“Warren, this is Tobias Battle,” Mom said much more calmly, turning to fix the man with a stare that turned him white.
“So, insanity runs in your family?” I asked, eyes narrowed, giving Tobias a hate-filled glare. He looked decidedly uncomfortable, and all traces of smugness were gone from his expression.
“No. I simply had an urgent need to speak to you Warren,” he said. “Joy was insisting you weren’t here.”
“I wasn’t. Obviously. I’ve been gone for a week. I just got back tonight,” I said tersely. I spared a glance at Mom, and gave her a short nod. She took her hand off of my back, and I felt my rage surge back in. Not as out of control as it was before, but more than enough to give heat to both my words and my hands.
“She insisted she didn’t know where you were,” Tobias said, irritation clear in his voice.
“She didn’t,” I growled.
“Ah,” he said simply, looking unrepentant.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“I had to speak to you on a matter of some importance-.” I cut him off, laughing humorlessly. Who does he think he is?
“You break into my home, hurt my mom, and now want to talk? Sorry, no, you’re going to jail,” I said, a kind of unholy calm coming over me. I didn’t need to roast this fool; it would be a hell of a lot more humiliating to let him try to explain this to the superhero courts. Tobias was gaping at me like a fish, and I let him sputter incoherently as I turned to Mom. Now that I was calming down, the feeling of wrongness was coming over me again; the ember-fire was trying to get through to help her.
“Mom, let me help,” I told her, and held out my hands. I took a few deep breaths and slowly the red fire flickered on my palms. Mom put her hands in mine without hesitation, something that made my breath catch, considering how I had been just a few minutes earlier. I slowly let the flames touch her burned hands, and watched, mesmerized, as the black char and raw flesh healed up before my eyes. I don’t think I had ever seen myself heal an open wound before, aside from Penny’s half-healed echo-wound, and it was just as fascinating to me as it was to Mom.
“Wow…” I said faintly as Mom gently pulled her hands back, opening and closing them a few times. There wasn’t even a scar… That was very cool, I thought idly.
“It’s true,” Tobias said in a strangled voice. Mom and I turned to him at the same time, fixing him with gimlet stares that practically nailed him to the floor. “You can heal. Warren, you have no idea what this means-“
“Shut it,” I snapped. How the hell had he heard about my new power? I guessed it was probably in the Bureau databanks by now, but those weren’t exactly common property, even for superheroes. Rumor? But how would it have gotten to Europe? There were only three adults who had seen it work in person, Coach Boomer, Principal Powers, and Nurse Spex. My friends had all seen it, and so had Speed, Penny, and Lash… but who would they have told that would have gotten it all the way over there? My friends’ parents had heard about it, I realized, and probably seen the tapes too. Would that be it? Maybe…
“It’s important, I needed to speak to you,” he said more firmly, starting to get back some of his arrogance.
“You abandoned us Tobias. If you hadn’t been so insistent on maintaining your family reputation by burying yourself in your manor and pretending we didn’t exist, maybe you would have had a relationship with your grandson. Don’t be so surprised,” Mom said sharply.
“Be quiet, witch! It was you who drove Baron to those terrible crimes-.”
He has a death wish, I thought very clearly, rage flaring again. This time I wasn’t listening to the voice of reason in my head, or my mom’s frantic gestures to calm down. She didn’t have the chance to use her powers on me this time. My body was moving before my brain could even register the fact that though his words were cruel, he didn’t mean what he was saying.
I lunged for him, and saw his expression turn triumphant for a split second. Then he reached out and seemingly grabbed for my wrist with two fingers… Pain suddenly shot through my arm into my entire body, more than enough to floor me, and I collapsed at his feet. What the hell did he do?
I looked up weakly, seeing him holding on with a seemingly delicate grip, pressing into pressure points on my wrist with practiced ease. My fire wasn’t even hurting him, and I felt remarkably stupid. How was I supposed to fight someone with my own powers? I realized belatedly.
