Author's Note: Due to the awesome response from "Keep on Trucking" and due to some awesome reviewers, this story got written! More of a direct sequel to "Sorry's Always Hard To Say" and "Ribbons of Red" than anything else. The Commander and Warren talk after a nasty battle. What comes out of it? From the Commander's POV.
I grunt as I heave one of the enemies through the wall. Beside me, Josie whips through the scream-filled air. Bodies litter the floor. If it's not the most gruesome battle I've ever been through, it's certainly made it into the top ten.
Will, Layla, and their friends are moving together through the battle in a little clump. As I spare them a glance, Ethan melts and one of the enemies slips. Will punches the black-clad attacker in the face and he goes through the far wall. Mysteriously, a potted plant explodes from its pot in an effort to restrain the enemy. The purple shape shifter takes her martial arts training, courtesy Gym-Teacher Man, to town. On her left, Zach 'Attack' blinds her enemies to give her a fighting chance. Only one of their little group isn't with them. As I hurl a steel I-beam at a legion of attackers, I see him out of the corner of my eye.
In front of me a ways and to the left, the Peace boy ignites in a rage against his attackers. They fall like flies before a monstrous flame dragon, circling above his head. I remember Will telling me that, the day that this boy had attempted suicide, he'd summoned one of these elementals to the chagrin of the general population. Of course it made people frightened, Will. It was his father's specialty, to form things out of fire and make them do his bidding. Don't look at me so angrily when I tell you this, son, because you weren't around to face that man. Even after so many years, I can hear his cold laughter as he killed…and killed…and killed. You could not even imagine the destruction that manifested before that man's hands. He was the only villain ever to nearly kill me. I am glad that he's behind bars. I can't help but not trust your friend, Will. In his veins runs the desire for destruction, a pure hot-bloodedness that allows his dragon to lay claim to these enemies without a second thought.
The line before us suddenly breaks and scatters, and we press on to the main control room. As we surge into the room, the final front turns to meet us. We charge. The light around us is blinding and the screams deafening. A fireball hisses right past my ear and I realize that the Peace kid is fighting right next to me. He's as tall as I am, now. Another rip in his decrepit jeans as blood blooms below it from a lethal blade. He doesn't flinch. His attacker is down in the next moment and he rushes off to the aid of Ethan.
I turn back to the battle. My way is clear, finally. I see what we've come here to destroy. In the center of the room, a massive apparatus looms: a computer that controls an ozone-depleting ray. I hurry to it and slam my fist into the "Self-Destruct" button. Curious how these things always come with that button attached. With a blast no louder than the screams around me, the control panel and everything attached to it disintegrates. The explosion continues into the floor, and I see that the computer has massive cables rooted into the ground. I peer down into the awning hole, easily fifteen feet across, as the reaction bores deeper and deeper into the ground. God, how long are these cables? Just as I can't see the light of the computer's destruction anymore, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
I wheel around but it's too late. A hard shove to my shoulders and I'm falling into the hole, miles deep. I may be nearly impervious, but this drop will kill me. Josie didn't even see me fall. The opening fades to the size of a pillow above me, jagged and gleaming as attacks fly over it. Now it's the size of a silver dollar. I didn't think I'd die without anyone even noticing. Suddenly, a blinding red light covers the opening and rocks into the hole after me. It gets nearer and nearer as we continue the endless fall. Shocked, I realize what it is. It can't be. Is that…?
A flame dragon. And on its back, defying the laws of matter and heat, is the Peace boy. The dragon opens its mouth and roars deafeningly and he spurs it on. With a thunderous roar, the dragon heaves past me like a freight train. I'm face to face with the rider now, and he reaches out and grabs me. The dragon trumpets again and we're on our way up, miles and miles up. The heat is intense, oh God, it burns, but I'm alive. We explode through the opening, clearing it by about an inch or two. Peace releases me and I use the projectile force to slam into a group of attackers. Flames burst like song behind me and half of the beasts fall before it.
We won, that's all I can say for the resulting fight. Now we stand, just thirteen of us. One hundred and forty had entered the building. All around us is the stink of charred flesh, and the moans of the nearly-dead mix with the hiss of the damaged machines. Layla and Zach go around, comforting the injured. Magenta and Ethan are holding each other up. Will is frantic with worry. I hear him calling desperately for the Peace boy. Alarmed, his friends stop their previous pursuits and fan out to search through the bodies. The hunt grows increasingly desperate, and tears are beginning to come down as they fear the worst. Abruptly, Layla grabs Will's hand and points to a nearby hallway. A red glow grows nearer and nearer, and the dragon elemental drifts, eerily silent, into the room. Will runs up to it. It stares down at him for a minute, then beckons with a claw and heads back the way it came.
I turn back to tend to Josie, who's hit her head and is unconscious. Will and his friends follow the dragon to their friend, who, it turns out, was just stuck under some twisted metal beams. As I bandage Josie's head gently, they come back into the room laughing in relief, triumphant, invincible, with the dark kid in their midst. I turn to look at them and end up catching Peace's eyes dead. He turns his head suddenly and walks away. Layla goes after him. He's standing further away from me but now seems to be in shock. Layla puts her hand on his arm and says something in a low, questioning voice. I can hear his shocked response dimly in the deadened room.
