Christmas and Confrontation
The new house made me feel a lot more like part of the gang. I was getting invitations to study with them, or to come over to dinner, or just to hang out. It was still a little strange to just be able to walk into someone else’s house without worrying that someone was going to call the police, but I had to admit I liked it. More than once I would find that Ethan had dropped notes off for me at my house if I had been working during a study session, or Layla had sent over some new cutting for my mom’s garden. I would reciprocate by bringing dinner from the Paper Lantern to our study jams.
By the time the holidays had rolled around I felt like I had a little family of my own. An eclectic, bizarre, super-powered family, but a good one nevertheless. Layla had once said, “Friends are the family you choose,” and I had taken that to heart. Too many years of shutting out everyone and everything that I could so I wouldn’t lose my temper had made the contrast just amazing. They were still pesky sometimes, like little brothers or sisters, or sometimes they were too curious, but anything boneheaded they said was usually followed up by an apology.
They all knew I didn’t have a lot to do with the holidays, there being just Mom and me. I obviously had nothing to do with any of Baron Battle’s family, and Mom’s relatives had nearly disowned her when my dad had been put in prison. She told me she was slowly mending fences in that direction, but wasn’t going to expect a family reunion any time soon. So the gang tried to make up for that by trying to include me in all their own holiday hijinks.
Ethan invited us all to a huge Christmas party at his house at the beginning of winter break to celebrate our freedom for two whole weeks. He had a huge family, and even his big house felt crammed to the rafters with all the relatives. His dad could turn himself into massive wave of water, and about half of his relatives have some variation on that kind of power. Apparently this made for some weird family traditions about being careful what you drank, and to label everything liquid with a name, and to ask its permission before using it or drinking it. If a punch bowl had a sticky note on it that said “Evelyn,” you had to ask the punch bowl (addressing it as Evelyn) if you could take a drink. If you failed to do so, and someone caught you, you had to do something embarrassing as a forfeit.
Will forgot to do this and had to sing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while wearing a blinking red nose. Ethan had the presence of mind to snap several pictures for later use. He told me that the tradition grew out of a family legend where someone had apparently been resting, in liquid form, in a bowl, and had accidentally gotten drunk, or added to a cake, or something of the sort. This was so weird I had to believe it.
Magenta refused to participate in most holiday stuff, but there was apparently one thing that even she was willing to suffer through. Her family owned a farm on the outskirts of Maxville where they held family shapeshifting contests. In the summer months Magenta said her brothers and cousins would go out there to see who could beat the others in foot races (apparently their alternate forms were things like horses, wolves, or big cats). Her father, who could turn himself into a lion, organized the whole thing. But during Christmastime the family would go out there to exchange gifts with their far-flung relatives before Christmas day proper. The trick was that you had to hide the other person’s gift so they could only get to it in their shapeshifted form.
Though Magenta hated the fact that her form was perhaps the least powerful of her entire family, she really liked hiding presents. We helped her tuck presents into weird corners one day, and got to watch the whole family shapeshift together to go hunt for them. I admit; it was a pretty cool sight to see a group of people one minute and the menagerie of a circus the next.
Zack’s family traditions revolved around making their house the biggest, brightest, most decorated attraction in Maxville, and he hauled all of us out to scramble on the roofs and trees to string more lights that I thought were legally allowed onto his property. Most of family had some kind of power related to electricity (his dad was Electro-Man), and we all got a few shocks from strands of lights that would randomly blink on and off whenever any of his sisters would handle them.
Layla’s family did a big winter garden in their backyard. Her mom spent some time laying out food and plants that all kinds of critters would find attractive, while Layla helped out every cold-hearty plant fill in and around their patio. She had us all over when it was ready to have a winter picnic. The place looked fantastic, with lights and candles strung all over, and the plants forming living walls and furniture for us to sit on. Birds, rabbits, squirrels, and other animals kept popping up all around to take morsels from the various feeders, and Layla’s mom would translate their comments for us. We sat around an outdoor fireplace, drinking hot chocolate and apple cider, talking about nothing in particular until about midnight.
