Disclaimer: The highly entertaining movie "Sky High" belongs to Disney, but my unique take on mathematics is all me.
Seven Is An Even Number
Chapter One: Page Number
One of many aggravating things about attending a school run almost exclusively by superheroes was that attacks by supervillains rarely got them time off from classes. Homecoming weekend was a total disaster, but by Monday morning the school was open and fully functional once again. The efficiency was just disgusting.
On the other hand, at least it got Warren out of the house and into an environment where he could read with few distractions. The teachers tended to write him off as a lost cause, obviously following in the footsteps of his father, and the other students tried to stay out of his way. So for the most part, with the exception of PE and occasionally English, he was left to his own devices.
For the most part. The were a few students who didn't seem to realize that their welcome, such as it was, had expired when Layla's charade as his Homecoming date ended. He glared at Magenta as she slid into her accustomed seat at the end of his empty table, and as usual, she completely ignored him.
"You're really annoying, you know that?" Warren demanded.
Magenta gave him a disdainful glance that lasted less time than it had taken her to set her tray down. "Yeah, and you're a real charmer."
"Hi Warren," Layla said cheerfully, sitting down across from him as she always did. "They sure got the school fixed up fast, huh?"
He stared at her in surprise. "Why are you here?"
"Um..." She looked over at Magenta and they shared that psychic girl look that meant they were having an entire conversation no one else could hear. "Here at the school, or here in the cafeteria?"
Without waiting for his response, Layla gave him a bright smile and continued, "I'm here at the school to study the sociopolitical issues surrounding hero development and training, but I'm here in the cafeteria because it's lunchtime and traditionally, this is where they serve the food."
That hadn't been what he meant, but Glowstick and Popsicle were claiming seats on either side of him and he was really starting to get exasperated. "Okay, look," he growled, closing his book and getting ready to stand up. "I put up with you before because it bothered Stronghold. There's not really any reason to keep up the pretense, is there?"
"What pretense?" Layla asked innocently. She plucked the book out of his hand before he realized what she was doing. "Ooh, Bellwether. I read this over the summer. It's really applicable to high school, don't you think?"
"I'm not really into that reading stuff," the tall kid was telling Magenta. "It's like doing homework. Why do more than you have to?"
"Because it's educational?" Magenta suggested without looking up.
"Oh yeah, sure," the kid agreed quickly. "Hey, I read all the time--"
"Hi, guys." Stronghold's voice interrupted their totally inane conversation, and everyone at the table turned to look at him. The guy didn't look too sure of his reception. Which seemed weird, because hadn't he saved the school two days ago? He'd made his peace with the sidekicks and especially with Layla, so there was no reason for him to look so hesitant now.
"Is this seat taken?" Stronghold was asking, with only a vague nod of his head toward the table as a whole.
"Unfortunately, yes," Warren grumbled. He took the opportunity to snatch his book away from Layla.
Will's girlfriend spared him only a brief reproving look before turning her sunny smile on the object of her affections. "No, Will, of course not. Sit down."
"Sure you don't want to sit with the heroes?" the short kid asked.
"Hey!" Warren protested. Why he felt the need to defend himself to a bunch of sidekicks was a mystery, but he couldn't take it back. Even when Lalya gave him a knowing smile that he really didn't appreciate.
"We're all heroes," Will said firmly. He took the seat beside Layla, across from the short kid, and looked around the table at them all. "I know who my friends are."
"Oh, good," the tall kid interrupted, "because there's this guy who's kind of bothering me in Hero Support. Do you think you could, you know, maybe have a little chat with him or something?"
Magenta was staring at him. "All the bullies were locked up after Homecoming. How could you possibly have made another enemy already?"
"He's just jealous of my power," the tall kid told her.
"Zach, I think you should try to resolve this without violence." Layla was giving him that earnest look that made her look about five years old. "This is an excellent opportunity for sidekicks to demonstrate that they can handle their problems without resorting to the power struggle that typifies hero disagreements."
"Who said anything about violence?" the tall kid wanted to know. "All Will has to do is threaten to kick his butt, and he'll leave me alone for the rest of the year."
"I think you should try what Layla says," Will put in. No surprise there. But then he leaned forward, toward the middle of the table like he was telling a secret, and added, "Then if that doesn't work, point him out to me and I'll see what I can do."
"Yeah, all right!" the tall kid crowed. "That's what I'm talking about!"
Layla slapped Will on the back of the head. And for a guy who could smash through consecutive concrete walls, he did a pretty good job of pretending that it hurt. Layla obviously didn't buy his pathetic look anymore than the rest of them, so he just grinned at her apologetically.
"Hey, Warren, how come you never eat?" the short kid asked.
"I'm not hungry," Warren snapped. "So shut up."
"Ooh, is that part of your power?" Layla wanted to know. "That you don't have to eat as much as the rest of us?"
He tried for a disgusted look, but he was afraid it only came across as amused. "No, it's part of having a free period right before lunch."
Magenta could probably do disgusted looks in her sleep. "No wonder all the good food is gone by the time we get here."
Warren lifted his free hand, flicking his fist away from his chest to light it with dramatic effect. "You got a problem with me, Shapeshifter?"
Magenta didn't look impressed, but the short kid jumped about a foot in the air and scrambled into the next seat down. Layla gave him a reproachful look--then her eyes widened as her gaze slid over his shoulder. Normally he wouldn't fall for that, but the hippie was so honest that he almost turned to see what she was looking at.
Chilly fingers covered his fist before he could move, and he stiffened. The effect was disturbing and satisfying at the same time. Disturbing because his power was next to useless when smothered by ice, and satisfying because ice was just as impossible to maintain in the presence of fire. Their powers canceled each other out.
He found Annabelle smiling down at him when he looked up. "Do you mind if I join you?" she asked.
Warren pulled his hand away and frowned at his book, determined not to catch anyone else's eye. "If saying yes would make you go away," he grumbled, "then you're different from everyone else at this table."
She took that as a "no," as he had figured she would, and she sat down in the recently vacated seat beside him. That must have been enough to convince the short kid he was safe again, because he bounced right back. "Hi, Freeze Girl," he said eagerly. Out of the corner of his eye, Warren saw him hold out his hand. "I'm Ethan. Nice to meet you."
"Hi Ethan." She shook his hand gravely. "I'm Annabelle. Sorry to barge in like this," she added, glancing around the table. "But I figured any table with Warren at it is pretty unstable already."
Will snickered, but Layla just said sweetly, "We like it that way."
"Didn't I see you two together at Homecoming?" Magenta wanted to know. "You an item, or what?"
Warren glowered in her direction. "I saw you dancing with Glowstick at Homecoming," he said dangerously. "Are you an item?"
"I was just asking," she said, rolling her eyes.
"Hey, are we an item?" the tall kid asked. "Cause, I mean, if we are, that would be cool."
Magenta gave him a look that could have withered grass. "No," she informed him. "We're not."
"Psst." Annabelle nudged his shoulder, leaning closer than Warren thought she had any right to. "Don't you eat?"
"No," he retorted.
"He has free period before lunch," Layla offered. "He eats then."
"So why do you hang around the cafeteria?" Annabelle wanted to know.
