Chapter 13: Compos Mentis
Sidekick History was one of the more interesting hero support classes. Well, it certainly beat Motorcycle Sidecar Basics, Magenta thought, which was the lamest subject ever, even by sidekick class standards. Despite this, when the bell rang, signalling not only the end of the lesson, but the end of another school day, she eagerly leapt from her seat and quickly slung her notebook and pens into her bag, tucking the hefty required text, Aqualad to Zook: A History of Hero Support Through the Ages, under her arm. Zach followed suit but was stopped by Mr Boy was as he tried to leave without handing in his essay on Radon Kid.
Magenta was surprised to find a tall, skinny boy waiting outside the classroom. Lash was paler than usual and obviously agitated as picked at his striped sleeves and scanned the students filing out. He met Magenta's eyes and attempted a friendly smile.
"Magenta, where's… um… Layla?"
"Not that it has anything to do with you, Langford, but she's been transferred to hero classes," she replied, her dark eyes narrowing at him.
Lash pursed his lips together.
"I do not believe this…"
Why was Lash so bothered about Layla's upgrade to hero? Why was he even looking for Layla in the first place? Magenta wondered as she watched him walk away. She had never noticed before how ungainly he was, what a clumsy, shambling gait he had. How could this person have been one half of the duo that was undefeated at Save the Citizen before Will powered up?
Magenta glanced back inside Mr Boy's classroom.
"…so when the ink ran out on my printer, I went out to buy some more, but the store was shut, so then I tried to save the assignment onto disk, but it didn't work…"
Zach's hand gestures became increasingly emphatic as he embellished his excuse. Mr Boy stroked his moustache, looking decidedly unimpressed. Magenta groaned. Zach just didn't understand that the trick to telling a convincing lie was to keep it short and sweet. Long, laborious details screamed out as loudly as the neon Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. But then, he wasn't exactly renowned for his subtlety. And would she have him any other way? She allowed herself a small grin. Probably not.
Magenta looked back down the corridor at Lash as he battled against the exodus of students, advancing towards a girl with a tousled mane of red hair. Layla smiled at him, but as Lash had his back to Magenta, she could not see if this was returned. When he reached her, he grabbed her roughly by the arm and leaned down to her ear level. Whatever he was saying to her immediately made Layla's face drop. She seemed to be opening her mouth to respond, but Lash began dragging her away from the flow of people.
Magenta's grip on her textbook tightened. This did not look good.
The shadowy, empty gym was eerily quiet. Warren skidded along the polished, wooden floor as Layla hauled him inside, her fingers digging fiercely into his arm.
"What the hell are you doing to me, Warren?" Layla demanded as he freed himself from her grip.
Warren licked his lips, his mouth had gone dry. "I'm sorry…"
"Some of us are actually concerned about higher things than their own selfish needs!" Layla interrupted as she gave him a hard stare. Warren was strongly reminded of Mrs Williams' reaction when she found out Layla had been fighting another student. "I was trying to make a stand and you've ruined everything!"
Neither of them heard Magenta sneak into the gym and hide behind the stands. Rodent-like stealth even in human form was one of the few advantages of being able to shapeshift into a guinea pig. Lash's voice reverberated through the gymnasium.
"And the hair… What is going on with the goddamn hair? Did it occur to you that it might be an idea to brush it once in a while?" she shouted, her eyes blazing. "As if it isn't bad enough that you're getting to see me naked everyday, but you could at least make an effort!"
Magenta struggled not to shriek out loud. Layla was seeing Lash naked everyday? What the hell? And why was he giving her style advice?
"Hey!" said Warren, affronted. "I haven't been perving on you or anything. What do you take me for?"
"Hah! Well I guess that much is true." There was a nasty edge to Layla's words that made Warren flinch. Layla never spoke like this, it threw him off-balance.
"I know about you and Will," she explained, taking in his faintly bewildered expression.
Oh, no. She knew.
"Look, the kiss didn't mean anything," Warren said hurriedly. "It sorta… just… happened…"
"Kiss? You kissed him?" Layla was almost screeching.
