“Hey, have you guys seen the nominations?” Ethan asked, sliding in next to Zach at the lunch table. He dropped a printout in front of his friends.
“Nominations?” Will asked.
Magenta rolled her eyes and peeled the lid off her pudding. “For the seniors. You know. Most Likely to Save the World, that kind of thing.”
Layla took the list from Ethan and started browsing through it. “Best Costume, Best Sidekick, Most Convincing Secret Identity . . . oh, I hope Anjale gets that one. Not that she’ll want to live looking like a four-year-old all the time, but you have to admit that nobody would suspect her.” She got to the bottom of the list and stopped. “Oh. Oh, this is bad.”
Will leaned to look over her shoulder. “What do you—oh.”
“What is it?” Zach asked. Even Magenta looked interested.
“Most Likely to Go Evil,” Layla said, then dropped her voice. “And somebody nominated Warren.”
Sounds of dismay greeted her announcement. Despite the face-off against Royal Pain and everything that had happened since, nobody at Sky High had forgotten that Warren Peace was the son of a supervillain. “It’s so unfair,” Layla said. “It’s a sexist assumption: his mother raised him, and she’s a hero, but everybody thinks he’ll take after his dad just because he’s a guy.”
“People think villains are sexy,” Magenta said. “And, you know. The leather and the chains and everything. They don’t exactly say ‘trust me.’”
Layla was about to answer that, but Will nudged her in the ribs with his elbow. “Watch out. Here he comes.”
The familiar slouch was recognizable clear across the cafeteria. Layla shoved the list beneath the table. Will asked, “Should we say anything? Or would it be better to—”
“You got nominated for villain-hood,” Magenta said as Warren sat down.
By the scowl on his face, she wasn’t the first one to say it to him. Warren might have dropped his grudge against Will, but that didn’t mean he’d started rescuing kittens from trees. “Whatever,” he said. “Like I’m going to sit around mooning over my high school yearbook? A year from now, nobody’s going to remember any of this stuff.”
“Yeah, but it’s still not fair to you,” Layla said, while Will squirmed in his seat. His father had stopped bringing out the yearbook quite so often after the homecoming dance Will’s freshman year, but it still happened. “It’s like they think you don’t have any self-control or something.”
Warren glanced up and met her gaze. They’d had a lot of conversations about that over the last year, ever since Layla’s petition finally convinced Sky High to institute a mandatory Super Ethics class for all students. Warren had burned himself pretty badly when he first powered up, not to mention half-destroying the cafeteria when he and Will got into that fight. But he claimed that if he tried to restrain himself too much, his power went away. Fire was a dangerous thing, and could never be fully mastered. He had to be a little out of control.
It wasn’t an idea Layla could ever be comfortable with, not when her own power was in things that burned really well. But even if she understood his point, that didn’t mean Warren was in danger of going evil. “Well, I’m going to tell people not to vote for you,” she said. "They should vote for Susie-Lou instead."
He would have roasted them all alive if anybody ever told him he looked like Magenta when he rolled his eyes—but it was true. “Don’t waste your time, hippie. Just let it go.”
“So, what about sidekicks?” Zach asked. “I know you said you aren’t going to let them assign you one, but maybe next year—I mean, you’ve got fire and I glow, so—”
Sidekicks were hardly a safer topic, given Warren’s refusal to accept one, but Layla stayed quiet. Maybe too quiet; when lunch was over and they were dumping their bottles in the recycling bin, Will grinned at her. “You’re going to try something, aren’t you. Can the rest of us help?”
Magenta was digging in her purse for dental floss when Layla came into the bathroom. “Thanks a lot,” she said dryly, snapping off a length of thread. “Not only do I have shreds of paper stuck in my teeth, I have my first detention, too.”
Layla winced. “I’m sorry. What happened?”
“I decided Subha should win ‘Best Gadgets’ is what happened,” Magenta said, once the floss was out of her mouth. “She booby-trapped the box of ballots. I managed to chew through some of them, but got caught on the way out.”
Layla bit her lip, trying to figure out how to ask without seeming ungrateful. Magenta caught the look and rolled her eyes. “They’re not going to reprint, no. You’ll have to try something else.”
Zach’s precision had gotten a lot better lately. He projected his light on the first try, right where Layla asked for it, and it shifted perfectly with Warren’s every movement. In those respects, the plan was a success.
Unfortunately, the color was still kind of a radioactive yellow-green, rather than the warm, comforting glow Layla had hoped for. Also, people kept laughing when Warren passed them in the hall. Also, Warren caught sight of his own reflection when Miguel shifted into mirror-form during Model Press Conference in second period.
“A *halo*?” he demanded, after he’d made Zach turn the light off.
“It was supposed to look warmer,” Layla said. Warren looked half like he wanted to torch her, half like he wanted to laugh. “You know—like an angel?”
“A radioactive angel,” Ethan said, grinning. “I think he’s more the flaming-sword type.”
