By the time the rest of my friends got off their phones, it was well past dark. I had built the fire up, gone out for firewood, made dinner, cleaned up from making dinner, and gone through a short workout before their parents let them go. Must have been bad news; only bad news takes that long to talk about.
They all plopped down after snapping their phones shut, not really looking at each other or me, staring into the fire with blank expressions. I waited another five minutes before breaking the silence.
“So…?” I asked. Magenta sighed and finally broke first.
“Not as bad as I thought,” she said finally. “Dad was freaked out, but at least he didn’t forbid me from seeing you guys again. Mom was better about it… but still thinks I’m crazy. She was all upset I got hurt… then I told her I was more upset about it than she was, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me. And then that started a whole bunch of stories about her career and her sister’s too and that took up the rest of the time.”
“Useful stories, or just horror stories?” I asked.
“Kinda useful. She talked about tough fights she had been in… I think she was trying to agree with me without actually saying so. I think it’s going to be ok… at least my aunt’s on my side,” she said carefully. “Mom can turn into a hyena, but Aunt Laurel turns into a peregrine falcon. At least she understands about how a little shapeshifter can fight.”
“Wait, wait, wait, your aunt’s Sparrowhawk?” Ethan asked incredulously. “Mrs. Richards’ hero? Why didn’t you say anything in class?”
“And how did the Pixie end up as a sidekick to her?” Layla asked.
“I didn’t say anything because I saw what happened with Mr. Boy and Will,” Magenta answered, rolling her eyes. Will laughed a bit. “And how do you think they ended up how they did? The gym teacher that year –whoever he was- decided turning into little falcon was more hero-worthy than growing butterfly wings.”
“So, you think Sparrowhawk’s going to run interference for you?” I asked. My mom’s job would get a hell of a lot easier if family members started helping…
“I hope so,” Magenta sighed. “You know why I never let you guys watch my Gauntlet sessions? Because I was afraid you’d say something in front of my family… and I hadn’t told them that I was going to be a full-fledged hero yet. Dad still thinks I’m going to be eaten or stepped on or something. He was cool with me being a Sidekick, but Hero… not so much.”
“Super Guinea Pig of Doom, and don’t let ‘em say otherwise!” Zack jumped in, grinning widely at Magenta. She managed to hold back an answering smile for only a few seconds.
“What about you?” Will asked Zack.
“Eh… went ok. All my sisters are Sidekicks, so it’s not like I’m the only one Dad has to worry about,” he said shrugging. His family being what they were easily explained Zack’s casual attitude about his powers, and his endless enthusiasm over what could be termed the weakest power in our group.
All three of his older sisters had weak electricity powers; Alexandria was Luma, and could make light bulbs glow even if they were off. Krystal was Switch, and could turn on electrical things from a distance. Emily was Recharge, and could charge up batteries or appliances. Nothing really spectacular, but they had been through Sky High and in the hero business for several years. Whatever worries his parents had about him they had already gone through three times already. Mom was probably having the easiest time with them, I bet.
“My dad’s still trying to get that we might not be the ‘Stronghold Three.’ I mean, I guess he was really looking forward to that… but…” Will shrugged. “I want to fight with you guys. Mom and Dad are great on their own. I want to do my own thing.” I waited for another few seconds, and then flicked my eyes to Layla. She was leaning against Will, her face half-buried in his shoulder. She shook her head slightly.
“It’s ok,” Will whispered to her.
“Mom yelled at me for using my powers like I did,” she said softly.
“So?” I asked, a little sharply. “You wrapped people up; it wasn’t like you impaled them.”
“She never wanted me to use my powers for violence…”
“I don’t think any of us wanted to,” Ethan spoke up. I looked at him, surprised. “Really, I mean who wants to go out and hurt people? Remember what Coach Boomer said, we might not like what we have to do, because we’re heroes, but sometimes we have to do it anyway.”
“Popsicle’s right, hippie. She’ll get used to it,” I added. Layla blinked rapidly, getting the remains of tears out of her eyes, then took a deep breath and nodded. Silence reigned for another few minutes, the fire crackling and popping.
“Dad and Mom didn’t know where I was on the tapes,” Ethan said into the quiet. It was hard to read his face; his glasses were reflecting the firelight, but his tone was tight, controlled. “They didn’t know what to say to me. I had to tell them… I was afraid. Dad… Dad understood, I think.”
