Melissa made the rest of the night pretty fun, even if she told me it was mostly as a reward.
“So, why now?” I had asked her.
“You saved the school,” she said softly. I raised an eyebrow. “And I was scared of you before today.” I rolled my eyes a bit and finally sobered up. “I just wanted to thank you, that’s all.” I looked at her a little harder, and saw she was telling the truth. I was just the flavor of the day, apparently, but at least she was sincere about it.
“Hey, thanks for letting me know,” I said softly.
“It’s Homecoming; it’s supposed to be fun,” she pointed out, and I sighed. Well, I wasn’t going to say I expected this to turn out fairy-tale perfect. But it was very nice while it lasted, believe me.
The next few weeks after Homecoming ended up with some huge changes made at the school. The biggest of them might have had the most resistance from the school board, if they hadn’t just had the reason for it flung in their faces. The Hero/Sidekick classes were being integrated, and they were going to put a whole new system in place. The damage Royal Pain had done just because she was resentful about being a sidekick… well it didn’t take a genius to draw the parallels from that to some of the violence that went on in normal high schools on the ground. The difference was that a supervillain could do a lot more damage, and not just in the short-term either.
Former Hero-class kids had to learn about weapons and vehicles, Sidekick-kids found themselves going through the hard physical courses, the whole nine yards. Some people objected, mostly the old-school heroes, haughty hero-students, and some Sidekicks who didn’t think they could handle the responsibility. But superheroes worked better in a group, and that wasn’t a new thing at all. Even the worst of the complainers couldn’t refute the fact that the two greatest superheroes of all time, the Commander and Jetstream, worked as a team of equals. So imagine what a group of superheroes working together could do.
Will actually advocated for that, citing the fact that if we all hadn’t worked together the night of Homecoming, the whole thing would have come apart. If Zack hadn’t provided us with a light, we might have been crawling around lost in the ductwork until Royal Pain and Stitches had flown off with all the babies. If Magenta hadn’t been able to get to the scrambler, the school would have crashed into Maxville. If Ethan couldn’t have defeated Lash or distracted Speed, they could have warned Royal Pain to speed up her plans. Hell, if Ron Wilson, bus driver, a guy who had no powers whatsoever, hadn’t stood up to Stitches, everything still could have gone to hell.
There were still plenty of problems trying to get the kinks worked out in the middle of the school year, but most of the students were more than willing to help. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the students could get away with some goofing off since the teachers were still pretty unsettled and unused to teaching kids with “lower-power” abilities (our new politically correct term for Hero Support).
Another big change was that Speed, Lash, and Penny came back to school. Apparently when they had signed on for Royal Pain’s plan, death wasn’t involved anywhere. If she had pulled it off perfectly, everyone but her, Stitches, and those three would have been turned into babies. They would have taken the bus off the school, and by the time the scrambler kicked in, the school would have been floating over the lake on the far side of town. It was only because her plans got interrupted that she decided to activate the scrambler earlier, preferring to die rather than have her plans thwarted twice. Yeah, she’s currently in the same prison with my dad, locked somewhere in solitary with a repressor-field on constantly, in a cell with a door secured with measures no more complicated than a simple lock and bar, and no access to technology of any kind. I can’t say I’m at all upset if that’s driving her nuts.
But her three moles at the school had just signed on because it would be the ultimate power trip. Then again, none of them are very forward thinkers. Because they’re minors, they ended up on probation until sometime until they’re forty, with twenty-four hour monitoring and a crapload of community service. I think they may end up cleaning the school until they’re forty. Principle Powers made us promise that no one would harass them, so we keep off their case… officially. Trust me, some people at this school had been bullied by those three for a long time, and they weren’t going to let a golden opportunity like this pass them by. Of course, those three weren’t going to tame down in just a couple of months, so that was pretty much business as usual. They avoided our group like the plague though.
That was the other big change that year; I actually became part of a group. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, the Monday after the Homecoming disaster I was sitting alone, then the whole group descended on my table.