The bell rang for the next class.
“Make sure you time it right,” Layla told Ethan, twisting her hands in anxiety. “I don’t want anybody actually getting hurt.”
She’d hoped this part of her plan wouldn’t be necessary—that she could get the ballots reprinted without Warren’s name, or just remind everybody of the good things he’d done over the years. She hoped even more that this part would work, and save her from having to go to her last resort.
Layla’s phone beeped the arrival of a text from Will. He’s on his way. “You’re on,” she said to Ethan.
His timing was perfect. He oozed out onto the upper flight of the stairs as Warren was coming up the lower flight, and slid himself under the foot of a girl on her way down. Irina shrieked and went tumbling over the railing.
But rather than catching her, Warren jumped clear. Irina poofed into gas right when she would have hit the ground. People laughed and started clapping, as if she’d dropped her tray in the cafeteria, but Warren looked up. Layla's quick retreat wasn't quick enough to hide her.
He stomped up toward her, scowling. Ethan oozed quickly out of the way. “What the hell was that?”
“I—I thought you would catch her,” Layla admitted, face hot.
“Right. Because I do that kind of thing. Irina can take care of herself, hippie, in case you hadn’t noticed. And so can I.” Warren scowled and hiked his bag higher on his shoulder. “I’ve had it with these stunts, okay? Don’t try anything like this again.” He walked past her, slamming through the crowd in the hall.
Layla leaned against the railing and took a deep breath. One more thing to try. And this one didn’t involve Warren at all.
“I thought you didn’t like using your powers,” Will said, shifting nervously. “You sure you want to do this?”
“I only believe in using my powers when the situation demands it,” Layla corrected him. “Like when somebody attacks me. Or when I’m trying to help a friend. And I’m not going to hurt anybody, I promise.”
Will didn’t look reassured, and she couldn’t blame him. She was nervous, herself. All this time at Sky High, and she’d managed to avoid using her powers around most other people. Will knew what she could do, and so did Warren and Magenta; Zach and Ethan knew, but had never actually seen it first-hand. (Penny, who had, was still in prison.) Now she was going to out herself in front of the entire school, in a spectacular way.
“All right,” she said. “The vote is today. This is our last chance to keep Warren from being elected Most Likely to Go Evil. Are you still with me?”
In answer, Will squeezed her hand—gently, so as not to break anything. “They’ll put you in hero classes, after this.”
Layla sniffed. “The whole system is silly. Just because I can control plants—”
“Not that,” Will said, smiling at her. “For helping Warren.”
She blushed and bumped her shoulder against his. “That’s a sidekick’s job, and you know it. Come on.” Taking a deep breath, she set out across the lawn in front of Sky High.
Will followed her. “Look,” he said, talking loudly enough for others around them to hear, “you can’t just expect people to forget—”
“Forget what?” Layla demanded, whirling to face him. “That his dad is Baron Battle? They forget his mom just fine—even though she was Ping Weiping and saved, like, five cities when that dam was going to collapse.” Her voice came out as a very loud squeak. It was one of the few things she regretted about staying in the sidekick track; they didn’t take Elocution like the hero students did.
They had already drawn a bit of attention. She had a reputation for being quiet, and the closest thing she and Will had ever had to a public fight was back during freshman year. Will said, “It’s not that. Okay, for some people it is, but—he’s a fire-starter, Layla. That’s dangerous!”
“We’re all dangerous,” Layla said. “We have superpowers. It pretty much goes with the territory!”
The next line was supposed to be Will’s. He didn’t want to say it; they’d almost had a (non-public) fight about that. But as it happened, somebody else took the matter out of his hands.
From the crowd, a voice said, “Except for you, sidekick.”
It was nearly the same thing Penny had said to her. And it brought back the memory of that night: Royal Pain pacifying everyone, her own frustration at letting Gwen drive her out of the “cool kids” party, the desire to do something for once. She had told Will she used her powers because Penny hit her, and that meant Layla wasn’t initiating the violence. She hadn’t lied . . . but she hadn’t told the entire truth, either. A part of her had simply wanted to show that her pacifism meant something: it was an actual choice, not a cover for weakness.
Now she was going to show that to the entire school.
The ground rumbled beneath her feet. Will had spun to look for the person who insulted Layla; now he staggered. The crowd fell silent.
Layla said, “You know what they say about assumptions.”
The grass shot up behind her, twining into ropy vines that loomed high above her head. The bushes in front of the school grew monstrously huge, reaching out toward the students, forming a menacing wall around them. Then Layla rose, as the lawn beneath her feet surged into a hill—a hill that grew mighty arms and the suggestion of a mouth.
She’d had a lot of time in class to think about what she might do if she ever really cut loose.
The silence had given way to shouts. Several of the students were fleeing; Layla let them go. She really didn’t want to hurt anyone. The idea was that she and Will would stage a fight, with her defending Warren’s reputation, and hopefully that would impress everyone enough to sway their votes. After all, if sweet, quiet Layla was willing to fight for the notion of Warren Peace as a good guy, that had to mean something, right?
