Acting normal sounds easy, right? I mean, we do it every day. Sure, we live in a neighborhood where there’s a high concentration of super-people. Sure we go to Sky High. But we went to normal schools for at least thirteen years. I had a job amongst normal people. But we had also spent a very intense week using our powers, being superheroes, and dealing with the consequences. If there was a greater recipe for a slip, I didn’t know it.
“There’re a couple of hours away at best,” Will was saying. “I’m going to go ditch the car somewhere. Layla, will you help me hide it?”
“What, a car-shaped pile of leaves isn’t going to be obvious?” Magenta asked.
“What’s better, a car-shaped pile of leaves that’s here or three miles from here?” Will shot back, and Magenta laughed, conceding defeat. Layla climbed in the car and Will took off with it, getting completely out of sight within seconds.
“Oh frell,” Ethan said suddenly, looking along the trail with concern, “We don’t have a camping permit. I hope this isn’t their assigned campsite…”
“If it is, we’ll say we just used it to start a fire,” I countered. “Seriously, you picked out this corner of the park in the first place because it was remote, right?”
“Yeah… So it means they might get suspicious if we-“ Ethan started to protest.
“Dude, you’re getting paranoid!” Zack said with a grin. “Come on, let’s go get more firewood.”
“I think we’re using it all up, what with Warren making bonfires and all,” Magenta pointed out, but came with the rest of us anyway.
“I have a medical excuse,” I grumped. So sure, we had to hike a little farther for firewood because I wasn’t letting the fire out for any reason, but it wasn’t like we weren’t all fit.
“Uh huh. So that’s what they’re calling it these days…”
“Die!” I snarled, and made a mock-lunge. Magenta started laughing her head off as she ran away, circling around Zack and Ethan to keep me at bay. Those two were laughing so hard they couldn’t even walk; only hold each other up as Magenta and I circled them.
“Aww… Poor widdle Warren can’t even get the guinea pig girl?” she taunted as she ducked out of my grasp again.
“You’re going down!” I shot back, and head-faked to the left, then snapped right to grab her arm. Ethan abruptly melted right next to me, and I completely lost my footing, slipping and landing flat on my back, knocking the wind out of me. Oh, that’s graceful, hero, my brain laughed. Slapstick comedy at six a.m.
“Dude… you ok?” Zack asked, looming over me.
“Not… fair…” I got out after a second, pointing to a resolidified Ethan with a wavering hand.
“Totally fair,” Ethan corrected, helping me up. “You’re taller than she is. I evened out the field.”
“You evened out my head,” I corrected, rubbing it. Ethan didn’t look at all repentant.
“You’re indestructible,” he pointed out with a smile.
“Shut up,” I said, trying to keep a scowl on my face.
“Besides, now nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day.”
“I said shut up.” I was starting to smile in spite of myself. I swear these guys got weirder every day. It was one of their more endearing traits.
“Hey there’s some firewood!” Zack called back to us, starting to pick up some fallen branches. We spent a half-hour collecting firewood and good-naturedly insulting each other. It was a definite improvement over yesterday morning, and Magenta was in fine form, scoring more of the elusive, intangible cool points than the rest of us put together.
“How are you so… awake in the morning?” I demanded.
“Unnaturally active metabolism. It comes from being a shapeshifter. And guinea pigs are diurnal,” she said. “That means awake during the day.” She added the last to Zack before he could ask.
“Hmm… I don’t know about that. I seem to remember seeing you asleep the other morning, before we left school,” I said casually, starting to smile evilly. Maybe I didn’t have pictures, but I was still going to get my revenge…
“What are you talking about?” Magenta demanded.
“I was thinking you were already up, but then I saw Zack was still asleep and he was holding something, a purple guinea pig…” I trailed off when I noticed Magenta turning some spectacular colors.
“You- you-,” she sputtered, while Zack seemed to be torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to support his girlfriend.
“My point,” I said, making a tally mark in the air.
“Fine!” she exploded, looking equally torn between being mad and amused.
“Hey, this is token payment for yesterday,” I said a little more seriously. She finally sighed in agreement. But I still had to carry most of the firewood.