“Hi Warren,” Layla said as cheerfully as she had the other week when she had asked me to be her jealousy-date. I didn’t even have time to respond before Will sat down next to her, saying “Hey.” The others followed suit, each with a “Yo,” or “’Sup?” or something. At least this time they didn’t hem me in, and left me plenty of my own space. I still wasn’t sure what was going on, but I decided just to ignore them and keep reading my book. They didn’t say a whole lot to me, but I knew somehow they were just respecting my space, not ignoring me.
Ethan only said, “You did a really good job with Speed.” And Layla mentioned, “He was a real gentleman, kinda like Will after he apologized,” which ended up in a playful shoving match, luckily not on my side of the bench. I responded to both comments with a sound that could have been taken as an affirmative, but basically kept to myself.
The next lunch it was the same, and the one after that, for the rest of the week. I started to wonder if I should start switching tables so I’d have peace and quiet again, but I realized I was actually enjoying their company. Zack would usually say something really funny, Magenta had a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor, Ethan always had some interesting factoid to share, Layla was just enthusiastic about everything, and Will was always there backing up his friends when they were right, or setting them straight when they were wrong. I actually would find myself snickering at one of Zack’s antics or Magenta’s comments, writing down Ethan’s little interesting asides, or even putting in a comment during one of Will or Layla’s debates. Before I even knew entirely what had happened, I was actually talking and participating, commiserating about teachers or homework, justifying my pick for a winner for that weekend’s football game, or talking about power quirks.
I didn’t have nearly as much in common with them classes-wise, as I was two grades ahead of them, but when the school board started shaking classes up all around, then it became relevant for all of us. It was suddenly like double-majoring in college, as all of us found ourselves taking classes we never dreamed of. I had no idea Sidekicks had to learn so much stuff, a lot of which seemed useless until we had it explained, and the Sidekicks found themselves having to push their own powers to the limit. Hero students had to do something called “The Gauntlet,” a kind of extreme obstacle source combined with something like Save the Citizen, to make sure they could perform heroic rescues (or other deeds) under any and all conditions.
“Sidekicks,” I said one day at lunch, “were under appreciated.” Maybe the former Sidekick students were suffering physical aches and pains and some brain strain from Advanced Mad Science and Moral Dilemmas classes, but the former Hero students had headaches from trying to master the minutiae that Sidekicks usually took care of. I had had no idea there was so much: Vehicle Basics for everything from motorcycles to jets, Costume Construction and Maintenance (superpowered home economics.), Superpowered History (as Sidekicks were traditionally supposed to supply names and information to their heroes about supervillains, their organizations, and any devices they had), amongst other things.
“And Heroes,” Zack added, “were overworked.” At least, that’s I think he said, because he had his face flat on the table while Magenta helped rearrange an icepack on his shoulder.
“Gauntlet today?” I asked, already knowing the answer. All the others looked sufficiently wiped out as well, Magenta’s hair was flat down her back, Ethan actually looked a little melted, Layla’s braids were half-unraveled, and Will was barely holding his head up.
“Yeah, and those doors are damned heavy dude!” he groaned. I could sympathize a little. The Gauntlet was set up so you had to get over walls, through a maze, across a moat, get into a sealed room, and fight off a pair of armed villains before retrieving a citizen and returning to the starting line. You could climb up a wall or go through it, swim through the moat or leap over it, thread the maze or find the secret doors in it… there was no one way through the Gauntlet, and Coach Boomer would keep changing it by adjusting the lighting, or adding wind, or changing the temperature.
“At least you’ll never have to do it all in the dark, he’s done that to me before,” I offered. Zack, or at least Zack’s shoulders, looked a little less slumped at that. “And he did once make me run it in freezing temperatures. That sucked.”
“Couldn’t power up?” Will asked in sympathy.
“Not after I blew the first wall apart; I got too cold. Next time I’m bringing a lighter. Or a blowtorch,” I said. “I think he’s threatening to make us run it without our powers entirely sometime before graduation.”
Zack groaned into the table and began to bang his head into it. Will reached out and stopped him with one finger and Magenta gave him a grateful look.
