I awoke some indeterminate amount of time later, feeling warm and tired. I couldn’t remember where I was, and everything felt wrong. There was an antiseptic smell, harsh on my nostrils, and there was a faint beeping sound somewhere. I groggily opened my eyes to see some kind of monitor to one side, a line of light crawling across it.
A heart monitor? What… Then it hit me and I remembered; the Gauntlet, the wall, Zack falling, my plunge into the moat, the red fire…
“Zack!” I yelled, struggling to sit up. I was covered with wires connected to dozens of monitors, and they all began cheeping at me as I started moving.
“Zack’s fine, just sit back Warren” Nurse Spex said. I looked around and saw I was in the infirmary at the school, in one of the private rooms, with the nurse sitting next to me on a chair. I was tucked under three electric blankets and wearing nothing but a hospital gown, I realized with embarrassment. “You were actually worse off than him when I got there.”
“What…. happened?” I asked finally, my brain slowly starting to work again.
“Well… let me show you the recording from Boomer’s monitors, it was pretty dramatic if I do say so myself,” she said cheerfully. She pointed a remote at the monitor in the wall, and we began watching the Gauntlet monitor tapes.Peace/Cramer: Run 12/4, 9/20/06
The monitors showed Zack and I skimming through the outdoor obstacles, and I mentally compared our time on the timer to my own scores. Huh, we were doing pretty well there… We got to the wall, the monitor shifted cameras to show a top view, we both climbed, we reached the top… Here I could see Zack had turned to grab the rope and simply slipped. I gritted my teeth as Zack slammed into the wall and then into the ground; it looked even worse on the recording than I had remembered it. Then again Boomer had multiple camera angles with zoom lenses to catch all the action on the Gauntlet, it must have been a lot worse for him.
I saw my own dive into the water, Boomer helping me get Zack out… Then Boomer left again, and I concentrated hard on this part of the tape. I saw myself put a hand on Zack’s shoulder, and clearly saw his glowing dim. Soft red flames flickered into existence along my arms and hands in the recording and… I looked really close to be sure… my hair had been glowing too, the red parts of my hair had been on fire with the rest of me.
I watched as the red flames seemed to pour into Zack from my hand, and how the flames had crawled over part of his head and torso as I watched myself grow paler and paler on the tape. Then I saw myself collapse, and Zack awaken as Coach Boomer and Nurse Spex reached me.
The nurse turned off the recording and looked at me for a moment.
“You healed him,” she said simply. I stared at her without comprehension.
“I can’t do that; I just burn things. I have my dad’s powers,” I said slowly, shaking my head.
“You’d be surprised at what super-kids can pull off under stress,” she said, “Just look at your friend Will.”
I kept shaking my head. This was too weird. Besides, Will had just triggered the powers he had all along; he didn’t pull out something radically different.
“Do you remember when you first powered up? What happened that day? Do you remember what you were feeling?” she asked insistently.
“I was practicing fighting in the backyard, I was punching a post… Some kid at school had made fun of me and I wanted to be ready to fight him on Monday. I was so angry at him…” I paused as something occurred to me. “I was angry.”
Nurse Spex nodded, and she seemed to be following my train of thought. “Your powers are linked to your emotions, not like your father’s. Think, have you ever powered up without being mad about something?”
I was silent for a very long minute as I ran through nearly every incident that I could think of… Cafeteria fight and all my Save the Citizen games, I had been mad. Same thing at Homecoming, even when Melissa had offered to dance with me, that power-up had needed an almost reflexive flash of anger. Even when I had lit the candle at the Paper Lantern when I had first talked to Layla, that had been annoyance. I must have looked shocked, considering the triumphant expression on Nurse Spex’s face.
“No…” I said faintly, “Never.”
“And what were you thinking when Zack was hurt?” she asked gently.
“I was afraid he would die and I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” I said finally. Nurse Spex nodded and patted my hand.