"Why didn't I see this sooner?" Layla berated herself as she pushed Lash's hair from her eyes. Warren was being attacked by guilt and fear. He really didn't want to hurt Layla, and now she knew, it was only a matter of time before Will also found out the truth.
"There's nothing to see," he said, backtracking. "Like I said, it was a mistake!"
"You're kidding yourself!"
"And you're not?" Warren retorted. As bad as he felt about upsetting Layla, her holier-than-thouness was really starting to grate on his nerves. "All this crap about you and hero classes. What's wrong with wanting to better yourself? Why can't you just admit that you're scared? Or are you just enjoying the view from your moral high horse too much?"
Layla was seething. How dare he? Warren had used her to get what he wanted from Will, and now he had the audacity to question her motives? Layla was sweet. She was considerate, patient and understanding. But even she had her limits and the boundary of these limits, which had been put under considerable strain since Will had broken up with her, had now been stretched to well beyond breaking point. When someone like Warren snapped, it was never exactly pleasant, but it was pretty standard.
When someone like Layla snapped, it was terrifying.
A loud crack resonated through the gym as Layla's palm connected sharply with Warren's cheek, bright, red finger-marks instantly flaring up on the pale skin. Layla stretched out Lash's bendy arms, thrusting Warren into Coach Boomer's umpire chair.
Magenta jumped out from behind the stands and whacked Layla on the back of the head repeatedly with her copy of A History of Hero Support Throughout the Ages until she released her hold on Warren.
"You are seriously going to regret that, elasto-turd!" she said threateningly, wrapping a protective arm around Warren's shoulders.
Magenta was surprisingly wiry. Layla clutched the back of her head, where she could feel a tender bump already starting to swell. Her eyes stung with tears. Everything was falling apart. Warren was supposed to be her friend, how could do this to her? How could he say these things? She flopped onto a seat on the stands gracelessly, unable to stop herself from crying.
"I can't take this anymore, I just can't!" she managed between sobs. "God, Maj, I'm losing it!"
Magenta gaped at the hunched figure of Lash before her. Something had really been bugging her about Layla and Warren for the last week, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Moreover, her contact with Lash, though minimal, hadn't seemed quite right either. So, maybe Layla was still getting her head together after her break up with Will. Maybe Lash was floundering without that dumbass Speed. And maybe Warren was acting all tetchy because… he was Warren?
No. There was just something very, very wrong, it was like an itch niggling the back of Magenta's mind. Shapeshifters by their very nature knew that appearances could not be trusted, and as such tended to put more faith in their instincts than in their eyes. And that conversation she had been eavesdropping on just didn't make any goddamn sense. Unless… The more she thought about it, the more the most insane explanation actually seemed like the most sane.
"No way," she said quietly, looking closely at the tall boy crying loudly before her. "Layla? Is that you?"
Layla wailed and lurched into her arms and Magenta found herself in the unlikely position of comforting a weeping 'Lash'. Magenta turned to the redheaded girl.
"Warren? But how did this happen?"
"It was Mr Medulla!" Layla blurted out unthinkingly, clapping a hand to her mouth in horror. Warren held his breath. They were silent for a couple of minutes as Layla tried to compose herself.
"Well, as it seems I'm done for, I may as well tell you everything…"
When Layla finished her story, she dissolved into tears again. Magenta said nothing for a short while as she processed the information.
"Pledgerin?" she said finally, incredulous. "Oh, you gotta be kidding me. Don't tell me you guys bought that? I'm not so hot on Mad Science, but a drug that's activated when you break a promise?" Magenta turned to Warren. "Warren, you're a science geek. Tell me, really, how plausible is that?"
Strangely, Warren hadn't given it much thought until now, he had just accepted what Medulla had said. But Magenta had a very good point.
"Now you mention it, not very."
Layla abruptly stopped crying.
"Mr Medulla lied to us?" she asked, hiccupping.