“The nerve clusters in your arms that help conduct your heat can be remarkably sensitive when the right hold is applied. It’s a trick we Battles have learned over the centuries to keep order with the younger set. How else do you discipline an unruly child that’s both fireproof and indestructible? You can’t always count on cold weather,” Tobias said calmly. The pig-headed arrogance, the fear, the smugness were all gone from his face; the only thing remaining was a calm assurance. It had all been an act, I realized faintly. I had been too angry to read him right. Mom had said it was all a misunderstanding…
“You… played me,” I got out. It had been a trick; he had wanted me to attack him!
“Of course. Even if I had asked politely, you would rather have tortured me slowly to death than give me the time of day,” he replied. “I needed to know several things about you, and you’ve just answered all my questions, Warren. And now I believe I can help you. Will you accept my apology for breaking into your home, harming Joy, and insulting her?”
“No!” I snarled, trying to twist away. He simply increased his grip a tiny bit, and I blanched at the pain.
“Don’t be a child. Be a man. Accept that I deceived you, and accept my apology, and we will be able to talk about this as civilized people,” he said calmly.
“Let my son go Tobias,” Mom said, her voice low and deadly. “You’ve made your point.”
“Very well,” he said calmly, and let go. The pain stopped immediately, and I jumped back out of his range. “Will you listen to me now?”
“Do I have a choice?” I asked bitterly.
“Yes you do. My powers can hurt him, and he knows it,” Mom said with conviction, and a very brief expression of worry crossed Tobias’ face. I took heart from that, though was a little disturbed to hear Mom talk about hurting someone with her powers. Make that a lot disturbed. I didn’t even know that she could hurt anyone with her powers. I resolved to keep my temper under wraps and try to talk this through. I didn’t want to have to find out what she could do when angered…
“Fine, talk,” I growled.
“You’re in danger,” he said simply. “I heard of your new powers, and disturbing rumors began to circulate. I came to see the truth for myself… before someone else could get to you.”
“Go on…” I said slowly. Danger? I can’t possibly be in any more danger than he is right now.
“Do you realize how many super-people have healing powers? Less than a dozen, and all of them many orders of magnitude weaker than you. All of them are Sidekicks at best, able to ease a headache or sore feet, but nothing much worse. A healer of your strength hasn’t been seen in over a hundred years. And the manifestation of your power has never been seen before. Healers tend to be psychics; your mother’s family spawned the last one, coincidentally enough. A pyrokinetic healer has no precedent, and the fact that others can bolster you makes you very strong. And someone of your strength, able to heal wounds, poisons, disease-.”
“I don’t even know if I can do all of that,” I protested. I was starting to get an inkling of where he was going with this, and unease settled over me.
“I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t, you just haven’t had an opportunity to try. What I wish to say is that your very strength as a healer makes you a valuable commodity. You may begin to get requests from people wanting to be healed. Some will be demands. A few will be threats,” he explained.
“Oh fuck,” I said softly, my heart dropping to my shoes. Though my mother’s powers and skills were somewhat in demand, people didn’t always request her. She was usually assigned somewhere by the Bureau instead, because few people wanted to purposefully face their inner demons. But my own powers… People wouldn’t hesitate when it was something as simple and immediate as their own physical health. Like how doctors were sometimes kidnapped in war zones…
“You see your problem,” he said calmly.
“And what the hell was the point of you coming here and doing what you did?” I demanded.
“The rumors were so garbled and contradictory that it was needful for me to see your powers in action with my own eyes. I also wished to see what would be necessary to break you,” he said.
“You purposefully… burned my mom… so you could watch me heal her? And you provoked me… so…” I got out between surges of rage so intense I couldn’t even speak. Fire flared and died and flared again on my hands and arms, echoing my temper.
“So I could see, and you could see, what the unscrupulous will do to control you. A single injury, a few insults, unforgivable though they may be, had your temper to the point where you simply weren’t thinking anymore. In that instant, I, an old man, had you helpless at my feet. Even if I had been entirely powerless, I could have subdued you. Even if I had not known that particular pressure point, there are other ways you could have been taken down. Power-neutralizer shackles, ice powers, force fields, or any number of unpleasant things. I’m certain you can use your imagination,” he said matter-of-factly.
I felt like I had just been hit the face with a bucket of ice water, the shock was so intense. Oh my God… What if it had been…?
“You have no reason to trust me, and any simple warning I would have offered, you would have discarded. I judged this to be shocking enough that you could not ignore me. And if you hate me for my actions, then at least I have lost no love in doing this. Expediency rules me, rather than ethics, I’m afraid,” Tobias said with a kind of odd pride.
