“Guys that’s Bruin!”
Bruin didn’t even seem to recognize us, at least until Ethan said his name. Then he did a double take, took a closer look at Zack, and panicked. He leaped back from the car, his hands out to his sides, palms out in non-aggression, his face a mask of fear.
“Please, please, I didn’t know who you were, I didn’t know you would be here, don’t hurt me!” he babbled. It was surreal; the man was as tall as I was, and built like a professional linebacker, but he was all but cowering before a car full of high school students.
My hands were practically glowing with heat as I prepared for a fight, and Magenta whispered to me to take them off the seat back before I set the car on fire. Will was holding the wheel tightly, as if he were a few seconds from ripping it off and throwing at the guy. Layla’s hands were out, pointed at the trees besides the road, and Ethan and Zack were tensed and ready for action. The tableau held for another ten seconds before Bruin made the first move.
“This is my cover job,” he said pleadingly. “Please, I don’t want them here. I don’t want to fight in the park. I promise I won’t say anything to anybody.”
Will glanced back in the rearview mirror at me, and I nodded tightly. The guy was terrified and was telling the truth… but how the hell was he here?
“How do we know we can trust you?” Will asked sharply.
“I’ve been working this job for ten years. I had no idea you were going to be here. I don’t know what I can say to make you trust me, but I won’t tell them, I swear to God,” he said, sweating and pale. “Look… how about we just start over? I’ll just pretend to be a park ranger, and you pretend to a bunch of campers, and I won’t even ask where you’re camping, and we can forget this thing ever happened.”
Weird on top of bizarre. Forget this whole thing never happened, riiiiight… I thought. Then Will nodded at the guy.
“Hi, I’m Park Ranger Lewis, and welcome to Yellowstone park,” he said cheerfully, and proceeded to give us a safety speech about a half-dozen topics, while the rest of us kept waiting for the roof to fall in at any minute. Layla was looking at Will as if he’d gone nuts, and the rest of us kept ourselves tense and ready until “Ranger Lewis” was done. Then the guy shoved a bunch of brochures into Will’s hand, smiled stiffly, and nearly ran back to his station. Will calmly drove onward, and it took another two minutes of uneventful driving before we started talking again.
“Will, are you crazy?” Layla demanded.
“No. I think he’s telling the truth. And besides, we’re going to be so far off his radar that he won’t have any idea where to look for us even if he wanted to. Which he doesn’t, I’m pretty sure,” Will said calmly.
“This is insane. We should turn around and go home. We come here for a vacation and one of our enemies shows up?” Magenta pointed out.
“We’re going to be fine. Trust me,” Will said confidently.
“Will, all he has to do is track us,” Ethan said, sounding scared.
“Well, he’s not going to be able to do that. Because we’re flying to our campsite,” Will said shortly, and stopped the car.
Layla had enough time to squawk out a “What?!” before Will hopped out of the car, lifted it above his head, and took off. The road was deserted, the forests he dodged through were empty of people, and he flew low enough to avoid people seeing him from a distance. Despite that, there must have been enough noise from the car to startle every bird within a three-mile radius, most of them variations on questioning Stronghold’s sanity. It was the fastest I had ever gone in my life, and the trees whipped past us in a blur.
In only a couple of minutes, Stronghold gently deposited the car near the grate that marked a campsite, looking terribly pleased with himself.
“Will… where are we?” Magenta asked, looking around uncertainly. “And can you find your way back?” Will tapped his watch.
“Built-in GPS; I got it for Christmas. It’s what Mom uses to orient herself when flying across the ocean. I copied the coordinates down from one of the maps. We’re clear on the other side of the park, so I’d like to see him try to find us,” Will said stubbornly.
“So… why didn’t you just fly us here in the first place?” Zack asked.
“I was trying to not be seen,” Will said. “Anyway, we got ourselves a vacation and I’m not going to let anything ruin it. Even that guy.”