Will’s family also had a big traditional Christmas party, but this time I excused myself, pleading that I had to work. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, because I did. It was because I still hadn’t talked seriously with his dad. More than once I had heard the other’s families refer to me as “Baron Battle’s son” when they thought I couldn’t hear. Most of the time they were just saying how much I wasn’t like my father, but it still hurt just hearing myself described that way. I had such a stigma still on me, even though I was trying to prove my worth, that those comments kept bringing me up short.
I realized I didn’t know that much about Baron Battle, despite what Mom had told me. He had been a skilled actor and liar, and had never shown his true face until his fight with the Commander. Mom hadn’t seen him like that until the very end of his free life, and had years of knowing him as someone else before that day. But there were two other people who had seen him with his mask off, and those two were my best friend’s parents. They hadn’t been standoffish when they had briefly met me at Homecoming, but at that point they probably had so much on their minds already that I wasn’t even on the radar.
I didn’t want to go into Will’s house before I had a chance to talk with both of them. I needed to know what they thought about it, about me, about my dad and my mom. Mom’s reaction when Mrs. Stronghold had sold us our house was enough to know that I needed to go very deep, and that kind of serious discussion had no place at a Christmas party. That, and I didn’t want the others to know what I was going to do.
I couldn’t do it before Christmas, and I needed to wait until Will was going to be out. He wasn’t involved with this, and he didn’t need to hear it. However, I didn’t know his parents’ schedule, and I didn’t want to take the risk of finally getting up the guts to do this and have them be away. So I cornered him in the kitchen at Magenta’s family farm when we were supposed to be bringing drinks out for everyone.
“Stronghold, I got a question for you. A serious one,” I said finally. I wasn’t even facing him, I was trying to fill a mug with apple cider while he cut the eggnog, but I could tell I had his attention.
“I need to speak with your parents. In private. When would be a good time?” I got out quickly. There was a long pause behind me.
“Oh.” Then, “Oooooh. Ok.” Will was appreciably faster on the uptake since he started dating Layla. “Umm… lemme think… New Year’s Eve would be your best bet. Mom and Dad said they weren’t going to do anything special this year; they were going to stay home. And Layla and me are going to have dinner at Anthony’s Italian before going over to Zack’s house for our New Year’s party, so you could go after we leave. Barring any emergencies they should be there all night.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned around with the cider.
“I won’t say anything, not even to Layla. That’s why you’re not coming to my party, right?” he added quietly.
“You’re getting better at this thinking thing Stronghold,” I answered a bit more loudly as I sailed back into the living room.
“Hey, that’s not true!” Will protested, following me. “Wait… that didn’t come out right…”
It was strange to think that in about a week I would finally have the answers I had been looking for for almost my whole life. You’d think I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on anything, but life goes on whether you’re ready or not. The gang got together two days after Christmas to show each other what gifts they’d gotten, and to exchange our own. Zack gave me a couple CDs of his favorite techno music, something I also enjoyed but wouldn’t admit often. Ethan gave me a book on famous superheroes, complete with notes on which pages had heroes that had similar powers to mine (everyone had gotten one of those, albeit with different notes). Magenta gave me a shirt that looked just like my favorite phoenix shirt, but in red.
“Now you own something that isn’t black,” was all she said about it. Layla got me a flower, a weird-looking purple lily about three feet high.
“It’s a voodoo lily,” she explained happily. She was as bad as Ethan in explaining things when it came to plants. “It usually smells like rotten meat and uses flies to do its pollination, but I fixed it so it wouldn’t. I thought it was appropriate because it gets hot, a little over a hundred degrees when it’s blooming.”
“A warm flower that smells. Thanks hippie,” I said, laughing a bit and shaking my head. She had gotten everyone some “appropriate” plant, though I think mine was the weirdest.
