CHAPTER EIGHT: CAREFUL THE BURN
"Lunch outside?" Perry asked both girls as he joined them in the cafeteria lineup - cut through it shamelessly, more like, as the thing had grown the figurative equivalent of a gigantic head and tail since the two of them had secured their spot. The freshmen behind them tsk'ed and scowled but didn't start World War Three just to get closer to their pizzas and spaghettis. They weren't even worth the fight anyway.
A weird lull suddenly befell the entire cafeteria as something clattered ominously - food squish-tudding - and someone apparently fell.
Claire looked farther inside the cafeteria, looking for the source of - oh, Christ on a burnt toast.
Vivid red-white-and-blue. Scrawny kid - was that really the Commander's kis? She'd met him before at Super parties and the like but surely... shouldn't he be more... Commander-ish? He'd fallen face first on the caf floor with a bright red plastic platter still in his hands, smack dab next to Warren's table. Not good, really not good. It didn't take a genius to figure out what Warren's reaction would be (no matter how much Claire really wanted to smack some sense into him, for God's sake).
I'd better go get a teacher. Just in case something starts. Before someone gets hurt, was her first thought as she nevertheless stood stock-still, unable to move because, oh, could someone really turn away from a trainwreck? Oh, my, God. And Warren wouldn't be the one getting hurt.
This was her something-like-a-friend Warren she was looking at, getting up with all the sleek feral grace she'd learned to associate with his white-hot anger. His dangerous, get the hell out of his way anger.
I need to do something.
"Oh my God," Cindy's awed whisper reached her amid the collective gasps and held breaths. "He's really gonna fry him this time."
Claire watched the scene unfold in front of her in horrified fascination as Warren blazed before the very eyes of several hundred people assembled in the room. It was beautiful, in a way. Entrancing. Yet even so, even as she watched him tower over that poor terrified kid with her body thrumming with anticipation, her next sane thought was that he was insane.
A crowd had begun to form around the twosome, and Claire had no choice but to reluctantly, shamefully, follow in order to see with her very own eyes just how far Warren was willing to go for... for this... for something she understood, really, and yet not at all.
I should do something, she told herself for the umpteenth time. But her feet wouldn't listen.
"Oh my God," Cindy repeated, standing beside her, just as gobsmacked and helpless. The next second they both shrieked, for Warren had begun attacking in earnest, bent on destroying the awkward Stronghold who, she heard in the jeers and whispers around her, appeared to be completely powerless if the gossip was true.
"Oh my God," Perry said from her other side, and then yelped and added uselessly, "duck!"
A wild fireball very nearly gave her a buzzcut but didn't miss the soup stand as it burst into high flames. Nearby sightseers scattered in fright.
... just as the kid hid beneath the slim protection of a caf table.
"Well that's not very bright," Perry commented mildly as if he were analysing an attack plan as they watched the all-American kid decamp to the farthest end, Warren hot - haha, not - on his tail above and throwing fireball after fireball like so much ammunition. Which it was.
"Where's your sidekick, sidekick," he snarled nastily from above, standing like someone who knew he'd just bullied someone else to the end of their rope, sure and proud.
Please don't be an idiot, Claire prayed fervently.
"Here," four other freshmen stepped up defiantly, though Clair cringed inwardly at the though of what Warren could easily do them, too.
Only... "Holy shit," Cindy gasped, mirroring Claire's sentiment. All-American had daddy's brawn after all! Effortlessly he lifted the table and Warren on top, seeming totally surprised with this new development - was this his first time, then? And... the kid threw Warren back just as effortlessly. Claire winced when she heard the loud crack and thud as he hit the wall and then the floor.
"Uh, is that normal?" Perry asked, eyeing Warren who got up the next instant as if he was looking at a resurrection. "Him getting up, I mean. That must have hurt."
Cindy glanced at his blandly. "That was just a thud," she informed him loftily, returning to the show as if Perry was a nuisance.
Perry would not be deterred. "A painful thud," he mumbled, rubbing his arm as though feeling the pain Warren should feel. But there were soon more thuds, or actually crashed in fact. Like, through walls. "Ow!" Claire's friend cried out, then, awed as Warren climbed out of the hole as if his back hadn't just been used as a redecoration tool, added, "How the heck..."
Things after that happened too quickly to follow, but she heard one of the sidekicks call to the kid - "Will!" - and Warren was running all ablaze, arms and eyes and all, and suddenly white foam exploded out of the fire extinguisher that had just appeared in Stronghold's hands, and into Warren's face.