Mostly to pick a fight with Stronghold. Then to talk to Layla, which he did in order to piss off Stronghold after they'd been slapped with detention for fighting. And finally to scare the sidekicks, which had once made Stronghold so mad that his superstrength spontaneously manifested at a particularly inconvenient time. For Warren.
"Bookworm annoys me in the library," he muttered at last.
This earned him a few surprised looks, probably because Bookworm was notorious for not speaking to the students. Then the short kid piped up, which didn't help his cause any. "Yeah, me too," he was saying. "She's always ambushing me with new stuff whenever I go in. It's like she thinks I'm a total geek or something."
Warren eyed him. "Gee, why would she think that?"
"What does she say to you, Warren?" Layla asked innocently.
Warren just glared at her. "None of your business."
"Well, I think she's very nice," Annabelle put in. "She helped me with a midterm project last year, and you have to admit, no one can burrow through the stacks faster than her."
"Hey, speaking of midterms," Will interrupted. "I need to do some serious cramming. Anyone want to come over and study with me this afternoon?"
They all just looked at him. Finally Layla said gently, "Will, we're not even in your classes. How are we supposed to study together?"
Stronghold rolled his eyes at her. "Layla," he said, mimicking her, "no one said we had to study the same thing. I just said we could study together. We'll break out the snacks and keep each other focused. Come on, it'll be fun."
She didn't take much convincing. "Okay," she said with a smile. "Sure."
"I'm in," the short kid agreed eagerly.
"Hey, if there are snacks," the tall kid put in, "I'm there."
Magenta just shrugged when Layla looked at her. "Whatever."
Stronghold looked across the table at him. "Warren?" he prompted. "Annabelle? What about you?"
"Oh, I can't," Annabelle told him. "I have violin lessons on Monday. Thanks for inviting me, though."
"Hey, no problem," Stronghold said. "We'll probably be at it for a while, so if you want to come over later, just give me a call. I'll give you my phone number."
Layla gave him an annoyed look which he totally missed. Then she turned to Warren and asked, "Warren, are you coming?"
Warren glanced from her to Stronghold deliberately, then narrowed his eyes at her. "What is it about me that makes you think I study?" he demanded.
She didn't look taken aback. "You're pretty good with your power," she pointed out. "You must practice."
Yeah, like her classes had anything to do with her power. "That doesn't mean I practice," he informed her. "It just means a lot of people piss me off."
"Come on, Warren," Stronghold urged. "Who am I going to cheat off of if you don't come?"
"Who will you cheat off of if I do come?" Warren countered.
Stronghold grinned at him. "Guess you'll have to show up and find out," he said unrepentantly. "I'll get the freshman bus to wait for you after school. The bus driver likes me."
Magenta snorted at that, but Warren just glared at Stronghold. "I wouldn't be caught dead getting on the freshman bus. I'll meet you at your house."
"Okay," Stronghold agreed. "You want directions?"
"I know where it is," Warren muttered. Like anyone didn't.
Weirdly, Stronghold looked surprised. "Okay, fine," he said with a shrug.
"Hey, check it out," the short kid declared suddenly. "The dangerous table is totally even. Three heroes and three sidekicks. Plus you, whatever you are," he added, gesturing vaguely in Layla's direction.
"I'm nonlabeling," she said firmly.
"You're a hero," Will told her.
"Sidekick," Warren said under his breath. Antagonizing Stronghold was a habit by now.
"I heard you beat Penny at Homecoming," Annabelle put in.
"Yeah, and I stopped Speed!" the short kid bragged. He wilted under Warren's glare, adding quickly, "Uh, not that I didn't have some help."
"The only reason she's not in the hero track is because she wouldn't show Coach Boomer her power," Will was telling Annabelle.
"I'm not in the hero track because I think the system is flawed," Layla corrected. "Anything that splits up students based on an arbitrary assessment of their power is divisive and counterproductive to the educational mindset."
"Yeah, the hero track is stupid." The tall kid probably didn't even know what she was talking about. "My power is way more useful than Coach Boomer gives me credit for."
"Coach Boomer doesn't even think you have a power," Magenta told him.
"Yeah, totally," the tall kid agreed. He didn't seem to recognize the insult, and Warren couldn't help cracking a smile in Magenta's direction. Unfortunately, she chose that moment to glance at him. He caught a tiny smirk before he looked away.
"Well, I think Ethan's right," Layla was saying. "This table is a great example of what Sky High could be, if everyone could just get past the ridiculous hero-sidekick dichotomy."
"Doesn't seem like that's going to happen anytime soon," Warren observed.
Layla just smiled at him. "I think it's already started."
Chapter Two: Numbers Matter
How he had ended up at the Stronghold residence was something of a mystery to him. He had plenty of other stuff to be doing after school, and none of it involved studying. Especially not studying with other people.
Especially not studying with Stronghold.
He couldn't believe he was standing on the front steps of someone else's house--of this particular house, no less--with two textbooks under his arm and papers stuffed into the book jackets. Good thing no one from school could see him. His bad boy rep was in enough trouble as it was.
The door swung open before he could turn around, and Stronghold didn't look at all surprised to find him there. "Hey, Warren," he exclaimed, stepping away from the door and waving him in. "Layla said she heard someone outside. Come on in."
"What, does she have superhearing, too?" Warren grumbled. He shouldered his way past Stronghold and came to an awkward halt inside. There was nothing comfortable about this house.
"No superhearing," Stronghold assured him. "Just tree spies."
That sounded ominous to Warren--he'd never thought to ask the hippie if she could do more with plants than make them grow--but Stronghold was already calling for the others as he lead the way into the living room. "Hey, guys, Warren's here! Hide the snacks unless you want your chips charred!"
"Ha ha," Warren muttered, lagging behind. He leaned on the doorframe and stared at their cozy circle, sprawled out over couches and armchairs that had been gathered in the middle of the room.
"Hey, you own textbooks," Magenta remarked. She was scrutinizing him from the armchair farthest from the door. "I had no idea."
"Hey, you know what books are," he snapped, giving her a dark look. "I'm as surprised as you."
"Okay," Stronghold interrupted, falsely cheerful. He clapped a hand on Warren's shoulder and tried to steer him toward the other side of their circle. When Warren glared at him, he snatched his hand back and held both of them up in a gesture of surrender.
"Okay," he repeated. "Warren, why don't you sit... wherever, and I'll get some more chips. You want anything to drink?"
"No." Warren eyed the circle, wondering once again why he was here.
Stronghold's place was clearly on the couch next to Layla, and he was tempted to take it just on principle. If he was here anyway, he might as well do some damage. But he really didn't want to be that close to anyone, even the relatively benign hippie. Magenta had taken the only nearby chair, and the two remaining sidekicks were sharing the other couch.
Which was to say, Glowstick was hogging most of it while Popsicle perched on the edge of a single cushion. Warren wasn't surprised to see that the tall kid looked bored out of his mind, and had resorted to bugging Magenta to pass the time. The short kid had an entire library arrayed on various levels around him: the back of the couch, the arm of the couch, the table next to the couch, even the floor.
Warren figured the floor was the safest place to be. He wouldn't accidentally wreck any of the ridiculously expensive-looking furniture, and no one would sit down next to him. He dropped his stuff on the floor between the two couches and lowered himself to the ground after it.
The short kid promptly slid off the couch to join him. "So Layla says you're good at math," he began.
