Walking back into the campsite should have felt like walking into my own funeral. I was rattled, my stomach was churning, and my head was spinning, but somehow I couldn’t feel too bad with the early morning sunlight illuminating the scene. It was like watching a horror movie in the daytime: not nearly so scary.
I plopped down on one of the log benches and stared into the fireplace, realizing after a second that it was littered with kindling, a dozen burned matches, and a lighter that had been crumpled as if by a super-strong fist. I started to chuckle, and Layla looked at me very strangely. I pointed to the fireplace and Will gave a shrug.
“Had a little trouble with the fire, Stronghold?” I asked, still laughing.
“Just a bit… Wait, no, actually a lot,” he said, rolling his eyes and sitting down next to Layla.
“Stand back and watch a master at work,” I said, shaking my head and getting my laughter under control. I powered up a bit and built the fire up pretty high. I decided that cold didn’t agree with me at all, and wanted to avoid another wandering incident.
“Jeez Warren, you trying to roast us all?” Zack complained, shrugging off his jacket in the heat. I took another deep breath to try to get calm. It was like knowing a train wreck was coming and being unable to avoid it…
“I don’t want to get cold again. I don’t know what happened to me this morning,” I said, reaching into the fire to adjust the logs a bit. “Look… can we start somewhere else? When did you guys set this up anyway?” I asked, wanting to get the subject on something a little less raw.
“A few weeks ago,” Ethan volunteered. “I mean, I had put together a lot of things, from what Will and Layla mentioned you said to them, and what we talked about this summer… I just wasn’t sure how to put it together. Then we uncovered the conspiracy and were doing our practice to protect Speed, Lash, and Penny… I thought it would be easier to wait until after that before dropping this on you.”
“Thanks,” I said softly.
“So Principal Powers gave me this letter, and I told her I thought this might be a good time to do this. She agreed with me… and… umm…” he trailed off, looking a little embarrassed.
“And what?” I not-quite snapped.
“She had me call the Peacemaker for advice before we left on this trip,” he added quickly, and winced reflexively. I’m sure Ethan was expecting me to explode at that, to get angry and yell at him for even thinking about talking to my mother before confronting me with something like this. Anyone else would have, and maybe a year ago I would have too. But it was my mom’s job to know peoples’ hearts, to solve problems, to heal emotional wounds. If they had gone to anyone else but her I might have actually been mad.
If she had agreed with him, then she thought this was something I both needed and could handle. It didn’t mean it was going to be easy, but she obviously thought it was important that it happen now. If she hadn’t, she would have talked him out of it.
“Smart move,” was all I said, and calmly reached for my mug. I grabbed boiling water and my can of coffee and finished off half the mug before Ethan realized he could stop wincing.
“’Smart move’…? I thought you’d be mad!” he exclaimed.
“That’s her job; to help people with problems. She’s very good at what she does,” I pointed out. I could practically hear the question they wanted to ask next- but didn’t dare. I bit the bullet and asked it for them. “So you’re all wondering how I ended up as a hair-trigger rage-fueled near-psycho if she’s so good at her job?”
They nodded cautiously and I took a deep shuddering breath. “I might flare up, so give me some space,” I said. Then I slowly started to tell them about Mom and Baron Battle. Two Sky High students in the theater department, similar interests and attitudes, falling in love, getting married, and going off to fight crime together, if not side-by-side.
“Sounds kinda like my parents so far,” Will offered cautiously.
“Yeah, but your parents are sane,” I pointed out. I told them how my dad started to get obsessed, and how Mom didn’t want to use her powers on him until it was too late.
“She said love blinded her,” I told them. “By the time she wanted to use her powers, she couldn’t. Not until she was pregnant with me. She told me it was like he had killed everything moral and ethical inside him, but he still loved her anyway. That seriously messed her up, and she could barely make the call to stop him when he… went to the World Diplomatic Summit.”
“Dude…” Zack said in an awed tone of voice.
