I had worked at the Paper Lantern restaurant since I was thirteen, unofficially doing work until I could get a permit, then spending four or six hours a night a working as a busboy, usually six nights a week. On the weekends I did full shifts to boot, trying to get enough to help out with the bills at home. Maybe I wouldn’t have to do it for much longer, with Mom going back on the active list (and active superhero pay), but Mr. and Mrs. Lee were very good friends after five years. I had even picked up a pretty fair amount of the language, mostly because Mrs. Lee would forget to switch to English if she was mad or in a hurry.
The place was usually busy; cheap prices and a good location ensured that so I was rarely bored here, and the tips weren’t horrible. It was getting late, pushing on ten o’clock, and only one customer was still sitting. Amy was folding napkins, Mr. Lee was counting down his drawer, and Mrs. Lee was cleaning up the kitchen, so I wandered over with a water pitcher to see if I could help get her out any sooner. We couldn’t leave until the last customer had left.
“You still working on that?” I asked as I walked up behind her, doing a double take as I realized it was the red-haired hippie chick that was always hanging around Stronghold.
“Hey,” she said, smiling a little.
“Hey,” I replied, still a bit startled. I hadn’t seen anyone from Sky High here before.
“We go to school together?” she asked, trying to see if I even recognized her.
“You’re Stronghold’s friend,” I pointed out.
“Yeah…” she said, looking… chagrined? What was that about?
“Yeah…” I said, a little embarrassed. The first time she had ever seen me up close was the day in the cafeteria, and I was feeling a little awkward about how I had threatened her. She looked utterly harmless. She was even eating an entirely vegetarian dish… and the orchid at her tabled was withered and wilted. That wasn’t like Mrs. Lee to miss a fading flower like that. Hadn’t I heard of her before? No, not her… one of my mom’s old friends, Sunshine Evans, a.k.a. The Beast-Tamer. She could talk to animals, I remembered from some of the letters I had written when I was trying to find out more about my mom. And she mentioned her kid could control plants, I recalled.
“You want me to heat that up for you?” I asked, pointing at her food, trying to sound more casual. If she wasn’t going to bring up the cafeteria fight, I wasn’t going to either.
Layla leaned towards me a bit. “You’re not supposed to use your powers outside of school,” she whispered, looking a bit worried. Worried about me getting into trouble? Naw, why would she?
“I was just going to stick it in the microwave,” I assured her in a whisper. No need to point out I would probably burn the whole tabletop and render her food into charcoal if I tried to do that with my powers. Precision is not exactly what I’m known for.
Layla laughed at bit at her own scatterbrained comment.
“Uh… I was supposed to be meeting Will here but…” I raised an eyebrow. She had been doing everything but throwing herself at him the few times I had seen them together, and he had stood her up for a date? Either he was being cruel, which was unlikely, given what he had said to me, and what Mom had mentioned about his parents, or he was being dense about it. Then again, fourteen year-old kids that didn’t have my mom’s kind of expert advise generally were clueless. I knew about that kind of crap way before any of my classmates, and I think the one thing my mom never wanted me to have was a broken heart. Not that I blame her.
“You want to sit down?” she asked, pleading in her eyes. She just wants someone to listen to her, I realized. I looked around; the place was virtually empty except for staff.
“I think I can spare a minute,” I said, and slid into the booth opposite her. Powering up just a tiny bit, I flicked out a tongue of flame and lit the candle. It wasn’t a romantic gesture, not really, I just liked fire. And if she needed to babble on about something for a while, at least I could amuse myself by watching the flame. Lord, I was glad I did about ten minutes later, as I was getting the entire history of Layla and Will from about the age of three onward. But it was almost as if I had to listen, to pay attention to everything she was saying. Was this how my mom felt when she was using her powers? I was getting more and more convinced I had inherited a touch of hers as well.
Layla was winding down a bit, going on about a science project and growing lima beans, ending up when she had revealed her powers to Will. Everything she was saying, and what little I had observed, was telling me she was in love with him. And she was being very careful to not say anything of the sort too. So that meant I had to, or it was going to bug me the rest of the night.
“And falling for him, was that before or after the lima beans?” I asked casually. Layla contrived to look incredulous, but I could tell there wasn’t anything behind it.
“What? I’m not in love with Will Strong-“ I stopped her with a look.
“Is it that obvious?” she asked meekly.