“It’s extremely rare to develop new powers like this so late in life, but what you did wasn’t get a new power so much as uncover a quirk of your original one. I think it must be because of your mother; your powers are linked to your emotions, and they’re also responsive to your emotions. If you power up when you’re mad, they burn. If you power up when you’re trying to help, they heal,” she explained.
“But I couldn’t power up, I had just been in the moat! What happened when I touched Zack the first time?” I asked, trying to get a handle on what was going on. I’m a healer now? The hell?
“Well Zack’s power is that basically he’s a living battery; he just sheds energy all the time. Most of the time that just comes off as light or maybe as static electricity, but sometimes it can be used in other ways. You mostly generate your own power, but sometimes you can gather it in from your environment. It’s why you can power up more easily on a hot day than a cold one. Zack basically jump-started you. And then you nearly killed yourself in healing him in return,” she explained, turning to look at some of her instruments.
“How did I do that exactly?” I asked after a minute.
“Oh, it was basically the same thing you do when you normally power up, just on a much, much smaller scale. Your fire was just going to give his body the energy it needed to heal very quickly on its own instead of just scorching away indiscriminately. Of course, we need to work on that control a bit, because you didn’t know how to pull away once you started. Then again, it was just as well that you didn’t; you saved his life,” she said, writing a few things down on her clipboard.
“How is he?” I asked suddenly.
“Oh heavens, he’s perfectly fine. They’re all waiting to see you once I’m done making sure you’re not going to relapse. But he was very bad when you pulled him out of the water… He had cracked his skull and broken his back. If you hadn’t been there, Zack probably would have died. I took a look at his injuries myself… they were all neatly back together again, like they would as if they had been healed naturally for years. But the signs were there, and I know he didn’t have those scars before today.
“But you! Oh you gave me such a scare! We couldn’t get you warm enough with just blankets, so finally we had to stick you in a tub of boiling water. That did the trick. Try to power up for me now,” she said with more of her usual batty offhandedness. I hesitated for a moment and raised my hand. I wanted to make sure I could do this again if I needed to… I tried to put myself back there on the bank of the moat, when I really wanted to help but didn’t know how. Ember-like flamelets rose up from my palm, and I grinned in triumph.
“Very good! Now, your usual way?” she said, and I let my anger surge forth a bit. Golden flames erupted from my hands and reflected off of Nurse Spex’s glasses. She nodded, looking satisfied, and I powered down.
“Excellent. Now, you realize that even though you have a new trick, it doesn’t give you any more energy than before? If you try to use both, you’re going to tire yourself out twice as fast as usual. And if there’s not a tub of boiling water around you might kill yourself,” Nurse Spex said, looking very serious. I took a deep breath and nodded. “If Zack is willing to let you leech a little of his energy, that might help, but you can’t always count on that you know. Now, let’s get you a cup of something hot and maybe some company if you’re up for it.”
I nodded to both, and soon found myself with a boiling mug of hot chocolate in one hand and all my friends on the other.
“Warren! Dude, that was awesome!” Zack said, giving me a high five as he entered, Magenta right beside him, her arm around him. That had to be one of the extremely rare times when she was willing to initiate a public display of affection, and I realized how shaken up she must be. Will and Layla were right on their heels, followed by Ethan a second later.
I returned Zack’s high five, grateful that Nurse Spex had given me my own clothes back before calling them in. Meeting my friends in a hospital gown would have the height of embarrassing. I looked at Zack carefully, astonished to see that the ugly gash on his head was nothing more than a faint red scar. Had I really done that?
“Yeah, but next time you trip over your own big feet I’m not coming in after you. Do you know how many points we lost?” I shot back, getting a slightly hysterical laugh out of everyone. We all could use a little release at that point.
“Are you ok Warren?” Magenta asked, biting her lip a bit. I nodded a bit and took another sip of hot chocolate. One nice thing about being a pyrokinetic is that I never have to wait for drinks to cool down. As a matter of fact, the near-boiling temperature was just about perfect.
“Shaken up more than anything. You scared the hell out of me,” I said, glaring at Zack.
