Will may have gotten his father’s power, but he never did get his father’s classic jawline. He looks down at the magazine, frowning with dissatisfaction, and wonders why they can never choose pictures that actually flatter him to plaster all over the news. The one they’ve picked out today is badly lit, his mouth a slack ‘O’, his hair blown back oddly and soot smudged on his face. He thumbs at his cheek absently like it might still be there.
“Stop being such a girl,” says Warren. Something bounces off the side of Will’s head, but he ignores it because, hey, invulnerability means it doesn’t even sting. “Layla doesn’t even spend that long complaining about how the magazines she’s on aren’t eco-friendly, or whatever. All they did was make you look bad.”
“Easy for you to say,” Will complains, glaring at the glossy print like he can simply make it cease to exist with his eyes. Unfortunately, that’s not among his powers.
Warren just snorts and Will hears him banging around in the kitchen. Smug bastard. Of course Warren can tease him about this, Warren never looks bad in the pictures that paparazzi snap. He has that in common with Will’s dad. They’re both classic figures, even if it is in completely different ways. The Commander is All-American, striking a dashing profile for any cover photo with that jaw, the one that Will has always wished he would grow into someday. No such luck. And Warren is…well, Warren. A bad boy to the end, even if he did get a haircut and ditch the fingerless gloves in senior year. Something about the combination of a leather jacket and flames always photographs well.
Will envies them. The magazine crumples easily in his hand, glossy inked pages all but disintegrating under an unintentional assault of super strength, and he dusts the last shreds of it into the kitchen trash can when he goes to join Warren in attempting to find food in their severely under stocked cupboards.
He only darts two glances sideways at Warren as he’s making a sandwich, conversing about something inane. Only skates his gaze across Warren’s jaw (not as strong as The Commander’s, but stubborn) once. Yeah, he can see why the camera loves his best friend. He kind of does too. He just doesn’t know why neither love him in return.
Warren’s always had a thing for black. It’s simple, it’s intimidating, and… well, black leather jackets get girls. The kind of fast-and-loose girls that don’t care who he is or about his father’s reputation. The kind whose only question is if they can get a light on their way out the door when others would be trying to bask in an afterglow that Warren has never been interested in.
So, really, it was easy to decide on his costume when they graduated. While Will spent weeks agonizing over whether or not to embrace his predestined red, white and blue color scheme and Layla compared every shade of green under the sun in eco-friendly fabrics, Warren made the obvious choice. It’s undergone a few changes in the past few years, as wear and tear pointed out design flaws, but the basics remain the same: black and fireproof, no tights.
Warren has rarely appreciated it more than on days like this. He slips into the gathering crowd, already pulling a jacket over his dirt streaked arms and ducking behind a smashed car to slip his mask off, as the media converges on Will in a sudden frenzy that would have been frightening if he hadn’t just finished battling a laser-wielding madman. When he looks back, briefly, he catches Will’s pleading gaze - sees him mouth ‘help’ over the head of a pretty blonde reporter. There’s nothing Warren can do, though, he already looks like just another guy in a leather jacket and cheesy shiny pants, and he’s not blowing his secret identity because Will Stronghold still mumbles when he’s answering questions for the six o’clock news.
And anyways, Will might trip over his words sometimes, but Warren hates answering questions for the cameras. He’ll pose for shots when he can’t get away from them (sometimes, when he’s still running high on adrenaline and fire, he even smiles for the camera) but he hates reporters with their insidious questions and inability to see him as anything but his father’s son, no matter how many times he saves the world. That’s what he likes about Will’s fame – sometimes, on days like this when Warren is particularly lucky, it’s enough to overshadow his own infamy. The cameras and questions are caught up in the pure, righteous glow of their all-American hero, and Warren and all the darkness they see in him can slip away quietly.
Which is what he would be doing if he was a smarter man, but there’s something about Will Stronghold that has always made him stupid. He can’t help it. He hangs back, staring up at Will, who is making the reporters cater to his ego and film him in the air. It seems fitting. Will always has been above the crowd, even when he was an overenthusiastic pipsqueak just coming into his powers. Will always has been out of Warren’s reach.