Warren glowered at him, then included Layla for good measure. Traitor.
Neither of them seemed to notice, the short kid because he was pointing to something in his book, and Layla because Stronghold came back with the chips just then and she was totally smitten. "I got you some soda," Stronghold said offhandedly, leaning over to set it on the floor beside him.
"So I was just wondering if you remember this stuff," the short kid concluded, ignoring the interruption. "Because I don't understand magnetism at all and frankly I don't trust the rest of these guys to know anymore than I do."
Warren stared at him. "Why would you think I have any idea what your classes are about?" he asked at last.
"Dude, math is math," the short kid told him.
"Yeah, and magnetism is a mystery," the tall kid added. He seemed pleased with the alliteration. "A monumental, malevolent, mystery."
"I'm afraid Ethan's right," Layla offered with an apologetic smile. "None of the rest of us understand it either, and you did really well in Heroically Applied Math last year."
He didn't even want to know how she knew that. "Yeah, and this year I'm doing well in More Mad Science," he informed her. "That doesn't mean I have any clue what it's about."
"Who are you blackmailing to make that happen?" Magenta asked, not as though she cared.
"My lab partner and I have an agreement," Warren told her. "She does the work, and I leave her alone. It was her idea," he added defensively when Magenta rolled her eyes.
"Look, just tell Ethan what to do and then he can teach the rest of us," the tall kid declared. "He's smart and stuff. It'll only take a few minutes."
Warren looked around at all of them. "I'm not your tutor," he warned them.
"Not yet you aren't," Layla agreed cheerfully. "We'll find a way to repay you, I promise."
He didn't believe that, but allowed the short kid to give him his notes. He frowned at the paper, compared it to the question in the book, and shook his head. "Look, you're not even using the right formula. Electrically generated magnetism is variable; you have to take that into account if your hero is fighting a battery-powered robot."
The others didn't go back to their own stuff, he noticed. They just watched, even when he and the short kid started arguing over the field strength necessary to pull screws out of a screwed-in surface at thirty feet. The question was stupid, he pointed out, because magnetism wasn't a rotating force--there was no way it could unwind a screw from its threads, so why bother calculating the strength it would take to yank the screw thirty feet?
Fine, Ethan said, but telling the teacher the question was flawed wasn't going to get them any points on their math midterm. So pretend they were nails, or paperclips, or anything small and metallic that wasn't screws. He just needed to calculate the strength of the field.
"How are you using paperclips to hold up a metal plate?" Warren wanted to know.
"You know what, go back to your own work," Ethan told him. "You stopped being helpful five minutes ago."
"But it matters, right?" the tall kid interrupted. "Screws or paperclips? Because the strength of the field depends on the object it's acting on."
"No it doesn't," Ethan said impatiently.
"Yeah, it does," Warren grumbled, reaching for his pencil. "Look, the robot is like a giant electromagnet, so pretend you're dealing with induced magnetism instead of electrical magnetism and the equation is simpler."
He had finished writing it out before he realized there had been no answer. He lifted his head to find Ethan staring, not at Warren, but at the tall kid who had corrected him. "Hey, are you listening?"
"He's right?" Ethan demanded, looking from the tall kid to him and back again. "It matters?"
Everyone else was staring at the tall kid too. "Yeah," Warren said, frowning at them. "So?"
"So how did you know that?" Magenta wanted to know. She wasn't talking to Warren.
The tall kid was drumming two pencils against the top of his notebook, paying no attention. He was bopping to the rhythm in his head and didn't seem to have the faintest idea that they were all looking at him. Magenta tossed an eraser at him, hitting him in the chest.
"Hey!" he exclaimed, stopping the pencils. "Yeah, what?"
"How did you know the strength of a magnetic field depends on the object it's acting on?" Magenta repeated.
"Oh." The tall kid shrugged, glancing down at his notebook. "I don't know. It says so right there."
Magenta pushed her binder off of her lap and leaned over to look at his. "That says B equals F divided by the quantity q sub zero times velocity times the sine of theta," she informed him. "Where'd you get that?"
Ethan scrambled up off the floor and snatched the tall kid's notebook away from him. "Is this from class? I don't have these notes."
Layla intervened. "Let me see," she said, holding out her hand. "I have all the notes. Including the ones we got while you were daydreaming about being Catgirl's sidekick," she reminded Ethan.
"Hey, observation of heroes is an important part of our duties as hero support," he defended himself. He handed over the notebook anyway.
"Catgirl and I so wouldn't get along," Magenta muttered.
"Oh, Zach, we didn't have to write this down," Layla said suddenly. "I remember this now. This was part of the introduction to the 'unseen forces' unit, but he said we wouldn't need it for the homework. He was just trying to intimidate us with obscure mathematical symbols."
"Well, I guess math teachers are the same everywhere," Will joked. "Always trying to make it harder than it is." He took the notebook Layla gave him and handed it back. "So do you have it all figured out yet, Ethan?"
The short kid was gazing down at the numbers Warren had written out for him and nodding enthusiastically. Layla was watching Stronghold, who was watching the head nodding with amusement. None of them were even looking at the tall kid anymore. Not even Magenta, who was toying with a strand of purple hair and completely ignoring the rest of the room.
"Yeah, yeah," Ethan was saying, "this is a much better way of looking at it. Basically you can see that if the robot has a magnetic field strong enough to pull screws out of things, your hero has bigger problems than the numerical strength of the field."
Basically, that was what Warren had said from the start. But he was more interested in the fact that everyone was happy to write off the tall kid's apparently random knowledge as a mistake, a fluke, something he had copied down by accident and then coincidentally read at just the right moment. Weren't they at all curious that he had known, not only that it was relevant, but also what it meant?
Warren hadn't thought anything of it until the others dismissed it. He found that other people tended to be wrong about most things, so if they thought it was a fluke... He frowned down at his notes while Ethan chattered about the simplest way to solve the magnetism problem, and finally he started to look around for a blank piece of paper. He hadn't brought any, but hey, Stronghold had a whole notebook there that he wasn't using.
Ethan did pause briefly when Warren ripped a blank page out of the notebook, but Stronghold didn't say anything. He tossed the notebook back into its former haphazard position and started to fold a paper airplane. He took care to look as bored as he could while he was doing it, and he heard a faint snort of amusement from Stronghold when he figured out what the paper was being used for.
He started drawing flames along the leading edge of the wings, doodling until Magenta made a snarky comment that drew everyone's attention. Then he flipped the airplane over and wrote on the bottom of the left wing, What are you, a secret math geek or something?
Warren tossed the airplane in the tall kid's general direction before he could think better of it. "Hey, cool," the recipient declared, picking it up and swishing it around like it was a scale model or a remote controlled toy or anything else that would be cooler than a note on a piece of notebook paper. Which was everything.
He didn't even notice the note, as far as Warren could tell. But Stronghold noticed that Warren had time to fold paper airplanes, which meant that he wasn't studying and that apparently meant that he was fair game for idle chit chat. Warren didn't do idle chit chat. Stronghold didn't seem to get that.
"Will," Layla reminded him at last. "Some of us are trying to study?"
Warren smirked at Will, who hurried to assure Layla that he had been about to ask Warren something really important having to do with his studies. Layla just shook her head, and Will went back to his books. The question never came.
