirely. You could pass your abilities onto someone else, even someone that didn’t have powers before. That’s only a theory, mind you. And we’re not going to test that, ever,” she added sharply.
“Did I give-? Do people have-?” I started, not sure how to phrase what I wanted to know.
“As far as I’m aware, you are still the only one with your powers. You might have been giving away your fire, but you still make more. And it seems as if you have a lot to give,” Dr. Egret said, her eyes softening. “Fire Court didn’t experience the adverse effects to the same extent you did. They were all on their feet within a day or so. You bore the brunt of the damage, it seems.
“Now,” she said, “about people recovering. Though you saved hundreds from death, your rather uninhibited use of your powers did have some side effects on everyone you healed. Most had burns where their wounds were. They’re all fine; they’ll have scars, but they’re alive, and thankful to be so. Your… friend Ms. Keller was helping them with the pain until they healed up.”
I squeezed Monica’s hand, and felt her grip mine hard in return. It would be hard for the Bureau to argue against her if she’d just spent the last two and a half weeks helping injured superheroes. I didn’t know what the Bureau had in store for her, but as a former supervillain she always hedged her bets, making sure they’d have evidence of her reformation in front of their own eyes. And I knew she thought it was the right thing to do.
“I haven’t found any evidence of even a mild power-transfer to any of your ‘patients,’ if you were worried about that. Some people reported having dreams about fire, but there’s been no evidence of spontaneous pyrokinesis or personality contamination,” Egret finished briskly. I sighed in relief, as she gently laid her white, feathered hand on mine.
She looked into the middle distance for a moment, and nodded. I realized she must be invoking her own minor healing ability, though I couldn’t feel anything but a faint cool tickle, like a feather stroking across my chest. In an instant, it was gone.
“As I thought. No long-term damage. Joy, would you help me get some food for you son? It’d be best if you fed yourself from now on,” Dr. Egret said. “Once you’ve started to get to a healthy weight, you’re going to have to exercise to get your strength back, but you’re well on the road to recovery.”
With that, Egret and Mom left, leaving me alone with Monica.
“You doing ok?” I asked her, reaching out weakly with my free hand to run it through her thick, dark hair. She captured that hand too, and I could feel her trying to repress a tremble.
“Better now. Better that you’re awake. Better that we’re out.”
Out from where didn’t need an explanation. Other than the headache I’d had, I now felt like I could think without wondering if I was going to go near-homicidal at least twice a day.
“I hear you. How are people…?” I asked delicately.
“How are people treating me? Not too badly. I’m here, for one. And they didn’t mind when I could help them. I’m luckier than anyone else but Duke. Meduka,” she clarified. “The others were all supervillains in public. I was never actually officially Painbreaker, so I have that going for me. Your friends were watching me like hawks though,” she said, and I could see the weeks of tension in her eyes. Being inside the Bureau, nder constant surveillance and scrutiny, had to be one of the toughest things she’d done. Just facing all those disapproving eyes…
“What about the other guys?” I asked. Meduka, Flamewing, Voidhammer, Nightsteed, Bruin, and the technopaths had been as much responsible for our success as any of us.
“They’re dealing. They’ve spent most of their time being questioned.”
“You too?” I asked.
“Yes…” she said haltingly.
“What?” I pressed. Monica swallowed and looked down for a second, before locking eyes with me.
“You were so close Warren, closer than I wanted to see you. Close to going over. I had to tell them that,” she said. I felt a chill creep up my spine. “But I didn’t tell them I had plans in case that happened.”
“What kind of plans?” I asked in a kind of horrified fascination. I knew I had been close to some kind of psychotic break while I was in the academy, but the idea of coming up with yet another plan to contain myself if that had happened had been laughable to me. What could I have done?
“It depended on how strong I was. If you cracked and went dark side, I figured I could do one of two things. I could do a Bonnie and Clyde if I was weak. Or a Thelma and Louise if I was strong enough to spare us both being taken down by your friends,” she said, her gaze never wavering.
It felt like a palpable hit, like something had just stolen my breath. She’d been ready to either go along with me, or kill us both, if I’d flipped out.
“Sorry, that was probably unnecessarily creepy,” she said, looking down and starting to withdraw her hand. I held it, and she stopped.
“No, it’s not. I get it,” I said, and ducked my head a little until she looked up at me. “Thanks.”
Yes, it was probably extremely weird that I was thanking her for being willing to carry out something like that. But if I’d gone around the bend and hurt my friends or family… I’d have never forgiven myself if I’d killed someone. And Monica knew that.
“I love you,” I said softly.