“I don’t remember anything dude. I remember climbing the wall, and then waking up in the nurse’s office with a headache and feeling like I had just laid out in the sun for about five hours. I had to see the video before I’d believe ‘em,” he said in an offhand manner. I could tell he was pretty impressed, and he wasn’t letting go of Magenta for anything, so I knew he was a lot worse off than he said. Watching yourself nearly die on tape would do that to anyone.
“I didn’t know pyrokinetics could heal,” Ethan said, looking back and forth between Zack and me as if I’d demonstrate.
“Neither did I. I still don’t. Did you all see the tape?” I asked. They all nodded, still with varying expressions of awe. It made me profoundly uncomfortable, and I hid my face in my mug again. “Then you know about as much as I did. If I think of anything, I’ll tell you later.”
“Well, I’ve already discussed this a little with Warren, and if he wants to tell you what I said, he can. Though I will say that we haven’t had anyone with any kind of healing powers pass through here, barring your mother of course, since… well… me! And I’m just a substitute for an X-ray machine,” Nurse Spex said with an airy wave of her hand. “Though I’m not too surprised that you ended up developing them this way.”
“When trying to help a friend. That’s how your mother’s powers first emerged. I mean, you’re the Peacemaker’s son; I was sure you were going to get something of hers, and now here it is!”
The Peacemaker’s son. God, has anyone every called me that? It’s always “a supervillain’s kid,” or “Baron Battle’s son.” If everyone could just remember that… That’s a title I could live with for once.
There was only one person who really needed to hear this, perhaps more than my friends. Though just in case, I wanted them around to protect me.
“Nurse Spex, I need to call my mom,” I said after a second.
“Oh of course dear, I can get a video conference going, what’s her number?”
I wrote it down for her and she went off to make the connection.
“I need you guys to stay for this. I don’t know what she’s going to say… and…” I hesitated, not sure how to go on. They were the whole reason I had managed to pull this strange new power off. If they hadn’t been willing to be my friends… I don’t think I ever would have called on my powers with anything but anger.
“I dunno man, my mom’s probably going to kill me as it is, I’m not sure if I listen to this twice today,” Zack protested with a grin.
“At least she won’t be yelling at you,” I pointed out, laughing a bit. What was it about moms that whenever their kids managed to pull off some crazy stunt they were torn between hugging them and wanting to beat them senseless?
“Warren, I have the call up,” Nurse Spex called from the other room, and the monitor steadied to show my mom, in her full costume, her face tight and drawn. “She’s already seen the video. I have to confess I already called her earlier to tell her you were in an accident.” I didn’t even have time to respond to that.
“Warren! Honey, you gave me such a scare!” she exclaimed, clutching her hands tight. Her face was pale and thin, and I could tell she had been working too hard. Again.
“Mom, I’m fine, I’m all right. Really, I swear,” I started to say. I could hear the girls behind me whispering to each other.
“Whoa, a costume that doesn’t involve Spandex? I need to ask who her tailor is,” I heard Magenta say to Layla, and then a few more whispers about breaking away from gender norms in costuming; obviously Layla putting her two cents in. I refrained from smiling at that, I didn’t need my mom to think I had gotten a concussion on top of everything else.
“Honey, what happened?” Mom asked urgently, and then her eyes flicked to Zack. “You really did heal him, didn’t you?”
Zack shrugged a bit and looked at the floor. “I guess, I don’t remember anything.”
“Zack jump-started my powers. It was because I was trying to help instead of just being angry that it happened that way,” I explained. “Nurse Spex said it was because of you, your powers.”
A whole flock of expressions crossed my mom’s face, surprise, confusion, comprehension, happiness, and sudden guilt. She thought she should have seen this coming, that’s what it is. That I could have powered up the first time in love or compassion instead of anger and rage. But she’s happy I learned now, even if she couldn’t have helped me in the past. How could I blame her? How could I blame anyone? This was an entirely new thing, and something that I could have figured out years ago if I hadn’t been a ticking time bomb.
