War and Peace In Mind, Chapter 8: Guardians
Principal Power’s office was large, furnished with not only her own huge desk but also three smaller tables and a dozen chairs. Pictures, awards, ribbons, and plaques, all of them of various graduates of Sky High, were so thick on the walls that it was hard to tell what color they were. One or two of the pictures were of the Principal herself in her costume as Comet Girl, standing triumphant over one villain or another.
To our surprise (though we should have guessed), Speed, Penny, and Lash were sitting sullenly in one of the corners. I realized I had barely seen those three all year. They all looked scared, truth be told; pale and tired, jumpy, with circles under their eyes. Juvie couldn’t be that hard on those three. What have they been up to?
Principal Powers had been seated behind her desk doing paperwork when Boomer strode in. She looked annoyed for a minute, but then he went around to her side of the desk and whispered something in her ear. The effect was electrifying; she went totally rigid and stared at us in shock, and then clenched her jaw suddenly as if making an internal decision.
“Thank you Boomer. I’d like you here for this discussion, if you don’t mind,” she said when he was through, and Boomer nodded, standing off to once side of her desk, arms crossed.
“Well… you certainly saved me the trouble of figuring out how I was going to broach our little secret to you. Tell me, what do you think you know? And when did you figure it out?”
Will took a deep breath and began to explain everything he had figured out and what we had talked about last night. Principal Powers looked surprised a few times, but she was definitely relieved when he revealed we had only known this for less than a day.
“I’m just glad you haven’t shared this with anyone else, not even your parents. Yes, you’re correct, Royal Pain’s attack on the school was a culmination of decades of planning, but not for the reason we first assumed. She had indeed already set up her supervillain academy, but her class of babies was to be only the latest addition, not the first. Where- exactly- it’s set up, we have no idea, but she was recruiting for it for years. She found kids that had superpowers but whose parents didn’t, and she recruited the children of supervillains. She actually wanted to get you too, Mr. Peace, but wasn’t able to locate you until you were already at Sky High.”
Damn… wouldn’t that have been a coup for her? Bitch, I thought, snarling mentally at Royal Pain.
“Her academy has been fully active for three years, and they’re getting very close to graduating their first class. As you surmised, this is the reason we’ve been pushing you all so hard. We anticipate needing well-trained super teams to combat her threat. Royal Pain may be in jail from now until she dies, but she is an excellent long-term planner. She invested in technology companies to fund her academy, and somehow found other supervillains or sidekicks to actually run the school for her even in the event of her capture or death. She wanted her revenge in one form or another, and if she couldn’t get it directly… then she was willing to take it indirectly in the form of her academy.
“We found out most of this from her three accomplices,” Principal Powers explained, and turned to indicate the three much-subdued seniors in the corner. “However, something has come up, something Coach Boomer and I have discussed at length since last Homecoming. It’s become urgent though, in the last month.”
“Where do they come in?” Will asked, looking over at Speed, Lash, and Penny. I didn’t blame him, having those three in on a discussion about Royal Pain made me nervous, and I didn’t even fight her directly.
“Royal Pain had plans for them, if they were to be captured but not jailed. They’re apparently a graduation exercise. There have been two attempts on their lives already,” Principal Powers said with deadly seriousness.
“They killed me!” Penny wailed suddenly, and burst into tears. Lash reached over and patted her shoulder awkwardly while Speed just looked uncomfortable.
“One of Penny’s ‘clones’ was killed in the attempt and it shook her badly,” the Principal clarified. “And someone tried to poison Speed and Lash at the detention hall. Whatever they used wasn’t quite fatal, but they’ve been a while in recovering.” Layla went nearly dead white at Principal Powers’ revelation, and everyone else was looking shaken up. No one really liked those three, they were bullies and traitors without many redeeming qualities, but the idea that someone would actually try to kill them was horrible.
“Why are we here?” I asked, already guessing the answer and not liking it one bit.
“You’ve already guessed the real reason why Sky High changed so much. You’re the best team we currently have in the entire school. And you have the best chance of stopping the next attack. Both of the previous attacks have been indirect, and we believe the next one will be more overt. There are other people they could choose to target: some that they have already, and we have them guarded, conspicuously, by superheroes.