“What did your mom say, Warren?” Will asked after a second. Not going to let me off the hook, eh Stronghold?
“She already knew. She’s fine with it,” I said calmly.
“Hey, we weren’t supposed to say anything!” Layla protested, sitting upright.
“Oh… that’s right, you can’t lie to the Peacemaker,” Ethan said suddenly. I nodded.
“That’s what I was talking about with Principal Powers last week,” I explained.
“Dude, so you’ve never lied to your mom?” Zack asked, looking a little horrified. Apparently everyone else carefully balanced their relationship to their parents on stacks of little white lies. Well, at least partly.
“Never successfully. I stopped trying to lie to her when I was five,” I explained.
“Harsh,” he said, looking sympathetic.
“It’s not that bad. She’s never lied to me either, not even about Santa.”
“Wait, Santa isn’t real?” Zack exclaimed, looking alarmed. Magenta smacked him in the back of the head. I chuckled at them both and shook my head.
“Oh wait… I understand. Your mom was at Sky High with the rest of our parents… That’s why we’re still here and not back at home,” Ethan said suddenly.
“Clever, Popsicle,” I admitted. I was glad someone else had put two and two together finally.
“Thanks for small favors, I do not want to talk to my mom again before Aunt Laurel does,” Magenta said with a sigh of relief.
Another odd silence descended. It wasn’t exactly an uncomfortable silence, just one not quite sure where it wanted to go yet.
“I think I know why I froze,” Ethan said out of the blue. Everyone turned to stare at him, and he ducked his head again. “Sorry, I was just thinking about what I said to my dad… I didn’t… I don’t want to let that happen again. I nearly… got you killed Magenta.”
“Ethan it’s ok, it was a fluke-,” Magenta protested.
“I… don’t know if it was. But lemme try to explain. I think I was afraid of getting tainted,” he said softly.
“Tainted? That a fancy word for poisoned?” Zack asked.
“No it… look, most people are about seventy percent water. Er, most normal people are anyway,” he clarified, looking around at all of us. “I’m about eighty-five percent. I tend to… pick up qualities of energies and chemicals if I’m not careful. I remember my dad and my uncles and aunts telling me about some of their fights… and the ones they lost they tended to lose the same way. They’d get tainted and something would get messed up. Look, I’ll show you.”
Ethan stood up, the glare leaving his glasses so we could finally see his face again.
“Uh… it’s ok Ethan, really, you don’t have to-,” Magenta started. Ethan shook his head.
“It’ll be educational,” he said with an uneasy smile, and unceremoniously melted. He casually oozed right next to the fire and parked himself on one of the stones. The fire-hot stones. I watched with alarm, remembering what happened to him when Pulsar hit him with her heat-blasts in the Gauntlet, but Ethan didn’t seem to be in any particular distress. He sat on the hot stone for several long minutes, until he started to bubble, then oozed back and resolidified.
“Touch my hand,” he said, sticking one out. He was sweating and breathing a little heavy, but didn’t look burned, which was really odd. Everyone leaned in slowly and touched him. To me, most people feel cool, unless they have a fever, in which case they feel lukewarm. Ethan felt neutral, my temperature.
“Holy cow, you’re hot dude!” Zack exclaimed, jerking his hand back.
“Yeah… and now I need to go melt some snow, be right back,” Ethan said quickly, and dashed out of camp. There was a sound like water hitting hot metal, and a faint cloud of steam rose up from the direction of a snowdrift just outside of our camp. I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t there anymore. Ethan came back a minute later, looking damp but otherwise fine.
“So… what was that supposed to prove?” I asked, a little concerned. “And how was that different from what Pulsar did to you?”
“Just… a demonstration. I pick up properties like heat or cold, if I have time to react properly, or chemicals, even if I don’t. Water… can absorb a lot of heat or lose it before it changes state,” he said, taking on a more normal lecturing tone.
“So you could freeze like T-1000 in T2?” Zack asked.
“Umm… probably. I wouldn’t want to test that though. But it was the chemicals that I was worried about.” He sighed. “It was the poison. Viper was dripping poison from every pore. I remember Dad telling me he once got dropped into a vat of oil and left it everywhere he touched for a month afterward.”
“So… if you had touched Viper… you would have become poison?” Will said slowly. Ethan nodded, sitting back down and staring at the fire again, the glare hiding his eyes.