The paper airplane did, though. It returned to him with a gentle thwack as it collided with his leather jacket in the quiet room. A couple of glances were shot his way, but when he ignored it they looked away. Warren looked over at the tall kid. He was currently trying to balance a potato chip on the end of his pencil, and he didn't seem to be sparing attention for anything else.
The plane had landed upside-down beside him. Warren glanced sideways at it. Written in a large scrawl on the bottom of the right wing was proof that the tall kid wasn't quite as oblivious as he'd thought: What are you, the plane read, a secret school spy?
His mouth quirked involuntarily. He frowned as soon as he realized what he was doing. He picked up the plane and dropped it on top of his notes, using Ethan's pencil to write Yes underneath the question before turning it over to continue his doodling on the top of the wings. This studying thing wasn't as bad as he'd expected.
Then Will asked if anyone wanted music, and studying got really entertaining in the ensuing chaos. Warren didn't even have to make fun of their requests--Magenta or Layla vetoed everything the guys suggested, and the guys complained just as loudly about anything they picked. Warren threw his paper airplane at the other end of the couch while they argued.
"I'm turning the radio on," was the eventual decree. This had the potential to lead to more of the same, since Warren was pretty sure someone would have to pick a station, but just then the phone rang.
"I'll get it," Layla said quickly. She bounced up and disappeared into the kitchen before Will could argue, leaving him to deal with the radio situation.
"Stronghold residence," Warren heard her say. Then Layla was coming back, standing in the doorway as she said, "Oh, hi Annabelle. We thought it might be you."
There was a pause, during which Will turned the radio on and Magenta gave him a disgusted look but very obviously refrained from saying anything because they were all trying to overhear Layla's conversation. "Sure, we understand," she was telling the phone. "Maybe you can come next time."
The paper airplane took a nosedive next to Warren's open book. It toppled over, and for just a second the bottom of the left wing was visible. Under Warren's question was the word Yes.
"See you in school," Layla was saying just as Warren realized the short kid was paying attention to the wrong conversation.
"No offense, but you guys make the worst paper airplanes," Ethan said, reaching for the folded piece of paper.
That was when the front door opened. Warren ignored it, snatching the airplane off the floor before Ethan could reach it and crumpling it in his fist. It burst into flame without conscious thought and the kid scrambled back. "Hey, whoa, I was just saying--"
"Boys," a woman's voice said reprovingly. "No burning in the house, please."
Warren looked up to see Josie Stronghold standing behind Layla, looking... like a business woman? In an ordinary suit and glasses, with a briefcase in one hand and a pile of mail in the other, the look she was giving him was no less pointed than it would have been coming from her alter ego. His mom had always said all mothers were superheroes.
He'd just figured she meant all the mothers she knew.
"Sorry, Jetstream," he muttered. He let the fire burn out. It left behind black soot from the paper on his fingers, which was why he preferred fireballs. The residue didn't go unnoticed.
"You can wash up in the kitchen," Josie told him with a smile. Then she looked at Layla, who was still holding the cordless as she looked from him to Will's mom. "Who was on the phone, Layla?"
"Oh!" Layla looked back at him. "That was Annabelle. She says she can't come over to study because her mom's having company and needs her to help out."
Warren pretended to ignore them as he slid past into the kitchen. What did he care if she showed up or not? So she was pretty and she could freeze things. So what?
"Oh?" Josie was asking. "Who's Annabelle?"
"She's a friend of Warren's," Layla replied blithely. "They danced together at Homecoming."
Warren rolled his eyes, scrubbing his hands diligently under the water so that he could pretend he didn't hear. She was going to start introducing herself that way if this kept up. "Hi, nice to meet you, I'm the girl Warren danced with at Homecoming."
"I see," Josie answered. She sounded way too interested. "Well, I look forward to meeting her."
Yeah. He couldn't wait.
Chapter 3: Yellow Number Two
If he didn't stand head and shoulders taller than everyone around him, Warren might have missed his exit from the freshman bus. Well, not missed it, exactly--the bright pink of his shirt was no less glowingly obvious than the yellow he usually wore. But if it weren't for his height, he might not have immediately identified the kid in pink as Glowstick.
Warren watched over the top of his book as the freshmen filed off the bus. Magenta got off before the tall kid, and he wondered if they'd been sitting together. Stronghold got held up, as usual, by Ron Wilson, bus driver. Layla waited for him outside, but Ethan must have been behind him because Stronghold's group of freshman buddies was missing one.
"Don't make me do it!" Annabelle's voice rang out across the courtyard, and Warren glanced over toward the flagpole.
She was staring down a couple of the more annoying sophomore boys, the one with the laser vision and the one with kinetic charge abilities. "Someday Principal Powers isn't going to thaw you out," Annabelle was telling them. "You'll be stuck that way all day, and your parents will have to call the school to find out why you didn't come home."
"Aw, Freeze Girl, you know we're just teasing." The boy with laser vision smiled in a way that pissed Warren off. "Come on, can't you take a little joke?"
Warren snapped his book shut and stood up, intending to show them what he thought of their "little joke." But before he could start in their direction, Glowstick was suddenly in his way. Warren could only stare at him, so unused to people invading his personal space that at first he didn't really get what was happening.
"Hey, here," the tall kid said. He was holding something out to Warren.
He looked down automatically, but he wasn't about to take the pencil that was being shoved at him. "What are you doing?" he demanded, glaring at the tall kid blocking his way. The lettering on the front of his bright pink tee read, Don't Laugh: This Is Your Girlfriend's Shirt.
"You owe Ethan a pencil," the kid said, waving it at him like that would make him more likely to take it. "You left it on the floor at Will's house."
"Sounds like Stronghold owes him a pencil, then." Warren didn't hear anything that sounded like a laser and ice war, but if it didn't involve shouting or retaliating then there was no telling what Annabelle was doing.
"Dude, I'm pretty sure that just because you gave it to someone else doesn't mean you didn't take it from Ethan to begin with," the tall kid told him.
Warren frowned at him irritably. "You want to try that again? With more punctuation this time?"
"Hi Warren," Annabelle's voice interrupted. "Hi Zach," she added, joining them at the bottom of the steps to the school. "How was the study session yesterday?"
"When did people get this idea that it's okay to just come up and talk to me whenever they feel like it?" Warren demanded.
"It's either talk to you or freeze them," Annabelle informed him, tilting her head back to indicate the sophomore boys behind her without turning around. "I'm taking the high road today."
"I'd just as soon you froze them," Warren muttered.
"Will can take care of them for you," the tall kid said confidently. "Hey Will!" he shouted, without waiting for a reply. "C'mon over here and teach these guys a lesson!"
"Leave Stronghold out of it," Warren snapped. "Can't you do anything without hiding behind him?"
"Hey, Freeze Girl, you've got some new friends!" The obnoxious sophomore boys were gathering like people who didn't know their non-existent welcome was about to blow up in their faces. "Aren't you going to introduce us?"
Warren glared at them, but Annabelle stared back at him without turning around. "Just ignore them," she told him. "They don't have anything better to do."
"I'm hurt!" The kid with the laser beams was about to find out what hurt was. "When has anything ever been more important than Sky High's very own ice princess?"
"I'll give them something better to do," Warren growled. He crossed his wrists in front of his chest and flung them out to the side, both fists igniting simultaneously.