Will and Layla must have been gone for almost two hours, and we were starting to get a little worried. Granted, it does take a while to hike even a few miles, particularly over a rough trail, in cold weather, and being burdened with heavy packs, but those two were cutting it awfully close.
To our relief, at least they touched back down before the citizens arrived. Will’s jacket was stained a bit with mud, and both of their shoes were covered in it.
“Did you forget how to fly?” I demanded when they grounded themselves.
“Uh nope. We were laying a trail,” Will said, trying to flick the mud off his sleeves.
“Say what?” Zack asked.
“There’s no evidence of us coming in the trail that way,” Layla said, pointing in the direction of the alleged citizens. “So we made sure the trail the other way looked like we had used it. Because they’ll probably ask us about trail conditions, as we have to look like we hiked in here.”
“Good thinking,” Ethan said with approval.
“I thought of it because of this summer. That happened a lot when Mom and I were camping in the parks around the state,” Layla explained.
“You’re a genius, hippie. Stronghold, where are these people?” I asked.
“Ho the camp!” Our heads snapped up as our promised citizens came tramping up the trail in the opposite direction. Damn, that was almost too close.
There were only four of them, about my age or a little older, maybe high school seniors or college freshman. There were two that looked like brother and sister, tall and slender even under the bulky jackets and backpacks, both dark skinned black with the same high cheekbones and large eyes. The other guy was as about as opposite as you could get, short, stocky, milk-pale skin and violently red hair. The last was a taller, heavyset girl with curly brown hair she was trying to stuff under her hat, annoyance on her face.
“Ho the trail! Good morning!” Layla called back cheerfully.
“I don’t suppose you’d let some half-frozen hikers thaw out a bit, would you?” the red-haired guy asked, closing in so he wouldn’t have to yell.
“Sure, sit down,” Layla said politely, waving to the benches. We all crowded over a bit, and they unbuckled their backpacks and gratefully collapsed on the logs.
“Brrr…” the brown-haired girl shivered, holding her hands near the fire. “Don, you think we have enough time for cocoa before we go?”
“I think so. Er, you mind if we use your fire? We have our own supplies,” the redhead, Don, asked. Layla shrugged and gestured for them to go ahead. Within two seconds flat the last girl had water starting to boil, and she glared at it furiously, as if she were willing it to get hot faster.
“So, you guys going very far today?” Layla asked after a few seconds of silence.
“Yeah, Mr. Genius over here picked the farthest possible campsite from last night’s,” she groused, but there was a hint of humor in her face.
“But I’ve been there before, and it’s a really nice one!” Don protested.
“And it’s how many miles away?”
“Only six he says! Through a very cold forest, through snow, and over a very rough trail says I!”
“You’re just grumpy because you didn’t get a hot breakfast.”
“And that’s why we’re stopping at the fire of these very kind and accommodating people, who don’t even know our names yet, Don,” she shot back.
“Oh yeah, right. I’m Don, that’s Rachel, and those two are Chloe and Chad. They’re twins.”
“Dude, do you have to tell everyone that?” Chad said, laughing a bit.
“I do because everyone always asks you, and you said you were tired of explaining it,” Don said with impeccable logic, a broad grin on his face.
“Who put you in such a good mood? Shouldn’t you have a hangover anyway?” Rachel asked.
The rest of us were just having a fun time watching these guys bicker back and forth. It was like watching us, but on the outside.
“Nah, I’m Irish, I was like born three drinks from sober. Besides, I couldn’t take the Jagermeister on the trail because it was in a glass bottle, I couldn’t leave it in the car because a bear might try to get it, and I wasn’t going to throw it away because it was expensive. So I had to drink it!” Don said with triumphant logic.
“Yeah, take it from me, never let this guy pick your trail when he’s smashed,” Rachel quipped.
“I don’t suppose you guys would mind if we killed him and left his body here, would you?” Chad asked plaintively.
“It might smell after a while,” Magenta said reasonably. “Besides, you pack it in, you pack it out.”
“Hey!” Don protested.
“Damn. Well, it was worth a shot. So, what’re your names?” Chad inquired.
“I’m Layla, and this is Will, Warren, Ethan, Zack, and Magenta,” Layla said, pointing at each of us.