"I saved his life!" He puts a hand to his forehead and a spluttering, half-insane laugh comes out of his mouth, "I'm supposed to hate him, and I just saved his life!" Layla shushes him but he shakes his head without stopping and starts to back away, towards the huge bay windows. The dragon puffs and moves towards them, too. Without warning, Battle's son turns and flings himself onto the dragon's back. It turns and hurls itself with amazing speed towards the window. We all wince as the glass shatters and the monolith twists into the empty air. We're fifty stories up. Fortunately for its master, the dragon seems to be able to fly.
"Warren!" Will cries out, as he lifts into the air slightly. Layla grabs him and tells him to let it alone. I'm drawn back to the world by a hand on my arm. I look down at Josie and could cry with relief. She's awake and looking at me.
"Steve? What happened?"
Days later, at our house, Josie and I relax in the kitchen. Will and one of his friends are outside in the back yard, relaxing on the retaining wall facing away from the house. We asked him what he they were doing out there, but he wouldn't tell us. We assumed the obvious: He was with Layla, and doing typical teenage dating things. The shade trees are marvelous out there, and the kid's battle wounds are healing underneath them. I can't help but think that they were too young to go into that sort of battle. Layla's good for him, I think to myself. She's a good ying to his yang. A genuinely nice girl, she is.
Will comes into the kitchen and greets us. He goes to the cupboard and grabs a bag of Doritos. Suddenly, Layla's voice rings through the house from the front hall.
"Will? Can you come here for a second?"
"Sure!" My son yells back. He turns to face me hopefully. "Dad, can you do me a big favor? Will you take these chips to my friend out there, we're starving!" I look down at Josie without meaning to, and am surprised by a weird grin on her face. She straightens her expression and motions me off.
"Okay…" I say. I move off to the back door with the bowl in my hands. Wait a minute. Layla's in the front with Will, not in the back. I shrug and walk into the back yard anyway. I'll just leave it there for them. The retaining wall is obscured by trees so badly that you can only see pieces of it through a sort of pathway through the low brush. I walk towards the patch of wall and the birds chirp around me. One even crosses my path and sings at me a bit.
I lean down to look at it. Josie loves to classify animals, especially birds, in our backyard. She's frequently tried to pass it off on me. Now, I study it and try to figure out what kind it is. She was always better at it than me. Hmm. A short, erect tail. Small, very small, but with a loud, sweet singing voice. It's a common brown color. I snap my fingers and smile. It's a House Wren. The little nuisance cocks its head at me and goes about its business. I continue my walk.
When I get to the retaining wall, I set the bowl down without looking left or right, instead captivated by the trees around me. They're so big and beautiful this time of year, forming their own type of kingdom in this place. So beautiful. I sigh and turn to go, and am brought up short with surprise.
Battle's son is sitting on wall, unmoving, staring at me with wide eyes. He's been sitting there the entire time, watching me. We look at each other for a moment before it clicks. Will deliberately set this up. I realize that Josie's in on this, too. Nobody conspires quite like the family. They'll never talk to me again if I don't sort this out now, I know. I heave a mental sigh.
"Oh, uh…hi," I say to him. Black eyes scrutinize me warily. He doesn't say anything, so I try again.
"Umm…can I sit down?" He looks at me for a moment more, then gestures at the wall with an 'It's-a-free-world' sort of expression. I know it well, after being a father for so long.
A few minutes of uncomfortable silence pass. I don't know how to begin. It seems I was wrong about him when I told him to get out of my house so long ago. Fortunately, he provides me with a way to break the ice: A small flame erupts from his finger and transforms into a tiny, dancing Chinese dragon. It wanders around by his ear.
"You know," I begin. He looks up at me, startled. "That was a pretty cool elemental you summoned back there." He looks back at the ground and kicks at a leaf.
I deliberate on my next move and decide just to go for it. I never was a man of patience, or for mincing words.
"Listen… I just want to say thank you." Surprise on his face as he peeks out at me from behind his lank black hair. "You saved my life in that pit, and I'm very grateful to you for that."
He looks at me for a moment, then says, "You're welcome." He's not really the talkative type. I don't blame him. There's a skeleton that needs to come out of the closet now. It's time for me to man up to my mistakes.
"And, um… that night, when you came over for the party –"
He shakes his head, suddenly and violently. "Forget it."
"No, I won't."
"It happens," he mutters, pulling at one of his red streaks. The action exposes his ear, strafed with piercings, and on his arm, a flame tattoo. He's done everything he can think of to destroy himself. The arm suddenly flips as he inspects his hand, and the white scars on his wrists gleam. I gulp at the horrendous length and obvious depth of them. He really was serious. I look up at the tall trees again.
"Well, it may happen. Lots of things happen in this world, and I know that you know that better than most adults. Sometimes things happen when they shouldn't, and what I said that night was one of them." He spares a glance at me, and I see a dim glimmer of hope in his eyes.
"Warren… what I said. It was wrong of me to say it, and wrong of me to assume those things just because of who your father was. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm sorry."
He lifts his head and looks at me with both eyes this time, and I look back. Suddenly, he gives me a small smile and holds out his hand. I shake it firmly and he smiles all the way. I offer him the bowl of Doritos, and he shakes his head.
"No thanks, we just ate."
"Ah… Will gave me the impression that you all were hungry," I say, winking at him, "How silly of him. And, for all of his hunger, he seems to have disappeared without his chips." A smile tugs onhis lips as I tease him, and he laughs.
I stand up and brush the back of my pants off, then turn back to him and jerk my head at the house. "I bet they somehow made their way to the chocolate chip cookies. Think we should let them have 'em all?"
Warren snorts and jumps off of the wall. "No way."
I smile at him and clap a hand on his shoulder, and we move back up the path to the house.