“Well, I’m really proud that Coach Boomer is seeing how great the former Sidekicks can be in traditional Hero classes,” Layla said cheerfully. “He’s just seeing that we could have done it all along.” Layla, I’d found out, was very much into equality, and despite the fact that her power was easily Hero-class, at the beginning of the year she had refused to show it to Boomer and was put into Sidekick class as a punishment. Gutsy move, to stand up to the status quo like that, but it did leave her really unprepared to use her powers in tough situations. She told us it had taken Penny slapping her in the face to motivate her to use her powers offensively.
“I think he’s just taking it out on us that he can’t call us ‘whiner-babies’ any more,” Magenta put in, finally getting Zack’s icepack adjusted to her liking. “He’s never this hard on the Hero kids.”
“He’s just not used to setting the course for people with really different powers,” Ethan pointed out. Ethan was looking pretty bad today, probably because he managed to piss off Boomer by threading into the Gauntlet in puddle-form, and thusly was not nearly as exhausted as everyone else was when he took the citizen out. Boomer wanted people to have to fight their way both in and out, and made Ethan run it twice so he could find more appropriate obstacles for him.
“You don’t have to defend him Ethan; he is being harder on you guys,” Will said. “I think it’s my fault. I kinda made him mad.”
“What, you broke the all-time record? Twice? It’s no wonder he’s mad,” I said. Will’s flight made virtually all ground obstacles irrelevant, and his strength made walls pointless, as he could just pound right through them. It was probably a good thing the Gauntlet was done in much more privacy than Save the Citizen, or the public humiliation of having a freshman beat the record might have pushed Boomer to do something nasty.
“Yeah… my bad,” Will said, finally cracking a smile.
“You owe us man,” Zack mumbled, “like, do my history homework or something to make up for it.”
Ethan opened his mouth to protest the academic fraud while Magenta kicked him under the table.
“You can do my biology too,” she added sweetly, dropping the papers next to Will’s tray. He was starting to look a little frantic when Layla caught on and added another notebook to the pile.
“And how about my botany assignment?” she said with a smile.
That about did it for all of us. The mere idea of Layla letting Will anywhere near her botany projects had Will gaping like a fish; he had a black thumb, and wasn’t any more than academically average in the rest of his classes. Zack cracked first and started to snicker into the tabletop, Ethan was snorting behind his hands, and finally the rest of us started laughing at Will’s flabbergasted expression. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking, I’m with a group of people who’re laughing, and they aren’t laughing at me. I’m actually hanging out with a group of… friends! That kind of brought me up short when I thought about it, and I hid my confusion by taking a drink of milk, trying to look like I was just getting my laughter under control.
Friends. When was the last time… or anytime, I had any real friends? And honestly, when I thought about it, I couldn’t think of any. No one in seventeen years had been willing to be a friend to me. Most people had made fun of me, and so I either fought with them or kept them at a distance. And when I got my powers, I was twice as careful to keep people away. When Layla had asked me to sit down at the Paper Lantern a few weeks ago, it had been the first time anyone had made a genuinely friendly gesture to me. Ever. Then the rest of them willingly sat down next to me at lunch, Will had been actually polite and honest with me (even when I was supposed to be taking his best friend to Homecoming), and all of them had stood with me when we helped save the school.
It was weird to think that someone with my powers could feel cold, but now I could almost feel something in me thawing. It was like relaxing a tense muscle or something, just sitting here, laughing and talking with people that I knew wouldn’t try to bully or tease me, who would respect my opinions, even take me down a peg if I were wrong. How bizarre.
“Ok, that’s enough excitement for Stronghold today, let him finish his lunch before he goes and makes life harder for the rest of us,” I finally put in when the rest of them had gotten themselves under control. Will was still laughing, but managed to obediently take a bite of his sandwich.
“So,” he asked in between mouthfuls, “you really think the Sidekick classes are hard?”
I rolled my eyes, “Tedious,” I clarified.
“But they’re useful!” Layla protested, starting to look a little perkier. She was halfway through a salad that looked like it had been harvested from my backyard, and ticked off her points with a celery stalk as she went. “Being able to make your own costumes, having all kinds of tools at your fingertips if your powers aren’t suited for a situation, knowing how to fly a jet-“
“Still tedious, and you’ve never seen me try to sew,” I growled, contriving to scowl at her. Superhero home ec. was perhaps even more humiliating that running the Gauntlet, thought at least everyone, girls and guys, had to take up a sewing machine or needle.