“Magenta? That a nickname?” Don asked.
“Nope. Mom lost a bet with her sister when they were picking out my name.”
“Harsh, dudette,” Chad said with a sympathetic grimace.
“Not really. Could you imagine me as Evangeline? That’s what Mom originally had picked out,” Magenta said with a smile. The other four looked at each other for a second.
“Magenta,” they said all at once, nodding firmly, and the rest of us laughed at that.
“Evangeline?” Zack whispered to her incredulously.
“So, where you guys from?” Don asked.
“Maxville,” Will said proudly.
“Yeah? You on break? Or just playing hooky?” he asked, smiling.
“We’re on vacation,” Ethan said a little defensively.
“Nice. I wish the parents would have let us run around out here alone when I was in high school,” Chad said, smiling.
“Warren’s our chaperone,” Magenta added with a perfectly straight face, though her eyes were dancing with humor. The four of them looked from my leather jacket back to Will and Layla… and burst out laughing.
“Man… I’m sorry dude, I’m sure you’re a nice guy, but it looks like they dragged you out of a biker bar,” Chad said, nearly doubled over. Chloe slapped him on the back a few times to get him breathing again. I was trying to not laugh, but it was pretty hard, and eventually I unbent enough to snicker at the idea. When you looked at the six of us, I was the one that stood out like a sore thumb, and it wasn’t just because I was older.
“You totally should get a motorcycle Warren, that’d be bad-ass!” Zack said.
“Yeah, with my luck I’d end up crashing it and blowing it up the first day,” I shot back; trying to remind him of the reason I didn’t drive. Though the mental image was undeniably cool.
“Yeah, you’d look like Ghost Rider, wicked!” he said, nodding absently and clearly not even playing attention.
“Complete with the flaming skull after I crashed, Glowstick,” I snapped, glaring at him to drop it.
“So hey, you guys follow the super news?” Chad asked.
“Who doesn’t?” Will responded, and Zack snickered.
“Anyone play… Champion Debate?” he asked.
“Do you have to ask every random person if they play?” Don demanded. Chad nodded without remorse.
Champion Debate was one of those things that kind of grew up in the media storm around superheroes. I mean, people can photograph and interview actors, singers, and athletes to their hearts’ content, but since superheroes and supervillains don’t get formally interviewed, and there’s only so much of their lives that are on public display, people started making stuff up.
Champion Debate is where people pit one superperson against another in a purely theoretical sense. Say you have two fanboys arguing over whether Sonic Boom could take on The Screamer and win. Except now they have to bring up specific examples of how their powers have been used in previous battles, not just speculations and gut feelings, and then use all their powers of persuasion to argue each attack, defense, evasion, or trick. It’s like two lawyers arguing a point, using other cases as precedent, combined with the strategy of chess, and the skill of a master storyteller, all at the fastest speed possible. It sounds kind of dry, until you see two masters play it.
I was actually fairly relieved they had asked us to play. Champion Debate was like any other big time game show; you knew how to play even if you rarely watched it. Password, Wheel of Fortune, or Who Wants to be a Millionaire, unless you lived under a rock, you couldn’t avoid at least knowing the premise. Champion Debate was about a safe a topic as we could get. There were plenty of normal people who probably knew more about superheroes than we did, thanks to that game.
On the TV version of Champion Debate they create the theoretical battles through old news footage and some clever CGI, though people play it anywhere using just their imaginations. People set it up in the park like chess players and debate for cash; there are even clubs in the normal schools alongside regular Speech and Debate. We played plenty of it in Sky High, usually as a review in Superpowered History or Battle Tactics, but Ethan had been on the team since elementary school.
“Ethan!” we all said at once.
“Ethan’s got a Master rank,” Zack added proudly.
“Sweet! We have a debate, and we got deadlocked last night. Want to break it for us?” he asked.
“Name your champion,” Ethan said proudly, standing up.
“Chloe. She’s got a Master ranking too,” Chad said with a smirk, as his sister stood up. And up. She must have topped Ethan by nearly a foot and a half. She was even taller than Zack, for crying out loud.
“And what’s your debate?” Ethan asked, looking up at her.