“This is more than unforgivable, no matter your intentions, Tobias,” my mother said, stepping in front of him. “You could have found a better way.”
“You know I have my reasons, Joy. That was why you stopped Warren from attacking me the first time,” he said, looking down at her.
“What reason could possibly justify hurting her? That’s insane!” I yelled.
“It was absolutely essential that I see your powers work with my own eyes. I have ample reason to mistrust videos; they are very easily manipulated. What would you have suggested I do? I could not afford to wait until a situation cropped up naturally. I could not harm myself; I’m unable. I’m as indestructible as you are. If I had harmed a citizen, you would not have forgiven me. If I had harmed one of your friends, you would have killed me. I risked a great deal, but I hoped that your mother, with her great heart and ability to read my true intentions, would forgive me the pain I caused her and you in order to learn what I must,” he explained in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Mom?” I asked, turning to look at her. Her eyes were closed, and she had one hand stretched out to Tobias, reading him.
“He’s telling the truth. I forgive you for what you did, Tobias. But you’ll have to earn my son’s forgiveness on your own,” she said quietly, taking a few steps back.
“Why was it so damn important to see my healing first hand?” I asked.
“So when I return home I can begin to spread my own rumors in return. My hand was forced in trying to reach you in time,” he explained.
“By who?” I asked sharply. Considering what Principal Powers and I had discussed last week, the phrase caught my attention.
“There were many rumors of your healing powers, but one of them caught my attention because of the source. In a roundabout fashion, I heard it from a known supervillain. We need to do damage control on this before what I warned you about becomes reality. Will you listen to my advice?” he asked.
“I’ll listen,” I growled.
“But you won’t take it if it proves to be foolish. Very well, hear what you will. Find those that have seen you heal and swear them to secrecy. We cannot suppress this now, but at least we can keep this from getting any worse. Contact the Bureau and get them to put several more layers of security clearance on your new power. I would also suggest getting a cover job in the medical field. At least there if you slip you can attempt to pass it off as skill and training rather than a power,” he said.
“I’ve thought of some of that,” I said a little defensively. Thought of it, but didn’t do anything about it, I added mentally.
“But now is the time to act. I will return home and spread my own rumors to counteract the wild stories flying around. I would suggest keeping up the rather… sinister demeanor you’ve cultivated. If people are afraid of you, they’ll be less likely to try something stupid.”
“I don’t want people to be afraid of me anymore.” That popped out of my mouth without any conscious thought. I think I actually startled myself, thought I saw my mom nodding a little, giving me an encouraging smile.
“Laudable. Unfortunately we can’t afford it right now. This is one case where my son’s insanity and past actions will actually do us some good. All people have to do is remember what happened at the World Diplomatic Summit, then imagining that happening to themselves if they try to force you into anything,” he pointed out.
“I don’t want to remind them of that, either,” I said forcefully. I could see where he was going, but the last thing I wanted to do was to make people remember what my dad had done.
“Then simply remain menacing, as you have been. People will fill in the blanks. Once I tell them what I’ve seen with my own eyes, perhaps they’ll be less likely to try to get at you,” he conceded.
“And what,” I growled, “are you going to tell them you’ve seen?”
“That your powers only work on those that you care for. And anyone trying to make you heal someone is going to die a very nasty fiery death,” he said.
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
“Elementary. Your powers work with your feelings; I’ve been watching you flare up as you get angry with me. I could easily imagine the consequences of trying to get you to heal under coercive conditions. Now that I’ve seen it, no one can accuse me of lying when I say it. It’s the curse of dealing with super-people; you tend to run into mind-readers. But with the rest of the family standing with me, our reputation of loyalty will assist in counteracting the wild tales,” he explained.
“What I don’t understand is why you’re risking your precious family reputation to help us when you cut us off when Baron was jailed,” Mom demanded.
“When Baron was incarcerated, you fell under suspicion, Joy. My employers, every single one of them, informed me in no uncertain terms that I had to sever all ties to ‘suspicious individuals,’ or risk losing all of my contracts. Because my family had a pressing need to eat sometime in the coming year, I acquiesced to their requests. I preserved my family at the cost of my daughter-in-law and grandson, something I’ve regretted for a very long time,” he said slowly, as if each word was painful.