"Yeah, but really think about this," Magenta said, scratching her chin. "Not only did you guys break into his lab, but you tried to steal an exam paper and you destroyed one of his precious inventions. So why haven't you been expelled, or at least been put in detention for the next decade? I'm guessing Medulla's trying to save his own ass by covering it up…"
Warren pinched the top of his nose and shut his eyes. Magenta was a sharp kid. "Experiments in mind-altering technology need official clearance from the ethics committee of the International Confederation of Metahumans," he said slowly. "If Medulla's been secretly building the mindswapper here, I don't think he has it…"
"Why the hell didn't we figure this out before?" Layla asked. She dried the tears from her face with one of her sleeves. Her look of dismay had turned to one of anger.
"Beats me," shrugged Magenta. "And I thought Will was supposed to be the stupid one."
"He isn't stupid!" Warren and Layla chorused, then glowered at each other.
"Sure he isn't," Maj chuckled.
Zach chose this moment to walk into the gym.
"Maj, there you are! We're gonna miss the bus…" His eyes fell on the hand Magenta had on Layla's arm. "What… what are you doing?"
"Brace yourself, Zachary. You are not going to believe what I'm about to tell you…"
Dunes of red sand rolled out to the horizon like waves, the sun blazing overhead in a cloudless, ultramarine sky. Lash blinked as the hot, dry wind blew grains of sand in his face. He and Will had just finished fighting against a simulated team of mecha-villains equipped with advanced weaponry in the middle of a desert sandstorm, one of the Holo-Room's higher level programs. It was a mixed result – they had saved two citizens, but the third had been blasted by the super cannon they failed to disable.
Will rubbed his jaw after being hit in the face by some shrapnel.
"How is it that holograms can hurt?" he asked as he wiped away the patina of sweat on his brow. "Gotta be something to do with animatronics and force fields, right?"
How the hell am I supposed to know? Lash thought. "Yeah… that's right."
Will grinned widely. "See, some of that Mad Science stuff you've been teaching me has been sinking in!"
Lash shook his head as he noted how pleased with himself Will looked.
"What do you want, Stronghold, a biscuit?" he asked witheringly as he brushed away the blood dripping from the corner of his mouth.
Will frowned slightly. "Maybe we should've suited up, especially if we're going to be practising on the more difficult programs," he said. "These holograms really pack a punch, even with the safety protocols in place."
Lash made an impatient noise. Stronghold had no sense of fun at all. "Christ, quit being such a pansy. We can both take it, you know."
"I know that. It's just a little reckless…" said Will a little wearily. Something seemed to flicker in his eyes, but before Lash had time to identify what it was, Will had shouted "Watch out!" and had knocked him to the ground as a cannonball sailed past them a hair's breadth away. Another glitch in the Holo-Room. The program was supposed to stop when the time ran out, regardless of whether or not the villains were defeated.
Even in Warren's pyrokinetic body, the sand was scorching hot on Lash's back. Will's pupils were dilated, his breathing had quickened. Lash was very conscious of his sweaty body pressing against him. Lash wasn't sure why he wanted to carry on causing problems for Will. The fight had gone out of him. But this was all just too tempting.
"Well?" Lash asked, panting slightly.
"Well, are you going to stare at me like that all day, or are you going to kiss me?"
Lash wondered how on earth he managed to say that with a straight face. It was just too funny. As if Peace would ever have the balls to come out and say it like that, even though it was clear that it was exactly what he wanted. Now Stronghold knew all about the crush his best friend had on him. As Will moved forward, Lash steeled himself for the punch he was sure would follow. What happened instead was completely unanticipated…
Zach had said that Will and Lash were practising for the Save the Citizen tryouts, so the group made their way down to the sub-basement. Warren and Zach walked ahead, Warren trying to convince Zach that being stuck in a chick's body was not as great as he might expect.
"Hey, Layla," Maj whispered. "Y'know, there's something I've always wondered about Lash. Does he stretch, I mean, all over?"
"Ewww! Magenta!" cried Layla, flushing beet red. "Having to perform basic functions in this body is traumatic enough without going into… more advanced areas!"
"Heheh," Magenta held up her hands. "You can't blame a girl for being curious!"