“Well, you wouldn’t want anyone else to decide what you wear, right? I mean, they might try to put you in bright yellow. Or me,” Magenta pointed out, and I looked so horrified at the very thought that the table broke up laughing again.
“We could always see if they’ll let Stitches out of jail to do our costumes,” Ethan suggested brightly, and we all turned to see if he was serious. “That’s his power you know; making or changing clothing with his mind.”
“Wow… that’s almost as useless as my power,” Magenta quipped.
“Your power’s not useless!” Zack said, actually sitting upright, clutching his ice pack with one hand and repressing a look of pain on his face. “I think you’re pretty cute when you’re shifted. And when you’re not.” I rolled my eyes, both of those two blushed and then kissed really quick, and the rest of the gang got really interested in their lunch, though I saw Will and Layla exchange a heated glance.
The workload at school eventually evened out a bit as some classes were combined or altered, and people started getting used to the idea that their slacking-off time was going to be severely curtailed. Despite what I had said in the cafeteria, I was doing pretty well with the new classes. They were as tedious as I had said, but they weren’t hard. Though like most people I was spending a lot of time after school with the kitchen table covered with books and notes, catching up on homework.
One night Mom came in late as I was finishing up physics homework, and paused right behind me for several minutes. I knew she was working herself up to say something, and just concentrated on the answer as to the amount of force it would take to budge Mt. Everest while she thought.
“Do you have enough room with all of that?” she asked finally. “I mean, I know you have that science project due in two weeks, and the table’s a little small…”
“Just spit it out Mom,” I said without turning around. “I thought we’d move,” she said quickly. Suddenly Mt. Everest could wait. I turned around and looked at her in surprise, and she had a big smile on her face.
“They’re really happy with the work I’m doing, and I have enough to keep me busy from now until forever. I’ve been getting bonuses for some of my work and… well… we’ve always wanted a nicer house, a bigger house, and maybe one closer to your friends. So I thought we’d move. If you want to.”
It took a second or two for that to process. We had always lived in a tiny little house in a not-so-nice neighborhood, and honestly, now that I had friends, I really wouldn’t have wanted them to come here. I know Mom had wanted to have a nicer place for me to grow up in, but we never had had a choice. Things are finally looking up for the Peace family.
“Well yeah! Mom this is great!” I said, smiling and laughing, pulling her in for a hug. We had stood on one of the bottom rungs of the superhero ladder for as long as I could remember, Mom disgraced because of who she had married, and me because of who I was. Now Mom was back in the game and I had proven I wasn’t going to turn out like my father. Or at least I had proven myself to some. This had to be the first real, tangible reward I had seen for heroics. Well, except for Melissa.
“I was going to use the Bureau to find us a place, if that’s all right with you. They could find us a place near some other super-families so we wouldn’t always have to be so careful, probably near some of your buddies,” she said. I shrugged. The thought of having any house nicer than the one we were in made whoever was going to make it happen irrelevant.
“And Warren,” she said softly, “I’m glad you made some friends.”
I looked at her oddly. I shouldn’t have been surprised; Mom knows everything there is to know about me, but for some reason that just struck me as odd.
“You’re calmer, happier, more focused on good things rather than brooding,” she went on. I really couldn’t think of any response to that, so she just kissed me on the head. “Don’t stay up too late. And I don’t suppose any of your friends has a truck we could borrow?” I laughed at that.
“Only true friends would help you move?”
“Something like that,” she said sheepishly.
Despite the fact that I was seventeen, I didn’t have a car, or even a license. Road rage in a pyrokinetic made for melted or exploded cars, so even if we could have afforded one I would have avoided driving. The bus or skateboards were my transportation of choice, but neither was made for moving to a new house. I just hoped we could hire some movers or something. (And wasn’t that a bizarre thought, that we could afford to do something like that?)
Will had an entirely different idea when I mentioned my request the next day, however.
“We can help you move! I bet between all of us-“
“Us meaning mostly Will moving the heavy furniture,” Layla cut in, smiling at him.
“And with me moving the heavy furniture, we can get you moved in a day.”