“Maybe it is,” Mom said softly, “but this is yours now Warren, purely and totally yours. Baron could never do anything like this. And neither can I.”
I took in a deep breath, throttling down the residual anger that memory brought up. The day I had first gotten my powers, I had remembered raging at the cruelty of the universe that they were just like my murderous, psychotic father. But this… she was right, it was mine, this belonged solely to Warren Peace.
“Thanks,” I told her quietly.
“So… are you going to tell me about it in more detail, or do I have to pry it out of you when I get home tonight?”
I relented and told her, and the rest of them, about what Nurse Spex had told me. My friends and I were going to be a superhero team some day, and they definitely deserved to know. Perhaps Will couldn’t be hurt, but how much more confident would Magenta or Layla be if they knew someone in their group could save them in a pinch? Sure, we’d have first-aid kits and the best medical supplies and training we could get for each other, but in the middle of a fight?
I realized that also meant something else for me; I wouldn’t have to be the flame-throwing monster of the team, not if I didn’t want to. I had been unconsciously rebelling a little at the idea that I was going to have to be, if only in appearance, Baron Battle. Even if were using my powers for good, even if I was with my group of friends, I would still just be able to throw fire and burn or intimidate villains into submission. Sure, I actually had morality and ethics, but the mental image was hard to shake. This though… this was completely uncharted territory. I think I was just about as worked up about it as Mom, though for different reasons.
Ethan, naturally, was the one that insisted on making yet another training program for me. Though this time I didn’t mind so much. As long as he kept thinking about it as just another new exercise, I wouldn’t feel so entirely weirded out by having to master something so foreign to me. Zack had kept the whole thing as casual as he could, which was very, very casual indeed, but I still caught the others looking at me oddly sometimes.
I managed to figure out the way this new quirk worked a lot faster than I did when I first powered up. It helped that I was no longer twelve, or having to be taught by my father, or that I no longer had to get angry to use it. In addition, my friends were willing to let themselves be guinea pigs… more so even than Magenta. I was really touched by their trust, because I was far from comfortable with this.
But figuring it out didn’t give me any kind of instant mastery. The big part of it was I would start out trying to fix something, end up getting frustrated because of one thing or another, and my flames would go from helpful to hurting in a second. It took fierce concentration and iron discipline, something I wasn’t necessarily used to. I ended up scorching Layla when I fixed her sprained ankle, and accidentally burned the end of Magenta’s hair when I tried to ease a shoulder strain. It seemed the bigger the injury, the easier it was for me to concentrate. The pettier it was, the easier it became to lose that concentration. Well… so it turned out I wasn’t some kind of cure-all. That was fine. I didn’t have my mom’s patience to put to rights every single little thing wrong with the world.
It was lacking a week until Homecoming, and even our one-year anniversary of saving the school wasn’t putting us in the best of moods. Despite the incident on the Gauntlet, Boomer hadn’t eased up on our training at all; he just added some more safety measures and kept throwing us through. We all were too tired to protest, too brain-numb at this point to think coherently… right up until one study night at my house.
Our class at that point had been turned over to Mr. Medulla, who was teaching us Mad Science Power Enhancements. It was one of those classes that usually only seniors took, because by then you were supposed to know enough about your powers to not see those kinds of things as crutches, but tools. The fact that sophomores were learning it should have made me uneasy.
We didn’t have any of the lab equipment here, but we were all drawing out schematics so we’d be able to fix each other’s mistakes on paper before we starting blowing up the lab on accident. Layla was making miniature plant capsules, tiny, barely-grown seeds in self-contained little environments, something she could break and use if caught in a place with no appropriate plant life. Of course, her trick was to find a way to get the plant out in one piece once she got it in. Zack was making a ridiculously shiny trench coat out of some kind of reflective silver stuff, something that would enhance his glowing from merely visible to blinding if necessary. I refrained, by dint of a great exercise of willpower and Magenta’s gimlet stare, from telling him he would look like Liberace.