Being a superhero is harder on some days than others. Will’s mother once told him that not every mission could involve saving the city from a comically stereotypical giant robot or rescuing a kitten from a tree, but he didn’t really believe her until well after graduation. After all, Will and Layla and Warren always saved the day in high school and still made it home in time for curfew (except those few times they didn’t, which had more to do with Warren’s devilish grin and Will’s lack of a backbone than any evil plots).
It wasn’t until Layla was gone, off saving the rainforest or something equally idealistic and Layla-like, and Will and Warren had been left behind to try to make names for themselves, that he realized that maybe his mom was right. Being a superhero is hard.
Watching buildings burn to the ground, watching people suffer, pulling survivors from the wreckage of their entire lives, is hard.
Tonight there is an ache in Will’s chest that feels like tears but might just be all the ash he inhaled, and he can see the echoes of his own pain in Warren’s face, magnified a hundred times. Will knows that flames strike close to Warren’s heart, but they don’t talk about days like this, so he turns his back when they finally stumble into their apartment and twitches the curtains closed to keep out the light of the rising sun. There are burns around the edges from Warren losing his temper and rips where Will has pulled too hard, but the earthy green that Layla picked out for them brings back memories of easier times.
When he pulls back there are handprints in thick, gray ash on the dull fabric, and something just snaps. He’s ripping off his costume before he even realizes that he has moved at all, shredding material that was designed to hold up to him on his best days. It falls to the floor like so much trash, like the shreds of possessions and people’s lives that he’s been cleaning up all day and night, and he’s choking on the memories of smoke and screams and the horrors that super strength can’t beat up and chase away.
He shoves Warren out of the way when he makes a break for the shower, which isn’t fair at all, but he doesn’t stop and wait for a reaction. No fireballs hit him on the ass before the door closes, at least.
Hot water can’t wash away everything he saw today, but at least it returns his skin to its normal color and layers a cleaner scent over the clinging stink of foul smoke. Will breathes a little easier when he steps out into the main room again, wrapped in only a towel, and he stands a little taller than he has in hours. But Warren…Warren seems to be collapsing in on himself.
Warren has never seemed small to Will, not even after Will himself grew tall and broad to match his super strength, but right now the mythic figure of Warren Peace, who has always burned bright and hot and painful in a way that reminds Will of standing too close to a fire, seems to be wilting. There is a panicked moment where Will thinks about leaving. Warren wouldn’t want him to see this moment of weakness, he knows that.
But some days a hero has to make the hard choices and take the blame.
Will takes Warren by the shoulder and pushes, just hard enough that Warren wouldn’t be able to resist, if he tried. He doesn’t.
They stumble into Warren’s bedroom on legs that feel like jell-o, Will barely feeling strong enough to hold both of them up, gritting his teeth and moving despite what feels like lead coursing through his veins. With shaking hands, he pulls Warren out of his costume top and dusts as much of the ash from his arms as he can. Even if he has decided to be a big damn hero today Will doesn’t feel strong enough to face any more of Warren’s sweaty skin than that, and he knows he’s going to catch enough shit just for what he’s done already, so he stops there.
After that it’s just a matter of pushing Warren down onto the bed, pulling off his boots and tossing the covers over him. At least, it should be. But why would his day start working out now?
Warren is looking at Will through half-closed eyes when he pulls back, a massive black boot dangling by the laces from his suddenly slack hand. He swallows hard past the taste of soot at the back of his throat and waits to be yelled at or lit on fire.
Will should feel lucky when neither one of those things happens, but the burning ache in his chest returns instead, and he finds himself backing away from the bed with Warren’s boot still in his hands. There is no fire in Warren’s eyes, not even a spark, yet he can’t look away. Not until he trips in the doorway and has to flail to catch himself.