"Hey, what's going on?" Stronghold's voice was not a particularly welcome interruption, especially when it prompted the sophomore boys to smirk at each other.
"So, Stronghold." The kinetic charge kid was looking at Warren when he spoke. "You protecting Hothead now too? Is he part of your little freshman flock?"
Warren threw a fireball at the kid's feet, the fire flaring up on impact. He tossed a second fireball to the ground in front of the other kid for good measure. The fire died out almost immediately on the concrete, but they both took a couple hurried steps back before it was gone.
"Warren, come on," Stronghold protested. He inserted himself into the center of the group, totally blocking Warren's aim. "What do you care what they say, anyway?"
"Back off, Stronghold." Warren glowered at him. "You're not helping."
"Aw, let him fight, Stronghold." Warren didn't have to see them to know which one was talking. "You already took his girl; what else do you want from him?"
His fists lit up again, flames flickering over his fingers, but that last had made Stronghold pause. "What did you just say?" Will asked slowly. He turned around, facing the boys for the first time.
"Hey, he didn't mean anything by it." The kid with the laser beams was starting to look a little nervous. Not nervous enough, but Warren figured he was about to find that out for himself. "Right, man? Come on, we're just joking."
His buddy paid no attention to him. "I said," he repeated, eyeing Stronghold. "You've got Hothead on a pretty tight leash there. Don't you know what happens to people who try to tame wild dogs?"
Warren didn't aim for the ground this time. He didn't hit his target, either. His fireball vaporized the column of solid ice that appeared instantly in front of him and the flames fizzled out just as they burned through to air on the other side. Annabelle had barely moved, stopping him with nothing more than an outstretched hand.
"Warren," she said urgently. "Don't. They're not worth it."
"No one leashes Warren," Will said, with more scorn than Warren had thought he could manage. "And Layla doesn't belong to anyone but herself."
"Is there some kind of problem here?" Magenta's voice was like a bored echo of Will's disdain. "Cause last I knew, no one messed with the people who stopped Royal Pain."
"Thus saving the entire school," Layla added. "Not to mention everyone in it."
The girls had moved in to face off against the sophomore boys on Will's right, leaving him and Annabelle in identical flanking positions on Will's left. That was great. Just great. Now he really did look like part of the Stronghold Sidekick Squad. It didn't help that the tall kid was right behind him and the other one was hovering off to the side like he could be called in for backup at any time. Although what good anyone thought Glowstick and Popsicle were going to do, he really had no idea.
On the other hand, their little show of group strength did seem to be working, because now the kid with the laser eyes looked really nervous. "Michaud," he muttered, elbowing the other kid. "Come on, man, it was just a joke. Let's go."
"Just because someone tipped you off to Royal Pain's plan doesn't make you heroes." The kinetic charge kid was only looking at Warren. "And having someone around who's just waiting to double-cross you isn't a joke."
"What are you talking about?" Annabelle demanded.
At the same time Layla declared, "We found out about Royal Pain at the same time everyone else did: when Gwen--or Sue, or whoever--made her speech at Homecoming. We only got out because Warren..."
She trailed off as though realizing that she was about to give Warren credit for their escape. For some reason, her sudden hesitation made him more angry than anything else. He shoved roughly past Will to glower down at the kid who'd called him out, the fire in his fists flaring higher, toward his elbows, creeping up his arms.
"You got a problem with me?" he asked softly. "Because if you want to go throwing accusations around, I suggest you find something to back them up."
The kid returned his glare with more of the same. "If Royal Pain taught us anything," he sneered, "it's that history repeats itself... Battle."
The kid's head snapped back before Warren even lifted his hand, and he slammed into the concrete steps like gravity had suddenly reversed itself. It was like he'd suddenly discovered a new power, Warren thought distantly. The ability to send people flying through the force of his will alone.
Then he heard Stronghold growl, "His name is Peace." He looked over at Will to see him glaring at kinetic charge kid with his fist still raised. As if sensing his gaze, Will looked up and caught his eye, his expression clearing immediately.
"I'm sorry," Will remarked, like he'd just bumped into Warren in the hallway by accident. "Did you want to do that?"
Warren could only stare at him. Then he heard someone yell, "Look out!" and he shoved Stronghold out of the way and turned into the attack.
He managed to detonate both incoming projectiles with fire before they reached him, but the kinetic energy released by the explosion was enough to knock him down. It was Layla's voice that shouted, "Stop it!" The vines that raced over the steps and wrapped themselves around kinetic charge kid in a matter of seconds completely immobilized him.
Until they started to glow, and Warren turned his head away just before the vines burst apart with brilliant flash of energy and a sickly popping sound.
"Oh for goodness' sake!" Annabelle flung her arm out and incarcerated the kid in a solid block of ice. "This is what I get for trying to be good for one day! Don't say anything or you're next!" she added, pointing at the kid with the laser eyes.
They had drawn something of a crowd by now, and Warren wasn't surprised to hear Boomer's voice ordering everyone out of the way. He ignored the hand Annabelle offered him, lifting his own to will the flames away. "I'm fine," he said curtly.
"Yeah, well, maybe I'm not," she retorted, and that was all the warning he had before she grabbed his hand and searing cold doused the fire that still lingered there. He went to yank his hand back and found himself being pulled to his feet instead.
"Thank you," she said, more calmly. He stared as the frost patterns on her skin retreated over her wrist and then vanished altogether. He didn't remember to pull his hand away from hers until Boomer's voice was almost on top of them.
"What's the meaning of this!" The coach sounded like a cartoon character stuck between furious and smug. So, pretty much the way he always sounded, Warren thought.
"I saw you, you, you, and you--" Boomer thrust a finger at each of them in turn. "Using your powers outside of the gym! Detention for all of you!"
Warren raised his eyebrows. Him, Annabelle, kinetic charge kid... and Stronghold? Stronghold was getting busted for the punch he'd thrown? Okay, detention for fighting, fine, but who even knew if he'd used his powers or not? And what about Layla?
"And you." Coach Boomer turned on Layla, and Warren tried not to wince. "You only hid your powers so you could stay with your boyfriend. Didn't you!"
Layla stared at him. "What?"
"Didn't you!" Boomer shouted, and Layla flinched.
"No!" she shouted back.
"Go see Principal Powers!" Boomer yelled. "Right now!"
Layla hesitated, looking around like someone else in authority might appear and contradict him. Okay, so the guy was a nut job. But Warren didn't think pissing him off was such a smart idea.
"Ow!" Boomer cried, hoppping on one leg and kicking with his other one. "What the--"
A black and purple blur went flying, the tiny shape resolving itself into Magenta just before she hit the ground a few feet away. "Sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all. "Thought you were someone else."
"Detention!" Boomer howled.
Warren knew what those teeth could do, and he only just managed to hide his smirk. The kid with the laser eyes didn't quite stifle his snicker. "Detention!" Coach Boomer roared, glaring at Annabelle's original tormenter.
"What!" The kid made the mistake of trying to protest. "What am I getting detention for! I didn't even do anything!"
Boomer's eyes narrowed, and, in a startling show of lucidity, he turned to Annabelle. "You ended that fight, which is fair, because I think you started it. Ah!" He held up his hand when she tried to interrupt. "Were you provoked by this young man?"
She took one look at the kid with the laser eyes and declared, "Yes sir!"