“If you weren’t mercenaries you could have just told them where to stick it when they handed you an ultimatum like that,” I pointed out.
“We’re heroes for hire; there’s a difference,” Tobias replied.
“Yeah, you fight for justice after you get paid,” I shot back.
“Don’t be so self-righteous. Who do you think pays your mother’s salary? The Bureau. And where does the Bureau’s money come from? The taxes of your ordinary citizens. The people of this country pay you for your services, just like a policeman or soldier. We’re simply a more direct seller of our services than your own government,” he snapped. I had no response to that revelation; the sordid details of the Bureau generally didn’t get discussed in class. Tobias sighed and pressed on.
“I am coming to you now because I have just passed the leadership of the family, and thusly the names that the contracts are in, to my oldest son Reginald. Because I am no longer in an official position of power, I can now tell my former employers exactly where they may ‘stick’ their prejudicial requests,” he said coolly.
“And what about Baron?” Mom asked.
“Baron… was not the first superhero to go insane. It’s a risk we all take, living the way we do, using the power that we have, both physical and temporal. What made his break from reality so unacceptably tragic to most people is that he was married to perhaps the one person who should have been able to stop it… or so everything thought. I am not accusing you Joy. When Baron wanted something, he didn’t let anything stand in his way, particularly reason.
“I disowned him and buried him in my heart the day he was imprisoned. There was no need to follow him into madness by raging against things I could not change. It was my greatest regret that I could not stand with you both after he was gone,” he said softly.
I closed my eyes for a second, trying to take all that in. This was far more than I had ever learned in my research in class, more than I ever wanted to know about my dad’s family. Tobias was just as smooth and manipulative as my father, though I could see he was using it far differently. I didn’t know if it was different enough to stop being mad at him though. Fire was still flickering just below my skin; I could feel it, residual anger from his high-handed actions and assumptions.
“So… you’re doing this; giving advice, burning people, spreading rumors, just out of the goodness of your heart?” I asked him a little sarcastically.
“You’re of my blood. I take family ties very seriously, and do nothing regarding them lightly,” he replied evenly, not taking the bait. “Cutting Baron, Joy, and you out of my life was very hard.”
“You’re still a manipulative bastard,” I snarled.
“I rather expected you to hate me for doing this,” he said calmly.
“I don’t hate you. I don’t like you either, but I don’t hate you,” I told him, and he actually started at that. “What you wanted to tell me… was important. But your presentation sucks and your reasoning bites.”
“I didn’t have the time for diplomatic maneuvering, Warren,” he warned.
“It doesn’t make it any better. Give me a reason why I shouldn’t call the Bureau and have you arrested.” He actually looked shocked at that. “Seriously. I don’t care if you came here to deliver the secret to defeating the Overlord; you aren’t going to get out of this without consequences. Your ends don’t justify your means.”
“I should have expected this from the Peacemaker’s son,” he muttered half to himself. He then raised his voice again. “If I’m imprisoned, I can’t go back and spy for you. I can determine where the leaks are, pinpoint the source of the rumors, and identify those specific individuals that would have tried to force you into their service.”
“You’re trying to bargain with me?” I asked sternly.
“Of course. I have a great deal to offer. My freedom for yours. The resources of our family will be bent to this task. Consider it a pittance against my actions of eighteen years ago,” he countered.
Mom stepped up next to me, and nodded to me with approval.
“A pittance is right, Tobias. And you have a great deal of work to do to make up for your abandonment. I’d rather have you out there, working for us, than in prison,” she said.
“Then you accept my offer?” he asked. I nodded with reluctance. I knew the Battle family was old and deeply entrenched in the European superhuman community. And Tobias was hip-deep in the politics of that community; he had to be to negotiate his contracts. He was probably the best person to find out who was spreading rumors.
“Yes. With one condition, you show me that hold you used on me,” I said in a very controlled tone. I had a little something in mind for my grandfather. Something to show him we weren’t just to be manipulated on his whims, no matter the reason…
“It’s generally only taught to the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family, but I rather doubt you’ll ever be facing us across a battlefield,” he said a little reluctantly, and gestured for me to come over. I pushed back my sleeve, and he carefully showed me the places the nerves ran closest to the skin. He did raise an eyebrow at my tattoos, but the glare I gave him just dared him to make a comment, so he wisely said nothing.