“A classic. Beat the Commander. Except I want to be the attacker, using Tsunami,” she said. Ethan nobly refrained from choking. A popular debate-battle was where one person took the Commander’s side, and someone else would try to pick someone to defeat him. Since the Commander was virtually invulnerable and powerful enough to destroy hurtling meteors with a single punch, it took a very clever debater to “defeat” him. Whoever was on the Commander’s side usually had an easy victory… unless the attacker had some clever ideas. So either she was insulting Ethan intelligence, or she had a plan. And obviously it was the latter.
Not to mention Tsunami was Ethan’s dad.
“Done. Books, brains, or both?” he asked. Sometimes people played just from memory, but if both players had books they could use them to look up information as they went.
“Yeah like anyone would haul that cinderblock out… into… the woods…” Don said, and then trailed off as both dug into their backpacks or tents and hauled out their battered, bookmarked copies of The Illustrated Lives of Superheroes, 2006 edition, the only book allowed in Champion Debate.
“Ok, that was scary,” Don said. “Chloe I think you found a kindred spirit. Why did you haul that thing out here?”
“Because I wanted something to read,” Ethan and Chloe said simultaneously, and then laughed. Everyone around the campfire looked at them weirdly. Kindred spirits indeed.
“I play the debate tables in the student union for extra cash, I have to keep my game up,” Chloe explained.
“And I’m on the team at school,” Ethan pointed out.
“You could have put in an extra sleeping bag in your backpack without that brick in there!” Don protested.
“You’re going to get a brick to the head if you don’t shut up about it,” she said sweetly.
“I’ll ref. Lord knows I’ve done it enough with you practicing…” Chad muttered, and pulled out some paper and a pen from his pack to keep score.
“Anecdotal allowed?” Chloe asked, raising an eyebrow. Anecdotal evidence was only used occasionally, and only if the debater in question had personally witnessed a super-person in action. It was all upheld by the honor system, and people had been barred from professional debates by lying about their experiences.
“You have one?” Ethan asked. He was probably wondering which of his he could get away with…
“For Tsunami, he rescued me in San Diego, March 13th 1999, when Anaconda tried to set loose all the animals at the zoo,” she said immediately. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll save the specifics for the debate.”
“You’re not a super-junkie, are you?” Zack asked, looking a little pained. Some people basically tried to get themselves into bad situations as often as possible so they could be rescued by superheroes. They looked for supervillains with more enthusiasm than superheroes, just for the thrill of the danger, and for being able to be near their favorite heroes.
“Please,” she said, scoffing. “Just wrong place, wrong time. Chad was there too.”
“Scared the piss out of me. I don’t know how she talks about it,” he added, sighing.
“So, you have one too?” she asked Ethan.
“Ah… yes, yes I do. Also for Tsunami,” he said with a grin. There was a competitive streak in Ethan that only really came out when it came to academics, and I was guessing whatever he had in mind probably wasn’t in any books. Oh crap, I hope she doesn’t call him on it…
“Ok, Tsunami versus the Commander, books and brains, anecdotal evidence allowed, Tsunami attacks first,” Chad said, laying out the final agreed-upon rules. “Debate!”
Chloe opened with Tsunami’s wave attack; Ethan countered the Commander’s strength of stability, Ethan advanced with a grapple, Chloe riposted with Tsunami’s water-form. Names and dates flew thick and fast as each defended their choice, pages blurred as they countered and justified their attacks and defenses, and Chad’s fingers fairly flew to keep up the score. They were both pretty good storytellers, and the imaginary epic battle was clear in my head.
Ethan was actually pushing Chloe to get more and more creative on how she was using Tsunami’s powers against someone as durable at the Commander, and I wondered if he was taking mental notes to use for both him and his dad. Will was actually looking a little dazed when Ethan started quoting from battles back from before any of us were born. I guessed knowing your dad was a good fighter and hearing someone else confirm it were two different things.
Champion Debate battles don’t last terribly long, and by the end of ten minutes, both of them were starting to wind down. Chloe tried to corner Ethan by pulling out her anecdotal evidence, citing that she had actually seen Tsunami half-drown Anaconda with his own transformed body in order to capture him. Oh… tough to counter drowning since he’s not trying to grapple… Then Ethan smiled.