Graceful, Stronghold, he thinks, expecting to hear his thoughts echoed in a moment by Warren’s voice. Instead, just when he’s given up on getting any reaction from his friend at all and begun to turn away, a rasping voice that sounds too old and tired to belong to the young hero of the hour murmurs, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, hardly recognizing his own voice. Then he straightens up, keeps turning, and puts one foot in front of the other until he makes it to his own bed and collapses.
His mother has always been in the habit of being right, and this time is just like all the others. Just this once, he wishes she could have been wrong, for Warren’s sake. Because Will is beginning to think that being a superhero is harder for some people than others, and some things hit too close to home.
Warren Peace never expected to be anybody’s hero. Not in elementary school, when news of his father’s atrocities were plastered all over the television, and all of mom’s old school friends stopped coming around. Not in junior high, when the Commander put Baron Battle away for good. Not even in high school, when the Commander’s son did the impossible – made him popular and stole his heart in one fell swoop.
Sure, he’s saved the day a few times, and he fights evil just as well as anybody else (better than most, if he’s feeling bitter about the state of the superhero population, which he often is), but Will has always been the real hero. Warren’s just a background player in the public eye when it comes to saving the day, though he’d never admit it aloud. And, really, it’s fine that way.
He’s living down his father’s infamy and he’s helping people, and he gets to take out all that dangerous temper of his on people who actually deserve it most of the time. He doesn’t need much more than that. He doesn’t need the public’s praise – he’s always been a private person, self-motivated and self-contained, unlike Will, who thrives on attention and being patted on the back.
Sometimes, though… sometimes it stings to be reminded how far from heroic he really is, to realize how hard he’s worked to step out of his father’s shadow and how hard he’s failed in so many ways.
Walking through the ruins of three office buildings and an apartment complex, glass and wood and broken lives crunching under his trainers (one of his boots is still in Will’s possession, and he can’t quite figure out how to ask for it back), he looks at the evidence of all his failures. He may not have started the fire, but he couldn’t put it out, either, at least not soon enough to make a difference. Will is the hero again, Will saved the day, pulling people from the flames while Warren waded into them and tried to put his power to some kind of use.
He’s gotten good in the past few years, can do things that no one would have imagined from the angry high school kid he used to be, but it wasn’t good enough. Wholesale destruction is still his strongest suit. He failed. Failed his city, failed the people he was supposed to save, and failed his best friend.
And the media knows it.
Warren Peace never expected to be anybody’s hero, that’s the truth, but he never really expected to be anybody’s villain, either.
“He didn’t start the FUCKING FIRE!” Will isn’t in the habit of yelling at reporters or throwing public temper tantrums. He’s had plenty of lessons in dealing with the media and presenting an acceptable, reassuring public persona over the years and he knows better than to throw away his reputation on a momentary flash of anger. Right now, however, he’s willing to make an exception. “W-Inferno is not his father, and no stupid fucking internal investigation is going to turn up anything on him, so you should all just fu-“
“What my son means to say,” Jetstream interrupts smoothly, stepping in front of Will to smile at the surrounding cameras. “Is that this is an incredibly harrowing time for the city, and while we understand the need to investigate every possible cause for the downtown fires, the superhero community feels that it is a waste of resources to pursue Inferno as a potential suspect when he contributed so much to helping minimize the damage. However,” and she glares at Will, out of the corner of her eye, in the way that only a mother can manage, “everyone involved will cooperate fully with the investigators, so that we waste no more of the precious time of Inferno or the city than is absolutely necessary. We are all, of course, completely confident that he will be cleared of all suspicion. Thank you.”
She cuts off the flurry of questions with icy calm before turning back to her son and guiding him by the shoulder inside city hall in an elegant sweep of red, white and blue capes. Will knows he should feel guilty for his outburst, that he should be tripping over himself to apologize to her, but he just can’t be bothered to care right now. Rage like he’s never felt before is boiling just under the surface of his frustrated frown, threatening to burst out again at any moment, and the news teams clamoring outside the doors 24/7 aren’t helping anything. The boy who mumbles charmingly for their cameras has disappeared in the face of the accusations against Warren.