"Well, there you go then," Boomer said, as though it was settled. "Detention all around."
"You're giving me detention because she said so?" the kid demanded.
"No," Boomer snapped. "I'm giving you detention because you're annoying. Now shut up. Why are you still here?" he asked, glaring at Layla.
"I'm going," she said quickly. With a last look at Will, she turned and ran up the steps to the school.
"Uh, sir?" The short kid, who had managed to remain totally unnoticed until now, was taking his life in his hands by getting Boomer's attention. "I--I think you should... give me detention too."
"Excuse me?" Coach Boomer wasn't the only one staring at him. "Did I hear you right? You want me to give you detention?"
"Yes, sir." The short kid straightened, which didn't make him any less short. "Although I did not participate in the altercation, I was fully prepared to do so. In fact, I would have done so if I'd thought my power would be of any use. Since I believe that we are responsible for our intent as well as our physical actions--"
"Yeah, whatever, shut up." Boomer waved him off. "You get detention for being an obnoxious geek, how's that? That make you happy?"
"Yes sir," Ethan agreed. "Thank you sir!"
"We're done here," Boomer declared. "What are you all staring at? Don't you have classes to get to? Isn't this a school? Didn't you hear the bell ring?"
Actually, Warren was pretty sure the bell hadn't rung yet, but he was equally sure that no one was going to point that out to Coach Boomer while he was on a detention-giving kick. The crowd was beginning to obediently but very slowly disperse when the tall kid said, "Um... Coach Boomer?" Then, louder, "Hey, Coach?"
Boomer's head whipped around. "What?" he demanded. "Do you want detention too?"
"Well, actually..." The tall kid hesitated. "Yeah. I kind of do."
"Well too bad!" Boomer snapped. "You can't have it! You can't even do anything worth getting detention for!"
Into the brief silence that followed, Magenta remarked, "You wouldn't say that if you dropped your keys at night in a dark parking lot."
"Well I wouldn't drop my keys, now, would I," Boomer told her. "Because I'm not a clumsy, powerless, teenager!"
The bell really did ring then, and he turned to spread his bellow across the courtyard. "That's it! You're all late! Get to class!"
Warren heard Magenta mutter, "Sometimes you wouldn't know it."
"Sorry to drag you into that," Annabelle was telling him. At least she kept her voice down as she retrieved his book and handed it back to him. "I thought they'd leave me alone if I was with other people."
Against his better judgement, he just shrugged. "Not your fault."
"Yeah." She paused. "Well... I'll see you later."
He almost nodded. Then he realized what he was doing. It turned into kind of a half-nod, half-shrug. He looked away as she headed for the school, wondering how much of first period he could get away with skipping. He already had detention. And he hadn't even finished the chapter.
He sat down at the bottom of the steps, knowing exactly where he'd be hardest to see from the maximum number of school windows. The sidekicks were gone, and the few students still trickling across the courtyard gave him a wide berth. That was the way it should be.
Or it was until someone sat down next to him. He frowned down at his book in annoyance. He could see who it was out of the corner of his eye--apparently not all of Stronghold's sidekicks had left after all.
He ignored the kid for several minutes. Finally, though, the courtyard was empty and the late bell had rung. "What," Warren asked through clenched teeth, "are you doing?"
"Skipping," the tall kid said.
"Why," Warren said, not taking his eyes off of his book.
He could see the tall kid shrug in his peripheral vision. "I don't know. If I can't get detention for using my power, I guess I'll, uh, get it some other way."
Warren just shook his head. "Why do you want detention?"
There was silence, like the kid hadn't really thought about it. "Dude, all my friends have it." He actually sounded like it was totally obvious. "What kind of friend am I if I let them get in trouble, you know... without me?"
Warren stared at his book without seeing it. Out of context, that wasn't the weirdest thing he'd ever heard. But as justification for detention? It was kind of a stretch.
"Besides," the tall kid muttered. "I get Will into trouble enough. Ethan too. And Magenta stuck up for me to Coach Boomer, did you see that? Wow."
With a shrug, he added, "I owe all of 'em, one way or another. But they don't collect, you know? That's not what friends do. You just pay it back however you can."
There wasn't anything Warren could say to that.
After a moment, though, he asked his book, "You still have that pencil?"
"Yeah." The tall kid didn't seem surprised by the question, and Warren wondered if he'd been set up. He held out his hand anyway, figuring if he didn't look at him then he wouldn't have to acknowledge it.
The pencil landed in his hand as soon as he reached for it. Maybe he'd give it back to Ethan at lunch. If he didn't have anything better to do.
Chapter Four: Quarter By Numbers
He didn't even look up when a tray hit the table across from him. The table was empty but for them, yet despite the fact that he was clearly busy Layla announced, "I have a problem."
Warren didn't bother to glare at her for one very good reason: experience had shown how little it helped. Instead he kept his gaze on the words in front of him while he inquired, "And I care because?"
"Because matters of social justice concern us all," Layla informed him. "And also because I'm going to keep talking about it until I decide what to do, which will take much longer without your help."
"What do you need Warren's help for?" Magenta asked, claiming the seat beside Layla. The subtle emphasis she put on his name made it clear what she thought about asking him for help in any situation.
"I need everyone's help," Layla said firmly. "It's just that Warren is a particularly good problem-solver. I have a good track record with him."
"You have a good track record with fortune cookies," Warren corrected. He could feel the odd look Magenta gave him without lifting his head.
"Hey, are there fortune cookies?" Will took his seat on the other side of Layla, adding, "I love those things. Did the cafeteria get them today and I missed them?"
"There aren't any fortune cookies," Layla told him.
"Layla needs help," Magenta added.
"What, because she thinks there are fortune cookies?" Will didn't seem to notice Layla's exasperated sigh. "There's no cure for optimism," he told Magenta.
Warren snorted at that. If there was one thing Layla would never run out of, it was optimism. She still talked to him, after all.
"Hi, guys," Annabelle's voice said. Her voice came from over Warren's shoulder, but she stopped there and she didn't sit down. Since he wasn't about to turn and look at her, he had no idea why she hesitated.
"Hi Annabelle," Layla greeted her. She smiled at the older girl, and Will waved over a mouthful of his sandwich. Magenta didn't bother to acknowledge her, but then, Magenta rarely acknowledged anyone.
"Um..." Annabelle still sounded uncertain. "Would you mind if I sat with you again?"
"Of course not!" Layla looked mildly indignant that she would even ask, and she waved with a "come here" gesture. "You help us balance out the gender disparity at our table, for one thing."
Will finally finished chewing and grinned at her. "Plus we like you."
"Well, I wasn't sure," Annabelle admitted, setting her tray down next to Warren and taking Popsicle's seat for the second day in a row. "After what happened with Scott and Michaud this morning... I'm really sorry about that."
"That wasn't your fault," Layla declared.
For the first time, Warren looked up and caught her eye. He raised his eyebrows at her pointedly, wondering what had happened to her "I think you should try to resolve this without violence" attitude. Will was the only one who had ever gotten a pass from her pro-pacifism stance before.
Layla didn't miss the look. "Well, it wasn't," she repeated, apparently reading his expression right. "I think... there are times when you have to physically defend yourself.
"There are definitely times when you have to defend others," Layla added, with more certainty. "And that's what she did."