Magenta herself was making a variety of stun-caps, something between a one-use stun-ray and a taser, small enough to be used when she was shifted. Her explanation for that was “if I’m shifted, I wanted to be able to do more than bite someone’s ankles.” Ethan was trying to find tools he could actually manipulate while melted. He wanted to be able to disable traps or free a bound victim without having to be in his more vulnerable regular form. His melted form could take a lot more abuse than a regular person, and he wanted to capitalize on that.
Will was working on a protective pair of contact lenses, something to protect his eyes in flight. “My mom has a pair she uses, because she tells me that having a snowflake or piece of dust hitting your eyes while going several hundred miles an hours hurts like nobody’s business,” he had told us. Of course, his mom wouldn’t let him study them, so he had to muddle through on my own. I was working on concentrated oxygen caplets, taking Nurse Spex’s advice she had given me last year to heart. I wanted something inconspicuous, because toting around an oxygen tank would have been ridiculous.
I was going over Magenta’s stun-cap specs, rubbing my eyes in fatigue, when Will ostentatiously cleared his throat. We all looked over at him with varying degrees of weary surprise. We were all living on caffeine by this time of the night, and all of us were so wired we had gone past loopy and into stupefied exhaustion. Any deviation from our routine of studying was greeted with vague alarm, as we weren’t up for handling anything new at this point of the day.
“Guys, I need to tell you something. I had a really weird dream last night-“
“Uh… no. We’re not doing dream journals until Superpowered Psychology in two weeks,” Magenta pointed out, stabbing a pencil in Will’s direction and not lifting her eyes from Zack’s notes.
Ethan burbled something that sounded like a protest, but it was hard to tell. He was actually so tired he was in his melted form on my floor, lying on top of Layla’s notes. He claimed he could read perfectly fine that way, and it didn’t require him to have to actually sit up.
“It’s not that. I’ve been thinking about this for days, ever since Layla reminded me about Homecoming. It’s about Royal Pain… I think we made a big mistake when we defeated her,” Will clarified, setting aside Ethan’s papers. That got all of our attention, and we all found a bit of extra energy to sit up and pay closer attention.
“Look, I- we, should have thought of this last year, but we’ve all been too busy, and that’s what got me thinking again. I mean, they’ve been pushing us really hard-“
“Dude, it’s like we’ve gone from high school to boot camp,” Zack said, nodding vigorously.
“And I think I figured out why. It is because of Royal Pain, but not because of what we stopped, but what we didn’t stop.” We all waited for the other shoe to drop. “Where was Royal Pain going to take over three hundred super-powered babies after she destroyed Sky High? Who was going to take care of them all? Who was going to teach them?”
It took a few minutes for that to percolate through our fatigue-drugged brains, but I could see the lightbulbs go on in everyone’s head at the same time. A sudden fear clenched my guts as we realized the implications.
“She already had her supervillain academy set up,” Layla said it first.
“She could have had it set up years ago… how long would it have taken?” Zack asked.
“How long was she out of Sky High the first time? Umm…” Will’s brow creased as he desperately tried to do a little simple math this late at night.
“She was out of Sky High for five years before your dad defeated her. Then if we guess she really couldn’t do any more plotting until she was able to talk again… say at two or so… So sixteen years after she was pacified, plus five after Sky High the first time, say twenty-one years to do whatever she wanted,” I said after a second.
“How did you remember when my dad defeated her?” Will asked, looking a little surprised.
“The year after your parents started working together they defeated Baron Battle,” I said simply.
“Oh… right. Yeah,” Will said sheepishly.
“So she had twenty-one years to put this supervillain academy together?” Ethan asked, resolidifing, his eyes very wide in his face. “Guys, pacifying Sky High at Homecoming was just the icing on the cake, not the start of her plan.”
“And if the academy is already set up…” Magenta said slowly, “They might already be graduating supervillains, or be about to.”
I swore. “They’re trying to get us ready in time. This is a race against Royal Pain. Hell-“ I suddenly thought of something. “Boomer hasn’t been running us so hard because he’s mad that they integrated the Sidekicks. He’s desperate. He has to get us ready before her group of minions is.”