“Anecdotal, you’ve had Tsunami shift nearly two dozen times, maximum number of times for shifting I witnessed on July 4th, 2005 in Maxville was twenty five before power exhaustion set in and he wasn’t able to shift anymore. He wouldn’t have the energy to hold his shifted form long enough to knock the Commander unconscious, as per my previous argument on how long the Commander can hold his breath,” Ethan shot back, actually punching one fist into his open palm in triumph. Independence Day last year? Wait, wasn’t that the day of Ethan’s family pool party?
Chloe opened her mouth, then shut it again, opened it again, and then turned to her brother for a judgment. Chad took a big breath and finished the scoring.
“Ok… wow. That was close. Umm… Tell you what guys, we’re at a near draw, but since Tsunami was close but not at twenty-five shifts, I rule the Commander succumbs but Tsunami is power-exhausted right after. Final ruling,” he said. “Good game guys. And now I need to uncramp my fingers…”
Chloe and Ethan were laughing and congratulating each other on a good debate, while Chad used his other hand to pry his fingers off of his pen. Don had been watching the whole thing like it was a fascinating game of tennis.
“Dude, you seriously need to consider going on the profession circuit. I’ve seen Chloe mop the floor with people with this debate like a dozen times,” he said with respect. Ethan just shrugged.
“I’m still in high school,” he pointed out.
“Even so, you should do it. You’re really good. You have your card with you? I want to make this official,” Chloe offered, taking out her Champion Debate scorecard. Masters kept their own rankings, which changed each time they debated with another Master. Chad sighed when Ethan pulled out his own, and took them both aside to countersign their cards.
“Yay, it’s finally boiling. About friggin’ time,” Rachel said suddenly, grabbing her mug and wrapping a gloved hand around the water pot on the fire grate. She dumped water and cocoa into her mug, and followed it up with cold water from the water bottle to get it cold enough to drink. A few drinks later and she finally looked less sullen.
“We should really keep those two apart,” she added, glancing over at the nerdy trio. “I think my brain was about starting to pour out of my ears there at the end. How can they memorize all that stuff?”
“Depressingly easily,” Magenta said, and we nodded in sympathy. Then I noticed Will was still staring off into space. Layla finally elbowed him a bit.
“Earth to Will,” she said, and he shook his head, waking himself up.
“Er sorry. I just never really know my- the Commander could do all that stuff,” he said.
“Maybe you should be taking notes, Stronghold,” I told him, smiling a bit.
“Maybe I’ll do that next time, Peace,” he shot back, laughing.
“Wait… your last name is Peace?” Don said, suppressing a smirk.
“Yeah,” I said a little sullenly. I knew damn well what my name sounded like. The only reason I hadn’t gotten more crap about it when I was younger was that first graders don’t read Tolstoy.
“Warren Peace?” he repeated, and started to shake with repressed laughter. “Oh man… dude, I am so sorry. That’s just… that’s worse than hers…” He pointed to Magenta between snickers, struggling to get a breath. Rachel was starting to laugh too. They weren’t really trying to be mean, they wanted me to join in with the joke, but I just couldn’t bring myself to even crack a fake smile. The rest of the gang was torn between wanting to laugh politely and trying to get them to stop. It was stupid, I knew it, and my friends knew it, but I just couldn’t find anything even remotely funny about this.
“Oh… oh man… oh God… Sorry…” Don said finally, wiping a tear from his eye and getting his laughter back under control. “It’s just really funny… Your parents must have really hated you, eh?”
There was a collective “oh shit” expression on my friends’ faces, and they all shot me worried looks. I throttled down reflexive anger hard; it was just a joke, they didn’t know, it was just a joke… Heat was running along my hands, but I was opposite them, and the fire itself hid the heat-haze coming off of me. I took a deep breath and counted mentally to ten in both languages I knew.
“No, they really didn’t,” I said calmly, but with such an expression on my face that Don shut up immediately.
“So hey! Look at the time, we better get going or we’re going to have to camp in the snow!” Rachel said loudly, not even looking at her watch. She bounded to her feet and started to struggle into her pack, tossing back the rest of her cocoa in one gulp, suppressing a grimace at the heat.