"Hey, it's the hero of the morning!" Popsicle and Glowstick arrived at the same time, and the short kid set his tray down next to Annabelle before holding up his hand. "Come on, high five!"
Annabelle must have done it, because the kid crowed, "Yeah, you are one cool chick, Freeze Girl! Way to show those guys where it's at!"
Warren rolled his eyes, pretending to concentrate on his book again as the tall kid settled into his seat at the end of the table. "Hey, who likes brownies?" the tall kid wanted to know. "I didn't know they had nuts in them. I hate nuts."
"I hate people who are nuts," Magenta muttered, reaching out to take his dessert. "Sadly, high school is full of them."
"Yeah, speaking of that." The tall kid looked very pleased with himself. "I got detention for skipping first period."
"Zach," Layla chided him. "Why did you skip first period?"
Warren caught the look he threw at her out of the corner of his eye. "To get detention," the tall kid said. "Obviously."
"Ethan got detention too," Will told Layla. "They're doing it on purpose, so we don't have to go alone."
"Yeah, I asked Coach Boomer for detention and he just gave it to me," the short kid bragged. "I think we're starting to get along better."
"Zach had to work for it," Magenta remarked. "Boomer wouldn't give him detention for using his power. Or for being obnoxious," she added, with a disgusted look in Ethan's direction.
"Yeah, Zach followed in the footsteps of the master." The short kid leaned around Annabelle to ask, "Hey, Warren, are you still taking on new students? Because I mean, now that I sit at the tough guy table, I have a reputation to maintain."
Warren ignored him.
Stronghold didn't. "You told Zach how to get detention?" he guessed. He sounded thoroughly amused by the idea, and Warren lifted his head to glare at him.
"I didn't tell anyone anything," he growled. "He didn't get detention for skipping. He got detention for following me."
"Really?" Annabelle asked, with obvious interest. "Following you where?"
"To class," he snapped. "Where do you think I go during first period?"
"Well, you were sitting on the steps outside in the courtyard when we left you," the short kid pointed out. "Looked like skipping to me."
"There's a subtle difference between skipping and being late," Warren grumbled, not looking at him. "You don't get detention for missing a few minutes of class."
"Yeah, which is why I think it's funny that he figured out how to get detention from you," Will said with a smirk. "You're not exactly lord of the detention room."
"You know, you can shut up any time now," Warren warned him.
"The first time we got detention together?" Will continued, ignoring him. "Warren tried to roast me, right in front of Principal Powers. Too bad he didn't know powers don't work in the detention room."
"I knew," Warren muttered. "I was just trying to scare you. You should have seen you jump."
"You'd never had detention before?" Annabelle sounded surprised.
Warren glared across the table at his former nemesis. Will would know he was lying if he said yes. Great of him to ruin that part of his rebel rep. "Not until I met Stronghold," he said darkly.
"How many times did you two get detention?" Annabelle wanted to know.
"Why do you care?" Warren retorted.
"Twice," Will supplied. "Once for fighting, and once for not fighting."
"Not--oh," she said, with sudden comprehension. He could hear the smile in her voice. "Save the Citizen, right? Warren wouldn't fight after you won."
"Yeah, thanks a lot, by the way," Will remarked, obviously directing his comment at Warren. "My mom really wasn't happy to hear that I was in detention again."
"It's a stupid game," Warren muttered. Whoever won was supposed to stay in the arena until they were defeated. He'd pretty much had enough of being Stronghold's "partner" at that point. He hadn't expected them to win.
"Besides, it's not like your dad cared," Layla added, nudging Will. "He just pretends to yell at you so your mom won't interrupt you two while you're playing pinball."
"Dude, you have a pinball machine at your house?" The tall kid sounded offended that he hadn't been in on the secret. "I didn't know that. Where is it?"
"No," Will said, almost before he'd finished. Warren looked up at his odd tone, just in time to catch the pointed look he gave Layla. "We don't have a pinball machine."
"No, right," Layla agreed quickly. "What I meant was, while you're doing things like playing pinball. I just used pinball as an example to illustrate the how pointless most male bonding activities are outside of the broader social context."
This produced a moment of silence, during which Warren wondered what they were hiding. Then Magenta declared, "You followed Warren to class?" and suddenly everyone's attention was focused on Glowstick again.
"Yeah, so?" The tall kid just shrugged. "It's just a math class. You don't have to be a hero to do math."
"Yes, exactly." Layla jumped in before anyone could point out, as Warren suspected they might, that even if Zach were a hero he wouldn't be any better at math. Which was true, if not in quite the way they would mean it. He figured the tall kid had his own reasons for pretending not to be the brightest bulb on the tree.
So to speak.
"This is part of my problem," Layla was saying. "Heroes and sidekicks are separated into different tracks based on their powers, right? But what do our powers have to do with what we're taught?"
"This is high school," Will put in. "What does it have to do with anything?"
"That's stupid!" Layla burst out. "I'm sick of sub-par education being allowed to slide just because 'that's the way it is'! I'm tired of everyone around me being resigned to a situation that they don't even try to change!"
Warren frowned down at his book. "What's your problem, Hippie?" he asked quietly.
When she didn't answer, he looked up. She was staring at her tray, but she seemed to sense his gaze. Hers was troubled when she lifted her eyes to meet his. "Principal Powers says Coach Boomer wants me in the hero track," she admitted.
"Layla, that's great!" Will exclaimed. "I told you, that's where you should have been all along. At least Coach Boomer knows he made a mistake--" Glancing from her to Warren and then back again, he finally seemed to get that something more was going on. "What?"
Warren didn't take his eyes off of her. "And?" he prompted, forestalling the onslaught of congratuations from the rest of the table.
"And Principal Powers doesn't," Layla said. She was frowning now, although she had managed a small preoccupied smile for Will's enthusiasm. "I don't know whether to argue with her or not."
"Principal Powers disagrees with Coach Boomer?" Ethan repeated incredulously. "Wow. That's wacky."
"Why?" Magenta wanted to know. "I thought the principal didn't have anything to do with power placement."
"She doesn't," Will put in. "My dad says Coach Boomer has the final word when it comes to powers."
"Not for you, Will," Annabelle pointed out. "You got switched out of hero support right away."
"Sure, as soon as they saw me throw Warren through a wall," Will agreed, tossing a half-smile in his direction. "Cause everyone knew the only way the Commander would stand for his son being a sidekick was if it was obvious he had no powers at all." He rolled his eyes, but despite his words he didn't sound bitter.
"Hey," Will added suddenly, frowning at Layla. "Is that why they won't bump you up? Because your parents aren't famous?"
"No," Layla said with a sigh. "Because my mom is, actually."
Will seemed to get that. "You mean as an activist?"
Layla shrugged, picking at the sandwich in front of her. "Practically everyone in Washington knows her. She's totally inactive as a superhero because she doesn't have a secret identity... and Principal Powers is afraid that if I graduate from the hero track, my identity would be compromised too."
"Well, that's dumb," Zach said. "You don't get to be a hero because of your mom?"
Will glanced at him. "I didn't get to be a sidekick because of my dad," he pointed out. "What's the difference?"
"The difference is that no one wants to be a sidekick," Ethan reminded him. "If Layla can make hero, then she should be a hero."