The second lull of the lunch period fell on all as Claire finally noticed Principal Powers's arrival.
Yep, Claire knew where they were going next.
She caught up to him after school on the way to their bus, grasping the tanned leather strap of his shoulder bag to stop and turn him to face her. "D'you care to explain what happened at lunch?" she
His eyes rolled before he could stop them. "Since when am I accountable to you?" he replied, annoyed, shoving away roughly.
Claire struggled to keep up with his long strides. "Since you gave me Stronghold's name and then left without explaining anything. Next thing I know you're trying to off the kidd. What the hell did he do to you?"
This time he rolled his eyes on purpose, exaggerating the motion and sneering as well. "Sorry, Principal Frost, it won't happen again, I promise."
Claire frowned, biding her time as he gestured for her to climb first on the bus with a sarcastic gentlemanly bow, then followed her in. When he sat, a few rows past the front, she doubled back and sat heavily next to him, effectively crowding him in. "Listen," she said quietly, "I happen to think you're not an asshole, but I just might have to revisit that theory and find I'm an idiot for thinking that." At his belligerent smirk, she exploded a little more loudly, "Ugh! You're such an ass!"
Warren sat back. "Quick turnaround," he remarked dryly, just as caustically.
"Fuck you, Warren Peace."
Snorting, he turned to her, looking at her like she'd lost her marbles. "What the hell did I do to you, Snowflake?"
"Don't call me that," Claire growled through her teeth, arms crossed over her chest so that she looked, ugh, like a sulking kid.
"Claire." He eyed her warily, as though afraid she'd explode again. "What's with you? And don't get all high and mighty because I happen to know you served detention as soon as you set foot in this morning and for a similar offense."
"That perv was undressing me!" she shouted petulantly, realising only belatedly that the whole bus had suddenly become unnaturally quiet. Mortified, she added meekly, "Um, with his eyes. X-ray vision." She coughed.
A smile seemed to tug at Warren's lip as she sank lower in her seat, humiliated beyond belief. Even so, she glimpsed something... different in his eyes. Warmer, she thought. But he quickly looked away, scowling out the window as the bus lifted off their floating school grounds. "Yeah, well, that kid's dad," he said quietly, "stole my childhood."
She could tell he hadn't meant to say so much - he tensed, letting her know his mouth had run away with him. Claire's breath seemed to lodge in her throat as she watched his profile harden, those full lips contract, his fist tighten on the strap of his bag.
"Warren, I..." She started to reach out, to hesitate over his fist, but she found she couldn't do it.
His jaw clenched, once, twice, but he didn't seem to notice her. "Whatever. So, yeah, excuse my bad behaviour and for wanting to bash his face in."
Claire's brows drew in together tightly. "Yes, and the next three years sound like a party," she shot back tartly. Other people ignored their nemeses, but him... "I can hardly wait!"
Her sarcasm earned her a black glare as he turned his face toward her again. "Why exactly does it matter to you, Frost?"
Good question. What could she hope to accomplish, really? The Neanderthal didn't seem inclined to listen to reason. At all. She looked back at him curiously, tilting her head to the side to study him - and come to the conclusion that he really was that pigheaded. "You know, I'm not sure why I came here. But it looks like I'm stuck with you for the next ten minutes, so you shut up and I'll shut up and this can be easier for both of us."
Claire crossed her arms over her chest again, staring ahead broodingly, aware that Warren was still staring at her like she'd sprouted a second head and matching antennae. She was also aware that her face was burning up... with shame and something she couldn't explain but which made her chest feel a little bit colder than usual.
She remained steadfast, staring ahead at the approaching ground, letting the less than smooth landing crash through her body, gritting her teeth like everyone else. She heard Warren's grunt; swallowed hers; suffered through their bus driver's far too offensive driving; remained silent and rigid through it all.
Finally her stop came. Without a backward glance at her seat partner, she stood and swung her backpack over her shoulders. She got off, looked back as the bus started forward again, and saw him staring frankly at her, his eyes boring into hers with an intensity she still wasn't used to before he abruptly averted his gaze. The bus rumbled away.
Claire's feet felt leaden even as she began the short walk to her house. His words echoed into her mind as they had throughout the ride, messing with her head. Why exactly does it matter to you, Frost?