“Yeah,” I nodded, looking resigned.
“Great,” she half-squeaked, looking pained.
“So why don’t you just tell him?” I asked. My brain was laughing at me, pointing out that here I was, a guy who had always repressed his emotions, telling a girl to let her feelings be known. I told my brain to shut up, pointing out that I didn’t always have to be the tough guy. Besides, it wasn’t at school; there was no one else watching us. What happens at the Lantern stays at the Lantern, right? I sure hoped so.
“Well…” Layla looked uncomfortable. “I was going to ask him to Homecoming, but there’s two problems; he likes somebody else, and she’s perfect.”
I had been toying with a fortune cookie as Layla had been talking, and casually looked at the fortune as we talked. Huh, that’s eerily appropriate. And I don’t have to take credit for it either. Excellent.
“Hmm… You know what I think? ‘To let true love remain unspoken, is the quickest route to a heavy heart.” I put on my best serious face as I said it, and Layla looked impressed.
“Wow…” she said faintly, “That is really deep.”
“Yeah,” I said confidentially, and then let more a smile creep into my tone, “And, your lucky numbers are… four, sixteen, five, and forty-nine.” Layla smiled a bit and laughed, but right then Mrs. Lee started calling from the kitchen, yelling at me to stop socializing and get to work scrubbing tables.
“Just a minute,” I called back in Mandarin, and then switched back to English. “I gotta go,” I said with a shrug, and handed her the fortune. “See you around, hippie.” With that I got up, and quickly ended up in a long argument with Mrs. Lee about my work ethic.
Layla was gone by the time I was finished being run around, and I didn’t have time to give her more than a moment’s thought. I just hoped she did like I suggested, because I definitely wasn’t ready to be a relationship counselor for the rest of Sky High. Gossiping girls… Hell, I hope I hadn’t gotten in over my head.
It was nearly eleven by the time I got home, carrying dinner for both Mom and I. “Mom? I’m home,” I called out, listening to try to figure out where she was.
“Up here Warren,” I heard faintly from her bedroom. I walked up and poked my head in, finding my mom flat on her back on the bed, still in her Peacemaker costume.
“Rough day at the office?” I asked lightly, and Mom gave a short laugh.
“In a good way. They were really glad to see me back… and I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer anymore.” She pushed herself up, and I could see she looked a bit wilted, but was smiling broadly. “I was working with several unions in the city, and some of the companies that were employing them. They were arguing about cleaning up after the latest big robot, and people were about to start striking and causing all sorts of nastiness. I straightened them out, had to knock a few heads, figuratively, but I think we have a good working solution.” I started to grin in spite of how tired I was. Here was Mom, my Mom, doing what she did best, and being happy about it.
It might not be as flashy or impressive as Stronghold’s parents, but I was proud of her all the same. Mom’s power was actually good for cleaning up after their messes, because really, when do they cover Robot Damage Clean-up in school? Being a hero didn’t just mean battling supervillains, and I think I was all the prouder of her because she was willing to take on things that didn’t put her in the spotlight. Heroes in small things as well as large, I thought. Maybe it wasn’t stopping some big war, but that didn’t matter to me, not as long as she was happy about it.
“Great to hear,” I said, and gave her a big hug. “And hey, I think I could use your advice on something I did today…” What I had done at the Paper Lantern just seemed kinda odd in retrospect. It wasn’t like me to get involved with people I barely know, and particularly not people I had threatened with fiery death at some point in their lives. Mom listened to me, and placed one hand over mine, reading me. Then she shook her head.
“Warren, what effect I had on you is long gone. That was all and completely you in there. Maybe you do have a touch of my powers, I can’t really say for sure. But does it make you uncomfortable, what you did?”
“Umm…” I couldn’t even think of a coherent answer to that. Should I feel uncomfortable about listening to Layla’s problems? “I guess… I guess not. I just… I’ve never done that before.” Mom gave a silvery laugh.
“Warren, people change, particularly after they’ve had a big shock like you did. You’re just learning more about who you are. It’s not a bad thing, and as long as you know why, or at least are comfortable with it, then I wouldn’t worry about it.” I was a little startled, hearing her talk so casually about change, particularly because of my dad, but she did have a point. Dad changed for no real apparent reason, in an unhealthy way, which ended up making him a psycho. So… I was changing to be a nicer, more tolerant guy? I guess could do worse. But I still wasn’t going to stop wearing black.