“To be honest, they won’t be expecting you to help because of your history together. I know these three have caused you grief, and that you fought them at Homecoming last year. I know you have no real cause to like each other. However, that will give you an element of surprise, because one thing Royal Pain never learned was how to set aside her feelings for others to do what must be done.
“I can’t make you do this. This will be dangerous, possibly even deadly. Whoever Royal Pain has teaching at her academy is making her students ruthless and violent. We want you to guard Speed, Lash, and Penny, stop the next attack on them, and capture who’s responsible for it. Once we have someone in our hands from that academy, then we’ll know exactly what we’re up against.
“You would be given back-up, tools, weapons, whatever you think you need…” Principal Powers trailed off for a minute, trying to think of something to convince us.
“You’re desperate, aren’t you?” I asked into the silence. “You don’t have anyone else that can protect them if we don’t, because you’re spread so thin protecting the other targets. The important targets.”
I was turning eighteen in a few weeks, old enough to legally make my own decisions, but the rest of my friends were barely fifteen or sixteen! It was ludicrous to ask them to do bodyguard work against even against an inexperienced foe… but somehow I was feeling bad about Penny, Speed, and Lash. Those three had basically just heard that they were so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that they might very well die in the crossfire of their former boss’ war against Sky High. If there were other targets… probably teachers or former teachers, students that she had been in class with… all of them were older, more experienced, and now, better protected.
Principal Powers had the grace to blush at my comment, while Penny kept crying into her hands.
“No Mr. Peace, we don’t have anyone else. Now, will you guard them?” She lowered her voice a bit, leaning forward so only we could hear her. “It’s one of the hardest things about being a hero, you don’t get to pick who to save.” I looked around at everyone else. Our objections pretty much died on our tongues right there. We might be young, inexperienced, but she was treating us as adults, asking us to make a hard choice. This wasn’t Superheroes Ethics class; this was real, as real as death.
We all looked at each other, and I saw the rest of them start to look towards me. I was looking straight back at Will. If anyone was going to be the official leader of the group, it was going to be him. I might be the one people kept coming to with their problems, but Will was the one that would make the better figurehead.
“You’re our leader Will,” I said clearly, and Will looked startled and began to protest. I shook my head and then pushed the hair out of my eyes. “You’re the most powerful of all of us. You always think of the right thing to do in a crisis, and then you just go and do it. You’re ethical, and people like you and trust you on sight.” Even if I had wanted to be a leader, I knew people would be second-guessing me all of the time. The baggage I had from my heritage gave me a handicap in getting people to trust me, while the exact opposite was true for Stronghold.
“He’s right Will,” Layla put in, and everyone else nodded in agreement.
“Yeah man, you’d be good at it,” Zack chimed in.
“Totally, and it’s not like any of us are clamoring for the job,” Magenta pointed out.
“You’d be awesome at it. And you were the one that figured out what was going on here in the first place,” Ethan added.
Will took a deep breath and blew it all out again. “All right. But we all decide together. Does anyone not want to do this?” he asked. No one said a word. “Ok Principal Powers, we accept.”
She smiled at us with pride. “That was a very mature decision Mr. Stronghold. Now, I believe we have some planning to do.”
“I want to hear what happened to these guys,” I said, gesturing to the three in the corner.
“And I want to make weapons’ lists,” Magenta said, right on my heels. “We’re going to need them, because supervillains cheat.”
Principal Powers nodded reluctantly, and Zack, Ethan, and Magenta went to her desk to brainstorm. Layla, Will, and I moved our chairs over in front of Speed, Lash, and Penny. I was just as glad that Ethan didn’t want in on the conversation. It had been nearly a year since Speed and Lash had stopped dunking his head in the toilet on almost a daily basis, but that kind of humiliation stays with you. Sure, he had gotten a little of his back last Homecoming, but the memory of being bullied… well… I had plenty of those of my own to compare it with.
The three former conspirators looked like hell up close, thin and drawn, even trembling a bit with nervousness. I felt a little sorry for them, but not much; they were finally getting a dose of the kind of terror their bullying victims lived with daily. Sure, they weren’t trying to kill those they tormented, but I could remember not being able to eat because I was so afraid, of trying to play sick from school so I wouldn’t have to face the bullies.