Chad came back just on the tail end of that conversation, and shut his mouth on whatever it was he was going to say.
“Good meeting you guys, and thanks for the debate. Kind funny who you meet out here, eh?” he said with some forced cheer after a second, struggling into his backpack and holding out his hand to shake. I shook off my bad mood and tried to smile a little as we said good-bye. They’d been a pretty nice bunch of guys, all in all. Ethan and Chloe joined us after a couple of minutes, Don quickly asked us about the trail conditions ahead, and pretty soon the four citizens waved us good-bye and were out of sight along a bend in the trail.
We waited in total silence for almost ten minutes after the sounds of their conversation faded.
“Ok, I think they’re gone,” Magenta said finally, and we all heaved a sigh of relief.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Will said with a shrug. “Right?”
“I’d save ‘em,” Zack said, nodding.
“We don’t get to pick who to save!” Layla said with her particular brand of righteous indignation.
“I’m just sayin’, good to know there are cool people out there to save.”
I finally looked over at Ethan, as he had been totally silent. He was wearing a stupefying happy expression and was looking in his Illustrated Lives of Superheroes book with a kind of reverence. I leaned over a bit to see what was so darn interesting. There was a small slip of paper stuck in the page about Tsunami. Just a name and a phone number. Chloe Zell.
“You got her phone number?” I asked incredulously. Ethan only blushed.
The rest of the week was much, much quieter, for which I think we were all extremely grateful. We actually caught up on sleep for perhaps the first time in two months. We sometimes hiked around the area for fun, and twice Will snuck us out in the car to different areas of the park to do some sightseeing. Principal Powers probably wouldn’t have approved, but we were careful. The place was really, amazingly beautiful, and I didn’t even need Layla’s lectures on the ecological value of this place to appreciate it.
We still talked around the campfire, not with any great urgency, but just as things came to us. Will talked about the pressure on him to fill his father’s cape, something he said he was pretty sure he could handle… if his father would ever back off about the “Stronghold Three.” Apparently Mr. Stronghold had that bit between his teeth and had been running with it since Will’s freshman year. At least Will’s mom was being a lot more reasonable about it. It turned out she had been the voice of reason back before Will had his powers.
“Let her handle your dad. Last thing you want is to go up against him yourself,” was what I had to say on the subject. Now that my mom was hanging out with Mrs. Stronghold again, she’d be able to help smooth things over a bit. Even if she didn’t use her powers, Mom tended to try to fix things just using words.
A couple of times we called our parents back, after we got a text message from Principal Powers warning us to. Mom told me she was having at least a little success with everyone else’s parents, and that was borne out by the progressively less guilty faces I saw after each call. By the end of the week Magenta actually got off the phone laughing, and I knew it was safe for us to go home.
Will would have flown us all back to Sky High himself to avoid any possibility of encountering Bruin again, but Principal Powers told us to leave the car where we had picked it up, and the road was a little too crowded to fly it there. We had told her about encountering Bruin; she had been surprised, but had been adamant that we didn’t try to take him out of his cover job.
“That could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Leave him be; I’ll have him watched,” she told us vaguely. Though which back would be broken, I wasn’t sure.
It was almost poetic that on our last day, when we were driving out of the park, Bruin was the ranger that came to check us out. He didn’t look nearly so afraid this time, but he clearly wasn’t comfortable. He simply stood at the driver’s side window for a few minute, his hands on the frame, looking at all of us. We stared right back, him playing the part of the dutiful ranger, we playing at being campers.
“I can’t believe you stunned me,” he said quietly, looking at Magenta. She glared right back at him defiantly. Then he looked past her to Zack. “Though Viper’s not going to be able to live down that he got decked in one hit, either.” Uncomfortable silence reigned for another few minutes before Will spoke.
“Are you done? Or is this going to get professional?” His tone was… menacing, something I hadn’t ever heard from him before, and Bruin actually looked shaken.
“Ah no, no no no,” he said, stepping back a half-pace, letting go of the car. He watched us for another moment. “We didn’t all want this,” he said suddenly, and waved our car past. Will stepped on the gas, and we twisted around to watch our erstwhile archenemy out of the rear windshield.