Will was right, as much as it pained me to admit it after that little stunt. While I might not agree with all the unwritten rules of the superhero world, there was one that even I would work with. You never messed with someone else when you met them in their cover job. That was an iron-clad rule, probably even adamantium-clad, even though it was as unwritten as the rest of them.
Sure, you could compete cover job to cover job, or superhero to supervillain, but never superhero to cover job, or visa versa. It was the only thing that kept people from retaliating back and forth, blowing everyone’s cover, and making life impossible for super-people everywhere. Of course, if Royal Pain’s brats were as crazy as Cutter, there was no telling how long that would last. But we shouldn’t be the ones to break that rule.
“You’re crazy Stronghold,” I said finally, and then began digging the tents out of the trunk.
“Warren, back me up here. We can’t stay!” Layla said frantically.
“I am too tired to argue tonight, hippie,” I growled. “Someone get firewood before I decide to light the car on fire.” It was late fall in Maxville, but Yellowstone was both farther north and at a higher elevation, and it was cold out here. There was even snow on the ground in places, and that was making for one very cranky pyrokinetic. I really was not in the mood to argue with Will’s impulsive actions.
Besides, even if Bruin, or Ranger Lewis, or whatever his name was, decided to contact Cutter the very second he left our presence, she wasn’t going to be able to find us. We were in the middle of a very big, very empty (relatively speaking) wilderness preserve, and this time we had the option of running if they decided to do something stupid, like come after us. And Layla had all the resources of this place at her fingertips. I wondered how Cutter would like to accidentally teleport into a tree if Layla kept moving them around?
Layla actually threw up her hands in exasperation and went to get firewood before I could carry through on my threat to ignite the car. Apparently deciding that dinner was more important than adjusting Will’s attitude, Zack and Magenta broke out the food while the rest of us put up the tents.
“We’re probably safe,” Ethan offered tentatively as we struggled to set up a tent in the dying sunlight. “And the move was so unanticipated that can’t see them being able to track us effectively.” I muttered something that might have been agreement and kept to threading the poles through the tent. I had only done this a few times, but it was amazing how fast something like that came back to you when the alternative was sleeping on the cold ground.
Within a half-hour Will had joined Layla in bringing back firewood, and the rest of us had the tents up. I stopped Will from embarrassing himself with the matches and got the fire started myself, plunking a pot down to boil some of the water we had brought with us. The rest of the light was gone, and the fire made the only real light for miles. It looked strangely lonely out there… I turned my attention back to the fire.
“So… you’re cooking?” Magenta asked.
“No, I’m boiling water for coffee,” I growled. Damned cold air was making my temper short.
“How can you drink coffee at this time of night?” Magetna asked.
“I didn’t even see any coffee in the food bag…” Layla said uncertainly.
“That’s because there wasn’t. I swiped some from the teacher’s lounge. And I have a high caffeine tolerance,” I said.
“Dude, awesome!” Zack said, grinning brightly. Then he belated realized I really wasn’t going to make any food for the rest of them, and fished out a packet of soup to throw in the water after I had gotten my water boiled.
“You ok Warren?” Ethan asked, concerned. I had gone from my usual taciturn to nearly monosyllabic before my drink was ready, and I downed half of it in one gulp without needing to let it cool, drawing a wince from everyone else.
“Better now. It’s cold out here,” I said shortly.
“I didn’t know you could get cold,” Magenta said.
“You don’t know a lot about me,” I countered, and regretted it almost immediately when everyone exchanged knowing glances. Too long of a day for this kind of crap now… I wasn’t feeling well, not at all. It wasn’t like we didn’t have cold weather in Maxville, but I didn’t usually get this bad, not even in winter, but tonight I felt like I absolute crap. I don’t know if it was confronting Ethan this morning, the battle the night before, learning about our new arch-enemies, the long trip, meeting Bruin, Will's ridiculous stunt, or the cold weather, but I was getting more down by the minute.
“Hey Zack, could I get a light?” Ethan asked to change the subject, digging something out of his backpack.