“I kinda live across town right now,” I pointed out, touched that they’d be willing.
“So, what’re friends for? If we can’t handle a little house-moving, we better never put on capes!” Will said enthusiastically.
“Will, we’d just me moving the stuff, not the house,” Magenta pointed out, “Relax.”
“Yeah, right, got it, just the stuff.” The others groaned and Ethan lobbed a ketchup packet at Will’s head.
Ok, so they were all a few years younger than me, and sometimes they were annoying, or clueless, or just plain weird, but that cemented my friendship with them right there. I mean, who else is willing to hump heavy boxes without pay but a friend?
“Uh… thanks guys. I’ll let you know when,” I said softly, trying to get them back to planet Earth. I was wondering though, somewhere in the back of my mind, when the floor was going to drop out from under me. Things had never gone this well for me, not ever. Well, the first seventeen years mostly sucked. Every cloud has a silver lining, and you’ve had nothing but thunderclouds. You’re due for some silver, my brain pointed out.
It turned out that the house we ended up getting was the one in Will’s neighborhood, though Mom and I both had second thoughts. Well, more like third thoughts. The house itself was great, though after our old house nearly anything looked nice; but even I had to admit this was the type of house I would have loved to grow up in. It had four bedrooms, bathrooms on every floor, an attic, a basement, a big backyard, though luckily no pool (water and I didn’t get along very well).
It wasn’t even the fact that it was Royal Pain’s house, the one she had been using when she was attending Sky High as Gwen Grayson. It had been seized by the government and put back on the market after her arrest. After we heard that Mom and I exchanged looks of alarm and the realtor laughed.
“Oh don’t worry, we checked the place out. I was just mentioning it because it already has a lair dug under the house, so you don’t have to worry about putting one in.” There were advantages to having someone sent over from the Bureau of Superpowered Affairs; they could afford to be candid.
“How do you know she didn’t leave any nasty surprises?” I had asked harshly. I had no intention of putting Mom in any danger, and Royal Pain was a sadistic bitch. I wouldn’t put something like that past her at all. The realtor seemed a bit taken aback by my tone, but I wasn’t going to apologize.
“Mr. Medulla checked the place over inch by inch, and then we had Techarcana go over it herself. She’s another technopath, sidekick to Machine Man,” she said reassuringly, and Mom breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t heard of the other two, but I knew Mr. Medulla had been beside himself for overlooking Gwen Grayson/Sue Tenney as Royal Pain. Not to mention the embarrassment of being turned into a baby after casually walking back into her trap. He might have no sympathy for those who couldn’t understand Mad Science, but he would have enjoyed the challenge of beating any of Royal Pain’s technology in her own lair.
No, the second and third thoughts were because of the fact that our realtor was Mrs. Stronghold. We had met her on the steps of the house so we could take a tour, but when Mom had realized who it was (and I just a minute later), we both stopped in our tracks. Mrs. Stronghold stopped too, not three feet from Mom and I, and we both stared for a minute in shock and anger. What moron had assigned her to us?
“Joy,” Mrs. Stronghold said faintly, looking stunned.
“Josie,” Mom had said evenly, looking stern, her lips tight. I knew that look very well, it was the look I received when I used to try to wriggle out of something I had done wrong. She was not going to make this easy.
“Joy…” Mrs. Stronghold said again, and then paused a long moment and let out a large breath, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
“But you had other things on your mind, a job to do, a husband to love, and soon a new baby on the way. No time for old school pals, particularly when they were so tainted and disgraced,” she said evenly, old pain and anger in her voice. I was watching my mom with wonder. I had never seen her really angry before, and it was impressive in its quiet way, more so than even some of my fiery tantrums. Mom had spoken fairly highly of Will’s mom back when they were in school together… but I didn’t blame her one bit for still being mad at Mrs. Stronghold for abandoning her after Baron Battle was put in prison. Mom had told me more than once that sometimes for peace to occur, people had to air their grievances first. And Mom had a whole lot to air.
Mrs. Stronghold flushed red with shame.
