Sorry Is the Hardest Word

Author's Note: I will explain the reason for Commander Stronghold's animosity in a later story (maybe).

The rain hurled itself onto the windows of the Stronghold residence and the thunder accompanied it like a timpani. Inside, however, the "party" was cozy, dry, and in full swing. Actually, it was just Will and the sidekicks bunging around playing cards, lounging on the sofa, and devouring the brownies that Layla had brought with her along with the rest of the party mix.

"Hit me," declared Zach, and shrieked as the others obliged with the sofa pillows. Ethan pushed his glasses up on his nose and went into a monologue about the origins of the game, while Magenta rolled her eyes and ate the last of the Cheetos mix Mrs. Stronghold had provided the group with. Suddenly, the doorbell chimed.

"Warren!" Layla called out excitedly. She ran out of the room and they could hear her in the hall.

"We didn't think you were going to show up! Oh honey, you're all wet!" A rumble of amusement countered her concern and a few moments later Warren Peace joined the group in the room to many cheerful greetings. They budged up to make him room and dealt him in. Will chucked a soda Warren's way and ducked the card pack holder that answered. Soon the entire room was in an uproar as all manner of party material and pillows were tossed around.

"Eek!" yelped Layla as a popcorn kernel ended up in her hair. "Stop! Stop!"

Weak with laughter, the sidekicks and heroes settled back into their places. Warren dealt 7 cards to each player and began to teach them how to play Liverpool. Suddenly, Will remembered something.

"Hey, Warren, you're the only one here who hasn't met my parents yet! Mom! Dad! Come here and meet someone!" he called over his shoulder. Warren stiffened a little bit but remained outwardly composed. As Zach deliberated over his next move, the flame thrower got to his feet and followed Will to the kitchen, where Mrs. Stronghold was working over some figures for her real estate business.

"Oh, hi Will. Your dad is in the Sanctum, I called him up. What did you – oh! And who is this?" she asked, finally moving her eyes away from the hand calculator.

"Mom, this is my friend Warren Peace –" Josie Stronghold's eyes got fractionally wider "- Warren, this is my mom."

Yes, who else could it be? Mrs. Stronghold thought to herself as she stood and smiled gently at the boy who looked so much like his father…except for the eyes, she decided. The black eyes were so old, and so wary. She shook his hand.

"Nice to meet you, Warren. Dear, you're soaking! Did you walk here?" she chided gently as she searched through the kitchen cupboards. Locating the towel she was looking for, she marched right up to her new acquaintance and started towel-drying his hair. Warren was too surprised to move. Will tried to hide a grin as his mother fussed over the dark boy.

"There, that's better!" his mother pronounced as Warren ran a hand through his hair to make it behave again. Warren smiled very slightly. "Thanks." She smiled back and pushed them both back into the living room with a new bowl of party mix. "Will, I'll send your father in to meet him as soon as he comes up from the Sanctum." With that, she shooed them out and returned to work.

"We dealed ya out," Magenta informed them as they reclaimed their places. Another rowdy brawl and another dealing of the cards later, Warren was winning at the card game ("What?" Magenta complained, "Wren's down again! How is he doing this?"). Will heard his father's voice approaching the door. Mr. Stronghold came through the doorway, beaming.

"How's everyone doing!" he boomed at his favorite group of kids. They laughed and yelled "FINE!" back at him.

"Good, good! Will, who was it that you wanted me to meet?"

"Oh, yeah! Dad, this is my friend Warren Peace. Warren, this is-"

"WHAT!" The room went still as the Commander wheeled around to look at Warren, sandwiched between the sidekicks, the couch, and the table. His face darkened and he pointed a finger at Warren.

"No. No! Get out!" The sidekicks and Will were shocked at Mr. Stronghold's thunderous expression.

"Dad, what're you doing?" Will demanded. "This is my friend!"

The Commander turned around and glared at his son. "How dare you bring this-this- person into my house!" Wheeling around again, he shouted at Warren, "Get out! OUT!"

"Dad!" Will roared, pulling his dad by the arm into the kitchen. The raised voices of an argument floated out from under the swinging door to the pale faces of the sidekicks. Warren stood up, his expression far too neutral, and headed for the hall. Layla got up and went after him as Will and his father fought.

"Dad, this is my friend! He saved my life!"

"Do you have any idea how dangerous that kid is, William Theodore?"

"He's not! He-"

"Well I DO! I fought his father, Will, and that man was twisted to his core. It's in his blood! You can't trust him farther than you can throw him!"

Will gave his father a cold look. "In that case, I can trust him with my life."

The Commander matched his look. "William Theodore, that no-good sewer rat does not set foot in this house ever again!"

Will stormed back into the living room. Ethan, Magenta, and Zach were looking stunned, faces pale and silent. Will looked around.

"Where are Layla and Warren?" As he spoke, Layla came back into the room from the hall, looking sad and sick.

"Layla! Where is Warren?"

Layla looked back at him pityingly. "He went home."

"What!" Will bellowed. "Why? He's welcome here, no matter WHAT my dad says!"

Instead of responding, Layla handed him a raincoat. "He's gone to the bus stop about six blocks north." She pointed and Will barged out the door and into the pouring rain. Layla sat back down with the other sidekicks, but no one said anything.