"What's so funny?" asked Zach, turning to look at them.
"Never you mind," said Magenta, patting his arm. "Just girl talk."
Warren pushed open the door to the Holo-Room's viewdeck, which Lash and Will had luckily left unlocked. At any other time, Warren would have been impressed by the extraordinary technology of the Holo-Room. The high capacity projectors that generated hyper-realistic hard-light laser constructs, the advanced graviton lenses which simulated the effects of solid surfaces and textures, the acoustic engines that produced accurate noise levels and frequencies…
But all he could see was Will straddling Lash, his hands cupping Warren's own face as he kissed him, Lash's flaming fists pushing against Will's chest, searing hand-shaped holes through Will's t-shirt. He heard Layla gasp beside him, and Magenta make a noise that sounded suspiciously like a reigned-in snigger.
But it was Zach who managed to sum up the collective feeling with a low, "Holy crapola…"
"I don't recall that being one of the stock sidekick catchphrases in Hero Support English…" Magenta muttered, smirking.
The words in Warren's head were even less eloquent than Zach's.
That son of a bitch!
The last thing Lash expected was for Will to actually kiss him.
He had Stronghold's tongue in his mouth!
And it was obvious that Stronghold was… enjoying this a little too much…
Lash knew that this hideous moment was going to be etched with sickening clarity on his mind for the rest of his life. It was useless trying to wrestle with Will's superstrength. He had flamed up, but this didn't seem to bother Will. Oh, God, Lash thought, maybe he thinks I'm powering up because I'm turned on!
The arid air suddenly reverted back to normal room temperature, the sand and sky replaced by a grey floor, walls and ceiling. A female voice echoed through the room.
"Take your hands off him!"
Will leapt up, aghast as he saw Warren's approach. Layla, Magenta and Zach were close behind.
"Layla! I… we…" he spluttered.
"I'm Warren, not Layla!"
Will's brow furrowed. "What…"
"And that's Lash, not me…"
"Will, I'm Layla. I've been stuck in Lash's body for the last week."
"Bleugh!" Lash wiped his mouth as he shakily got to his feet. "Ugh, God, I think I'm gonna puke!"
Will blanched. "Is this some kind of twisted, in no way at all funny joke?"
"'Fraid not, Wonder Boy," Magenta smirked.
Lash looked at Warren and Layla, then glanced over at Magenta and Zach. "So, you told them the truth and your brains didn't implode?"
"Medulla lied about the brain-puréeing thing, but I guessed anyway," Magenta replied.
"How?" Lash asked.
"Because, duh, my intellectual capacity exceeds that of an amoeba? I mean come on!" Magenta counted each point on her fingers. "Layla's been all surly and violent. Lash's been nice to sidekicks and is telling people to recycle. And Warren… Well, Warren's been an asshole, which admittedly did not lend any weight to my theory."
Magenta gave a wry smile at the predictable death-glare Warren threw in her direction.
"So… you're Lash?" Will's face was a mask of confusion as he looked at the boy he had just been kissing.
"Dammit, Will!" Magenta said with a small sigh. "It's a good job you're pretty, because you ain't going win yourself any Einstein awards. Sheesh!"
Lash snickered and Will flung him across the Holo-Room.
"Stronghold! I'm going to need that body back sometime, y'know!" Warren said warningly.
"B-but he… he… but… but…" Will stuttered. His arms were shaking.
"Yeah," Maj smiled. "We saw."
Will winced, his paled cheeks now flooding with colour.
"Oh, and Will? You might want to put some clothes on?" she added with a laugh, cocking her head towards the tattered, burnt piece of cotton that remained of his t-shirt. Layla scowled. Magenta was enjoying this far too much. She personally did not find this even vaguely amusing.
With the force that Layla hurled the door of the Mad Science lab open, Warren and Lash were surprised that the glass didn't shatter. She grabbed Warren and Lash by the ears and pulled them into the classroom to a chorus of 'ows', her pacifist beliefs hanging by a slender thread.