That they could dare accuse Warren of anything at all – Warren, who has sacrificed so much for this city, who waded into a firestorm that not even Will was confident he would get out of to defend its citizens, who has tried his entire life to escape the guilt of his father’s reputation and make up for what a man he barely knew did – sickens him in ways he doesn’t have the words to vocalize. The city and the media don’t see any of that, and he knows it. All they see is the son of a criminal, an angry young man with the ability to light fires. They are blinded by tragedy and biased anger in equal parts, and they have never bothered to wonder if Warren might have a right to be angry, or if they might be the cause.
“Will,” his mother says, quietly, so that none of the people milling around them can hear. She isn’t glaring at him anymore. “I know this is hard for you, and Warren has been your partner for a long time now. Having that kind of trust called into question hurts. Of course it hurts, you’re only human, no matter how invulnerable you seem, or what front you put on for the media. But you throwing fits like that…it isn’t going to help Warren’s case any, and I think you know that.”
That guilt he wasn’t feeling a minute ago? It comes crashing down onto him like a semi-truck, except he could throw a truck off into the sunset while this just keeps crushing down on his shoulders so hard that he expects to sink into the floor under its weight. Still, there’s something about the way she said partner that makes him pause for just a second longer than he should.
“I do know that,” he says, trying to pretend that it was anger that made him pause, even though all the anger has drained out of him suddenly and left him alone with the guilt. “It’s just…it’s Warren, mom. You know how he is.” It’s all he can say, because even he isn’t stupid enough to think he could get away with telling his mother all about Warren’s emotional troubles. Not even if he wanted to. “He would never betray me, I mean, us, this city, like that.”
“I know, honey, I know.” Josie smoothes his hair and smiles a soft, warm smile that has always been reserved for when her son’s heart is breaking.
“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” Will says, unbidden.
Warren looks up from his book and glares halfheartedly in Will’s general direction. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Stronghold.” There are shadows under his eyes and stubble on his jaw. Will hates him a bit for being able to grow the beginnings of a beard in just two days without shaving.
He can’t hate Warren too much, though, when the accusations against him are playing quietly in the background. Too many times these past few weeks he has been tempted to throw the television off of their fourth-story balcony and watch it smash to bits on the pavement below, but Warren might ask questions if he did that, and Will doesn’t think he could bring himself to lie about his feelings when he’s so worn thin and weary.
“The reporters,” he continues, against his better judgment. Warren doesn’t bother to look up at him again. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, they just…they’re such idiots. Everybody knows you didn’t do it. At least, everybody who matters.”
It’s not like he was really expecting a response, but the silence that meets his words is deafening, and Will can’t help but shift awkwardly on the couch and pick at a loose string. Warren has a talent for speaking with silences, and Will is usually able to pick up on the feelings beneath them, interpreting if his friend is angry or tired or bored or amused in his smug, quiet way. Now he’s just being hit with emptiness, with the aching blankness of the face of all the walls Warren has constructed around himself over the years.
“Warren,” he tries again.
“Shut up, Stronghold,” Warren cuts him off before he can get anywhere. Will is glad, because he really had no idea where he was going with that. “Just…shut up.”
“Ok.” Will stands up, hovering awkwardly beside the couch for a moment, trying to figure out what to do with himself when his best friend is rejecting him and his other best friend is halfway around the world and he feels like he may be a moment away from a breakdown. “Just…I’m here.” It sounds stupid even to his own ears, and he beats a hasty retreat to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him a little harder than he meant to. There are cracks in the walls that he’s going to have to figure out how to fix if they ever move out.
He doesn’t hear Warren’s sigh, or the thump of a paperback hitting a wall, or the click of the TV turning off.
“I know, Will,” Warren sighs, dropping his head into his hands, but Will doesn’t hear that either.