Will got me a framed piece of scorched lunch tray from our cafeteria fight that he had signed. The rest of the gang started laughing when I unwrapped that, and I threatened to burn the rest of Will’s presents as a “thank you.” I just handed out gift certificates to the Paper Lantern to everyone for my present. I wasn’t really great at the gift-giving thing, and most of them liked Chinese food anyway.
“Though in Stronghold’s case it’s just a certificate for a clue-bat to the head when he needs it,” I added, and had the pleasure of getting back Will for his present.
The rest of the night we talked about what we were going to do at Zack’s house on New Year’s Eve. Zack said his dad was going to lower some electric disco ball in their back yard like they did at Times Square, in addition to more lit decorations than you could shake a stick at.
“Maybe I’ll blow it up for you when it reaches zero, that’ll be fun,” I offered sarcastically when Zack kept going on about a little duel he and his dad were having about who could have the coolest event at the party.
“Yeah man, that’d be awesome! And my dad’d have no clue! Man, I’ve been trying to one-up him on this party for weeks,” he said enthusiastically. I noticed Zack was glowing again; he usually did when he got wound up, and then there was no stopping him.
“Seriously?” I asked, blinking at the idea that he would willingly let me destroy some of his dad’s property.
“Totally man, he ends up blowing out half the lights anyway at this shindig. A few more won’t matter.”
“Uh… I might not be there for all of it, but I guess I can be there before midnight,” I said finally. “Just keep everyone out of the way.”
“No prob man. Dude, this is going to be totally cool, my sisters are totally going to freak when I tell them Warren’s coming.”
“Oh God,” I said, burying my face in my hands, “If I’ve ever done you any favors, don’t!” Zack’s sisters were all a few years older than him, and three were still single and apparently interested in me.
“Don’t worry man, I was just joshin’ ya, I wouldn’t do that to a compadre,” Zack said in his usual easygoing manner.
The party broke up on a high note, and I wondered a little at the strange way my life had changed.
On New Year’s Eve it was snowing, and I waited outside the Stronghold house in the cold for Will to leave. I hid behind the bushes outside the gate, feeling like a thief in the night. Will left a little early, walking right by me casually, but patting me on the shoulder as he went. I waited until he got Layla from next door, and then watched as they flew off to their dinner plans.
I waited another ten minute to try to get my nerves back under control. Despite my friendship with their son, despite what I had seen them do at Homecoming, and despite the fact that I knew my dad was a psychotic murderer, I still had some long-buried anger in me at the Commander and Jetstream. I had too many unanswered questions about the day Baron Battle had been defeated, and Mom had shown me with how she had talked to Mrs. Stronghold what the far-reaching consequences of that had been.
I finally took a deep breath and went through the gate, marched up to the door, and knocked. If I had hesitated for a second, I don’t think I could have gone through with it. I was on the threshold of my own past, and it wasn’t a comfortable feeling at all. My stomach was churning and despite the cold I could feel the heat surging along my arms and spine. Every snowflake that got near me was being melted instantly.
Mrs. Stronghold answered the door with a cheery “Happy New Year!” that died on her tongue when she saw who it was. “Oh hello Warren. Will just went out with Layla, but I think they’re going to join you at Zack’s later,” she said after a second.
“I came here to talk to you, not Will,” I said quickly.
“Oh,” she said faintly, looking confused, then waving me inside.
“Actually, I came here to talk to Jetstream and the Commander,” I clarified, taking off my hat and scattering water droplets everywhere. I clutched the hat carefully, hoping she wouldn’t see it start to smolder.
“Oh,” she said again, and now there was a note of understanding in her voice. “I think I understand. Well. Come into the den, and I’ll get Steve. Do you want anything to drink?”
I shook my head as I followed her, my heart in my throat. I waited in the den as Mrs. Stronghold called down to Steve to come up from the Secret Sanctum, somehow impressed that they would even let me see the entrance.