“Tainted. That stupid custom I told you guys about at Christmas? That’s the reason; it takes my family a while to get themselves… separated from things like that. It can drive you crazy sometimes, that’s what my uncle told me. He actually fought King Cobra once and got tainted. He went out of his head and spent a month at a psychiatric hospital.”
“Like me and cold,” I said, suddenly getting it. Somehow Ethan had ended up going up against guy that could hit him at his weakest point. His first big battle, being under a ton of stress, having had plenty of time to think about it and agonize it over in his mind, and then having to target someone like that… It would have been like putting me up against Melissa Frost during a blizzard.
“Yeah, just like that,” Ethan said quietly, and then sighed. “I didn’t even remember the stun-ray until Warren told me. I could have just taken Viper down from a distance, but-.”
“So next time do that,” Magenta pointed out.
“Make me lead,” he said, bringing his head up. Magenta looked at him oddly. “Seriously, make me go first next time and then you can remind me. I don’t want to let you or anyone else down again.”
Magenta looked at him sympathetically. “As long as you promise the same thing if I ever get panicked. Deal?”
“Deal,” Ethan said firmly. “I’m sorry, it’s just… It was my first real assignment, I messed up, you got hurt, my parents saw it, and-.”
“Ethan,” Will cut him off. “Seriously, no one here is mad at you.”
“Umm…” Ethan raised an eyebrow as everyone nodded at Will’s words.
“Relax Popsicle,” I added. “You weren’t the only one that froze in that fight.”
Ethan winced with embarrassment. “Yeah… all right,” he said, nodding with more conviction.
“So Warren, did you talk to Nurse Spex?” he asked after a second. I groaned in embarrassment. They are never going to let me live this morning down. Ever.
“Yes, yes I did, it wasn’t anything serious,” I said reluctantly. Everyone looked at me expectantly. “Shock, she said it sounded like shock. Because of the fight and the cold weather, ok? I just have to keep myself warm for the next few days and I’ll be fine.”
“Hey, I just thought of something… If cold or thin air are basically your weaknesses, what about when Will hit you with the fire extinguisher last year?” Ethan asked. I glared at him darkly.
“And after this we’re going to be off the subject of me for the rest of the night,” I threatened. Talking with Mom had given me a little emotional equilibrium back, but I did not want to be the only one talking. Ok, sure, I probably had the most to talk about, but I wasn’t going to let the rest of them off the hook.
“Sure thing. We’ll make someone else go next,” Ethan said, a hint of humor on his face.
“It was just carbon dioxide; it smothers the flames on the surface. It stopped me from powering up for a few seconds, but once I brushed it off I was fine, power-wise,” I explained. “And… it wasn’t the first time I’ve been hit with one,” I added quickly.
Layla smiled suddenly. “Your mom kept one around the house, right?” I sighed.
“Yeah, I had bad dreams a couple of times and set my room on fire. What, your mom had to keep weed-killer around?” I asked. Layla looked horrified.
“And kill the plants? No, no, no, it was branch cutters and twine,” she explained.
“Kinky,” Will said mischievously, and the rest of us started laughing while Layla turned bright red. She leaned back over the log bench to scoop up a bit of snow and drop it on Will’s head in revenge, and he yelled as he tried to get the cold stuff off before it could melt.
Layla started laughing too, and we couldn’t even stop for the next few minutes. Every time someone looked at someone else, we just lost it, and it must have been almost five minutes before we had calmed down enough to talk coherently again.
“So,” I said, resolutely smothering the rest of my laughter, “My turn. Layla, what’s your thing?”
“Uh…’thing?’” she asked, trying not to laugh again.
“For me it’s cold or thin air, Ethan it’s chemicals or unexpected temperature changes, Magenta it’s being stepped on while shifted…” I elaborated. Sure, we had gone over a little of this in class, but there was a difference between a class project and real life. Ethan hadn’t mentioned his fear of being “tainted” in class, and it ended up seriously affecting him in a fight.
“Oh, that thing. Umm… not being around plants basically,” she said with a shrug. “I didn’t figure it out for a while; Mom couldn’t understand why I would always get sick when we visited my dad in one of the high rises downtown.”
“Not bad… and you’re keeping plants with you all the time now, right?” I asked. Layla pulled back her jacket sleeve to reveal an ivy bracelet.