Will looked unhappy, but I could tell he was also proud of himself for thinking of it. I felt like an idiot. We had all been so complacent, making the same damn assumptions that once the immediate crisis was over, that everything would be fine. I should have thought of it; with my mom working the way she does, you’d think I would have considered it the same way. Maybe it was because Will had talked to Royal Pain face-to-face; maybe it was just the lateness of the hour. God knows sometimes we had come up with some brilliant ideas (and equally brilliant failures) after a long study session late at night.
Layla had been sitting leaning up against Will, but now sat up.
“Why didn’t they tell us?” she nearly wailed. I winced a bit, but everyone’s reactions were gone mostly to hell by this hour.
“Homecoming,” Magenta said, her expression hard. “Think about it; you had a whole gym full of superheroes-in-training, and a couple dozen teachers who were all former superheroes, and Will’s parents. Yeah, everyone got scared when Royal Pain started zapping everyone, but if we had all rushed her instead of panicking and running for the exits we could have stopped her just by overwhelming her. Three hundred students in there, and no one tried to strike back at her.”
I gritted my teeth at that, and I could see everyone else feeling the same shame that I was. It had really been a pathetic reaction once you thought about it. Royal Pain could only pacify one person at a time, and if even only two or three people had gone after her at once, she would only be able to pacify one before the others could attack her physically.
“No one had any real experience with a powerful supervillain,” Ethan said after a second. “After they saw what happened to the Commander, they were probably wondering if there was anything they even could do to hurt her.”
“That’s why they’re making us hit the Gauntlet so hard, why they’re putting us in classes about enhancing our powers… why they’re teaching us in the small groups. They’re… forcing us together, trying to get us to work through the kinds of kinks and fears we’d normally have to deal with on our own. They want to prevent a repeat… They don’t want us to be too afraid,” I said carefully, going over our year so far in my head.
They weren’t just preparing us physically to use our powers, they were preparing us mentally. Our power family trees brought out how we felt about our families to each other, and exposed weaknesses that we might not have known we had. Revealing how we powered up, explaining our power quirks to each other… The upcoming classes in psychology… It made far too much sense, and I could see everyone nodding as they came to the same conclusion.
“Well, I dunno about you, but I wouldn’t want to be left in the dark about this,” Zack said finally, glowing a bit to make a pun out of his sentence. Magenta just sighed and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Seriously, I think the other people should know. I’d want to, and you think they’d be a little more… ya know, careful if they knew?”
Will nodded again and sighed.
“Then we better go talk to Principal Powers. I mean, this is the only reason I can think they’re pushing us so hard, but if I’m just being paranoid… I’d rather just ask her than tell everyone at school.”
“And if it’s all in your head, we get to rag on you from now until forever,” I added, smiling a bit.
Our study group broke up for the night, but despite the fatigue, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I had terrible dreams, fragments of things I couldn’t quite remember in the morning, but I had scorched the paint on my bed, so they must have been pretty bad.
Once back up in Sky High, Will wanted us to figure out a plan of attack before he took his conspiracy theories to Principal Powers. We really couldn’t get any kind of privacy to talk until gym class, where we ended up spotting each other on the bench press.
“Look, I don’t know if we want to just barge in there so she can’t try to lie, or if we be good and make an appointment,” Will was saying.
“If she’s lying, I can probably tell. My mom taught me a lot about reading people,” I offered, and I saw Layla raise an eyebrow. “It’s not a power or anything, I just pay attention.”
“Uh huh… sure,” Magenta said cynically, and I rolled my eyes.
“I think we need to do it all dramatic-like; I mean, it’s Royal Pain, that’s got to get her attention,” Zack pointed out, and then reacted to Ethan’s frantic motions to be quiet as Coach Boomer strode over to our group.
“I’m glad you guys finally figured it out. Now, say anything to anyone before the right time and I’ll deafen you. Principal’s office, all of you, now,” Boomer said from behind him. All of us exchanged glances, a combination of triumph and fear. We were right… unfortunately.