Whatever she had told him had apparently changed his tune from “Honey, I’m about to beat the top score on the pinball machine!” to, “I’ll be right up!” I guess asking about putting one of your son’s friend’s fathers in jail would do that.
They both sat on the sofa opposite me and took off their glasses, and just like that, I was facing the Commander and Jetstream. It was simple how easily their cover identities were shed, and even though they weren’t in costume, they were both projecting the presence of which they were so strongly I had no trouble seeing it.
“I need to ask you about my father,” I said finally after a long minute. They looked at each other and nodded.
“I had gathered. I was actually surprised you waited this long. I thought after seeing what happened between me and your mother…” Jetstream said, and then shrugged.
“It’s hard,” I pointed out, “I don’t know much about him, and I don’t want to. But it doesn’t stop me from needing to know. Just… what happened that day?”
They exchanged another look, and then the Commander picked up the story.
“We had a call from the Bureau in the night, an emergency call from the European office that no one else could handle. They asked for us specifically. We had just started working together and they had found out what a good team we made. The only thing we were told was that Baron Battle had gone villain and was going to attempt to murder people at the World Diplomatic Conference in a few hours. We were the only ones who could stop him.”
“So I picked up Steve and we flew. I can reach Europe in a couple of hours if I fly fast enough, and even then it was nearly too late. By the time we got there, half the building was on fire and people were fleeing in all directions,” Jetstream said, trying to illustrate with her hands. “Baron Battle had apparently disconnected or destroyed the fire alarms and sprinklers and trashed the water main leading to the building so he couldn’t be stopped.”
I swallowed hard and kept my hands clenched tight on my hat. I had brought a flame-retardant one for this very purpose, because right now I could feel my hands heating up at that horrible mental image. Baron Battle could have killed dozens of people with that kind of stunt.
“Josie flew me into the main conference hall, and we were attacked immediately. Baron Battle had killed three people before we got there, and another man died as I watched, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Baron kept his flames on me, trying to force me to the strongest part of the building so I couldn’t bash my way out as easily. I am super strong, but fire still hurts, and Baron Battle knew that,” the Commander explained, and could see regret in his face.
“The smoke was so thick in there that I would have had to ground myself if I stayed much longer, so I just started getting people out of the building safely. I had to let Steve face Battle on his own,” Jetstream put in, and placed a hand on the Commander’s arm. He covered her hand with his own and I felt a surge of envy for Will that I quickly tried to suppress.
“Baron Battle was… evil Warren. I mean that in every sense of the word. He began telling me his plan, how he wanted to rule the world the way he wanted to because no one else was worthy. He used to rant and rave like that back when he was a student, but only when he was acting. It was chilling to think I was seeing the real Baron Battle now.
“He kept snarling at me, hemming me into a corner and burning me to keep me at bay. I think he was trying to get the wall to drop on me so he could escape. But I wasn’t going to let that happen. So I charged straight for him, took a few fireballs to the chest for my trouble, but finally got my hands on him,” the Commander paused, and his brow was furrowed as he remembered.
“I wrestled him down, the Bureau came with power-neutralizer restraints, and he was cuffed and led away. But it was what he was screaming at me when they put him in the transport that really made my blood run cold. He said, ‘I will have my revenge on you Commander! If not by my own hand, then by my blood, I swear it! I will see you and all you hold dear as ashes.’”
My gut clenched at those words. They had become so close to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that I was starting to feel ill. My dad hadn’t even had to do anything to me, other than let the suspicions of others fill me with anger until I was willing to try to kill Will Stronghold myself.
“Warren, at that point we really didn’t know the story behind why he turned. It seemed so out of the blue, one day he was fighting the undead hordes of the Vampire King, the next day he showed up at the Summit and started burning people alive. I’m sorry to say, for a while your mother was even under suspicion, because of her powers,” Jetstream tried to explain.