The thing was, she'd thought about it for exactly ten minutes, and the answer-question she'd come up with horrified her. Did I really think I could change him?
Claire pondered that another few steps, hesitating at every one of them, then paused, frowning. I didn't. So why did I try?
Her mother, waving a hose over her wilting wild roses - the summer had been harsh - cried out when she noticed Claire standing like an idiot on the doorstep. "Claire! Did you forget your keys, honey?"
Wrenching herself from her mental puzzle, Claire waved back. "No. Um, I thought I felt something in my shoe."
Claire was panting haltingly the next day in Focus Group as she plopped next to Warren. "Truce," she managed to say before refreshing herself with her palms over her red face.
Her morning had gone as wrong as it could have: she'd slept through snooze after snooze; her toast had burnt to a crisp; the shower drain had blocked; she'd very nearly missed the bus ("very nearly" being the operative words, and thank gosh for small wonders); and she'd had a very nasty ordeal in the bathroom after her first class when she discovered a telltale stain on her crotch, nothing to weather the damn deluge to come, and having to rinse the blood off and dry it with minimum exposure to onlookers, even if they were girls and girls did sympathise because they all feared the bloody pants nightmare.
Yep, she'd totally forgotten the red days were more than due, explaining why she'd also had to zip to Nurse Spex's office to beg for painkillers.
Claire Frost: where's her head?
Between six o'clock and ten-thirty she'd finally managed to unearth her head and had headed for her second class at a fast clip. And so here she was, irascibility dimmed considerably now that the Advils were kicking in, and her brain screwed on tight - hopefully.
That's right. She'd worried about her last conversation - if such it could be called, because she'd pretty much talked at him - all night, which accounted for the snooze button fest earlier. Lost sleep over her stupid running mouth.
Warren had been lounging cross-legged against the wall with his eyes closed and his head slightly bowed before her rushed arrival and hellos to familiar faces from last year, but now he sighed, opened an eye, and glanced at her. "What?" he asked, the single word loaded with exasperation.
"Truce," Claire repeated, settling more comfortably and removing her backpak. "I didn't mean to sound so..."
"Stuck up?" Warren offered helpfully.
She winced. "Something like that. I mean, I'm not your mother and you're right, you're not accountable to me. So, truce?" she asked hopefully, thrusting out a hand somewhat awkwardly for him to shake.
Since when did they shake hands?
For an interminable moment, he seemed to debate and hesitate over her proffered hand, but finally he took it, the heat a welcome buffer for her glacial nervosity. He didn't immediately let go, though, a thoughtful frown marring his brow. Then he did let go. "I suppose you think I'm being childish," he said quietly before Tandy - no one had every called her Professor because she just didn't ooze that sort of stale bookishness - rushed in, excusing herself over her tardiness.
"Sorry, ran into Powers," she explained briskly. "Now, let's go over the roster and you'll introduce yourselves - yes, everyone" - she shot a sulking sophomore a warning look - "then I'll pair the noobs" - she winked teasingly - "with the old farts" - this time she pulled out her tongue - "for today at least. Next time we'll figure out more power-compatible pairings if possible. Though, remember, you will be randomly paired from time to time. This arrangement will be so that you can develop your powers with someone who can actually help you - that'll be the old farts."
Low conversations resumed as Tandy called names aloud. Claire turned to Warren, half listening to a small mousy girl introduce herself. "In a way..." she edged awkwardly, "I understand the motivation, I guess, but..."
"But your dad's still with you," Warren finished, subdued.
Claire worried her lip, unable the counter the ineffable logic. It was true, dammit. She'd never know what it was like to grow up in his father's scandal, with the open animosity aimed an innocent child who hadn't been old enough to understand and who'd had to grow a thick skin in order to navigate through the nightmare. He could have broken down, he could have rebelled and lashed out viciously in the name of vengeance, he could be in jail for all she knew, but he hadn't, and he wasn't, and she admired him for his strength. Claire wasn't sure she would have been able to stay afloat, but then again, circumstances built character and she'd been reared differently. Who knew who she would have turned out to be in his situation. Who knew...
But the fact was, he was right. She didn't know.
"Right," she answered quietly. She watched a sophomore coolly droning his introduction and showing his seismic power - at a fraction of its potential, of course. "We're still okay, though," she stressed suddenly, gazing back up at Warren's bored expression and nudging him, "right?"