Then again, maybe I should have been a little less nice to Layla, because the next day was a whole new level of weird. I had been sitting and reading at lunch, at a table by myself, as usual, when Layla casually plopped down with her lunch.
“Hi Warren,” she said casually, as if she did this every day. I must have looked twice as confused as I felt.
“Did I do or say anything last night to make you think this ok?” I demanded. Just because I was nice to her once didn’t mean I was ready to be buddies. I had an image to maintain. Yeah, just keep telling yourself that, my brain snidely commented. I resolved to ask my mom if there was a way to keep your mind from making stupid side remarks; I was getting tired of it.
“Ha, you’re so funny. But seriously, you’re never going to believe what happened. I was just about to ask Will to Homecoming, but wouldn’t you know it? I told him I was going with you instead,” Layla said with a kind of hopeless forced casualness.
“I don’t remember that being the plan,” I pointed out, still really confused. I was still trying to come up with some kind of answer, or question, or something, when the girl with the purple hair sat down next to Layla.
“Hey Layla, you did the history homework?” she asked, starting to dig out some papers from her backpack, as casually as if she sat here everyday. I was starting to get a little mad at the way she just ignored me. I mean, no one ignored me! They avoided me, didn’t look at me, sat away from me, but never ignored me. Jealous that someone doesn’t think you’re all that? my mind asked.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I growled.
“It’s called sitting,” she said condescendingly.
“Nobody sits here, but me,” I pointed out forcefully, trying to get my point across.
“Uh huh,” Layla and the other girl said simultaneously, and then ignored me again as the purple-haired chick started asking her about a homework question. My mouth was open in astonishment as I tried to figure out what else I could say, when that nerdy kid with the glasses plopped down next to me.
“Hey, are we eating at Warren’s table now? I feel extremely dangerous!” he enthused. I looked at him in a mixture of astonishment and growing horror. What the hell had I done? These were all Stronghold’s friends. Why weren’t they sitting with him? Why sit with me? I had threatened their lives at one point, didn’t they remember that? Maybe I should do it again, I thought faintly, if it’ll get them away from my table. I wasn’t used to this much company.
“Whoa, whoa…” I was saying, as the day-glo kid sat on my other side.
“This guy bothering you Magenta?” he asked the purple-haired girl.
“Try the other way around,” I snapped. I really needed to get away from this, but I was afraid if I just left, Layla would follow me. I just need to know what she wants from me. “Does anyone else need a date for Homecoming?” I asked with ill-grace. The nerdy kid raised his hand, and I studiously ignored him.
Layla suddenly gave a too-bright laugh, clapping her hand down on the table like I had just said something hilarious. “Warren, you are cra-zy!” she said enthusiastically, smiling widely. What the hell? Then I saw Stronghold walking by, Gwen Grayson by his side.
“Please, I promise I’ll make this as painless as possible,” she said a more normal tone, with a note of pleading in it. I glanced behind Layla to look at Will again, and he kept trying to twist around to look at us, and didn’t look entirely happy about Layla being there. Suddenly her little plan clicked, but I still kept my face in a scowl.
“So, you’re not doing this because you like me or anything. You’re doing this to get to Stronghold,” I said, jerking my head towards him.
“Yeah,” Layla said in a low voice, looking sheepish and resigned.
“Then I’m in,” I said, breaking into a grin. Stronghold was being an idiot for not seeing how much Layla liked him, and if he was going with Gwen (“…and she’s perfect!” I remember Layla saying last night, and Gwen fit that bill), that was his problem. Gwen was a cold-hearted bitch that only cared about how much power someone gave her. She was just a good actress, being the perfect little senior, and smiles and hollow compliments. If she had set her sights on Stronghold, it must only because he was probably the most powerful student at Sky High right now. I dropped the grin quickly though and added, “but I’m not renting a tux.” I wouldn’t want her to get her hopes up. This was only for show, after all.
I picked up my bag and left, bumping the day-glo kid on the way out. I wasn’t going to be seen with them, not for a good long while, if ever. I don’t think I could handle it if they would all start coming to me with their problems. Curse of the Peace bloodline… yeah. Does everyone come to us with their problems?