“Don’t try to explain Josie, I know I was all but ordered to be shunned. And Steve’s stance on supervillains and those that fraternize with them… well. Wouldn’t be prudent at all to drop me even a letter. Not one letter, one visit, in seventeen years.” Mrs. Stronghold opened her mouth once, and then shut it again at Mom’s glare.
“I’m sorry?” she managed to squeak out finally, making it a plea. Mom looked at her hard, then nodded once shortly.
“Show me the house, Josie. And don’t leave anything out.”
Mrs. Stronghold looked grateful to be let off the hook, and frantically showed us everything about the house, even flaws I’m sure she would have glossed over otherwise. She told us about it being Royal Pain’s former house, and practically raced to get the paperwork that both Mr. Medulla and Techarcana had signed off on, showing they had found no technopathic abnormalities in the house.
Mom finally nodded after a while, and after a brief conference with me, nodded at Mrs. Stronghold.
“I think you can start the paperwork Josie. We’ll be getting it, at below your asking price.” Mrs. Stronghold just swallowed hard and nodded.
“I’ll go… get… them now,” she said, sidling a bit to the side, then practically running into the other room to get her folder. I was holding back a really nasty chuckle when mom turned and winked at me.
“Go pick out your room and office, Warren, I have a few things I need to discuss with her in private, if you don’t mind.”
“I get an office? For what?” I asked, momentarily distracted.
“Things, paperwork, maybe a computer, hanging out with your friends if you want some privacy but don’t want them in your bedroom, I really don’t know,” she said, her eyes still following Mrs. Stronghold. “Just scram, I don’t want witnesses when I shamelessly guilt-trip our realtor into giving us this house for a song.”
“Love you Mom,” I said with a smile, and pounded upstairs. My mother might be the most ethical person on the planet, but she’s still human. So maybe I didn’t get to watch what was bound to be the most entertaining thing this week, but I had something else to amuse myself with.
I had a letter in my pocket, one that I was saving for a special occasion. About two weeks after Homecoming I had finally remembered to write that letter to the Metroplex Detention Center, pointing out my dad’s special oxygen needs. The warden knew who I was, of course, and I was almost certain he had seen a recording of the meeting between my dad and I five years ago. He wasn’t stupid.
Dear Mr. Peace,
I thank you for bringing your father’s special needs to our attention. We at the Metroplex Detention Center strive to make sure our inmates’ needs are met, and your suggestion will be given due consideration. We will be sure to make Baron Battle as comfortable as possible. Please let us know of any future developments.
Warden Thomas Ulrich, Metroplex Detention Center For Superpowered Beings
Oh yeah, my dad was surely suffering the grandmother of all headaches right now! This almost made up for not being able to watch Mom get a little of hers back. I wasn’t going to tell Will about it though; it wasn’t his fault his mom made mine mad. Well, look who’s come a long way from wanting to roast the Commander’s son alive in the cafeteria just a few months ago. I sighed; it wasn’t exactly easy, being someone different after so many years of being menacing and standoffish. But it made for a lot less grief, that’s for sure.
True to their word, the whole gang showed up one Saturday to help Mom and I move our stuff, and we didn’t even end up needing a truck. We spent the daylight hours packing boxes, waited until night fell, then had Will ferry most of it to the new house. Having a flying, super-strong friend around when you’re moving is really, really useful. The rest of the time we were just trying to unpack and put things in the right rooms. Our little house had really been crammed, because the new place didn’t look too outrageously empty once we were done. Of course, there were a few kinks.
Will had piled most of the stuff in the living room so we could sort through it later, and so we had Layla yelling out what was written on the boxes, and my mom yelling back from the kitchen where they should go, and then someone else running it to the correct room.
“Clothes! Good grief, this is like twentieth box…” I heard Layla saying from downstairs.
“Are they black?” Magenta called from one of the other bedrooms. She had a knack with electrical devices and had been put in charge of setting clocks and other electronic things. Zack had been barred from that when I saw him fry his own MP3 player at school after someone startled him. Apparently the kid generates a lot of static electricity in addition to glowing.
“Yeah, they’re black,” Layla called back.
“Warren’s!” she replied.