He nodded distractedly, his mind decidedly elsewhere, just as her name was called aloud. Whatever else might have been said was put on the back burner for the time being.
Claire was paired up with the mousy girl for the duration of class, but she figured Gayle Brody was one of the very few she would be "compatible" with, power-wise. Force fields, electrical discharges, radiation, etc., that is, powers that seemed all the trend with this year's Substantial Creation freshmen, were better matched with... other people. Ben Seether, snake afficionado, would be excellent with Alex Tracy, power supply in a boy, she thought. Claire privately delighted in the fantasy that Tracy would zap the damn leg-less reptiles to a crisp.
No, Gayle Brody, the girl of air currents but hair securely tied back in a tight ponytail, was better matched with her.
"So, um. How do we do this?" the girl's small voice tore Claire out of her gleeful rêverie.
Claire started, turning to the kid and wondering where they could start. Her mother had a power not unlike Gayle's but, honestly, what more could the two of them do than create The Day After Tomorrow without all the CGI work? They were power-compatible all right, yes, but how many Ice Ages would they have to create before it got old?
Suddenly Claire felt sort of sorry for Paul, her former Focus Group partner who'd now advanced to the junior-senior Focus Group. She cringed, remembering all the "yay, I can freeze you!" moments she'd made him endure. Argh, tough it, Frost, she thought to herself, sighing. If Paul could do it, so could she.
"My mother has a similar power-"
The girl erupted in a fit of excitement, sparkles in her eyes. "Mystral, right? You're so lucky. She's my idol, you know." Complete with silly grin.
"Cool." What else could you reply to a fan of your mother's, exactly? "Um, can you push heavy objects or just small ones?"
Gayle's sparkle seemed to dull. She stuck her hands in her oversized hoodie pockets. "No more than twenty pounds. I've tried," she insisted, "really."
That made Claire pause and wonder if the girl had been placed in the Hero or Sidekick division - certainly Boomer would have place her in Sidekick if she couldn't lift the stupid trashy car, but maybe he'd kept in mind that her power was still in development, just maybe he'd placed her in Hero. Claire wasn't about to ask - Focus Group was "meant" as a bullshit-free class, although some liked to overlook that and pick on the weaker ones. Take Angela Michelo with her sand statues or Harry Oh with his breathable air. One could rival any artist and the other could go off into space and supply a crew in distress. Both powers were cool, but branded them as losers because they weren't useful in the real world. And heck, anyone in the Mental Discipline group was exceptional but, for many, photographic memory , for instance, was nothing to strength or speed or whatever. The system was completely biased, Claire thought angrily. And it extended well beyond school. Sidekicks, after all, didn't make the front page of the Times.
And, Claire thought, suddenly reminded of a conversation she'd had last year with her mother as she glimpsed Warren coughing from the carbon dioxide expulsions of the freshman he'd been paired up with today, the government had once enterprised to take out all "freaks of nature" for the good of the people. Biased, every single senator in those days. Biased, they could still very well be today. Supers couldn't afford to be identified.
Pulling herself out of her distraction, Claire focused on her charge once more, but the girl was staring at Warren with her mouth agape in amazement. It wasn't like he was powered up, Claire thought briefly, frowning. Then she understood. It was wary amazement. Of course Gayle had seen Warren's display during lunch period yesterday - everyone had. "Ahem," she coughed, "you're staring."
Gayle, caught red-handed, jumped about a foot in the air and whirled back to face Claire sheepishly, glacing up with deer-in-headlights eyes. "Sorry."
For a second Claire considered scaring the chit even more, then thought better of it. No point - Well. It could be fun being bad...
Perfectly seriously, she frowned and bent to whisper in Gayle's ear, glancing up to catch Warren's eye behind the girl's back as he wiped his face. "You'd be even sorrier if he caught you looking," she warned. "Never let him catch you." With the eye Gayle couldn't see, Claire threw a wink his way. "He's bad news." She considered adding that she'd heard he ate bats for breakfast, but thought that was maybe overkill.
Still, Warren snorted, shaking his head at her before turning away to ready himself for another smoke attack. That smirk of his said Thank you so much, Snowflake. The kind of Snowflake she liked.
"Let's get back to work," she told her her little protégée, a lightness in her chest. "Shall we?"
"Smoked you out, did she?" Claire asked cheekily when she joined Warren at his locker after class. They had fifteen minutes until Save the Citizen; she intended to use five to do fuck-all and calm her nerves. She would do better than a C this year. She would participate, by God.