Yet that whole new level weird was topped by what happened two days later. It was just after school and people were just hanging out, waiting for the busses to get loaded. I was reading, when Layla suddenly sat next to me on bench, wrapping both of her hands around one of mine. To say I was startled was an understatement, and then she started babbling almost frantically.
“Hey there cutie. I was just thinking about you! I cannot wait until Homecoming, I’m so excited! I’m…” she trailed off as she looked over her shoulder. I followed her gaze, spying Stronghold and Gwen holding hands, walking away from us. However, Layla wasn’t letting go of my hand, she was so preoccupied with seeing if her speech had affected Will I was afraid someone was actually going to see us holding hands. And Layla probably wouldn’t notice until Will was out of sight. I let a little heat trickle into my hands, then flared a bit of flame.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, pulling her hands back. I felt a little bad about that, but it wasn’t going to be anything worse than sunburn.
“Never call me cutie,” I said with disgust, snapping my book closed and walking away. I was willing to give Will a bit of grief, but I wasn’t going to be saddled with his estranged friends. I didn’t need them. They didn’t even like me. Yeah, sure, and who else has ever sat next to you willingly? I sighed. My brain really needed to shut up. Badly.
I managed to mostly avoid Layla over the next few days leading up to the dance, hoping to avoid another “cutie” incident. I worked extra hours at the Lantern, pulling an extra shift the night before the dance to avoid anything that might have to do with picking out dresses or jewelry or anything else Layla had been babbling about when Will was near. That girl had it bad for him, but Will still seemed mostly oblivious. I swear, the guy seemed as stupid as he was strong.
Of course, life wasn’t nearly done throwing me curveballs yet. The Lantern was loud tonight, and for some reason past my understanding, Mr. Medulla was being hung on by two nice-looking blondes, while a dejected Coach Boomer drank a little too much saki. When had this place become Sky-High central? I was setting out water glasses at the empty tables when I spotted no one other than Stronghold sitting at one of the booths. Damn. Did someone hand out flyers at the school?
“What’re you doing here?” I asked, almost before I could stop myself.
“I’m, uh… looking for Layla. Do you know where she is?” he asked, looking hopeful.
“How should I know?” I asked.
”I dunno, you’re taking her to Homecoming,” he pointed out.
“Oh yeah, right.” I spent so much time forcibly not thinking of Layla as a date that I had forgotten that a potential date is supposed to know where his girlfriend is. Whatever.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about me ruining you night,” Stronghold said dejectedly, staring at the table.
“And why’s that?” I asked, puzzled. He was going with goody-Gwen, why wasn’t he with her tonight anyway?
“’Cause I’m not going.” I wonder who burst the bubble, him or Gwen. He didn’t seem devastated enough if he still liked Gwen, and he had come here looking for Layla…
“Well that sucks,” I said, taking a seat, wanting to clearly see his face for the next part, “’Cause we were only going together to make you jealous.”
There was a long pause and a look of total confusion on Will’s face. “Huh?” I sighed.
“Dude, you’re so stupid, she’s totally into you,” I said calmly. Will looked both resigned and sad.
“Not after tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if Layla or any of the other guys ever want to talk to me again,” he said with conviction.
“Yeah… you must have been a real jerk. Because no matter what I do, I can’t get them to stop talking to me,” I said bluntly. The kid needed a wake-up call badly, and if it took a verbal bat knocking him over the head, then fine.
“Thanks,” he said distractedly, and I got up to finish my rounds. He didn’t stay more than five minutes after that, and left looking like a whipped dog. Maybe I should have felt more sorry for him, but he had managed to mortally offend his friends, that was his fault, not mine. Hell, he must have really pissed them off if they were willing to try to sit with me in the cafeteria, I realized.
Well… now what? Layla’s whole reason for going with me was to make him jealous, and now he wasn’t going. Should I even bother? I went home wondering if helping people was always going to be this complicated. Oh, probably more so. This is just high school, wait until the Real World, Warren Peacemaker. My brain was more right than usual today, I couldn’t even argue.
Mom had a surprise for me on the day of the dance, calling me up to her room a couple hours before the bus would be around to pick us up.
“Warren, I know you said you didn’t want to rent a tux, but I thought this might be easier…” she was saying as I walked in. There was a black suit and tie lying on the bed, and I looked from her to it with growing horror.
“You didn’t get one for me, did you?” I asked.