“He made a huge scene defending you, you know,” Josie Stronghold says, in that way she has that always makes Warren worry that she knows something. He glances at her out of the corner of his eye while he adjusts his mask and frowns. Inferno is meeting with the chief investigators in the downtown fire case today, and Warren wishes it was like meeting with Principal Powers in high school, where he would only get smacked on the wrist for bailing out. No such luck.
“I know. He’s always been an idiot.” Warren can’t help but smile though, can’t help but revel in Will’s confidence in him, even if he can’t accept it either. Something about Will Stronghold has always made him want to do his best, be his best, when he’s spent a lifetime bucking expectations and going against the grain. Something about Will Stronghold makes him better. It must be exhaustion that makes him want to tell Josie that when she reaches out to adjust his mask in a way that is so much like his own mother that it hurts.
“Don’t be bitter, Warren,” she says, fluffing her own curls now. Jetstream can’t look less than her best when she’s defending the world’s most controversial superhero, because everybody is going to be watching. “My son deserves better than bitterness from the man he loves.”
Warren feels stupid and slow. It takes him a long, sickening moment to process those words, and when he finally does Josie is already down the hall and around the corner, heading to the meeting room. “Wait!” he yells, but she doesn’t so much as pause. “Wait, what?” His footsteps echo loudly in the empty hall as he dashes after her, but she’s already opening the door when he slides around the corner.
“I’m putting my reputation on the line for you, Warren Peace.” Warren has always wondered if latent laser vision was among her powers, because she has a talent for spearing people with her eyes. He freezes under her gaze, like he used to freeze before Principal Powers when he and Will got caught doing something stupid, and tries not to show exactly how much of his mental and emotional stability is riding on what she has to say. “I don’t do that for just anyone. Don’t let me down.”
“How do you feel about being cleared of all charges?” asks a reporter, shoving a microphone into Warren’s face.
It’s been a long day, a long week, a long month, and Warren thinks he should get an award for not just lighting the microphone on fire. As it is, all he can summon up is a grunt in response, trying to shove his way through the crowds without creating another scandal. He’s tired and emotionally drained and the city might have pardoned him, but he still isn’t convinced of his own innocence.
“He feels,” Will says from behind him, laying a hand on his back, “like it has taken a long damn time for our legal system to figure out the obvious, when we all have much better things to be doing.”
Warren stops. He thinks about what Josie said last week. He thinks about the way Will has been avoiding him since that conversation in the living room. He thinks about his favorite boots, still in Will’s room after the night of the fire. He thinks about his best friend, perpetually out of his reach, dragging himself down to Warren’s level to scream at reporters.
And he thinks, Fuck avoiding another scandal.
It turns out that Will and Warren photograph awfully well together. They could have gotten a better angle, sure, and Warren’s hair is kind of a mess, Will’s uniform is rumpled, there are shadows under both of their eyes that even masks can’t hide. But Will thinks that it’s kind of the most flattering photograph that a magazine has ever printed of him, and it’s on the cover of pretty much every magazine that he’s ever heard of.
He can’t help but smile a little with smug satisfaction.
“Are you sulking about your damn pictures again?” Warren grumbles, looking over his shoulder. “So what if they made your ass look big, Princess Stronghold?”
Will just laughs. He doesn’t crumple the magazine cover up. Instead, he sets it carefully on the coffee table, smoothing out the wrinkles that his grip made on the paper. Then he throws himself at Warren and they echo the image on the cover – except a little less awkward, a little more comfortable.
Warren stumbles under his sudden onslaught, but his eyes are bright again, hot with life and fire like they haven’t been in weeks. It hurts a little to be near him, like standing too close to an open flame, but it’s a pain that Will welcomes gladly when it comes with his lips on Warren’s lips, his hands on Warren’s skin. He tastes smoke on his tongue and feels flames licking up his back and he knows, this is what he has been waiting for all these years.
Warren still doesn’t know if he’s dragging Will down to his level, or if Will is carrying him up to the unattainable heights that he’s only ever been able to dream of before now. But the camera loves them together, a study in light and dark, two entirely different kinds of beauty. And Will…Will loves them together too. So much that it aches. That’s good enough for Warren.