“Yeah… then the Commander captured him, he and Mom divorced, and everyone blamed her for what happened. They even thought she had made him do it for a little while. She lost all her credibility, her confidence, her friends, and her self-respect, moved back to the States, went inactive when I was two, and spent the next seventeen years crying herself to sleep.” I had to stop there for a second, fire surging up and down my hands and arms with my anger. I looked at all of their faces, as I had been staring into the fire until now. They all looked surprised, interested, sad, or sympathetic, but not disgusted or disbelieving. Will looked angry, but I knew he was angry on my behalf rather than angry with me.
“The kids knew my dad was in jail when I was growing up. I got bullied a lot, so I learned how to fight back. You know I was practicing when I powered up… Mom had told me about my dad just in case I ended up with his powers. Right after I powered up I had to go meet him, in Metroplex, so he could train me how to use them.” My hands were clenched hard around my mug, and the coffee was boiling into steam at the heat in them.
“He’s a stone cold, self-righteous, manipulative bastard and if he hadn’t been very, very neutral with me when he showed me how to use my powers, I would have tried to beat his face in. That one visit really messed up Mom again, and I didn’t want her to every have to worry about me. So I made sure no one would ever get close to me again… because I powered up too easily, and I could see myself roasting some smug bullying idiot if they crossed me.”
“And Sky High was worse because people really knew what your dad had done,” Will said, filling in the blanks.
“You have no idea Stronghold. You… you look a lot like the kind of preppy jerks that were on my case when I was younger. That wasn’t a good day for me, and then you actually mentioned my father in front of the whole cafeteria-”
“That was pretty dumb of me,” Will said sheepishly.
“I was trying to kill you!” I blurted out before he could interrupt again. “It wasn’t even your fault, I just went completely psycho and tried to kill you!”
I had to stop there for a little bit, blazing away even more than the fire in the fireplace as I tried to bring myself back down again. Everyone waited, not exactly sure what to say, myself perhaps the most uncertain of all. I finally took a deep breath and started again.
“I thought I was becoming like my dad. In the detention room, when I told you I would roast you alive if you crossed me… I wanted you to stay as far away from me as possible, because the next time I don’t think I could have stopped.
“I… made a promise to myself when I got my powers that my mom would never have to get a call saying that I had misused them. I had broken that, and I was afraid to go home, because I thought it would have killed my mom to hear about it.” I paused again, and then turned to Stronghold.
“Will, after the fight, what did your parents say to you?”
“Uh… my mom was pretty mad. But Dad took me to the Secret Sanctum, and gave me a hug because he was really happy I got his powers,” Will said, not really looking at me. It wasn’t right and wasn’t fair and he knew it.
“And you got an X-box,” Layla added, and Will nodded miserably. I closed my eyes for a minute, because the next thing was maybe the hardest.
“I cried. I went home and mom was there and I cried,” I said softly. “I told her what happened… she told me a lot about myself… and about her. She said… she didn’t want to be afraid of what happened with my dad anymore. She… was wearing her superhero costume. It was the first time I ever remember seeing her in it. She said… she wanted to use her powers to help me, and if I’d let her… she’d feel strong enough to go active again. So I let her.”
I stopped there again and folded up my knees to my chest and rested my forehead on them. I had finally managed to power down again, but I was shaking hard. It was absolutely silent aside from the snap and crackle of the fire, and I was trying very, very hard not to cry in front of my friends. It was almost like reliving it while I was saying it, and that had to have been one of the most intense emotional experiences of my life. I don’t know exactly what they were expecting when they sprung this on me, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this.
When I was sure I wasn’t going to break down, I peered up at them. Shock was perhaps the most prevalent expression on everyone’s faces, almost horror. No, they hadn’t been expecting this, not really. Mom hadn’t prepared them… that meant they were learning a lot more from this than simply my past. Like… learning how someone seemingly strong could feel like this.
There was a faint noise next to me, and Will put his arm around my shoulders, hugging until I heard my bones creak a bit. I didn’t look at him, I stared at the fire, but he waited until the last the shaking was gone before letting go.
“Thanks,” I said very quietly. That had helped… He had no idea… And at least I couldn’t hurt him; I wasn’t on fire anymore, but I was still practically in a near power-up with the pent-up emotion.
“What power?” Ethan asked in a small voice. He knew Mom had more than one; he studied nearly all the heroes in his books. I was just relieved that he wasn’t going to try to ask anything else right then.