"This is highly intricate and complex work!" Mr Medulla reproached, emerging from the mindswapper, holding a telescopic chrome device with strange attachments. "Would you please refrain from rampaging through the laboratory like a herd of baby elephants?"
Layla smiled sweetly at him. "Oh, sorry to disturb you. We're just checking on the progress of your repairs to this wonderful invention. I'm sure the International Confederation of Metahumans is as anxious as we are…"
The device shook a little in Medulla's hand.
"And they must have been so impressed when you presented pledgerin to the ethics committee. Really, you are a man of many talents, Mr Medulla."
Warren wasn't sure what he found more disconcerting, angry and incoherent Layla or angry and articulate Layla.
Mr Medulla coughed. "Ahem! Yes, well fortunately for all concerned I found a new supplier of high-quality ionic crystals who was able to ship them to me a couple of days ago. I almost have the mindswapper back to full functionality…"
"Somehow, I don't think 'almost' is quite going to cut it, Mr Medulla." There was no sweetness in Layla's voice now.
"I have been working to my limit and beyond for the last week! I have been practically sleeping in this laboratory – I didn't even go home at the weekend!"
Mr Medulla saw that he was wasting his breath. He was not going to be getting any sympathy from these three. Indeed, he felt as if he were one small step from being lynched.
"One hour," he pleaded. "Just give me one hour."
For the next sixty minutes, they sat in stony silence. Layla trying to banish the worryingly satisfying thoughts of strangling Warren with vines. Warren plotting how he could set Lash on fire without getting arrested. Lash firmly thinking of anything, anything, other than the feel of Stronghold's mouth on his.
Finally, they stepped into the silver chamber they found themselves trapped in a week ago. Mr Medulla shut the door behind them, covering them in darkness. A shrill buzz stabbed their eardrums, shaking through every nerve. Multicoloured fireworks bloomed from beneath their eyelids and seemed to splinter through their brains. A nauseating, wrenching sensation overwhelmed them, knocking them off their feet. Gradually, the buzzing died away, and the pain dissipated. The chamber door clunked open, light from the laboratory pouring into the dark.
The three of them stumbled back into the classroom. Lash looked down at his hands like he had never seen them before. He stretched an arm and touched the high ceiling of the lab. Warren's body was so cumbersome and restrictive, even if the flame thing was cool. Nothing could compare to the fluid, easy movements he achieved with his elasticated limbs. With such freedom, anything seemed possible. The sky really was the limit. He grinned. Yup, I'm back!
Layla softly shut her eyes and inhaled deeply. The energy from the plants on the school grounds rushed through her, it was like the beat of a hundred hearts was pumping her veins. A sense that had been dead to her for the last week had been resurrected. She could compare it to feeling like a blind person whose vision had suddenly been restored, but that dull analogy did not even scratch the surface. It was… beautiful.
Warren smiled as Layla wiped away a tear. He wasn't about to start crying, but he knew how the hippie felt. With a quick flex of his fingers, the familiar heat washed over him and burst from his skin, his fist a ball of fire. He looked at the flames like he had run into a long-lost friend. How could he have ever hated this? He finally understood that fire was rooted in his soul. He never wanted to be without it again.
Mr Medulla clapped his hands together with forced jollity. "Everything is back to normal. Excellent. So, shall we just forget all this unpleasantness?"
"On one condition," said Layla, crossing her arms. "Warren gets to blast the mindswapper and you never, ever rebuild it. No-one should have to be put through an experience like this. As I'm sure the International Confederation would agree."
They could almost hear the rapid inner-workings of the mad scientist's super-sized brain. The destruction of a pioneering innovation versus global disgrace. His nostrils flared as he assessed the pros and cons of each. A vein twitched horribly on his forehead.
"Very well, have it your way," he surrendered through gritted teeth. "But this is never mentioned again. Don't forget that you three broke into my classroom and attempted to appropriate an exam paper. None of us are stainless in this matter."
Layla smiled triumphantly. "Warren, would you do the honours?"
Orange flames shot up from the pyro's hands. "Gladly."
"Hey, Peace, is that you?"
Warren nodded at Magenta, who was stood beside Zach as she leaned on the wall outside of Medulla's classroom.