"Alicia Plume?" He slammed his locked wryly and marched away, gym clothes in hand. "Once she started, she couldn't stop. Nerves, you know? I'm the big bad pyro who kicked ass yesterday," he grumbled. "What else-" he began again, then interrupted himself, hacking out. Claire thought he was dangerously close to expulsing his own throat. When he'd properly regained a wheezing breath, he continued, "What else could I expect, really? Not to mention..." he coughed again "that story you told that girl is going to make rounds. Thank you very much."
Claire frowned, ignoring the harmless remonstration. "What I'm wondering is why the smoke affects you at all. Your produce smoke with your fires..."
Warren shrugged, helpless to answer her. Claire could tell it bothered him, too.
"Maybe there's another substance in her gas," Clair mumbled thoughtfully. "Something toxic?"
"Carbon dioxide's toxic," he pointed out blandly.
"Mm. I mean something you're not immune to," she countered easily.
Shuffling his feet as they approached the lively gym, Warren offered another theory. "Maybe I'm just immune to my own smoke."
She had to concede to that point - it was a very likely possibility. "You'll have to make some tests in the lab," she said, smiling at the mental image of him sniffing all manner of gaseous substances in Medulla's cupboards. "Careful. Medulla might have some weed in there somewhere..."
Barking out in laughter at the sheer absurd imagery of Medulla smoking a joint, Warren leaned back against nearby lockers as some guys exited the boys' changing room to head to the gym. "Somehow I doubt that," he countered when they were out of earshot again, a twinkle and a smile in his eyes. "Can't see it." He grinned. "I mean, it's Medulla. Grass, maybe, but pot, no."
Shrugging coquettishly, feeling giddy as hell, Claire headed towards the girls' changing room with a grand flourish and a sing-song parting. "You never know!"
It turned out that Warren's lighter mood didn't last long - how could it, really, when an entire school's worth of students stared expectantly at you? The semester had barely just begun and already he'd made spoken gossip headlines throughout the entire student body. Claire shook her head at the blatant display of you-scary-pariah-us-everyone-else. Well. She didn't include herself in the latter category, but still.
Perry wanted front-row seats so they (i.e. Perry) made their forceful way through the throngs with the same idea. Perry was pretty good at slithering (he and Seether would make great friends, she decided grimly), and Cindy had got it into her head that she too wanted the best seats in the house, so she applied herself to poking smouldering holes into people's gym clothes and generally making them start and yowl in pain - and get out of the way, which was the idea of the hour. Finally, the two of them hogged three seats as Claire made her less forceful way toward them, waving apologetically to Warren who must have wondered if he had the plague and didn't know it, because there was barely anyone sitting less than three feet away from him.
"Freeze, isn't it?" a sweetly authoritative voice cut into the wonder of actually, for once, having an unimpeded view of the gym floor.
Claire's gaze swung sideways to the tall brunette - Gwen, the student body president. "Frost," she corrected, wondering even as she did so why the queen bee was paying attention to her. They just didn't hang in the same circles; Claire was perfectly happy with two best friends and a smattering of friendly acquaintances. Oh, and she didn't look at people like Gwen was doing with her right now... like she was considering her value to her. What was going on here? Still... "Hi," she added uncertainly, returning to search the bleachers for heads she recognised.
"You froze Burny and Foreman yesterday, didn't you?"
Seriously, the girl - and now all of her minions - was looking at her with such interest it felt like she was on display at a butcher shop. Ugh, bad analogy. It really creeped her out, how intensely they didn't even twitch an eye. "Uh, yeah," she answered in a tiny voice that felt inhuman.
Gwen's face cleared. So did her minions'. That was freaky. "That was brilliant," she pronounced with a wide smile that did nothing to erase the image imprinted in Claire's mind.
And so the three of them - Claire, Cindy and Perry - were allowed to stay, quite as simple as that. Just in time, too, because "class" was starting.
Boomer entered, paused - the sound in the gym dulled as expected to an acceptable din - and proceeded to climb up the referee chair as though presiding over an officious trial.
Well, Claire thought ominously a half second later, that's pretty much what it was.
Still, she dragged in a bated breath like the rest of them as he appeared to mull over the toughest equation ever: who to start the ball rolling with this year?
Not me, not me, not me...
Christ, and here she'd been deciding that this year would be different.