“Peacemaker’s touch… Go ahead,” I said, and waved for him to do the honors of explaining. He would do a better of job of explaining it than I would right now, and he waxed on enthusiastically in an attempt to enlighten everyone else.
“So… she made you… less mad?” Zack asked.
“More like… gave me more time to think about why I was mad. It didn’t last too long, only a few days, but it helped a lot,” I clarified. I finally uncurled a bit and took a look at my coffee mug. I had boiled it dry. I scowled at it and put it back on the bench.
“Why do you think I went from trying to kill you to helping you in Save the Citizen? It wasn’t because I was afraid of Principal Powers,” I pointed out to Will. I was a lot calmer now, and talking was getting easier again. Will got a thoughtful look on his face, and then nodded.
“Well, Save the Citizen wasn’t your choice,” he said.
“I could have just turned on you, if I had still been mad. You humiliated me in that fight,” I told him, and he looked embarrassed. “I picked a fight with a freshman sidekick whose dad jailed mine and I lost. How pathetic does that look?”
“I… didn’t even think of that,” Will said, looking shamed. I waited a few seconds, and then sighed.
“Ok, ok, that’s about enough for right now. Can I get some food?” I said a bit more loudly.
“Yeah, yeah, food, that sounds awesome,” Zack said quickly, and started to dig through the food bag. Everyone else unfroze and started rummaging around for their dishes. They were nearly as shaken up as I was, and just as ready for a break. We sat around eating oatmeal in silence, everyone mostly staring into space.
“Look, I’m honestly not sure what happened to me this morning. I really don’t remember anything. I woke up, I remember feeling cold, I got out of the tent… and then Magenta found me,” I said finally. I knew that was going to be their next question, and I felt a lot better if I could pick when we dealt with it.
“Is it the weather? Have you ever slept outdoors before when it’s cold?” Ethan asked.
“Actually…” I thought about that for a minute. “No, I don’t think I have… Crap, it isn’t that simple an explanation is it?” Ethan shrugged.
“I don’t know for certain, but it might be part of it. Call Nurse Spex after we talk to our parents tonight. At least we can make sure you don’t get chilled again, and see if that helps,” Ethan said.
“Yeah, we can park you in the hot springs,” Magenta suggested, a smirk on her face. I glared at her, but she was unrepentant.
“I think I’m going to take a walk now. Clear my head a bit,” I said with as much dignity as I could, and got up.
“Can I come?” Will asked, and I shrugged.
We walked in silence for a few minutes, until I realized I was heading for the hot springs again. Well… ok fine, I wanted to go there. I just wanted to soak up the heat around them a little. Will didn’t say a word the entire time, and I picked one of the pools at random, and lay down on the warm ground near the edge. Will simply stared into them for a long minute, and then sat abruptly.
“So?” I asked. “Ask whatever it is you’re going to before you explode.” Stronghold looked like he was holding back some huge secret, and he had gotten very, very quiet near the end of my talk at the campfire. He wasn’t a quiet guy, and it wasn’t like him to hold back from saying something. He had been too quiet on the walk here, and I knew something was up.
“Bloodtalon,” he blurted out.
“I just had my bleeding heart on display back there Stronghold; I’m not thinking so straight. Spit it out,” I warned. I winced inside at my own clumsiness. I knew what he wanted to ask, and despite the fact that I was feeling a little raw, it didn’t excuse failing Will. Maybe I needed to spill my guts to them, but they still needed me too. “Sorry, that was stupid. Bloodtalon… You said… you wanted to kill her.”
Will’s face contorted in anger and sorrow, and I saw him dig his fingers into the ground. No wait… solid stone. He clenched into it, and held on as if to a lifeline.
“What you said back there about wanting to kill me in the cafeteria… I just… What the principal said about us all making mistakes… I don’t know…”
“You’re the leader and you spent most of the fight trying to rip a bird apart instead of helping us. Magenta got hurt, Zack got captured, Layla went into power-exhaustion trying to protect you, and every single one of them got away,” I said calmly, trying to put into words what Will couldn’t. There was a grinding noise as Will started to shred solid stone between his fingers.
“I don’t think I would have got why that made you so upset, that you wanted to kill me, if Bloodtalon hadn’t tagged me,” he said. “I got sick afterward; I went behind the detention center and threw up.”