"Will's been hiding in the boy's locker room. You should go talk to him."
Warren did not want to see Will right now. He couldn't understand what had happened between him and Lash in the Holo-Room, but he knew it had to be Lash's doing. Why couldn't everything just be like it was before? His life was a damn sight easier when Will was his archememy. Emptier, but easier.
"Go on…" Magenta smiled encouragingly.
"Shall we go get one of the late buses?" she asked Zach as Warren disappeared down the corridor. "Who knows how long those two are going to be and Will can always fly them both home."
Zach looked as if he were trying to solve a particularly difficult Mad Science equation.
"So… Will and Warren… are…"
"Gay? Looks like it."
"But how?" asked Zach, his eyebrows shooting up. "When? How?"
"That's two 'hows', Zach. Not a problem is it?" Magenta regarded him steadily.
"No," he said quickly. "No way. 'Course not. I'm cool with it, I mean whatever."
"Zach, gay superheroes are hardly uncommon," she said sagely. "I mean, all the ingredients are there – the body-building, the tight spandex, the whole homoerotic sidekick/hero dynamic…"
"Like since when were heroes and their 'kicks… umm… homoerotic?" asked Zach, a note of alarm in his voice.
"Two words for you, Zach Attack: Darkflight and Canaryboy."
"N-oo!" Zach protested. "Darkflight was married to the Valkyrie for years!"
"Yeah. A conveniently childless marriage that ended in divorce and Darkflight spent his retirement with Canaryboy!" Maj rejoined.
"Oh yeah, bosom buddies! Denial, much?"
She kissed him lightly on the cheek and looped her arm around his.
"Don't worry," Magenta said with a mischievous grin. "I'll protect you from those über-butch hero types that want your hot body!"
Zach still looked puzzled. "And is Lash gay too?"
Magenta looked over to where he and Layla were talking further down the corridor. Well, they were not so much talking as they were feet shuffling, blushing and determinedly avoiding each other's eyes… Oh, no.
"No, Lash isn't gay," she said with certainty. "He's just a jerk."
Zach followed her gaze and grasped his girlfriend's meaning with unusual acuity. "Did I wake up in some bizarro parallel universe this morning? First Will and Warren, now Layla and Lash?"
Magenta sighed. "Sometimes women are unaccountably attracted to bastards. And Layla Williams is the patron saint of lost causes. Maybe it'll do her good to have a little villain reformation project."
Layla's brows were knitted together. Lash could see the question in her eyes before she even said the words.
"Um, why was Will kissing you?"
He sighed. There seemed to be little point in lying to her. "Because I asked him to."
"Huh. Seems like everyone wants to kiss Will Stronghold." Layla sounded uncharacteristically sour.
"I didn't want him to do it!"
"Right. You asked him to kiss you, but you didn't want him to. Of course, that makes perfect sense!" she said sarcastically.
"I… thought it would be funny…" Lash's voice trailed off as he appreciated how pathetic this sounded. "I didn't expect him to oblige!" he added vehemently.
Layla studied Lash's bemused and horrified expression and started to laugh.
"You know, I'm not sure why I'm laughing," she said between giggles. "This really isn't funny."
"No. It really isn't," Lash agreed, but despite himself he was smiling too.
Her smile soon faded, her eyes becoming melancholy.
"I guess I always knew on some level why Will was never that into me," Layla sighed. "I just didn't want to admit it."
Lash could sense the sadness hanging over Layla. For some unfathomable reason it made him feel angry for her.
"If it's any consolation, Stronghold is an idiot."
Layla laughed. "No he isn't, but I appreciate the sentiment."
Lash thought she was wrong. Stronghold was an idiot. Layla was… well, she was something else. To dump her for Peace? What was that about? Well, he was gay, but still.
There was a lot Lash wanted to thank Layla for. For making him realise that his dad was OK, for the kindness she had shown him when she found out about his mom… but the words didn't seem to want to form themselves on his lips. All he could manage was to smile at her stupidly. Layla smiled back. It was a great smile. Actually, Lash thought, she'd be really quite pretty if she wasn't such an annoying, preachy, eco-mentalist.