“Sure man.” Zack’s yellow-green light began to fill the clearing, and Ethan carefully adjusted his glasses and began to read some papers he had extracted from the homework packet.
“Principal Powers wanted me to look at this tonight before we all turned in…”
“Good grief, she wants us to do homework tonight?” Will asked.
Ethan shook his head absently. He read it once to himself, readjusted his glasses, read it again, and then cleared his throat.
“You all need to hear this. It’s a letter from Principal Powers.
To Mr. Stronghold, Miss Evans, Miss Patterson, Mr. Cramer, Mr. Howard, and Mr. Peace,
You don’t really think I’d be such a tyrant as to send homework with you on a vacation, do you? Mr. Medulla has given you all passing grades on your Mad Science Power Enhancement final projects, and that will be more than enough until you return to school next week.
I wanted to tell you how very proud I am of you. I’m sure your parents will tell you the same when they calm down. You are all extraordinary heroes. There is a reason I chose your group over all the groups of seniors, and it isn’t just because you figured out our secret. You six have a close-knit friendship, a diverse array of talents, a willingness to try new things, a spirit of creativity, and boundless courage, determination, and loyalty.
Your actions at Homecoming last year proved to me that you were going to be a first-class bunch, and it was in a large part your group participation in the defeat of Royal Pain that lead us to the kind of curriculum we’re using this year.
“Man, we should have let her get away with it,” Zack groaned, and Ethan thumped him to silence.
Your willingness to aid Speed, Lash, and Penny was truly selfless. I know those three are difficult to get along with, and had caused some of you personal harm in the past. We hope to keep a closer eye on bullies of that sort at Sky High in the future, as the harm they do can no longer be tolerated, with the examples of the past in front of us as our evidence.
Now, you may think it was strange that I sent you all directly here after your battle rather than to your homes to recover. My choice in this was very deliberate. By now I am attempting to explain my actions to your parents. I can guess their reactions, as can you, that they’ll probably try to call for my resignation and then ground you all for the rest of your lives. Neither of those would be very useful or productive.
I know you all feel as if you’ve made mistakes in your first battle, perhaps even grievous ones. I want you to work through them together as much as you can, rather than with your parents. No one in any of your families had worked in a super-team before. While what advice they might tender may be useful, it won’t necessarily be the kind of advice you need.
Superheroes of your parents’ generation were trained to work alone or with a sidekick, or perhaps with a partner at best. Their triumphs and failures are very slanted towards being alone in the field. What may be well and good advice for a lone superhero may very well harm your group. Whatever dynamics you work out amongst yourselves are going to be unique and without precedent amongst your parents’ set.
It may seem bizarre to ask high school students to work out their own problems, but I know you’re all exceptionally mature young men and women.
“Has she every actually met some of our group?” Magenta cut in, and Zack snickered.
I honestly think you’ll do this a lot easier out of the way of any kind of parental or scholastic pressure. If you are in need of help, or find something you can’t work through during your vacation, I would recommend calling the Peacemaker, as she’s the foremost expert in emotional troubles in the superhero world.
I choked on my coffee and Zack had to smack me on the back to get me breathing again. The principal of Sky High was now recommending my mother, the pariah of the superhero world for seventeen years, as the expert on emotional troubles? Mom must have been winning her respect back with a vengeance!
“You ok Warren?” Layla asked, concerned.
“Yeah fine, just… surprised.” I wish people would stop asking me that…
“There’s a little more here…” Ethan added.
You know you all have a long way to go as a group, but you’ve made the first few critical steps. I wanted to give you the peace and privacy to do what you can on your own. And I know of no place more peaceful or private than this one.
Veronica Powers, Sky High Principal
P.S. Call your parents at 5pm our time tomorrow or I can’t be held responsible for their actions.
“I cannot believe she wrote that…” Magenta said after a minute. “She can’t be serious.”