“What did Layla say to you to get you down?” I asked.
“Umm… Some private stuff…” he started.
“You don’t have to give me the damn details Stronghold,” I snapped. Will winced, realizing how selfish he sounded, considering what I had just been through.
“She told me some stuff we had said when we were little, things we promised. She told me she loved me too,” he said quickly.
“Did that help?”
“I… yeah… It was kind of how she said it too,” he said, and I heard gravel falling to the ground.
“Think about it this way: you got angry because someone literally made you angry. I got angry because I wanted to. I need to ask you a favor.” That got Will’s attention, and he let go of the ground. “If we ever end up fighting them again and if Bloodtalon ever tags me… You have to promise me you’ll take me out.”
“What?” Will asked, incredulous.
“Anger doesn’t just trigger my powers, it fuels them. Think about it.”
“Oh… my God,” he said after a second. “You just better make sure you turn her into a roasted turkey before that happens!” he threatened. I laughed a little, and pushed myself back up.
“Deal. Come on, I think it’s time someone else put their guts on public display. I’m about done for today.”
“Hey guys, it’s nearly five. Time to call,” Ethan stopped us in the middle of preparing dinner.
The rest of the afternoon hadn’t been quite as intense as the morning had been. I had talked a little more about what had happened at the Paper Lantern, finally thanking Layla for being the first one to have ever offered me a genuinely friendly gesture. That had gotten her blushing, and eventually led to a private discussion between her and Will. I was about tapped out for the day in heartfelt confessions, and Zack, Ethan, and Magenta were more than ready to agree with me. I was wondering if it was more for their sake than mine that we agreed to hold off for more until tomorrow though.
Nearly everyone winced at Ethan’s announcement, but doggedly pulled out their cell phones. “This might get a little loud,” he pointed out, and moved a bit away, and everyone took the hint.
I actually delayed a moment as everyone dialed, listened for about ten seconds, and then almost simultaneously pulled their phones away from their ears to listen to them from a distance. Heh… that was funny. At least my mom already knew, and at least she would be a lot more reasonable about it.
I finally called her, the signal going through loud and clear. Our cell phones were boosted to be able to be used anywhere, as part of the upgrade that would eventually let us be called when we were superheroes. It simply wouldn’t do to say, “Sorry that your downtown was trampled by a giant robot, Mr. Mayor, but I just didn’t have service out by the lake.”
“Warren! Oh honey it’s so good to hear from you. You will not believe the antics I’ve had to put up with today,” she said, and I laughed a bit. I was more than willing to let her talk first; I had been doing more than enough talking today.
“So, it was that bad?”
“Terrible, Steve and Josie were perhaps the most reasonable about the whole thing, but that’s because they know their son is virtually invulnerable. The Pattersons and the Cramers nearly had Veronica’s head on a platter for putting their children in such danger, and the Howards were just a short step behind them. And Sunshine Evans nearly had an aneurysm when she found out her daughter was using her powers offensively.”
I looked over at Layla and saw her face was practically crumpled in tears, and throttled down anger before I could melt the phone. Shove a non-violent philosophy down your daughter’s throat, send her to Sky High, and then get mad when she has to use them to defend someone else? Hypocrite.
“I had to defuse three attempts to overthrow the school by force and forestall about a half-dozen attempts for them to leave and fetch you back immediately.” She sighed, and sounded very tired. “Veronica wanted me present more for my powers than the fact that I’m your mother. I had to invoke crowd control at least five times, and it’s very hard leaning on trained minds like that. Then she showed them the tapes and I had to practically sit on them with my powers to keep them from doing something drastic. The Pattersons were screaming at Veronica, and I hope to never hear such language come out of Jessica Patterson’s mouth again. I had no idea she knew words like that…”
“Jesus Christ, she showed them the tapes?” I half-yelled.
“They practically forced her to. Warren, you were amazing honey,” she said warmly, and I blushed furiously. “I’ve never been so proud of you before in my life.”
“Mom… I burned someone,” I pointed out, feeling a little sick. “You saw that. I…”
“She deserved it. She tried to gut my baby and if I had been there she would have gotten worse than that!” Mom said tartly, not letting me feel sorry for myself.