“What?!” I roared at the last. Smoke began to rise from my hat as flames burst forth along my hands. Jetstream put up her hands in a calming gesture and gave me a stern look that I recognized from my own mom. It said, calm down buster, you don’t know the whole story yet. I took a few deep breaths and slowly let the flames die. You knew you were going to hear terrible things Peace, you have to keep your cool…
“It wasn’t for very long, just until she was able to explain she had been seeing signs of Battle’s plans for months. She was so shaken up about it that it was obvious she had no hand in it. It hurt her credibility very badly though, and the Bureau wasn’t willing to do much more for her than get her back to America and into a new cover identity. It really shook up the whole superhero community that something like this could happen, and I think everyone blamed your mother. Even though I know now that it wasn’t her fault… at the time it was hard to believe that she couldn’t have warned us sooner, or stopped him herself. We’re so used to being able to fix everything ourselves that we forgot that we need our friends to stand by us… We should have helped her, but we didn’t,” Jetstream said softly.
“Baron Battle ended up teaching both of us a very important lesson, one that we’ve never forgotten to this day. No matter how strong you are, or how fast, sometimes you can’t save everyone. However, never stop trying, no matter how grim the odds,” the Commander added. “Warren, I’ll admit the day you and Will fought in the cafeteria I was more excited that Will had gotten his powers than scared of the fact that you, the son of a man I put away for burning people alive, had tried to kill my boy. Josie pointed it out to be afterward, but I’ll be honest, I dismissed it almost right away.
“If you had wanted to be a supervillain, I think you would have become one a long time ago. You haven’t because you’re you, you’re Warren Peace, not Baron Battle. Whatever you end up doing with your life, it’ll be because you decided to do it, not because of a man you’ve only met once did. I was impressed that you helped save the school, and I admire the fact that you’re willing to come to us to learn about what happened in the past. I think you’re going to be one hell of a hero, Warren, and I’m glad Will knows you,” the Commander said with conviction, holding out a hand.
“And you’re always welcome in our house,” Jetstream added, “so you don’t have to be a stranger.” She added her hand as well, both of them extending a symbol of trust to me. My head was so full it was whirling, but my gut was telling me that things were going to be all right, maybe for the first time in a long time. I was running a little hot, but I carefully exerted a bit of control and cooled my hand enough to clasp of theirs.
“I think you probably have a somewhat better New Year’s celebration to go to than hanging around with a couple of old folks though, don’t you?” the Commander said with a wink as he shook my hand.
“At Zack’s,” I managed faintly.
“Then go have fun,” Jetstream said, shooing me towards the door. I started to go, but turned back one last time.
“Thank you.” They both smiled and nodded at me, and I practically ran out of the house. I couldn’t help thinking though, that that conversation had been perhaps the most appropriate New Year’s celebration I had ever had. Ok, so my dad was a psycho. I knew that, I know now what he did… And what he had done was horrible, and what it had done to my mother was worse. You can’t blame yourself for other people being stupid, I told myself finally. Joy Peace was slowly reclaiming what had been lost to her when I was born, and if it was late… well, better late than never. They apologized for what they did to her. The Commander and Jetstream, if anyone would have a reason to think of me as a born villain, they would. But they don’t, they don’t… While I hadn’t liked hearing everything they had told me, it was like lancing a sore; you had to get all the bad stuff out in order for the healing to start.
My heart felt lighter somehow, and energy filled me. I started to run through the streets, melting snow as I passed, and not stopping until I saw the million-watt glow of Zack’s house a few blocks away. I slowed a bit as I got to the front door and stopped, trying to get myself back under control. I was grinning like a fool, and at what I wasn’t even sure.
“Hey man, glad you could make it. Get in here!” Zack said, interrupting my reverie as he opened the door. I stepped in and let the door close behind me, and really felt for once that this time everything was going to turn out great.