"Uh… If you want to… although, you know, it's cool if you don't… I mean I don't mind… but if you're free… um… don't worry if you're busy or whatever… but would you like to… um… maybe… uh… hang out with me later? Y'know, maybe go get a coffee or something?"
Layla waded through the mire ums and uhs, her brow crinkling. Was Lash asking her out? On a date?
"Oh," she said, slightly taken aback. "Well, I don't actually drink coffee…"
"OK," said Lash in an overly-nonchalant voice. "No problem. Guess I'll…uh… just see you around, then?"
He turned away, shoving his hands in his pockets and screwing his eyes shut. If only he could turn invisible and disappear right now, or if only he had phasing abilities, so the ground really could swallow him whole. God, why was he so stupid? Of course she didn't want to. He had bullied two of her friends, then, driven by jealousy and spite, hatched a plot to discredit her ex-boyfriend, who also happened to be her best friend, and then ended up kissing said ex-boyfriend/best friend in another failed attempt to ruin things for him. Lash wasn't a nice person. Layla knew that. Everyone knew that. Girls like her just didn't go for guys like him.
"But I wouldn't say no to some herbal tea," Layla called out after him.
"Herbal tea?" asked Lash, a small grin breaking across his face. "Hippie, that is weak."
He was suddenly, inexplicably struck by the unwelcome thought that she had seen him without any clothes on. Irritatingly, Lash felt his cheeks grow hot at this realisation. He saw that Layla was blushing too. Maybe she was thinking the same thing? He blushed harder. Ugh, why was this so excruciating? It wasn't like this yesterday. But she wasn't this pretty yesterday his brain informed him.
"You should try cutting out caffeine," Layla said reprovingly, eventually breaking the uncomfortable, mounting silence. "It's really bad for you, you know, but if you do have to drink coffee you should at least make sure it's fair trade stuff."
Lash rolled his eyes and groaned. Prettier, maybe. Less annoying, no.
Lash is a complete bastard, thought Warren as he stood awkwardly in the locker room. He'd fucked everything up spectacularly. Will didn't even seem able to look at him, much less talk to him.
"Warren," said Will finally, his voice full of apprehension. "There's something I need to tell you. Something important." Will fixed his gaze on his sneakers. "It's about… me… and Layla."
Oh, here we go, Warren thought.
"Don't bother, Stronghold," Warren said coldly. "I know what you're going to say, and frankly I don't want to hear it."
Will looked hurt. "Really, you do?" He was barely audible.
"Yeah. You've realised you made a mistake with Layla and now you're going to marry her and she's gonna have your superstrong, horticultural babies."
Will laughed and Warren felt a blistering heat in his fingers.
"God, Warren. You almost sound jealous."
"No," Warren snorted. "What, you think I'm in love with you or something?" He was careful to sound dismissive, scornful… but, was he in love with Will? He didn't know, but seeing him with Lash filled him with a jealousy and yearning that made him feel physically ill.
"No, of course I don't think that," Will said quickly, looking uncomfortable. "Look, Warren, this is really difficult for me. Please, just let me finish. I've got to say this, it's just killing me."
He looked at Warren with his dark blue eyes. "You've got it all wrong. It's not Layla I want." Will took a deep breath and turned away. "It's… you."
No. No way. He must've misheard him. This wasn't possible.
"You… you want me?" Warren asked slowly, disbelievingly.
"Yeah. It's the whole 'I love her but I'm not in love with her' dealie with Layla," Will said, sitting down heavily on a bench. He chewed his lip in that way that Warren knew meant he was either concentrating really hard or felt incredibly nervous. "It's you that I want."
Will rested his head in his hands. "You don't know how happy I was when I thought I was kissing you just now. You don't know how much I'd thought about it. Then I find out that it wasn't even you. It was…" Will shuddered, "… Lash."
Warren was rendered momentarily speechless by Will's admission.