“No, it’s Baron’s,” she said shortly. “He doesn’t really need it.” I opened my mouth once and shut it again. I had told Mom I was going with Layla, and even why. She didn’t really approve, but she hadn’t forbidden me. “It’s a very backhanded way of helping, but you better be careful who you hurt, Warren,” was all she had said to me when I told her.
“I wasn’t even going-“ I started.
“-to go? I don’t think so Warren. You’re not leaving that poor freshman girl up there without a date at her first high school dance. You’re not going to stand her up too,” she said severely, her arms crossed. Uh oh. My mom might be The Peacemaker, but she was still a female. I think I just pushed some old buttons. “Now, into the shower, get into this suit, and get on that bus!”
I didn’t even bother to argue with her after that. I think she would have trussed me up hand and foot and put me on the bus herself if I hadn’t gone willingly.
The party wasn’t too bad; the school had enough money for plenty of decorations, food, and punch, as well as far too many speakers. The music wasn’t too horrible, but I wasn’t in the mood to be as desperately happy as the rest of the crowd. Apparently Layla wasn’t either. Her green dress was about as bright at the day-glo kid’s tie, and easy to spot. I snuck up behind her as she was talking to one of the Sidekick teachers.
“The guys at this school are jerks!” she was saying above the music.
“Thanks,” I muttered behind her, and she whirled, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. She looked at me with surprise.
“I thought you weren’t going to rent a tux!” she exclaimed. I leaned in a bit, not wanting to shout over the music.
“It’s my dad’s. He doesn’t have much use for it in solitary,” I pointed out. That stopped Layla cold, and she grasped for something else to say.
“Cheese cube?” she blurted in sudden inspiration, holding up a piece of Swiss cheese on a toothpick. I sighed, and then took it. I wasn’t interested in dancing, really, and if eating a few bits of party food would keep me off the dance floor, that was all right with me.
The dance dragged on for a while more before Principal Powers introduced The Commander and Jetstream. That gave me a bit of start, and I wondered why Will wasn’t with them. I had never seen either of them up close, and I was surprised how very confident, competent, and polished they looked. I knew they were considered the world’s greatest superheroes, but now I started to realize why. These two were on the top of their game, and even after over fourteen years of marriage and a kid, they were still the world’s best. But they didn’t seem really aloof either; they just seemed like regular people, under the body armor and spandex. I made up my mind that I really needed to talk to the Commander about my dad someday.
Then Principal Powers started in on speeches and other interminable crap. Gwen Grayson took the podium to blather on about one thing or another, and then made a point of giving Commander and Jetstream some kind of award, going on about the “most powerful being at Sky High.”
That’s when the world took a nosedive out of weird and went straight into Wonderland. Gwen was none other than Royal Pain, and before anyone could react, she had her Pacifier weapon out and beaming everyone in sight into babies. The crowd started to panic, and when Will’s sidekicks and I started to look for an exit, we saw Speed, Lash, and Gwen’s right hand girl Penny slamming the safety gates at every entrance.
The hell? The screaming from the students was as loud of that of the babies suddenly underfoot, and we were running around trying to find a way out when Coach Boomer caught us.
“Hothead, find an exit; get as many people as you can out as you can, I’ll slow her down-!” he was saying, as another white beam hit him square on. More loud squalling was echoing behind us as we darted around, looking for a way out. I spied a large air vent, and stopped the sidekicks from getting in front of me as I lobbed a fireball at it.
The grate popped off and the few of us crawled in. The screaming died down behind us, replaced with the faint crying of hundreds of babies. We were too late. What can we do now? I thought frantically. But in front of me, Magenta had a much more practical concern.
“Where are we?” she asked. It was as black as the inside as a hat now that we were away from the gym.
“Hey Warren, how ‘bout a torch?” the nerdy kid asked.
“Only if you want to get barbequed,” I quipped back. No one else in this vent was fireproof, and the metal walls and ceiling would burn everyone within a few seconds if I powered up in here. There were just as many drawbacks to powerful powers as there were benefits, as I was having brought home to me rather forcefully.
“Ladies, if I may,” said the day-glo kid from a little farther ahead. And then he began glowing a bright green. Huh, I thought. Not exactly powerful, but damned useful. He ought to open a rave warehouse when he graduates.
“Way to glow Zack,” the nerdy kid said.