“’We didn’t all want this’?” Layla repeated. “You think he’s doing this against his will?”
“That guy?” Zack asked. “Who could make him?”
“Or he could just be messing with our heads,” I opined. “Tell Powers, but I don’t think he looked too unwilling last week.”
“No joke,” Magenta muttered. It took us a few minutes to shake off that mood, and Zack finally slipped in a CD to help chase away the last of our unease. They tried to get me to sing along, but I categorically refused, then threatened to melt the CD player.
We met Ron Wilson finally, ditched the car, and ended up napping on the trip home. For once we were actually going to sleep in our own beds, but we knew that first off we were going to have to have the face-to-face confrontation with our parents, and everyone wanted all their wits about them for that. I was slightly smug; secure in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to go through the grilling they were about to. At each house they were met with their parents (or sometimes more, particularly in Ethan’s case) on the doorstep, anxious to hug them to the point of suffocation before hauling them inside to talk.
We finally reached my house, the last on the way, and I hopped off, thanking Ron as the doors slid shut. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as the bus pulled away, grateful to be alone for the first time in a seemingly very long time. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spending time with my friends… but sometimes I needed my solitude. I opened my eyes again, and a strange feeling of wrongness suddenly folded in around me. I looked up at my house; there was a strange car in the driveway… and the front door was slightly open.
I frowned, starting to move up the lawn. Most of my mom’s friends lived within walking distance, and I knew the cars of those that didn’t. This was a very expensive Jaguar, pricey even for this neighborhood, and that was saying something. I quickened my pace, my heart starting to pound. The front door was ajar, and the latch was actually lying on the ground. There were faint scorch marks around the wood, as if the latch had been heated red-hot and had just popped out. Just inside the door, the inner latch was also on the ground… and there were faint strings of something pink and black stuck to it.
Burned skin, I knew immediately. Rage flared within me, and I barely had time to kick the door shut before flames erupted along my hands and arms.
“Mom!” I shouted, sick fear tangling with my rage inside me. She had been attacked, someone was here, what had they done to her?
“I will not play these games any longer Joy!” I heard a voice shout faintly, somewhere upstairs. The voice was masculine, deep, with a faint trace of some accent.
“I am not playing anything!” My mother’s voice, sounding determined. I pounded upstairs and threw open the door to my mother’s office; it was the only closed door. Mom was standing with her back to me, dressed in sweat clothes, her long hair pulled out of her face, her stance confrontational. In front of her was a tall, impeccably dressed man in a dark suit. He bore a shocking resemblance to Baron Battle, though he was far older. His hair was shorter, and liberally sprinkled with gray, but it still had red streaks in it. Most tellingly, a heat-haze was rising from his hands, faintly echoing the flames rising from mine.
I might have been shocked into stopping, if I hadn’t seen how badly burned my mother’s hands were. The palms and fingers were an angry black and red, and I felt my temperature and rage spike and took a single step forward.
“Warren, no!” Mom said, and reached out to touch me on the back, the only place within easy reach that wasn’t on fire. I felt my rage just drain out of me, along with my fire, and I looked at her with shock.
“No, don’t hurt him, please,” she pleaded.
“He hurt you. I don’t give a damn who he is,” I growled, snapping my gaze back to cover the man. He was looking… triumphant, almost smug, and if Mom hadn’t been suppressing my rage I would have probably set the whole room on fire. He looked like my father when he had been inspecting me for my powers.
“Don’t hurt him. There’s been a misunderstanding, and I won’t let it go on anymore,” she said in a fairly calm tone of voice. I saw her lips moving faintly as her brow creased in concentration. “Take control, channel it down, take control, channel it down…” she was saying softly over and over again like a mantra. She’s channeling me… shit! I abruptly calmed myself down before I could cause her any more distress. It was both easier and harder for her to use her powers on me, easier because we were related, harder because she tended to feel my emotions just as sharply as her own. And my rage wasn’t even easy for me to bear.
With a shudder I let the worst of it go, then turned to the stranger, who had lost a lot of his smugness when he seemed to realize the danger that had just been averted.
“Who is he?” I demanded.
“Warren, this is Tobias Battle,” Mom said much more calmly, turning to fix the man with a stare that turned him white.