“She dropped us in the middle of the woods for group therapy? No, I really can’t believe it either, but that’s what she wrote. Are you sure you grabbed the right packet Popsicle?” I asked, attempting to get my coffee actually into my stomach instead of down my jacket. I am not up for something like this, not tonight, no way in hell…
“Absolutely. She handed it to me herself this morning and told me to read it tonight,” Ethan said, nodding firmly.
“Weird…” Will muttered, staring into the fire.
“We should-.” Layla started, and then stopped again. “We should do it. What she said I mean. She’s right.”
“In the morning,” I said firmly. “I need more sleep before any heartfelt confessions.” If anyone started saying anything like that tonight I knew I was going to botch it in trying to help. I needed a good night’s sleep, I needed warmth, I needed…
“I heard that,” Zack muttered, and rose to head to his tent.
“Put out the fire guys; we’re not going to be awake all night,” Magenta added. Layla dumped a bucket of dirt on the fire and stirred it a bit with a stick, and Will went over and stood next to her, murmuring something to her.
Powers, you have got to be kidding yourself… I thought idly, and ducked into my tent. Ethan and I had to share one, but at least he was quiet tonight. I didn’t think I could handle any more crises right now… It was too cold to even bother doing anything more than kick off my boots and crawl into the sleeping bag, and I must have been out within ten seconds of my head hitting the pillow, despite of how strange I felt. The silence around us was oppressive, aside from a few whispers from the others’ tents that soon faded…
The next morning was a blur; I don’t even remember it that clearly. I remember getting up and feeling cold, nearly as cold as I did the day I healed Zack. There was light, faint light from outside the tent. Warm, need to get warm… I stumbled outside, and I remember thinking it must have been just barely dawn. Cold, very cold… There was the fireplace… but it was cold too. I don’t know why I didn’t start a fire myself, but I remember something distracted me. There was white vapor… steam vapor wreathing through the trees. Steam… warm… hot springs… I recalled vaguely there springs of hot water near our campsite. Warm…
My next clear memory of that morning is permanently graven into my brain with embarrassment. I opened my eyes and stared at the sky, finally feeling warm again. Wait… staring at the sky; aren’t I supposed to be in a tent? I realized I was floating… floating in hot water. The hell, where am I? I thrashed for a second, realizing I was waist deep in hot water, in one of the hot springs I remembered vaguely thinking about this morning. And I wasn’t wearing anything but my boxer shorts. What the hell am I doing? I hadn’t even begun to put things together when I heard a voice off to my right.
“Nice abs, Warren.”
“Gah!” I yelled, whirling around to see who was there. Magenta was standing on the bank, her arms crossed and a mischievous smile on her face. I sunk back down to my neck in a lame attempt to cover up, flushing with embarrassment.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded.
“Looking for you. You wandered out of camp without a note, and you left your boots behind,” she said, holding them up. “I thought you might be in trouble. I just followed the melted footprints.”
“I’m fine,” I said, my teeth gritted, looking desperately around for my clothes. I swear if this was some kind of prank… Thankfully I spied my jeans and jacket on the bank opposite Magenta. “Look away, would you?”
“Hey, just because I’m with Zack doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the scenery,” she said, smirking. I had never actually felt the painful burning that came with really intense blushing before, but I was learning with a vengeance. She took pity on me and turned her back, and I scrambled out. Grabbing my clothes I did a quick-change behind the nearest tree, going into a near power-up to dry myself off.
“So… what were you doing out here?” she asked when I came back into the open.
“I…” have no idea, I finished mentally. “I was cold.” Damn, that was lame.
“So you came and threw yourself into a boiling hot pool of water in just your underwear? Maybe you should do that more often,” she said, still smirking.
“Honestly… I have no idea how I got here. I don’t remember anything past waking up and feeling cold this morning,” I told her, ignoring her comment studiously.
“Weird… has that ever happened before?” she asked, falling in step with me as we headed back to camp.
“I don’t think so…” I said slowly. My brain was getting back up to full speed now, and embarrassment was fading before worry. What the hell is wrong with me? Am I going insane? I could have just wandered off and died out there if she hadn’t come looking for me. Well, maybe not died, I’m indestructible, but I doubt I would have liked the outcome.