I don’t know how long or far we were crawled, but enough that the screaming babies were so far away we couldn’t hear them and my knees were killing me. We might have been getting closer to a different grate, but I couldn’t see anything past the feet of the person in front of me.
Then ahead of me I heard a grinch of tortured metal, and I heard Zack say “Hey kid!”
We piled out, Will and the rest of us filling each other in, though us more than him. He had figured out what he could, not having been at Homecoming himself, so I had to give him some credit. And he also chose that moment to suddenly apologize to his friends and Layla, stealing a kiss from her. I admired the kid’s attention to the romantic, but this was hardly the time or place…
“Isn’t that sweet? I hate sweet,” snapped a voice behind us. Penny, of course, with Speed and Lash flanking her.
“You guys are a part of this too. Why am I not surprised,” Will said in a very calm voice, facing them with a determined air. Zack and Magenta ducked back for the air vent, not that I blamed them. Neither of them had powers that could do anything to those three. And at least the nerdy kid could hide more easily if he melted.
“Go take care of Gwen, we’ll handle these clowns,” I said to Will, ditching my jacket and rolling up my sleeves. Will was the most powerful of all of us, and Royal Pain probably thought she was done with any more resistance today. If she had just put the Pacifier aside, he had a better chance of not ending up like his dad. If she stopped to gloat or monologue or anything, he had a fighting chance. But not if Speed alerted her first. Besides, I had a score to settle with him from Save the Citizen.
“Go,” Layla whispered, and Will turned and ran right through a wall, taking the most direct route possible to the gym.
I flamed up first, and then Speed whipped right by me, spinning me around and then dashing further down the hall. I ran after him. I knew I couldn’t catch him, but I knew the idiot wouldn’t be able to resist taunting me once he had some room to run around. I just hoped he wouldn’t think to try the vortex trick. I was also hoping Layla and the nerdy kid could handle Penny and Lash. Or at least delay them. A little. Please…
Speed was having way too much fun at my expense, zipping around me, taunting me at every opportunity.
“Yoo-hoo! Right here! Hit this!” he laughed. This time I wasn’t throwing fire around indiscriminately, I was going to wait for a clear target, and I wasn’t going to give this fool the satisfaction of dodging my fire. I was going to be patient and pick my target. And this time he wasn’t going to know what hit him.
I stepped around a corner as Speed seemed to want a change of venue, at the same time when the nerdy kid stepped out of the bathroom. He saw Speed barreling towards him and abruptly melted. Speed hit him squarely and began to skid out of control, straight for wall.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he yelled, trying to windmill his arms for balance. Now I had my target, and let fly with a fireball. It was a good, solid hit, and Speed ended up half in a wall, his pants on fire.
“Way to go, Popsicle,” I said to the nerdy kid as he resolidified, giving him a high-five. When I asked him what he had done to Lash, I laughed at the thought of Lash with his head down a toilet. “I don’t suppose you got blackmail pictures, did you?” He held up a small camera from his pocket and I just shook my head in admiration.
Then Layla came nearly screaming around the corner, yelling about how the school’s gravity generator was going to fail. I guess she must have beaten it out of Penny, and my admiration raised a notch. We ran to the school library, and Ethan (apparently the nerdy kid had a real name, unfortunate as it was), melted under the door and grabbed some blueprints. Layla spread out the prints while the rest of the sidekicks gathered around, trying to figure out how to get the generator. I was out of my depth, maps always confused the hell out of me, and I probably needed to go help Will if he didn’t have Royal Pain under wraps yet.
When Zack exclaimed that only a rat could get through the conduit, all eyes turned to Magenta, the purple-haired kid.
“Oh great,” she said with resignation. Soon enough I found out that she could shape-shift into a guinea pig, and Zack and Ethan stayed behind to guide her through the maze. More crashes and booms were coming from the gym, and Layla insisted we had to go and help Will. We ran for all we were worth, skidding into the gym just as we found Will over a prone Royal Pain. The gym was a wreck, and I was obscurely impressed at the amount of damage the two had done.
“Will!” Layla screamed, and like an idiot, Will looked up instead of finishing knocking out Royal Pain. There was a faint hum and Royal Pain belted Stronghold with an electrical-packed punch, sending him across the entire gym… and clean out and through the window and over the side of the school. I couldn’t even believe my eyes, that she had just killed someone so casually.
“And there goes your last chance of stopping me,” she said arrogantly, standing with her back to her handiwork.