“Zack?” I asked next, and everyone turned to look at him. He just shrugged.
“Dunno dude. Once I powered up I never really noticed anything that made me, ya know, get weird. My sisters are the same… well, Emily sometimes gets a little tired if she tries to charge up too many things at once, but other than that… dunno,” he said casually. “Worst I ever felt was a couple nights ago when I was helping you with Magenta.”
“She was really bad… I must have been leeching a lot of energy out of you,” I offered, staring into the flames again. Then I took a deep breath and asked a more difficult question. “What’s it like on your end? Getting healed, I mean?”
I had never really asked them about it, not wanting to talk about it… but if I was ever going to do it, I think it was going to have to be now. The others straightened up a little, paying more attention. I don’t think I had volunteered any questions about my healing power since the day I had discovered it, not even when Ethan had been trying to make a training program for me.
“I don’t remember a lot,” Zack said. “When I woke up I was just kinda tired and had a headache. And I was really warm… um… That’s about it.”
“I remember a little more. I was at least half-awake during it,” Magenta said. “I was just feeling very drained and cold and sick… Then… It was like I was on fire but it stopped just before it got to the point where it would hurt. The fire was… driving out the cold… until I felt all right again. And it smelled like ginger,” she added.
“Ginger,” I repeated the last, blinking at her.
“I was shifted! Things smell stronger when I’m shifted, and it smelled like ginger!” she said defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest, daring me to contradict her.
“Ok, ok, ginger, sure,” I said quickly.
“All right, so what’s it like on your end?” Magenta shot back. I thought about reminding her about the temporary ban on me talking, and then realized she wouldn’t care to hear any excuses.
“I don’t remember a lot from healing Zack… but after that… It’s like I see someone that’s hurt as a flame, in my mind. The flame is shadowed… and I try to feed the flame so it burns away the shadow. Does that make sense?” I tried to explain. Layla nodded.
“I get it; it sounds like when I help out a sick plant. Except I see it like a vine of green light,” she said, smiling. Belatedly I realized that I was a member of two power-families now, and Layla’s own botanypathy were probably the closest I was going to get to my own healing powers within our group.
“Very cool,” Ethan said, and I heard a faint scratching sound. Ethan was busy scribbling away in a notebook, squinting in the firelight.
“You’re going to go blind,” Will warned, then shut up when Zack powered up politely. “Never mind.”
“Ok, Stronghold, you’re last. Anything we need to know about?” I asked.
“Umm… I don’t think so. Dad doesn’t have that much in the way of weaknesses, and anything that Mom had to worry about Dad doesn’t, not really,” Will said with a shrug.
“But not mental powers,” I added, and was pretty sure Will flushed. I wasn’t trying to be cruel, but I could guess that Will’s powers and virtual invulnerability would end up with him thinking himself untouchable. Or they would have, had he not gotten tagged by Bloodtalon.
“Yeah… those work just fine,” he said quietly, but I could tell he was angry about it.
“I had to say it Stronghold. Those work on everyone, even you,” I pointed out. Will sighed and nodded in agreement.
Silence closed in around us again, and I looked up around the circle after a minute.
“Layla… what happened with Skybolt?” I asked her. I was starting to get the rest of my emotional strength back, and the others were a lot more talkative in the dark. The irony of me having to confess in the light and them in the dark did not escape me… but I doubt the rest of would have appreciated it. If had still been writing bad gothic poetry I could have gotten a small book out of this.
“I was just trying to keep Will from getting hurt. I… overreacted,” she said softly.
“I don’t think lightning would have hurt me-,” Will started to say.
“Yes it would have,” I said flatly. “When I talked to your dad about mine, he said fire still hurt him, even though it couldn’t kill him. I don’t think lightning would have been that much different.” Will went wide-eyed at this. I guess he’s never heard the details of that fight…
“Oh,” Will said faintly.
“Skybolt just kept calling down more and more lightning, and I kept getting madder and madder at him because you were still up there Will. And he was killing so many plants… I didn’t even know how tired I was until he stopped powering up,” she explained. “I had never done that before. I didn’t know I could move that much at once. And then after it just… all ran out of me, like I was empty.”
“Are you ok now?” Will asked, and Layla smiled.