“Me too,” she said, smiling. Then she paused and shook her head, grinning. “We have really strange lives.”
Mom returned soon afterward with enough food to feed a small army, and I quickly discovered I’d never been so hungry before in my life. Even eating slowly, as she insisted, I still managed to clear the tray in record time. After that arduous exercise, fatigue overcame me again, and this time I didn’t dream.
The next time I woke up, it was with someone calling my name.
“Warren! You’re awake!”
I blinked myself into full consciousness quickly, feeling marginally less wasted than before, to see Will and the gang piling into my room. Will quickly crossed over to give me a careful hug as the others were all talking at once, crowding around my bed. And for once, I didn’t mind at all. Not the chaos, not the crowding, not the questioning; nothing. Being surrounded by my friends was the best thing that’d happened to me in a while.
“Naw, I’m sleepwalking Stronghold,” I quipped back, returning Will’s embrace weakly. I realized belatedly that I was only doing it with one hand, as Monica was still holding my other one. Oddly enough, no one seemed to be inhibited by her presence. There weren’t any awkward silences or deliberate back-turnings.
“The Peacemaker said you were up finally. You ok?” Will asked anxiously.
“Dude, you look like hell,” Zack opined frankly, and Magenta kicked him reflexively in the ankle.
“Dr. Egret says I’ll get better,” I said with a shrug. “I don’t know how long, but…”
“You were really brave Warren,” Layla spoke up, leaning over to give me a kiss on the forehead.
“That was an excellent plan,” Ethan added. “Some of the other heroes were trying to come up with ray-neutralizers and things, but nothing would have been ready in time. No one thought anyone could pull a real inside job like that.”
“Yeah, and when did you put those maps in my room? Last movie night?” Zack asked.
“Monica did. It was her plan,” I said, and then turned to look at her. She smiled slightly, and I turned back to my friends to make it official.
“Guys, this is Monica Keller, my girlfriend.”
“We’ve met,” Will said, his expression mostly neutral. “Recently, I mean.” He gave an expansive shrug that I took to mean he’d forgiven me for scaring everyone so badly. And for dating a supervillain.
“We’ve been going out for years,” I clarified. “For about a year after I graduated.”
“You lying sack of-. I knew I should have gone Yellowstone on your ass!” Magenta huffed, though it lacked the characteristic full heat of her scorn. “Happy, skippy Warren didn’t come out of nowhere.”
“’Happy, skippy Warren?’” Monica repeated incredulously, and my friends snickered.
“So… how did this, you know, happen?” Layla asked. Monica and I exchanged glances, and then bowed to inevitable. They definitely deserved to know.
We told them, over the course of the next hour or so, how we had managed to meet, get involved, and then found ourselves closer than friends. I didn’t want my friends to hate Monica. Hell, I wanted them to like her. And it was clear that she’d had more than just casual interaction with them during the time I’d been out. Monica hadn’t ever really left my room, and my friends rarely did. None of them were particularly good at doing the stoic silence thing (I had the lock on that title), so eventually some kind of conversation would ensue. And they found her to be… not quite so bad.
I guessed we could all live with that.
Things were winding down to the uncomfortable silence stage when I decreed a change of topic was in order. There were a few things I needed to know more about.
“Will, Dr. Egret told me I sort of went overboard-,” I began, and Will nodded a little. “You were hurt, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. Someone had some kind of super-duty anti-tank grenade launcher. They pointed it at Mom, so I went to intercept. I think I broke some ribs or something,” he said, looking away a little. Then he sighed and tugged his shirt up on the side to show the scar. What had been a gash was now replaced with an almost artistic slash of dark red burn scar tissue; the skin looking melted and recooled. And I could tell, even from a foot away, that the scar was hotter than the rest of him.
“It doesn’t hurt at all. It’s warm, but I think that’s normal for this,” Will said, pulling his shirt back down and tucking it in.
“Normal,” I said, snorting at the ridiculousness of it all, and Will cracked a smile.
“Same thing happened to me too,” Zack offered, and I belatedly recalled he’d taken a bullet graze to the upper arm. Rolling up his sleeve, he had the same dark red scar tracing over the wound.
“Was anyone…? Did anyone have…? Did anyone have head wounds?” I asked, feeling a little guilty.
“A couple of people,” Layla said with a resigned expression. “Warren, really, don’t worry about it. Everyone’s happy to be alive. And we’re happy you are, all right?”
I looked at my friends, and finally smiled broadly. We’d come out of a total disaster with nearly everything intact. And that was worth the world.
“Thanks guys, for everything.”
“Anytime Warren,” Will said.