“We’ll see about that,” Layla snapped, starting to stalk forward. I put out a hand to stop her, not wanting to see her go flying over the edge too. We had to defeat her from a distance; no one here could fly… Just as I thought that, movement at the window caught my eye. It was Stronghold, flying with a kind of stunned calm on his face. Royal Pain whirled to follow our gaze, surprise in her stance.
“Surprised? So am I!” Will said, sounding about as surprised as he looked.
“You’re flying?” Royal exclaimed in disbelief as Will began to surge forward. “But that’s impossible!” she howled as Will picked her up. He flew to the top of the gym and dropped her a good thirty feet, putting a huge dent in the floor. Flying down to her again, he punched her helmet, destroying part of her suit, and Royal Pain went limp.
He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and he and Layla practically ran into each other’s arms. I clapped him on the shoulder, pretty damned impressed. Not bad at all for a freshman. However, I learned right then one of the superhero rules they’re always trying to pound into us: never leave a supervillain alone until you’re absolutely sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re defeated. Because right then the school dropped out from under us like a runaway elevator.
Layla managed to gasp out to Will what was going on, and he flew outside to see if he could slow it down any. Layla and I could do little more than clutch at the floorboards as our stomachs tossed and turned and our ears popped and popped from the sudden descent. It was like one of those dreams where you dream you’re falling, but you wake up before you hit the ground. But a dream had never been so real, so gut-wrenchingly terrifying. I was hoping, praying, that Magenta, or Will, or somebody, anybody would stop the school before we all died. It rated right up there with the scariest experiences of my life, right until the floor steadied, and with agonizing slowness, we stopped, and then began to rise.
Getting the school back into the air was the easiest part, and Will filled the rest of us in on the rest of Royal Pain’s plan, while everyone else regaled us with their own parts in the rescue. Zack raided the Principal’s office for the keycard to the Detention Room while the rest of us dragged the bound or unconscious bodies of Royal Pain, her sidekick Stitches, Penny, Speed, and Lash inside and locked the door. Apparently Ron Wilson, the power-washout that drove the bus, had kept Stitches from driving off with a busload of pacified former Sky High students and teachers, actually saving the day.
But none of us had any idea of what to do after that. As I’ve said before, most superheroes don’t have to deal with the aftermath of their heroics. But we got some kind of break at least. Mr. Medulla’s powers were super-intelligence, enough so that being turned into a baby only had a marginal affect on his brainpower. Despite the fact that the freshmen stuck me with changing his diaper, he was able to reverse the Pacifier in only an hour, and apologized profusely afterward.
I was even impressed with Will, when he tried to take the blame for the whole mess on his shoulders, telling his dad to his face that it had been all his fault. When his dad and mom only comforted him and told him it was all right, I admit, I was jealous. Would I have been so messed up if my dad had been anywhere near sane? Probably not. But… I couldn’t be mad with Will, not after tonight. He had been selfless, taking on humiliation and spine-crushing combat with equal aplomb, all of it to save his school, including plenty of people that he didn’t know. Maybe I could even be friends with him. Maybe.
The Commander and Jetstream were just like Will, easily giving the award Royal Pain had meant to give to them to the sidekicks, Zack, Ethan, Magenta, and Ron, making the night just about complete for everyone involved. Well, except maybe for me. I didn’t feel like I had done that much. Ethan, even Zack had done more than I had, and I felt like a bit of fifth wheel. When Mr. Medulla started the party again though, I did feel like celebrating a bit, maybe even dancing. But Will and Layla were making out a few thousand feet above ground level, right outside the broken window, Zack and Magenta were attempting to do something that looked like dancing… kinda, and even Ethan had found some tall, dark girl that wanted to have a dance with the hero of the hour.
And here’s Warren Peace, standing on the fringe again, I thought, starting feel sorry for myself. Then a flash of pale color caught my eyes. A statuesque blonde girl in white had managed to get up next to me, and extended her hand, frost forming from her fingertips to the elbow. Melissa Frost? But she’s never even looked at me before. I shrugged and flamed up a little, gently holding her hand. My fire was extinguished as her frost melted, and she laced her fingers through mine with a smile. That felt kind of interesting… and if she wants to give me a hero’s welcome… I’m not going to argue, I thought, suddenly feeling much more cheerful. Tonight was going to be great, I knew it.