“Did Principal Powers tell them why we were out here instead of home?”
“Yes, once they calmed down a bit. They didn’t like it, but I eventually convinced them. They tried to turn on me once they figured out I had already known about this, but I’m not taking any of their lip anymore. Sunshine Evans is a little too idealistic for her own good sometimes.” She sighed a bit. “So, how’s it going out there?”
“Oh, I just feel like I ripped my guts out through my chest, but other than that, fine,” I commented.
“Ah, your friends finally confronted you?” she said, completely without shame.
“I’ve been in confession-mode all day. It’s worse than running the Gauntlet.”
“It’s bound to be; you’ve locked up everything you are so tightly I’m surprised you let them have the keys. And getting it out will be painful, I told them to expect that.”
“Mom… something really weird happened this morning, before they talked to me.” I told her about my inexplicable behavior in the cold, and I heard her going “hmm…” in the background.
“We’re still at Sky High, let me get Nurse Spex.” She was worried, I could tell, but I wasn’t going to call her on it. I’d probably be worried too, if I were her. In a minute, Nurse Spex got on the line and I went over everything again.
“It almost sounds like you were in shock, dear,” she said after a minute. “If I had had any idea where Principal Powers was sending you, I would have objected, believe you me. Freezing cold weather is no place for someone like you, at least without proper protection.”
“I’m indestructible. I don’t get sick, I don’t get hurt… Why is this hitting me so hard?” I demanded. Will was supposed to be counting on me to take up the slack if he failed, but how dependable was I going to be if a little cold weather or thin air was going to make me lose my mind?
“You have unique weaknesses dear, and I think you’ve just had a streak of bad luck to make them all come to a head at once. You ran yourself into near power-exhaustion during that fight. You used your new power on a very profound injury. You had a very emotionally draining fight, and since your powers are linked to your emotions, that had double the effect on you. Then you were thrown into an entirely unsuitable environment on top of everything else. If you had had another day’s rest in a warm bed and had gone out there with better gear, I think you would have been fine,” Nurse Spex explained.
“It sounds… too simple,” I said.
“Well, better that then knowing someone used a freeze ray or a mind-scrambler on you while you were asleep. If you don’t think you can keep yourself warm, you probably need to come home, but otherwise you should be all right if you take care,” she pointed out.
“Yeah… I think I can.”
”Good, good, let me get your mother back on the phone then.” There were a few muffled words, than Mom was back on again.
“She told me, Warren. Are you sure you’re going to be all right honey?” Mom asked.
“Yeah… I’m going to park myself in those hot springs until we go home. That should do the trick,” I said lightly. Though that wasn’t such a bad idea, now that I thought about it…
“Well, how are your friends taking it?” “It” in this case, meant more than one thing.
“Taking me? Fine, I’m pretty sure. Taking what their parents are saying…” I turned and looked around, seeing various expressions of frantic pleading, near-hysteria, and guilt on my friends’ faces. “Bad.” Mom sighed.
“I was afraid of that. I’ll keep working on them or they’re going to undo everything.”
“So Mom… Why aren’t you trying to keep me out of this too?” I asked. She had to be as worried for me as anyone else’s parents were, but she was being worlds beyond reasonable about the whole thing. I knew she didn’t want to upset me or undermine my confidence, but I needed to know if she needed to vent.
“A lot of reasons…” she started.
“Like I’m indestructible and not as fragile as say… Magenta?” I asked, mostly joking.
“No,” Mom said more sharply, “Though the Pattersons are going to have to realize that their little girl, guinea pig shapeshifter or not, is quite capable of doing hero work.
“No Warren, it doesn’t have to do with your powers. I promised you that I wouldn’t let my own fear of my past keep me from doing a job that I love. And I also promised myself that I would never let my fear hold you back. You’re my strong, clever, wise son who desperately wants and needs to prove himself. I won’t hold you back from your destiny, no matter if it scares me.”
I was stunned, and actually took the phone away from my ear and stared at it for a minute. It wasn’t that my mom had ever coddled me, because she hadn’t, but just an admission of maturity and responsibility like that was not what I had expected. I can do this… I really can… She believes in me.
“I love you Mom,” I whispered.
“I love you too Warren.”