"We shouldn't be split up into heroes and sidekicks to begin with!" Layla protested. "The whole system is archaic!"
Warren reached out and touched her tray, getting her attention immediately. "You're not going to change the school in a day," he told her. "Which is about how long you can expect Boomer and Powers to fight over you. So you'd better think about this deal while it's still on the table."
Layla opened her mouth, then closed it again slowly. "I know," she said at last. "I know that, I really do." She sighed. "I just don't know what to do."
"What do you want to do?" he asked, raising his eyebrows at her.
"I want to do what's right," she said immediately.
"Yeah, fine, very noble," Warren muttered. "But that's not what I asked." He stared at her, seeing in her face the same confusion that had made him sit down across from her at the Paper Lantern that first night. "What do you want, Hippie?"
And now, just like then, he realized he should have known the answer before he asked, because her gaze darted to Will and she didn't even have to say it out loud.
"So," Warren said, sitting back. "Coach Boomer was right."
"Oh, please," Layla said, rolling her eyes. "He doesn't have any idea what he's talking about."
Warren just smiled. The mere fact that she had known what he meant gave the lie to her protest, and after a moment, she seemed to realize it too. Coach Boomer thought that she'd hidden her power to ensure that she ended up in the same class as Will--and Layla had just proven him right.
"Side with the coach, Hippie," Warren told her. "Principal Powers has to listen to him."
Layla's shoulders slumped, and she poked at her sandwich like it had offended her. "I can't switch classes in the middle of the year," she complained. It was so obviously a token protest that he didn't bother to shoot it down.
"Sure you can," Will said eagerly. "Come on, you're like, the smartest person I know."
"Besides, it's not the middle of the year." Magenta sounded bored by the whole thing. "It's the middle of the semester. After midterms all the teachers will be starting new subjects anyway."
"I'd be happy to study with you for a while," Annabelle offered unexpectedly. "If you wanted some extra help or something."
Layla looked from one side of Warren to the other. He didn't get what she was looking for until the short kid said, "You should totally do it, Layla. This is a great opportunity to develop a more well-rounded message. Just think, when you're campaigning for change at Sky High, you'll be able to say that you've seen it from both sides of the school!"
"Plus," the tall kid added, "being a hero is really cool."
Layla sighed again, but she was smiling when she looked around the table. "Thanks guys," she said sincerely. "You've given me a lot to think about."
"Hey," Will said, putting an arm around her shoulders. "That's what friends are for, right?"
Warren glowered at him from across the table. "If you don't stop that, I'm leaving right now."
Will just grinned at him, but Layla pushed him away impatiently. "Will, stop embarrassing Warren," she told him.
He wasn't sure whether that was better or worse than having Will smirk at him.
Epilogue: Strength In Numbers
If it had been any other day, he would have kept on walking. What did he care what anyone in the school did? As long as they didn't mess with him, they were just faces in the crowd. Everyone had to learn to defend themselves eventually.
It was the glowing that stopped him. It was more obvious when the tall kid was backed into a corner. Warren frowned past the guys that were taunting him, wondering if the vague glow that emanated from him was actually a different color, or if his usual fluorescence just looked weird when combined with the bright pink shirt.
The tall kid's head slammed against the wall, and Warren called out before he realized what he was doing. "Hey!"
He had their immediate attention. Not that he wanted it. But he sure wasn't going to back off now that he had it, and really, what would one more fight matter? He was already on his way to detention.
"You gonna defend this fag?" the guy with the bandana sneered. "You doing community service now, or what?"
"Not defending anyone." Warren crossed his arms over his chest and flung them outward, feeling his fingers blaze to life. "Just looking for a little target practice, is all."
Bandana Guy exchanged glances with his friend. His friend shoved the tall kid forward, making him stumble toward Warren while they backed away. "Well, whaddya know, here's some now," Bandana Guy's friend called over his shoulder as they retreated down the hallway.
"Yeah," the tall kid shouted after them, tugging on his t-shirt to straighten it. "And don't come back, either! Take that!"
Warren rolled his eyes and walked away before the kid could turn around. Great. That was just what his reputation needed. Part of Stronghold's gang and defending helpless freshmen all in the same day. He'd be the laughingstock of the school by this time tomorrow.
"Hey, uh--" The tall kid sounded nervous even when he was trying to be cool, and of course, it'd been too much to hope that the kid wouldn't follow him. They were going to the same place, after all.
"So, thanks for that," the kid said awkwardly. "You didn't have to do that, you know. I would've gotten the best of them eventually. I was just playing with them."
"More like they were playing with you," Warren muttered. "You should learn to defend yourself."
"Yeah, and what am I gonna do?" The tall kid sounded unexpectedly bitter. "Glow at them?"
Warren refused to look at him. "It's a thought."
The tall kid snorted, and Warren wheeled on him without thinking. He flung a hand in the kid's face, flames blazing to life with a flick of his fingers. The kid flinched back with a yelp, and it was a really funny thing to see someone that big tripping over his own feet. Warren couldn't help smirking at him.
"Hey, hey, no need to go showing off." The kid held up his hands like he was surrendering, then waved them around like he had everything under control. Geek in a jock's body, that's all he was. "I get it; we're cool."
"We're not cool," Warren growled. "You and me, we're not anything unless I say we are. You aren't anything to me, you get that?"
"Yeah!" The tall kid took a step back. "Yeah, I totally get it!"
The second Warren turned away, the kid was right behind him again. "So you don't, like, believe what they were saying about me or anything, right? Because obviously they're so whacked--"
"It isn't the fire," Warren interrupted.
There was a startled silence, too good to last, probably, but still silence. "Dude, what?" the kid asked at last.
"You jumped when I lit up in your face," Warren said with a sigh. Why did he even bother? This wasn't his problem. "It wasn't the fire. A bright flash of light would've done the same thing."
"Well, yeah," the kid agreed, in the tone of voice that said duh. "Because part of fire is--" He broke off abruptly, and for a moment, Warren thought that this time the silence might last. Because if he got it, and he just started practicing it, he might actually leave Warren alone for a few minutes.
"Look, my power's more subtle than that," the tall kid declared, rendering his hope a vain one. "It's a cool power, a go-with-the-flow kind of power, you know? It doesn't do stuff like that."
"Yeah, and it never will if you don't practice," Warren muttered. "You think I just woke up one morning and knew how to throw fireballs?"
There was another quiet moment, and this one seemed a little more thoughtful than the others. Which gave him time to remember that he didn't really want people speculating about his life, so he changed the subject. "You should be able to throw a punch, anyway. It doesn't matter how good you are at handing your hero crossbows and poison-tipped daggers if his enemy can stuff you in a locker without even trying."
"Hey, I don't pick the homework around here," the tall kid defended himself. "I just do it. Because that's what you do with homework, you do it. That's why it's called homework."
Warren gave him a disgusted look out of the corner of his eye. "What are you babbling about now?"
"Boys." The voice of Principal Powers echoed down the hall--she was very good at that. That and turning into a ball of light that levitated. "I remind you that detention hour doesn't start until you are actually in the detention room."
With the others. He didn't hurry, but he wasn't exactly looking for a way out either. And for the first time, there was someone at his back when he confronted authority in its natural habitat. The tradeoff probably wasn't worth it, but he was starting to realize it was too late. Decision made.
They were even after all.