The rain drove down onto the pockmarked pavement and whipped his hair into sharp strings that flapped into his eyes with every stride. Will's breath came up in columns of steam. He ran down the sidewalk but couldn't see Warren yet. Lightning cracked the whip among the mottled yellowish clouds above like memories and sheets of rain like tears flew into his face as he sprinted along. Black eyes, haunted and accusing, rose behind his vision and he spurred himself on.

Come on, Wren. Where are you? You nearly gave your life for me, and you don't think I'll even defend you to my father? Don't you know that we all love you? As he crossed the next street and pounded down the next set of concrete tiles, a black-leather-clad back suddenly became visible, plodding down the street, not even trying to stay dry.

Meanwhile, the sidekicks were being treated to an argument between Will's parents. Having gotten over her shock at seeing her husband and son shouting at each other, Josie Stronghold had demanded to know what was going on. Will had stormed back into the living room, and then out the door, from the sounds of things. The Commander told her that he had sent the boy she had just met away, and Josie – already fond of Warren – had blown her top.

After a nasty argument, Josie stormed out of the kitchen herself with the final remark: "We took his parents from him, Steve! The least we can do is welcome him into our house!" She stalked past the group in the living room and thundered up the stairs. Ignoring the hot stares of the teenagers on the floor, the Commander stomped past them and into the den, shutting the door with a sharp snap. The tulips on the corner table wilted.

"Warren! WARREN!" Will yelled over the rain as he ran to catch up to the other boy. Warren's head lifted slightly far ahead of him, then ducked again as the flame thrower redoubled his pace. Will shook his head angrily and hurled himself forward. Grabbing his friend's arms, he stopped Warren short and yanked him around. Warren's black eyes scrutinized him for a second, then dropped to the pavement. With a start, Will realized that there were tears running down his friend's cheeks along with the raindrops.

"Hey, hey…" Will murmured, pulling his friend closer and swiping the tears away with his thumb. Warren gave a hard sort of snarl and struggled out of Will's grip. Will grabbed him again and pulled him around to face him.

Finally, the taller boy gave up and just looked away, down the darkened road. The wind whistled and drove the needle-like sheets of rain into Will's skin. He deliberated on what to say for a few seconds. This was really Layla's department, but he understood why she'd sent him to do it.

"Wren. Look at me," Warren gave a sort of snort at his nickname, which Will took as a good sign. "Look at me." When he did, Will felt a stab of pain at the sadness in those already-hollow eyes. He took his friend by the shoulders and said fiercely, "My dad does not know you. Not like I do! He may have known your father, but you are not your father. You're Warren, and you're the most heroic person I've ever met. You didn't deserve that! OK?" He gave Warren's shoulders an emphatic shake and didn't let his friend look away. Finally, Warren sighed and gave a half-shrug, and at last said something, so quietly that Will could barely hear it over the rain.

"Never mind, man. It's not like it's the first time…" Not like it'll be the last.

"Yes, I DO mind! People don't deserve to say those things about you! Come on, all of them combined aren't worth your spit." Warren snorted lightly at this but Will pressed on. "They don't know half of what's happened to you. Hell, I don't know half of what's happened to you! It's like what Layla says: We shouldn't judge people based on anything that's not their own actions and thoughts." From down the road, the headlights of the bus began the ascent up the hill. Warren closed his eyes and sighed. Will shook him again, then stroked the wet, dark hair off of his friend's face. The red streak gleamed in the eerie glow of the street lamp like blood on an altar. The thought of sending his friend back to his dilapidated house, where he lived all alone, was unthinkable while he was in this state. Warren looked down at Will as if seeing him for the first time. Will shivered at the blank look in his friend's eyes. Warren misinterpreted the movement.

"You cold?" he reached out and felt for Will's temperature. "Here." He tried to ignite his hand but all that came up was steam. "Oh…the rain," the black haired boy muttered. He looked right up at the sky and laughed, a broken, half-deranged sound. Will had never seen anything so desperately heartbreaking. He shivered again and grabbed Warren's chin, forcing him back down to earth, back to somewhere he could connect to.

"Wren, I'm sorry my dad said those things. I really am…I can't begin to tell you how angry I am at him."

"Yeah, I heard you yelling as I left," he acquiesced with a ghost of a smile. The bus pulled up to the corner. Warren turned to get on, but Will pulled him back once more. "I know you don't want to come back to the party; I wouldn't either if I were you, but…we'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

Sigh. "Okay."

"And, Wren…"

"Hmm?"

"Don't hurt yourself."

"What is this, Warren!" Holding the long red shreds of skin to the muscle underneath, as black thread and silver needle flashed desperately through the pain. Hazy eyes regarded them dully and blood seeped between the peeling tiles of the bathroom floor. The bare lightbulb overhead threw a cold look over the scene. A dull black-hilted knife floated in the toilet bowl.

Warren cast a searching look back at the shorter boy and absently tugged down the long sleeves of his jacket as he did so.

"Okay." He smiled, still a little too sadly for Will's taste, but he smiled, and Will smiled back as Warren paid the driver and sat down behind him. Will waved his friend off, then set back up the rainy hill to his house where his friends waited. Lightning wandered the heavens above him.

He will accept you, Wren. Everyone will, some day. It's just that…well, I guess it's true: Sorry really is the hardest word.

Fin.

Wren: (n) any of a family (Troglodytidae) of numerous small more or less brown oscine singing birds; especially a very small widely distributed bird (Troglodytes troglodytes) that has a short erect tail and is noted for its song. Capable of survival under the most adverse conditions; a bird of tough and hardy spirit.