“Warren, are you all right?” Magenta asked, stopping dead. I took five more steps before I realized she wasn’t walking anymore, and then turned and walked back to her. She looked concerned, even a little fearful.
All right? Magenta you have no idea… I don’t think I’ve ever been all right. A lot more all right than before you guys became my friends but still…
“I sometimes… get a little weird after using my powers a lot. And being cold sometimes messes me up,” I said finally. Magenta nodded in sympathy. I knew I could sometimes be unbalanced after a big fight; it was why I never stuck around too long after our Gauntlet runs. Powering down after something big like that sometimes took an emotional toll on me, and I knew it. Fatigue had helped keep it at bay two nights ago, but I was wondering if healing Magenta on top of everything else had managed to screw with my head some other way. Going to sleep in freezing temperatures must have just been the last straw. At least, I hoped that was it.
“I hear you; sometimes I wake up shifted, hidden in my closet after a bad dream. One time I woke up in the kitchen cupboard in a cereal box,” she confessed. I laughed at that, maybe a little harder than I meant to.
“If you tell Zack about that, you’re dead. Just consider that token payment for the ‘nice abs’ remark. I won’t tell if you won’t,” she said sternly. Anything was preferable to telling everyone what happened this morning, so I agreed. We started walking for a few minutes in silence before she broke it again.
“So how long have you been working out, Ab-Boy?” she asked mischievously. She was going to milk this for all it was worth, apparently. I debated roasting her on the spot, then decided it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. I really needed to keep the conversation on lighter things, and a little embarrassment was worth not having to answer tough questions. That was supposed to be my job, not hers…
“Since I was ten,” I told her reluctantly.
“Ten?” she repeated incredulously.
“Kids used to beat me up. I taught myself how to be strong so I could fight back,” I said, breathing carefully to control my anger. I wasn’t feeling at all cold now; heat was surging down my arms and hands at the memories.
“Beat you up?” Magenta asked, looking at me up and down.
“I wasn’t born six foot two you know,” I reminded her, and she shrugged.
“It just seems weird to think of you on the wrong end of something like that,” she pointed out.
“I wasn’t for long.” I left it at that. Let her guess how many fights I was in, how many I lost, and how many I “won.” Too many, that’s for sure, too damn many either way…
“I never thanked you for healing me,” she said, suddenly changing the subject.
“I… sure,” I said, shrugging. My new power still made me uncomfortable a lot of the time. It was easier to wave it off, make it seem like it wasn’t any big deal. I realized Magenta had stopped again and turned around. She had the weirdest expression on her face, confused and angry and determined all at once. What did I say to set her off?
“Warren, just listen to me for a minute. I have something to say,” she said, and I waited, uncertain where this was going.
“I… we all talked when we got up this morning and found you gone,” she started, and I felt the heat begin to surge anew along my arms. I knew I wasn’t going to like this.
“We’re not blind; we see what you’ve been doing to help all of us. I mean, you even saw what was going on with Ethan before the rest of us did. He told me what happened with Viper. I don’t think he would have done that if you hadn’t convinced him to.”
“You’re my friends-.” I started to say, but Magenta cut me off.
“We don’t know that much about you, or your family, other than what Mrs. Richards practically forced out of you in class. But we know you’re a good guy, and you’re our friend. I know you’ve been trying to help everyone with their problems… but you won’t come to us with any of yours. I mean, you’re trying to keep all of us from going off the deep end, but you have yourself shut up so tight, how’re we supposed to know when you’re about to?
“Zack told me what you said to Speed, Lash, and Penny the other night, and we all heard what you were telling them in Principal Powers’ office. And now that suddenly makes a whole lot more sense because you were once in Ethan’s shoes. Look Warren, we all want to keep from hurting you, but it’s kinda hard because you’re an unmarked minefield when it comes to anything personal!”