“I’m fine, really. Just being here makes a big difference. I can feel the whole forest…” she said, gesturing and growing a little pine seedling to knee-height next to her.
“I’d say that’s crazy tree-hugger talk, but I know you’re not crazy,” I laughed. Layla contrived to look offended and put her nose in the air.
“So… I think I’m the last one, right?” Zack said after a second. At least he bit the bullet and asked himself, I thought with satisfaction.
“Why didn’t you hear me on the com saying Cutter and Painbreaker were coming out?” I asked him the expected question.
“’Cause I just didn’t. I was focusing on Viper, and then on Magenta. I wasn’t hearing anything,” he said simply and shrugged. Concentration is a funny thing. I knew Ethan could calmly read a book while sitting in a crowded lunchroom and have full comprehension of it afterward, but not remember a thing of what was said at lunch. Heck, I had apparently healed Magenta while Will actually crashed through the roof, and totally not noticed the hole in the ceiling until someone told me later.
“C’est la vie,” Magenta said with an answering shrug. “It all turned out ok, so it’s all good.”
“Yeah…” Will said. “Yeah, all good.” I smiled into the fire.
“You guys aren’t bad at this,” I offered.
“Well, I don’t think we had a choice after this morning,” Magenta pointed out. “We’d look selfish if we tried to clam up.”
“And I would have totally guilt-tripped you all,” I threatened. “Or gotten my mom to.”
“Dude, not cool!” Zack said, laughing. The evening broke up on much more of a high note as we finally got up to go to sleep. I, however, was going sleep at the hot springs.
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right out there alone?” Layla asked me when I bundled up my pack for the short trip.
“I’m indestructible. And fireproof. And if I don’t sleep warm I’m going to be worse off, so yeah, I’ll be fine. Send Stronghold to make sure I don’t accidentally roll in and drown myself if you’re worried,” I countered. “I won’t want a repeat of this morning.”
“I dunno, Magenta said-“
“Don’t want to hear about it!” I cut in quickly. Layla giggled a bit.
“Ok, ok, I’ll just send Will to check on you,” she said with a determined air. I gave a long-suffering sigh.
“Good night everybody!” I shouted over my shoulder as I marched out. I heard some vague replies behind me, but the forest soon swallowed them up. Was it only this morning I had been out here? It felt like a week, so much had happened.
I bedded down on the warm ground next to a pool, the heat soaking up through the stone making it by far the most comfortable bed I’d seen in two days. The pool itself not withstanding, of course.
“Warren?” I heard someone calling me, and slowly tried to get my brain to work. I cautiously opened one eye a slit. Sky. Sky… CRAP! My brain came awake all at once as I quickly took stock. I was relieved to find that although I wasn’t in a tent, I was still fully clothed and in my sleeping bag. And exactly where I was when I went to sleep last night. Whew, I wasn’t up for that kind of embarrassment two days in a row…
I pushed myself up and saw Will coming down from the sky right next to me.
“Too early Stronghold,” I warned him as I struggled to get my boots on.
“Yeah, I know, but we have a little problem…”
“Little problem? We don’t have little problems; we’re heroes, all of our problems come in jumbo-sizes,” I countered.
“Well… I was taking Layla up to see the sunrise this morning, and um… I noticed there was someone on the trail a few miles behind us. Citizens,” he clarified.
“Citizens. And they’re going to be coming our way?” I asked, boots starting to go on at light speed.
“Might be. I thought I’d try to get you back here before they arrive, just in case.”
“This is ridiculous. Privacy my ass. First Bruin, then this,” I snapped, rolling up the rest of my gear and stuffing it into my pack. Will shrugged philosophically.
“We can be normal for a few hours, right? I mean, just until they leave.”
“Sure, just fly me back to camp before they get there,” I said with a hint of sarcasm. Will doubled over laughing while I finished buckling the backpack. He got himself under control enough to carefully pick me up under the arms and fly back, the forest flashing by in patches of steam, fog, sunlight, and pine trees. Will had flown me once or twice in the Gauntlet, but it was still surprising to realize that I was no more than a feather to him.
When we touched down, the rest of the guys were out of their tents already, looking remarkably awake for it being barely past dawn.
“So, do we have a game plan?” Will asked, looking all business.
“Be normal?” Ethan suggested weakly, and Will started laughing again.
Oh this is going to be good, I thought. Wait, no, not really.