“Very funny,” I snapped back, trying to get my books in order on their shelves. Mom had splurged on some new furniture when we bought the house, including some bookcases, mostly because she had saved quite a bit due to her “suggestions” to Mrs. Stronghold. I had Will bring all the books up to my room while he was still playing moving man, because I think I had at least a thousand that I had accumulated over the years. I’m sure Mom had about three or four boxes of her own somewhere in here, but I hadn’t found them yet.
“If you were moving, would I assume everything purple was yours?” I called.
“Probably. Dye doesn’t take to the streaks in my hair, so I just embrace it. You’re in the same boat, so you’re in no position to talk,” she shot back from the doorway.
“Whatever,” I shot back lamely.
“Poetry!” I heard Layla call out.
“Warren’s!” my mom responded, and I turned about as red as my hair when Magenta suppressed a giggle.
“You write poetry?” she asked, looking incredulous.
“Don’t say another word or you don’t get barbeque,” I said as I dashed out of the room. I needed to get my hands on that box before Layla or anyone else decided to read any of it. It was all dark, angsty, gothic stuff from a few years ago, and I really didn’t want anyone else to read it. Really.
I jumped down the stairs in record time and grabbed the box out of Layla’s hands before she could hand it off to Ethan.
“I’ll get that,” I mumbled.
“You know, shouldn’t you have said, ‘Don’t say another word or you’ll get barbequed?’” Magenta asked. She had come down right behind me.
“No, because I’m barbequing for you guys after we’re done. Though right now, I’m not so sure you’re worth the trouble.”
“You can cook?” Ethan asked incredulously.
“Yeah, I learned it in Super Nutrition,” I said in my best deadpan voice. “No, I just barbeque, that’s it.” Layla looked a little pained. “And I’ll do the tofu and vegetables first,” I added, sighing. She brightened a little, and then there was a crash from upstairs.
“Uh oh…” we heard from upstairs.
“Damnit Stronghold!” I yelled, and ran upstairs again, still holding the box of poetry. He sometimes forgot how strong he was, and he had already accidentally ripped a locked door off of its hinges, thinking it was merely stuck.
I heard some laughter behind me, and Magenta was saying, “Layla, don’t you think you ought to go protect Will?”
“He can take care of himself!” she protested, and there was a chorus of more laughter.
I found Will leaning casually against a wall upstairs, his arms crossed and looking remarkably unruffled.
“What did you break this time?” I demanded.
“Nothing, I just figured it was easier if the guys thought we were up here beating the living daylights out of each other or something,” he said, smiling a bit. “At least they won’t come up here for a while.”
“Easier than what?” I asked, now getting confused. I took a second to shove the incriminating box of poetry into the back of my closet before going back into the hall.
“Easier than having Layla try to sort these out in front of everyone. They were all unlabeled, and I though you or your mom should do it,” he explained, and stepped to the side to reveal four old, unmarked boxes. My breath caught. I knew exactly what those were; I had remembered seeing them in my mom’s closet once or twice when she had been explaining to me about my dad. I opened the corner of one box and looked in, spying an old picture of Baron Battle, his arm around my mom. I slammed the box shut again and took my hand away. I could feel it heating up, and I took a few deep breaths to get myself calm again.
“I didn’t look, I just guessed,” Will said softly. “And I’m sorry they got my mom to sell you the house. That was really dumb of them.” I had to wait a few more minutes before I was sure I wasn’t going to accidentally power up or say anything stupid.
“Thanks, “ I said finally, trying to put as much feeling into it as possible. I really didn’t need any of the others to have found those boxes; they were understandably curious about Baron Battle, and I don’t think any of them might have resisted at least a quick peak through them. Will’s apology helped too, even though he had nothing to do with it. That’s just the kind of guy he was, willing to take on the blame and punishment for things that even were only peripherally his fault.
“Sure thing. You want to put them somewhere, or you want me to do it?” he said casually, but I could see from his face he was touched.
“My mom’s closet. You better do it though; I think I better go do something with the food,” I told him, pointing to the correct room. My hands were practically glowing from the heat in them, and I had to get myself away from any paper. Will nodded and picked up all four boxes.
“Will,” I called after him, and Stronghold whipped around. I don’t think I had ever called him by his first name to his face before. “Thanks for being a good friend.”
Will smiled. “Anytime.”