"This has just been eating me up inside. I know you don't feel the same, but if we could still just be friends… I wasn't sure if me and Layla would be able to be friends again after the split. I know how much I've hurt her… But, I didn't want you to end up hating me too..."
"Stronghold…" Warren finally managed to squeeze a word in when Will took a breath, but Will carried on as if he hadn't heard him.
"Then there's the whole issue about what my parents are going to say when they find out that I'm..." Will gulped, seemingly unable to finish the sentence. "You should've seen Dad's face last year when I told him I was put on the sidekick track. He was so disappointed..."
Will stopped then looked around the locker room wildly, twisting his fingers in his damp hair, as if he had just comprehended the magnitude of the situation. "Oh, God, oh, God… I don't think I can breathe…"
"Will…" Warren said gently, interrupting Will's burgeoning panic attack.
That rare use of his first name from Warren instantly silenced the babbling teen. Will looked like he was about to burst into tears. Or throw up. Knowing what a drama queen Stronghold could be, Warren thought it was highly possible for him to be contemplating both.
Warren sat next to him, accidentally nudging Will's shoulder with his own. Will shrunk back, as if he were startled by that brief moment of contact.
"But we did kiss," he reminded Will in a low voice. "When I was in Layla's body last Friday, remember?"
"Oh," said Will, then his eyes widened. "Oh."
Will's lips curved into a shy, hopeful smile that made Warren's stomach flip.
"But it wasn't quite how I wanted it to be," Warren informed him.
"And how… would you want it to be?"
Warren couldn't help but laugh at Will's keen expression. "Angling for a demonstration, hey Stronghold?"
For once Will was quiet, but it was clear from the look he was giving Warren what the answer to that question was. Will wanted him… As he breathed in Will's freshly-showered, soapy scent, Warren was painfully aware that he was still sweaty from Lash's session in the Holo-Room and was in need of a good shower himself. He suddenly felt curiously embarrassed by this, and embarrassed by this new turn in their relationship. He was both thrilled and terrified in equal measure.
Unable to stand it any longer, Warren made the first move, his hand tilting Will's face towards his. Will shivered, despite the fact that the flames were all but bursting from Warren's scalding fingertips. Warren inhaled sharply, suddenly finding that now he was the one struggling to breathe. He closed his eyes and felt Will initially smile into their first real kiss, but this smile soon melted in the blinding heat. He took Will's pouty lower lip sweetly into his mouth, causing the younger boy to let out a soft moan. Nothing else mattered, it was just the two of them, losing themselves in the moment, in each other. Will's fingers gently swirled over the nape of Warren's neck, then tangled through his hair as Warren's hands crept across Will's well-worked shoulders.
It wasn't long before the tenderness gave way to raw intensity, their mouths and their hands becoming urgent, forceful. Will grasped at Warren's t-shirt, delving beneath the fabric and running his hands on his chest. Before Warren even realised what was happening, fire exploded from his palms, blazing and dancing along his forearms. With a significant amount of effort, he forced the flames down, the small part of his brain still capable of rational thought grateful that Will was fireproof. Warren felt dizzy. He was finally kissing Will the way he imagined in his deepest, darkest daydreams and it felt so intoxicating. So right.
After an indeterminate amount of time, they finally broke apart and sat trying to catch their breath.
"Looks like I'm going to need another shirt," Will observed as he tugged at the charred, slightly smoking scrap of material hanging off his torso.
Warren arched a dark eyebrow at him and smiled one of his rare, luminous smiles. As Will's face turned scarlet for the umpteenth time that day, Warren was glad that he wasn't prone to blushing now he was back in his own body.
"Do you care?"
"No," Will murmured in reply, pulling Warren in for another burning kiss.
And so it ends… I'm happy that I can now lay this pesky plot bunny to rest, but I am a little sad that it's all over. I really had fun writing this fic.
Thanks to all of you who have been reading this, but special thanks, of course, to the lovely, lovely people that reviewed (especially you multiple reviewers!) All your comments really meant a lot to me and helped me maintain my motivation!
Even though it's finished, I still would love to know what you think (hint, hint!)
Take care and much love to you all…