If we had all been a few years older… well, when one adult intimidates another into giving him money, they call that robbery, not taking a kid’s lunch money. If they push someone’s head into a toilet or stuff them in a locker, that’s assault and battery, not bullying. It had made my blood boil at the hypocrisy of it all when I was younger and unable to defend myself. I might be willing to protect these guys, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it cheerfully.
“So…” Will said after a minute of my silence. I was just staring them down, enjoying the fact that the shoe was on the other foot. It was petty of me, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. “What’s been going on?”
Penny’s crying had died down to a few sniffles, and she finally took her hands away from her face and began to scrub at the tears with a tissue. Lash and Speed looked at each other, and Speed finally took the floor.
“Lash and I were uh… introducing ourselves to a new kid about… um… a month ago. New guy, he called himself Viper. He thought he was slick, ya know? So we kinda… wised him up a little. Let him know he had to earn his perks. We ah… swiped his lunch that afternoon… and then spent the next two weeks puking our guts out and wishing we could die,” he explained, hesitating in trying to explain something he knew we weren’t going to like.
Assholes-! They’ve been bullying their way around the detention hall since they got put in there last year. Royal Pain knew they wouldn’t change, idiots!
“Viper… you know, I remember reading about a supervillain called the King Cobra. He could spit poison… and he was in Royal’s Pain’s first class at Sky High. If this is his kid, he might have poison powers too. If he knew you were going to take his food, he could have poisoned it on purpose,” Layla pointed out.
“Do you guys like doing that?” I said suddenly, addressing the three villainettes.
“Doing… what?” Speed asked, looking confused.
“Is it fun to take a kid’s food? Why is it so damn funny to you to push around kids that can barely fight back? What makes dunking someone’s head in the toilet more fun that just shooting some hoops? Why is it you’d rather intimidate some nerd into giving you his lunch money than watching a movie? Do you like the fear you see in their eyes when you come down the hall? What kind of sick fuck takes pleasure in other people’s pain?” I snarled at them, slamming my hands down on the tabletop. I knew I was going to leave scorch marks behind, but I didn’t care.
The rest of the room had gotten very quiet, and I knew everyone was looking at me. Damn Peace, you didn’t have to get that out of your system right this very second, you know? I sighed mentally. No, I didn’t, but these three need a damn wake-up call. Despite the fact that they were idiots, if they could actually help defend themselves, that would give us a huge help. Of course, we needed them to start looking out for more people then themselves, if at all possible.
“Royal Pain knew you wouldn’t change. She knew, and the people she put in charge knew, that they could plant a new kid in the detention hall and you’d react that way,” I said in a much calmer tone of voice. Speed and Lash were about as far back in their chairs as they could go (and in Lash’s case much farther than that); their eyes wide, and Penny had her fist crammed up against her mouth in an attempt to hold back sobs.
“You know what happened to Royal Pain. She never changed, and now she’s in a cell that she’s never going to get out of, and she will never be able to use her powers again. You don’t want that; nobody would want that. I’d hate never being able to use my powers,” Will said in a more persuasive tone of voice.
Huh… well, I’m apparently already playing the Bad Cop, so if Will wants to play the Good Cop, that’ll work out. We’re cleverer than we thought.
“Ok, ok, Jesus, we get it!” Lash said frantically, snapping himself back into shape.
“You better,” I growled, “because you don’t seem to realize that you’re bringing this all on yourself. If you want our help, you’re going to have to earn it.”
Layla was looking back and forth between Will and I, and I caught her eye and winked, timing it so the others couldn’t see. She sighed a bit in relief and went back to following the conversation. I didn’t want her to think I was going off the deep end or anything. Well… not entirely at any rate.
“We need to know more,” Will said after a breath or two. “The Viper kid, is he still around?”
“No. Principal Powers asked us about that once we could talk again. He vanished the night after we got sick, and no one is sure how he escaped,” Speed said, shaking his head.
“Figures. Penny, what’s your story?” I asked. It took her three tries to talk coherently, and I was starting to feel guilty that I had been so intense. Penny wasn’t just upset, she was terrified. Something about her was nagging me too, something wrong, but I couldn’t quite pin it down…
“It was the day before Lash and Speed got sick,” she sniffled. “There was this girl, Kristina, who was… she was new, and she got on my case. She wanted some of my stuff, she said she deserved it. I cloned so we could… ya know, get her head on straight. Then the crazy bitch pulled a knife out of nowhere and stabbed me in the gut! She laughed, she laughed at me, and we tried to get the knife away from her… It hurt so bad, I couldn’t breathe, I was bleeding all over the floor. That bitch got out of our grip and just vanished into the air.”