I tried a few times on myself, hissing in pain when I finally got the hold right. Damn that hurt. It wasn’t much more than a very light pinch; but the placement was so specific that I no longer wondered why I hadn’t accidentally done it to myself before. Then I tried on him, finally hitting it on the third try, because Tobias went stiff with pain. I bore down a little, watching him begin to crumple, and I heard my mom give a little gasp behind me.
“Now you listen to me,” I said in a very deadly tone. “The next time you need to tell us something, you are going to use the goddamn phone. No more dramatic set-ups, no more shocking injuries, no more big speeches. And if you ever hurt my mom again, I will make you pay for it.”
I let go of him and took a few steps back. Tobias took a few minutes to get his breath and his wits back, finally rising off the floor and looking at me with respect.
“I see. I do believe I see,” he said softly, looking over my shoulder at my mom. “As you will then. The next time you hear from me, it will be in a more… conventional fashion. I’ll show myself out.”
Tobias gave us a short bow and left, and in a few minutes, we heard his car pull out of the driveway. I put my back to the wall, my knees suddenly weak with reaction. Mom simply dropped where she was, sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring at the rug with detached fascination.
“Holy fuck,” I said finally.
“Indeed,” Mom said absently. It was another five minutes before either of us could talk in a coherent fashion.
“How the hell did he get in?” I asked.
“He knocked on the door. I saw who it was through the window, and I could feel that he was up to something… intense. Desperate, but he felt it was necessary, and I knew it was going to cause us both pain. But there was no malicious intent in him. He wanted to come in, and I didn’t want to let him until you were here. So I held onto the doorknob just out of habit, it was locked, but then he started to heat it up. I was burned before I could even let go of the latch, and then it popped out. He strode in, and we began arguing about where you were. And then you walked in on the end of it,” she explained, rubbing her hands absently.
“Was he always like that?” I asked.
“When Baron and I first married… he was very good to me. All of Baron’s family was very good to me. They thought I was a good influence on him. Your grandmother Elizabeth even let me wear some of the Battle family’s traditional bridal jewelry in my wedding… But yes, Tobias has always been rather convinced that the ends justify the means. He’s actually better now, I think,” she said.
“Better now? Good grief,” I muttered.
“Why do you think I was considered a good influence?” she pointed out, and I nodded reluctantly.
“And he was telling the truth,” I said, making it a statement rather than a question. Mom nodded again.
“And he’s scared to death because of it. Lord, using Baron’s crimes as a weapon… I wanted to hit him when he said that,” she sighed. “You did wonderfully, Warren. I know he isn’t an easy man to stand up to.”
“He should have known better than to think he was going to get anything reasonable out of me after hurting you,” I shot back.
“There is that. He was very right about your healing power though. My great-great-grandmother was the last strong healer, and she died when she was only forty. People used her; they used her up. And she had too great of a heart to refuse any request, even if it killed her. And finally it did.” Mom finally got up and I pushed myself away from the wall.
“I won’t let them,” I promised her, giving her a hard hug. I could see there were tears in her eyes, and I grabbed a tissue from the desk to wipe them away.
“I know Warren. It just scares me to think of people trying to force you into something like that.”
“Hey, I have Will Stronghold on my side, not to mention the rest of my friends. You think anyone’s going to be able to keep them from rescuing me?” I said with a bit of a smile. Mom grinned back at me.
“Well, there is that. Great-great-grandma didn’t have such… dedicated protectors. I think if people knew if they’d have to deal with the son of the Commander and Jetstream if they touched you, they’d be a lot more reluctant. But,” Mom shook her head, “maybe we’re blowing this out of proportion. Look at us, thinking up disasters before they can even happen. I’m going to call a locksmith. You go relax for a while.”
I kissed Mom on the top of the head and finally retreated to my own room. I stared for the longest time at my ceiling, then finally rolled over and grabbed my phone. I hoped Will’s talk with his parents had gone all right. We had a few problems of our own to talk about now.