Unfortunately, she’d forgotten that Sky High students hadn’t yet internalized the first rule of polite superheroing: never horn in one somebody else’s fight if you weren’t part of their team. Several people in the crowd were gearing up to tackle Layla’s vines. Will cast a quick, worried glance of her shoulder, that Layla could read perfectly. Should I be attacking you, or defending you?
Before she could make up her mind, a jet of flame shot out from the front entrance of the school. It didn’t come anywhere near to singeing anyone, but it certainly got their attention, as did the shout that followed. “What the HELL are you two doing?”
Warren, unlike Layla, had taken Elocution. He also had what seemed to be an inborn ability to storm well. He stormed across the transformed lawn—Layla hastily drew her plants out of his path—and up to where she stood on her half-formed grass golem. Will slid in between the two of them, just in case.
“Is this another one of your crack-brained plans?” Warren demanded. “I told you to leave it alone! So what if everybody thinks I’m going to go evil? It isn’t worth you tearing up the lawn, and—” He stared at Will. “Were the two of you going to stage a fight?”
The problem with trying to scheme around one of your closest friends was, he recognized your schemes when he saw them. “Yeah,” Will admitted, a bit shame-faced. “It seemed like the kind of thing that would get people’s attention.”
Warren made an inarticulate sound, half snarl, half yell. “I don’t give a damn about that vote. You guys are the only ones who care about it. Stop trying to make me look like something I’m not.”
“You’re a good guy!” Layla protested. “I’m just trying to get other people to see that!”
“Oh really? Maybe you’re trying to prove it to yourself.”
She could feel the heat radiating off him, a sign that he was genuinely annoyed. But was it because of her stunts, or because he thought she doubted him? “I trust you,” she said quietly, not letting herself flinch back, even though she could feel him searing the grass beneath his feet. “It bothers me that other people don’t.”
Warren’s scowl deepened, but now there was something else in it. A kind of warmth, maybe, that had nothing to do with fire. “You guys trust me,” he said, looking at her and Will. “That’s enough.”
Layla realized they had an audience again, as big as when she and Will had begun their argument—maybe bigger. Warren noticed it, too, and cleared a path for himself with one glare.
“Um,” she said to Will. “Let me put the lawn back, and then we can go.”
“Hey, have you guys heard?” Ethan said, sliding in next to Zach at the lunch table. “Everybody’s decided they’re going to vote for Layla next year, as Most Likely to Go Evil.”
She made a muffled squeak, because everyone would expect it, but she was only half-surprised. What Sky High students loved, above anything else, was a good story, and her demonstrating hero-level powers after years as a sidekick made for a pretty good one.
Principal Power’s voice came on over the intercom. “Attention, students. I have the results of the senior class vote.”
The cafeteria quieted. Layla saw a dark figure in the doorway; it hesitated, then settled in against the wall to listen.
“For ‘Best Gadgets,’ the award goes to Subha Subramanya . . . .” Category by category, the principal worked her way through the list. And Layla, who had often suspected that the woman had a sense of the dramatic, was now sure; the awards weren't in the order that had been printed on the nominations and the ballot. She’s doing this on purpose.
“And now, our last three categories. First, in the always-controversial ‘Most Likely to Go Evil’ category—which I must state for the record is not endorsed by school officials—the award goes to . . . Susie-Lou Swanson.”
Layla melted in relief. Susie-Lou, perky and adorable in bright pink, looked wounded. No one bought it. “She’s trying too hard,” Will said, after hugging Layla in congratulations. “Anybody who looks that innocent has got to be evil.”
“Ought to disqualify her,” Magenta said. “There’s no ‘going’ if you’re already there.”
“Next,” Principle Powers said, “the Best Origin Story award. And this one goes to . . . Warren Peace!”
“What?” Layla sat bolt upright. “But—he wasn’t even nominated!”
Ethan was laughing. He’d known; she could tell, even if she had no idea how he’d found out. “Yeah, but you can add a write-in candidate. And after all that stuff you staged?” Layla was still staring at him, so he kept talking. “Come on, his mom’s a hero and his dad’s a villain! Then he ends up friends with the son of his father’s worst enemy. And you ought to be terrified of him, because fire’s, like, the natural enemy of plants, but instead you’re running all over the school defending him! How much more dramatic can you get?”
“It makes a pretty good send-off.”
Layla had taken her eyes off Warren’s shadow in the doorway; she jumped halfway out of her seat to find him standing next to her. He grinned down at her. “Nice going, hippie.”
They’d been talking right through “Most Likely to Save the World;” Layla had no idea who had won. She didn’t much care, either. Will had thrown an arm around her shoulder, and Warren was, with long-suffering patience, accepting Zach’s attempt at a “gangster” handshake of congratulations; right now, the world felt pretty good.
“But I’m still not taking a sidekick,” Warren said.