She started shuddering again, but somehow managed to keep from sobbing. I exchanged glances with Layla and Will, and Layla leaned forward to put her hand over one of Penny’s.
“I’m sorry, we had no idea it hurt you so badly,” she said, sounding like she meant it. I was surprised at Penny’s bad reaction, somehow I had just assumed that if one of Penny’s clones got hurt that she wouldn’t feel anything, but by the way she had talked she could feel everything her clones felt. And if one of them had actually died… No wonder she was screwed up. And I was wondering…
“You can’t bring her back. You’re always going to be one short,” I said carefully, my expression softening a bit. Penny looked at me at astonishment, and nodded. She slowly tugged up her shirt, showing an ugly, half-healed wound in her stomach.
“It’s an echo or something. I’ve never had one of me die before. It still hurts,” she said, gave a short sob. Then I knew what had been bothering me about her. Something about this new power of mine knew when someone was hurt near me, and it wanted me to set it right. It was like the night at the Paper Lantern when I had felt compelled to listen to Layla, just because she needed a sympathetic ear. Peacemaker’s son…
“Let me help,” I said, and calmed myself enough to let the ember flames start to glow from my hand.
“What the fuck Peace!” Lash snarled, and whipped an arm around my throat. Will grabbed it in the next second and dug in his fingers, just a tiny bit. Lash blanched, and Speed looked about ready to jump in. They don’t know, he thought I was going to hurt her, I realized, kicking myself mentally for stupidity. After that little speech, what are they supposed to think? I was impressed enough that Lash was willing to risk even going up against Will, considering what he knew Stronghold could do. Or what I could do, for that matter.
“He can heal,” Layla said quickly, before the situation could degenerate any further.
“You’re serious?” Speed demanded. He was standing protectively in front of Penny, his fists up. So it looks like he can think of someone other than himself. That’s a good sign.
“Yes I’m serious. I don’t like seeing her in pain. I don’t like seeing anyone in pain, whether it’s from getting stabbed in the gut or getting stuffed into a locker. Got it?” I asked, starting straight at him.
“I know he won’t hurt you Penny. You weren’t ever my friend, but I won’t let anyone hurt you, ok?” Will said, holding his hands out in a peaceful gesture.
“Ok,” Penny said softly, and Speed moved out of the way while Lash uncoiled his arm. Both were watching me like a hawk, but I ignored them. The ember-fire had claimed me now, and I leaned in to put my hand on Penny’s stomach. The fire leapt out, seeming to disappear inside her skin, and I could feel it seeming to multiply inside her. She hissed a bit as the fire seemed to cauterize her wound, then sighed in relief as it grew smaller… then faded to a faint red ghost of its former self. The feeling of wrongness around her was gone, and I pulled my hand away.
“Power up,” I urged her gently, “as many as you’re supposed to have.”
The look of hysterical strain was gone from her face, and suddenly there were a full eight Pennies surrounding me. They shrieked with joy, congratulating the eighth of them with the kind of enthusiasm you’d reserve for one who’s just come back from the dead. Which she had, in a way. I took a few steps back to get myself out of the crowd, and saw Lash and Speed looking at me with fear and awe.
Damnit, I have got to stop doing this in public!
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” the Pennies shrieked, coming forward to hug me. I froze, not sure what to do, because suddenly I was feeling very claustrophobic…
“Uh… calm down Penny, er Pennies. Give the guy some air,” Layla said, clapping to get their attention.
Penny powered down, leaving herself at her desk again. “Thank you, you have no idea what it’s like to lose one of yourself. Most people don’t understand my powers…” she said softly. Her eyes were suspiciously wet again, but with gratitude rather than hysteria.
“Holy shit…” I heard Speed mutter.