Damn, damn, damn! Why was she doing this to me? I had felt vulnerable in the pool, but now I felt twice as exposed. Ok, so I had been taciturn when it came to my past… any of my past… ever. I never really talked about my feelings, and I clammed up with anyone tried to pry about them, and I probably wouldn’t have told them about my family at all if we hadn’t been doing it for a class project. Why was Magenta calling me on this? She hadn't asked this kind of stuff for the year she'd known me. Why now?
“I think Principal Powers is right, and that may be the only time you every hear me say that out loud. We all screwed up two nights ago; we all made mistakes. We probably do need to talk about them. But we need you to talk too. Really talk, this time.
“You know why I’m saying this to you? Because of what you did for me and Zack. He never told me he loved me until he nearly died. And I couldn’t until I nearly did. You helped us, but never let us, any of us, help you. You’re going around trying to set everything right, but you’re never letting yourself get in too deep. You brush off your healing like it’s nothing. We can feel you get angry sometimes but don’t know why; you wander off without remembering anything but don’t want to talk about it-.”
“Stop!” I shouted. My eyes were shut tight and the heat was surging hard along my hands. Fire erupted from them, and I stood still, struggling for control.
“You’re trying to set us all straight when you’re the worst off of all of us. We’re afraid you’re going to burn yourself up inside one day,” Will said from somewhere above my head. I glanced upwards; watching Will slowly alight next to Magenta. Layla, Ethan, and Zack walked out from the mist and steam-shrouded forest, standing shoulder to shoulder with the others.
“You… you set this up?” I whispered. I was too surprised to be angry, and the flames died on my hands.
“Hey, you’ve been setting us straight the whole year. Turnabout is fair play Warren,” Will said, his chin up defiantly. “We only set up the talking part… We didn’t expect you to wander out of camp and try to boil yourself.”
“Damnit Stronghold!” I snapped, embarrassed again.
“Warren, you wouldn’t have said anything about this if you had managed to sneak back into camp before we got up. And if it ever happened again, we would have had no idea what was going on the next time it happened,” he pointed out. “And if we’re all going to spill our guts, you’re doing it too.”
My brain practically felt like it was on fire and there was a massive headache behind my eyes. When the hell did they get so worried about me? Were they actually learning from me? Vulnerable, that’s how I felt right now; it wasn’t an easy thing to bear. The only time I had ever really talked about what I felt was the one day in class when we discussed when we first powered up, and that had been like pulling teeth. Do I trust them enough to trust them with… me?
“Ok… ok…” I said finally, the heat and pain slowly fading. Was it that simple to really trust? I didn’t know. “But… why did you guys send out Magenta to be the sacrificial lamb?”
“Because we figure you wouldn’t hit me when you found out,” she said simply. “Besides, I know how to act. Will couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.”
I laughed weakly at that.
“Let’s go back to camp; I need breakfast,” Zack said, waving us back the way they had come. I tried to trail behind, as usual, but Will wouldn’t let me. I realized they had all been giving me my space for the year we had known each other… Did he realize I got claustrophobic in a crowd? Duh, of course not, because you haven’t told him. Moron. Looks like you get the clue-bat to the head today. Though that actually felt more like a clue-jackhammer.
“So… Who came up with this scheme?” I asked.
“Ethan, mostly. He kinda pieced together everything,” Will told me, and then smiled. “Look, that was harsh of us… but…” He trailed off, uncertain.
“It doesn’t make you any less right, even if you guys have the tact of a sledgehammer,” I finished. Will snorted.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed, and put an arm around my shoulders. I automatically stiffened up.
“Don’t. I’m still running pretty hot,” I warned.
“You can’t hurt me,” Will pointed out.
“I’m just not used to it,” I snapped. Will took his arm away. “Look, I spent nearly all my life trying to keep everyone away. I get a little claustrophobic around too many people.”
Will smiled a bit and put his hands in his pockets.
“Ok, now I know,” he said simply.
First confession. So far… so good. Was that so hard, Peace? Yes, yes it was. But it was also all right.