“Look,” Will said, trying to bring the situation under control, “look, let’s just get back to the matter at hand? Like Principal Powers said, we’re not all friends… but we are heroes, and heroes help those that need helping, no matter who it is. Right? Ok…”
“Guys, come on, we need you back here, we need to know more about Penny’s attack,” Layla said, waving for the two guys to sit down. Lash and Speed sat reluctantly, and Penny perked up considerably, looking a lot more composed than she had since we entered the room.
“This Kristina, did she escape from the detention hall too?” Layla asked.
“Yeah. I said she vanished into thin air, and we didn’t see where she went,” Penny explained. Layla was clearly wracking her brain for anyone who could fit that description… then she called Ethan over from his list making to consult.
“Hmm… I think I remember one supervillain who could do something like that. He was called The Vanisher, and could make himself appear and disappear anywhere within his line of sight. Maybe that’s his kid, and she can make things appear too,” he said finally, after a minute’s thought.
“Good an explanation as any,” I commented.
“Ok, do you know all who she recruited before she went after Sky High directly?” Will asked. We poked and prodded at their memories for nearly a half-hour before we both reluctantly concluded that Royal Pain hadn’t trusted them with anything of importance. They knew whom she was going to recruit in general, but not specifics. She never told them where the school was, nor who the teachers would be. They were supposed to find that out when they left with her on Homecoming night.
“I think we can take it as read that she’s going to try for you guys on Homecoming. She’s pretty big on traditional villain roles and customs. Taking you guys out the year after her defeat would be appropriate for her,” Layla pointed out carefully. The three nodded miserably.
“Full-frontal assault on the detention center I bet. We better find someplace for the rest of those kids before then,” I pointed out. Will breathed out heavily, and got a notebook out of his pocket to start writing stuff down.
“So guys, can we count on you to help us defend you?” Will asked as he wrote. The three looked at each other in confusion.
“Duh, we’re not just going to sit around. They tried to kill us!” Speed snapped.
“We’re going to need to run the Gauntlet together,” Layla said suddenly. “Seriously, otherwise we’re going to be getting in each other’s way. And then we need to fortify the detention hall to make it harder for them to get in…”
Will looked at her sideways. “Will, it’s in the Supervillains’ Fortresses and Fortifications Handbook,” she pointed out.
“You guys read any of that? Royal Pain give you any homework before you started at her academy?” I asked Speed, Penny, and Lash sarcastically.
“Back off man; you have no idea what it’s been like. She said she’d ‘take care of us’ if we got caught, and we’ve been looking over our shoulders the whole damned year. I don’t think we’ve gotten a good night’s sleep since Homecoming. I mean, what were we supposed to do about it?“ Lash snapped.
“Screw you Lash. You three thought you could get the ultimate power trip in helping to take over the school, and now you’re getting a rude awakening that she turned on you. Some people deal with pressure like that their whole life, and you were the ones dealing it. You reap what you sow. So drop the wounded-bird act, and stop trying to look for the profit in this situation. Help yourselves by helping us keep you alive, or go jump off the edge of the school, because you know she’s not going to stop until you’re dead,” I shot back. I wasn’t going to let them die… but Goddamn they needed a reality check. Apparently even attempted murder wasn’t enough to shake their sense of moral superiority.
Will was looking at me strangely, and then mouthed Back off at me. Whoops. I took my temper in hand and kept my mouth shut. I could probably keep going on these guys all day if I wanted to, but that wasn’t going help anything.
“Um… yeah. We don’t want to make it look fortified… Layla, you would be the best at last minute fortifications…” Will said, getting back to the task at hand. I simply sat and glowered at the three a bit, occasionally putting in a word as Speed, Lash, and Penny described the detention center and its grounds. We figured out fortifications and a few simple plans, and then got back together with Ethan, Zack, and Magenta to get their input. Principal Powers had a rather thick sheaf of notes on her desk and a slightly stunned expression on her face. I rather guessed Magenta’s request for weapons had gone, “We need guns. Lots of guns.” Of probably every type Mr. Medulla knew how to make, and a few new ideas to boot.
We hammered out a few new things with their ideas, and then Layla brought up the Gauntlet again. Everyone groaned, but no one actually said no. We knew this was going to be brutal, but we really couldn’t afford anything else. If we couldn’t figure out how to all work together, Royal Pain would have her revenge on top of the corpses of a half-dozen high school kids. And we were not going to let that happen.